Maps to the unknown Sean O'Toole, 2011 Smac Gallery publication

The point where figuration devolves into something more primal, ambiguous, undefined, abstracted, is imprecise. Looking at Whitney McVeigh's large-scale Archaeology of Memory monoprints, works that were the outcome of physically intense and gestural labours involving repeated tearing, pressing, painting and printing on a studio floor at the NIROX artist's residency, we are privy to this imprecision, of certainty dissolving into hesitation. It is necessarily a process of loss, of disassembly, because the human eye, trained from an early age to recognise elemental geometries - circles, squares, triangles, volumes, edges - immediately finds in McVeigh's monochromatic works on paper the comfort of form: the outline of a human head.

Although nominally severed from a body, McVeigh's heads do not frighten; they intrigue. Clothed in skin and flesh, her heads exhibit distinctly human, even masculine attributes: prominent noses, strong chins, baldness. But what is not to say some of these heads, especially the more imprecisely formulated ones, those rendered in darker, fuller tones, or those less specifically outlined, where there is ghosting at the edge, that these are not depictions of feminine forms? Why is gender important anyway?

Straying from the safety of the edge, we begin to reconnoitre the turbulent interior of the heads. The scuffed landscapes are fascinating, but also a little disconcerting, especially when the forms ripen, assuming a concentrated darkness reminiscent of Kazimir Malevich's black circle from 1915. The heads also have no orifices, no eyes, no ears, we realise, nothing to suggest a sensual, sensory awareness of the world. Suddenly we feel pity, possibly even mild repulsion, as these mute forms, not a moment ago recognisably human, lapse into strangeness, become only human-like. It is at this point, when we recognise the insufficiency of looking by itself, that we begin to wonder. Seek context. Ask questions.

Who is this artist? Why did she abandon the certainty of the figure in favour of images founded on intuition and the unstable movement of paint? How does her longstanding interest in sculpture figure in these works? And what are we to infer from the context in which the artist created these abstracted studies a few kilometres from where the 2.7 million-year-old Australopithecus africanus skull of Mrs. Ples was found? Rather than make the images more decipherable, these contextual questions seem to suggest an answer that is more ambiguous, more abstracted, more imprecise.


In 1964, round about the time of the first rumblings of dissent against critic Clement Greenberg and his excessively formalist allegiance to the flattened surface of abstract paintings, Susan Sontag, then a debut novelist still working as a university teacher, wrote ‘Against Interpretation’, a brief but influential essay on the taming impulse of modern criticism and the “philistinism of interpretation”. Nearly a half-century later, Sontag’s luminous essay remains compelling, largely because of its humanist impulse and desire to cultivate the “sharpness in our sensory experience” during a time of overproduction. I found myself thinking of Sontag’s manifesto-like essay during my email exchanges with Whitney McVeigh in London, in particular when we discussed the artist’s ongoing interest in writings and interviews by other artists.

“What is important now,” writes Sontag in ‘Against Interpretation’, “is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” McVeigh has simpler way of stating this: we must learn to be open. This singular idea repeats itself constantly in McVeigh’s discussions of her practice. “It’s about existing in the marks that one’s making and being open to the unexpected and also engaging with the process,” she has offered in the past. More recently, she told me,“To work freely and openly with the materials invites unseen possibilities within the work.” Openness here speaks of an acute state of being, one that allows the artist to find poise and equilibrium during her intuitive search for an image. But I want to briefly sidetrack and concentrate on a different sort of openness for a moment.

McVeigh is a free-spirited reader, especially when it comes to reading about art. She singles out the literate statements of Robert Motherwell as especially influential; it is not hard to understand why. “The mind,” remarked Motherwell in a 1982 interview, “can’t think abstractly in paint. It only thinks in paint when there is actually paint in your hand.” Other artists who have figured prominently in her self-defined curriculum include Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois and Bill Viola, although the real list is, of course, far longer. What, I wondered during one of our exchanges, was the difference between looking versus reading as a pathway to learning and acquiring insight? “One can look at paintings and understand a great deal but a large part of my learning came from reading interviews and letters by artists,” responded McVeigh. “In these the artists reveal essentially who they are and how they came to make the work.”

