Project 3.3: Constructing Narratives – Beyond past stories

Narratives in visual art

‘It is the ‘visual’ that functions as the purest form of sequential art,’ – Jason Lutes (Eisner, 2008a:136)

I find myself struggling with narratives and visual art, especially painting.  Narratives and stories. Maybe, because I am not a good story teller, and prefer visuals, images that can speak, but can a painting truly speak for itself without any external reference? For PoP1 I was looking at how to tell something through my painting (see Keti Koti and research on narratives in painting) With thanks to Helen Tennant, I concluded that narratives could be constructed in monoscenic,  multiscenic or sequential ways, by creating visual drama, using materials that trigger associations, embracing learned experiences and previous images, and through the way of installation (Schaffeld, 2017):

Recently, I explored deeper the exhibition ‘Flatland – Abstractions narratives‘ at MUDAM, Luxembourg (MUDAM Luxembourg, 2018), and discovered that abstract art can construct narratives, overcoming a seemingly paradox narrative-abstraction. I am really intrigued by looking at visual and verbal language not as binaries of copy and original (considering that reception of a narrative is referred to verbal language) but as Klaus Speidel (Derrien ed all, 2018) described a dependance of narration on: Recipient (motivation, skills , knowledge), Context (venue or seeing mode), Presentation (and used medium), and Content represented (nature and degree of explication). He further stated that ‘what matters is the way in which a particular work of art interacts with its references – the manner, for example, in which it rewrites the script on which it draws. What also counts is that there is a rich relationship between its material manifestation and the object of reference’ (ebid). He used the term ‘self-entanglement’ considering the bond between the viewer and the narrative. 

‘A story is the narration of a sequence of events deliberately arranged for telling.’ – Will Eisner (2008b:3)

This resonates with the essay ‘Narrative in Visual Art’ of James Elkins (n.D.) where Elkins considers the purpose of visual art nowadays to avoid any narrative and looking at the past. For him characteristic for photography in capturing a past moment in time. He relates narratives directly with telling stories. If I would consider the above quote from Will Eisner than there is a difference between both: a story is told when events are intentionally narrated in a sequence. Would this not mean that events narrated randomly would not result in telling a story?

Elkins refers to Nelson Goodman and established an extended three tiers of order in narration/story:

  1. order of occurence: past events,  the ‘fabula’, the reason for a story to exist
  2. order of telling: what is distinctive between literature as sequential or temporal narration versus visual art as spatial narration with all elements present at the same moment (different in comic as sequential art). 
  3. order of reading: the way the reader, viewer engages with the work

This could be related back to Saussure’s semiotics and the way he considered temporal and spatial signs. Elkins argues against semiotics in context of visual art, eventually arguing that any interpretation of visual art is trying to find meaning through signifiers without there existence in the first place. What certainly can be argued against. He rather employs examples from Renaissance Fresco cycles, organised in strong symmetries, to show how the order of telling could be so tangled that one cannot ‘read it’.  In that logic, Elkins concludes with an interesting argument by stating that visual art engages around a field of ‘feeling or meaning’:  the field between the viewer getting too close to the artist’s intention of ‘reading’ it (what would let to ‘pure legibility and empty meaningless’ ) and not being able to discern any meaning (what would turn the painting into a mere sign). 

Breaking narratives

Elkins also refers to other sources when playing with the sense of ambiguity in that field, leaving enough space for the viewer to add into. Elements of ‘instants’ as a turning point in the narrative, pivotal moments, or ‘snapshots’ are ‘attempts to break the narrative’ (p.36). Elkins named other ‘breaking’ elements that avoid a of chronological order: anatomy as an outline, epitome as a summary, encyclopedia as a series of short narratives

Visual art plays with certain ‘tools’ (e.g. juxtaposing, superimposing, displacing, transforming) to bring the viewer not to a past but to a possible future, an anticipative view. Or as Vincent Pecoil (Derrin ed al, 2018) described abstract art’s act to ‘transcribe vision as an imaginary space’ and transforming the artist into a ‘visionary whose gaze is turned towards the future’.

