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A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE

PACIFIC NORTHWEST COLLEGE OF ART

IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF
THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
BACHELOR OF FINE ARTS DEGREE

BY

HOLLY WHITE
MAY 3, 1995

APPROVED BY

ROBERT HANSON
ADVISOR

COMMITTEE MEMBERS
ANNE JOHNSON
GREGWARE

"The grid's mythic power is that it makes us able to think we are dealing
with materialism (or sometimes science or logic) while at the same time it
provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction)
- Rosalind E. Krauss.

For my thesis, I will attempt to illustrate found and created systems by using a
grid and letting a system dictate the composition. A system, according to Webster, is "a
group of interrelated, interacting, or independent constituents forming a complex whole.''
We operate within many systems of goverrunent, religion, and culture in ways we
may or may not be aware of. Becoming aware of these man-made systems burdens us
with a responsibility for their function. Although they are imposed upon us by ourselves,
they have an evolution of their own, as if they were independent of our will. I'm
interested in how we can be both objects of these self-evolving systems as well as the
authors of them.
Consider that our thought itself may be shaped by the system of our language.
Contemporary thought, such as structural linguistics, is questioning the way we know
things. A powerful and highly controversial new science of computer programming,
fuzzy logic, is based on the way we think by allowing for more degrees of truth and
degrees of knowing. There seems to be a shift in our collective unconscious resulting
from these lines of contemporary thought. A well-known theoretical physicist, upon

reflecting on Chaos theory, says that "everything goes gray eventually. The problem is
how to get outside of the black and white box [of thinking]" to comprehend the grays.
At first, I thought that by illustrating systems, I might provide the viewer with an
intuitive means to comprehend the interrelations within a system. For example. the
spatial distribution of a color based on a probability could set up a sort of perceptual
frequency, characteristic of that probability. But I think several other issues are raised in
the process of making these "illustrations".
One is the compulsion or ritualistic act of making a repetitive image, as if the
making of a painting acc:ording to a plan or the functioning within a known arbitrary
(benign) system becomes a cradle of peace in a fuzzy, yet self-determined world. During
my thesis, I will explore the relationship of my work to ritualistic process art.
Another issue raised is that of choice within the system. I find myself distracted
from the system, by seduction of a beautiful surface, by accidents that happen on the
painting, or by circumstances that distract me from working on the painting. In resolving
these distractions, the difference between a rational aesthetic choice and a visual aesthetic
choice will become important. Ideologically, it seems incorrect for me to cover up
''accidents" that occur on the painting. I will explore this issue and its relationship to
tracings or indexes (Michelle Stuart, Lucio Pozzi). Increasing the complexity of the
system is another way to resolve distractions. To clarify this approach, I plan to explore
the work of systems artists, like Sol Lewitt and Mel Bochner.

I will limit myself to paint on a flat surface. Color. opacity, texture, or simple
shapes will be used to represent constituents of a system.

Examples of systems to be considered for illustrations:

A list of winning lottery numbers.

A distribution of a probability (work in progress)

A grid of drawings of a single object, using a single convention.

Arrangements of given shapes by a number of different people.

A grid of color associations, in sequence, by a number of different people.

A sequence of memories.

Story lines of "birth myths," as people describe them.

Systems

Questioning Systems of Composition


One night, late, in the studio, a fellow student came to me wondering whether he
had had a flash of insight into the numbered grid on my canvas or was simply exhausted.
He asked delicately if the numbers might stand in for what is normally the decisionmaking required to paint a painting. Chris Wright paints realistic still lifes and he told
me that night that only a quarter of his process is applying paint. The other three quarters
is problem solving, like a game of chess. His flawless, realistic images are magical to the
non-painter precisely because his problem solving process is invisible. Chris might be
quite aware of the reasoning behind his decisions. Another painter might make intuitive
(impulsive) compositional choices based on training and experience - tools which have
become unconscious. I'm attempting to pull that unconscious basis back out of the
darkness by substituting another system to make a composition.
During my Art School experience, I had problems creating a composition out of
my head that rang true. I tried painting my dreams, first as illusions, then as cartoons,
then as symbols or archetypes. I can' t paint my dreams, directly. I can only paint a
representation of them. As an art student I have been given the tools for such

representation by my instructors. Unfortunately, just having the tools does not make me
an artist. I have to make the tools my own, by internalizing them. The trouble I have is
sorting out which is me and which is the training. Perhaps what is me is but a collection
of internalized "tools," learned and unlearned, from childhood through schooling, and in
personal and professional relationships. In this thesis, I have attempted to isolate one of
these art tools, that of formal composition, by basing compositions on "found" patterns.

