“…The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work into contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
Marcel Duchamp 1
To most contemporary art viewers and practitioners, it can seem primary or even obvious that artwork exists in an interdependent relationship with its spectators. It seems instinctual that both our individual and collective attention - whether in conflict or agreement - contributes to the accomplishment of a given piece or body of work. However, in the iron-clad doctrines of the modernist canon in the first half of the 20th century, art was viewed as a self-contained form of objecthood set strictly apart from popular spheres of cultural engagement. Art was categorised as its own ‘pure’ presence independent of the spectator, who was regarded as an invisible observer. Abstract painting in particular was heralded by Modernist critics and theorists in that it most sharply adhered to the bounds of its own two dimensional surface and as such, stood alone as absolutely distinct from the external world.
Invoking the role of the spectator as integral to the making of meaning was therefore, for many, an emancipatory statement. The ramifications of viewing work as relational with an embodied spectator instead of secluded in the higher echelons of culture wrought large shifts in attitude and modes of representation until the present day. Primarily, the identity of the spectator was now explored as the site of meaning in the real-time and spatial context of viewing. The corollary of this burgeoning interest continues in seeking new and complex identities of art, which are purposefully interdisciplinary and absorb influences from cinema, documentary photography and industrial manufacturing.
In the contemporary art world, such practices dominate the scene. Much art is now viewed for the manifest social commentary it contains in both its production and reception. The resistance to the austerity of modernist exactitude is seen as immanently political. To this day the spectator-model is thought of in terms of institutional critique; breaking down any lasting perceived hierarchies of elite viewership and progressing towards a socially inclusive representation of actual lived experience.
What are we to say about abstract painting in this regard, if anything? There remains difficulty on the part of critics and writer just how to qualify art which persists, seemingly above all other concerns, in the negation of content and the assertion of painterly surface.
But Duchamp’s statement about the role of the spectator was powerful not only because it marked a shift in practice, but in how it also motivated a re-interpretation of the modernist archives. The catalysis of his claim lay precisely in the tension it produced (and continues to produce) between old ideologies and new ideals. Abstract art can therefore no longer ‘mean’ a return to the previous isolated presencing of form alone. Simultaneously however, abstraction cannot help but refer to the potential significance of formal autonomy in painting. Certainly, social commentary does not exist ‘in’ Wepener’s large scale, deliberately formal canvases; neither does the work ‘make’ a social comment on the outside world. Rather, it is in view of Duchamp’s statement as holding a deeper complexity that this essay can begin to tease out what the condition of looking at and being in Wepener’s body of paintings.
As Duchamp noted, the ‘inner qualifications’ of the work provide the strut of communication between the spectator and the ‘external world.’ We can treat this process as taking place before direct associations with an external source are assumed. ‘Deciphering and interpreting’ those inner qualifications pertain to the material-conceptual configurations of the artwork itself. For this author, no mode of practice requires such critical investment on the part of viewers, as does abstraction.
These inner qualifications might initially be drawn out in reference to the grid-format serially repeated over much of Wepener’s work. As a strong art-historical reference to modernist practice in painting grids – from Piet Mondrian in the beginning of the 20th century through to Agnes Martin, and Robert Ryman in the fifties and sixties - the grid remains a vital assertion of the two-dimensional painterly surface. But it is a general and oft-commented upon character of much abstract work in grids that they might be conceived too, as deductively-traced windows. The precursor to grids is thus viewed in terms of earlier romantic paintings, which depicted windows as symbolic of the separation of cultural perception from nature, or, locating difference between inner worlds and external reality. In the marking of a grid, associations remain of that spatial play of inside and outside. Material barriers to sight in the foreground and gateways to realms beyond provoke the eye to follow rigid instances of line through spaces of ether; darkly opaque or lucid sources of light.
In Wepener’s work however, the eye which endeavours to follow the brace and the girder is belaboured. Unlike the acutely ordered handling of grid formats of much work from the 20th century; Wepener’s grids, bars and line seem hauled, skinned, excoriated, and twisted. If the grid is grounded in the psychological and physical boundaries of inner and outer worlds, Wepener’s surfaces suggest these lived lines as deeply distorted, incomplete, and tensely articulated. They offer a complex, if not perverse idea of spatial difference.
“…The existence of God, atheism, determinism, liberation, societies, death, etc., are pieces of a chess game called language, and they are amusing only if one does not preoccupy oneself with winning or losing this game of chess.”