For me, the main take aways are:

  1. Visual art narration or non-narration is embracing imaginary spaces of meaning.
  2. Narrative is not story telling, through a co-creation between artist and viewer new meaning can develop. In that sense appropriation is a ‘visual commentary’ (Jan Verwoert) of past events for a future 
  3. Order to telling and order of reading might be quite ambiguous in visual arts versus temporal arts (incl. traditional comics)

Fig 1 and Fig 3 are showing two of my sketchbook explorations that one could consider as narrative, but with some disruptive elements:

Stefan513593 - P3Ex3 'Fragmenting and Recomposing' - sketchbook explorations

Fig. 1: SJSchaffeld – ‘Fragmenting and Recomposing’ – sketchbook explorations

Amy Sillman (b. 1955)

I am excited to see how Amy Sillman and Jutta Koether are going to address those narration questions through crossing borders between figurative and abstraction, through internal and external references. How do they construct narratives with the viewer as co-creator? Amy Sillman’s  approach one of ‘wrestling with the picture, ..with its many changes, ..with the question of whether or not a painting is done.’ and that ‘her paintings have always felt personal and emotional’ (Nickas, 2009:224-227)   

‘The experience of abstract painting is about having a body’ – Amy Sillman 

The animation Draft of a Voice-Over for Split-Screen Video Loop (Exact Change, 2014) is a collaboration between Amy Sillman and Lisa Robertson. Sillman paints digitally with an iPad.  2000 animated drawings aka paintings (what is the difference here?) she responded to the words of Robertson’s poem from 2009 – a 6 min duration dialogue, visually on a split screen, but perceptual on multiple channels.

Hoberman describes Sillman’s digital animation as a ‘mix of abstract and representational imagery … luscious candy-colored palette …. illustrates the complexities of expressing (or denying) femininity when language itself is a gendered construct.’ (Hoberman, 2012)

The work builds on the aspect of concealing, an important aspect of Sillman’s process (ebid.) Initial images are completely covered with new layers obscuring them in the finished painting. The digital animation embraces this process of additive and reductive evolution resulting in animation. One could consider this as a dialogue between abstraction and figurative, a search for meaning out of masses of color and shapes. In a sense playing with pareidolia in images and words, the illusion of a mental narrative. I can very much relate to this process of concealing and revealing as I explored myself during part 2 animated sequence as narratives (e.g Still-Life).

I’ve never heard about Robertson and found out that she relates in her feminist poetry to philosophers as Derrida. Derrida is also a source of reference for Sillman and Koether (see below). The poem explores language, words, as gendered expressions, and adding as a paradox new phrases to subvert the notion of an ‘innocent’ language. Sillman’s digital and performative sketches create a visual response, a unique visual language, a visual dialogue on two screens, or better a split screen. As if the verbal language, a reading of Robertson poem, is not the original that craves for illustration, but as a source of inspiration for an in-the moment gestural and emotional reaction. Sillman’s iPad sketches embrace color, fluidity, flat colored areas, along line markings, layered and constantly changing in transition, within one split screen and between both split screens. There is fast and breathless moving dynamic involved, at times too fast to discern specific static moments, change is the theme – and repetition. Some animated patterns, e.g. the color flooding the figure like shape, are returning, as if to catch up with memories before adding another variation to it. In that sense one could even consider the 6min audio-visual animation as a piece of music, a fugue in tradition of Bach, with up and downs and points of culmination. It is also about combining jokes and abstraction, embracing her interest in writing and cartoons. (Bradley and Sillman, 2014)

Sillman is at ease with combining material painting with digital painting, even to hang the same subject in both media side by side, e.g #841, 2012. A digital print from still from animated drawing alongside a similarly size painting, derived from the digital print from animated drawing’ (Saunders, 2014). Before she made pure digital painting animation she also made stop motion animation, taken with her phone camera from ink drawings, e.g, Triscuits, 2011–12. Her exhibitions do combine both media, with digital sketches as prints (reference to the photography and art as object legacy ?) As if Sillman tries to overcome that notion of commodification some prints from her digital animation work were for sale with the artist remark on the back of each print ‘This image was originally drawn on an iPad (with my finger) & was printed by the artist Nathan Baker on archival newsprint paper. It cost 30 euros to print, and is being sold for that cost. Please don’t resell it. If you don’t want to keep it, please give it to someone as a gift. Thank you.’ (Hoberman, 2012) I am wondering whether the display of printed stills from her animations are a ‘Jungian narrative, cartoon strips of the psyche‘ (Stern, 2014) or a claim of space of what otherwise would be contained within an framed screen. The materialised static moments of a still image, a storyboard side by side, cartoon or graphic novel like, inviting the viewer to pause and repeat the motion at one own’s pace? For me the key question how to display paintings in the liminal experience of physical and virtual matter. But this kind of expanded display of still images that are contained as an animation, do crave for space. And viewing them also means to move physically, to turn, and to be conscious of the time it takes to look through the visual narration. An aspect I find intriguing: the unfolding of time into space

