Published by Duncan of Jordanstone College, ISBN 1 899 837 51 5
In 2003, Jim Pattison made a pair of small apparently abstract prints Interference, combining digital and screen-printing techniques, each with a centrally placed, somewhat blurred, circular motif marked by a few darker, broken smudged lines. Recognisable (if not immediately) as the retina of the eye, they are in fact based on images, from 1999, of the artist's own eyes. The smudged lines represent broken blood vessels, the result of high blood pressure and the first indication of the renal problems that form the context for the works in this exhibition. For a visual artist, any threatened impairment of the sight must be difficult to contemplate and though, as it proved, he actually faced other dangers, these two prints eloquently express the demanding nature of the project that is presented here. The artist has not only had to deal with a serious medical problem but has set himself the task of assimilating that experience into his art and sharing it with others. How he has done that and what the results are, are the subjects of this essay.
The decline of social deference has been felt powerfully in politics and, perhaps a close second, in medicine. Patients and doctors are engaged as never before in dialogue about illness and treatment while, in a more general sense, the public sphere is permeated by advice aimed at preventing ill health and promoting wellbeing. The patient's need to understand and make sense of diagnosis, treatment and prognosis is recognised in the right to information. This is given, not least, in recognition of the benefits that can flow from the patient gaining a measure of control over their condition. While this may involve self-administered treatments, the psychological and emotional aspects that play a part in healing or in coming to terms with life-threatening or even terminal conditions are also involved. At the societal level too, contemporary medicine constantly faces new challenges arising from new treatments and technologies, problems of resource allocation and accessibility, and public expectations. High-profile cases arise from time to time that focus on the plight of individuals vis-à-vis health trust or government policies - and sometimes force changes in policy. At the not too noble level of self-interest, we tend to be fascinated by such events when happening safely to someone else, but we know it could all too easily be us: our turn will come. The combination of ill health, complex treatment, technology and recovery is becoming more common in an ageing population. In modern medicine, the personal truly is political.
It is for reasons like these that an exhibition can arise from a highly specific medical source (in this case Jim Pattison's experience, between 1999 and 2002, of renal failure, dialysis and kidney transplant) and go beyond that to speak to the collective interest that we share as human beings. It is also a particular instance of the more general question of how scientific knowledge (and research) can be assimilated visually for presentation to a wider public. The works, then, are his reflections on that time and what it meant to him. They are autobiographical but in contra-distinction to, say, the paintings that John Bellany made following a liver transplant, Pattison's visual language is not representational, at least not in a direct sense. Pattison does not make himself the hero of his own drama: his visual language does not permit that. 'He' remains screened, not revealed as Bellany was. He is an abstract presence suggested by various visual metonyms. This is key to seeing how Pattison has assimilated his experiences into his art, and how his art has changed in the process. Bellany's paintings served a therapeutic purpose and so did Pattison's, for it seems that neither were content to make sense of what had happened simply by grasping the medical facts. Both, self-evidently, had to translate their experiences into their visual worlds and through that achieve a sort of integrated understanding that, perhaps, they needed most. 'Visual thinking' means not only the free imagination or seeing visual solutions to 'problems' but, more specifically to an artist, means assimilating experience into the existing visual terms of their work and creating new terms under that pressure.
Translation is central to Pattison's project, but it would be only slightly fanciful to say that a sort of transplantation of the medical into the aesthetic were also in play. His translations are based on two essential elements. The first is the problem presented by the experience itself, including medical terminology and the 'hard' process from diagnosis to after-care, but also its 'soft' aspect, the psychological and emotional experiences engendered by diagnosis, living with the condition, facing surgery and inescapable reflections on mortality. Second, there is how the medical technology, including body scanning and 2- and 3-D imaging, could be paralleled using the technologies of visual art.
The two elements, experience and technology, are not separate. For the artist, the use of technology (and technique more generally) has a physical reality which is part of the process of finding and fixing the expressive image. The process is not about forming a distinct mental image and picturing it; rather, the mental image (usually affiliated to previously achieved images) exists in a potential state until united with technique, the possibilities of which give it form. It is the integration of these elements that makes Pattison's work so subtle. He has not sought to depict his experience. True translations aren't literal or illustrative but create parallel structures that illuminate both source and object. The physical aspects of medical intervention have not escaped incorporation into Pattison's visual complex; they are subsumed into its very fabric.
