Essay by Lauren Palte

“A distinction does create a boundary that divides, but that same boundary simultaneously and irrevocably connects that which it separates.”

Douglas Flemons, 1991

Flemons sensitises us to connection points at the boundary of our bodies. Our bodily edges separate us from the outside world, yet they are also our point of physical touch with the world beyond ourselves. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty made us aware of our sense of being as experiences of inner self and experiences of self in the world.

The coexistence of apparent contradictions, such as self and another, is explored by Carolyn Parton and Katherine Spindler in ‘The air between us’. There is separation and distance in the space between us, but it is a space that is made up of the air we share. Experienced like a conversation with two sides, one speaking and one listening, it is not one or the other, it is both. New meaning develops as a result of each utterance, sometimes iteratively.

The ‘space between’ can be read into the materiality of the paintings. The relationship between spatial distance and physical presence is explored in Parton’s Unfolding where sculptural paint cast from petals that are picked by the artist’s hand sit on the surface of a digital print. The petals enter the viewer's space while the digital landscape disappears into the background. This is echoed in the material space between the opaque paint and stains that sit beneath in Spindler’s Holding space (in pink light). The shimmering neon paint of the ballerina’s bodies are made with loose brush marks that show the artist’s touch. The thicker paint sits in front of,  distanced from, the deep stains and washes beneath. In conversation, the paintings hover between material and immaterial.

The works on exhibition unfolded with Parton on another continent, clearing out the space of a dear friend after his death. Reconciling physical remnants with memories of her friend, she was conversing with Spindler, here in South Africa. At the same time, Spindler was trying to bridge distance and separation from her niece who lives in a different city. Spindler was looking to 'find' her niece in videos of her in a troupe of ballerinas. Both artists were navigating the space between trying to hold on and letting go.  

In painting, this to-ing and fro-ing between consciously conjuring an image and allowing it to emerge on its own from the paint saw the artists working and reworking their paintings, putting on paint or digital layers, only to take them away. The visible signs of erasure or removal evoke pentimenti, from the Italian, 'pentimento,' that means ‘repentance'. For Parton, this reworking is not only telling the story of the history of her painting, but also the stories of other artists through traces of their palettes or paint tubes that are incorporated into her work. It is an invitation into the often personal space of making that is extended to others.

In this way, Parton and Spindler are in conversation with the past as much as with one another. The boundary between their work and those of older artists is dissolved, as the past informs their present.

The floating limbs of Spindler’s dancers suggest fragmented forms and echo Parton's extracts of the figure from Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi. These works bring to mind the spliced and broken bodies that emerge in the photomontages of Dada artist, Hannah Hoch. Hoch created her distorted bodies at a moment when soldiers returned from war with bodies that had been physically and emotionally disrupted. Our sense of bodily fragility is perhaps as acute at the moment.

These uncertainties manifest in equivocal forms. The cast petals of Parton's Unfolding look like birds in flight, and they echo the drawn newspapers in William Kentridge’s Felix in Exile. Newspapers cover a body and then lift in the wind to fly away like birds. Felix in Exile was also made in a time of transition in 1994, as South Africa entered into democracy. The shifting or changing forms speak to a painter's search for feeling. Francis Bacon suggested that forms change in a painting from one thing to another when the painter follows "an opening up into another feeling altogether".

In the search for painting that is guided by feeling, Mark Rothko is also conjured and overtly referenced. The glow of the turpentine burn, overlaid with new colour at the edges of a shimmering geometric pink shape is visible in Spindler's Daily Invitation (that Rothko feeling).
While each work on the exhibition is a collaboration through conversation, there are also paintings that are worked through both Spindler’s and Parton's hands. In Up In the Air, the artists return to an old painting in which Spindler was engaging with spatial distance and the language of geometric abstraction of the Minimalist painters of the 1960s. Like Parton's Inexistence, there is no sign of Minimalist detachment. In Spindler's hands the floating shapes are imbued with feeling as she gives tender attention to light and shadow, touching and cast by the form. Parton and Spindler come together with an act reminiscent of Hans Arp's Collage Arranged According to Laws of Chance and sprinkle individually coloured paint, cast from Sunflower petals onto the surface of the painting. Like Arp, it is an act of relinquishing control. It is also a celebratory act as Parton and Spindler push open the possibilities of an expanded field of painting. The pieces of paint land on the surface, creating a space between the illusionistic foreground of the painting and the tangible casts from petals that read as brushwork on the surface.

It is unusual for an artist to lay bare an earlier work when reusing a canvas. The underpainting is something we would usually only see through x-ray or infrared examination. But painting is not trickery nor illusion for Parton and Spindler, it is an act of honest searching, for connection, found in each other and inviting of other bodies.

The Dada artists, Hoch and Arp, are pertinent references since they, too, were searching for a new way of being in the world through their art. They were grounded in different realities, making art after World War One.  Their questions about art and life after the war are meaningful for us at this time, as we come out of the crisis of a global pandemic and in a time of significant threats to our natural environment. The exhibition also brings to mind the many artists’ partnerships in contemporary art, Marina Abramoviċ and Ulay, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, or Time Noble and Sue Webster. What is different is that all of these artists moved away from paintings, where Parton and Spindler step into paint to answer big questions about our purpose, giving and being.

Painting is embedded in friendship and friendship is developed through painting.

I am because of you.

I carry a piece of you.

You carry a piece of me.

Others impact us.

We impact others.