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Deliberate Dots | Rob and Sue Gardiner with James R Ford
29 March 2020
Untitled (potential drawing #12), James R Ford (2016), Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 2016
Rob and Sue Gardiner in conversation with artist James R Ford. Originally published in: 'Evaluating Things: James R Ford: Selected works 2014-2019', Rob Gardiner, Sue Gardiner, et al., Published 2020.
Rob Gardiner (RG): James, your Dots series of works reach for the ultimate questions addressed in art, and help with answers. They help deliver answers because they have eliminated much of the often valid but deliberately mystifying and obfuscating kind of content found in a lot of art. These works instead highlight the essence of formal aesthetic perceptual values. With their reductive approach, they make the point (excuse the pun) that there is another way to make art. We are invited to consider a move from a focus on object observation in the world, where art tells a story, to another approach that does not limit the creative process of mark making which, by definition, engages in the world of the senses.
Sue Gardiner (SG): Human agency in mark making is fascinating because it uniquely records the actual dynamics of human life/activity, both of mind, body and the senses within the empirical world. It is that primal practice which, during human evolution, could and did record human thoughts as they were enacted. Marks are created by physical impact between materials. They are indents or additions made by one upon the other through this agency. These included footprints, tool making, cave painting, body marking, marking on stones, carving and burning. Also artefact marking on clothing, pottery, papyrus and, later on, paper: a continuum of a deeply emergent human creative recording connecting us to the minds and bodies of our ancestors. In the studio, an artist can combine composing and performing at the same time. The maker is both maker and viewer of the work made.
James R. Ford (JRF): It's an interesting idea about recording human thought, and the notion of generative idea development — as I'm making work my mind is in a certain place, caused by cumulative experiences and current surroundings, unlikely to be repeated again. I tried to make the Potential Drawings and Painted Arrangements as non-representational as possible, from my own point of view. By that I mean that I didn't want the drawings and paintings to overtly look like something. When that occasionally happened as I was creating the work, I would turn it upside down, or add some other marks to obscure that particular reading. The Dots are a further reduction of the sets of marks — more uniform in terms of mark shapes, but more ambiguous in terms of reading, with more potential for the imagination.
RG: Your comment James, on seeking the non-representational, is important. The desire for representation is deeply embedded within the historic Western European understandings of art , that marks need to be “drawn “ from observation of something beyond — the kind of drawing that generally involves mimetic representation of objects directly and immediately observed by the maker. This kind of “rule” or discipline to accurately replicate something one is observing results in the building of boundaries around mark making within what is widely understood to be “art” — instead of encapsulating a playful release, and sensed based emotional response in the process of composing and making marks on a surface, it binds the conscious mind up with limiting, conforming boundaries and forces us into divisions of right and wrong ways to depict things.
JRF: I didn't want the arrangements of dots to be particularly beautiful, or ugly, or too cramped, or too open — they need to be “just right” like in the tale of Goldilocks — but there are no measures to indicate when that has been achieved. The density and “readability” of dots vary across the works: many people may be able to see a landscape (that's not there) in a certain work, but in another work the marks are so minimal that anyone would struggle to make something out. However, does an abstract work have to represent or allude to something, or emote something — can it be enough as simply an arrangement of shapes and forms?
RG: Yes it can. The introduction of emotion is interesting — a dot is a line shrunk — a mark drained of emotion, no expression, no movement, no sound — just stillness with intent.Mark making like this though is also open to be perceived throughinnate, sensed, emotional states by the viewer and is open to unconscious responses.
SG: In a way this describes the idea that the works enable a more free form of conversation — a continual one happening between you as you are creating and the marks as they emerge. It reveals how mark making is a process in time and space that records a choreography of sequential movements — both of the hand and the tool.
JRF: Sequential is an apt term for the process — one dot after the other, influencing each other in turn. Sometimes going back and adding dots to previously “finished” areas to change the overall composition as it evolves. But when to stop? That was always a tricky part with these minimal works.
RG: James, you describe a focussed, reflective evaluation of the marks as they are made, going back to adjust and add. This prompts speculation — what are the possibilities for the next mark to be added? So the whole body — the eyes, hands, heart, skin, muscles and viscera, feel the process into existence and makes choices about what to add and when to stop. Can you stop with just a dot? After all, dots and lines are the primal marks through which we can think, act and create. Is a dot both the beginning of becoming and an ending as well?
JRF: As Kandinsky said, “Everything starts from a dot”.
RG: Yes! Dots in art making have some notable practitioners- if it was an art movement it might be Dotism or Analytical Markism!
JRF: Neo Reductive Pointillism! I had considered an extreme minimal work consisting of a single dot, but I think a single dot wouldn’t offer enough room for introspection or interpretation. The Potential Drawings, Painted Arrangements and Dots are focussed on the possibility of readings, with the viewer bringing their own experiences, beliefs and imagination to the table. It’s human nature to look for recognisable patterns and representation when presented with the abstract, and this is also what these works revolve around. What you interpret, how you perceive the works, or if you dismiss them as empty, speaks volumes of your own mentality and reality.
