Catalogue Essay

Monica Tap: Painting and Perception

by Nancy Tousley

Let’s say at the outset that Monica Tap is not a landscape painter and lay this notion to rest. Her work concerns itself with the idea of landscape, the history and conventions of landscape painting, the consideration of landscape as an aesthetic experience, and one or two other aspects of the genre. These are altogether different issues for those involved in the making of “pictures representing natural inland scenery” or “the art of depicting such scenery,” to take Merriam-Webster’s first definition in the entry on landscape. Tap, who does not paint the landscape, is a conceptualist painter who uses landscape as a motif, as a “representation of something that is always already is a representation in its own right” and not a bit “natural” at all. Without the frame, there would be no landscape of any kind – ideal, heroic, pastoral, sublime or picturesque. Landscape is a cultural space, encoded with meanings and values that are the product of cultural space, encoded with meanings and values that are the product of cultural processes, and these are issues of representation which Tap interrogates through painting just as she interrogates herself.

The topography of a painting by Monica Tap is built environment, impure artifice, a virtual space. These general observations hold true for both types of paintings she is making at present. One type, begun in 1997, which for the sake of the motif we will refer to as the landscape paintings, is composed of 17th-, 18th and 19th- century Dutch landscape drawings, painted one on top of another in layers, with the aid of slides projected on canvas. The result is asymmetrically kaleidoscopic, an elaborated multicoloured surface of lines and linear notations that moves further away from a description of landscape with each added layer and closer to allover pattern and the decorative. The second image type, which originates in the first, is the brushstroke paintings, begun in 2000. These images are selected, photographed and greatly enlarged from the tiny sketches in which Tap works out the design of the landscape paintings. Here again, Tap projects a photographic image onto canvas in order to repaint the brushstrokes. Uncanny in their looming, seemingly animated state, the robust strokes, despite their monochromatic palette, seem almost to be organic, three-dimensional figures inhabiting a fluid atmosphere.

In relation to Tap’s motifs and procedures, then, the concept of landscape as a “dynamic medium … in motion from one place or time to another,” seems apropos. Literary theorist W.J.T. Mitchell considers landscape as a verb rather than a noun: Landscape “circulates as a medium of exchange, a site of visual appropriation, a focus for the formation of identity.” Moreover, Mitchell writes, it is a medium of exchange with a semiotic structure that differentiates and identifies both nature and convention. “We say ‘landscape is a nature, not convention’ in the same way we say ‘landscape is ideal, not real-estate,’ and for the same reason – to erase the signs of our own constructive activity in the formation of landscape as meaning or value, to produce an art that conceals its own artifice, to imagine a representation that ‘breaks through’ representation into the realm of the nonhuman. That is how we manage to call landscape the ‘natural medium’ in the same breath that we admit that it is nothing but a bag of tricks, a bunch of conventions and stereotypes.”

The tricks, conventions and stereotypes are for Tap among landscape’s several attractions as a subject matter. Her study of landscape drawing, undertaken first as research for a drawing class she was giving and then for her painting practice, has led her not only to the graphic works of artists like Pieter and Jan Breugel, Gaspar van Wittel, Jacob van Ruisdael, Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh, but also to historical manuals on methods of teaching drawing. Aspiring artists learned by copying from drawing-instruction books, pattern books, prints and the works of masters, by reproducing not nature but its symbolic representation, in a manner not unlike that of learning a language. For example, a 19th-century lesson on how to draw landscape is included in Drawing and Design for Beginners, published by Edward R. Taylor in 1893, a book in Tap’s collection. Tap “copies,” too, although not like a student, taking both the pedagogical method schemata – as she calls it, a kind of clip art – and, by extension, representation in general. Artifice and how to make it is her true interest in the nature/culture dichotomy upon which the landscape painter seems intent.