Inventing New Systems of Composition


For the purpose of this thesis, I propose that the tradition of formal composition
has no more intrinsic meaning than any other system by which we govern ourselves. As
an experiment, I have substituted other systems, which are more obviously ambiguous
than this tradition, for the formal composition. In Dream Remembrances, the system is
based on the order of remembering. In Palm Lines it is the abstract designs in 100
people's left hands. In Lotto Pattern it is random numbers generated for winning lottery
numbers.
Dream Remembrances started in my sketchbook/journal. As I remembered a
dream, I gave it a title and a small sketch, which. in tum, would remind me of another
dream, that I represented with a title and a small sketch, and so on. Recollecting dreams
has been a hobby of mine as long as I can remember. Dreams recalled from any time in
my life would trigger recollections of other dreams. If Levi-Strauss were right about the

mind having a structure, I could hope to find the structure in the pattern of remembered
dreams. I attempted this by categorizing the dreams on a spreadsheet while assigning
sequence codes to them. I didn 't know where to go from there. For the painting. I made
a grid of gesso on a square canvas. Each square in the grid is thick textured gesso.
Without reference to my dream journals, I started near the center and began recording
dreams in the order I recalled them. I scribed them into the thick gesso. one per square,
and continued horizontally until I ran out of memories. If one of the dreams earlier in the
sequence reminded me of another dream, I went back to it and followed another
sequence vertically. Then I brushed loose graphite into the scribed lines and rubbed the
excess off with various oil paint mediums and a small amount of pigment.
I started the dream sequences in various, "randomly" chosen places on the grid.
Unlike in my sketchbook, I did not allow any repeated dreams in this painting, thus some
memory sequences were interrupted when they violated this rule. By imposing this
relatively loose and simple structure, I hoped to see a subconscious system of
remembering. I never saw any pattern arise, but the process was entrancing, exercising
dream recall in a way I have learned after years of recording my dreams. In the end, what
was most interesting about making this painting was inviting the unconscious to dictate
it's contents, and, subsequently, the pattern on the grid. I had no trouble accommodating
the unconscious by documenting the dreams with simple cartoon images and titles,
especially since the images are confused and muddled (as are memories), with the
accidental texture of the gesso.

I question whether the systems we learn make us who we are. It is clear that we
are unique, even while operating on similar belief systems. Art students given identical
training will still paint uniquely. The contrast of individuality to systems that we are all
affected by is represented in Palm Lines. This system is anatomical, abstract lines arising
from unique folds in the padded undersides of our five metacarpals. For a visual
representation, the grid serves well to display an overall pattern and individual
differences at the same time. I wanted to see variance and sameness. I was also
entertaining the fantasy that our individual lines would magically make one big road map.
What if palm lines really did represent destiny? If we believed that palm lines
were road maps, would we be destined to fulfill those happenstance lines on our hands? I
think those lines are a metaphor for systems that govern our lives, either systems that we
attempt to control or systems to which we subject ourselves, such as biological impulses,
genetic heritage, religious beliefs, cultural learning, and apparently random occurrences
that determine our fate.

Attempting to live a meaningful life, I have to make sense of what makes no


sense. I have found no belief system that can encompass all the disorder I encounter. I
am constantly adapting my beliefs to account for errant new data, as well as all that I've

collected to this point. It's a continual cycle of adapting to disorder and imposing new
order. The process of painting Lotto Pattern emulated this cycle.
To build a compositional system, I chose to use a random set of numbers, that of
winning Lotto America numbers for the last five years. Making a grid structure with the
numbers was not difficult; the forty four possible winning numbers fit well as the number
of columns. The number of rows could have been the number of drawings in a year
(about 104), but that was not satisfactory to me because the calendar is a convention we
are so accustomed to that we don 't question it. Instead, I used the Golden Ratio
(1: 1.618), because it is imbued, historically, with significance, yet is obscure enough for
us to recognize that it is ultimately ambiguous (as is the calendar). Seventy four is
proportional to forty four by the golden ratio, thus the grid was given seventy four rows.
Each row represents a drawing. I put a number (starting with zero) at each coordinate
that represented a winning number for each drawing, resulting in six zeros on each line.
When I finished the last row at the bottom of the canvas, I started again at the top with a
new number, 0, O', 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5; each of these numbers represents a layer of seventy
four lottery drawings. The five years of lottery drawings added up to seven layers on the
canvas.
I assigned a gray to each number/layer, hoping that the resulting image might be
readable as an illusionistic image. The same sort of whimsical impulse that made me
want to see a giant map emerge out of palm lines had me dreaming of seeing an image, a

figure, perhaps. emerge from random numbers, especially from random numbers that
carry significance (i.e., prize money).
In the process of painting, I discovered mistakes in my transcriptions of the
numbers. The painting is very complex, and it took me several days to go over the
numbers to detect all of the mistakes. Some of the mistakes could be corrected in the
painting process. Others were irretrievable, thus I had to account for them. The
irretrievable mistakes are in the counting. At each miscounted point, the squares have
been offset, half a square up and half over, and repeated in order until the next mistake is
encountered, at which point the squares are further offset. If the miscount caused a gap,
the squares are offset backwards; if the miscount resulted in doubling up on a line, the
squares are offset forwards. There are four gaps and one doubling in this painting.
The process is analogous to evolution. The lottery numbers are to the image what
DNA is to the form of an organism. Just as a mutation alters a form without losing the
integrity of the organism, so do my mistakes in transcription alter the image without
degrading the integrity of the pattern. The system of painting Lotto Pattern had to evolve
as I adapted to my own random mistakes. My sense of conceptual coherence governs the
evolution of my painting system; the ability to survive and reproduce governs the
organism's DNA evolution.

