Friday, September 13, 2013

Sight Undone - Jude Rae

“These are the most elusive of matters: perception, consciousness, the nature
of being, how to sustain an awareness of what it is to be present to oneself.”

“A sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on to canvas what is in
front of him, but one who tries to create something which is, in itself, a living thing.”

“[T]he work - the work of art, the literary work - is neither finished nor unfinished:
it is. What it says is exclusively this: that it is - and nothing more. Beyond that
it is nothing. Whoever wants to make it express more finds nothing, finds that
it expresses nothing. He whose life depends upon the work, either because
he is a writer or because he is a reader, belongs to the solitude of that which
expresses nothing except the word being: the word which language shelters by
hiding it, or causes to appear when language itself disappears into the silent
void of the work.” 1
Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature

“My painting demonstrates nothing. Instead it gives space to aroused
perception. We are much too inclined to order seeing as a thought
process instead of appropriating it bodily.”
“The way I make something gives me a close relationship to the world…
Sometimes I think that I wouldn’t even be here without this experience.” 2
Günter Umberg, Bilderhaus Schatternraum


I have a life drawing made when I was a student some 40 years ago. The sight 
of it prompts in me the memory of where I stood in the life room, next to whom,
the open window at my back, the light, the air temperature and time of year.
It is a recollection of awareness that has its place as much in the body as in
the mind.

The task of writing about painting is not one to be taken lightly. To do it
justice requires something of the relentless rigor that Maurice Blanchot
demands of literature – “Defiance of language, situated in language,
which finds in itself the terms of its own critique” 3. Blanchot explores the
limits of literature, the paradox of language approaching that experience
of being which resists the form of language itself. Thus it is the province
of painting to prompt an awareness within the beholder of that aspect of
experience that does not exist as thought, that pre-exists thought. Painting
does not explain or even represent this mystery, indeed it works in
defiance of representation because it is, as Blanchot says, itself and
nothing more. It simply reminds us.

This aspiration, the elusive nature of it, is what I recognize and admire
in the work of Günter Umberg. Black Sun, Jan Thorn-Prikker’s interview
with Günter Umberg, 4 is an extraordinary document. Seldom have I come
across writing which approaches the essence of painting so completely,
from the nature of the physical object, the process of making and the
connection of making to viewing, and the way it relates to the history of
painting and the philosophy that it both informs and articulates. This
rarity is not surprising. These are the most elusive of matters: perception,
consciousness, the nature of being, how to sustain an awareness of what
it is to be present to oneself.

It may seem odd that a maker of images draws inspiration from this
most rigorous of non-figurative painters, but only if you see painting as a
kind of information or, more succinctly, if you are inclined to “order seeing
as a thought process” 5. The paintings I make aspire to something
more than image, something which might be understood as existing in
the relationship a painting creates with a viewer. As is evident in the Umberg
interview, this relationship has its foundations in very particular cultural
associations and traditions, but it is not restricted to one culture or
time. Beyond these structures the connection is primarily one of feeling,
or more specifically it is a connection between seeing and feeling.
I do not here mean emotion (although emotions can be involved) but
refer rather to an apprehension of the world, which is oriented towards
the senses: something that is as much felt through the body as it is

Such a connection is not so much complex as incomprehensible.
This is a particularly elusive notion when it comes to painting because
it is never entirely clear what is being painted. Unlike photographs,
paintings are images that declare a certain materiality. Painting presents
us with, on the one hand, an image or illusion, and on the other, its own
physical or material presence as object. This structural ambiguity,
the play of illusion and materiality, became increasingly important
with the development of photography but in truth it has always been
one of the fascinations of great painting. Even the most finely worked
painting bears the trace of its material construction. Pigment sits on ground,
evident as smears and grains, lumps and puddles, no matter how
minutely it has been applied, and at some level we see the feel of it.

In the light of this ambiguity the distinction between abstraction and
representation is diminished. Giorgio Morandi’s remark, that “nothing is
more abstract than reality” carries a sly undertow. An inveterate admirer
of Cézanne, this stoically figurative painter who was making small still
life paintings in the 50s at the height of Abstract Expressionism, took
evident pleasure in breaking every trick in the illusionist’s book. These
small quiet canvasses, where the traces of his carefully insouciant brush
never let us forget the painter, demonstrate that nothing is more abstract
than painting. It should be noted however, that Morandi’s little jokes with
illusionism - spatial ambiguities, false attachments etc – are made in the
context of extraordinarily acute observation. Just as Cézanne went to
great lengths to analyse and convey his “sensations”, Morandi’s paintings
are marked by his close attention to the conditions of their genesis:
his experience of subject and conditions (light, form etc.) in the context
of painting (touch, materials, history etc.).

We assume so much about seeing and the visual world. Priorities
dictate that generally we are not conscious of certain visual specificities
- the fall of light on objects and the configurations they
make in the world we inhabit - even though these details constitute
the very fabric of our being.

