Part 4, project 2, research task

To quote the course materials, this exercise is to “gain experience in working with very different source material and gain confidence in working with e-journals” and to gain a deeper understanding of “how artists ‘know’ their subject and how they use that knowledge.”

The two references are:

Donachie, Kaye. 2016. Behind her eyelids she sees something […]. J Contemporary Painting, 2, 1, pp11-20. Intellect.

Morley, Simon. 2016. A ‘shimmering thing at the edge of analysis’: figure/ground and the paintings of Agnes Martin. J Contemporary Painting. 2, 1, pp 39-56. Intellect.

The links in the course materials are not active but I was able to access these via OCA library and eventually download the pdfs via the Ex Libris site.

Donachie’s publication is described a ‘visual essay’ in the oddly self-referential third person abstract which, in fact, is all there is with regard to text. The images ‘share pictorial research that focuses on the writings of Marguerite Duras’ which seems to require some familiarity with that body of work, of which none is actually referenced, so I ran some searches. A key novella, The Lover, stands out. This is described as a ‘highly fictionalised’ account of Duras’ ‘youthful affair’ with a ‘Chinese-Vietnamese’ man which was published in 1984 and became a film in 1992.

I have neither read the book nor seen the film – if in fact this is the work Donachie’s essay is based on – and so it’s difficult to set the images in context. Nevertheless, visually, they are ethereal and feature a woman’s head in profile, and what appears to be the hand or hands of women. Donachie uses painted cyanotypes to achieve this delicate transparency and luminance, which may have resonance with the source material.

Presumably, Donachie has read the work in question, and perhaps also followed up with a more comprehensive picture of Duras’s life to seat herself alongside those remote experiences. It’s hard to tell and Donachie gives us no clues, which I find irritating at best. It’s hard to imagine that I would get less out of this paper with the benefit of some insight as to its formative drives.

For the second paper by Simon Morley, I really needed some background on Agnes Martin because I had nothing available to me in terms of imagery or social context.

These videos were very helpful:

This first video, in which two (unnamed) people – experts? curators? journalists? aficionados? -look at Martin’s work, gives me detailed close ups and descriptions of how the work is framed that I wouldn’t get from just finding the images outside that context. There is also a great deal of post hoc speculative attribution and unchallengable opinion which I wonder about. What would Martin have made of this?

This second 2015 video is much more personal. Martin speaks here about her work and for me the overwhelming impression is of someone who has spent a lifetime looking for ways to slow down, stabilise, and pin down her visual world. To discover later that she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia didn’t surprise me – there is something of the ASMR calming effect in looking at her work and the way she went about it – a small initial postage stamp sized mental image, resized using ‘complicated mathematics’ to the very large canvases she used, and then the slow, methodical, application of paint, grids, horizontals and verticals, must have been a haven of focus for a mind that may not have endured noise very well. She talks of images ‘coming’ to her and describes them as spiritual. I would say this is how the unconscious works; stop thinking, chasing the idea, and your bubbling unconscious will throw something up onto your conscious, linear, conveyor belt for you [see Default Brain Network].

Morley’s paper is an interesting stitching together of a number of psychological and neurophysiological concepts pertaining to visual perception. The history is sound – Gestalt psychology had formative ideas about the what of perception, how humans (and latterly other animals) make sense of our visual environment; and other observations regarding figure ground discrimination – how we decide what is in front or behind something else when we’re essentially constructing a 3D world from 2D light. Again, the ideas are sound because they are empirical – make something indistinct and it will ‘become’ background because of the priority given to sharp images once the signals get into the brain. How that works is down to the neurology of the retina – cones in the middle of the retina, the fovea, that are collectors of light in our familiar spectrum having a one-to-one relationship to the central neurones they feed; and rods around the rest of the retina which are good at picking up tiny points of light but not colour and which feed the central neurones as small collectives, meaning they’re less precise. This is why we see things out of the corner of our eye in the shadows then can’t spot it when we turn to look. Probably the root of a good many ghost stories and other scares!

So we’re primed to understand blurry things as being far away and sharp things as close, which works well as long as we’re in a familiar environment (and not on the moon, for instance*) and have anchors so that we know where in the physical space we are. And this is a property of vision artists regularly employ to create the illusion of depth and distance in paintings.

Some of Morley’s speculations about cognitive neuroscience I suspect are a little dated. The most recent is Kahneman 2011 which, given that this is a 2016 paper, was respectable at the time, although Kahneman is an expert in decision making and judgment, not in neuroscience. It’s a valid inclusion but there are probably better references with regard to the whole left-brain/right-brain idea which has come under fire in recent years. That said, it probably makes less difference to a paper in this context than it would in a psychology journal.

Freud also makes an appearance and I really do wish artists and writers would stop doing this. The idea that ‘libidinal subversion’ and ‘bodily drives’ constitute an ‘ego shattering energy’ that ‘threatens the stability of the visual gestalt’ is unsubstantiated speculation at best and nonsensical verbiage with no theoretical value at worst.

Coming back to Agnes Martin though; a great deal is said here on her behalf and without any sense that she has had input to it. As a solitary person, what would she feel or have felt about this kind of projection of opinion and framing of her working process? I recall a writer responding to speculations about the reason the curtains in her novel were blue was to do with depression, the sea, or to subconsciously set the mood of the protagonist by saying ‘I just like blue’. As Freud may or may not have said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Connecting the two essays I think requires appreciation of the context of the first – the novella upon which the images are based. Without that, the images make little sense beyond their delicacy and translucence. There are clearly background and foreground elements, achieved, to my eye anyway, almost as if they’re cut-outs trapped under different layers of glass. Some are negatives – so bright as to have no central texture, only an outline; although in fact none of the elements have solidity, they’re all two dimensional whatever the level of pigment. They are all flat. They are all contained. So in this respect, boundaries are set for us and our looking. We can’t get lost and although there is some misting in some of them, and blooming of pigment across spaces, we are anchored in this flat world with, for me anyway, just the tiniest sense of depth derived from the placement of elements in ways suggesting a series of glass plates. It probably doesn’t help that the images are available via PDF and so the quality is likely only to be as good as the end result of a string of technologies – the initial photographic or scanning process, the receiving screen, and the printer.


*see NASA’s colour adjusted video of Mars Jezero crater, shifted towards blue to make it easier for scientists to use their everyday experience to interpret the landscape.

Marguerite Duras 1914-1996 [online] Accessed 22nd February 2022.

Default brain network; e.g. Buckner, R.L. 2013. The brain’s default network. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2013 Sep; 15(3): 351–358. [online] Accessed 22nd February 2022.

ASMR. Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. A sensation experienced by many people as tingling in the scalp, the back of the neck, and the spine in response to certain auditory and visual stimuli. [online] Available at,the%20neck%20and%20upper%20spine.&text=A%20genre%20of%20videos%20intended,published%20on%20YouTube%20by%202021. Accessed 22nd February 2022.

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