Alison Woods’ Metaclysmic Abstractions
Mark Van Proyen
The visible world is no longer a reality, the unseen world is no longer a dream.
Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899). 1.
We all know that the word cataclysm refers to any kind of violent upheaval, and some of us also know that it derives from the ancient Greek term for “deluge that washes clean.” Obviously, its meaning has expanded since that beginning, so much so that the rush of events that have defined our world for the past three centuries might now look like one long parade of cataclysmic convulsion, suggesting that if you missed one episode, you needn’t worry because another would arrive in short order. We have also witnessed many moments in the history of 19th and 20th century painting that could also be described as being “cataclysmic;”—consider the turbulent seascapes of J.M.W. Turner, the ecstatic cities portrayed in the Futurist paintings of Umberto Boccioni or the undulant skeins of spattered paint concocted by Jackson Pollock, those being the works that moved Harold Rosenberg to apply to them the dismissive epithet of “apocalyptic wallpaper.” In each of these cases, violent destruction was upheld as being a necessary and co-equal factor that informed emergent creation, and in all three, a cascade of new artistic achievements followed in their wake. Such was the history and art history of that almost bygone era, dramatically earmarked by world war, revolution and rapid technological transformation. But that recognition also asks us to consider another question: how might our own century might differ from the two preceding it, and how will those differences be born out in works of art that are unique to the time in which they are or will be made?
The paintings of Alison Woods provide a resounding answer to that question. They also represent an emergent extension of (and alternative to) the cataclysmic lineage sketched above. In so doing, they beg us to embrace a new term, which I will coin as being “metaclysm” –literally “beyond upheaval” and figuratively “upheaval that takes place in a beyond space.” Her works remind us of how prophetic the above-quoted Arthur Symons’ statement has come to be, for, even as he was reflecting upon the Symbolist poetry of Verlaine and Mallarme, he was also launching a prophetic understanding of the fact that “metaclysim” would become a steadily emerging theme for the next two centuries, first in art then in what passes for life. Metaclysim is the thematic lifeline that gave birth to the para-Freudian marvelousness of Surrealism, the corporately manipulated mediascape that was so deftly charted by Marshall McLuhan, and finally (at least for the time being), the virtualization and subtle neutralization of everyday life facilitated by the explosion of the Internet and Social Media. In each of these instances, the boundary between the real and imaginary was ruptured and reconfigured, and in each of these cases, what appeared to be freedom turned out to be something else—not exactly the slavery that George Orwell predicted in his famous dystopian novel; rather, something more like a highly complicated faux freedom based on the illusion of choices potentially exercised from an infinite number of more-or-less meaningless options that are so because the real realms of power are always located in an invisible elsewhere .
Woods’ paintings locate themselves both in front of and also beyond the realm of the metaclysmic, simultaneously containing, synthesizing and exploding it. As such, they make the dream of an invisible world delightfully real, even as the contents of those dreams might contain oblique, free-floating echoes of anxiety-laden content. While it is true that the whole of Modernist painting can be understood as stemming either from a Symbolist-derived tradition of anxiety-laced subjectivity or another more sensate and anxiety-free lineage that starts from Impressionism and moves to a hyper-pragmatic Formalism spelled with a capital F (an F that also stands for the words “fact” and “fetish”). Our own moment seems to demand that the painter’s art embrace both of those art historical bloodlines by finding new ways of containing and synthesizing the slippages and sharp contradictions that inhere in their dualist legacy. We want our deep meaning and we want our shimmering surfaces too, and we now know that there is no good reason why we cannot have both.
In the case of Woods’ paintings, that synthesis comes from how they formulate themselves in what might be called an infographical space—which is not to suggest that her paintings are actual infographics. On the contrary, they eschew any direct data-driven correlation between specific form and specified circumstance, even as they invite us to imagine the possibility that they might bespeak such a correlation. This point calls for elaboration: we can start with the idea (attributed to John Dewey) (2) that art can be understood as vernacular expression redeemed by the historically-derived codes of high style, and then point to the ways that imaging software has facilitated new ways of mapping data to picture its dynamic interrelations—think of such commonplace things such as stock market charts, meteorological projections, or schematic breakdowns of the distribution languages and dialects. Such things are now very much a part of our day-to-day visual culture, and their usefulness in providing quickly readable summaries of the operations of complex systems cannot be denied. In other words, they formulate themselves as a distinct visual vernacular that is a typical commonplace of our techno-bureaucratic culture of symbolic analysis. But they also have a distinctive and beguiling look, and often times that look reveals much more about the conditions of contemporary experience than any system that they might hope to describe. One aspect of that look is how it establishes what might seem to be new dialectical relationships between particular incident and general systems—restaging the old philosophic problem of the many and the few by a means that discards renaissance-based assumptions about ideal proportion in favor of a more complicated understanding of algorithmic processes. The new factors that drive this restaging lie in the way that we have come to understand how the workings of velocity, turbulence and amplitude affect the arrangement of form, and these factors are given pride of place in the way that Woods’ organizes her paintings.
