The Pomona College Museum of Art is pleased to present Project Series 41: Ginny Bishton. For the exhibition, Bishton presents new work from two separate projects. One of the series features large collages made from photographs of improbably vivid fruit and vegetable soups. The second consists of minimalist, grid-based pen and ink drawings characterized by the accumulation of tens of thousands of marks.
For over a decade, Los Angeles-based artist Ginny Bishton has been creating a personal, idiosyncratic body of work that includes meticulous, labor-intensive photo-collages and drawings. Bishton links her personal activities and studies—cooking, gardening, hiking, and reading—with formal explorations into conceptualism, minimalism, photography, and drawing. Bishton’s works are often based on her daily life and routines, and explore, as the artist states, “the perceived value of quotidian activities and minutia.”
While for some time Bishton’s work has explored labor as revealed through the intensity of her artistic processes, the larger scale of the works created for this exhibition forefronts an even more direct correlation between the object and her attentive labor over time. Bishton carefully creates and controls every element of her artistic process. For example, she grows some of the vegetables (others are bought from farmers’ markets) that color her homemade soups, which become the visual material of her collages. Similarly, she painstakingly prepares and primes the paper surfaces of her intricate and repetitively hand-gridded drawings. This careful attention to every detail is manifested in both the precise and thoughtful dedication to each individual mark or element in each artwork, and in the quiet beauty and integrity of the finished product. Simmering below the surface of this attention and care are social and ethical implications for our society’s indifferent and careless consumption of the labor of others. This aspect of Bishton’s work profoundly alters our expectations of art and art’s activity.
Ginny Bishton’s exhibition is the forty-first in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, and Bishton’s first museum exhibition. The Project Series program has always relied on the good will and generous support of many individuals and groups, in particular, longtime supporters the Pasadena Art Alliance.
Sonia Campagnola Essay
Ginny Bishton: “A Room of One’s Own”
The image of the artist’s studio is an archetype in art history: a dense space loaded with the artist’s presence and history, almost like a revelatory self-portrait. For the artist, it’s a place not just to work but also to observe oneself. For us, it’s a window into that private dimension.
Often the studio has been the subject of the work itself; just think of Bruce Nauman’s explorations of his own space in his performances and video recordings. Historically, the studio—or atelier—was a trope of humanist iconography. It was epitomized by Saint Jerome in His Study, an iconic image of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that was painted by many artists in many versions, each interpreting the studio as a place of solitude—an essential condition for any spiritual, intellectual, or creative activity.
The studio of Ginny Bishton is in a shed annexed to her house in a verdant, residential neighborhood of Burbank, a city within greater Los Angeles. It is illuminated by clear light, clean, ordered, not too big, with a large central table on which she pursues her collages and drawings, while a timer tracks her long work sessions.
To be more precise, her studio starts before the shed’s door. It encompasses the garden, the house, the kitchen, and the hiking trails of her neighborhood. Gardening, cooking, and walking are indeed part of her art process. That is where her daily life takes place, and that is the source of her work. Daily life, time, and labor are three paradigms in Bishton’s lexicon.
The photo-collages from the Walking series (begun in 1998) are a good place to start. During her daily hikes, she carries a 35 mm camera and takes pictures of the vegetation she encounters, bushes and flowers, based on their colors and nuances. After printing the photographs, she accumulates them in piles to create her own color arsenal. She randomly marks the prints on the back and cuts out small circles a few millimeters in diameter. These are then glued onto a sheet of paper according to serendipitous patterns, mainly dictated by color. The results are labor-intensive, multihued, detailed, abstract collages derived from a daily routine in which the artist observes her surroundings.
Composition is a recurring subject in Bishton’s works. Although a distinctive factor in her aesthetic, the composition, for her, is what requires the least amount of time and concern. Almost indifferent to the idea of composition, she is more interested in the work involved than in its design. In fact, in spite of a system of self-imposed rules (each action occurs in planned sequence), her work is animated by a spontaneous impulse, an instinctive drive to let go that may be read in opposition to a given work’s layout.
