“May a brush mark be compared to a word, a sound – a note vibrating in space?” A conversation with Bernadette O’Toole.

Bernadette O’Toole is a UK based artist/researcher and Associate Lecturer in Art and Design at Sheffield Hallam University. In 2020 she completed a practice-based PhD at Sheffield Hallam University. Her research, Beyond the Space of Painting and Poetry: Mallarmé and the Embodied Gesture re-imagines the space of painting through the space of poetry – through a network of reciprocal relations manifest in Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard, (A throw of the Dice will never abolish Chance). She writes, ‘Mallarmé’s generative poem, distinguished by its capacity for multiple and simultaneous readings weaves together word, image and sound. It is through this lens that I approach painting, through an expanded understanding and re-evaluation of the relation between the space of painting and poetry, and discourses that underpin spatial and temporal readings of the text. In other words, I work across disciplines, across languages, differentiating between disciplinary codes and conventions and between modes of reading, writing, speaking and painting’.

Bernadette has exhibited nationally and internationally. Recent solo exhibitions include Nothing Will Have Taken Place Other Than The Place, Sheffield Institute of the Arts, hosted by Persistence Works Gallery, Yorkshire Art Space, Sheffield, 2018, and Variant Sail, Ex-Libris Gallery, Newcastle University 2016.  Recent painting has been exhibited in the The Little Painting Show, Arena Studios and Gallery, Liverpool, 2018, the Marmite Prize for Painting V, 2016, shown at Block 336, London, and Highlanes Gallery, Drogheda, Ireland. Her painting is held in a number of collections including that of Arts Council England and various private collections. Her artist’s books are held in The British Library, London, The Tate Gallery, Tate Library and Archive, London, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and CdLA, St-Yrieix-la-Perche, Paris.  

Brendan and Josie visited Bernadette at her home studio on the Wirral to speak about her practice and look at her most recent body of work. This was followed up by a correspondence conversation with Josie.

Josie:  When we met, one of the things you spoke about was how art is a visual language.  I find it fascinating how visual language communicates in very different ways from spoken language, however the use of metaphors is so embedded into our spoken language that the visual and spoken are linked in such a strong way, it is sometimes hard for us to differentiate between the two, in our minds.  The nature of visual art, not being ‘read’ in a linear way, means it can communicate a number of things all at the same time and  I have found that when speaking about their work, artists often use words that could be referring to the physical, or could be a metaphor and I am not always sure which they mean.  Sometimes I am not sure if the artists themselves know either.

This brings me on to the word ‘gesture’.  It’s a great example of this type of interchangeable word.  It can mean a physical gesture, a hand movement, for instance, or it can be a symbolic act, for instance giving a gift.  When you showed Brendan and me your bronze and plaster gestures I couldn’t help thinking of them in both ways at the same time. They were a physical replication of the motion you used to make them, and they also felt loaded with the emotion of a gesture.  

But we never spoke directly about whether this is where you were coming from also.  And I often make assumptions and get it completely wrong.  So I am wondering if you have anything to say about that and if it could be a starting point for our discussion?

Fig 1: M.B. O’Toole, Studio 8, 2014.


Bernadette:  I will start by saying that I don’t consider art to be a purely visual language. In my practice visual and textual forms are woven together, establishing a direct relation between literature and the plastic arts. In the recent work/research, I use performative strategies to engage with Mallarmé’s text, drawing attention to the metaphoric possibilities of the space of the page and of the book; these include, painting, sculpture, video, digital media, installation, and more recently experimental writing. Through a formal investigation of line, space, and gesture, painting is presented as a language with its own syntax. In my art work this relation becomes animated through the embodiment of gesture, which is understood as a movement towards the idea. 

Through this work I consider gesture and language to be joined – one articulating the other. The word gesture suggests a movement towards something – an act of expression, a form of communion. Every gesture, whether it be symbolic or traced by the hand that seeks to grasp its object or inscribe the object’s form, whether mute, spoken, written, drawn or modelled, expresses the moment of transformation. This is what interests me, the transformation, signalled in the process of the formless becoming form. In this sense, thought seeks the most desirable form of expression in order to realise the idea – the idea becomes embodied in the form.  This process makes me wonder about the language of painting, the grammar of painting; may a brush mark be compared to a word, a sound – a note vibrating in space? A brush mark inscribes its own contours. A few brush strokes can conjure up the object of its desire, with striking efficiency, but can the form of a brush stroke be more than itself, more than a trace – a gesture?  Is it nonsense to attempt to articulate one form of language through another, since each by necessity, differentiates itself by virtue of its form?

In my work, the tropes of poetry and painting come under scrutiny as the tension that exists between gesture in painting and of writing are made visible. Brush stroke, as form and act, and word as material object are proposed as an integrated structural arrangement in space, as both thought and physical occupation. This is reflected in my painting practice; a practice that challenges the conventions of ‘medium specificity’, in which method and process from one discipline are applied to another to produce work that operates across the space of poetry and painting. 

