Mother Love, 2009, fabric, glue, 130 x 130 cm. Courtesy the artist and Neon Parc, Melbourne.
My reading of and engagement with Lacan and psychoanalysis has not really influenced my art-making, or not in a way that I know of. I don’t think anything could influence my art-making consciously; I believe we make what it’s possible for us to make, and only that. I make work from within the history and discourse of art, and from my own psychic history, and that has had an influence on me.
I never try to consciously make a work about anything: I am not the active agent in the art making. I let the work make itself and show itself to me, and then ‘I’ have a look at it, and see what I think about it, and see what it is ‘about’. I don’t think that art is about ‘choosing a topic’ to illustrate or refer to… I’m old-fashioned in that I think art making is about art. Art is its own discourse; it doesn’t need to refer to another one. That process that people undertake quite commonly now is something else, if you ask me.
For me, art-making is an expression and manifestation of the artist’s subjectivity. It is some Thing of the subject made incarnate.
You ask me about Lacan, and of course what I know from psychoanalysis allows me to understand and reflect on my art-making, but it is only ‘after the fact’. What I have learnt from psychoanalysis allows me to say something about art works, but it is not the agent or driving force before my expression. It is a discourse that allows me to speak about what I (and others) do, but afterwards.
If you had asked me what effect my own analysis had had on me, that would be a different question. Being analysed, having had an analysis, has led me to trust my own unconscious and to rely on my own feelings and hunches in relation to making work. I no longer suffer from the kind of anxiety or guilt that makes an artist worry about their work: is it any good, are they doing enough? Etc. etc.
I trust the unconscious and let it do the work.
Lacan’s ideas about sublimation are really useful. In summary, he says that sublimation is the process of elevating nothing (a little object) into something (into the Thing: something primordial and monumental for the subject).To elevate nothing into something and to enjoy doing that: that’s his definition of sublimation. Picasso is a perfect example of that. He takes a little something (a found object, a colour, a painted rectangle, a black line) and turns it into something profoundly moving that transmits something that is more than we can see.
All the great artists do that, and they do it without intending to, I believe. Making work with the ego, as opposed to the unconscious, that’s something else.
In my own case I can see that I can sublimate too. I find a little bit of nothing (some fabric, a piece of wood, a single shape and colour) and then turn it into something acceptable that fits into the discourse of art. Because that is another requirement or condition of sublimation; that it is ‘socially acceptable’. It is something that can be shared (unlike a symptom or a dream). In order to be art it has to share in that discourse, of course.
Lacan’s discussion of creation out of ‘ex nihilo’ is also relevant. To put it kind of simply and sketchily, he is emphasizing the function of lack as constitutive of both the subject (human subject) and desire. Desire is lack, of course. There is no desire without lack. His discussion of Heidegger’s vase (I presume that’s what you’re referring to) is a way of showing how signification only occurs around a void or an absence: that without the hole, you don’t get the structure or the naming, literally. The vase is like a metaphor of the human subject, in that the subject is also constituted via the signifier around a lack. This applies to all subjects and to desire in general, but in art making you see a really clear manifestation of the creation of new signifiers out of existing signifiers. An art work is a signifier, of course, but hopefully it is a new one that adds something new to the discourse of art. Art that only repeats existing signifiers is what we might have called ‘academic art’, or mainstream, or perhaps amateur etc. (That’s a longer discussion).
When I make an art work I expect it to engage with the discourse of art, but also to effect that discourse; to do something to it in a material way. That’s rather ambitious, I suppose, and I think it’s getting harder and harder to do it. (Because of the contemporary social conditions etc.)
I don’t really know how I navigate space. In the collages there is a kind of impulse to block out or cover over something, and that immediately creates a different space in the picture, physically, but also at the level of meaning or signification. I think that’s interesting; that a really kind of dumb action transforms the existing discourse if you like. Collage is a good example of that.
‘Blocking out’ is at the same time a kind of ‘cutting out’.
In the fabric works there is a real (and not metaphorical) cutting, and cutting-out that seems to be important to me as a subject. Similarly with found objects like tree trunks that have been cut; at the one time they show both the cut, and hide what they have revealed, because all one can see is another surface.
In my work I seem to make or reproduce a kind of monumental moment; an encounter with something singular that is One. One rectangle, one cut, one colour etc… It seems to be a way of inscribing or writing something that keeps needing to be written. Sometimes this cutting or inscribing occurs within the work, and sometimes it is the edge of the work itself that is the cut/articulation.
I also like to bring ‘the nothing’ into being, for some reason. Making a cut, finding a hole; pointing to a void…. For this reason I am very fond of the monumental building cuts by Gordon Matta Clark.
Installations are an organization of space and objects in the way that one wants them to be. There seems to be a dependency and duplicity of the objects; they are both singular art works and elements of a series on which they rely. It’s a bit unclear.
Like a lot of my work, they hover on the very edge of signification or definition about what constitutes an artwork. They are on the very edge of an artwork and not an artwork. In this way they activate the discourse by bringing something real (and not only symbolic) into it; it is unlike a situation in which you know very well what you are looking at.
I don’t think I can answer all your other questions (well, maybe I don’t want to!) There’s too many of them, and I would prefer to talk to you about all that in person. But just this one thing: Picasso is an amazing artist because when one encounters his work one encounters something of him, and something of oneself as well. One is not ‘all alone’ in life; an Other exists who can help us make sense of some thing (not everything). Well, maybe it’s not making sense, it’s just that there is an Other like you who feels something of being a human subject, and that makes life more bearable.
Matisse is strangely similar… an incredible transmission of affect or emotion from the simplest things; some transparent paint, a brush-line…
I like Imi Knoebel too, for the same reasons. There is an enormous presence of another human being but coming from the barest of means. It is a kind of enigma.
Gordon Matta Clark also, and a German artist, not very well-known called Andreas Exner is a favourite of mine. These preferences are profoundly subjective; it’s like meeting people you like or don’t like. I don’t like work that’s too narrative or relies too heavily on the signifier; I like an encounter with something real that kind of blows me away. Ellsworth Kelly is an amazing artist because it’s so hard to know how he can create the effect he does with such simple means. (I think you can get the idea about what I like!)
Download PDF of interview elizabeth-newman
Born in 1962 in Melbourne, Elizabeth Newman studied at the Victorian College of the Arts in the 1980s. Newman has participated in numerous group exhibitions and more than twenty solo exhibitions in Australia and overseas, including the most recent The effect that is propagated is not from the communication of speech but from the displacement of discourse at Neon Parc, Melbourne (25 Jun – 13 Aug 2016).
Several years after art school, Newman became disillusioned with her art establishment and almost halted her artistic practice entirely. Some nine years later, a more intuitive mindset refreshed her practice, creating what Newman calls “fresh and awkward” artworks.
Her work addresses questions of representation and subjectivity, and engages with a formalist-conceptualist discourse. Over the years, Newman has expanded her practice to include painting, found objects, collages, text-based works, photography, sculpture, and writing. She says she tries to avoid the trap of technical proficiency by shifting mediums and modes to evade any mastery that develops in practice. She appreciates the spirit of spontaneity, naivety and uncertainty which she continues to pursue in her art-making process. Her innovative and experimental approach to art has been a significant influence upon her contemporaries as well as a younger generation of artist.
Elizabeth Newman is represented by Neon Parc, Melbourne.