“One of the things that got me involved with landscape drawing is the notion that landscape is an inherently abstract space and that drawing is an inherently abstract practice,” says Tap. “Every drawing instructor will tell you there are no outlines in the world. Our brains are busy constructing what we see and it seems to me that drawing is one of the languages that actually demonstrates this for us. Landscape drawing, particularly, achieves something quite remarkable because with a non-representational grammar of dots, dashes and little curlicues, we’re able suddenly to disappear down this rabbit hole where there is this tremendous sense of space simply created with lines.”

Tap likes to say that when she copies landscape drawings, she intentionally gets it all wrong by choosing paint instead of ink, by drawing in colour, by sometimes working in a square format, by blowing up the scale of the copied drawings, and by layering their images to the point of indecipherability. Enlargement, especially, suspends the moment when the dots, dashes and lines of her historical models would coalesce into an illusionistic image. But Tap also has other tricks up her sleeve. She reorients, flops, inverts and zooms in and out of the drawings, the more to obscure their descriptive intentions. Her paintings hesitate on “the threshold between representation and abstraction” and refuse to resolve themselves into either. Each procedural step Tap takes is a step away from the reductivism of modernist painting and also a step back from the originating subjects.

Tap has developed a system for making paintings, which means that everything she begins with has been plotted out in advance. When she starts a new work, it is with a list in hand with instructions she has made for herself. She has chosen the landscape drawing she will work with, and this distancing of herself from invention and aesthetic considerations of content and form also extends to her palette and to the handmade facture of the paintings. She starts off knowing the colour of the ground; she has selected a different hue for each drawing, that is to say for each layer of a painting, which could be as many as eight or nine. She has worked out the colours and the sequencing of the drawing layers in small sketches. For example, in a three-panel painting with three drawings and three colours per panel, the drawings and the colours assigned to them will remain the same but the sequencing of the layers will change from panel to panel. The effect of the panels will be coordinated but each panel will be different, sometimes following the structure of a motet or a round. In any event, tap initiates a system in order to generate possibility, as Sol Lewitt’s early work, not simply to execute a formula.

Like the landscape drawings, Tap’s colour palettes are also found objects, in the sense of the trouvaille, which carries meaning and can be used to make meaning and connections. Some of her colour palettes refer to the work of other artists, like Willem de Kooning or Joseph Albers; some might be digital colours found on computer screen savers and candy wrappers; while others are taken from manuals like the Color Source Book: A reference for fashion designers, industrial designers, interior designers, graphic artists, crafts people by Margaret Walch. Colour, then, is another element of Tap’s painting that, when she uses it, is always already encoded with historical, aesthetic, cultural and commercial values, including those of taste. Walch, now the director of the Color Association of the United States, has long been involved in forecasting colour taste for the American textile, fashion and allied industries. Her Color Source book, first published in 1971, describes 48 historical colour palettes, some of which are the palettes of artists like Renoir or Braque. Each palette is illustrated by swatches based on works of art or artifacts. Among the colour schemes are Oriental, Tibetan, Batik, Persian, Empire, Colonial, Wedgewood, Tiffany, William Morris, Art deco, Albers and pop art.

When it comes time to load the brush with colour, turn out the studio lights and turn on the slide projector, what then? Tap stands in the dark and traces the illuminated slide projections onto a canvas tacked to a wall. In the process of copying the enlarged landscape drawings or her own brushstrokes, she eschews aesthetic choices but leaves the literal trace of her hand. It is, nonetheless, a distanced hand: tracing supersedes the painter’s touch, the authentic mark, the artist’s handwriting, concepts associated with authorship, just as copying trumps the ideas of invention and originality. There is the sense that Tap is reassigning value to the landscape drawings when she selects and reworks them, but the significance of copying and tracing certain subject matters also goes beyond her working methods in another important way. With the landscapes, Tap’s painting enters the territory of “the dissimulated original” and, with the brushstrokes, that of “the dissimulated copy.” Thus the two types of painting set up a dialectical relationship between the original and the copy that operates not only within individual paintings but within the body of Tap’s work.

