by Karl Daum
Wendi Norris ditched the downtown San Francisco Jessie Street gallery in 2017 to stay mobile in a shifting market. For Portland, Oregon-based artist Val Britton, this means showing online during a global pandemic. The result in Impressions of Time, on view through July 17, is a single-web page display wherein the artist features as prominently as her collages.
The complexity of these deeply layered works doesn’t come across on a computer screen. Take, as cases in point, Reverberations # 65–74 (all 2021). Each builds up from a base of ethereal ink wash upon which the artist adds splashes of paint, networks of lines, and polygonal bits of paper. In some cases, Britton reverses her visual language to subtract parts of the composition, cutting into the work to remove paper and introduce negative geometric space. As a result, the boundaries of the pieces are strained and stretched. Expanding one’s view into these works is akin to looking at the Hubble Legacy Field photograph. Get the frame wide enough and you’re still faced with a baffling picture of the universe.
Britton trained in printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design and expanded her practice to include material fabrication at California College of the Arts. Her collages and installations enter the visual arts tradition of mapping, which earns her comparisons to Julie Mehretu. The latter’s works invoke networks of communication and social architecture. But where Mehretu charts the superstructure, Britton’s Reverberations map the substructure. Her works are self-referential attempts at reproducing an internal totality. In these works, Britton traces the course of intangible memories back to a kind of primordial, material discord.
The gallery tries to circumvent some of the limits imposed by online exhibitions. There’s a well-produced short film that functions as a studio visit. We see Britton in action, pouring or splattering paint and cutting paper while she speaks about her practice. The camera pans across her studio, revealing boxes of ink vials and gridded cutting mats. The gallery also displays Britton’s ten Reverberations in ultra-high resolution. Viewers can flip through the 36 x 36-inch works using a simple slide viewer (without, alas, zoom capabilities). There is also a photograph of all ten pieces together on the artist’s studio wall. Side-by-side like this, the series starts to look like the Hubble photograph itself. Each work is but a frame of reference imposed on some grand totality. As viewer-navigators, we’re left with an indecipherable but internally coherent visual vocabulary.
When Britton says her works represent emotional landscapes, you can see why, for example, Scott Thorp references Guy Debord’s psychogeography in his interview with the artist for ARTPULSE. He suggests her work represents a form of artistic derive — an unplanned journey through space. In this exhibition, Britton uses her materials to navigate her disjointed psychic position. The exhibition’s accompanying video offers satisfying insight into this process. Britton follows no premade map, only the contours of her own intuition with a puddle of paint, a loaded brush, or an Exacto blade.
Britton’s work is at its best when viewed in this light. The fractals of vintage patinaed-and-stained paper, crisscrossing lines and tethers, and paint splatters read like visual metaphors for the baffling complexity of the mind. CT-Scans meet deep-space nebulae meet the drafts of a cartographer’s first encounters. The massive, continental swaths of paint are particularly haunting in this regard. But, even more so than the cutout shapes, these effacing blotches come across as gaps in memory—not so much uncharted territory as dense brain fog, even, perhaps, repression.
The exhibition’s recurring motif is a series of small diamond shards that slice across the surface in undulating swarms. In Reverberation #73, they traverse a landscape of atmospheric ink wash and continental divides. Lines of latitude and longitude spiral around this scene, connecting a constellation of paper circles like nodes in a network. There’s a rhythmic sense of movement throughout the series, as if each piece were the ebb and flow of a swirling eddy. I want to say that the diamonds evoke a sense of migration through space, but given the last year, it’s hard to imagine these clusters escaping the maelstrom. Instead, they circle, disperse, clump together, and fly apart again from piece to piece as the plane is inverted. Britton redraws the map each time, using the same mile markers to guide a new dérive with every iteration.
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Val Britton: “Impressions of Time” @ Gallery Wendi Norris through July 17, 2021. Note: This exhibition is viewable only online.
About the author:
Karl Daum is an artist and scholar in Oakland, California. He graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute with an MFA in painting. He also holds an MA from California College of the Arts, where he researched the impact of social media and disinformation on democracy and visual culture.