SG: And science is a way to understand this - in fact, now is the age for art and science to come more closely together in delivering opportunities to a wider public to understand how we see. (“seeing is believing”) It calls for experiments in mind science - revealing the value of seeing to ‘see-ers’ everywhere! Rob, you are keen on this - you say we can all become ‘see-ers’ and art making can become pure creative humanism in action!
RG: Yes we can all develop ways to make judgements of reality and truth and develop understandings of empathetic energies shared at the deepest level. I am interested in the way we can view the Dots series in particular through a kind of , meditative state. James, this kind of state can also enable you to experiment with groups and numbers of dots. Each grouping reflects shifts in their perceptual effects destroying and creating space as they come into being. Sets of dots, such as appear in works such as Untitled (6 dots) or Untitled (101 dots) are limited only by the available given space and size, and create implied imagined lines between themselves. Where the support object has boundaries, where the page has edges, the dot(s) establish direct and immediate relationships with those boundaries and any of their joining points. On their surface support, they simultaneously occupy both the real, frontal plane and the illusory deeper planes within, as perceiving eyes seek to construct a gestalt image object/field, in the feeling mind and then assign meaning to it. Dots precede lines which may be understood as a dot stretched /drawn across the support effectively becoming many dots joined together and having direction. The relation of marks on a surface involve the edges and corners too.
SG: Rob has introduced this notion of the gestalt and so James, this relates to your questioning around when to stop - a perceived sense of closure. Gestalt theorists have written about the notion that we see a dot differently depending on its relation to other dots around it — James, this is true in your work — be it a small group or a larger group of dots — are the prescribed number groupings a way to explore this?
JRF: There has been plenty of experiment and play in this series as the works have developed. Small and clustered arrangements suggest detail, whereas large and disparate dots suggest more macro points of reference. The difference in the arrangements also influence their scope of interpretation as mapping the representation of something not present. Once the dots get to a certain size in proportion to the canvas they move into the realms of pictorial dots to be appreciated in terms of form and composition instead of what they could represent. And this interpretation will vary from person to person.
SG: Yes the viewer effectively joins the dots — creates lines between, reaches for meaning through analogies.By having the number of dots in the title, it suggests to me also that our brains will attempt to count the dots as if we are verifying the title. In some instances, that requires us to pre-set some form of sorting pattern — especially in the ones with larger numbers of dots. What order should we count them in? But ultimately the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ of these works, as you describe, is to disrupt this linear form of thinking?
JRF: The closest existing form of these works is obviously dot-to-dot pictures, but here there are no numbers to help guide the viewer to the “answer”. The works are all untitled to avoid skewing interpretation, and the number of dots is purely in the title so I know which one is which. I have considered producing a give-away limited edition print at my next exhibition for visitors to “complete” in their own way if they so wish. There’s an interesting notion there of whether the viewer would consider it vandalism to draw on the work, or if they think it would devalue it in some way. Children wouldn’t have that issue, but it would be interesting to see if they could easily connect the dots without any predefined order to follow.
RG: Everybody is an artist so this potential opportunity to complete the work seems simple yet it provides all one needs to understand one’s mind and allow the viewer to experience creative thinking for themselves. A sense of humility in the everyday is important.Thinking about pattern, groupings and intention, do you pre-determine the numbers of dots?
JRF: I’ve tried both ways of creating these works in terms of the number of dots — setting the number beforehand, and the other way of adding dots till it felt right, and then counting the total. The former is actually limiting as sometimes I would reach the total and not feel it was quite right. The latter is more freeing but you can end up with the situation of not knowing when to stop, or going to far. It is definitely meditative in repetitive action though.
SG: In the numbered groupings, there is also a sense of collective perception of the group — in these cases, is the sum greater than the parts? In this way they are read intuitively as a whole, rather than dot by dot?
JRF: I think the dots are definitely a package deal, especially with the bigger groupings. With the larger dots on the bigger canvases I was interested in the perception of reading depending on proximity. If you are close-up you start seeing them individually and losing their connection to each other. The further back you are, the easier it is to see potential patterns and invisible forms.
RG: We can certainly deliberately put to use things like similarity, metaphor, seeking of unity, harmony, closure, figure/ground and ‘bottom up’ direct action — but making, in empathy with the world, is also shaped by light, gravity, materials, time and other forces of the universe. In this way, the dot is a primary and static mark that is pre-lingual if you like. James, your dot compositions share a lot with free flow improvised music and dance. This aspect of free flow making is also present in verse, drama and literature but these operate within constraints of requiring the input of learned languages and memory. The dot is fundamental to the visual music language.
JRF: I definitely want the reading of the dot works to be free-flowing. As a conceptual artist who relies a lot on the viewers’ mental interpretation, as opposed to purely visual readings, I have learnt that as soon as I put a work out there, I lose control of how it will be seen and perceived. Which means it’s easy for artworks with specific messages to fail in their intention if viewers do not get out what the artist intended. This realisation led my practice to focus on the ideas of interpretation, perception, the search for meaning, value generation, etc. With the dot works in particular, their simplicity and ambiguity makes them very open to interpretation, but also very easy to dismiss in terms of value or effort, which is exactly why I made them. You could say their reason for being is to question their own meaning and existence… which may also be said for humans.