The backbone of the exhibition is the series Urea, Creatinine, Haemoglobin, which runs like a chant or litany through twelve variations. How often the artist must have heard these terms, all measures of renal function, during his treatment. The words themselves are reproduced in Urea, Creatinine, Haemoglobin 3, for example, stark and unavoidable as they must have sounded to the artist. Each word appears in front of a grid of associated coloured images. Like many patients seeking information about their condition, Pattison turned to the Internet. What we are presented with visually is each term accompanied by details of images that a Google search for that word returned. Some are relevant, many irrelevant, some identifiable, others not: a random grouping that suggests information overload. The problem of distinguishing the meaningful from the meaningless makes the work, it seems, a metaphor for the artist's (any patient's) confusion and anxiety confronted by such a welter of information, and the need to find order and meaning in it. In other works of the series, a different inflexion emerges. In Urea, Creatinine, Haemoglobin 4, the words are viewed through a screen of verticals which create a sensation of transparency and opacity, as though the words and their meanings are only half-grasped, and the medical condition they allude to, however intimately experienced, left frustratingly intangible. The formal structure creates a visual metaphor for something real and present but somehow ominously elusive. But aesthetically, it shows how fully the non-visual idea can be incorporated into the visual. It may be objected that metaphor obscures meaning, but Pattison's work of course is not intended to be illustration. What he is attempting, through a process of reflection and translation, is to find the condensed visual terms that catch a whole, not an objectified, experience, and absorb it into the weft and weave of his work.
The next work in the series, Urea, Creatinine, Haemoglobin 5 (2004) makes the most complete statement in that respect. In these three large canvases the structuring principle is layering, which includes the idea of showing and concealing, using organic and geometrical elements derived from medical images and molecular models. However, the words themselves no longer appearing, the formal play of these elements now seems to be free and for its own sake. The paintings are fully abstract though rooted in representations, but which themselves are abstractions. In them, Pattison fully unites the train of visual thinking triggered by his medical experience with the formally adaptable structure that he has evolved as an artistic language. This language is already an idiosyncratic amalgam of abstraction and illusionism, with a remarkable adaptability that can absorb (and be changed by) non-visual influences. The series as a whole is not simply about his experience of illness. While some works refer to it directly, in others such as these it is sublimated and metamorphosed into an abstract vocabulary of layered and ambiguous spaces and interplays of shape and colour until, as content, the origin is in no way evident. His subject is always simultaneously (as it must be) his own art. He is driven by a desire to see what happens when new ideas are applied to his visual world.
Rather than thinking of this visual world as a ready-made container for meanings, it is better imagined as a construction that reverberates and alters in response to new stimuli. Like mutations, some of these changes may be persistent, leaving their mark over a period of time, while others may be ephemeral. When artworks may be approached as content-laden, as here, their formal identity risks being overlooked. Pattison's works are formalist, in that they are not concerned with showing the actuality of illness (as Bellany did) but are about transmuting it into objective, visual terms. The experience becomes the source of new structuring principles, that is, it is 'made sense' of in aesthetic terms.
Pattison's way of overcoming the physical and mental reality of illness is through a visual language that takes that experience into itself and creates works that are beautiful, crafted achievements in their own right. Craftsmanly making is part of Pattison's artistic instinct, whether in painting or digital printing. Two contrasting examples bring this out.
Exchanges (2004) is an allusion to the process of kidney dialysis that he underwent for three years before his transplant. The array of repeated forms (found in a previous body of work that seemed intuitively right for this) are 'filters' that, though not in any way literal, signify for him the function of dialysis to clean the blood. Each form was printed on canvas, then cut out and mounted in its final position, to give the work sharpness and intensity of colour. Laborious and precise, this work refers to the time- consuming process and repetition of dialysis. In the digital Portpatrick Sunsets, [1995) the serial 'planet' and 'star' forms are inter-dependent images formed of sky, cloud and sunset light. The illusory forms that come and go in the blue depths catch the sense of freedom that came from finally escaping his daily servitude to dialysis, but tinged with melancholy and awareness of the fragility of life.