In the Walking pieces, photographs are randomly shot, minuscule circles are randomly cut out, and these circles are randomly glued side by side in indeterminate directions; in her Abstract series of drawings realized with ink and pen, Bishton labors over layers and layers of circular and rectangular clumps until, as she puts it, “they are dense enough.” And in another photo-collage series, the Soups, the graphic composition is a pretext that she designs and then deviates from along the way. Rules and individual circumstances each play a critical role.
Order and Disorder—what Alighiero Boetti titled his most laborious endeavor a few decades back, the 199 arazzi embroidered by Afghan women—are key words in Bishton’s oeuvre. Like Boetti, she finds creative energy within such oppositions; a system of rules is balanced against a spontaneous approach.
In Bishton’s Soup series (started in 2006), order and disorder, the predetermined and the indeterminate, are part of a long, complex process of production. The work starts in the vegetable garden or at the market, and then moves to the kitchen. Using experimental and uncommon combinations of variously colored fruits, berries, and vegetables, she cooks soups (that she eventually eats). The soups have saturated colors ranging from bright reds to dense purples, violets, blues, browns, greens, yellows, oranges, and grays.
She pours the soups into bowls and photographs them from above so that, once cut out from the original context, they become flat, abstract circles of different colors and dimensions (two to four inches in diameter each). At this point, the work migrates to the studio. Here she sketches mock-ups of possible abstract compositions, which she will end-up following only vaguely, in order to arrive at an approximate count of soup bowl photographs that she will need to print and cut out.
The next step—which is the most intricate and time-consuming part of the process—is the composition of chart-like drawings containing circled numbers, each corresponding to a photograph with a specific color, size, and position. Finally, freely interpreting her own diagrams, she glues onto paper the photos of the soup dishes, which at this point are used as colored geometric units.
This transformative passage from a practice that is strictly related to the sphere of phenomena (walking, cooking) to that of ideas (abstract composition)—and by extension from figuration to abstraction—makes Bishton’s work dense, meaningful, and compelling. As with any process of transmutation, it requires devotion and labor-intensive effort.
Bishton conceives of labor not as a duty, an obligation, but as a moral value. The etymology of the word “labor” is Latin; originally it meant “effort, struggle, toil,” indicating work that is repetitive and physical, as opposed to another Latin lemma, “opus,” which refers to work of an artistic, intellectual, or political nature. Labor is the foundation upon which our societies are based. If for Voltaire it meant a way to “save us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need,” for Hegel it was an occasion for fulfillment—a way to express the self.
Activities such as cooking are conventionally associated with women’s work and are typically undervalued. Confined within the realm of the household, they are often disdained as non-critical, non-intellectual pursuits. More generally, the labor related to the food industry, from gardening and farming to cooking, is vitally important, yet it is one of the least acknowledged and most poorly paid. For Bishton, the work involved in the Soup series is a way to re-affirm the dignity of such occupations.
To Bishton’s mind-set, labor is repetitive, time-consuming, and it requires patience. But unless the viewer is informed, the photo-collages from the Walking and Soup series don’t betray the long, potentially tedious operations that their productions entail. This composure recalls what in the Renaissance was considered an important virtue, the sprezzatura. A term now in disuse, sprezzatura indicates the appearance of ease or nonchalance when performing a difficult action. It implied a sense of style and equilibrium in the midst of demanding circumstances. In that sense Bishton’s language conveys a classical vein.
This stretching of time, or lengthening of the work pace, is already embodied in earlier works realized by Bishton while still in school at the University of California, Los Angeles. The Soup series seems to derive from an untitled work from 1995, a wall installation of about 1,200 black-and-white contact prints that delineate the perimeter of a room in a double strip. Each print looks like a still in a stop-motion sequence of the artist in her kitchen baking bread—except each photo was shot on a different day over eight consecutive months. Appropriating time itself, she broke down the duration of one action into a paradoxical number of discrete gestures.
Everyday life, cooking, the kitchen: these inevitably invoke Bishton’s predecessor Martha Rosler. If Rosler intended to reveal the repressed conditions of women, Bishton’s project is not politicized in a direct way, although it is implicitly rooted in a feminist milieu. Although cooking is not addressed as a gender issue, it instantly recalls domesticity and women’s domain.
