16 September – 11 October 2015

Rochelle Haley

Through Form

Processural Painting

The line continues; it folds, it parses, becoming surface, becoming plane. From here it dissipates and floods the canvas before disappearing, only to once again re-emerge back into form.  To follow the line, one must move – an imperceptible movement of the chin and then a shift in the shoulders as one navigates the large image, stepping forward to search for a continuing line or form, the brow furrowed as analysis gives way to embodiment. And so begins, unconsciously, a physical dialog between my body and the painting, a choreography more eloquent than any written statement.

The art of Rochelle Haley seems to operate always in a state of resistance. Her growing body of diverse projects can be read as provocations to established practices, whether within dance, drawing or painting. Together they constitute states of struggle, pushing against assumptions around the nature of movement and its visualisation, the processural potential of drawing and painting, and the exigencies and ambiguities of authentic perception. 

In this new exhibition at Galerie pompom, Sydney, Haley continues her ongoing preoccupation with movement and its elusive capture. This focus for artistic practice retains the blurred ghosts of Giacoma Balla’s scurrying dog or Marcel Duchamp’s nude descending the stair. There is also the memory of Eadweard Muybridge’s analytic studies, where movement is made visible through a series of still frames.  All three are cinematic visions born from the contemporary technologies of photography and film. Haley’s work deviates from this figurative narrative, delving instead into the visualisations that emerge out of dance practice. This decision situates her work away from the representational and into the performative, toward issues of experience, transformation and relation.

The Lemniscate Constructions (2015) series begins from the work of early 20th century dance theorist Rudolf Laban. Laban was a pioneer in the representation of modern dance, theorising the new explorations of movement that were emerging in Europe and America in the early 20th century. Laban’s major work was the development of a notational system that could encapsulate the diversity of human movement, and remains formative for imaging dance today. Initially an architect, his approach differed from earlier models in that he graphically constructed a language based on spatial geometries, rather than a set of ‘true-to-life’ representations of bodies in movement.

Instead of utilizing Laban Movement Analysis or what became known as ‘Labanotation’, Haley has discovered some of his lesser known drawings from the archive of the National Resource Centre for Dance, University of Surrey. Unlike the notational system that is a tool for archiving and sharing movement sequences, what Laban called ‘Lemniscate Constructions’ are explorative, seeking to understand and examine spatial relations, rather than describe specific movements. 

Laban was interested in platonic solids and geometries, specifically how the dynamic body created these forms outwardly. These can be understood as a kind of spatial scaffolding around the edges of movement. In these sketches, lines and colours trace movement pathways and suggest surfaces and shapes. Geometries are formed and then unfolded, forces inscribed and then released. To the untrained eye the graphics of these drawings are unclear – dashes, dots, nodes and lines. Due to the analytical nature of Laban’s work, the assumption is to decode, undoing the logic of each line and form, until one realises that unlike his notational diagrams these sketches are suggestive rather than descriptive.

In the same way that movement resists the fixed image, so too do Haley’s paintings resist a final form. Like Laban’s sketches this work is inquisitive, involving the viewer in a process rather than dictating an answer. The struggle toward capture is evident, a tussling with line, colour and shape that is never resolved but rather caught in a state of continual extension and opening.

Laban’s drawings form the beginning point of an analytic process that takes the outward form of imitation. This begins with careful transcriptions of the original drawings from which Haley then develops the larger paintings. This is a process of translation rather than documentation, setting up an iterative process that is one of repetition with variation. In this project Haley puts Laban’s Lemniscate sketches through an interrogative sequence of questioning.  Her following works are a process of reflection rather than representation, drawing out from the original geometries the spatial implications of each line. In this way these paintings are propositional, they propose both ways of seeing and ways of moving. 

It is important to note that Haley is not simply accepting Laban’s spatial analysis, but taking his geometric explorations into new terrain. In these paintings she moves the discourse of movement into contemporary explorations around potential and futurity. This understanding of the moving body is antithetical to a contained geometry of movement, embracing what Erin Manning and Brian Massumi call the ‘as if’ of movement.*  The ‘as if’ describes the ability for future movements to be current within the present, for the event to bristle with the potential of all its virtual possibilities. Discussing the choreographic practice of William Forsythe, Manning and Massumi describe movement techniques that do not illustrate emotions, narratives or actions, but unfold through a heightened awareness of future movements. This means incorporating and actively attuning to not simply what is in front of you, but what could happen next. In the same way, Haley’s paintings are not located in only a present frame of movement but incorporate the ‘as if’ of how that movement may transform. 

Discussing the task of the dancer, Manning and Massumi describe it as ‘making visible what can only be felt’. Haley’s paintings can be read through the same ambition. How does one visualise an event that can only be experienced? How to embed plurality into a singular image? How does one paint that? An answer can be found in the struggle toward a speculative approach that abstains from fixing movement, in order to remain agile enough for alterity. In this way the Lemniscate Constructions are more about process then representation.

Paintings are rarely understood as processural. Unlike drawings, which can be swift and exploratory, paintings take time. They appear as more finished and in the process more static. In contrast, Haley’s Lemniscate paintings hold the diagrammatic quality of their subject. Paint is applied in various textures, some richly opaque and some sketchily provisional. This disturbs our assumptions as to the whether we are perceiving a solid form or a ephemeral tracing, the line work and surfaces shifting from one to the other in often geometrically illogical shapes. 

The use of resin adds something spontaneous to the image, a substance unbidden or unconstrained, unwilling to fully comply with the analytical logic of the artist. It coats the canvas in a thick and glossy surface allowing for sharp edges but within which the internal colour bleeds and moves. Textural changes between matt and shiny provoke the viewer to move, to duck and to side step, enticing one closer and pushing one back. In this way we find ourselves moving with the painting, struggling to comprehend but in the process enacting ourselves a kind of movement sequence.

These paintings can be seen as a dramatic contrast to the two dimensional banality of Leonardo da Vinci’s outstretched male body, harmonically constituting a perfect circle and square. Instead of this static and gendered figure, we see an amorphous, mobile set of relations in differing states of transformation. The body as a fixed and specific form has here disappeared and instead what emerges are the complicated webs and trajectories of past, present and future movements. Haley’s paintings present this new vision of the body’s relationship to space, a vision not based on ocular or perspectival hierarchies, but immersed in a new, co-creative symbiosis.

Sam Spurr

* Manning, E and Massumi, B, Thought in the Act, University of Minnesota Press, USA, 2014.

Photos: Docqment