John McLaughlin

Untitled, John McLaughlin, 1951

McLaughlin is another painter with whom I see a lot of conceptual resonance. He was interested in the ‘void’ in Japanese painting in relation to our relationship to nature and the universe. This is somewhat mirrored in my interests in origination and the state of the universe before the big bang, and my ongoing question of the ground in relation to the object.

McLaughlin had an interest in “replacing” the “excess of individual expression with a “neutral structure” (quotes from Claudine Humblet’s language). This “neutral structure” (McLaughlin’s language) emphasizes the anonymity of the painter-as-subject. The void in his works is a lack of the painter’s subjectivity that is restrained in order to allow the viewers’ subjectivity / knowledge / experience to dominate. This is certainly compatible with my interests in self-erasure and process over expression in art.

It seems McLaughlin wanted to challenge interpretation by avoiding stable and particular readings. The painting is a site that facilitates the viewer’s integration of “ideas, conditions and events”. For McLaughlin, the void allows the subject matter to become the “viewer’s consciousness”. This seems quite aligned with my thoughts of dreaming and mind wandering. Perhaps the abstract painting provides a focus for the viewer in engaging with their own mind-wandering processes. There seems to be a shared interest in questioning perception and reality in relation to representation; for McLaughlin, the void lacks a clear subject matter and challenges interpretation; for me, the artwork (or at least the dreaming machines) question perception itself and the process of the machine’s perception is emphasized over content (where ‘content’ is often borrowed / taken from the world, rather than constructed).

McLaughlin’s belief in a “philosophy of relativity” and “interconnection of physical phenomena” (quotes from Claudine Humblet’s language) seems related to my own questioning of subjectivity and my critique of boundaries as artifacts of cognition. My critique is certainly in tension with McLaughlin, who makes an argument for the rectangle and the hard-edged composition as being “neutral”. His compositions are hardly neutral and I would argue the Hard-Edge itself is highly imbued with bias and cognition and far from pure. Is a sine-wave or Gaussianoid arguably more universal than a rectangle? Being a postmodernist, I would argue that purity is an impossibility. Could even a Rothkoesque colour field with no clear boundaries and only uniformly undulating gradients of colour be “pure”? This tension between Hard-Edge and gradient is interesting in the context of the ZF. From the early sketches I’ve avoided picking sides and the choice of hard or soft edges is randomly determined. The ZF could combine hard and soft edges randomly and be both super soft or super hard in a single composition. In the early sketches, the softness was insufficient to approach a gradient or sense of a lack of boundary.

McLaughlin aimed to eliminate “ambiguity”, “illusion of volume”, “interpretations”, “any gestural element”, “movement”, “rhythm”, “contrasts of color and texture”. In the context of the ZF, the lack of intention means the composition may or may not follow this doctrine, but the emptiness of the ZF seems to invite the viewer more deeply; since there is little human intention to produce particularities in the system, it’s the viewer that determines whether such compositional constraints are valued or not. The system should emphasize a breadth of possibility while also being constrained according to the breadth of colour field painting.

Returning to subject matter, there is also the sense in which the void holds “spiritual substance” (Claudine Humblet’s language). The ZF lacks any soul (and my own materialist leanings would lean towards all of us lacking soul) and it is more extreme; it’s not filled with spirit, but filled with the lack of life and independence of us. McLaughlin also includes content in the choice of colour, which is meant to “…heighten the viewer’s awareness of life” (McLaughlin’s language). The random colour in the ZF cuts against any intentional content in individual compositions. The viewers’ implicitly drive the colour and perhaps colour as readable with emotion (assuming that is likely to increase perceived value) is analogous to McLaughlin’s intention.