In 2014, I decided to cast my brush mark in plaster.  It seemed to me, that by casting the brush mark, by embodying it, as it were, I could articulate a part of the process that appeared lost. I call these forms ‘gestures’. They are the embodiment of the gesture of painting [brush-mark] and the sign of the gesture, the form of a sign. [Fig 1–Fig.3]

  Fig 2: M.B. O’Toole, A Heap of Gestures, Plaster, dimensions variable, 2014.   


    Fig 3: M.B. O’Toole, Gesture [Series 2] Canvas,clay, plaster, 2014.    

Josie:  I was with you all the way until you said that you consider the brush stroke as form and act, and word as material object. I agree with the bush stroke being considered as a form and act – it’s an action that leaves a physical trace behind.  But when you see a word as material object, do you mean because of the sound of a word, or are you referring to word that has been written down or printed etc?

Bernadette:  I am suggesting that all language is composed. Each word spoken or written, brush mark traced, line drawn, note sung or instrument played, and every musical notation recording the duration of the absence of sound is articulated in space. Every gesture carries with it the codes and conventions specific to the medium, but not limited by the medium. For instance, A Heap of Gestures [Fig.2] draws attention to the gesture of painting and painting as object. In a similar way Robert Smithson’s Heap of Language [Fig.3] asks the viewer to consider how images are read. Smithson writes, ‘My sense of language is that it is matter and not ideas’[…] ‘printed matter’, recalling Mallarmé’s earlier claim, that poetry is made of words not ideas’. Mallarmé describes ‘putting letters to work’. In Mallarmé’s spatialised poetics words are cast across the space of the page implicating the reader in a language game. It is in this sense that I engage with the game; in the play of difference between word, image, and sound. This is not to say that I consider the stuff of painting to be dead matter, on the contrary, the material of painting becomes living matter in the hand of the artist; like thought, it becomes embodied in the form; in the process of realising the idea.

 Fig.4:  Robert Smithson, A Heap of Language, Pencil drawing, 16cm x 56cm, 1966


 Fig.5: Stéphane Mallarmé, Un coup de Dés, Gallimard Éditions de la Revue Français, 2014.


Josie:  It’s a very odd thing, attempting to consider abstract ideas and the physical world both at the same time.  It requires your brain to flip from one to the other quickly. It’s something I feel I have to do when considering the physical gestures that you have made. And I keep thinking what is the difference between a brush mark, and a cast of a brush mark? What is the value in this extra transformation? The more viscous the paint is (or whatever substance is used to make the initial gesture) the more it can be seen as an object in its own right. Does the cast of the gesture not also represent something else? Your intention to highlight, intensify or preserve the gesture perhaps?

Bernadette:  You are describing the difficulty of language, that is, the impossibility of any fixed meaning when language appears to be on the move. In this sense, if I say brush mark, you will attempt to picture a brush mark, or the act of making a brush mark. Furthermore, the brush mark will belong to a painting, and to the rhetoric of painting. In other words, the brush stroke is considered to be a part of the whole, bound by the codes and conventions of the medium. The word brush-mark or brush-stroke is also a prototype, standing in for all other brush-marks. As a painter my engagement with the brush-stroke is comparable to the poet’s engagement with words. Painter and poet operate in the ‘physical world’ as you describe it, and the abstract world of ideas. Words and brush-marks are capable of rendering and articulating an object, and at the same time the sign of the absent object. In this respect the poet and painter are involved in a process that is limited by the codes and conventions of the language. And, at the same time liberated by the abstract nature of an arbitrary sign system; the sign may bear a striking resemblance to the object, or it may fail to resemble it at all. In linguistic terms, ‘the sign (for instance, a word) is a combination of a form (the ‘signifier’) and a meaning (‘signified’), and the relation between form and meaning is based on convention, not natural resemblance’.  My fascination with the brush mark relates to its metaphoric potential as both a movement towards the idea perceived [gesture] and it’s embodiment as a form [gesture].

The second part of your question, ‘what is the difference between a brush mark and the cast of a brush mark’, gets to the heart of the problem, which is the question of meaning. The word brush-mark represents an archetype, and by association all brush marks made and unmade. The brush-mark, that is, the material trace of a brush-mark on a surface is the gesture of painting. An individual gesture distinguishes one artist from another, and at the same time the collective field of painting, and the rhetoric of painting. When I first cast the brush mark [gesture] I didn’t think of this as an attempt to preserve the gesture. I think it is more a question of ‘what if’ – of following my intuition or desire to know more about the language of painting. What does it mean, if anything to simultaneously cast the brush-mark and the gesture of making the brush mark? When I made the first cast I had the sense that I was becoming implicated in a metaphoric process as it took place. The physical act of gesturing in order to realise the form of the brush stroke, and more abstractly performing a movement toward the idea, transforming the inarticulate into an articulate form, and seeing how each gesture articulates its difference in the resulting hybrid form.

  Fig.6: M.B. O’Toole, 339 Discarded Gestures, Plaster, 2014


Josie:  Can you describe the process of making the ‘gestures’? In this photograph they seem to be stacked behind a window.  Do you consider this to be an installation itself or an artwork as a photograph?

