TRANSLATING THE LANGUAGE OF THE BODY:
THE PAINTINGS OF SHANE GUFFOGG WRITING IN PAINT
Los Angeles, California, 2006
The paintings of Los Angeles based artist Shane Guffogg first appear to us as pure color shimmering and streaking across canvas. But look a little longer and nearly figurative shapes slowly reveal themselves. Look a little closer and intricate details and layering become clear. The shapes and patterns hover somewhere between writing and design. Like a personal Rosetta Stone, Guffogg’s paintings and drawings give us a new world of signs, unbound by the limitations of written language. His gestures and patterns present themselves as codes for information that cannot be conveyed verbally. How are we to decode the flood of information that pours from these paintings? All painting is translation; usually from the three dimensional world into the two dimensional format of the picture plane. Guffogg, however, is translating his subjective interior experience of the world through the movement of his body, arm, and hand.
Guffogg’s abstract motifs resemble calligraphy, both Chinese and Islamic. Interestingly, these are the two cultures most on the minds of Americans in our young century, but Guffogg’s mark making certainly pre-dates the U.S. media’s current obsession with both China and the Islamic world. Perhaps he had some premonition of the coming collision of cultures and economies? Or did Guffogg’s interest and research into Ancient cultures of the world lead him to these elegant and complex forms of writing? Or is it possible that he has simply tapped into a basic truth of the act of writing by hand: words are not simply signs for things, but also things in themselves, a recording of the physical presence of a human being. We are not only our minds, of course, we are in our bodies, and writing is the direct result of our physicality. Seen in this way, Guffogg’s glyphs are not pointing to anything outside of themselves; they stand as proof of the artist’s existence on the physical plane. Guffogg’s process of painting is a kind of dancing as much as a kind of writing; the painter is equal parts scribe and whirling dervish.
This is not altogether new territory in abstraction; others have explored the connection between writing and painting. Beginning with the Surrealist notion of automatic writing, artists from Joan Miro to Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock sought to paint abstracted signs from their subconscious. Some of the best examples of this genre are the expressionist scrawling of Cy Twombly and the calligraphic fields of Mark Tobey. But where those painters appropriate the visual appearance of writing in order to make marks, Guffogg comes from another direction, directly from the stream of which thoughts and words and images attempting to draw consciousness from all spring. The relationship between painting and language provides another useful context for gaining access to Guffogg’s brand of abstraction. For seven years he worked as studio assistant to the quintessential L.A. artist Ed Ruscha. One of the pioneering Pop artists of the 1960s, Ruscha has been exploring the evocative power of words as the subjects of paintings for over 40 years. In the 1981 Documentary film A portrait of Los Angeles Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Ruscha, by Gary Conklin, Ruscha comments that the streets of Los Angeles are “...like ribbons, and they’re dotted with facts. Fact Ribbons, I guess.” While the two painters could hardly be more different in style and approach, the insights of Guffogg’s mentor have an interesting and unlikely parallel to Guffogg’s work. Ruscha has made a career of capturing the exterior landscape around him, while Guffogg has long been drawing from his own interior landscape. Rather than “Fact Ribbons,” Guffogg’s marks are perhaps more like “Thought Ribbons,” strands of gesture and movement that flow out of the artist’s mind and body in both a practiced and spontaneous way. While Ruscha takes in the artifice of his environment and represents it in his wry and detached manner, Guffogg passionately mines his inner world in the hope of tapping into something both authentic and universal. Both Ruscha and Guffogg are master translators of vocabulary from their everyday lives into the murky, suggestive language of art.
ADDING TO THE STORY OF ABSTRACTION
While Ruscha’s body of work can be seen as a kind of mapping out of the Los Angeles/American landscape, Guffogg is attempting to chart the inner depths of the human psyche and soul. This endeavor places him in the tradition of what has been called Transcendental Abstraction, a lineage stretching from European pioneers Kandinsky and Malevich through American masters such as Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still to contemporary keepers of the torch like Brice Marden and Sean Scully. One thing that sets Guffogg apart from these other painters, however, is his handling of paint. Twentieth Century abstraction rarely embraced illusionistic space. Most of the notable practitioners were primarily influenced by the School of Paris with its emphasis on direct, opaque painting, and the constantaffirmation of the flat picture plane. By contrast, Guffogg adopts a glaze painting technique that is more related to Rembrandt and other masters of the Renaissance and Baroque. This approach allows the intense light of the under painting to glow from underneath the thin layers of darker pigments, creating a sense of illumination as well as an illusion of depth. Far from being anachronistic, Guffogg’s appropriation of pre-modern techniques is typical of the post-modern era. Many artists have a renewed interest in the alchemical history of early oil painting, but few have applied it to abstract painting with such striking effect.
This engagement with the old masters is especially compelling because Guffogg’s work is clearly of the digital age. While the application of paint is part of an old tradition, the way the designs are repeated and mirrored shows evidence of the use of computers in the artist’s process. It is an odd and unique pairing of the Renaissance, the Modern, and the digital eras. Guffogg blends the light of Rembrandt and Turner with the spiritual yearnings of Rothko and the patterns of coded data that are computers. His paintings are a bridge between 20th century abstract painting and the digital age of today. The underlying mark, the genesis of each painting, is a gesture that comes straight out of Abstract Expressionism’s belief in the intuitive brush mark. In Guffogg’s hands this first design becomes codified and repeated in a way that is directly related to the patterns of 1s and 0s that drive computers. He has updated the raw, unbridled drip-dance of Pollock by refining the marks to a controlled and concentrated image.
For a more contemporary comparison some have likened Guffogg’s paintings to the work of New York artist Brice Marden during the 80s and 90s, (specifically the “Cold Mountain” series). This is understandable, due to the common ground of calligraphic marks in oil paint, but the similarities end there. Marden is essentially a product of the 1960s and was credited with breathing personal emotion into the cold ethic of flatness that the critic Clement Greenberg espoused. But Guffogg went to Cal Arts in the 1980s where he was pummeled with postmodern/deconstructionist theory and conceptualism. His painting practice is both a reaction to that environment and a direct result of it. The lush materiality of his paintings asserts a physicality that has no place in the academic world of his schooling, and yet when one gets beyond the surface there is an intensely cerebral quality to the work. In Marden’s paintings the space is that of the surface of the picture plane and the emphasis is on the subtlety of perception, the pleasure of the eye, and the stirring of color-associated emotion. Marden is like a Pompeian fresco painter, creating frieze compositions from antiquity in a Modern language. Guffogg, in contrast, is a Neo-Baroque, building a strange kind of depth through dozens of layers of glazes. Marden uses color and line in order to access subtle, non-verbal emotions and memories. Guffogg uses gesture and value in order to illuminate what lies beneath verbal thoughts.
There is something, however, that is unaccounted for by art historical markers: the presence of this specific artist. Guffogg has orchestrated his layers of marks such that they shift in and out of focus, falling across the surface in veils of pigment, waving like a translucent fabric sheet hung out to dry. In signature paintings, such as those from the Avalon or Cannac series, Guffogg begins with an intuitive tangle of paint. Then, rather than simply repeating it, he mirrors the motif over the original pattern, echoed in miniature, set into glazes of light and color that cascade over the picture. The end effect is more than a simple accumulation of layers. Often, the spatial contradictions that occur can create the illusion of movement while remaining absolutely still. Guffogg’s work achieves this little miracle repeatedly. Each painting is a kind of body, a stand in for the artist, which pulsates, breathes, and dances before the viewer.