Inbetweenness or the ever-failing attempt to let the orange orange: Hannah Leighton-Boyce’s Repose

Words, Jean-Paul Sartre’s biography, begins by the author recounting the ignoble pursuits of his maternal grandfather, Charles Schweitzer. Having decided that he would earn his living as a bareback rider, Schweitzer’s “portrait was turned to the wall and all mention of his name was forbidden.”[1]

Within the imagination of this reader at least, the image that Sartre presents remains compelling. Indeed, in art historical terms, I’ve previously sought to interpret the gesture through its relationship with Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrecht’s Trompe l’oeil The Reverse of a Framed Painting, (1670).[2]  Although a matter of conjecture, it has also been my contention that the Flemish artist’s painting directly anticipates the subsequent set of practices and debates that modernism engendered with respect to, artistically speaking, the technically radical.

Be that as it may, what struck me when I recently re-read Sartre’s text and with respect to this passage in particular was how the gesture had failed to achieve its desired effect.  For although the image is dissembled, the feelings of the family towards the individual whose portrait has been turned to face the wall are not; on the contrary, one could say that in the very act of attempting to conceal his image, the family’s feelings towards Charles Schweitzer become all the more apparent. In one respect, the gesture that Sartre recounts is comparable to paralipsis, (otherwise known as apophasis), a rhetorical device wherein emphasis is accorded to something through the feigning of its denial. An example of this would be when someone says “and this is not to make any mention of his financial misdemeanours…”

In this instance, the term’s etymology is particularly instructive. Para is from the Greek for aside and lipsis is from the Greek word leipen which means to leave. In effect, and thinking about the spatial relationships that the term is structured around, paralipsis envelops both the proximate and the distant, what is to hand and what has withdrawn. In much the same way that the figure of paralipsis reveals through its attempt to deny or conceal, the portrait of Charles Schweitzer, despite the best efforts of his family members to the contrary, is not left entirely untold. As we have already noted, although we can no longer see the likeness of Sartre’s grandfather, his presence, nevertheless, continues to be felt.

On a very basic level, what the gesture of turning the portrait to face the wall brings into sharp relief, namely, how the conditions of the visible are given, is something that Repose by Hannah Leighton-Boyce also works to foreground. Such conditions might be approached, if not necessarily fully understood through what we might describe is a thing’s ‘thingness.’ However, and unlike for example those occasions wherein modernism sought to ontologise the objects that fell within its purview, thingness as a term does not automatically become conflated with its ostensible materiality, but may encompass those categories which are bound up with its relations to that which it is directly proximate with or to.[3]

Instead, a less regimented approach, following the philosopher Simon Critchley’s remarks with respect to the role literature plays, would allow “things [to] be in their separateness from us.”[4] Such an approach “takes the side of things and tries to let things thing, as it were, to let substantives verbalize: letting the orange orange, the oyster oyster, the palm palm, and so on.”[5] However, and as Critchley reminds us, to let noun’s verbalise and in so doing, to attempt to see things “as they are, in their porosity and denseness, in their earthiness and mineral quality…,” is to acknowledge the “ever-failingness” of such an endeavour.[6]

Given such an admission, and in light of the sooted works that form part of Leighton-Boyce’s current exhibition, what emerges are the conditions of possibility for us to consider the work-as-betweeness, something which, as Giuliana Bruno reminds us, refers to the root of the word medium wherein it denotes a quality of “becoming” as a connective, pervasive, or enveloping substance [and as] an intertwining matter through which impressions are conveyed to the senses, a medium is a living environment of expression, transmission, and storage.”[7]

Such ‘inbetweenness,’ a condition wherein following Homi K. Bhaba’s description, the object “catches its breath,” affords the means by which we, as viewers, can begin to think about and experience what, in its porosity and in its denseness, is the work’s thingness in both its distance and proximity to us and indeed, perhaps, to itself as well.[8]

In the first instance, and through the tendentious artistic strategies that the artist deploys, at times our relationship with the work, or more specifically, with its inbetweenness appears somewhat estranged, as when we are not entirely sure what it is exactly we are looking at. In one respect, the portrait of Charles Schneitzer rehearses the epistemological uncertainty we experience in Leighton-Boyce’s work by having a direct bearing upon and, in one sense, reimagining the conditions of the visible. As a result, such visibility becomes reframed as the concealed, the partially obscured and the no longer (immediately) present.[9] 

By covering one side of a glass vanity dish with soot, whilst the object still carries aspects that are recognisable as such, there is much that is different and that is resistant to, if not directly confounds our expectations of what the object should be and, in addition, should do.[10] This is partly due to the fact that one side has now been entirely covered with a matt black, velvety surface. However, the viewer’s estrangement from these works is also a result of the object being shown in a position that is contrary to its utility, i.e., horizontally on a table. With respect to the perceived ‘distance’ of these objects and the analogous distance that paralipsis rehearses, the artist has noted that she was “interested in watching my ability to see through the object disappear before me, I think there is something about retreating and weight and this interstitial space.”[11]

However, whilst such inbetweenness engenders a certain distance or remove from the object at hand, the sooted vanity dishes rehearse proximity through the elicitation of the haptic sense, something which, in real terms, entails the viewer feeling compelled to touch the surface of the object.[12] Indeed, what these works educe is the fact that touch can be conceived as the proximate, rather than the distant sense wherein, according to Jennifer Fisher, although “the visual sense permits a transcendent, distant and arguably disconnected point-of-view, the haptic sense functions by contiguity, contact and resonance.”[13]

