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PROFILE: TORIE BEGG
Sally O’Reilly

The monochrome and the grid are probably two of the most intimidating aspects of Modernism’s legacy. Their abandonment of representation and eschewal of organic form is tantamount to the existential horror of infinity. Yet it is this process of dehumanisation that Torie Begg joyfully confronts. Working in series, which again reflects Modernist concerns of completion and progression, Begg orchestrates conditions in which monochromes might be reconsidered as something other than ideal abstractions.

In 1989 Begg began drawing up sets of rules that have dominated her practice ever since. Colours were chosen, formats evolved and a process nailed down with logical keenness. Three primary colours and three ‘non’ colours must be applied by brush to the canvas, six coats at a time, in unwavering sequence – red, black, blue, grey, yellow, white – with the primaries applied horizontally and the rest vertically, or vice versa. The sequence may be reversed or started at any point in the progression, so long as the coats of colour are kept in order. The six layers might be reiterated any number of times so that the painting might be made of up to 60 layers or more. The result is a complex accrual of smooth, flat paint, the eventual colour of which approximates the last coat applied, although the hidden chromatic depths are still discernible. Begg refers to a painting as ‘apparently white’ or ‘apparently grey’, according to the last colour applied.





The canvases are then restretched onto a new stretcher that is larger than the original, so that the paint that has dripped down the sides becomes part of the front picture plane, extending like the fronds of a predatory hydra. These drips give the lie to the perfection of the monochrome: it is as if the painting is showing its petticoats. The paintings are exhibited in grids of up to 1000 units, which might extend onto the floor or ceiling. The repetition and homogeneity mechanises the viewing process, decentralising the subjectivity of any individual painting, presenting an initial nightmarish vista of uniformity.

This series, the l&m series (Begg has been working her way through the alphabet ascribing pairs of letters to new processes), has been extended to include supports beyond the straightforward canvas, including metal sprung bed frames, bricks, chairs and shoes. It is interesting that, although the canvas is the ultimate art-historically-loaded support, these other objects also carry a lot of baggage. From Van Gogh or Guston to the latest student videos, chairs and shoes crop up again and again, maybe due to their ubiquity in artists’ studios, or perhaps because they are an economic evocation of human absence.

Begg paints these objects with many thin layers, again not attempting to hide the drips, wearing her process on her sleeve. Footsie –FTSE 01-143 (1999) comprises 143 apparently-red pairs of shoes, stuffed with copies of the Financial Times so that the first and last dates correspond to the time span of the making process. Beyond the immediate impact of the arch pun, the piece marks the accrual of time, literally equating the mechanics of painting to the mechanics of economic society. The geological strata of paint throughout the l&m series attests to changing conditions and the physics of making. The imprint of a ghostly crossbar might remain in the paint once it has been hung, as evidence of its floor-based manufacture. The painted surface is an end in itself, but it is also the interface at which we can ascertain its own history. It is both an illusory fiction and a hard physical fact, like guano.

Occasionally a series of monochromes will be accompanied by an arrangement of painted objects. Andy Electric Chair (1996) consists of three pairs of red shoes, in a range of sizes from child to adult, under an apparently-red chair and toaster placed in front of a large, apparently-red painting. The space between the objects and the painting provides a gap across which the viewer must construct a narrative or formal reasoning. There is an immediate thematic reference to Warhol, as well as a formal echo of Bertrand Lavier’s painted fridge and fire extinguisher. However, whereas Lavier was glorifying objects by sousing them in crepuscular paint, Begg’s is a process of degradation. Her objects become parodies of themselves as they struggle with art historical baggage and a knowing, contemporary attitude.

In her most recent apparently abstract series, n&o, Begg has reversed the position of the monochrome and the dripped edge of the canvas. By painting the edges of the canvas at angles, the pigment drips down over the frontal picture plane so that the painting is made up entirely of ‘accidents’. The colours criss-cross and overlap, creating an illusory vista of wild tartan which, when restretched onto the larger stretcher, is bounded by strips of ‘apparent monochromes’. In this series the tradition of painting is turned on its head once again, with the undesirable mess becoming the main event.

Begg suggests that she is creating authorless work, that the viewer is placed in the ultimate position of interpreter. Yet, I would argue, there is a level of orchestration here similar to that of the hyper-text novel that invites you to make choices at nodal points in the plot. The author has put all the alternatives in place so that, although the viewer has the illusion of free-will, the result is pre-determined to some extent. In Begg’s case, the switch between certain poles – such as the objectified painting and painterly object, the rehearsed process and the expressive gesture – is carefully choreographed. The viewer is empowered to decide which half of the dualism is prominent.

Sally O’Reilly

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