Essays & Media

Questioning ‘Coddiwomple’

Lucy Jackson, 2017

James R Ford, Untitled (painted arrangement #3), Take Care (painted arrangement #4), 2017

A few days after I had seen James R Ford’s exhibition, Coddiwomple, at Precinct35, I tried to engage a couple of friends into the world of Ford’s art. I probed them, almost put words in their mouths. “Do you see it? Can you see it? It’s like a face, and an arm reaching up beside it.” One friend saw it, and the other, who has a degree in art history, did not. I questioned her further, “It’s called Take Care, do you see it now?” I urged her to see something in the painting. Still she did not see anything. The truth was, I was also trying to convince myself there was something recognisable in the painting that I could connect with —a pareidolia of sorts.

I spent my time after the conversation looking at the paintings and drawings, struggling to make connections. Eventually it dawned on me: I was not meant to see anything in the artworks; I had fallen into a trap—an experiment of sorts. I had subconsciously yet willingly taken part. There was nothing to ‘get’ or to ‘see.’ Instead, these artworks represented the awkwardness of not understanding contemporary art, the current state of contemporary art within the white cube space, and our personal relationship and process of understanding contemporary art practices. Therefore, I found this whole review a coddiwomple of its own. It was more an experience than writing something that represented the artworks themselves.

Coddiwomple, meaning to travel purposefully towards a vague destination, is an exhibition of thirteen paintings and drawings here displayed in a white cube space. A selection from two series of Ford’s work, Potential Drawings and Painted Arrangements, Coddiwomple features a monochromatic palette, canvases painted white with dashes, lines and dots of black paint. Some paintings, such as Take Care (painted arrangement #4) and Untitled (painted arrangement #6) are more realised than others; lines and shapes join together and there seems to be a deliberate composition. Others, such as Untitled (painted arrangement #7) are seemingly random: the shapes, lines and dashes do not have a relationship. The oddities are Untitled (painted arrangement #11) and Untitled (painted arrangement #12), with a non-monochromatic palette, but muted nonetheless.

The paintings are more painterly, almost more considered, and not quite as random. Their placement is purposeful and elegant. However, this deliberateness is not without a story, as these two artworks, along with Untitled (painted arrangement #10) and Untitled (painted arrangement #9), were originally different pieces of art.

James R Ford, Untitled (painted arrangement #10), 2017

Ford bought paintings from second hand shops, masked off some of their markings, and then spray painted them white. Once we know that narrative, we can question whether it changes our perception of what we see. From these isolated marks and shapes, can we make out the scene of the earlier painting? When looking at the artworks all together they appear at different points on a spectrum from randomness to purposeful, but we have to assume that—regardless of shape, composition and storyline— every mark made by Ford is purposeful.

Ford’s Coddiwomple is not about the final conclusions that viewers come to. Instead, it is about the viewer’s understanding of the process they undertake. As Ford himself suggests, there is ‘no right answer’ 1. Rather, the urge to ‘get it’ in Coddiwomple is about accepting that every person’s perception of these specific works is different and unique. Coddiwomple represents all art in this way. That is part of its allure.

Coddiwomple encourages us to consider our own relationships to art, how we search for meaning and recognition, and the acceptance of not knowing exactly how these relationships work. The ‘vague destinations’ that the definition of Coddiwomple states, are the different perceptions and interpretations of the artwork that the viewer has. There is no single destination, intent, or meaning. Ford’s exhibition is hugely dependent on its visitors.

In a critical response by Hugo Robinson to the artist’s previous work, the epistemological enigma of ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’2, is noted as pertinent to the contemporary art world, and Coddiwomple. If nothing is written about the exhibition, if there are no conclusions or perceptions, then the artworks remain in limbo, without a destination. This encapsulates just how important visitors are in the role of contemporary art today.

Given Coddiwomple is so dependent on such engagement, accessibility is important in the execution of the exhibition. Writer Martin Patrick has previously said that “Ford’s art is highly sophisticated in its references but, in an entirely generous fashion, retains an accessible feel that offsets the potential challenges to the viewer”3. This exhibition rebuts this notion and retracts accessibility. We are challenged, regardless of our artistic literacy.

I often ponder and critique contemporary art’s lack of accessibility and exclusion of people outside of the ‘art world’ structure. I want as many people as possible to allow contemporary art the attention and critique it can lack but still deserves. One day contemporary art will become historical art, and these writings will become an integral part of art history.