For both Rosler—think of her landmark work Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975)—and Bishton, the house—and more specifically the kitchen—is a semantic environment. The kitchen embodies the attributes of gender roles and hierarchies. It is the place traditionally inhabited by women, where the ritual of cooking is consummated. Instead of avoiding contexts normally associated with femininity, Bishton uses them to engage her convictions. In so doing, she asserts the autonomy of her choices and rejects clichés.
More than awaking images of domestic life, Bishton’s realm evokes the image of a writer at work. Her work happens in solitary performances, perfectly adjusted to the spirit of Los Angeles—an atypically private metropolis where daily life can easily elapse in isolation and the expanded landscape is a force that morphs the perception of time.
Especially reminiscent of the pace and the labor of writing is a new series of abstract drawings that Bishton started in 2009. Realized with ink and pen on gesso-prepared paper, these untitled drawings consist of layers of rectangular bands casually arranged so as to leave empty white areas on the paper. Each band is the result of a dense agglomeration of signs, the overlap of four layers of lines traced by hand with four different colors (deep violet, red, green, and purple) in four different inclinations that create a dense, purplish mesh.
The pace for working on these drawing is extremely slow; Untitled (2010, 60 x 42 inches) and Untitled (2010, 48 x 42 inches), each took a month of solid work. Here again the work is based on orthogonal geometry and grids, but the result is an organic composite neither too clean nor organized. The variety within the repetition and the grid structure recall the reflexive drawings of artists such as Sol LeWitt or Mel Bochner, or, more appropriately, Eva Hesse—remember her series of drawings from the mid-to-late ’60s, which consist of patterns of crosses or circles meticulously rendered with black ink wash and pencil within the grid of graph paper. Like Bishton’s abstract drawings, Hesse’s were patiently composed over time. The composition is simple; what emerges is the time they required.
Time is not just a device but also a subject of Bishton’s semantics. The work marks the passage of time. Similar to a calligraphic script, where the letters and the words are the tangible manifestation of a laborious process occurring over time, Bishton’s accumulations of drawn lines, photographic dots, and circular soup modules function like alphanumerical characters in an abstract and private system of communication.
The notion of writing as labor also recalls the reclusive methodology of German artist Hanne Darboven, who has been deeply significant for Bishton. In fact, Darboven, who passed most of her life in her family home in Hamburg, in a secluded studio/house that she cultivated to protect and develop her work, referred to her geometrical diagrams, calendrical formulae, and restless cursive notations as “writing.”
In homage to Kurt Schwitters—to whom the house also had a special value, so much so that he transformed part of his into a sort of modernist kunstkammer (Merzbau, 1919–1937)—Darboven realized Kurt Schwitters (1987), a wall installation that records the year of his death day by day, each day accompanied by a photo-collage of her own house’s interior and exterior.
As Darboven paid tribute to Schwitters, an artist with whom she identified, Bishton honored the memory of Darboven after her death with the work Im Gedenken an Hanne Darboven (2009). Mirroring Darboven’s handwriting, she transcribed by hand two obituaries from German newspapers on graph paper and covered each word with vertical, horizontal, and oblique lines, leaving a white negative space that expresses Darboven’s signature cursive scrawl.
Darboven’s words resonate profoundly with the nature of Ginny Bishton’s art: “The most simple means for setting down my ideas and conceptions, numbers and words, are paper and pencil. I like the least pretentious and most humble means, for my ideas depend on themselves and not upon material.”*
Sonia Campagnola is an art critic and curator based in Los Angeles. She is an editor for Flash Art International, and her work has appeared in publications for institutions such as the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and KölnSkulptur 5 in Cologne, as well as in a variety of periodicals including Frieze, Rolling Stone Italia, Art + Auction, Artinfo, Mousse Magazine, and Afterall online. Since 2007, she has been assistant curator of the non-profit organization West of Rome Public Art in Los Angeles, where she helped curate exhibitions such as Women in the City, an on-going series of installations by female artists in public spaces.
* Hanne Darboven, “Artists on Their Art,” Art International 12.4, 1968.