THINKING ABOUT SUSAN MICHIE
by Hilary Hammond
Mark-making is one of our earliest acts. By about the age of two years a child will have started to make marks with paint or a crayon, and at four be able to render a recognisable figure. These fledgling activities delighted artists in modern times: Klee, Miró and Picasso all sought to emulate what they perceived to be an innocence untouched by civilization – a type of noble state – a romantic notion recognizable in the mark-making of Twombly and Basquiat. For the child however, the process is not one of retrieval but of exploration and recognition – What can I make my hand do? What is that I see? Somewhere in the mystery of early development there are two impulses: the urge to understand what the body can do, and the impulse for language, be it signs, symbols, words, numbers.
It is perhaps reasonable to suggest that early humans drew as a way to reveal their poetic selves. They utilised simple tools and sought discreet locations, and from a place of safety described in lyrical terms the animals and habitats with which they shared their lives; the spaces they inhabited both geographically and temporally. It is not known to what end many of these rock carvings were rendered; of the few certainties that can be stated, a sense of poetic reverence is perhaps one of the strongest. It is also clear that the activity was revered – the ancient Chinese, for example, believed that Shihuang, a servant of the mythical Yellow Emperor, was the creator of drawing. Petroglyphs dating back to Palaeolithic and Neolithic times have been found across China: the majority are clustered in far-flung and barren border areas that had minority populations, most were created over a long time period, and some of the rock pictures or carvings extend across a considerable distance. The petroglyphs at Mount Heishan in Gangsu Province, north-western China, are a good example. Here rows of tiny figures dance in parallel to the strata lines, their bodies uniformly depicted, their movements synchronised.
There is a duality implicit within the project of picture making: there is a surface that can be looked at and examined in its own right – graphite, pigment, paper, rock – and then there is an articulation of information about something else, which in itself does not offer up an object. For young children, and perhaps also for early humans, this dichotomy does not present a problem. The act is instinctual, and requires no subsequent mediation. The image rendered is simply offered, to be received as one whole.
But as the process develops, the maker becomes aware that materials may be either used to render trompe l’œil – setting out to intentionally convince us of another ‘surface’ – or applied with no covert intention in mind. This all makes for a treacherous reading process. How do we know what we are looking at? Is a depiction ‘real’ or an illusion? As Magritte famously reminded his viewer in 1928/9, Ceci n’est pas une pipe.
A further question the contemporary viewer has come to ask is, does this mark-making, this picture-making, have intentionality? Is it the intention of this object in front of us that we call an artwork to hold any meaning at all?
The American contemporary art critic Jerry Saltz talks about how abstraction circumvents language, sidestepping the need to name and describe. It is intentional in its unintentionality. The nature of the duality is thus more complex, in that while surface remains, that which is articulated and alluded to beyond the frame (as it were) is no straight-forward message. Abstraction, Saltz says, ‘destabilizes, resists closure, slows perception’.
In the artworks of Susan Michie it is possible to both gain a sense of duality’s historic tussle and to experience the turbulent waters of postmodern reading. Her drawings sit somewhere between the earliest act and abstracted resistance, between representational belief and intentional unintentionality. The location is a middle ground, between impulses that seek a home in the innocent act itself and those that seek to examine what it may mean for this particular artist at this particular point in historical time.
Michie has a certain discretion; expression is subservient to the basic motor process of scribing the mark; colour, if rendered at all, is used almost in a forensic sense – you get the sense you are being shown an element, a base compound, as opposed to a synthetic substance that plays on the senses to offer an allusion of ‘colour’. In one way, then, the artistic intent is simple. The image offered up is barely present and largely subsumed beneath the actions of the process. Above all, there is reverence, both to the act itself and to a certain sense of the inexplicable.
There may be a validation process at work in the simplicity of the action being employed. A notion that repetitive action brings a certain sense of salvation. But if these are the intended readings, they are only to be gained from supposition and projection. For her part, Michie is firm in her eschewal of translation, and especially of anything that may render the image recognizable in a personal sense. But she offers a couple of verbal clues. In ‘An Absence of Fact’, a body of forty-two drawings completed between 2003 and 2008, the horizontal measurement of each drawing is exactly her own body height, while among the individual titles can be found ‘On an Afternoon in May’, a surprisingly personal poetic flourish that pins the artwork to a particular place and time. There may be more in play here, then, than at first appears.
In February 1954 Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary:
Why one writes is a question I can never answer easily, having so often asked it of myself. I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me – the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art … We write, like Proust, to render all of it eternal, and to persuade ourselves that it is eternal. We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it …
In an essay on Michie’s work written in 2008, the artist Simon Lewty writes about the artist’s life journey; of a childhood growing up within an intense artistic environment (both her father and grandmother were acclaimed artists in their own fields, who fought fiercely for artistic supremacy over their young charge), of a successful professional life in the cinema, and then of a crisis culminating in psychoanalysis and followed by her first attempts at mark-making. He describes her early images as ‘seminal’ and ‘archetypal’ – they included drawings of grids and of gingko leaves – and reflects that they have been a ‘hard-won flowering’ of a process informed by sketchbooks full of marks and words.