A particularly good example of Woods’ approach is found in the large three-panel work titled Matrix (2015), which give a hat-tip to the 1999 film of the same name directed by the Walchowski brothers. The well-known premise of the movie is that the quotidian reality that most people take for granted is in fact only a cheerful computer simulation masking a supremely insidious and malefic regime of social control, requiring a small band of hackers to appoint themselves as disrupters-for-the-greater good. Woods’ painting does nothing to illustrate or literalize that story, but it does bespeak the fantasy world in which it takes place. In it one sees a horizontally split composition that bisects all three of the contiguous panels, with the lower register taking up a bit more space than the upper one, which is only faintly readable as a faint blue sky because it is almost completely covered with fluid applications of translucent orange and pink acrylic. The lower register is occupied by about two dozen crisply formed diagonal shapes of dark blue and violet acrylic set against a flat, chrome yellow background. These shapes vary in size (as do the negative space intervals between them), and are flat and glossy thanks to the self-leveling properties of acrylic medium. Some of these are larger than others, and they are often torqued and rounded in a way that makes them seem to jostle forward in a way that seem to have some kinship with the animated forms that inhabit the work of Joan Miró.
This work displays the full range of Woods’ many painterly techniques—it even has passages that are deftly painted with a paintbrush, which in is a tool that she tends not to favor. In most cases, Woods favors pouring or splattering paint of various viscosities and translucencies atop canvases that lie flat on a table. These application modes are usually applied through stencils that Woods cuts from sheets of frisket, and many of them sport stunningly ornate edges. Naturally, the shapes of these stencils were created with a computer using vector-based illustration software paired with image editing applications, but what is most striking is the seamless way that Woods integrates digital shape generation into her painterly projects. As is the case with almost all of Woods work from the past five years, there is an easy balancing of the pronounced tactility of the work’s surface and the emphatic anti-tactility of those aspects generated via computer.
Indeed, one of the more remarkable features of Woods’ work is the vast variety of edges that one sees defining the many shapes that inhabit any given work, running the gamut from crisp to evanescent. This array of edge quality is complimented by an equally dizzying variety of color, which at various junctures can be seen in fully unadulterated primary and secondary hues, while in others, they are deftly modified by tint and shade. The sum total of these chromatic variations creates a dramatic visual symphony of agonistic events taking place in an imaginary space, and in our own time, such a “metaclysmic” display might have a special resonance of anxious delight. After all, we now live at a moment the potential use of weaponized biological agents represents a more fearful possibility than does the diminishing likelihood of a nuclear exchange, and we have already seen the ways where the leveraging strategies of banks have replaced the marshaling of tanks as instruments of warfare and social control. In short, what Matrix reminds of is the fact that new technologies will always usher in opposing possibilities toward emancipation and domination, and for that reason will always be the source of giddy anxiety.
Another recent work that bespeaks Wood’s current concerns and working method is titled Detroit (2013). Like Matrix, it is a very large and complex multi-panel work, but it is somewhat different in terms of the way that organizes space and color. Instead of being organized in horizontal registers, it another kind of duality built around snaking shapes of bright green and yellow moving through a patterned background of subdued greys and browns. Computer graphics devotees will recognize the snaking shapes as being initially formed from the common brush tool that is a staple component in many software packages, and in the painting it is transformed into a reverse-mask stencil that reveals a bright under-layer that pops through and ahead of the more regimented gray-brown field. Intimating an energized burst of new growth emerging from decay, this snake-shape might be saying something about the way that rust-belt cities like Detroit are being revitalized by tech economies, but the capital-intensive aspects of the later may be a labor-diminishing snake in the grass insofar as the wealth distribution model of old school manufacturing is concerned.
