Project Series 26: Judie Bamber
For nearly fifteen years, Los Angeles painter Judie Bamber has created exquisitely crafted representational paintings that investigate illusion, memory, perception, and temporality. Bamber incorporates traditional image making strategies that interrogate both the veracity of the photographic image and the artificiality of a painted image. Painting from photographic sources, she blurs the boundary between a mechanical record and a human mark. The diverse subject matter she has addressed encompasses culturally and auto-biographically charged content ranging from explicit paintings of female genitalia to nostalgic watercolors of photographs of her father to seductive seascapes.
For this exhibition, Bamber presents new paintings in the plein-air tradition. Shifting from the photograph as source, the artist first made watercolor studies of the Pacific Ocean from her former home in Malibu, then translated those images into oil paintings. The seascape paintings seemingly shift from minimalist abstractions to illusionistic images of the sea and sky, revealing the dichotomies between the artificial and the real. Gracefully rendered in subtle washes of color, the images simultaneously record the enduring relationship between the ocean and the sky and the constantly shifting color between the two. Bamber combines meticulous refinement and sensual corporeality with an intellectual rigor, exploring through evocative paintings personal and cultural subjectivities—connecting intensely private explorations with experiential studies of nature.
Judie Bamber’s exhibition is the twenty-sixth in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of focused exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
Our first idea of the horizon is as a line where the sky meets the earth. The horizon is a line that we look at every day, yet always recedes from us; a place of aspiration and finitude. In Judie Bamber’s new paintings the horizon exists as motif and thematic lodestone. It anchors the compositions and also provides the metaphor. The physical truth of the horizon is that it is always a plane, not a line, a plane where two membranes engage and whose actual edge is elusive and mutable: a plane like a painting.
We think that to make a painting requires sight, but in fact painting is a species of touching, of enriching the fickle perceptions of the eye with the action of the fingers, arm, and wrist. When we paint something we touch it by proxy. Vision prompts action, a series of strokings, whose characteristics become known as the painter’s hand. And when we look at paintings, part of us is tracing the history of that hand, noting the agitation of the stroke, the flight or drag of the brush. As we are inventorying those passages of tactility, we are experiencing the syntax of the painting: the pace at which the ideas in the work are being presented, and the order of their presentation.
We experience vision as overall and instantaneous. Touch however, unfolds through time, and even the glossiest surface provides us with the sensation of rapid movement across and through it, a movement that is a different order of experience from vision’s immediacy.
Every painting contains these two kinds of time coiled within it: the flash of vision and the trail of touch. Canny painters know how to make the two agitate and enrich each other. In Bamber’s paintings, looking, touching, time, and remembrance are in intimate conjunction.
The quality of Bamber’s painting practice has been evident in the ease with which she has grasped the medium’s truths and the changes she has rung on them. One of her earliest paintings featured paired Masonite cutouts, painted in the style of mid-century commercial illustration and mounted in a box. By moving the attached tab, you could make the figures’ hands touch and separate, join and part: emotional connection and distance played out in a toy theater. Later she painted scrupulous still lives in which single objects (canned fruits; a dead, infant bird) were isolated in the midst of monochromatic fields. The diminutive objects were painted at a one-to-one scale, which lent them a surprising grandeur. Single entities took their stand against an indifferent, moody universe. The titling of these paintings usually took the form of emotionally charged phrases. The intimacy of address in the titles disrupted the cool affect of the images; again distances were mingled, both in the paintings’ making and in our encounter with it. Of this group, there is one that stands out as an early emblem of tactility and evanescence: a bruise, rendered with the coolness of Chardin.
Here was an instance of touch and its emotional aftermath fused with minimal chic, to unsettling effect.
These were followed by a series of remarkable images of vaginas also painted at one-to-one scale, on chunky wooden panels. These portraits provoked an even greater experience of bodily engagement with the work, not only through their subject matter, but also in the proximity they demanded of the viewer. To be seen properly, one had to move to a distance that was roughly analogous to that of the painter. This intimacy of viewing harkened back to the intimacy of making, and through it to the vulnerability of personal encounter. To paint something is to provide oneself with the permission to look at it, of course, but it is also a way to take ownership of it.