In a more recent exhibition for Portikus, Frankfurt (Germany) Sillman created frieze and panorama like works, with no gaps in between, that are actually prints of drawings with additional layer of painterly interventions. This series plays with the logic of animation, repetition and looping, an iteration process. Through the combination of print and painting it is hard to tell what is what, what is physical or digital, what have been physical painted and what have been mechanically reproduced (Portikus, 2016).

She also makes her own zines, being distributed at the shows. A reference that our current OCA student-led zine initiative is relating to from its origin.

Jutta Koether (b. 1958)

Koether appropriates works of past artists in a free manner, e.g. in Aenderungen aller Art I, 2006 with using a canvas printed with a photographic reproduction of Cezanne’s painting on the canvas as an ‘almost readymade’ (ebid. 308), inviting her for free gestural responses. Quite in context of Verwoert’s viewpoint that appropriations of paintings is a visual commentary, similar to  For me fascinating that she considers the ‘engagement with painting .. invested with bodily nature and form’ (ebid) when announcing an exhibition of her works verbally with the term ‘inkarnat’ , a German term for flesh-colored paint. Koether looks at past artist in a way of ‘investigating the breaking point of the icon, or the point where painting entered abstraction’ (ebid)

She describes her work  Seasons and Sacraments , 2012-2013 (Dundee Contemporary Arts, 2013) as a painted ‘performance that only painting can do’. She appropriates the Four Seasons  and the Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665) as an installation and a parcours to walk through and along with her ‘seven propositions’ of what a painting could be. She loosely translates key ideas from the original  and deconstructs traditional conceptions of painting through shifting of perspectives, e.g. using primary colors to mirror Poussin’s central use of them, inviting the viewer to find a way into the work. An interesting comment was made by Sherman Sam (2013) that Koether relates to philosophical questions in art with her reference to Poussin as the “philosopher painter,” and with giving her London exhibition the title ‘The Double Session’, referring to Derrida’s essay (1970) with the same name. In the latter one, Derrida explored and deconstructed the question of the original and the copy and the performative quality of mimesis. This is been reflected in the work she installed for Poussin’s Eucharist,  a projection of his paintings on a suspended screen. This is also a topic in her double painted work Marriage, 2012-13 with the same subject painted on two canvas. Other works, e.g. for Ordination, as series of red painted planks horizontally installed on the wall. she relates the height of the raised hand of Christ with Corbussier’s notion of the ideal place for the height of a door. And another time she extracts Poussin’s preference of using primary colors in his work Confirmation, painted on glass and with falling strips of paint.

I was glad to get hold of a copy of the exhibition book (Koether ed al, 2013) as it allowed me to look at the various works more in depth. Besides Confirmation, the spatial installation of Fifth Season Act, Apotheosically, 2012, made from acrylic, liquid glass, on canvas with concrete and glass display. Both painting sculptures resonate strongly, reminding me of my experiments of ‘two side box‘ for part 2 (Fig 2), although my experiments too dense, and certainly not concerned with art history, more with social history of packaging trash. Nevertheless, I do get some ideas of how transparent installations could work. And an interesting thought to symbolize water with transparent acrylic. Koether extracts elements from Poussin’s painting, illustrations of the Sacraments from the Holy Bible, and to use them as formal elements in composing the space.