But although conceding that these drawings may in some measure be autobiographical, there is also a sense that they offer up further meanings that are in no way obviously traceable. Instead, they belong to the middle ground, and to the dilemma of duality. The surfaces of the drawings are where the clues can be found, in the same way the surfaces of a landscape offer clues as to past inhabitants, bygone histories, former climates. Here there are many marks, and they are often repeated, often of the same tone, moving in the same direction. Early drawings such as those from the Grids series are strongly subdued and refuse any narrative of literal interpretation. Neither self-knowing nor self-searching, they offer a sense of affirmation, but in what remains unrevealed. The sensation of viewing them is peculiar, in that while the eye is forced to slow down, to examine each and every mark, at the same time it is forced to speed up in order to take in the complete effect, the totality of the surface.
A dance comes to mind here. In 1983 the Belgian choreographer Anne de Keersmaeker premiered Rosas danst Rosas, a contemporary dance featuring four women seated on chairs moving in repetitive and baffling ways to a driving contemporary soundtrack. Austere and minimalist, and perhaps avowedly ‘feminist’/feminine, the piece deploys familiar tropes while consciously avoiding a narrative that can be ‘read’. The dancers’ movements can be viewed individually, deconstructed into their highly nuanced individual details, or taken as an overarching whole that appears to exist despite the idiosyncrasies. This is an experience of both private ritual and communally performed act that is both powerful and evocative. Like Michie’s grid drawings, the piece is intentionally unintentional while at the same time held within a rigid framework of repetition.
Gilles Deleuze was interested in ritual and repetition. In his book Difference and Repetition (1994) he wrote: ‘The repetition of a work of art is like a singularity without concept, and it is not by chance that a poem must be learned by heart. The head is the organ of exchange, but the heart is the amorous organ of repetition’.
Dancing and repetition. It was A. A. Milne’s sentiment in ‘Lines and Squares’, his children’s poem in which a young boy cautions us to watch out for the lines on London’s streets least the bears come out and eat us while we dance from paving slab to slab. ‘Just watch me walking in all the squares,’ the boy exclaims defiantly, ‘It’s ever so portant how you walk.’ But setting aside the obvious obsessive-compulsive motif, Milne’s witty poem has an infectious rhyming meter – its couplets are as sure-footed as the boy’s feet – and there is comfort to be had in this assurance. We know the rhyme will not fail to complete, just as we know the boy will not be eaten by the bear. So long as we continue to count out the numbers of lines, watch our feet as we feel our way across the squares, all will be well.
In To the Edge from 2010, a sequence of fourteen drawings each measuring over a metre in height, rhythm reveals itself as a central motif. Here, the drawings constitute a continuous line, which means the very act of viewing them is itself implicitly linked to movement. You cannot view the piece unless you are on the move, be it either from one side to the other or back and forth. It’s as if you are shuttling between the picture stills cropped by a film editor. And as you move across the sequence, the more the surface subtleties manifest currents and tides of internal movement, the dots and marks melding together and then pulling apart. This is a joyous work, it has a sense of the celebratory about it – the dots sit easily within their vast universe, as sure-footed as the boy walking his pavement. Rhythm offers comfort while also at the same time revealing something of a sense of the universal. And within this safe world one is struck by an obsession: counting lines and squares; counting the stitches on a knitting needle; counting sheep; counting dance moves – the action is the art.
By utilising rhythm, Michie may be deliberately seeking a metaphor for transcendence whereby she can allow herself to enter a world were meanings are by definition fluid. She is seeking a place where translation is required. But perhaps more than translation, for her there is a need for a space in which the unknown and the unsought can be placed, and placed in such a way that it can be ‘read’ or seen. In the second volume of World as Will and Representation (1859), Schopenhauer wrote: ‘We are only entirely satisfied by the impression of an artwork when it leaves something behind that we cannot reduce to the clarity of a concept however much we think about it’. We have returned to intentional unintentionality, yet may also have returned to that other place, where art’s duality resides. In the process of contemporary mark-making it is possible to see both a delight in concepts and theories while also a certain distancing from meanings and readings; surface and object are set out before the viewer, but there is a strong sense that meaning does not necessarily reside in these places. Michie’s drawings follow a similar strategy of discretion, yet they nonetheless cleave to notions of meaning and expressed authentic feeling. And to achieve this end, they utilise repetition, with all its endless possibilities.
The Scottish artist David Batchelor has observed of repetition that it enables the artist to generate endless differences but no single identity, and this seems a fitting place for Michie to be. ‘For some, repetition in art is only redundancy and wretchedness; a worthless recycling of received forms, which only and always diminishes the criticality of the original,’ Batchelor writes. ‘For others though, repetition can also be recovery, renewal and revaluation; the means by which the original act may be better understood and its critical purpose continued’ (David Batchelor, ‘In Bed with the Monochrome’, Aesthetic Point of View: Philosophy, Art, and the Senses).
Hilary Hammond, 2019