Art@ICSS
Tessa Coe 2015

 

 

The only constant in life is change.     Heraclitus c500 BC

 

Engaging with Complexity


My painting practice throughout the complexity paintings involves a series of experiments. Each experiment is a painting, the development of which mimics a scenario that is played out a myriad times, every moment. I'm talking about the phenomenon of 'emergence' which is the term used by scientists to describe the behaviour of any complex system which self organises in unpredictable ways. Complex adaptive systems (like a woodland, or your immune system) acquire an unpredictability from the sheer number of entities interacting with one another. They are not closed systems but are the stuff of life and of living, and require energy to unfold. 
Since computers are fantastic at managing huge numbers of calculations, science uses this power to replicate real world complex system behaviour. Computer models are based on simple rules and a simplified representation of a real world system's parts. Running a program based on such a  model is called a simulation.
Each entity within such a model is assigned a set of appropriate characteristics, and some rules of engagement are chosen. These rules specify which entities are allowed to interact with each other, or with the environment, and how these interactions will effect the values of the characteristics of all those involved. Results from running such a computer simulation, allows the investigator to compare how good the model is in depicting the real world. The constituents and the rules of the model can then be altered in order to try to improve that likeness. Observing how rule changes improve the real world behaviour of a model, can give a valuable insight into what is really happening 'out there'.
In some sense all painting is and always has been, a model of the real world. Jackson Pollock, in reply to being asked about the relationship between his work and nature said 'I am nature'; implying that everything he did, including his painting, was part of the fabric of the natural world. He did not need to specifically depict it. My paintings are performed in paint as if the developing image on my canvas were that of a complex adaptive system. They are painted simulations.

Motifs and mind games.


Starting any experiment requires a set of initial conditions. These are important and can affect hugely the outcome. So just as a computer model needs to choose which characteristics to include in the model and what values to give them, I need to set up my canvas. 
Starting a painting requires marks to be made, marks which even if covered over at a future date, still have an influence on what remains. I begin with a random* couple of colours with which to paint an underlying background. (Throughout the text, random* does not mean mathematically random, but is the general-use meaning of the word). I use no texture, just a flat colour wash. This is my empty environment. 
Next I must choose a population. For these I choose small circles of random* colour, arranged very closely to one another so that the impact of near neighbouring colours is strong, as is the impact of the colour of a circle against the background. There are no gaps other than the tiny ones between neighbouring circles. Gaps are large enough however for their colour to have some affect on surrounding circles and to be seen as part of a larger colour field, when the canvas is viewed as a whole. I now have the structure of my populated environment.
The motif of the circle has been chosen for its universality and its simplicity. However, I have chosen to paint my circles in a particular way; they are not perfectly round and not always quite closed. Nor do I put my circles in any regular pattern, they are just placed closely together. This lack of perfection and completeness allows the painting to feel organic, and implies a situation where change is possible. Indeed making a painting from a set of perfect circles aligned on a grid would look too much like computer graphics for my purpose. I want a human, hands-on intervention in the production of the painting. I want it to be in part, performance art. After all 'I am Nature'! So I am regarding what happens on my canvas as an analogue of the unfolding evolution of a complex adaptive system. 


My game, my rules - self imposed constraints


Constraints are necessary to the making of a piece of art, as they are in real life, or in a computer model. The constraints I have imposed upon myself are my rules for painting this series of work. I have chosen my simple circular motif, and must now decide a way to use it throughout the painting process. After their initial application to the canvas, circles do not get created or destroyed, during the making of the painting. Instead, they participate in the performance by being frequently over-painted with a new colour, a new value. A colour change is the result of interactions with neighbours, and can be applied to circles, to the background, or to both. The new colour may be transparent, or may not overlap exactly the colour beneath, so that a history of the painting process can to a certain extent be discerned.
I move around the canvas in steps. At each step I work on an area of the canvas chosen at random*, or more realistically, that has caught my eye. I apply a new colour to some of the circles in and around the chosen area. The choices of colour and which circles to paint, are made as a direct result of my response to the area from up close. Sometimes I strive to harmonise the change with the original, sometimes I strive to challenge it. Using my aesthetic judgement  I allow all the nearby relationships between background and circles, and between circles and their neighbours, to affect a change of colour. It may be that I decide to use a contrasting colour for some circles, or a similar colour but a variation in tone.  I might also decide to alter the background colour in the region. There are a myriad of such thoughts. After some time, another area will catch my attention and I will repeat the process there.
My aim is to have no great overall plan at these 'up close' steps as I allow a mixture of whim and judgement to rule. The original colour and design of areas may be quite hard to see by now, but some history can still be tracked back through the painted surface.


Defining the end game - the bigger picture


After so many steps that I feel I need to assess what is going on, I stand back and take a long time looking. It is here that I want to invoke some rules that define an overall direction for my painting. Biological systems constantly adapt to the tune of some evolutionary or genetically predefined criteria. As environments change, the entities within an environment (who are both actors in, and co-creators, of the environment) reach some balance with each other that is a temporary best case scenario that persists until conditions change once more.
 I want to make my 'finished' painting have the sense that something of note involving the entire canvas (and even beyond), is taking place. The best case scenario may not yet be reached, but we may be on the way. So I'm not making a traditional landscape. My objective is to suggest fundamental change that bubbles up from a multitude of small changes, over time. So the surface of a painting may be fractured, patterned, coordinated, anarchic; but always with some main focus, that might just endure.
So to follow this 'general direction rule' I make changes on a much larger scale, allowing more challenges and interactions to be considered. I once again stop, stand back and observe.  The activities I engage in, namely the changing of colours of circles or background are no different in substance from the earlier changes, but they have this new wider scale purpose and aesthetic, at their heart. They are a consolidation of what has occurred. They synchronise and lock in events.
If I am not satisfied that I have achieved my underlying 'general direction' rule, I repeat the whole process again. I start again with the selection of a small area of canvas to work on 'up close' and run through all the processes again and again,  until my mind's eye  is satisfied. I have reached a point where something of substance is occurring in my painting, that echoes to some extent my imagination of emergence. Spatial elements have evolved, coalesced, dispersed, disappeared. The history of these processes has become ingrained in the fabric of the work. The resulting painting holds a glimpse of moment in time in a never ending dance.

There is still one topic that I need to address. It is important in every computer model and painting too. I need to think about edges. Often paintings are enclosed in frames. The artist is giving the viewer a small world to focus on, to see as selected and in some sense complete. The extended scene, from which the framed painting is drawn, can in this instance be ignored. Sometimes however, paintings are left unframed, to breathe. In this case the canvas is an object in its own right, and is somehow bolder for it. The conversation the artist is offering the viewer is more on equal  terms; make what you will of this piece, it  inhabits your space, you are both, viewer and painting part of a whole. My paintings are definitely in this second camp. I want to add to the world something that is a glimpse of a much bigger whole, which is changing, unfinished, possibly never ending. The paintings in this series are all left unframed.

 
The making of a painting - seeing and learning


For me painting is thinking without words. The ideas are there in the background of the mind but the act of working subdues the chatter. Surprises happen and conflicts arise. Things get destroyed and created. Minor successes jeopardise the whole, and must be let go. Integrity matters but I can't exactly say what it means. Many painters would describe their practice similarly and all painters have rules, however subconscious or anarchic they may be. For this period of my work, I have chosen to bring my rules to the fore.  I want them to help me find a way to tell a story that I would struggle to, in any other way. The story is both the journey and the destination. There are no short cuts.

All Text in this article Copyright Tessa Coe