I came across the work of New York Artist Margaret Withers while I was looking at the New York NURTUREart website, and was immediately caught by its poignancy and wit. It seems to hop in and out of story-telling and a love of just letting marks, shapes, paints and inks do their thing without the imposition of a controlling mind. This is particularly interesting to me as I am trying to understand how different levels of consciousness within the mind engage with narrative. I was really glad when I tracked her down to her loft studio in Brooklyn, as even though it was late in the day, she was generous with her thoughts and we covered some interesting ground.
Most of the works are on paper, using ink, vinyl paint, and watercolour. A variety of spatial languages meet cacophonously and you would be blighted in your attempts to read a single pictoral image as you are concurrently looking at a map, side elevations of houses, the insides of machines, dismembered eyes and mouths, abstract swirls of colours and endless tracks, wires and cables connecting and disconnecting elements within the painting. Yes, I suppose you get the feeling of a chattering switchboard wherein true communication is a rare commodity.
The idea of misinformation, what gets lost in translation, is important to Withers, and she carries this through into digital works, in particular, a piece that exposes US state mottos to the vicissitudes of Google Translate, e.g. Maine’s “I lead” after transliteration 6 times reads “I say”. She said
There is a lot of art based on satellite images, so to make it interesting and unique I tried a lot of things, but it was more the translation thing that was interesting to me because Google Translate does not actually do grammatical translation, its just a huge database that does phrase and word matching and translates that way, and so to me that produced more interesting results.
She puts repeated forms in her paintings through a similar system of “noise”. In several series the naïve outlines of houses are bizarrely inserted into what could be more or less gestural abstract paintings. Its as if she again translates, this time the abstract marks into another language, that of landscape and story. She has a really interesting and complex relationship with this need to bring an intuitive way of working round to a conscious rendition of the narratives of home and communication.
It’s a weird thing because you don’t want to tell people what this is about, it’s a battle because if I wanted to tell you something I would be a writer, …But its just the truth that people need stories, its just the truth. People need a story, they need to know something that connects them to it… And I struggle with that, I struggle with that a lot because you just want people to spend some time looking at it and come up with it themselves. I think that that is why narrative – it might be like the ugly step-sister or something – but that is why narrative in reality, its actually what everybody wants, they want something they can grab hold of and connect.
And it is this reaching out to other people that Withers is really interested in doing. She wants to break beyond the hermetically sealed art world and communicate to people who are not fluent in the language Artspeak. But I suspect that her use of narrative goes beyond a spirit of egalitarianism and need to expand her market, at least for now there seems to be a compulsion to discover stories through her process.
Withers told me she had “a childhood unencumbered by parental supervision, I was left alone a lot to my own devices”. And her own devices included playing on her own in half-built apartments on building sites – “I’m amazed I didn’t kill myself”, making furnished houses out of cardboard and found stuff, acting out stories through a cast of characters in play and generally building a very active imagination along the way.
Longing and Narrative go hand in hand, the story of home, elusive and out of reach, a state of mind rather than bricks and mortar. In my conversations with artists it is often childhood experiences that have engendered a creative mind and particularly a love of creating narrative. The following childhood memory I think approaches this beautifully:
It was funny because I always wanted a doll house and didn’t get one, so I would just build these doll houses out of cardboard. Then my dad finally built one for me, I think I was like12, and I just stopped playing, because the fun was in building the house, making the furniture, once it was given to me I had no reason to build so I stopped playing. So leave the kids alone, let them do what they’re doing. but I had wanted this doll house for ever, it was so nice of him to make it finally, and it was not at all what I wanted.