The original-and-copy relationship speaks further to the interface between representation and abstraction in Tap’s work and, indeed, enables it. Although Tap builds the landscape paintings with layers of representational images, the effects of the layering process, which dissolve figure and ground images into lacy interleavings of an all-over web, reverse the legibility of the drawings and push representation toward abstraction. The allusions to Pollock and to wallpaper are unmistakable. The brushstroke paintings, on the other hand, are realistic representations, in which a figure-ground relationship is restored, even though they read as abstract paintings. In these paradoxical works, as Tap puts it, “I am representing abstraction and abstracting representation.” This, too, is a double semiotic structure, one that mirrors the double structure of landscape, which lies in “its simultaneous articulation and disarticulation of the difference between nature and convention,” and the double semiotic of drawing and writing, which characterizes the all-over inscription of the surfaces of Tap’s landscape paintings that, while approaching illegibility, can be read as both imagistic and calligraphic, as image-text.

The dichotomy between abstraction and representation, once a crucial distinction in modernist art, has lost importance for painters of Tap’s generation, or perhaps it is significant in a different way “Contemporary painting retains from its modernist and conceptualist background the belief that every artist’s work should stake out a position – that a painting is not only a painting but also the representation of an idea about painting,” Barry Schwabsky writes. “This is one reason there is so little contradiction now between abstract and representational painting: In both cases the painting is there not to represent the image; the image exists in order to represent the painting (that is, the painting’s idea of painting).” At least one critic, David Pagel, pronounces the old oppositions that once dominated the painting discourse as “stodgy,” and observes that painters now “treat elaborate forms of artifice as if they were perfectly natural phenomena.”

More importantly, abstraction itself has become encoded and can be made to function as representation, a condition that became an inevitability once artists began to use the "faked gesture" as the sign of " 'style' to comment about picture making," and with this "a devastating step had been taken in the demystification of art. For the pop artist, expressionist technique was just that: a technique, a style, something that could be copied, altered and even played with. No longer did artists struggle to find the picture by making the picture.” Under the sign of pop, the reproduction of the reproduction à la Warhol (whose Cow Wallpaper of 1966 was logical extension of both overall painting and serial imagery) found acceptance as art and Roy Lichtenstein made his groundbreaking paintings of the abstract expressionist brushstroke. Post-pop artist use abstraction as though it were just another tool in the painter’s kit.

Pop art and conceptualism each have had important roles to play in the background of Tap’s work. Most obviously, the conceptual nature of her painting is rooted firmly in her education at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), a school famous in the 1970s for its championing of process and conceptual art. Its imprint exist as a way of thinking in her aesthetically distancing, task-oriented method, in her use of always already encoded imagery and colour, and in her emphasis on the process of painting as a pure sign. On these strategic philosophical points, connections can be made between Tap’s work and that of Gerald Ferguson and Garry Neill Kennedy. To take two examples: there are Ferguson’s assisted landscape paintings of 1983-84, which were painted by Gerald Collins from scenic postcards, and Kennedy’s American History Painting (1996), an analytical deconstruction of a genre into culturally coded colour stripes. Ferguson and Kennedy were working out the endgame of painting, however, while Tap was seeking its revival. It would seem that she was also deeply affected by her other important teacher at NSCAD, the painter John Clark, whose poetic, cartoon-like, drawing-in-painting; thin, flat paint surface; compositional layering; solid colour grounds; and melding of figure and ground in linear webs are echoed in her own work.

Tap took not one but two degrees at NSCAD. In the interim, she was making realist paintings of interiors of public places, like truck-stop cafés and taverns, in an attempt to deal with painted space. They were “anti-landscape” paintings, she says. Back in Halifax, Tap found her attention turning to issues of representation, which led to her present work, after she gave herself permission to make a copy. This occurred during the research for her master’s thesis project. Tap based the project on the 17th –century Dutch still-life painter Rachel Ruysch. Working in the studio with slides of Ruysch’s realistic floral still lifes, Tap projected images of the still lifes and painted them in layers as a means by which to analyze them. She discovered that contrary to how they might look, the bouquets were entirely artificial constructions. Ruysch picked her flowers from books of botanical engravings, how-to books, other artists’ paintings and drawings, and, apparently, only occasionally from life. In her thesis paper, Tap quotes Paul Taylor, who writes: “One of the great insights of seventeenth-century Dutch art was that accurate description did not make a convincing illusion, that in order to translate from three dimensions to two, reality had to be transposed by a set of artificial rules.”

