Essay – Surface

Essay from exhibition catalogue: Surface
Grant Thompson, 2007

No one who reads these notes will be surprised to learn that I wrote them using a computer and therefore first saw the text displayed on a screen or, to be more correct, read them through, or perhaps in a screen. I am not sure about the science involved, but I do know that the blank space I understood as a page and the black letters that appeared across its illuminated whiteness masked the substance of my activity. I thought I was writing an essay when in truth my key tapping was generating sequences of binary code that my laptop’s hard drive then efficiently converted into an English text, formatted according to my programmed preferences.

I accepted unthinkingly, the arrangement generated through that process, an object called a Word document, as a text. However, now that I have considered with greater precision the object I saw, the text had become an image surfacing my side of the interface between the analogue and digital worlds of writing. By clicking on the diminish button I am able to reduce my text to an icon on the screen’s toolbar, a further few actions will allow me to display and read some other text, or several texts all on the same screen and in the same time. Oddly, but unsurprisingly, I read these texts without ever seeing the screen that supports the texts I am reading.

Digital technology permits a range of extremely useful capabilities, but its efficiencies conceal a lack that becomes apparent when I leave the screen and cross the room in which I am working, to retrieve copies of the various published catalogues that contain my writing. The screen version of a text provides access to its content, but the published version provides tangible evidence of the text as an element in an assemblage that is technological, political, material and social, as well as virtual. These published works make a text’s need for a physical support, its superficiality, immediately apparent. This distinction between the two separate, but interdependent entities of content and support provides the motivation for Sarah Munro’s project, Surface.

A surface is the outermost limiting part of a material body. It is a border or a plane, across which we perceive a shift in the material world. The surface of a table for example, is the meeting between table and what is not the table. Munro’s aim was to produce paintings in which the painted surface, in its superficiality, asserted its presence in the work as a readable value independent of any representational content it might carry; and independent of its physical support. The paintings are an exploration of the play between surface and support and the content the two both generate and carry.

Viewing the work, when that viewing is in the flesh, very quickly reveals the presence of a robotic intelligence in the painting of the portraits. Munro’s use of a Digital Painting Machine produces an image that is readably an applied surface. The proliferation of faces, identical, androgynous and enigmatic, announces the project as an infinite series of which the exhibition presents only a few random examples.

The painting of each face does not invent the face it paints. Each painting of the face, each time it is painted, is an image of a painting of the face that is not yet painted. Each painting is a not-painting. Munro never paints a painting; she only produces images of a painting. A viewer sees each painting’s flawless surface and understands that these are mechanical reproductions. This look-mum-no-hands approach to painting, forces a viewer to see the paint as paint (just as Pollock wanted us to see the paint as paint) and then wonder about its application. Where has this paint come from? How has it arrived here?

The foreignness of each painted surface is further emphasised by an uncertain relationship to its support. An ovoid outline, reminiscent of a hand-mirror or a locket from a giant’s dressing table, remains standard throughout the series, but within that frame each support’s profile shifts. In the works titled Flat Eye and Flat Mouth, a facial feature in the surface and a flat plane of the support fall into an awkward alignment. Individual and precisely executed alterations to the supports of Slump, Facet and Slice cause the symmetry of the face to distort in a kind of hall-of-mirrors pleasure in seeing an image mutate. The resulting discontinuities emphasise the independence of the surface from its support and the separation causes a viewer to consider the thinness of the painted surface.

Looking closely at the paint reveals the stippled surface, something a screen viewing would blur into flatness, and leads me to recall reading somewhere that the earliest images created by humans on the walls of caves, utilised the breath. Evidently, early humans blended ground red earth with spittle in the hollows of their cheeks then, using their hand pressed against a damp cave wall as a template, expelled the pigment in controlled pneumatic bursts through tightly pursed lips to produce a sprayed drawing of the hand. The propelled mixture of spittle, earth and air met and combined with its support to produce a permanent marker of presence, a kind of I AM on the cave wall. The repeated repetitions of the gesture suggest that producing the images provided some satisfaction, perhaps pleasure for the Palaeolithic painter.

Painting is always inventing new ways to paint. It is always seeking new assemblages and always with a determination to paint. Painting wants to paint. Munro’s work joins painting with current digital technology’s varied means of image production. Those technologies’s both produce and inform her work and yet her painted images seem to maintain an ambivalent relationship with their progenitor. While the caveman’s breathed handprints remain singular, Munro’s painted portraits are susceptible to infinite reproduction in a variety of formats and at any scale, by the technology that has produced them. It is only in the gallery standing face to face with the painting that a viewer sees the surface.