Essay: Random Walks in Endless Fields 

by Francine Koslow Miller, PhD

Related Exhibition

An Interview with Jeff Perrott, August 2010

LaMontagne Gallery, Boston
Morgan Lehman Gallery , New York

October 14 – November 26, 2010

“The Random Walk paintings are about the possibility of painting without ends, where each successive ‘move’ – being determined partly by a chance operation and partly by a deliberate, intuitive movement – is the result of an interplay of contingency, determinism, and intuition, much like the successive events that accumulate to form a day in the life.”

Jeff Perrott, Artist Statement, January 29, 2010

Francine Koslow Miller (FKM): ‘Random Walks’, your new series of paintings, takes you back to your roots in system-based operations, yet they are anything but mechanical.  There is a mathematical operation at work here, but it is a chance-based process.  What’s going on here?

Jeff Perrott (JP):  As I had done in work from 1993-2000, I adopted a system that would force my hand to invent new ways of addressing the empty canvas.  But instead of using a causal system, with an absolute beginning and end, here I employ a conjectural system – a simple random walk method, which injects uncertainty, chance, and negotiation into my handling of the painting.

FKM:  So each new painting is composed of a single continuous meandering line developed through your use of this chance-based mathematic formula. You actually employ a spinner from a board game to help you determine when you will shift from segment to segment? How does it all work?

JP:  The random walk method is simple: from an arbitrary beginning point on the canvas, a random direction of travel is chosen using a spinner. Then a fixed length of travel and a new point is plotted.  The operation just continues from point to point, and I link these successive points with lines painted along a continuous path.  Each successive shift in the line is also marked by a random color shift, marking its departure from the previous point.  To maintain the continuity of the line, I treat the surface as a continuous, unending field; when the line reaches an edge, it simply continues in its path at the exact point on the opposite edge.  Instead of making jagged stops and starts, the line follows its momentum through each point, to curve and twist in its path to find the next point, thus maintaining an implied force of movement. 

Crux | 2009 | 56" x 78" | Oil on Canvas

FKM: This reliance on chance operation seems very much related to Marcel Duchamp’s arbitrary calibration in ‘3 Standard Stoppages,’  1913-14, where he took three one-meter lengths of string and dropped them on the canvas. He then attached them to the places where they came to rest and claimed that he was not personally responsible for the lines, which he later transformed into three rulers. Duchamp claimed that the ‘Stoppages” were created by ‘canned chance,which I think applies to your work as well.

JP:  Yes, absolutely.  Chance operation takes the painting away from me, in a sense.  I let the process go, allowing the lines to meander until they seem drained of their desire to continue. In fact, to me the resulting line is like a big Standard Stoppage: like one long string dropped from an unimaginable height, allowed to twist “as it pleases” -- as Duchamp described in the Green Box -- until it comes to rest on the canvas surface.  

Duchamp’s embrace of chance included a kind of humor and absurdity and irony that I admire greatly. But randomness, to me, simply denotes allowing outside forces into the process, the subsequent negotiations among all contingent elements, and the uncertain outcomes that result.  It’s allowing ‘not me’ into the process. 

 FKM: In works like ‘Elemonopia’, 2010, ‘Candy Man’, 2010, and ‘Martingale’, 2010, the ground is considered as a rectangular field continuous with the mark making. For me, they relate visually to Jackson Pollock’s famed drip paintings, where each paint stroke was applied immediately, directly, without much retouching if any; the strokes were often allowed to be rough and scumbled, to drip, or to catch up color from underpainted lines.  Can you elaborate on how your process differs from Pollock’s action painting? 

JP: The movement of my line is more deliberate, and more carefree and meandering.  It doesn’t seek the emotional catharsis of action painting, opting instead for a more deliberate movement of the hand rather than the whole arm that Pollock used. My marks happen very simply and plainly. There may be a sense of abandon, but not abandonment to some emotional upsurge.  It is more like a surrender to the simple immediacy of the process---- perhaps to an immanent energy that the marks already possess.

Elemenopia | 62" x 54" | Oil on Canvas | 2010

FKM:  I cannot help but think about how your work reminds me of the calligraphic gestures that Brice Marden arrived at in the 1980s, as well as the more recent bold use of color and undulating lines in Karin Davie’s paintings. You all apply ribbons of color which meander across the canvas. Do you consider the works of these intelligent and resilient abstract painters as related to ‘Random Walks?

JP: I greatly admire Marden and Davie as much as I appreciate Pollock.  All three showed me how the extended line or drip and hand and arm movement can be a profound vehicle for transformation. The difference in my work is in that the marks are extensions of the random walk idea into the momentum of the line.  I asked myself, “what would an aimless, wandering mark look like, act like?” My marks don’t carry a lot of force necessarily; I let them happen very simply and plainly, without reworking – in fact it feels like the opposite of force. 

Of course, as regards all three, the injection of the contingency into the art making process is a big difference.  The use of the random walk seems to put a soft question mark over the whole work, rather than a big exclamation point.   

FKM: Typically random walks are used in the applied sciences to model the shape of the dispersion of elements in fluid, for example, or the probable outcomes of apparently random phenomena like the paths of foraging animals, or the psychology of decision-making given contingencies. Does this kind of applied science inspire and drive these lively, joyous and radiant art works?

JP:  The most famous application uses random walk modeling to try to reduce contingencies to understandable risks, so investors can make better decisions.  But my paintings are not about reducing uncertainty or plotting probable risks to better secure some desired outcome.  They involve the uncertainty of the process itself.  It’s really an embrace both of the uniqueness of the outcome as it is, and the void of endless possibility in which it emerges 

Statistical researchers calculate the chances that you or I would or should be alive, based on all the contingencies involved—your parents meeting, their parents meeting, deciding to have a child at a certain moment, etc.—are equivalent to the chance of winning a 50 billion chance lottery, 50 billion times in succession.  Yet here we are.  So with this work I am welcoming in a small way, the simultaneous feeling of the dizzying space in which it all happens, and the vivacity and beauty that results. 

Philosopher Stoned | 48 x 48 | Oil on Canvas | 2009-10

FKM: Henri Bergson, one of your favorite philosophers, stated that the Absolute has two halves to which science and metaphysics correspond. How does this materialize in your work?  

JP: Chance, in general, and my use of the random walk here, is certainly the confluence of science and metaphysics. Science and metaphysics are just two perspectives on that vertiginous void at the center of existence:  one seems to point to probabilities and potentialities, and the other seems to assert an extraordinary influence on an outcome.  But both recognize forces beyond will.   The chance act in art is simply the foregrounding or underscoring of the contingency and uncertainty we experience in our everyday lives.  So there’s nothing ‘extra-ordinary’ about this.  The paintings present a line; the eye sees and follows the line.  It’s not a  putting together of puzzle pieces toward a predetermined end.  There’s no redemptive ‘ah-ha’ moment, which is the traditional sign of the Absolute.  There is a simple everyday experience of presence and continuation, which to me is the ‘Absolute’ that Bergson refers to.  

FKMThen perhaps the question here is, does a painting need to unravel hidden truths or metaphysics to be successful?

JP:  I don’t think so.  The works don’t ask the viewer to trudge to a redemptive hierarchic goal of unearthing some hidden truth, some miraculous catharsis; they invite participation in the spontaneous development of meaning.  To me the Random Walks present a simple metaphor for the way life happens. They represent my desire to inhabit an allowing way of being, that embraces emptiness and contingency as the locus of creativity. In essence, Random Walks are simply about the possibility of painting without ends.

Read More Writings by/on Jeff Perrott