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Each day brings the same urgent creative challenge: I anticipate that my actions will be blocked, interrupted, doubted, or ignored. Why? Because for much of my life they have been, sometimes by those close to me and more often by our patriarchal society’s unrelenting devaluation of women’s voices. One tactic I use to overcome my apprehension is to connect directly with my materials. Engaging in playful, audacious trial and error, I compose using water-based paints, canvas, paper, drawing tools, scissors and my sewing machine. Not surprisingly, my studio explorations are materially regressive. I do then see rather than see then do. My process is private. It is a full body undertaking and I am keenly aware of the cathartic and contemplative moments that happen as I interact with color, form, and texture. Through my open, abstract compositions and the work’s immersive scale, the space in my paintings invites my audience to create their own experiential realities as opposed to adhering to the specifics of mine. In performance art where agency is enacted the necessity of the object is eliminated, but with my painting, I want an exacting, durable record of my story alongside its history of being veiled, obscured, or erased. Let me explicate my premise of “theatre of agency” from different points of entry: my experience of agency, my audience’s experience of my work, relevant art critical precedents, and finally my painting process itself.
What is my conception of agency? Exercising personal agency is relevant to every sphere of pursuit from making art, reaching an audience, being effective in a work setting, maintaining physical health, finding sexual expression, engaging with intellectual communities, participating in political processes, to partnering with a spouse and raising children. For me it is grounded in an ongoing reckoning of how closely my intuitive read on a given situation aligns with external reality. Depending on what I conclude, I may call upon a number of resources to help gauge the importance of either taking an appropriate action or choosing not to act—both options being forms of assertion of agency. Those resources include family, friends, and other knowledgeable people; relevant outside research; meditation, and talk therapy with the right person. Ultimately, I have to trust my own intuition.
My engagement with select badass artists on collaborative publication and performance projects outside my studio has been instrumental to my own art making. These projects range from co-editing the feminist publication, Girls Against God1 with Bianca Casady2 to co-organizing a diversity intervention at the 2014 Whitney Biennial with Katie Cercone3 called the “Clitney Perennial.” It has been thrilling to work within the performance art model. The time shortens between artistic gesture and audience response. I can quickly pass through the disconnected realm of unfulfilled acknowledgment. I can demand attention. I can bring the essence of these validating experiences and others from outside the art world back into my studio where it contributes to the conceptual and formal evolution of my painting.
How does my own conception of theatre of agency in my painting extend to my audiences’ experience of it in my work? I have found it helpful to look to other disciplines such as philosophy and science to understand the relationship between an artist and her audience. I recently wrote an essay about abstract art and brain science4. According to recent studies in the new science of the mind, a discipline that merges behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology and molecular biology, everything we “see” is an illusion enacted in the brain. In creating a work of art, the artist models her own psychic reality. This process parallels what our brains do everyday as we assemble our conception of reality.
The academic discipline of art history was established in Vienna in the 1850s within the city’s salon gatherings of artists and scientists. Alois Riegl, an early proponent, based the discipline on the period’s scientific and psychological principles. He proposed that, “Art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer.” This phenomenon later became known as “the beholder’s share.” An artwork is thus completed in the mind of the viewer. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained brain scientist, writes that due to our shared genetic structure the architecture of our brains are nearly identical. She says, “We are generally capable of thinking and feeling in comparable ways.” While I cannot specifically determine how my paintings are to be seen by my audience to the extent that my own understanding of agency structures my studio practices and infuses my own experience of my work, my painting can be a shared interpretive tool.
Are there art critical precedents for an examination of the formal transformations in my painting based on the idea of agency? My large-scale work over the last 5 years has gradually become entirely abstract. In my essay on brain science, I discuss the trajectory of abstraction in modern art in relation to new scientific discoveries. Compared to figurative art, which draws upon past perceptual experience “hardwired” into the brain, abstract art we now know draws on a more a more active, individual response unique to the viewer’s own psychological context. Art critic Barry Schwabsky recently curated a large group show of paintings in diverse styles called “Tight Rope Walk” at The White Cube gallery in London. In the catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition he supports his thesis on the liberating power of abstraction, “…[This is] the great and difficult gift of abstraction to [figurative] painting: that we can no longer assume that the how and the why of it are already given.” As with my own experience of agency, it is vital to trust one’s own intuition by tapping into its wild realms while navigating new terrain.
