An Art of Immaterial Remainder
Ann Finegan

No, No, No Lewers House, Penrith Regional Gallery, NSW Australia 

A complex game of erasure and value is engaged in Maria Cruz’s No No No, an extended series of paintings of the titles of the songs from Yoko Ono’s catalogue.  Conceptuality is at its limit, the abstractions of text unexpectedly tested against the scintillating sensuality of paint.  However if Cruz’s programme seems straighforward, it is only deceptively so, and is further complicated by the scale of the task of painting the more than eighty titles of Yoko Ono’s considerable canon of pop songs.  That many paintings; that many titles.  Take the concept of text against ground, and multiply the exercise eighty times over.  It’s a lot of words to take in, for example, from the strictly abstract frame of conceptual artists like Ian Burn, whose witty conceits take philosophical aim at the differences between word and thing.  However, Cruz’s game is not situated there.   The decidedly diabolical and Derridean twist of her project is not on the language side of the text/ground equation but on the strange equivalences of tone: colour of the text matched in value to colour of the ground.  

It’s an intentionally slippery project, one which aims at destablising the viewer whose eye is caught up in a play off of values as the complementary tones put each other under erasure – a certain tone of red cancelling a certain silvery grey.  It’s a disappearing act familiar to Derrida fans in which the seemingly innocent act of “adding nothing”1 , adding nothing to the text but the colour, innocently a mere descriptive element, destabilizes the balance with the ground, and hence the text itself.  

The optics dominates, reversing the usual priority of word over text, and while, of course, the text has resonance, particularly for those who know Ono’s songs [for example, WHY; WILL I; LEFT TURNS THE RIGHT TURN; all painted in capitals with no punctuation] the attention is on the colour, colour as quality raised to the power of abstraction.  This seeming “nothing” of colour’s sensuous and non-substantial nature, like lustre2  or the gleam, effectively puts the text under erasure in a game of revaluing values.  Hence, the sensual factor teasingly takes precedence; the brief flash of scintillation rippling over the slight difference of tonal variation, repeating as many times as you care to look.  Such is the complementarity of the colours so perfectly tuned that the eye is dazzled by the switch from one colour to the next, and the hierarchy of text over ground constantly upset.  What’s set up is a mind game for the eye in which the sensual element wins out over abstraction and textual operations.  

In its complex simplicity, Cruz’s No No No [one of the song titles] is a fitting hommage to Yoko Ono and her conceptual work, in particular, her association with Fluxus.  Like an event score from Ono’s Grapefruit  the work combines thought experiment with the realm of the senses. 

However, a small number of Cruz’s series is explicitly directed back to the much earlier art and text traditions of Lettrist [black and white] and even propagandist styles borrowed from Stalinist posters [red on black].  These, to quote Cruz, use colour to set up the “full impact of opposition”.  Thus, if she occasionally punctuates the show with the full opposition of contrast – Stalinist/Lettrist red/black or black/white – this is literally to cue the viewer into the more subtle, tonal contests of complementarity, in which what’s left, in Derridean terms, is the seductive flash of the gleam, as immaterial remainder.  After all, given that her subject is a collection of titles of songs, rather than a set of material things, it’s fitting that it’s not the surface or the text which carries the work, but this floating, evanescent immaterial remainder.  Cruz collaborates with Ono’s songs extending their textual operations in the realm of making sense into the territory of sensualizing the ineffable. 

Indeed, in these painterly acts in which she is adding nothing but the non-thing of colour to a pre-existing set of song titles, she’s not adding anything to the content of things in the world, or even to the semiotic of the ordering of words in the song catalogue.  What she adds is the non-material sensual quality of the “nothing” of colours, which, if it is then cancelled out, nevertheless leaves the after-effect of a trace, the something which is not quite nothing of an inbetween which flashed between text and ground.  

