We now generally understand that art cannot be confined to singular and linear understandings of its histories and trajectories, to univalent interpretations of meaning fixed in time and perspective. Rather it is like a kaleidoscope of historical, cultural and individual expressions and influences, whose practice and reception is subject to a myriad of contingencies across time and place.
This is as true for individual artists in their personal trajectories as for art broadly : the journey of a serious artist, whether consciously or not, involves forging, exploring, developing and reconfiguring their practice across their creative lives. Vocabulary, language, themes, interests, and influences may manifest differently at different times in that journey. One could say that a vibrant exploratory practice metaphorically involves a constant interplay between making, unmaking and making new, in service to an often unknown yet compelling goal.
For Doris Purchase the making / unmaking dialectic (or to put it another way, constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing differently) is at the heart of her practice – in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense. This is evident in her earlier work, which I first wrote about here in, A Poetry of Constituents: The Paintings of Doris Purchase.
In these works, found-object picture frames are placed centrally within the naked stretched canvas, piercing it and thus framing a literal void rather than depicting a window to the world – which has been the underlying essence of most western painting since the Italian Renaissance. Thus, a painting or its simulacrum is “made” and then in opposition to expectations, “unmade” by placing a frame centrally within it rather than around it. Rejecting illusion, these works are instead rich in allusion. They suggest a dialectical conversation between absence and presence, between being and becoming. By reconstituting the equation between frame and canvas they create a space where the question of, what Painting can be, is manifested as a poetic enigma.
In recent solo exhibitions, Raw Material in 2021 and Bugs in my Head in 2023 – both at Propeller Gallery in Toronto – Doris Purchase develops these tropes further.
Raw Material sees her further deconstruct her palette away from a centred similacrum of individual paintings and towards more irregular compositions which pertain, on one level, to assemblage. In these works, the making / making new dichotomy is explored more explicitly, partly as a response to the pandemic.
Working with what I had in my studio was meant to be. Leftovers from starting my larger pieces and from finished pieces – off cuts of frames, a bric-a-brac of wires, hinges and nails. This exhibition is about the parts of what makes up a painting hung on a wall without the painting. The pandemic hit – things fell apart, and much was revealed. Things such as inequalities and what we truly need to sustain us. These pieces are about unmaking and making new. DP
Assemblage and its earlier permutation, collage, are, in art historical terms, a key and integral part of 20th Century Modernist Painting, and of course they remain so in the Painting of our current century. In the Raw Material works, the use of a largely consistent repertoire of materials – what she describes as “leftovers” – by definition, all pertain to the elements of picture making that informed her earlier work. Nevertheless, in exploring the possibilities further in individual and separate assemblage works, she conjures up a sense that there are infinite ways that these elements could come together in different compositions. This brings attention to the creative choices that have resulted in each piece, and this in turn brings attention to the role played by the hand, the knowledge, and perhaps most of all, the imagination of the artist. In that sense these works are a testament to, and a celebration of, the power of, and indeed the necessity of, the imagination in artmaking.
There is no sense that the creation of one piece in Raw Material specifically followed on from another in a predictable linear progression – rather each piece is beautifully composed and realized in an imaginative alchemy forged in the particular moments of its creation. This is where Doris Purchase’s interpretation of making, unmaking and making anew demonstrates ever deeper levels of poetic intensity.
On one level there is of course a linguistic correlation between the word Poetry and the concept of Making. Poetry shares the same root as Poiesis which is etymologically derived from the ancient Greek term ποιεῖν, – which means “to make”. However, beyond this, there is a deeply poetic relation between Doris Purchase’s palette of deconstructed picture making materials and how she re-deploys them. Fundamental and integral to our notion of Poetry is the concept of metaphor. The Raw Material works (and indeed her earlier works) operate as metaphors for Painting that explore its parameters, its processes, its intentions and its ontology.
Bugs in my Head at Propeller Gallery in Toronto, in 2023, saw Doris Purchase further distill her exploration of Painting through metaphor. In this exhibition she uses the signature elements of her materials palette to go beyond individual assemblage pieces. She creates an array of similar-sized, smaller constructions, which are presented on the gallery wall as installation. Sliced frames, wires, screws, and quotidian connectors are composed with great wit and re-imagined as “bugs” in all their variety.
Bugs in my Head is an ode to the thoughts that roam through my mind, crawling about most incessantly in the dark hours of the night. The thoughts are mostly the same; they are recycled versions of themselves. And so I have embodied them in my signature way—by recycling my old art, giving new life to the frames, wires, screws and nails which make up my work. DP
The “Bugs” are composed on the wall with great verve. They signify as charged compositional components of a large work, yet at the same time, they are a myriad of separate works complete in themselves. Metaphorically they are akin to a cloud of flying insects or indeed, if one conceived of the work as a painting, then it would not be fanciful to think of the bugs as brushstrokes. Doris Purchase’s work invites this sort of reverie, this sort of conjecture, and that is one of its many strengths. Each Bug is, in fact, a vibrant construction of her quotidian materials, each endowed with – somehow – a separate “personality”. There is a sense of the magical, of an invitation to the viewer to indulge in the extraordinary, whilst still recognizing the elements as being composed of ordinary materials.
Whether through her earlier reconfigurations of Paintings, her assemblage pieces or in her Bugs installation, the constant in Doris Purchase’s work, is a deep respect for Painting as an artform. Paradoxically, whilst she makes works without using paint, they are nevertheless suffused with a sense of reverence for the art form even as she deconstructs its conventional attributes. In her work, Painting, in an almost metaphysical sense, is present even in its absence. Her deconstructions are not those of a postmodernist nihilism – on the contrary, they are metaphors, paeans to the power of transmutation, of changing prosaic materials into poetry through imagination. They are all indeed, a celebration of the human imagination.
Geoffrey Nawn 2023
© Geoffrey Nawn All Rights Reserved.
© All Photographs by Doris Purchase. All Rights Reserved