Historically, abstraction’s assertion in the modern western canon can be traced to precursors such as Hilma af Klint, Turner, Kandinsky, Monet and Mondrian. These artists sought alternatives to figuration as a personal response to their own life and times. Post World War II developments in painting centered in New York City coalesced around abstraction as a way, according to Barnett Newman, “…to [free] ourselves of the impediments of… [the] devices of Western Painting.” Jackson Pollock, began making increasingly abstract paintings in the ‘40s and ‘50s generated through movements described as “action painting.” At the time, the art critic Harold Rosenberg observed that within this genre of painting the canvas became, “an arena in which to act.”
Abstraction allowed for formal innovation. Paintings could be created by recording the results of the artist’s performance of a series of ritual-like actions in relation to her materials. The large, international body of work tied to action painting encompassed by happenings and later performance art connect directly to the traditions of modern and contemporary painting. As with abstraction, the formal impact of performance can be seen in the work of a large number of artists who create both events and paintings such as Carollee Schneemann, Louise Bourgeois, Shozo Shimamoto, Nicki de Saint Phalle, Joseph Beuys, Tracey Emin, and Sienna Shields. It follows that just as with pure abstraction—which reduces the elements of expression to line, form, color, texture and scale, and relies on a more subjective, open interpretation of reality—performance art, which focuses on the core elements of time, space, the body and a relationship to the viewer and exhibits the qualities of authenticity and ephemerality associated with agency, would create a way for me to transform my anxiety and disconnection into concrete formal qualities in my paintings.
Finally, how is my “theatre of agency” idea specifically tied to my painting process? About 5 years ago, making representational images, the hallmark of the medium of painting, gradually began to repulse me. I enjoy looking at figurative work by other artists, but could not continue to undertake the practice myself. I started to perceive a repugnant inherent dogma built into the methods of mimesis. Perhaps digesting the burden of the compromise I felt my Grandmother made in choosing illustration over fine art, and other related limitations she placed on herself played into my feelings. Also becoming increasingly aware of the weight of supporting my Mother’s worldview, which is largely incompatible with mine, contributed to my recoil from received wisdom. Add to these, my growing mistrust of institutional patriarchal values. I needed to find a way to record my own subjective truth. I construct charmed, transitional objects in the form of paintings. Through my actions, discoveries, and choices I strive to invoke a space in my work with qualities that open a context to instigate self-liberating acts both for me and my audience. This painted space thus becomes a “theater of agency.”
- Anne Sherwood Pundyk is a painter and writer based in Manhattan and Mattituck. Her recent solo exhibitions include Salena Gallery, LIU Brooklyn, NY; Adah Rose Gallery, Kensington, MD; and Christopher Stout Gallery, Bushwick, NY. A selection of her group exhibitions include, EMINENT DOMAIN, Chelsea, NY; VSOP Projects, Greenport, NY; Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, NY; University of Bridgeport, Bridgeport, CT; and SPRING/BREAK Art Show, New York, NY. Her artwork is in the collection of Barclays Bank, State Street Bank, The Luciano Benetton Foundation, Glamorise Foundations, Equity Residential, Marriott International, Katie Couric, Anthony Grant, Cy Twombly, Barry Hoggard and James Wagner among others in the US and Europe. Her paintings have been written about in artcritical, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, ART21 Magazine, ArtUS, ARTslant, Hamptons Art Hub, Art511 Magazine and The Washington Post. For further background information please visit annepundyk.com
- Anne Sherwood Pundyk’s Website: www.annepundyk.com
- Note: This essay is edited from an interview published in fine arts blog Art Spiel, December 2018.
- 1 https://otherwild.com/products/girls-against-god-issue-2
- 2 https://www.instagram.com/bianca_casady/?hl=en
- 3 https://katiecercone.com/home.html
- 4 http://www.artcritical.com/2017/08/22/anne-sherwood-pundyk-on-eric-kandel/