Grid Paintings 25 Years

07/03/2018 - 29/03/2018

Julia Ritson

Julia Ritson
Untitled 1515


oil on linen

26.00 x 26.00 cm (each, diptych)


Grid Paintings 25 Years

Hannah B Higgins, 2017

The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man, & when separated From Imagination and closing itself as in steel and in a Ratio Of the Things of Memory, It thence frames Laws & Moralities To destroy Imagination, the Divine Body, by Martyrdoms & Wars. (William Blake, Jerusalem, III, 1804-1820)

In his poem Jerusalem, the British poet and engraver William Blake appears to be demonizing reason in clear terms, “The Spectre is the Reasoning Power.” Reason, in Blake’s account, brackets imagination, “the Divine Body,” by narrowing life down to “the Things of Memory,” an official version of the past mangled by “Martyrdoms & Wars.” This cruel Spectre’s steely grip shapes the world mathematically, “in a Ratio.” This power takes visual form, at least in the West, in the grid, a shape routinely associated with the unnatural or forced rationing of materials and ideas on behalf of power. 

This perhaps explains why freedom, in contemporary terms, is often equated with living ‘off the grid,’ and therefore free of the constraints of urban planning, government regulation, and corporate power. The history of the grid portends such a reading, since new grids tend to emerge with the appearance of new hegemons: the church (musical notation), capital (the ledger), standardized language (moveable type), or the commodity (the manufactured box). While it may be argued that each paradigmatic grid could be, and has been, adapted as steely reason in the service of a hegemon (the church, capital, the state, corporations), these dominating effects occur, as Blake also writes, when reason is “separated From Imagination” as a social framework that “frames Laws & Moralities To destroy Imagination, the Divine Body, by Martyrdom & Wars.” Formally ambitious artists in all media, in other words, are in an interesting position as experts in forming imaginary worlds (and new forms of embodiment for this one) through the mechanism of organized form.

Warped, bent, broken, and moved among the many materials that use grids, experimental composers, poets and artists (meaning all forward thinking creative makers in their times) counter the hegemonic force of each grid by subjecting it to the powerful human imagination, the human body, the human ear, and the seeing eye. This occurs whether the artform is read, felt, heard, or seen, or all of the above. In his paradigmatic essay “Intermedia” of 1966, Fluxus artist Dick Higgins imagined this much, “Much of the best work being produced today seems to fall between media. This is no accident. The concept of the separation of media arose in the Renaissance.”

In our time, the early 21st century, we are clearly experiencing a paradigm shift as the result of the information grid, an inter-net, which was the subject of the last chapter of my book, The Grid Book. We are bearing witness to the transformative power of this grid on everything from corporate capital to the nation state, religious orthodoxy, and community structures. This newest grid is similar to the hegemonic grids of the past insofar as it, too, contains and reshapes the grids of its forebearers, or more precisely, as artists subject it to the formally competing human power of imagination and embodiment. Each grid remakes the world in its image, so to speak. 

It would be a mistake, following this logic, to describe Julia Ritson’s contemporary engagement with the grid as necessarily related to Pablo Picasso’s Cubism, Piet Mondrian’s Constructivism, or Agnes Martin’s Minimalism as those earlier, painterly grids were engaged with critically assessing the dominant grids of their times. Picasso famously shattered the screen of perspective and replaced it with shards and cubes (loosely speaking) that pierced the screen and exposed the viewing subject to a world newly defined by the homogeneous space of the newly ubiquitous manufactured box. Similarly, Mondrian purified his eye of its early, Cubist engagement with the world of things by imaging the screen in its most platonic, dematerialized terms; terms so pure that the painting became indistinguishable from its status as a flattened, materially purified, Modernist object. Finally, working generally in the aesthetic arena of Minimalism, Agnes Martin replaced the painterly surface of Mondrian with pencil, producing an image of the grid that took Mondrian and Picasso one step further, to a representation of the Modernist idea. In this action, Martin approached the dematerialization of the object associated with Conceptual Art, but (unlike most Conceptual Artists) retained the commitment to the human spirit theorized by Blake as central to the imagination’s challenge to Ratio, to rationality. 

