Lassitude before Words

Joe Scanlan, 1988

British artist Avis Newman’s giant unstretched canvases—some as large as nine by fourteen feet—are a speculative record of subconscious, fragmented desires as her consciousness sees and recalls them. These recollections are transcribed through the artist’s hand onto paper and canvas as heavy lines, ambient tonal fields, and rough scratchings. Amidst these elements, drawings of female forms can be partially seen. These figures—as well as lizards, horses, arrows, and hieroglyphics—can be discovered or lost depending on viewer’s distance and perspective.

Newman shares an affinity with the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice through the muses. Their influence in the form of creative desire inspires the constant pursuit of an elusive object. The Object for Orpheus is Eurydice; for Newman it is her subconsciousness, her daily life retained and transformed as in dreams. Through drawing, Newman expresses her desire to “look back”, to see and discover the object of her desire. Her subconscious thus parallels the role of Eurydice in that it symbolizes the object of her (Orpheus’s) gaze. The difference being that Orpheus was a man gazing back at a woman; Newman is a woman gazing into herself. This results in her subconscious being marked out on canvas, a physical evidence of an inner self. Thus these drawing symbolize Newman’s search for an “other” identity within herself, her conscious desire looking within her subconsciousness. But as in the myth, Newman loses her desire by looking for it, and hence loses her identity in the process. Newman’s drawings manifest the conflicting sensations of desire, dread and loss which characterizes this tragic Greek myth.

These drawings are also evidence of Newman’s interest and effort in making the subconscious physical and tangible. Newman knows through Freud that this is not possible except through association. Thus Newman heightens our awareness of the conscious process of association by varying her use of images and symbols. When scanning these canvases both up close and from a distance we pause alternatively on marks or groups of marks which trigger recognition: a crouched figure, a lizard, genitals. Other findings may occur which are more personal and unique, all of which involve us in the interaction and completion of the drawings. As it is never possible to see an “entire’ drawing at any one instance, their elusive “wholeness” can only come to us through time, and through our recognition and memory of what we are seeing, and have seen.