There is nothing unusual about what the artist is describing here; many artists read and learn from the writings of other artists. And yet, artist writings, be they published interviews, statements, manifestoes, letters, are viewed with a suspicion bordering on contempt by art historians and, increasingly, arts and culture editors. Texts by artists, along with works of fiction inspired by art, have gradually been pushed to the outer edge of what is today understood or accepted as art criticism. In the context of the wholesale dematerialisation of art practice across the span of the twentieth century, it is surprising, at least to me, that much of what is understood as art criticism today is Catholic, hidebound and formally conservative. This is particularly true of the prescriptive, formally applied writing that grew up around painterly abstraction, arguably the most ambiguous and liberated form of painting.

All of which underscores the importance of McVeigh’s attraction to the experiential art criticism written (and spoken) by other artists. It was Marlene Dumas, the Cape Town born painter whose ink wash portraits from the last two decades help us better understand McVeigh’s own apparitional ink heads, who highlighted the seditious quality of artists’ writings: “I write about my own work because I want to speak for myself. I might not be the only authority, nor the best authority, but I want to participate in the writing of my own history.” The authority that Dumas speaks of here is different to that offered by an art historian or critic, different because it is derived from an intimate understanding of the complex thoughts and physical processes informing the creative act.

In his recent book The Craftsman, essayist Richard Sennett makes this practically applied authority the central subject of his enquiry. “Every good craftsman,” he writes, although you might want to read artist, “conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.” It is pleasingly curious to note how closely aligned Sennett’s argument, which he encapsulates in the aphorism “making is thinking”, is to McVeigh’s own thoughts and attitudes towards to making. “What interests me,” she says, “is how many artists address the accident. A painting unfolds, forms emerge and break and then something altogether new appears. Jasper Johns talks about using the letter A simply as a geometric device to divide the picture plane reiterating that it’s up to the artist to discover and make up his own rules.” In other words, every solution is its own complication, a difficulty that also leads to a resolution.


Although born in New York, McVeigh grew up in London, where her family relocated when she was seven. A graduate of the Edinburgh College of Art, where she studied portraiture and figure drawing, closely she says, the artist has also previously lived in the Scottish capital for twelve years. While by no means an itinerant person ? she has two adolescent children and works from a studio in Willesden Green in northwest London ? these formative years inculcated in McVeigh an ease with new and unfamiliar places that has proven important during her semi-nomadic wanderings as a professional artist. “Travelling,” says McVeigh, who has spent significant periods in Europe, India and China, “opens up ones mind and brings new ways of thinking.”

In 2007 she participated in a residency in China that would introduce her to an entirely new mode of working. At a market one day she found a collection of worn, bound copies of old medical texts, which she bought, dismantled and painted onto.?

“Since then I’ve continued to collect texts, old manuscripts, invoices, deeds, newspapers and political magazines from the different countries I’ve travelled in and am working on the surfaces, bringing together text and image by responding to the existing content,” she explains. This exhibition includes a series of intuitively achieved images overlaid onto old documents McVeigh found in a warehouse in central Johannesburg and pawnshops in the vicinity of the NIROX artist’s residency, north-west of Johannesburg. “It’s quite something discovering books that have been neglected and passed through hands and time,” she states. “There is an intimacy about them and somehow they appear to have an energy and life of their own.” The resulting works are unmistakably from the same constellation as William Kentridge’s chine-coll? works on found paper, for example Portage (2000). But where Kentridge’s processional black silhouettes derive from his films, McVeigh’s figures and marks are instinctive responses, not in any predetermined.

An artist deeply interested in automatism and the subconscious mind, China, with its centuries old calligraphic traditions, also offered the artist a self-reflexive insight into her creative process. Aside from the abstracted figurative works that are, in som e senses, a mainstay of her oeuvre, McVeigh has also produced a number of purely abstract, gestural works on paper that allude to the defining influence of Robert Motherwell, but also resemble, superficially at least, Eastern calligraphy. The latter comparison is not unproblematic. A taut balance between rote practice and exuberant release, Eastern calligraphy is, as McVeigh discovered on her trip to China, an expression of facility (with the brush) and a performance (or choreographed psychological release). “There’s no such thing as randomness for it’s own sake.” By contrast, the random forms of particularly New York School abstract expressionists embraced randomness as artists searched to evoke, in McVeigh’s words, “vast psychological landscapes that explore all aspects of the psyche”.

Like the word “open”, which functions as shorthand for describing a working process aimed at achieving psychic poise and release, in conversation McVeigh repeatedly employs the adjective “psychological” to qualify and characterise her works. Commenting, for example, on her large-scale heads, she says that while working on the Archaeology of Memory series the works increasingly began to appear to her as landscapes evocative of a distinct “psychological place quite removed from the more figurative image I’d begun with”.