Julia Ritson’s painted grids no doubt belong to this lineage of artists who use grids in imaginative and embodied ways that challenged the hegemonic grid and grids of the Modern era. In art, historically, we can and should see in Ritson’s drawings of broken pencil lines, an homage and challenge to Martin’s measured mind and line. Similarly, in irregular sizes and various color schemes of her painted grids, we can and should see an homage and challenge to Mondrian and, insofar as her colored grids do not include the objects and icons of Paul Klee, an homage and challenge to him as well. The question becomes, what is the nature of the challenge? These are paintings, after all, so their challenge lies within the formal logic of the painted surface as opposed to the overtly dematerialized domains of social practice or performance or new media art.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan theorized media as existing on a spectrum between hot or cool. Hot media were experienced easily, taken in at the level of (in today’s terms) the spectacle. A Hollywood film is usually hot, the story occurring on the other side of a transparent screen in immersive terms that bracket self-conscious or media-critical viewing. Most experimental cinema is, by contrast, cool. The medium is seen in time, or its material nature made obvious, cuts and edits being overtly made so as to interrupt the narrative flow in what Bertoldt Brecht called a Verfremdungseffekt. It stands to reason that, especially at the moment when a medium is young, the novelty of its form makes it ‘cool’ in comparison to what happens down the line, as the technology for a given medium is better understood and shaped to the communications strategies of the powerful forces of its time. Film has moved from an experimental phase in the 1890s, for example, to a very hot current phase. Alongside this trajectory, of course, art film has continued with its experimental aspects reminding the viewer as to the range of temperatures to which a medium can be set. The avant-garde is, therefore, both part of the culture industry, but also independent of it, depending on the temperature.

We can make precisely the same claim for Internet art. The earliest forms of computer-based art were cool in the extreme. Whether James Tenney’s computational music at Bell Labs in the 1960s, or the early graphics of mainframe art of the1960s, the audience had to work to see the medium at all. In the last forty or so years, by contrast, the commercial internet has evolved hotspots and cools spots, that is, places where (while all internet is to varying degrees interactive), it is warm or cold. The shopping behemoth, Amazon, would be such a hotspot, for when it is functioning as it should, ads for whatever we seek appear almost miraculously. The shopper need not shop, in other words, since every desire appears as information only a click away from consumption. There are, as always, artists in the wings experimenting. Thus, like commercial film and Hollywood film, there are cool and hot forms of internet culture. 

Poet and internet activist Kenneth Goldsmith has theorized a world of ‘lossy and jaggy’ media, which, following McLuhan, require effort to be interacted with. The term ‘jaggy’ refers to the jagged, pixelated forms of, for example, low resolution jpegs and gifs: “But for some artists, the distortion of low resolution (a cool or weak image) is a gateway to twenty-first-century abstraction.” This description of image compression describes perfectly the strange effect of encountering Ritson’s painted forms of people and places. One has the sense that “If I could just get back far enough, I’d see it.” It feels an awful lot like the photographs of the German artist Thomas Ruff, who transposes from very low resolution internet photographs.

Except that they are not.
Ritson is a painter.
A beautiful and obsessive painter.

Whereas Ruff’s photographs are mechanically reproduced, if I may borrow from Walter Benjamin’s terminology, a gesture that captures the aura of the event while dissipating its auratic power as an art object, Ritson’s paintings invert the logic by introducing the hand-made image back into the internet schematic. Each tone, each gridline, each encapsulated box, reflects a human decision-making system interfacing with this new grid form. Imagination, in the Blakean sense, is in play. These forms could no more have been made by the grid-based artists of the past than Blake could ponder an imaginative and embodied Ratio-based artform. As a viewer caught in the interplay of jaggy imagery and human marks I feel a certain cooling, a welcome cooling in the mediating sense, of my over-heated, captivated, internetted, life.