Our sense of sight is geared to a kind of shorthand of vision which
functions as a generalising radar, filtering extraneous information,
allowing us to get about, get things done. The effectiveness of
this shorthand has given sight its primacy among our senses, and
aligned visibility with certainty. Seeing is believing as the old saying
goes but, as anyone who has taught or studied observation
based drawing will have found, the reverse also applies: we see
what we expect to see.

Painting can interrupt and throw into doubt the assumptions that
accompany what might be considered normal vision. It recalls to
us a sense of the look of things, and reconstitutes the integrity
of visual experience, providing an echo of the complexities and
strangeness we edit out of daily life, the flesh and bones of the
visual world that we ignore of necessity. In both the making and
contemplating of paintings, the conventions or habits that allow
normal seeing can be subtly disrupted, the path of sight retraced,
and vision itself is slowed, questioned, revised. In this sense
painting might be thought of as the “undoing” of sight.

Jude Rae 2011

1. Blanchot, M., & Smock, A., The Space of Literature,
University of Nebraska Press, 1989 p. 22
2. Baumstark, B., & Strauss, D. Bilderhaus Schattenraum,
Zurich JRP Ringier Kunstverlag 2000 p.91
3. Smock, A., The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot
Editions Gallimard 1980, University of Nebraska 1986 p.vii
4. Thorn-Prikker, J., “Black Sun – A Conversation about the Art of Painting a Black
Picture.” In Baumstark, B., & Strauss, D. Günter Umberg Bilderhaus Schattenraum.
5.Baumstark, B., & Strauss, D. Günter Umberg Bilderhaus Schattenraum, p.91


I first met Jude Rae in Christchurch in 1989 soon after her arrival on
what we all understood to be the stable alluvial plains of Canterbury
in the South Island of New Zealand. Christchurch has long been
viewed as the most “English” of the colonial towns that marked the
expanding edges of the British Empire in the 19th century.

Structured along a strict orthogonal grid the roads radiated logically
out onto the level footprint of the plains until the South/North axis
of Colombo Street rose at its southern flank to climb the Port Hills.
With neither Auckland’s volcanos nor Wellington’s obvious fault-line,
Christchurch’s apparently benign geology was an easy surface on
which to build this model Commonwealth settlement. It’s physical
order is matched by a sense of social structure that causes it to
occasionally be the target of light-hearted and not so welcome

Since then Jude has returned to Australia via periods in Hong Kong
and Paris and the alluvial plains of Christchurch have been shaken
and liquified in the most interminable and upsetting way for its
residents. Much of what we take for granted has been shown to
have been built on unstable ground. The lives of old friends and
colleagues have changed forever.

During her time in Christchurch Jude shifted from painting large,
compressed and metaphorically loaded drapery paintings to
considerably smaller and more discreet Still Life paintings.
Single objects, sometimes clusters of idiosyncratic but plain vessels
comprised this new attention. For Rae taking on the genre of Still
Life was never motivated by a retreat to the security and perceived
stability of paintings’ most modest genre. Rather it would provide a
considered framework - a laboratory to conduct a slow enquiry into
the instability of vision, the uneven circularity of memory and the
shallow architecture of a painted place.

Even within the measurable parameters of the picture plane, Rae
reminds us that the familiar visual co-odinates in which we trust
are in flux. The very surfaces that seem to hold these considered
arrangements seem on closer inspection to be little more than a
watery meniscus.

Critically, it is the quiver, the vibrato of edges, not assurity of line
that establishes the visual integrity of the paintings. There is an optical
judder when objects touch or shuffle in front of each other - the
complexity of shadows further evidence a shifting lightsource.

These works represent an accretion of visual data and time that is
peculiar to painting. This conflation of time and image requires a
processing beyond the immediacy and confines of the retina.

In her new body of work Rae includes a brace of new Still Life
paintings, mindful as always of the tradition of Still Life and yet
more than ever these works step around the loaded sentimentality
and dry approach to technique that beset the genre. Rae’s
approach to the objects is not so much dispassionate as neutral.
She is rightly wary of the cul-de-sac of narrative, resisting its appeal
for those who would rather trust in a story than an object.

Thus Jude Rae’s paintings achieve a subtle but vital balance between
their existence as image and as material object. This quality
has also found expression in a new series of large architecturally
referenced paintings. These “Interiors”, mostly public spaces, have
attracted her in recent years. Airport terminals feature in particular,
perhaps as she has traveled a great deal. The anonymity of
these spaces is claimed as yet another laboratory for her concerns
- different in subject matter but related in their neutrality and ambiguities.
Under examination the material culture of the buildings
themselves manifest the very precariousness of form and image
that attracts her.

The apparent emptiness of these interiors, the interaction of
reflection and transparency, the layering of space within space, and
the low key counterpoint of image and paint extends Rae’s interest
in the instability of vision - something that we as viewers accept
without question in daily routine.

Andrew Jensen 2011

Previously Published by Jawpress © 2011

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