Ruysch herself, then, was making what today can be termed as dissimulated originals, paintings of paintings, while Tap was taking this step further by making paintings of paintings of paintings. This doubled repetition of elaborate artifice produced, in tandem with an abstract expressionist look, the saturation of image that leads to loss of meaning, with the result that “nature, far from an organic whole, appears in arbitrary arrangement, as a lifeless, fragmentary, untidy clutter of emblems.” Tap’s project had two aims: one, to restore some meaning to the historical subject by re-presenting it in “the ‘meaningful’ language of the painterly gesture,” and two, to maintain the detached position of the archeologist by “tying this painterly mark to a systematic, task-oriented approach.” “A sense of history and melancholy is embedded in the work when I use a historically determined vocabulary to deconstruct historical imagery,” she writes. Her task, as she described it at the time, was “to reconstitute (the past) as part of a meaningful dialogue with the present.”

If the process of conceptual art brought Tap to this position, as she acknowledges, so did those of pop art. The idea that the painterly gesture, the authentic handmade mark, can be signifier of subjectivity and the reality of painting arises in the transition from abstract expressionism, through the work of Rauschenberg and Johns, to pop art. Pop appropriated, parodied and cooled down material that by the 1950s was deemed too overwrought and hot to handle. Pop opened the gap between form and content and the pictorial signifier and the signified, and rendered the distinction between representation and abstract irrelevant. Pop originated the anti-aesthetic and the distanced hand. Even as he painted a reproduction of a brushstroke that turned a painterly gesture into a signifier, Roy Lichtenstein mimicked the look of mechanical reproduction through the use of a complicated working method. The process, described by Hal Foster, entailed “a layering of mechanical reproduction (comic), handwork (drawing), mechanical reproduction again (projector) and handwork again (tracing and painting), to the point where distinctions between hand and machine are difficult to recover. In different ways, Warhol, Richard Hamilton, James Rosenquist, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke produce a related conundrum of the painterly and the photographic; it is a prime characteristic of pop art at its best.”

Although she was unaware of his methods when she began the landscape paintings, Tap achieves this fusion in much the same way that Lichtenstein did, with the exception that to make the landscapes she skips the first handwork step, in which Lichtenstein redrew his sources. She performs her alterations of source material in the painting and tracing stage. Her handwork, the planning stage of the landscape drawings, becomes the first step in making the brushstroke paintings, which then undergo a similar process of mechanical reproduction, projection and tracing. Photography and projection are also the crucial elements of Tap’s process in a more complex, conceptual way. She begins with a mechanical reproduction of a photograph of a landscape drawing, rephotographs it to make a transparency, projects the slide and traces it. The slide then becomes the agent of her alterations of the drawings – flopping, turning the image upside down, etc. – and of the arrangement of the landscape drawings in layers. This layering has analogues in photography in the montage and in the compositional strategy or accident of the multiple exposure.

However, Tap, who has so thoroughly internalized camera vision, employs the photograph to implement “the copy” that enables her to return to “the original” to the hand, to the pleasurable, sensuous, physical reality of painting. It is photography that allows her to introduce into the landscape paintings the concepts of movement and of present and historical time as existing on the same plane. In some of her paintings, the drawing layers represent not only different artists but different countries and periods as well. In all of them, time is signified by art-historical style, by the accumulation of “moments” in time signified by the drawings, by recession from the picture plane into the ambiguous, tangled space of the painting over which the eye travels, seeking out recognizable elements: leaves, trees, rocks, water, a boat, the little figures of fisherman and peasant women, perhaps even an artist sketching en plein air. Tap, reaching for time, which Henri Lefebvre tells us vanished from social space with the advent of modernity, and for space, which can be created by lines on a blank sheet, turned from flower painting to landscape drawing for her sources. “Our time,” writes Lefebvre, “this most essential part of lived experience, this greatest of all goods is no longer visible to us, no longer intelligible.” Yet, Tap believes, painting can recuperate time.