At no point, do these paintings fall back into a simple exercise in colour complementarity.  Certainly, there is the complicating bonus of the text’s wanting-to-signify and the intertextual conversation between the song titles bouncing around the walls.  There is also Cruz’s play with the direct address of many of these titles as “order-words”  ((Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. A Thousand Plateaus.   Trans. Brian Massumi. (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis, 1987), 75-9.)) , Deleuze & Guattari’s concept for words which direct and structure behaviours.  For example, in the painting, WHY (no question mark), the word, “why” finds itself raised to the condition of pure interrogation, in a strategy which in many ways echoes the use of text by Godard in the French nouvelle vague.  Simple words placed in placard style of newspaper headers significantly charges the text with urgency: do this, think that, be shocked  or arrested by this.  If, on an album cover, Ono’s song titles carry a certain, intimate and even subordinate connection to the music, Cruz’s amplification of the text to the graphic status of order-word is akin to a summoning  or command.  Intertexualities (in which the paintings engage in textual exchanges with each other in Cruz’s arrangement – as they never did in the song lists on the albums) and commands circulate through the exhibition as a whole, particularly in the Lettrist red/black or black/white works, in a play which is as much determined by formalist concerns as textuality.  Arrangement of the canvases becomes another mode of Cruz’s operation of the “addition of nothing”.

However, the majority of works are more elusive, fleeing rather than commanding, and draw the viewer into the scintillating nothing of tonal effects. As such Cruz excels at the art of erasure, working at it with a subtlety in which these near empty canvases [sometimes one word or two]  are filled with what she is adding in taking away: the lustre of a non-material tonal remainder.  

In this respect, the Ono song-titles are the complement of her coin-paintings, but whereas the Ono series turns on the “addition of nothing”, the coin-paintings play on usure (using up) and erasure.  These equally sensual and paradoxical works draw their humour from the fact that Cruz is literally using real money coins, with symbolic real money value, as stamps to layer her canvases with signifers of their erasure.  For example, each time she dips a one-dollar coin into paint too thick to bear an imprint and stamps it onto a canvas, she is trading off the marks of mint value for a sensuous circle of colour.  Five hundred stampings of a one dollar coin equate in erased value terms to five hundred dollars worth of sensual exchange.  At stake in these erasure works is the reverse of the philosopher’s process as described by Derrida in his reading of Anatole France’s The Garden of Epicurus ((Derrida, J.  ”White Mythology” in Margins of Philopsophy.  Trans. Alan Bass (Brighton, Sussex: Harvester, 1982 & Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982), 213.))  . The “originary figure” of the “coin” of sensory language

has been worn, effaced, and polished in the circulation of the philosophical concept.” (210)

Abstract nouns always hide a sensory figure.  And the history of metaphysical language is said to be confused with the erasure of the sensory figure and the usure of its effigy. (210)

A sorry lot of poets they (metaphysicians) dim the colours of ancient fables, and are themselves but gatherers of fables.  They produce white mythology… an anaemic mythology… White mythology – metaphysics has erased within itself the fabulous scene (of its own production)  (213)

Cruz reverses this process, exchanging the anaemic abstraction of money value – the coin as usure  - for the aesthetic value of the sensory figure.  The more she stamps, the more luscious the paintings become, the more extravagant their sensory value [in one installation $500 000 of aesthetic 'worth'].

In “acts of erasure”, as in “adding nothing”, Cruz is playing an aesthetic game of revaluing value, and in doing so opening the aesthetic operation to the Derridean tricks of description/reinscription (when erasure becomes the positive of reverse inscription). 

  1. Derrida, J. Of Grammatology. Trans.  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore & London: John Hopkins, 1976), 33-36; 65. []
  2. Derrida, J. ibid.  Substitute ‘lustre” for trace, and reflect: “the trace(lustre) is nothing, it is not an entity, it exceeds the question of essence”, 75.  Also see Dissemination .  Trans. Barnara Johnson (Chicago: Univerisity of Chicago Press, 1981), the chapter, “The Double Session” on the lustre and nothing, in particular, 179 and 216. []