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Maegan Harbridge

Updated: Apr 2

Maegan Harbridge is an artist currently based in Tkaronto/Toronto. She is a Ph.D. student at York University, where she also teaches studio art. Her research delves into the political nature of aesthetic experience, investigating the social and political implications of a material-based practice in an effort to further the debate regarding the social role of contemporary abstract painting. Maegan has exhibited her work across Canada and has also worked as an artist/researcher for extended periods in Cape Town, South Africa.


Website and Links: @maeharbridge


Project:

Paper Proposal:

The essay I would like to develop as part of Foreign Objekt’s, research residency, titled “To be a Narratively Constituted Being”, builds on my previously published text “A Line is an Edge, is a Colour, is a Shadow: Towards a Posthuman Account of Painting”. Following posthumanist scholars such as Sylvia Wynter, Karen Barad, and Cary Wolfe this initial work proposed a collection of aesthetic insights on composition (line, colour, texture, shape, and subject matter), gathered in an abstract painter’s studio as fieldwork towards a posthuman conception of abstract painting.


In contrast to much creative and scholarly work since the 1960’s, this conception affirms the importance of formalism in painting, though it does so through a methodology of care/full looking, which traces the contingency of formal relationships so that a more robust ethico-onto-epistemology emerges. In posthuman painting form is considered relationally and iteratively, so that it axiomatically establishes an ethical entanglement between being and , knowing. A posthuman account of abstract painting, developed through practices of critical perception, decenters notions of human exception through reflection on the relational, rather than fixed, quality of form. The formal attributes of an abstract composition are reconsidered not as independent bodies but inform as a compilation of relationships; the coming together of component parts; as the materialization of emerging matter.


“To be a Narratively Constituted Being” thinks with Wynter’s theory of the human (as narratively constituted) to reconsider myth as the principal formal device in how humans matter and make worlds. Colour, line, texture, and shape, elements of modernist form, reduced as the component parts of composition, emphasized the picture plane’s edges, borders, and flatness as an ultimate gesture of human criticality. But what about the story of Man that underwrote this modernist stance? “We presently live in a moment where the human is understood as a purely biological mechanism that is subordinated to a teleological economic script that governs our global well-being/ill-being”, but what if myth, delinked from a secular conception of the human’s “macro-origin story” can be understood as the definitive formal aspect of human constitution. “Humans are, […] a biomutationally evolved, hybrid species–storytellers who now storytellingly invent themselves as purely biological” (McKittrick 2015, 10-11).


To conceive the human not only through “phylogeny/ontogeny” but also through “sociogeny” is to rethink the relationship between macro-origin stories and the Anthropocene (McKittrick 2015, 11). In contrast to the formalism championed throughout modernism, where the aesthetic was an “autonomous value,” (Greenberg 1965, 6) made for its own sake, posthuman formalism, contaminated by the pictorial, thinks with Wynter and Fanon’s conception of "sociogeny" to reimagine the role of narrative as a key formal device in the history of Western expansion (and our coming dissolution). Rather than an omission of subject matter, as a radical form of disavowal, posthuman formalism positions representation as a materially-discursive force that enables the conditions of our own exception and, consequently, our own demise.


To reimagine “humanness” (McKittrick 2015, 3) as a state of relation rather than exception is to consider the human a hybrid creature that evolves through a set of relations between biology and narrative. Learning to see form relationally, through care/full looking, links the contours of bodies, spaces, and stories as a set of differences that matter in relation to one another, not as autonomous phenomena. A painting is a story of shared social, political, technological, and biological myths. A material-discursive force that maintains its significance by virtue of our “auto-instituting, bios/mythoi” nature, and which substantiates itself through a relational loop of romantic, modern, and posthuman stories. A painting is a body, and a painting is a face.1


To reimagine what it means to be human, to re-articulate biology and myth as co-constituting “is to underscore relationality and inter-human narratives” as integral and unique to the story of our species (McKittrick 2015, 2). To think myth entangled with the biological processes of human constitution is a Wynterian re-narration of the role of narrative itself, where “our capacity to produce narrative as physiological beings [and to recognize this as inherent to how our species makes meaning] allows us to critically re-envision our futures in new and provocative ways” (McKittrick 2015, 04) In recognizing our narratively instituting augmentation, we can play with ways to subvert it.


1 Hofmeyr, Benda, “Isn’t Art an Activity that Gives Things a Face?: Levinas on the Power of Art,” 2. Benda Hofmeyr connects Levinas’ notion of radical passivity to the way we experience art objects (2). The opaqueness of a face (be it human or the one of an expressive object) in its irreducible quality breaks up representation, destroys the possibility for a linear understanding, and triggers what Hofmeyr calls “pre-conscious awareness” (3). This primary experience exposes the fragmentary nature of a singular perspective and complicates the notion of a reliable, objective experience.


Art Proposal:

My research delves into the political nature of aesthetic experience, investigating the social and political implications of a material-based practice in an effort to further the debate regarding the social role of contemporary abstract painting.


In contrast to much creative and scholarly work since the 1960s, where formalist art has been dismissed as superficial and politically disengaged, my research-creation project works to redeem formalism (specifically abstract painting) as a practice of critical perception, or care/full looking, that decenters notions of human exception through reflection on the relational, rather than fixed, quality of form. This care/full looking, facilitated through abstract painting, is a practice of critical perception that augments a growing body of eco-aware , non-anthropocentric scholarship in the critical posthumanities. To look with care is to trace the contingency of formal relationships so that a more robust “ethico-onto-epistemology” emerges: One that displays the entanglement of matter as it materializes and “intra-acts” with other bodies (Barad and Kleinmann 2012, 77). The formal attributes of an abstract composition exist not as independent bodies but inform as a compilation of relationships, the coming together of component parts, as the materialization of emerging matter.


Borrowing from posthuman thinkers Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick, my current line of questioning explores how a theory of the human, as narratively constituted, might disrupt normative conceptions and reproductions of Western constitutions of bodies and being. Through a lens of posthuman formalism, I explore how humans, as sociogenic creatures, use narrative to create the conditions of their own exception and, consequently, their own demise, positioning fiction as the definitive formal aspect of the 6th Mass extinction event. In contrast to the formalism championed throughout modernism, posthuman formalism recasts narrative as the ultimate formal device in the history of Western expansion and its coming dissolution. Learning to see relationally, however, thinks with Wynter and McKittrick towards one aesthetic possibility in “how we might give humanness a different future” (McKittrick and Wynter 2015, 9).


My studio-based project is comprised of a series of formal experiments that use acrylic and latex emulsion on paper and canvas, with the latter used as masking fluid between the layers of the composition. Once a new layer has been added, I remove the latex to expose the juxtapositions created between the two layers of paint. Colour, line, texture, and shapes abut, each boundary informing another. This “push-pull” (Sillman 43) of pictorial space, a founding tenet of modernist abstraction, shows not a modernist reduction but a metaphysics of interconnectedness. These formalist compositions emphasize the interaction between each element as it informs a dynamic whole. The portfolio submitted with this application explores not only relationships and tensions within each composition, but juxtaposes different paintings to produce a variation of effects.

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