At the root of representational painting is the desire to possess something through its depiction. The painter makes a thing that is not a thing, an image that gains in value because of the care of its making, its rarity. Dutch still lives, with their hybrid, evanescent flowers, their rare shells and glasses, provided an index of possession designed to withstand the vicissitudes of time, amplified by artistry. The possessions are fleeting; the artist has transfixed them by making them into an image. And yet our act of possessing that image visually is even more fleeting. In this light how can one possess the horizon, even as a view?
Throughout the still life and vagina series, Bamber used photographs as aids in the painting. Her next paintings moved photographic reproduction and its many confusions to center stage. She began making watercolors of family photographs, focusing on those that contained images of her father. At this point she abandoned the one-to-one scale and abstract passages of the earlier paintings. At first puzzling, this strategy makes sense when we try to think about size in relation to the photograph. In the previous paintings there was a correlation between the physical object depicted and the resulting image. This relationship allowed for a kind of embodiment on the part of the viewer, bringing us back to the solid ground of our daily existence. But photographs are rarely ever the size of what they depict. They almost always rely on reduction or expansion, and even in our hands they invite us to plunge in, to enter a wonderland of detail that is divorced from our physicality. Bamber’s family watercolors existed in part as an excavation of this disembodiment and a rebuke to it.
More than any other material, watercolor requires the artist to cultivate the virtues of patience, control, and grace. The concentration demanded to practice watercolor painting successfully is the polar opposite of the mindset one has while taking a snapshot. There is something poignant and unsettling about using this delicate and rigorous medium to investigate images that were made in moments of supreme casualness.
The photograph is made in an instant and purports to be the record of an instant; the painting takes months. And yet the snapshot’s offhandedness can result in documents that retain an enormous power to determine the ways in which we read the narratives of our lives. For Bamber, the early loss of her father, and his subsequent presence in her life solely as an image marked a kind of terminus, a place of emotional collapse. Her paintings of these images then are an exorcism. The snapshot is remade and the experience of making it recasts the experience of viewing it. The image’s power is confronted and worked through, by being turned into material. In the arc of Bamber’s practice these are her history paintings, in which the action of recalling the past is made complex and haunting, not by the easy palaver of nostalgia, but by the scrupulous translation of image into deft maneuvers of hand and brush, alchemies of pigment and water.
Bamber’s paintings have moved from genre to genre: still life, portrait, history painting, and have come now to perch in landscape, or, more accurately, seascape. For the past few years she has been painting the Pacific shore near southern California, first in watercolor and then in oil.
As records of an image, the paintings look like one thing, as records of a sensory experience they look like something else entirely. In the first case, they represent a glance, the sea and sky fused in an instant. And yet when it is time to consider the act of their creation, we see these paintings as the unfolding of hours of looking and moving. They are the representation of a moment, and the literal embodiment of a much longer engagement. As we look at them, they pass rapidly between these two states: seemingly graspable, slyly baffling. Their subtlety in orchestrating the confusion of those boundaries echoes the subtlety of the passage from water to sky in the image, the way in which we are unable to say exactly when we have shifted from looking at one to looking at the other.
These paintings make it clear that there is a world of difference between an ambiguity based in evasion or fear of confronting the difficult or painful, and the investigation of indeterminate states, ambiguous in their very nature. The latter is a place of meditation, a tool for thought. Our search for the edge, the horizon, moves from our desire to resolve the image to our understanding of the impossibility of doing so. It is an experiential recreation of the moment the paintings depict. That point in time is captured in all of its complexity. Bamber’s paintings reproduce the way in which abstract thought becomes an ordering principle of vision. When we are in the moment, we are in a place of the concrete and the abstract simultaneously.
It is important that these are paintings of the Pacific—the terminating point of American westward expansion. From a place of completion we gaze into a haze of potential that arrests our gaze and yet offers us back nothing that could orient us. We have come to the end and are released, ultimately into ourselves. From a moment of ending and regret, the paintings wrest an injunction to action, to movement and continuance.
Nayland Blake is an artist, educator, curator and writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He is represented by the Matthew Marks Gallery and is the Chair of the ICP/Bard Masters program in advanced Photographic Studies.