ADD AND SUBTRACT
by Lynn Boland
In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg famously erased a Willem de Kooning drawing in pen and crayon. In essence this was creation by subtraction, but his subsequent "combines" and prints went in a decidedly additive direction. Sculptors have always created though the process of addition—modeling clay, casting metal, or assembling different materials—and through the process of subtraction—carving away wood, stone, etc. However, two-dimensional media have traditionally focused on additive strategies. Wall reliefs and shaped canvases contain negative space, but such works blur the line between painting and sculpture by combining media more than by transferring technique. More to the point, paintings and drawings usually involve changes along the way. The artist can rework her painting by overpainting, by wiping wet paint away, or by scraping away dry paint. Drawings can usually be erased and redrawn quite easily. However, these changes are typically deemphasized or hidden altogether in the finished piece. There seems to be a growing trend among studio artists at UT whereby a process of material subtraction is used to impart central compositional additions.
The use of both additive and subtractive strategies unifies works of art that appear quite disparate on the surface. Jani Benjamins uses an eraser to remove details from selected forms in magazines pages. Karri Paul's paintings—arranged and rearranged—reveal previously covered, unpainted aluminum. Bonnie Gammill uses multiple stencils in her paintings to incorporate layers of oil and the wood beneath. Amelia Winger-Bearskin performs the alto lines from American pop songs against a blank green screen in her current videos. All of these artists' works depend on removed material in order to create forms and convey meanings.
Collage is involved in the conceptual process for the artists working in this subtractive method. When a form is cut out of paper, there are shapes with holes left over. Now the leftover shapes are desired forms and the holes have the most significance. Collage is also related more directly. The erasure technique employed in Benjamins' Foredo series first appeared in his collage work; Gammill is currently working in a collage format; and, Paul and Winger-Bearskin refer to their works as "collages," although for the latter, this notion followed her videos rather than preceding them.
In each of these works, a palimpsestic process also comes into play. The artists leave traces that highlight the materials' subtraction. This illuminates studio practices, furthering a sense of intimacy between viewer and work of art. These traces also seem to reflect the kinds of cultural accumulation and decay constantly taking place around us. In Benjamins' mixed media images, layers of the original print remain around the edges of his erasures. For Paul and Gammill, paint is the trace substance. Winger-Bearskin's video reveals the faint, now ubiquitous sound of iPod earbuds playing in someone else's ears.
When Rauschenberg made his combines—the epitome of the additive process—he was responding to the overwhelming multiplicity of the world around him. The current work of the artists included in Add and Subtract similarly responds to contemporary life, but now incorporates reductive means. Why do these artists subtract? We are assaulted by more information than ever before. When Rauschenberg made his first combines in the 1950s, television was in its infancy. Today we have hundreds of channels to choose from, not to mention the seemingly infinite World Wide Web. With all of these technological additions cluttering our lives, perhaps these artists have found some solace in cutting things out, if only in their art.