Some notes regarding painting, the (female) body and “Plastic Automatism”
“What keeps me painting
is the complete feeling of repulsion I experience
on looking at my “finished” pictures.”
Grace Hartigan, 1951
Regardless of color or appearance and in spite of my surrealist inclinations, my paintings are the result of what was coined “Plastic Automatism” by Robert Motherwell. PA has two essential components: automatism and improvisation. Pure psychic automatism as developed by Andre Bréton is my starting point. Put simply: I never know what I’m going to paint. I may start with mundane a desire as wanting to experiment with the color green. The initiating throb, however, can also be a bodily sensation of something swinging urging me to exploring it further with paint on surface. So I’m not necessarily starting off with an image, although that, of course, can also happen. Further steps are gestural and improvisational in nature: automatic motoric movements. This is the second component of PA. I swing, press, rapidly scratch, stroke and strike without mental preconception. Let’s say, propelled by an initial throb, the basic silhouette of a woman, eyes of an unknown male spectator or insect appears on the canvas. I consider this “apparition” the product of automatism. Next my bodily movements take over in developing the picture. Like gender or drag, I see this process as “performance.” Again I’m not trying to push my movements in any particular direction. I’ve tried many times to go full abstract as some of my colleagues suggested I should do. Alas, whether I like it or not, there’s always a figure appearing on the panel. Often, the shapes of the apparition surprise me: why would anyone want to paint a scary looking insect? I also experience horror or disgust. I don’t feel these latter emotions are necessarily only mine. My pictures may be communicating what Franco-Belgian writer and visual artist Henri Michaux referred to as the “petals of the unsayable.” Abstract expressionist painter Philip Guston related that his paintings communicated that what we usually don’t talk about: the not-yet-said. All this strikes me as valuable for deeper investigation, either artistically or psychologically but preferably both.
In sum it is this added aspect of Jazz-style improvisation – allowing the unconscious to use the body in a free style way to further the imagination – that turns psychic automatism into plastic automatism, and forms the basis of my praxis.
In my view Abstract Expressionist gestural improvisation is a much-needed addition to surrealist praxis. Surrealist painters of old seemed to premeditate their whimsical juxtapositions or ocular dream-objects a bit too much for my taste. This feels too cognitive, calculated and well contoured. Where’s the surprise?
An outstanding exception to this ocular conception of automatism, of course, is Roberto Matta. In the late 1930’s he tried relentlessly championing automatism as a generative idea. He was one of the few European surrealists (though technically he was Chilean) who intermingled freely with Abstract expressionist painters such as Arshile Gorky, and experimented fusing automatism with improvisation. I think this is very noticeable in his work.
Another rather fascinating exception was Catalan painter Joan Miro. Miro used the materiality of his medium to guide his creativity. What’s splendid is that he kept on working on a picture until “he felt physically good about it, pretty much like a gardener.” He didn’t look for an image or juxtaposition but a physical sensation. When the picture wasn’t “right” he said it made him feel physically unwell. I find this an exceptionally valuable way to approach both automatism and painting. No need to think it all out. It’s the physical that will allow one to bypass deliberate interventions from the cognitive mind and prevent vulgarized ideas about painting to guide one’s praxis.
In my own praxis, the repetitive appearances of disfigured female bodies; pregnant or in labor, insectoid, dead, robotic, brought back to life by mechanical or occult means, fragmented or post-human, encourages me to speculate that somehow it is my unconscious channelling how the Occidental gaze “Frankensteins” the image of the female body: it chops and sews or glues different body-parts together in its preferred Western composition. My unconscious in cahoots with my body seems to lead my creative impulses toward dismembering this process of Franksteining the (female) body, and re-membering limbs, heads, breasts, eyes and vaginas into a painting of my very own singular hybrid way of seeing. At times, the pictures seem to reflect a movement toward androgyny. Again, this is food for thought. Looking at my canvasses, my brain bebops spontaneous associations about women in America using tremendous amounts of (opiate) painkillers. Femininity in Western C/culture is aching and, perhaps, this hurt is felt physically. Culture is like sandpaper rubbing on skin. Woman’s spectre is going leprotic, resembling a bag of flesh in need of refrigeration not different from the meat we ogle at the butcher’s. These appear to be the messages the dissected and reassembled female figures on my paintings yearn to convey. I wish I could paint voluptuous attractive women. These, however, don’t emerge in my mind’s eye. My painting praxis forces me to conclude that, like, for instance, photographers such as Diane Arbus, Roger Ballen or Graciela Iturbide’s, my passions travel toward the grotesque and the abject. Is this one more avenue worthy of exploration?
Because I don’t want to use the word the “unconscious” in a frivolous way but neither want to loose myself in needless and irrelevant extrapolations, I’d like to shortly mention what this beast of a concept means to me. First of all, I don’t adhere to any school-specific idea of the unconscious. Instead I see it as a specific geography of the body-mind construct. This particular territory, like Lorca’s “dark space” from which the duende emanates, forecloses “the sayable.” This means that its contents aren’t easy if at all possible to talk about. At the same time it also houses “objects” – as defined by various psychoanalytic schools: “metaphor and metonymy” as defined by Lacanian theory, “archetypes” etc. as defined by Jungian theory, “the internalized mother, other internalized parental figures, caregivers and people” as defined by Kleinian theory and lastly as a “reservoir of supressed contents and affects” as defined by Freudian theory. Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch saw his paintings as not communicating something from and to the eyes, but as communicating something from the mind to the mind. Similarly my praxis generates an “intermediate space” in which images seem to want to communicate something from the unconscious mind to the unconscious mind (of the viewer).
Lastly something about theoretical psychoanalysis: I know the current Zeitgeist isn’t favorable (to say the least) to the notion of the unconscious and neither to psychoanalysis in general. Personally, I see Freud and psychoanalysis bashing as a deliberate neoliberal project to render the individual as pure surface lacking depth. This way the human being becomes a vulnerable peon in this gigantic feudal reservoir of employees – the cognitariat – called “the West.” I went against the current and chose to train in psychoanalysis. I could have chosen more fashionable and lucrative psychotherapeutic orientations such as cognitive-behavioural psychology but I didn’t. Was it a good decision? Psychoanalysis didn’t make me rich, but I think my training (including a didactic analysis of three years three times a week) and ten years of having worked in the psychotherapeutic field operates as a prophylactic. Said differently: critically informed psychoanalytic theory and praxis is my space suit in a rather toxic civilization, my chosen way to linguistically radicalize myself. Surrealism is another space suit serving similar purposes. Surrealism as well is under attack.
Ending here by coming back to painting: if the desire of my unconscious points in the direction of further elaborating De Kooning’s mutilated Madonnas, I humbly follow that, in spite of neither Bill nor his paintings being surrealist. That the decomposing and reassembled hybrid female bodies of my pictures appear on one of the most tragic shapes of Western civilization, the rectangle, (as TV, smartphone, mirror, window) doesn’t seem at all like a coincidence to me.
.Originally trained in clinical psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, Giorgia Pavlidou is an American writer and painter intermittently living in the US and Greece. She received her MA in literature from Lucknow University, India and her MFA from MMU Manchester, UK. Her work has recently appeared in such places as Caesura, Lotus-Eater, Zoetic Press, Maintenant Dada Journal, Puerto del Sol, Entropy, Thrice Fiction and has a chapbook forthcoming with trainwreck press. She is an editor of SULΦUR literary magazine and The Room. Before devoting herself completely to writing and painting, she worked as a clinical psychotherapist for about ten years.