i Dick Higgins, “Intermedia,” Something Else Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1, February, 1966, 1.
ii Kenneth Goldsmith, “Lossy and Jaggy,” Wasting Time on the Internet(New York: Harper Books, 2016), 182.6 


John Wardle, 2018

Because Julia’s paintings are almost always of a small scale, to appreciate them we must walk toward them. In doing so, this process is akin to walking toward and then into a small room.
Like a good room, many of the works operate on various levels suggesting layers of structure then a fabric of precisely arranged panels of colour. The works are immersive and sometimes terminate the experience in a single plane of extremely measured flat tonality. Others establish, through shifts within the grid structure and layering of colour, a perspective that invites further movement forward, as if from within one small place we are drawn to another. These are places for full concentration and almost always a central focus with little to distract at the periphery.

What does engage the viewer varies remarkably over the many works produced over the many years ofJulia’s painting practice.We have one pair painted in2008 (Untitled 0808 p 23)that is drawn from a smalldetail within Margaret Preston’s Purple Astor, 1920. An interesting scaling occurs as Julia’s appreciation of a great Australian small work draws her to only one small part of its composition, then in converting through pixels of referred colour, those details are enlarged but arranged onto a canvas of even smaller scale. While Julia defers to Margaret Preston’s status when describing this process to me, I must add that the quality of this composition and application of paint in many layers on the canvas’ surface continues to draw me into its tiny paired spaces of remarkable mastery.

In a recent work painted in 2014 (Untitled 1407 p 60-61), a near perfect perspective is created as the shifting grid of dark tonality at the edge gives way to an assembly of uneven grids of intense light and colouration at the centre. Some small panels of colour appear abrupt and intentionally at variance with the even tonality of those that hold the composition’s overall structure. They are like much that we find interesting in life, the moments of unevenness, the breaks in consistency, the small surprises. These two works (both pairs) provide a remarkable counterpoint of accordance and discordance. One terminating and containing experience, and the other extending its range.

In another work, a single large (well, large for Julia) panel, (Untitled 1715 p 83) the intense overpainting of small layers conveys moments of lustre and luminosity. The experience of viewing by shifting positions from fully frontal to oblique causes a remarkable change to occur as these most vivid elements of reflective surface become voids in a more recessive composition. Changing light on a surface is a reminder of the recording of time within the spaces we inhabit. In some ways, this may also be referring to the passage of time in accordance with Julia’s description of her process of working on her paintings over time. Intervals of many months on a single work will occur before it is brought back to her small desk, examined, rotated and further small blocks of colour applied, and new layers created before being rehung for further contemplations over time.

Another work painted in 2006 (Untitled 0602 p 21) appears different to many others. There is no build up of layers and no thickness or lustre applied as the fabric of the canvas is revealed throughout, covered by only a single wash of colour. Pencil lines simply drawn mark the division of each grid of the many greens and browns suggesting the original set out. At first viewing, this work appears, dare I say it, slightly unfinished or itself a cartoon for a next more complete version. It does suggest however a different type of place. Its pencil lines can be read as fences in a landscape not quite flat. Possibly more agricultural than horticultural, the variance of colours suggest a broad landscape subdivided into many small places.
I’m frequently fascinated by both the process of making and the places where things are made. Julia paints directly with no ruled set out or masked divisions between the many small panels of colour. It is a particularly free hand that steers the brush. Julia applies the term ‘grids’ when discussing the compositional logic of these works. But they are not the continuous and aligned grids of architectural composition or the constant weft and warp of textile design as they are rarely continuous nor maintain constant alignment. These grids are imagined and possibly refer to variations in colour and tonality that are first applied then recalibrated during the course of their making.

In many of the works, the duration of time is expressed as many layers of overpainting are revealed by a slight misalignment of edges or a variance in thickness between adjacent blocks of colour. They are held by her hand and rotated as each side of each small block is delineated. Reference materials of many books, photographs and others’ artworks amongst her own surround her in a small carpeted room that appears much more study than studio. It is in itself a finely considered, deftly composed and, to me, immensely interesting small place.