Certainly within the context of these works their felt dimensionality can be understood as naturally extending Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s desire to re-embed the physicality of an object through the clearing of proximity, whereby the object is conceived “in relation to our power of grasping it.”[14] Appearing to rehearse Critchley’s earlier remark with regard to the ever-failingness that delimits our experience of things, Gottfried Boehm, through the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, observes that whilst “[we] generally see a “whole object…only its visible half is presented to us.”[15]

What this means is that when reaching any conclusions about the object, this is undertaken through a “a relationship with the indeterminate.”[16] Moreover, Husserl’s “conclusive argument postulates… that the visible front and the invisible back categorically and totally diverge from one another and belong to completely different classes. The front of something is always thematic that is to say that it is grasped in an act of focusing; the back is never thematic, but rather implicit and therefore potential.”[17]

As such, and if we were to hesitantly draw any conclusion from all of this, it would be that by retreating away from the latter, it is the former that Repose move gradually towards.[18]

– Dr. Craig Staff

Dr. Craig Staff is Reader in Fine Art at the University of Northampton. The broad focus of his recent research has considered how time is written into the work of art. His study Retroactivity and Contemporary Art, published earlier this year by Bloomsbury considers contemporary art’s relationship with both history and historical materials.

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, Words, London: Penguin, 2000, p. 9.

[2] See Craig Staff, Painting of the Week, February 2nd, 2016, accessed August 11th 2019

[3] Michael Fried, writing in 1965 about the artist Frank Stella’s use of metallic paint, claims that “rather than seeming to signify “thingness” or materiality pure and simple, seems instead to be his way of achieving something like the opticality brought about by staining and color in the work of Louis, Noland and Olitski.” Michael Fried, Three American Painters, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella. Catalogue to an exhibition at the Fogg Art Museum, 21 April – 30 May 1965. USA: Garland Publishing p. 44.

[4] Simon Critchley, Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. London and New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 86.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2014, p. 5.

[8] Bhaba, Homi K, ‘Postmodernism/Postcolonialism’ in Critical Terms for Art History. Edited by Robert Nelson and Richard Shiff, Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 310.

[9] Although it was arguably during the onset of modernism that invisibility became a legitimate strategy, the prehistory of such an idea within the visual arts entailed not invisibility per se, but rather the notion that representation provides an inscription of that which is necessarily absent, as in the case of Leon Battista Alberti’s claim, writing in the fifteenth century, that painting’s divine power, “lets the absent be present…” Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting. Edited and translated by Rocco Sinisgalli, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.p. 44.

[10] Echoing how paralipsis is structured spatially through the fact that it entails both that which is immediately present or to the fore and that which has departed, Gottfried Boehm’s articulation of this effect within the artist Cy Twombly’s practice, could, for all intents and purposes, be applied to the soot works of Leighton-Boyce: “If we sharpen our eyes, we notice that one pictorial idea constantly recurs. It could be described as the contamination of display and concealment. Whatever individual notations, signs and traces we observe in the sheets, they are never free of the act of extinction, covering, negation. The most frequent methods of combining the visible with the invisible are covering, painting over, sedimentation. Sometimes it is done in such a fashion that we can still divine what has disappeared. Most frequently, however, we are faced with an impenetrability, a definite disappearance of something whose content remains unknown to us. Something that has been there is there no longer.” Gottfried Boehm, ‘Remembering; Forgetting: Cy Twombly’s Works on Paper 1987,’ in Writings on Cy Twombly. Edited by Nicola Del Roscio, Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 2002, p. 185.

[11] Email correspondence with the artist, 19th July 2018.

[12] According to the artist: “The soot makes a fragile velvet like surface, it is quite difficult to grasp what the material is. When I showed some similar works in 2016 several people brushed the works with their hands, it was almost as people could help themselves, I actually saw one person absently brush a piece with the back of his hand exactly as you might if, you thought it was fabric.” Email correspondence with the artist, 9th July 2018. 

[13] Jennifer Fisher, ‘Relational Sense Towards A Haptic Aesthetics,’ Parachute, vol. 87, July-September 1997, p. 6.  Moreover, and as Fisher contends, “haptic perception can elucidate the energies and volitions involved in sensing space: temperature, presences, pressures and resonances. In this sense it is the affective touch, a plane of feeling distinct from actual physical contact.” Ibid.

[14] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962, p. 261.

[15] Gottfried, Boehm, “Indeterminacy: On the Logic of the Image” in Dynamics and Performativity of Imagination: The Image Between the Visible and the Invisible. Edited by Bernd Huppauf and Christoph Wulf, Oxford; New York: Routledge, 2009, p. 227.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Writing on the proclivity for the monochrome to be both a something and simultaneously a nothing, Thomas McEvilley draws this comparison: “The relationship between universality and the monochrome is illustrated in a similar poetic mood by Stephane Mallarme’s remark that the perfect poem would be a blank sheet of paper, which, containing nothing (in actuality), would contain everything (in potentiality).” Thomas McEvilley, The Monochrome Adventure: A Study in the Form and Content of Modern Painting. Inglewood, California: Full Court Press, 1981, p.49.