Songs Beneath the Surface

Carolyn Parton

Material Remains


Carolyn Parton has worked with a consciousness of environment trauma for many years. The impact of human activity upon environmental realities is little disputed by scientists and biologists but renewable approaches to this impact differ. Parton focuses her practice upon altering the value of what are considered 'waste' materials. She believes that discarded materials have a philosophical hypostatic integrity and that working with them can reveal a truth that is contained in their materiality. She has predominantly focused on painting, using the discarded paint debris of artists and industry as a sculptural material laden with the archaeological story of the creative process. Her works challenge traditional conventions of painting and sculpture, playing with the format and nature of painting in sculptural ways. In some of her works, surfaces are woven entirely from discarded artists' paint tubes or paint remnants while others reveal stacked layers of accumulated paint deposits. Songs Beneath the Surface continues her practice of interrogating the inherent material nature of painting, with a shift towards the material implications of art history.


Within contemporary culture, the control of images has shifted from one of censorship, to curb civil awareness by forbidding sight, to one of gluttony. Rather than curbing the flow of images civil society is rendered blind by the sheer volume and unaccountability of them. This reality was brought to attention in the 2015 to 2016 student protest action by the #FEESMUSTFALL movement, which was begun by students on University Campuses in South Africa to push for an increase in government funding of tertiary education. A host of grievances emerged in the wake of the movement at the University of Cape Town campuses. Most notable for Parton was the critique of colonial knowledge systems and teaching methods in a Postcolonial nation particularly by the #RHODESMUSTFALL group. This critique extended to the canon of art works on the campus with a host of paintings being burnt by protestors on the campus grounds. Through her creative process Parton begins to reflect the deeper cultural issues in the environment of art history, most notably the material glut and repetition of images sanctioned by the art canon. The student movements extended Parton's understanding of an environmental trauma. The impact of discarded materials in our landfills results in a very real poisoning of natural spaces. The student movement sought to discard historical materials in an attempt to engender change. Parton attempts a processing of these materials in order to avoid the creation of a toxic cultural history.


Waste spaces are embraced by Parton as physical and physic strata that all except archaeologists prefer to ignore. Hidden in material strata are the stories of our culture. By focusing on the residue, the discarded, that which is often considered debris, she confronts the uncomfortable binaries of desire versus disgust and reverence versus rejection. The small accumulative gestures of treasuringand discardingenacted by society have collective impact upon that society's reality. The canon of art history was a record ofwhat entereddominant knowledge systems and with what level of importance, thus defining the landscape of art production today.


In a 2004 New York Times article Susan Sontag eloquently discussed the role that images can play in confronting civil society with its shadow nature. Throughout the text she challenges us to look beyond the superficial depiction in images to the deeper social and political implication that the image illuminates (Sontag 2004). In light of this context, Parton's choice of art history books as the latent material of her creative process carries much socio-political relevance. Many of the FALL-ist protestors advocated for the removal of colonial objects and knowledge systems in order to create the space for what they perceive to be an African tradition within Universities. Parton inherently views the impact of historic and material traces as something the artist can transform in a positive way (Parton 2010).


The act of sorting and sifting material is immediately evident in the works on Songs Beneath the Surface, asserting Parton's position as one of tirelessly looking. Her act of organising and reconstituting debris is political in both its environmental and socio-political implications. Layers of found paint from artists' studios make up Silent song.In Eye dancing in deluge discarded artists' paint is worked into a cloth-like entity, while in Dust in the Wind (verse 2) dried paint remnants from discarded industrial paint tins form ecological layers. In the works on paper, Parton's act of looking is evidenced as a potentially destructive act, a 'looking through' the canonical art image and deconstructing its reality. Thought of another way, her process is one of visualising a deep looking in line with Sontag's assertion to look beyond the surface of an image to it's social and political implication, an act of dismantling hierarchies of sight. Sunflowers, page 69 (Van Gogh) and Toneel, page 19 (Pierneef) systematically unpick the visual elements of historical paintings in a process of sifting their parts.


Parton's processing of the art history book reveals something different to her processing of the artist paint debris. The fragmentation of the original art image also begins to speak to the trauma response. This is a biological response that results in a person storing the memory of a traumatic experience as disordered sensory fragments. Mirroring her own experience of trauma, in some works the image fragments are quite systematically arranged while in later works such as Letting go of Gertrude Stein, page 53 and Exhale, standing by the rags, page 333 the fragments become an image of their own volition. In her processing of materials Parton appears to reach a new vocabulary with chaos. In the destruction and creation inherent in her process a new equilibrium of composition is reached. Works such as Song of unseeing and Descent into liquid moonbeam begin to describe an acceptance of the new landscape evoked by her practice as a landscape containing the possibility of both reform and beauty.


Parton's practice could be described as enlisting a subterranean awareness to the process of creation. Her insistence on a relentless looking, a refusal to look away, is a process of confronting the mire of that which is deemed 'useless.' By tirelessly sifting and sorting the debris she enacts the reclamation of a culturally hypostatic material. The demands of the FALL-ist student movement have been experienced and perceived by many in the community as a traumatic experience: cries for change are often experienced so. Parton's creative empathy with the impulse to redress social and political material by means of creatively confronting social debris is a powerfully positive gesture.



Natasha Norman is a lecturer, arts writer and practicing artist. Her research is centred on Contemporary South African Art and the techno-social language of contemporary images.




Susan Sontag 2004 'Regarding the Torture of Others' in The New York Times Magazine (online) [Accessed 22 November 2018].


Carolyn Parton 2010 'Extended Traces: Tracking the Impact of Painter Upon Environment' in De Arte no. 81: 23 - 41.


Emsey 2018 'How to Process Pain in an Era of Trigger Warnings' [Medium entry August 19th] (online) [Accessed 22 November 2018].