With their economy of materials- raw canvas, staples, picture hanging wire, found picture frames – the paintings of Doris Purchase exude an enigmatic and compelling presence that suggests a meditation upon the nature of Painting, its history, and its infinite capacity for poetic exploration.
The first thought for many people upon viewing these works may be the question of whether they could, in fact, be called paintings at all. Surely, it could be argued, they are more akin to sculpture – broadly rectangular, wall hung, twelve inch deep canvases, punctured in the middle with actual picture frames which delineate a literal void space, mostly revealing the wall behind. Indeed the absence of actual paint (other than white gesso applied in various ways to the canvas or the coloring of the frames) might further suggest to some viewers that these artworks are not paintings. Other viewers might concede that these artworks are hybrids, somewhere between Painting and Sculpture.
Yet in addition to their direct aesthetic, material and experiential characteristics, it is precisely through their engagement with the critical discourse, the philosophical, historical, and expressive scope of serious Painting, that these works can be most fully understood and their power as advanced art revealed.
With a culturally dominant position over centuries, Painting has developed a rich body of visual language and discourse, a vocabulary that now seems infinite despite the various deterministic critical positions from the mid 20th century onwards. These either sought to proclaim the “death of Painting” or sought to present fields of practice such as Installation, Conceptual, and Performance Art as Zeitgeist practices that superceded Painting and Sculpture in contemporary relevance. As the parameters of serious painting became more fluid and often segued into these areas of practice, ideas of what Painting could be, occupied a much bigger tent.
The paintings of Doris Purchase assume benefit from this history, and indeed superficially, they could be seen as being in dialogue with the American Minimalism of the 1960s and early 1970s which eschewed relational composition in favor of symmetry, espousing a neutrality or absence of color, and favoring the square or simple orthogonal geometric forms. Yet in significant other aspects, Purchase’s work is the antithesis of Minimalism. She uses the traditional constituents of the painted canvas, and opposes the industrial and readymade materials favored by Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Dan flavin and other members of the minimalist movement. Even where Purchase does make use of the picture frame as found-object / readymade, she does so because it forms part of the historical vocabulary of painting as art object.
Typically in her work the frame is placed centrally, on and within, the artwork, and delineates a literal void or space beyond the frame, which, let us not forget, is an actual found-object frame. This use of the literal in space does echo minimalist practice, yet in her work, Purchase subverts that usage. Whereas they eschewed metaphor and symbolism, Purchase reinstates the idea of the frame to a painting as a window into another reality – or rather she insets that metaphorical or symbolic reference into works, which in other ways, imbue the artwork as a whole, with a sense of material, or constructed, objecthood.
In his seminal treatise De Pictura, published in 1450, the Italian Renaissance Artist / Historian, Leon Battista Alberti, first formulated the idea of a painting frame constituting a window to the world :
First of all, on the surface which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen. ( 1.19)
From the Renaissance onwards, De Pictura ( On Painting ) has been a compelling presence on realist and mimetic tropes in Painting. For Doris Purchase, her use of the frames in her work has multivalent purpose; its literal presence is within her concept of marshalling the constituents of painting as material elements, yet undoubtedly she sees the frames, and indeed the library of materials that she uses, as having reference to the world outside the paintings:
…….these pieces are inversions. They are about unearthing the hidden and bringing the raw materials of a painting to the fore: the canvas, wire, staples and gesso come to life and the viewer is invited to contemplate the myriad of sources that bring a piece of art together, from the pickers of the cotton for the canvas to the miners of the metals in the wire, the trees that were felled to make the frame and the sunshine and rain that sustained them.
These artworks isolate and gather the specific material elements that are traditionally used to create a gessoed canvas prepared for the act of painting; then, omitting the act of painting, they add the traditional presentational elements of the frame and hanging wire to the lexicon. In each work, all of these elements are then reconfigured and assembled in different ways specific to that artwork. Purchase deconstructs the constituents of Painting but then reconstructs. In each artwork she reconstructs to poetic effect.
The ancient Greek term Poiesis ( ποίησις ) from which we derive the word poetry, broadly emphasizes the act of making, a bringing into being of something that did not exist before. By conjuring an idea of Painting without using paint, by reconfiguring its constituents, Purchase invites the viewer to consider its essence as a site of poetic possibility. By omitting paint from the equation, she can recontextualize other elements: thus the hanging wire formations across the void, enclosed by the frames, articulate a sense of a figure / ground relationship, traditional to most painting. The hanging wire is often arranged horizontally, suggesting an horizon, a landscape.
It is true that, enclosing a literal void beyond the wire, the frames themselves bring the viewer not to a sky, but to the wall behind. Yet there is a romanticism to this work, a sense of silent, timeless presence not unrelated to work by Caspar David Friedrich. They invite a meditation upon absence and presence. Absent are the rhetorical devices of Painting but present are the psychic traces of our understanding of what Painting can be. They are icons that juxtapose a sense of the transcendental possibility that Painting has often embodied, with a recognition of the visceral and material reality of Painting’s constituents. They are, in fact, the opposite of determinist iterations of Painting history as a linear trajectory leading to the so-called “death of painting”; at heart, they are poetic reconfigurations of the constituents of Painting, promulgating and celebrating it as a site and art form of endless possibilities.
Geoffrey Nawn 2021
© Geoffrey Nawn All Rights Reserved.
© All Photographs by Doris Purchase. All rights reserved.