Interference From the Unconscious

I have found that in making these paintings I operated on training both from art
school and from my technical job (as an electron microscopist at a high tech company).
Aesthetic impulses guided some of the decisions made. In Dream Remembrances, I
allowed some aesthetic response to the composition by making "random" choices of
where to start the sequences. I tried to resist further responding to the overall
composition I saw forming on the canvas, but failed. The impulse to make marks for
their formal, aesthetic was irresistible. In Palm Lines, I had a specific visual effect in
mind. I wanted delicate abstract lines and a smooth, skin-like surface. In Lotto Pattern,
the concept was the primary drive. While my choice of grays was made to allow an
illusionistic reading of the pattern, the hues and textures were aesthetic choices.
Meantime, technical impulses forced me to account for statistical variations.
Keeping the concept spotless was far more important than carefully applying paint
(especially for Lotto Pattern). As a customer of analytical data once told me, he would
rather have valid results scribbled on the back of an envelope than have to read through a
fluffy technical report for the same results.
During an interview for a technical position identical to mine a manager asked the
candidate, "Are you impulsive or compulsive?" That question hasn't left me alone since.
Compulsion: An irresistible impulse to act, regardless of the rationality of the
motivation.

Fulfilling the impulse to make an image from palm lines was not easy. I set up
rules which demanded that I draw each person's palm lines. I had to force myself to
overcome my shyness and approach strangers and acquaintances to request that they give
up the use of their left hands for several intimate minutes, holding their hands in a
receptive, and perhaps vulnerable gesture. It was as critical to collect these lines in the
prescribed manner as is was to find and account for any mistakes in the lottery painting.
The most important precept of my thesis paintings was that I stay true as true to my
intentions as possible and to account for any variation. I chose a system, then
compulsively stuck to that system. I felt it important to refrain from emotional whims.
like flooding the image with a furious red out of frustration. Constraint was paramount.
Unavoidably, however, the preliminary compositional choices were based on impulse.
We can pick apart systems, searching for the origins of our impulses, and perhaps never
find them. We can only be aware of the impulses and how we act on them, as they
compel us consciously to fulfill them .
I've discovered a dichotomy that seems to me, now, to arise from operating
simultaneously on these two systems, art training and technical training. Although each
discipline tends to emphasize one side or the other, the polarities are artificial rather than
functionally distinct. This list comes from notes I have been making in my sketchbook
all semester, when asking myself what the thesis work is about and what the questions are
that I am trying to answer. By creating this polarity, some of my struggles are made
clearer.

Discipline

Spontaneity

impulsion

compulsion
system

individuality

evolution

mutation

conscious

unconsc10us

awareness

emotion

craft

anti-craft

concentration

distraction

will power

hedonism

destiny

free will

Replacing the traditional system of formal composition with another basis for
composition revealed the complexity of making a painting. I think that the complexity of
the artist's tools, conscious and unconscious, is analogous to the complexity of the
systems by which we operate our lives. We go on making decisions on different levels,
without always understanding the basis of our decisions. To some extent, we are always
operating out of our darkness. There is no avoiding it.

Continuing the Inquiry

One path of future art work revealed to me during the process of making this
thesis work is to paint from a single still life for a year. The given painting subject would
allow the same freedom a compositional system (once it was established, and painfully
so, at times) gave me in my thesis work to explore other aspects of the painting process.
Now that I have established a complex system of composition based on random
numbers, I would like to make more paintings using the winning lottery numbers, and
other random numbers which carry real ramifications. I wonder what the lotto pattern
would look like without the mistakes. I found a computer program for digital imaging
that could read the "numbered grid" sketch for Lotto Pattern when put into a spreadsheet
and given pixel values to each of the numbers on the grid. The impulse to witness an
image magically emerging from this pattern is still with me. Blurring my vision, I would
draw whatever images I could see in the pattern. This sort of fantasy remains because I
continue to be haunted by the paradox of random numbers or events, ambiguous systems,
and happenstance lines which dare to effect our lives in very real ways.
Finally, the manifestation of the unconscious in the form of dreams continues to
be a major interest. I' m pleased to have found a new way to explore dreams, as in Dream
Remembrances, but my interest in the unconscious, and drive to unearth new ways to
expose it, is in no way exhausted.

10

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