The difference with Coddiwomple is that although it is aimed at people outside the art world, it is also aimed at those within, and both parties take part. Personally, I felt questioned on what I consider contemporary art to be, my relationship to it, and how I come up with a conclusion. I feel myself unable to comment on questions of good / bad, validity and meaningfulness, as every conclusion is individual: there are no universal themes or feelings. My only intention is that this text acts as one conclusion for Ford’s work, and may help the work become accessible for others to go through a coddiwomple of their own.

Extremely common to the contemporary art phenomenon is the notion of the white cube space. Brian O’Doherty’s explanation of the white cube space is as a gallery that subtracts any clues of daily life, isolating the artwork from its surroundings and filling it with a presence that can become divine, almost religious in nature 4. Ellie Lee-Duncan further analyses this concept and states that the white cube space can allow for art works to be “viewed on a purely mental plane”5. Ford’s Coddiwomple conforms to this. Nothing distracts the viewer, for the black and white paintings stand out individually in the space and command attention from the viewer. We are almost forced to take in Ford’s works, as there are no other distractions.

James R Ford, Untitled (potential drawing #26), 2016

Robinson, in response to the Potential Drawings, writes that the white cube space can also be seen as a protective space for contemporary art to be interpreted and respected, devoid of external criticism 6. However I see Ford’s work as making us think about that paradigm, to critique it. We are encouraged to interpret as we see fit, and question both the artworks, and the white cube in which they sit. Is Ford taking a stance that contemporary art needs to be challenged outside of this bubble?

O’Doherty’s assertion that the white cube space transforms the gallery into an almost religious-like sanctuary, alludes to a belief that must be present to experience contemporary art. In the press release for Coddiwomple, the artist asserts that his work “addresses ideas of perception, absurdity and belief”7. As viewers of Ford’s work, we must take a ‘leap of faith,’ trusting the art to deliver the conclusions we need or desire. Its absurdity—that is, its randomness, illogicality, even ridiculousness— and our perception of the art leads us to question whether we really believe in the nature of art. That is a question you yourself can answer. For me, I have continued to think about the works for a couple of weeks after seeing them. This means they have been successful in their challenge.

Through illuminating the white cube space, and the current nature of contemporary art, Ford allows himself and his artwork to be opened up to critique. What remains different in Coddiwomple is a self-realisation of the system he is working within, and what he must fight for, or against. After proof of hundreds of years of art history, I believe the most challenging and engaging art is that which questions the system it is working within, and highlights and recognises this both in its construction and execution.

When it comes to Ford’s work, it seems almost irrelevant to give a conclusion, and maybe we shouldn’t try. Hopefully after all, as I have elucidated here, every conclusion when it comes to art is individual—therefore mine probably will not matter to you in the end.

There is no doubt that Coddiwomple is a challenging exhibition. However if you take the time to understand it, and go on a coddiwomple of your own, the art promises a realisation in your own relationship to contemporary art. Is Ford is playing a bit of a joke on us? Or is it necessary for us to question our own system and our position within it. There is a blurring between right and wrong, that allows us to use our imagination. And we are often left with more questions than answers, questions that challenge us to consider our relationships to art and life itself, and what it is that we believe in.

For me, there is also a sadness that comes with Coddiwomple. It is the realisation that although we may be able to explain art to someone (the process undertaken, the medium, the artist, its progression), the conclusions we draw may still be different and not always positive. Needless to say, there will always be people who will have no appreciation or patience for this subject. Their dispensing with it, as a conclusion, is as a result of a coddiwomple.

(1) James R Ford, Coddiwomple, press release, 2017.

(2) Hugo Robinson, “If a Tree Falls”, 2016.

(3) Martin Patrick, “Work, rest and play,” Art Collector 69 (July-September 2014).

(4) Brian O’Doherty, Inside the white cube: the ideology of the gallery space (1976), University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1999, 14.

(5) Ellie Lee-Duncan, “Neither here nor there,” in Walking the ridge: writings from the 2017 Adam Art Gallery Summer Intensive, ed. Christina Barton (Wellington: Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, 2017), 12.

(6) Robinson, “If a Tree Falls,” 2016.

(7) Ford, Coddiwomple, 2017.

Originally published: EyeContact, 9th October 2017