Joseph Brennan, 2018

For a long time I didn’t understand.

Visiting her apartment as a child was a curious kind of sport for which I wasn’t adequately skilled. Her tools were always stowed in a separate room or a hidden corner. They needed to be sniffed out. We would open a closed door and at once be surrounded by upturned brushes and small bottles of turpentine - decanted into glassware like cologne or liqueur - and the coarse, uncomfortable plainness of unprimed canvas. There were faint synthetic smells that I couldn’t place. There were unwashed palettes. And there, affixed to every conceivable surface, were the objects I sought - displayed with an orderly precision that called to mind trapped specimens more than paintings.
As is typical of children who find themselves in unfamiliar rooms, I was eager to make sense of what I saw. But I didn’t know what any of it was supposed to be and so I attempted to decipher all possible meanings.

At first they were simple things. Confetti, building blocks, confectionery and road maps.
There were squares. Then squares upon squares. Then boxes with sharp inclines on their longest sides and corners overlapping gently like collaged cellophane or soft felt. There was peach and petrol blue and a foul, furious orange. Rectangles entangled themselves with drain pipe complexity or remained delicate and compressed like coloured barcodes. Sometimes they were laid in meticulous order like the rows of a box of chocolates, untouched. Other times the squares were turned on their sides and became a generous flow of diamonds, or a pair of argyle socks. 
Often they were not squares at all, but rude patches of colour with edges roughly faceted like gemstones and no strict relationship to one another. They were toothpaste tubes, squeezed beyond recognition. They were expanding, soapy sponges. They were the interlocking fibres of tweed up close. Sometimes they were a messy desk strewn with paper and handwritten notes. Sometimes they were tree trunks, lean and dehydrated.

When they were brown they resembled vast fields of crops, drought-ridden and unreaped. The air filled with dust. When they were green, they called to mind the dense lushness of pirate maps from alien isles. Abrupt red shapes marked the spot - buried treasure and booby traps. From time to time only a few bursts of colour were visible within a black expanse. They called out to us - hopeful and sad.
When the columns were painted especially small they echoed the precarious towers of wooden blocks that my sister and I would build on weekend afternoons, always verging on thundering collapse. Other formations spread outwards from the centre of the canvas - a heart burning bright pink with the angry heat of an infection or the scar behind a scab. Sometimes the heat was different, more nurturing, and it expanded throughout and beyond the plane like the glow of a kiln. There were bright, erect crucifixes in lime green and violet. Other times just a dark and humourless assortment of greys and browns. Sometimes I was told that they were finished, but they didn’t look quite done. Sometimes they seemed to be half erased.

I saw all of these referential possibilities because the work itself didn’t want to give away anything more specific. It all appeared to me - as a child, at least - to have come from nowhere in particular. It was all formed, I believed, from the imagination of my magical aunt.
The paintings began to look different as I got older - like the distorted aerial photographs of army bases, or the leisurely pastoral scenes splashed across the front of Hardy paperbacks, or rows upon rows of multicoloured multivitamins. They were reams of Dorothy Gale gingham and pixellated photographs of rainforest lizards, all blurry and enlarged. Eventually I could locate them more distinctly. I could see the Cossington Smith, the Hundertwasser, the Mondrian and the Fred Williams.
This learning was no loss. Even as I discovered the tangible roots at the base of creations once impossibly inscrutable - in their ever-imbricated allusions - there still remained potential for imaginative expansion and revelation. They were still sewage pipes and pirate maps. 

All of my early visits had been marked by a need to understand, to source the disparate geometric patterns back to a singular visual reference. I learned that this process was indeed possible - to link each work to its historical antecedents, its aesthetic stimulus. But this was never the whole answer. As I had accidentally sensed in those first encounters, the gorgeous wholeness of this work is best appreciated when one allows it to be everything at once. For grids painted with such methodical precision, they nevertheless manage to contain multitudes.

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