Excavating Illuminations

Scratching the textured surfaces of Tammy Griffin’s ‘Intimate CircuitsUntitled, (resin), 2005 : Oils, mixed media and electronic components on canvas, 940 x 720mm
by Dina Zoe Belluigi

By creating a kind of magical fantasy space, Tammy Griffin has conjured a child-like world in which the distant world of aesthetics is momentarily displaced.  When first encountering ‘Intimate Circuits‘, the viewer experiences a spontaneous and direct engagement with the blinking, slowly flickering works.  Disarmed of the usual aesthetic tools, one cannot be blamed for thinking that one is suddenly looking at portions of the earth from space, where the artificial lights have become stars and planets.

Reading these images becomes a kind of archeological excavation, where one discovers layer upon layer of embedded light objects, deeply pierced pins, traces of words and lines – covered by heavy impasto paint or resin and further obscured by the absence of strong light. The small, randomly-patterned lights act as moments and movements of revelation.  But as these lights reveal and illuminate, they also obscure.  Because the nature of each work involves flickering light and shadow, the presence of the work is tenuous.  As the lights move and dance over the textured ground, one fails to grasp a ‘fixed’ impression
of the work.

Many of the surfaces evidence an interest in the alchemic potential of materials to transform themselves. Untitled (Maquette) is covered in sinuous threads which read as salt-encrusted spider webs, while Untitled (Blue) suggests the arrested flow of matter as it disperses from the planet-like orb.  Silk, fiberglass netting, wires and even spectacle lenses are integrated into the surface of Untitled (Component 2006).  And the surface of Untitled (My dad is…), with its various components, emulsions and textures, alludes to maps of the earth’s surface.

The titles give one a faint sense of what the works are about and Griffin too is elusive as to each work’s history.  This is not unlike ‘light artist’ Dan Flavin, who kept his works untitled but dedicated each work to a person or experience.  Interestingly, most of these electronic abstract works Griffin began as portrait studies.  But the realistic illusion of subjectivity, as in the standard view of portraiture, has become a textured abstract surface.  The portraits (or intimate details such as hands) would be first sketched from a photograph or study in various materials, such as charcoal, pencil, pastels or acrylic paint.  The canvases would be built up and then scratched out, covered and uncovered, constructed and destroyed compulsively.  From the remaining marks and inscriptions, in a process she calls “the face talks back”, Griffin developed the abstract paintings.  While these portraits may be of people she sees as her conscious or unconscious ‘family’ (relatives and artists), in them subjectivity is hidden or denied as the artist performs a process somewhere between acting out and repression.

The work Untitled (Resin) Griffin reveals “is embedded in the study of my brother and his child” but only traces of this source image remain visible to the viewer.  The realistic oil painting she struggled with over a long period of time was primarily constructed with gougings from a palette knife. Later she placed lights in a glue bed outlining the shapes, tones and contours of the portraits – a halo of lights that moved the work into the abstract.
She sees this work as scratching beneath the impression of the portrait.  Similarly in Untitled (My dad is…), begun in 2004, Griffin initially covered the canvas with writing in a type of therapeutic exorcism where the intimate complications of the relationship could now only be revealed by X-ray.

Griffin describes the process as “like looking at clouds” – where unconscious thoughts, premonitions, images and words evolve beyond their trigger.  Included in this are images from the Iraq war, but where the unpleasant or complicated is erased and deconstructed into other images (such as the alchemic tree), to move beyond the particular detail to a state of what the artist calls “calmness”.  This suggests in her process of abstraction, moments of the sublime experience – what can be described as an interest in what is beyond the grasp of the self and an inclination to lose the self in extensions of the ungraspable and unattainable.  At these moments she could be seen to engage with the canvas as a surrogate for the ‘other’ she is trying to portray or communicate with.  There is a sense though, that the desire for rebirth, renewal or reconciliation that is negotiated over and over again in each work, cannot be fulfilled and will always be deferred.

While some of the works are abstract negotiations in various traditional and non-traditional mediums, I was most intrigued with Griffin’s inclusion of the randomly patterned small lights or diodes. She explained that she began these particular works in a bid to understand communication in the 21st century.   The first of this series, Untitled (101 + 1 = 6), grew from sketches of the backs of her partner and her son as they worked and played on their computers, an electronic world which she felt she could neither access nor comprehend. In her search to understand what was at the heart of such technology, Griffin realized that in so many different electronic contexts, as information is processed or communication occurs, a light flashes.  Thus it is on more than one level that the viewer is only revealed the tip of the works’ iceberg. Behind the seemingly chaotic painted or resined surfaces, heavily imbued with the artist’s hand, is an ordered, structured and highly controlled back which controls the ‘random’ flashes.  So while the works may seem playful, underlying them is a calculated grid of wires, synapses and computer micro-processors.

Unearthing glimpses of the artist’s process behind these abstractions, I am left scratched from the pins and wires, with white oil paint, resin and flecks of day-glo beneath my finger tips.  The works before me though, as with most abstract art pieces, deny easy interpretation and stand with their own independent integrity and aura within the dimly lit gallery space.