Travels in Ithaca – Gallery Talk Notes

On Wednesday, February 9th, Scott Gleeson gave a gallery talk on his exhibition Travels in Ithaca. He spoke broadly about the therapy of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and how it informs the works in the exhibition, and artists and groups that shaped his concepts and aesthetics. Following, Gleeson provides his gallery notes from this talk.

The following notes outline the main ideas, objectives, and historical sources for this body of work. Some of these ideas will be discussed in more detail in subsequent articles.

Much of the discourse about contemporary painting continues to privilege the question of how paintings are made, focusing on issues of materials and processes. Alternatively, this exhibition focuses on a question of why we make images (a question about motives, function, utility, and audience), and is presented as a case study and theoretical proposition about one way image-making could respond to a very specific social issue or context.

This cycle of paintings attempts to solve a specific problem: How to transform domestic and institutional spaces into healing environments without total redesign or rebuild. The proposed solution is to create a cheap, modular, DIY system of interior ornament designed to facilitate the viewer’s self-administration of EMDR within the spaces where trauma is most likely to be lived daily, working within the existing architecture. Such a system may be composed of inexpensive, readily available materials, such as wood, utility cord, paint and unstretched canvas. The formal presentation most consistent with the theory reduces compositions to lines and planes.

The paintings function on two levels of meaning:

Firstly, each painting is evidence in an argument about the function of abstraction and the social role of the artist. I see them also as symbols of a future society responsive to the needs of traumatized soldiers and which accounts for war’s social costs before engaging in conflict.

Secondly, these painting are offered as utilitarian objects, either as therapeutic tools or memory devices. Although the works may exemplify a certain formal rigor (be aesthetically appealing) this is merely a means to insure the works’ functionality as useful objects grounded in the real experiences of the viewer. These are not the transcendent, beautiful, useless abstractions of modernism.

These paintings are experimental and attempt to show a range of formal possibilities within a narrow set of parameters:

A) the works must stimulate or facilitate the viewer’s eye movements through composition, color, and scale;

B) work within the interior architecture as ornament;

C) be cheap and modular;

D) be composed of lines and planes, where planes operate as spaces for the projection of the viewer’s traumatic cognition/memory, and lines serve as visual trackways for the supposedly healing eye movements of the EMDR trauma therapy method.

Proun, 1924, El Lissitzky (1890-1941). See Proun Raum, the reconstruction based on this work. Image: M.T. Abraham Center.

Although certain works may appear to resemble post-war abstraction such as minimal or color field art, the aesthetic and social commentary underlying the work puts them in an art historical lineage with:

Kurt Schwitters, Merzbau,1923-37, Hannover (sculptural intervention in interior domestic architecture with an emphasis on individual experience or memory) El Lissitzky, Prounenraum, 1923 (Graphic, sculptural environment, prototype for abstract interior architectures signifying new revolutionary society) Lygia Clark, Willys de Castro, Brazilian Neo-Concrete Art (emphasis on viewer experience, participation, and agency, abstract art as an agent of social transformation, democracy, with the potential for healing) George Groz, Otto Dix, Irving Petlin, Maya Lin (war trauma, protest, memory and monumentality)  Diego Rivera, Stephen Willats, Rick Lowe, and Tania Bruguera (social concern, marginalized audiences, art in the public sphere, politicized art) Mike Kelly, Peter Halley (create art with nuanced commentary or responses to psychoanalytic or critical social theory).

National Center for PTSD

Lt. Col. David Grossman. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, 1996

  • military psychiatry, killing in combat runs counter to everything society teaches and is a cause of internal conflict.

Penny Coleman. Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War. 2007

  • explores link between combat trauma and suicide; proposes epidemiological model of warfare; fear infects the home and family; secondary trauma.

Ben Sherhard. A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century. 2003.

  • identifies a phenomenon of cultural amnesia in post-war western cultures in which society, governments, and medical establishments forget how to care for veterans after periods of intense conflict, lessons which must be relearned in successive wars.

Jonathan Shay, M.D. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, 2003.

Francine Shapiro. “Efficacy of the eye movement desensitization procedure in the treatment of traumatic memories.”  Journal of Traumatic Stress, Volume 2 Issue 2, pp. 199-223, April, 1989.

  • nonverbal cognitive therapy idea for combat trauma victims; assumes a constructivist model of cognition worthy of further analysis and critique.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy Method developed by Francine Shapiro

Theory: attempts to simulate eye movements occurring during REM sleep under the assumption this aids in relocating intrusive negative cognition to the correct centers of the brain.

Method: lateral eye movements; visual, auditory, or tactile bilateral stimulation; addresses psychological as well as somatic symptoms; nonverbal; fast acting; may be deployed anywhere; literature suggests possibility of self-administration; prop or aids occasionally used.

Founded on a model of cognition whereby troubling thoughts may be isolated, distinguished as separate from other life experiences, thoughts, feelings, other traumas, and associations; then neutralized or processed through treatment. Thus, the theory presents what we might term a “constructivist” model of cognition in which memories are regarded as discrete, autonomous units, and memory is essentially an empty space with assigned cells for the storage of these units. In attempting to visualize this model, my work underscores potential problems with Shapiro’s model, which does not account easily for multiple traumas, or the complex subjective interrelationships or associations of thoughts and feelings of the individual, which might be difficult to identify or isolate.

Thanks to Scott Gleeson, artist and curator of Travels in Ithaca, for this guest blogpost!

Featured image:

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)
Merzbau (
1933; reconstruction by Peter Bissegger 1981–3)

393 x 580 x 460 cm
Sprengel Museum Hannover © DACS 2007
Image: (via Flickr)


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