Beneath our scrambling hands.

These days, we tend to favour efficiency, simplicity and ease. We want to pare away the clutter and get down to the nitty-gritty. It doesn’t always work, of course, but the drive to streamline and clarify is, nevertheless, the guiding metaphor of modern life.

The eternal promise of computer technologies, for example, is to make our lives simpler. In some respects they do, but, as we struggle with access codes, pin numbers, passwords and that annoying voice assuring us for the fifteenth time that our call is important, we can be forgiven our doubts. The fact is that, while individual tasks — banking, booking tickets, contacting friends — may have been made easier, an underlying network of immeasurable complexity has been spawned to make that simplicity possible. One that threatens to collapse at any time. Simplicity, it turns out, is a veneer, a reassuring illusion. This might be the guiding metaphor of post-modern life.

It is the paradox that lies at the heart of Jenny Topfer’s enigmatic paintings. At a casual glance, they appear almost obsessively spare and minimal: flat, near-white fields offering us little more than glimpses of small, seemingly random incidents — a faint smudge of colour here, a patch or two of grainy texture there, the occasional suggestion of written words. Furthermore, there is very little to distinguish one painting from another. They are all variations on the same restricted theme. In short, we have not been given much to go on.

Either we will pass by with a shrug (in which case we will miss something important) or move in for a closer inspection. Only then will we realise that, far from being pared down, these surfaces have been patiently built up. They are not withholding information but rather overlaying it in a series of elaborations, alterations, augmentations and refinements. Their apparent simplicity is an illusion: it conceals great complexity.

The first thing we are likely to notice is that these fields are not limitless. There is no suggestion that they continue beyond the canvas. And it is to the edges that our eyes immediately travel. This is where all the activity seems to be, and this is where we find the key to understanding what is actually going on. Here the many successive applications of paint — which, in effect, tell us the history of the work’s construction — are exposed, all the way back to the first marks on the raw canvas. It’s like looking at a cliff-face and seeing the sediment layers that have built up over millennia.

For the artist herself, embarking on one of these paintings must feel a bit like setting out to climb Everest: relatively straightforward at first, then becoming progressively more demanding.

The process is basically a form of writing. Using an oil-stick (essentially oil paint compressed into a thick crayon), Jenny begins at the top left corner and draws from left to right until the whole surface is covered with a web of rhythmic, looping lines.

Once this first stage is completed, the paint must be allowed to dry which can take several weeks, depending on the weather before another web of lines is superimposed over it. And on it goes, layer by layer, a subtle blending of warm and cool, opaque and translucent whites, greys and colours. As the oil-stick softens in the heat of the hand, the paint tends to accumulate on the surface, forming lumps that will harden into a rough texture. The more layers that are added, the simpler and more coherent the image becomes.

How it evolves depends on a number of external factors: music, for example, or the light through the studio windows, or even memories of a recent trip to Venice. Lines of poetry “mostly contemporary poets, and the much loved Neruda” are crucial to the developing mood — and the title — of the painting, and will occasionally be etched into the paint itself.

But the question naturally arises: why go to all this trouble? Why spend months repeatedly inscribing marks only to cover them up again? One reason is that the procedure itself is absorbing and meditative, in much the same way that the Zen monk’s ritual raking of a monastery’s sand garden is. The Japanese call it samu, or ‘working meditation’. And, like the monk’s raking, that meditative spirit is conveyed to the viewer in the results, so that, if we are properly receptive, the paintings will lure us into their contemplative compass and envelop us. We might then perceive them not primarily as physical objects, but as dream-like evocations of ongoing actions and events.

Seen in this light, it helps that the paintings are all very similar to one another. It sharpens our appreciation of the subtle differences in character between them, slowing us down and deepening our perception.

Nevertheless, while the changes Jenny makes are gradual and cumulative, like changes in the natural environment, at some point, quite unexpectedly, a critical mass is achieved and no further action is necessary. It is a kind of epiphany. The painting has, almost magically it would seem, resolved itself. Sometimes that point comes relatively quickly and, as a result, the finished work will have a freshness and spontaneity all its own. Usually, it is more hard-won, and the paint layers continue to build and diversify until they are thought to have achieved a satisfying density and richness without loss of vitality. Deciding when to stop is, of course, entirely a matter of intuition, based on long experience. One of the subtle joys of studying the completed paintings comes from choosing for ourselves those in which we think the critical moment has best been captured.

These are, admittedly, somewhat rarefied and sophisticated pleasures. There can be no denying that Jenny Topfer’s paintings are undemonstrative. To get anything out of them, we have to put a lot in. It’s a two-way process. We must try to place ourselves in the artist’s position, to experience by proxy what she experienced while making them, if we are to learn anything important about process or time or memory. The rewards may be subtle, but in a world full of chatter and bombast, that is not at all a bad thing.


— Peter Timms, February 2015