Amy Schissel: Art in a digital time
Finding a sense of resolution inside all the Tower of e-babel Systems Fever, new paintings by Amy Schissel
What a curious thing is the Patrick Mikhail Gallery, simultaneously the most prestigious and nondescript commercial gallery in Ottawa.
PMG is way up on Bank Street, across from the South Keys shopping centre where art otherwise never goes, in a strip mall that wouldn’t stand out even in a contest of sad strip malls. Yet Mikhail’s small stable of 20-or-so artists is pound for pound the most impressive in Ottawa, including Jonathan Hobin, Andrew Morrow, Michelle Provost, Adrian Gollner, Cindy Stelmackowich and, showing this month, Amy Schissel.
Schissel’s status as a rising artist of national repute was stamped last fall, when she was a finalist for the $25,000 RBC Canadian Painting Competition. She didn’t win, but the national nomination testified to why she was wanted by Mikhail, who, perhaps more than any other Ottawa gallery owner, looks outside the city to sell the works of his artists. Schissel, meanwhile, just hopes her new paintings are not “a jumble.”
Her show, titled Systems Fever, is a series of seemingly frenetic and vivid abstractions, as if someone had carved a data port in a Jackson Pollock painting and pumped it full of random data. Schissel is looking outside our analog world to find inspiration in the e-tower of Babel that is the Internet, the fledgling universe of “invisible information flows that cut across cities, hover over continents, and seemingly negate the need of geographical location for human interaction and communication.” She has only one question: how will this digital world change painting?
She’s not posing that tiresome refrain about painting being dead, which Chicken Littles disguised as forward-thinkers raise every time a new technology comes along. She’s merely asking how painting will change, and there’s no question painting will change in the digital world. I believe the Internet and mobile gadgets are changing how our minds work in a real and fundamental way, and changing the very patterns of how we communicate and relate. If that’s true, then painting must change somehow, perhaps marginally, perhaps magnificently.
Schissel is trying to envision this change and capture it on canvas and board, which she covers in layer after layer of media and then switches about until it works. “This piece was up here, this piece was over here, so they’re always moving around,” she says during a visit to her studio in an east-end apartment, pointing out a half-dozen panels that have been assembled into one large image. “Finally, they have their location or their spot and ... that’s when they’re finished.”
It sounds easy and glib, but it’s not. The spaces to be covered are huge — the biggest painting in her apartment, Neurocity, at 13 feet by nine feet, barely fits into her apartment — and all the works are obsessively, meticulously covered in layer after layer. There’s paint, ink, paper, all added, removed, added again, scraped off again, air-brushed, dripped. As we speak she roughly rubs residue (or something) off a painting, and I marvel at an artist who can be so confidently brusque with her works.
“I’m trying to stick to the analog and tactile way of painting, but address those kind of issues in terms of how the images are set up,” she says. “When I’m working, in a way I’m trying to relocate myself within this sort of digital interconnected world, where you can be everywhere but nowhere at once.”
At first the larger works defy comprehension, but as she talks about painting in the digital world — she did her Master’s thesis on the topic at the University of Ottawa — all comes into focus.
The images are everything and nothing, an ambiguous mass of shapes and information that defies tradition’s demand for a centre of gravity. She points to different spots on the vast canvas and says that each spot, each hub, is its own centre of gravity, and suddenly it makes sense: the digital world is not heliocentric, revolving around one massive body at the centre, it is a system of infinite hubs with no one heart, no one brain, not even one purpose, much less meaning.
Yet as I stare at the epic Neurocity it becomes clear that all does revolve subtly, even vaguely, around a centre of gravity that is, conveniently enough, at the centre. “I just can’t have it be completely chaotic,” she says, “there does have to be some sense of a resolution. I don’t want it be a jumble, I want there to be a sense of vastness and landscape, and something hovering over top. I want there to be a flipping between things that are recognizable and things that are abstract.”