Two Side Box - Sculptural Painting

Fig. 2:  SJSchaffeld – Two Side Box – Sculptural Painting – collage on acrylic – double sided

The gallery floor itself was flooded with gravel during the time of exhibition. This works resonated well as it reminded my of my previous works for part 2, my interest for translucent multi-viewpoints installation of paintings with The Preservation Box and especially the Two Side Box, with collaged items on two side of perspex. Perspex is also part of Koether’s work Penance, 2013, shaped or flat juxtaposed with found objects embedded in transparent layers. I never heard about liquid glass before and found that it is a quite expensive medium. Wondering whether acrylic adhesive, the medium I used in my works, would not be equally fine.

Koether’s series Seasons do remind me at times of Julie Mehretu, with her superimposed lines and planes, a narrative of process of making a painting. What the viewer sees are palimpsests of multiple layers, with the final image presenting something else, rather an abstraction. An interesting perspective is adding David Joselit (2009) to the work of Koether when referring to questions of ‘How does painting signify?’ and ‘How can the status of painting as matter be made explicit?’. For Joselit, Koether’s installed paintings demonstrate a sense of transitivity and a behavior of ‘belonging to a network’ . I can relate this to Klaus Speidel’s description that ‘what matters is the way in which a particular work of art interacts with its references’.

For Joselit, painting goes beyond being an object for a spectator’s gaze, but the painting as holding the capacity to hold and re-enact ‘behavior of objects within a (social) network’. I do read this as paintings that perform in relationship and context, a staged enactment. I have the feeling as here is something that resonates, especially with my recent appropriations and the passage of time (reflected in various cultural artifacts, and subsequently becoming something new.  

Koether concludes the talk at Dundee with the sensation of frustration that one could get when walking around due to its ‘being never complete’, finding things not finished , and eventually that finding into the work through a comparative approach one could get ‘a result’ (Koether).

Overall, both artists opens a different perspective to narratives, beyond story telling and material narratives as I found out from ‘Flatland – Abstract Narratives’. It seems as if the interplay between abstract shapes, geometric forms, and figurative suggestions do engage the viewer in creating narratives when seeing works not in isolation but as an installation or an animation.


  • Visual art narration or non-narration is embracing imaginary spaces of meaning.
  • Narrative is not (but could be) through telling a story, through a co-creation between artist and viewer new meaning can develop. In that sense appropriation is a ‘visual commentary’ (Jan Verwoert) of past events for a future.  Dialogue between abstraction and figurative as co-creator for narratives in the viewer’s mind.
  • How painting as performance can in itself be a narrative. the challenge is that it is hidden, concealed, embedded as a memory in the final work, invisible for the viewer. Do I want to show that or to invite the viewer to reveal whatever makes sense to them? My indexical presence just an ephemeral nostalgia. 
  • Presentation of digital and physical paintings in various formats. A disruption of narrative through disruption of space?
  • Verbal language as partner for visuals in creating narratives, is this a story? I am not sure that adding text is something I really want to work on. Possibly, sound yes, language less.
  • Split screen, projected screens, animated screens
  • Prints of still images from an animation installed on the wall (grid or cluster) a more embodied and visual art oriented approach? All images are present in space at the same moment, whereas in animation, films, literature and other sequential art forms the viewer is led through it, instead of let into it completely. A notion that I find interesting to follow further in my work.
Stefan513593 - P3Ex3 'Pull the Narrative' - sketchbook explorations

Fig 3: SJSchaffeld –  ‘Pull the Narrative’ – sketchbook explorations

remark: the featured image is another version of Fig 3, but with reflected light onto a sheet of  mylar underneath, resulting in an interesting additional layer – light as part of the work? To transform into painted patterns of serendipity?

Next steps

Aspects that I feel are relevant for my work:

  • Disruption of space, and time, and frame
  • contrast and juxtaposition of various elements, e.g. b&w / color, analog/digital, static/dynamic elements
  • Embracing paint in a sense of painting-out, to merge (e.g physical/digital) or to distinguish
  • Presentation: e.g animation / prints (A. Sillman) or series or painted, body, photographic, consciousness of time, an unfolding of time into space.
  • Fragmentation: to split (like split screens) or to dissect into single elements (J. Koether)
  • To embrace my ‘engagement with painting .. invested with bodily nature and form’ (J. Koether)
  • Considering dialogue of time and space, expansion of time into space, making time an embodied experience.



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