Hands Off

A stratum of American art involves the withdrawal of the artist’s hand. This hands-off sensibility reflects, in part, the modernist rejection of craft, while embracing forms of mind and matter that animate themselves, setting an idea, a process, or a material in motion to see where it will go. The tracery left behind we call art. Cagean in its incitement of chance operations, this approach to art-making is also experimental and touched by the surreal, a century-long Zen-like corrective to the western 20t​h​ century urge toward willful expression.

Nicole ​Phungrasamee​ ​Fein expends enormous effort not expressing herself. As an artist, she follows finely ground black materials like graphite, iron oxide, ink, and watercolor as they compose themselves into squares on white paper and paperboard into the visual equivalents of drizzles, sediment, pools, and fog. In a sense, they have weather. Metaphors of the mind (stormy, misty, unpredictable, disoriented), their weather are also literal acts of drawing. The artist calls them “water drawings.”

A dozen years ago, Fein made square, pale-pastel watercolors with brushstrokes, narrow and wide, within extremely limited parameters. The tints suggest a mild atmosphere or notebook paper. The brushstrokes are either horizontal or gridded. Lines appear where brushstrokes overlap, or as gaps between them. There is no empty space, only painted strokes, although these compositions feel like space (without falling into it). And each stroke is unique and yet repeated; not exactly the same, but not obviously different.

In these earlier works, Fein’s method for painting a stroke – all strokes – betrays neither figure nor ground; she paints across the body, laterally, from side to side. They look like a stack of horizon lines that, together, do not read as landscape. To make a grid, she turns the paper 90 degrees and paints another stack. The strokes are as similar as the hand will allow. The innate vestibular orientations of standing or laying are neutralized in these works, which remind us of the abstract field paintings of Agnes Martin sans​ color. Less a space for representation, they are ever-so-quiet, very-slightly-textured (paper) surfaces for the presentation of a painted ground authored by an exceedingly deft and exceptionally light hand.

Around 2012, Fein became interested in layering horizontal washes of watercolor by using wide brushes to build up hundreds of diluted strokes for each piece. The darkest color concentrated at the horizon, where the most layers had been brushed. At the top and bottom edges of the paper, where the washes were less layered, the color lightened slightly – shifting not so much from darkness to light, as from color to water. The gradation was so subtle that the differences between washes was nearly imperceptible, but their cumulative effect was like waking to the faintest light before dawn.

1122812, watercolor on paper, 14 x 14 inches, 2012

Fein’s most recent water drawings are both images and instances of water and color. They look like what they do: they mist, pool, puddle, drizzle, drip, and fog. This is classic American minimalism, not because it is visually spare (although it is), but because there is no real distance between the noun and the verb – a pool pools, drizzles drizzle, drips drip, fog fogs. The object is the image is the material is the act. It’s a visual field divided by language in order to know what can be said to exist, an exercise in ontology. Thus divided, the variations, which are held in mind for the time it takes to recognize them, sometimes switch places – maybe the mist drains, or the pool dries, or the drizzle fogs. Or maybe they all collapse into art, their underlying category. This is especially true when the visual fields are ten by ten inches, wherein, briefly, anything is possible as long as you can hold it in your mind – like the difference between mist and mist. But the works’ character depends on the play between the noun and the verb – is the material acted upon? Is the act materialized? Is the image enacted? What, or where, or when, is the object?

When Fein leans a white paperboard at a 45 degree angle and mists it with pigmented water, the droplets eventually give way and run, both building and eroding the iron oxide surface, carving a delicate, downward tracery of luminous lines upon dark. They hold their character as droplets until they collapse into runnels and rivulets. They enact the drawing of themselves. They are drawings b​y ​water.

When Fein lays flat the same white paperboard and mists it from varied distances, the droplets will hold in place and are likely to be different sizes, some microscopic, others like pebbles in the desert sand. Indeed, these works encourage a perceptual loft, as if hovering above a landscape, an areal view. In one drawing, the droplets at the bottom edge disintegrate into a fine mist as they rise toward the top of the paper, as if from one’s feet into a middle distance beyond. Here, it is not the paperboard that leans, but we who lean in.

Though most of her water drawings are square, Fein has also worked with circles. One method involved painting eight-inch long watercolor brushstrokes, one after another (kind of like the hands of a clock), from the outside perimeter of a circle through the center, where they terminated at their opposite edge. Mostly water, these diluted strokes are just a few shades darker than the paper, but as they cross the circle’s midpoint hundreds of times their light gray color builds into a black, sooty spot. An image at/as a crossroads.

Sometimes Fein drips iron oxide into the middle of a pool of water covering a flat paperboard surface, and the mineral expands outward to the pool’s edge. When the water dries, a spot remains, sometimes leaving a dusty outer ring, other times concentrating at the center, like bacteria in a petri dish, or absorbed in the fine texture of the paper, like a human nipple. In one drawing, the water itself draws thin, delicate lines of ink out from the center of a fresh black spot, 360 degrees, like a starburst from an extinguished sun.

18.06.09, iron oxide on illustration board, 8 x 8 inches, 2018

How many ways can pigment, water, and paper (color, transparency, and surface) be drawn of, with, and from each other? Are these not fundamental elements of drawing by the human hand? We recall Leo Steinberg’s famous maxim that all pictures are made from three conditions, one transparent, one opaque, and the other reflective. We look through, we look at, and we reflect back upon ourselves. To this might be added, some pictures are sensitive plates, palimpsests upon which images are processed - or further, upon which processes leave traces. Are Fein’s traces images? Yes. Are they pictures? Sometimes. Are they processes? They were. Are they little performances? They were, in time, and they are, in the time of seeing. For whom? For the artist. Then what for us? For us they exist.

Several grayscale water drawings from within the last year look like razor-thin, gelatinous membranes packed with cellular nodes and hollows. The word exquisite comes to mind; intricate as well. They are a little like limitless Islamic mosaics, or used-up air filters caked in a soft gray dust. In neither case do you want to breathe.

I like these water drawings best because I can’t see how they were made. I can see ​that​ they were, but can’t discern how – and also don’t want to know. The tracery in the other drawings is profound because it registers the moment when the drawing drew itself, spilling through the artist’s restraint. Each work is a breakthrough, literally. The tension it bore was born first by the hand that tried to control it perfectly and with grace, until it broke from that hand, becoming hands-off. The way a child breaks from the mother’s hand. Sometimes process shows us the way back to the art it made. It can also deliver art into life, and even the artist doesn’t know how it got there.

Jeff Kelley
March 2020

This is classic American minimalism, not because it is visually spare (although it is), but because there is no real distance between the noun and the verb – a pool pools, drizzles drizzle, drips drip, fog fogs. The object is the image is the material is the act.
Jeff Kelley
Jeff Kelley

Jeff Kelley has been a practicing art critic since 1977. his reviews and essays have appeared in publications including Artforum, Art in America, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives with his wife, the artist Hung Liu, in Oakland, California.

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