Time and again, it is the copy and the process of copying upon which this hinges: “Every copy has adhesive properties, in holding together the present and the past,” George Kubler writes in The Shape of Time. The getting-it-all-wrong of Tap’s copies invokes the memory of the absent originals, while at the same time it plays on the paradox of pop art, in which the landscape paintings are originals made up of multiple copies. The layering of the copies invokes time and the process of memory, which recall to mind past images and events and remake, distort, jumble and obscure them, notwithstanding flashes of clarity. With their representation of representations, Tap’s landscape paintings may be thought of as a postmodern allegory of representation toppled from its renaissance pedestal into an overgrown ruin of broken fragments, a tangled web of misconstrued appearances.

Yet one might also think of Tap’s canvas in the contemporary context of the screen, a receptacle of projections that both hides and shows, that receives and fuses fragments, that juxtaposes and mirrors, that “bespeak(s) the complexity of the modern, and increasingly fragmented, human condition. In other words, a sensory montage.” Taking this step further, keeping in mind the above and the conundrum of the painterly and the photographic in Tap’s work, her painting might be seen as a model of perception and the way it works, a process that neuroscientists tell us produces a vision largely of our own creating, a mixture of sensation and interpretation with an indistinct boundary in between them. Furthermore, this is a model based on a dialectics of seeing that draws a relationship between present and past and acknowledges that perception is a learned faculty, not one that comes naturally; it is predicated on the blueprint of culture.

Everything in Tap’s work points towards the acts of looking, seeing and picturing, and to convention and memory, which clarify, cloud and repeatedly return to these acts. No element of her work offers a singular reading or meaning, nor is any element arbitrary. Tap’s own origins are Dutch: embedded in her landscape paintings are visual memories of other times and places, from frequent family visits to Holland to visual echoes of the lowlands landscape in the prairies around Edmonton, where she grew up. Drawing itself is an art associated with close observation and yet grounded upon schema. Seventeenth-century Dutch landscape drawing, in particular, is associated with a new way of seeing, one that forsook the Albertian window on the world, which assumes and positions an observer. Instead, it is an unframed description, a fragment of continuous vision with no clearly situated viewer, that equates seeing and describing with knowledge. For the Dutch artist of the 17th century, representation replicated vision, like a mirror; the culture employed “a perceptual metaphor for knowledge.” By overlaying the drawings, Tap literally obliterates both point of view and perspective and places the viewer in a new relation to representation. The gaze is given no path upon which to enter the dense tanglewood; representation is a reference with no referent at the threshold of legibility. And both gaze and representation are displaced in this forest of signs.

The idea that Tap’s work can be seen as a model of perception emerges from such displacements, from the gaps between past and present, form and content, representation and abstraction, painting and photography, artist and artwork. Tap distances herself, even places herself behind the screen. Born of process – mechanical reproduction, tracing, dissimulation – her painting presents itself as if it has no subject: not self, not landscape, not a clear and readable image or image-text. Performative rather than mechanical, her work is the signifier of a process, one into which the viewer is enticed by painting to become engaged. Barthes writes that “however much Pop Art has depersonalized the world, platitudinized objects, dehumanized images, replaced tradition craftsmanship of the canvas by machinery, some ‘subject’ remains. What subject? The one who looks, in the absence of the one who makes.” In the end this might well be Tap’s subject, too. The one who looks experiences Tap’s painting not as a representation or as abstraction but as a phenomenon that must be apprehended by thought. This in turn has complications to how we might think about painting today. Why do painters continue to paint? What is painting good for? As a model of perception, one whose workings might extend to a new awareness of how we perceive other things in the world than art. Tap’s painting, like that of her contemporaries, addresses the mind as much as the eye. Painting, then can be equally a mode of thought, a theoretical proposition, a philosophical object and even, perhaps, a form of knowledge.

back to Catalogues