Michelle Ussher: Two Eyeballs on the Run-Looking for a New Head to House. Part One. Review by Steve Sinn
In Michelle Ussher’s new series of paintings, formal abstraction is composed as a layering of moments, a layering which allows the first gesture underneath to return within the final mark, to return and yet at the same time to recede. This becomes an abstraction where one amorphous form folds into another, one opaque colour is opposed to another, one light wash of paint passes over a more delicate detail. Yet despite this dynamic, each painting seems to be within the same tonal range, so that what is different is composed with the same, or a subtle shifting between the same and difference is composed within the one. This abstraction is used by Ussher to refer to the human body, or to the space that is in-between bodies.
Within one of the more purely abstract paintings the symmetry of the familiar face/vase or ‘figure-ground’ diagram is included. Positioned out to one side, the perception diagram has been exaggerated, stretched vertically from top to bottom, and incorporates within its uniformity the paintings wider abstract complexity. What this means is that rather than the usual binary that flips back and forward between the recognition of two faces silhouetted in profile (nose to nose and lips to lips) and the between space defined as the outline of a vase, there becomes a more enigmatic interplay between knowing and not knowing, between the known and the abstraction that always seeps through. This interplay defines the relation space, the gap between bodies, as being shaped by both the knowing order of symmetrical reciprocity and yet also by that which is unknowable, or that which is irreducible returning, which cannot be pinned down, which is as yet to be cast into the structure of comprehension, that always slips through my fingers.
In the rest of the series its classical antiquity that gets absorbed into Ussher’s abstraction, with order, reason and classical beauty being represented by a him/her pairing of figures that seem to resemble statues from ancient Greece. One of the ways that these representations of the body are incorporated into Ussher’s indeterminate forms is by the body being taken apart or only partially revealed - a hand is alone without the rest of its body or a head has been lobbed off. This is not so much a vandalism but rather the body rearranged in piece, never complete. Within Ussher’s softly spoken abstraction the fixed order of classical form falls apart and becomes shaped by the mess of life. Not the mess of life as disorganised but rather the mess of life as the space in between that forms a relationship, the space that is part of me and yet beyond a full grasp.
The other way in which the classical form is incorporated into the movement of Ussher’s abstraction is in the idea of the ‘trace’(1) . The trace as the mark of what came before, that has its own order, that returns as an interruption which complicates any clear assembly of signs. One example of this is in the larger dominantly red painting where a male figure is slouched, his head is bowed forward and his vertically outstretched arm supports a female head. The head tilts to one side as if it has rolled away from a previous position, a position marked by its trace, a trace where the same head sits upright, both preceding through and recedes behind a light wash of colour, a mark that is beneath the final surface, like a time just past, only suggested toward.
Ussher’s abstraction as a layering of indeterminate forms suggests an otherness that is yet to be cast into the order of comprehension. Like the glimpse of a detail, or like catching a glimpse of the other person who just passed by, only as particular, never fully whole.
1. I am thinking particularly of the way in which Emmanuel Levinas defines the trace in his 1965 essay Enigma and Phenomenon- the trace as the otherness of the other person, an otherness different to the light or clarity of a present, that comes before cognition and interrupts the ordering of comprehension.