Painting without Edge
Soon after the events of 9/11, I was asked to write about the edge in my work for an article in the American Abstract Artists Journal. Most artists wrote about being on edge or at the edge of the world and the confusing role of art in the face of tragedy. Writing about our own work somehow allowed us to give voice to the larger struggle. We find ourselves once again at the edge of the world, this time because of the double diseases of COVID-19 and systemic racism. The drop is even steeper and the fall more perilous. I write about the edge in my own painting as a way of situating myself in the world and figuring out how to receive it.
The edge is the line between painted space and the world. In thinking about the edge in painting, I find myself preoccupied with painting without edge—and how to mediate the relationship of the physical boundary to the wall as well as to the space of the room.
My favorite part of a work by Piet Mondrian is when a line of color stops before the painting’s edge and other lines wrap around it. The physical edge of the canvas allows for both kinds of relationships that Mondrian so brilliantly tackles. What happens when the painting support is sheet-like, supple, and without a pronounced physical edge? What is the transition to wall and room under such conditions?
I have been painting on clear vinyl, a non-rigid synthetic. I often paint on both sides, building up a “call and response” relationship, which enables each side to function independently as well as to combine visually. Some areas are opaque, others translucent, so that certain marks can be shared. Accordingly, the unpainted part of the physical border “edges” onto the wall for an inside out/front-back relationship. As artist and curator Jo-ey Tang remarked about my vinyl work, “The edge is a continuum of the other side. It is the / in recto/verso.”
I use the edge in my work to both demarcate and dissolve. The vinyl edge is unpredictable: it can sag, pull away from the wall, and reject a straight edge even when cut cleanly. The “ghost space,” or blank, at the edge of the painting reacts differently if the vinyl hangs on the wall or suspends from the ceiling. The latter implicates viewers in real time and space. My paintings on vinyl either leave the edge transparent or emphasize the border with color or text. Sometimes the work has a closer relationship to the “page” than to the “canvas” since I layer and sew the painted strips around the perimeter. My edge functions like a border or margin, as in a Turkish carpet or the carpet page of an illuminated manuscript.
The edge can be like a footnote or a subtitle to a foreign film for which I am providing a translation or clues to decode my mark-making vocabulary. I place this edge at the bottom, but also use lines of visual information at the top or sides of the work. I often include the asterisk sign to point to another space and displace a single focus into multiple visual detours around the work.
AHAH/HAHA is a piece where I spray painted a central asterisk and collaged drawn and painted borders of grawlix, emanata, cartoon bubbles, and other comic references. Its slightly irregular outer shape contains nesting rectangles surrounded by either blank or image-laden edges. Perhaps the closest analogy is to a page of Talmud, a heavily redacted compilation in which blocks of commentaries surround the main text and other notes and cross references are in the margins. I play with my own visual commentaries and digressions, expanding around a principal body of text, color, or image. My use of nesting or framing rectangles adds to its recursiveness, a characteristic of the work Silent Projection, as well. Silent Projection contains a blurry white spray painted movie screen shape within a yellow rectangle, within a white spray square, within another faint white rectangle, each successively less distinct until the clear edges of the rectangular vinyl support meet the wall.
The multiplicity of edges (its recursiveness and repetition) and the spatial detours this allows, will, ideally, create an expanded space with open borders. I am unwilling to use the edge as an absolute boundary. The edge may be the line between painted space and the world, but in the painter’s world that line can be crossed with impunity. The edge, even in its absence, has a defining role in my work. It can open up to receive the world or circumscribe and contain it.