It is worth noting here that, prior to embarking upon her career as a painter, Woods worked as a graphic designer at a time when the profession was just beginning to be transformed by the technologies of postscript programing and graphical user interface. After earning her BFA degree in Graphic Design in 1998 (3) at what is now called the California College of the Arts, her first real job in the industry was doing package design for Atari, that early pioneer in the field of popular computer games. Soon thereafter, she was among the very first test users for the software package that would later become known as Adobe Illustrator, which give her an early-adaptor’s purchase to start (with her husband Paul) her own highly successful graphic design company, called Woods + Woods. The company rode the wave of the first dotcom bubble until 2002, when the sharp decline in the economy (felt particularly hard in tech-centric northern California) put the company into dire financial straits, necessitating a suspension of the business and a temporary relocation to Portland, Oregon. Of course, that was right around the time of the stolen election of 2000 and the terrorist attacks of 2001, but what has not been sufficiently noted was how the those events took the wealth generated from the booming tech economy and re-deployed it into the energy, defense and financial sectors, creating yet another bubble that burst even more dramatically in 2008. By that time, Woods+Woods was again functioning as a successful business in northern California, and Alison had enrolled in the low-residency graduate program of the San Francisco Art Institute.
That program was designed for student who wanted to study at a more relaxed pace that would allow them continue with their current professional obligations, and it was a perfect fit for Alison. Although the work that she started her graduate studies with was based in a collage practice, she took classes from Yoon Lee, Amy Ellingson, Frances McCormack and Leslie Shows, all of whom having longstanding artistic involvements with the making of anti-reductivist abstract paintings emphasizing shimmering surfaces and multiple layers of graphic complexity. Some of these artists were also experimenting with ways of using computer software to design and develop their work, and they helped Woods integrate her own much more developed computer skills with the ideas that she had for developing her painting practice.
Upon concluded her graduate studies in 2012, Alison and Paul moved Woods+Woods to southern California, where their business still thrives. Historically, when painters relocate to southern California from the northern part of the state, their work opens up in terms of space and color. Decades ago, this point was proven out by the likes of Sam Francis and Richard Diebenkorn, and more recently it was born out by Woods’ own development. Perhaps we can attribute such transformations to the differences of light and atmosphere that exist between the Mediterranean south and fog shrouded coniferous climate of the north, or they might have something to do with the art historical traditions that inform each region. The distinctive visual cultures of each region might also be an important factor, but one wonders how and if any of these factors will continue to play out as our everyday environment becomes more homogenized (and more virtualized) by dint of economic necessity.
Given this brief, we cannot help but ask a rather obvious question: why does Woods choose to paint? In today’s art world, it is a fair question, not only because there are so many other options available for contemporary artists to use, but also because most of those other options are more of a piece with the ahistorical “metaclysmic” nature of electronic media, unburdened as it is by any necessary mandate for physical embodiment. In our age of alluring, seemingly magical machines, why not serve the gods of self-reflexivity by using those magical machines to lift the curtains that cover their own inner workings? Woods’ work answers this question in several ways. One applicable answer takes the double-edged form of that cautionary proverb reminding us that any glance that looks into the abyss will also allow that abyss to return the favor. In other words, to use the tools of electronic media to critique or otherwise comprehend the more metaphysical aspects and operations of multivalent networks would inevitably fail to differentiate between form and esthetic purpose, meaning that the later would be swallowed and neutralized by the former.
In order to speak about the dynamic operations of networks, Woods’ paintings consciously avoid an overuse of the tools by which they those networks are manufactured, meaning that her work withdraws from complicit participation in that manufacture simply by virtue of being paintings. By virtue of their materiality, paintings are always located in the interstitial space between the present-tense world of material facts and the other-tense world(s) of culturally mandated idealization, so they direct the viewer’s attention to the ways that tangible, embodied experience will always have to contend with a seemingly fluid (read: self-modifying) panoply of signifiers that are in various states of losing or regaining their power to signify. This is the nutshell that describes the long history of painting, which in and of itself becomes yet another kind of “material” that individual painters work with to various effects. While many painters chose to excavate and modify specific aspects of previous historical practices, Woods’ opts for an “all of the above” retort to any kind of dialectical self-specification, in keeping with a general understanding of the post-historical character of our own moment—that being the idea that everything that has happened is still happening all at once, always elsewhere even at it is everywhere to be seen.
Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature  (London: Heineman Publishers, 1980). 5.
See John Dewey, Art and Experience (New York: Perigee Books, 1934). The quote used here is Dave Hickey’s synoptic gloss of Dewey’s important book.
Statement made by Woods in interview conducted by the author in her Los Angeles studio, December 23, 2015. All remarks attributed to Woods are from this source, unless otherwise noted.