One sin of writing about an artist's work is to imply that a linear progression (commonly the writer's invention) is always afoot. Another is to pretend that every work will fit that narrative and will lead to an uplifting, neat end. However tempting those might be for a writer, life and art are not like that. My metaphor of visual language as an adaptive structure includes the idea that its changes are not predictable, despite whatever continuities there may be. Because we can't even be absolutely sure that the sun will rise tomorrow, let me dispose of those myths now: there is no fairy-tale in Jim Pattison's work that leads from medical trauma to final aesthetic resolution. The works are not serial, reasoned propositions. They are intuitions and inventions that lead to further inventions and new resolutions. The process is open-ended and not prescriptively linear. Different directions are pursued and old ideas returned to for new development. The works shown here do not end with Urea, Creatinine and Haemoglobin 5 or the Portpatrick Sunsets. They may (and we can't even be certain of this) have been the end of particular lines of visual thinking, at least for now if not forever. Other possibilities were also being generated within the structure.
Technical experimentation is a powerful formative agent in developing and adapting visual languages. For some years Pattison has explored digital imaging allied to painting, two very different technologies and aesthetics. He has also produced purely digital works, such as the Portpatrick Sunsets. And, while he has used the digital as a route to the painted image, he has also used sculptural form as a means towards digital works. In this development, not predictable on the basis of the earlier works here, Pattison confounds any comfortable conclusion for this exhibition or this essay. Using molecular models of urea, creatinine and haemoglobin as a starting-point, he made a series of small sculptural objects for each, not so much works in themselves as tools to aid his visual thinking. Two other 3-D models Pills 2 and Haemoglobim 8 were made next by scanning the sculptural forms and producing them on a rapid prototyping machine
These three-dimensional works are the source of two large, powerful and disturbing digital prints entitled Pills 3 and Haemoglobin 10. Perhaps the most difficult and confrontational works in the exhibition, they are different in character from the rest. The singular objects they represent are shown in undefined space, like molecules, cells, or perhaps viruses. Their unpleasant brittle-seeming plastic tactility, complex structures and unhealthy colouring suggests unaccountable and alien presences, arrived from somewhere unknown. These images don't ask to be liked. They are certainly not made to be liked. In them, something has pushed through the filters of the imagination and risen to the surface, something uncomfortable to contemplate. I think this has two causes. First, we may be looking at Pattison's deepest unconscious characterisations of his illness, at the otherness it represents to him. Obviously, this has no basis in medical actuality. Perhaps more like Blake's Ghost of a Flea, they are forms that emerge unbidden from the imagination charged with latent psychic force. They are also uncomfortable because they don't fit with the earlier work into an easy narrative. Images can be as indigestible, inexplicable and disturbing for the artist as for the viewer (or writer). They tell us that art doesn't always change in increments, through gradually accumulating minute mutations. As in the body so in art: change can be sudden and consequence-laden. We can see where they came from - the small models - and so we can tie them back in a sequential sense, but what they express is not to be defused by that ploy. Look at them. These are hard pills to swallow. Are they one-offs or do they point to a new line of development? We have no way of knowing yet.
As though to demonstrate the non-linear nature of visual thinking, in Stenosis (2006), the most recent of the works here, Pattison returns to the use of text and, notably, to his own body scans. This austere, monochrome work is the most directly autobiographical in the exhibition. The word, which means a constriction in a blood vessel, appears in white across a series of blue-black vertical and horizontal scans of the artist's body. In the centre is an image of his kidney with its network of blood vessels, the eponymous stenosis clearly visible. Though small in scale, the declarative single word, combined with images of his own body, produce the most dramatic image of his own situation that Pattison permits himself, and it gains great power from that restraint and economy. The medical challenge is not over, treatment is ongoing, and for Pattison that means its exploration in visual terms is not over.
The experience of serious illness and major surgery is life changing in the most obvious sense. Life, afterwards, can't be taken for granted. I think that this points to other general aspects of Pattison's work. In the richness of colour and lively interplay of space, form and image that is characteristic of many of his works, it is hard not to see the ebullience of an energetic and optimistic life-force, which contrasts with more sombre and troubling works. Though thoughts of illness are largely metamorphosed into elements of visual structure, once in a while they become inescapably evident, which shows (it seems to me) that the pursuit of an aesthetic resolution is not complete, if it ever can be. I also wonder if the work does not express some change in the artist's sense of self and personal identity as a consequence of his illness and transplant.
The position I have taken here, that the artist has been impelled to assimilate his experience into his work, implies that his art is nothing less than his identity. The translation of the one into the other may be interpreted simply as the psychic aspect of healing, but that leaves much unsaid. Medical technologies as well as cognitive science has undermined the Western myth of the unitary self. Through blood transfusion and organ transplant, for example, patients make use of and depend on donations from other people's bodies. Whether identity is conceived of as God-given soul or social construct, to see with another's eyes or to rely on any organ that was once another person's, or to have unknown people's blood in our veins, challenges the absoluteness of personal autonomy. However subtle, a change has taken place: what was perceived as exclusive is opened, physically and psychologically. It is the latter dimension that suggests some final thoughts on the work.