This preferred adjective also repeats itself in her explanations of other works on this exhibition. For example, she describes the series of works on found paper as similarly exploratory of the psyche. “I’m interested in time and surface change through the handling and eventual decay of the pages,” she adds. McVeigh further describes her small apparitional ink heads as images achieved by “delving into the psyche and letting the images arrive of their own accord”. Although created using a different technique to the large monoprints ? the artist’s hand is solely directed by the flow of the ink as it is absorbed by the water on paper ? she describes the creative process as loaded with “psychological intent” and directed towards the “mapping of the psyche”. If McVeigh is a mapmaker, as her statement infers, what do her visual maps tell us?


In 1983 Robert Motherwell’s work was the subject of a career retrospective at the Albright-Know Art Gallery in Buffalo. Towards t he end of his favourable review of the exhibition for Time magazine, critic Robert Hughes uses a peculiar if apt expression to describe Motherwell’s splashed black surfaces: “ejaculatory splattering”. A throwaway phrase perhaps, it nonetheless touches on a question I posed earlier. Is gender important? The history of painting is marred an overtly masculine, even chauvinistic narrative that predates the free-floating interpretations prompted by abstract expressionist painting. Late in his career, responding to an enquiring journalist who wondered how he painted with his crippled hands, Pierre-Auguste Renoir caustically responded, “I paint with my prick.” Another throwaway phrase, perhaps, but cumulatively a picture begins to emerge of how the painterly gesture is interpreted.

While gender is unavoidable it does not define McVeigh’s work. Her work shares many visual correspondences with the work of male abstract expressionist painters ? and invites none of the gendered claptrap hinted at above. In this sense, it is important to look beyond gender and gendered readings of aesthetic forms, but not to forget the importance of the body in McVeigh’s work. Vija Celmins, the Latvian born American photorealist painter whose studies of seascapes and starry skies evidence a high degree of abstractedness, explains why. “The recognisable image is just one element to consider,” she has stated. “The painting seems more a record of my grappling with how to transform that image into a painting and make it alive.” This embodied (but non-chauvinist) account of the physical action is very close to McVeigh’s own descriptions of her process, which, as she is often at pains to stress, defines the visceral heart of her practice.

McVeigh’s singular colour palette also deserves attention. As is evidenced by her ongoing watercolour and acrylic studies of heads, McVeigh knows how to use colour with confidence and restraint, and yet she has increasingly also shown a preference for the stark austerity of black. In art historical terms, black has long been the preferred colour of abstract painters, from Malevich to Ad Reinhardt to Frank Stella to Celmins to Glenn Ligon. What, I asked McVeigh, is it about black and abstract painters? “I use black because it can’t be reduced,” she responds, “it’s forceful, powerful, immediate, primitive. Aside from splintering or breaking its surface to find light, there’s little in between and the negative spaces become something in themselves.” It is, in other words, a self-sufficient palette, complete in its tonal range.


Portraiture is not an overriding concern for Whitney McVeigh, although it remains an anchoring device of sorts for her. This partly owes to her training. Although schooled in drawing and portraiture at Edinburgh College of Art, McVeigh was also interested in sculpture; she was however refused permission to pursue a joint degree in sculpture and painting. Later, as she processed, adapted and gradually shed her art school teachings, producing abstract portraits that recall Cy Twombly’s gestural mark-making, she came to realise the limitations of the figure as an article of faith. “I painted to communicate something of myself,” she says, “and at times the figure held me back, forcing me to contain the image when in fact I simply wanted to be free from representation.” Her breakthrough came when she recognised her desire to establish “a very direct communication between the mind and the materials”.

“The figure is a starting point and vehicle for the painting,” she offers, “but what follows is an exploration of marks within the painting by being open to the materials. It’s a difficult thing to exist freely within a figurative work but the more successful ones for me are the paintings where there is more to them than representation.” In other words, they succeed when they are more than simply visual statements offering the consolation of easily recognisable forms, when they become maps to more than is already known and visible, and record what is thought and felt.


Colin, Barbara Flug, 2010, ‘An interview with Robert Motherwell’, Evergreen Review, March 2010. Accessed February 20, 2011.

Godfrey, Tony, 2009. Painting Today. London: Phaidon Press.

Hughes, Robert, 1992. Nothing if not Critical. New York: Penguin Books.

Nickas, Bob, 2009. Painting Abstraction: New elements in abstract painting. London: Phaidon Press.

Sennett, Richard, 2008. The Craftsman. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sontag, Susan, 1994. Against Interpretation. London: Vintage.

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