Ferdinand de Saussure (elsewhere commonly cited as the ‘the father of linguistics’) would compare the model of chess with the structure of language, as both concerning opposition and combination of discrete units. But inasmuch as the game of chess has to do with the structure of language; as Duchamp often asserted, chess also has to do with the modern spatialisation of larger cultural categories and belief-systems. Indeed, these allocations have to do with the immanent idealism of Western culture, where man’s capacity for the exploitation of all natural and cultural resources is embedded in powers of reason, which are further founded in spatial concepts. According to much groundwork Western philosophy, it is not the external world which configures space as much as it is our own rationality which overpowers the entanglements of nature and orders the world as a totality in human understanding.
But Duchamp rightly saw that the systematic order of Western thought, like chess, was also something of a game; with figural and metaphorical components ever-shifting. Duchamp’s research on chess further emphasised the “conflictual structure’ of the game. It was this conflictual structure, ‘two poles’ - embodied as two kings in symmetrical opposition – that provided Duchamp with a ‘topological model of play.’
Similarly, we can say that Wepener’s abstraction exists as a tension between ‘two kings’ of art practice: formal autonomy and social spectatorship. The conflictual, twisted quality of these languages specific to Wepener’s ‘expanses’ has been noted. But the association with chess can be extended through the sheer size and installation of the works such that viewers become pawns, knights or queens given way to proceed physically or visually in and between the canvases, or blocked by the stubbornly fortified partitions. The conflict might also be lent to the pattern and handling of her colour palette. The oppositions of black and white in much of the work heave their weight in materiality, one against the other, threatening the integrity of the canvas weave. Meanwhile, interstices of grey – either in revelation or defeat - pools, floods and pressurises the tautness of line.
But to make a too easily motivated association between black and white would belie the affect that lies within the simple register of their primary quality, in and of paint. Black and white is also a negation of colour. They negate the sounds, smells, and images of cadmium rose and yellow ochre, of cerulean blues and scarlet lakes; in other words a negation of overt metaphorical potential lent to the formal struggle taking place. Like chess, the wrangling of oppositions in this instance challenge and problematize opposition as a primary encounter of difference, in the first place.
The undecidability offered by these dualities internal to Wepener’s work inhabit the sphere of Duchampian practice. It is in the refusal of direct commentary that language and the known quantities of lived experience begin to slip from their hooks and their categories, a strategy, in this instance, nevertheless operates within the means of modernism’s ‘languages’ of autonomy, purity, and self-referentiality. As theorist Hubert Damisch frames the Duchampian conceptual complex, it was as if the game of chess allowed him to envision a ‘model of art itself’ that was not so dependant on its plastic qualities alone as it was also open to theoretical elaboration, one which allowed for “play” between the modalities of sense perception and mental cognition.
“It. Whatever has no name.”
Duchamp in an interview with Francis Steegmuller.
Where language loses its mooring and meaning becomes undecidable, it remains to more fully assess how Wepener’s work could be said to have societal import or pertain to an adequate socially-inclusive spectatorship. We return to Duchamp’s assertion that the spectator ‘adds’ his or her contribution to the creative act.
How important is both the individual and collective response to art production? With the ‘free choice’ simulated by cellphone contracts, pre-packaged meal-plans and online dating profiles, we often begin to expect that the liberal arts, too, should at once present its work and offer the ‘solution’ to its unpacking. As is becoming clear in the vortex of global and local chess contests, the historical-known and seemingly rational response to social and economic problems is feeling lately deficient. It might be that a demand to exercise our own judgement is a demand long-overdue.
It is here that we find the force of the autonomous artwork. It is not a receptacle for meaning always already either refuted or justified by external societal circumstance. Instead, it provides a singular springboard or platform from which to view daily life from an extraordinary perspective. There has been some return in the last decades to early enlightenment texts stating this precondition of the arts; chiefly in the late 17th century philosophy of Immanuel Kant. For him, art had a reflective role in other areas of human concern insofar as it provided a space for individuals to evaluate their particular personal experience in comparison to the ‘universal’ norms of daily existence. The moral and ethical worth of such exercises were in the individual’s capacity to judge for themselves and in the final analysis, contribute a learned ability to generate perspective on different situations, be they agreeable or conflictual. Whereas most judgements are deployed by way of universally agreed outcomes on particular results, art is the place where a particularity is found that shines a light on the external norms of everyday life. This reversal entails precisely that the spectator ‘makes’ the meaning.
Wepener’s abstraction institutes a distinct distance from your habitual thought-processes. In its place is a searing embodiment of her process and practice as an artist, as a subject, as a particular human experience. The resistance of acrylics and enamels as they are pushed and pulled, dragged and severed into thick confluences of geometry; visibly and sensorially unwinding through multiply fluid films and stratums; the grinding exertions in sweat and in city, the hiss and scream of mechanical workshop floors and walls turned studio space; the bending and the snapping of bone and architecture; both blind as walls and clear as gas, inhabit a space both known and almost profanely unknown, constitutive of and constituted by the mind, now your mind, in play with surface.