The integrated field structures in Pattison's work offer a good metaphor for such a psychological shift. The use he makes of the Internet as a source of images and information is one example. This most heterogeneous, democratic and dispersed field (and his way of representing it) surely stands for the merging of the one in the many in a kind of digital 'body politic'. Equally, the oscillation in his work between such fully resolved abstractions and other unbidden, self-challenging images, catches the same sense that a psychic work is in progress, as yet without finality.
“ In the mind things stand for other things. A work of art stands for something which is not present to the viewer in the same sense that the work itself is present.” - Harold Cohen.
In June 1999 I was diagnosed as having renal failure and underwent C.A.P.D.
(Continual Ambulatory Peritoneal Dialysis) until July 2002, when I received a kidney transplant.Throughout the processes of diagnosis, dialysis and transplantation I have been aware of a need to make a visual sense of these new experiences and their associated language.
The translation of information from medical condition into medical terminology, the communication and subsequent ordering of this information is complex, and moves through various forms. This series considers the parallel information transfers and shifts between digital technology, with it’s potential to move, re-position and re-form information and images, and the ways of exploring, mapping and transforming information which occur in one’s own thought process.
For the past ten years my work has concentrated on the transfer and manipulation of images and information using digital technology, and the translation and re-modelling of virtual digital images into paintings, prints and sculpture. The artworks are the result of a desire to make these virtual images real, or tangible.
In 1996 I first gained access to a 3D virtual modelling programme, and re-worked a Uccello drawing of a mazzocchio form using this technology. A mazzocchio is a complex geometric form which was once used as a test of perspective drawing skills - this drawing problem seemed an appropriate test for the 3D programme. The ability of this software to deal so quickly with this complex drawing problem, I personally found remarkable. A resulting printout of this form was used to design and build a shaped support for a large scale painting, and also to translate the image onto this custom-built surface. An initial group of paintings based on the mazzocchio form evolved into a wider series of shaped paintings and prints - Colour Maps, which considered the perceptual processes which make it possible to re-interpret two dimensional images as three dimensional forms. This work also considered the relationship between on-screen images, created using programmes which mimic traditional processes of mark making and sculpture, and the finished shaped, painted and printed results.
More recently, in the series Layers, I explored the potential of digital software to move and overlay images and forms between 2 and 3D programmes, and considered ways in which the resulting contextual shifts generated might offer metaphor, and feign an illusory, or unseen, reality. A resulting series of paintings, screenprints, digital prints, woodcuts and rapid proto-type models tested and explored various media as means of translating the virtual into the actual. The focus for this work lay in the relationships between the input, the subsequent manipulation of information, and the problems, and solutions, of output.
This current series,Translations, continues my investigation into the potential of digital technology to transform and re-model information. In this case the source material is drawn from specific experiences and language of dialysis and transplantation and considers how 2 and 3D digital modelling processes might be used in order to re-form this complex information into new and personal images and models of these events.This series of digital and autographic artworks - paintings, sculptures, and prints, are a visual response to these experiences and consider ways of translating transfers and shifts of data into alternative visual forms.
The source material for this work was gathered from various sources including the internet, my own medical records, and photographs and memories of situations and events. A range of 2 and 3D digital and autographic processes were used during the processes of manipulation and re-forming of the initial information and the output of the artworks. This series of work has appropriated the use of scanning and imaging processes parallel to those employed during processes of medical diagnosis. Specifically, this research has has greatly benefited from having access the 3D scanning process. This facility has allowed me to expand and develop a range of digital, and autographic, input and output methods, and has significantly extended the options for my investigation into the translation and re-forming of information between one source, or media, and another.The option to scan 3D sculptural forms,which would be difficult, or impossible, to model using virtual 3D software, provides the opportunity to place these forms in various software programmes, allows me to consider and change aspects of the models, enanles me to place them in various environments, to view permutations, and to suggest options for their output.
The processes of diagnosis, dialysis and transplantation can be confusing and overwhelming.
Mapping and transforming these events into paintings, prints and sculpture, has helped externalise some of these experiences, and has heightened and enriched my own understanding of these ongoing events. These images and models are not intended as illustrations, rather as intuitive translations. These recent experiences have been integrated into my own visual language and have greatly extended its vocabulary.