Bernadette:   The process of making the work involved tracing my brush-stroke into a bed of clay, pushing into the surface which proved resistant at first. Plaster was poured into the indent, casting the absent gesture [brush-mark]. Once the form had set, I separated it from the bed of clay and took hold of the object. The absent gesture [brush-mark] had become embodied. The form was simultaneously liberated from the mould, and from the limitation of the painting surface. It was cast out, recalling the Japanese practice known as, ‘flung-ink’, which Norman Bryson observes is ‘thrown’ as one throws dice. What breaks into the image is the rest of the universe, everything outside the frame’. In other words, the gesture (brush-mark) was separated from the ground, free to enter other discursive fields, and to occupy other spaces. Some of the plaster gestures are unpainted [Fig.1, Fig.2, Fig.3, Fig.6], others have been painted [Fig.7–9] and others cast in bronze [Fig.11]. In Fig.6 the plaster gestures have been stacked on a window ledge, at first this was for convenience, then, I decided to make use of the window as a framing device. There is an interesting play between the window in the photograph, which is a window in my home which also doubles as a work place, and the window of art history, form Alberti’s window on the world, to Manet’s dismantling of the frame. In this sense the game you refer to begins with the frame, as the vertical and horizontal axis shifts between metaphor and metonymy. I see this work as an installation and a photograph of the installation, it also has appeal as a photographic image. Of course the gestures could be stacked anywhere, on any window-ledge, gallery or otherwise, which of course raises the question of context and meaning.

     Fig. 9: M.B. O’Toole, Gesture [Series 2] Oil paint on plaster, 74 x 6 x 0.5cm, 2014.

Fig.10: M.B. O’Toole, Candy, Oil on board, 90cm diameter, 2014.
Fig.11: M.B. O’Toole, Gesture [Series 4] Bronze, 74 x 6 x 2cm, 2016.

Josie:  I see an element of play or humour in this way of thinking; the idea of testing someone to question their ideas about language, the meaning of gesture and the physical being embodied in one. The ‘play’ comes though when you describe the cast gestures as gestures.  You’ve not called them casts of gestures. It requires the mind do take a jump from a movement, straight to a physical thing that you can hold in your hand.

Bernadette:  No, not casts of gestures, but, ‘A Cast of Gestures’. I am not aware of trying to test the reader, rather language appears to me to be a game. I can take hold of my gesture, and I can hand my gesture to you. You can take hold of it. This is the game I am talking about, the play of language, the toing and froing – the exchange. This is what interests me, the capacity of language to engage in an endless play of associations, and how participation in the game generates new forms and relations.

Josie:  What do you think is the value in transforming a gesture into a physical object? It freezes movement in time, but arguably, so does a paint mark.  

Bernadette: This raises a number of questions relating to Greenberg’s notion of ‘purity’, or medium specificity, and more recently, Isabelle Graw’s concept a ‘residual-specificity’ embedded in a ‘medium-unspecific’ concept of painting. And, I suspect as a painter you are asking what ‘my gesture’ adds to the painting discourse. I would say the ‘gestures’ are discursive objects operating across disciplines, drawing attention to the codes and conventions of language, raising questions about medium-specificity, and about meaning, that is the impossibility of any fixed meaning. More specifically when you ask about the value of transforming a gesture into an object, I would say ‘the painting’ is an object, a commodity that has an exchange value in the art market. The ‘gesture’ in Fig.9, is no more nor less an object than ‘the painting’, in Fig. 10, both might be considered useless objects, whose value is dependent on fashion.

What is more interesting to me, is how the process unfolds; how each gesture, or movement, each act of labour becomes invested in the object. In this sense the value is in the process; in the metaphoric potential of the process. For instance the process used to cast plaster and bronze differ. In my work the casting begins with a brush-stroke which creates an impression in the clay. In the next stage the processes differ, the plaster is poured all at once, whereas the bronze casting or lost-wax method required hundreds of small gestures/brush-strokes to be applied to the impression, until the accumulative gestures filled the cavity. In addition to this labour intensive process, a form of exchange between the wax and the bronze take place when the heat melts the wax leaving a negative space for the bronze to occupy. Even more interesting to me was the weight of the final object. When I held the bronze gesture in my hand for the first time, I was struck by the heaviness of the gesture. It felt as if the labour invested had been realised in the object, making me wonder about the form of exchange. Could this useless gesture be worth its weight in gold?

Fig.12: M.B. O’Toole, From Me to You: A Form of Exchange, Video still, 2020


 M.B. O’Toole, Beyond the Space of Painting and Poetry: Mallarmé and the Embodied Gesture, 2020.

 Robert Smithson, ‘Language To Be Looked At And/Or Things To Be Read’, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Jack Flam, CA: California University, 1996, p. 61. [Originally published: The writings of Robert Smithson. N Y: New York University Press, 1979]

 Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘Music and Letters’, Divigations, translation by Barbara Johnson, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009, pp. 171–98, 186. [Divigations. Paris: Bibliotheque-Charpentier, 1987]

 Jonathan Culler is referring to Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of language, see, Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2011 [1997, 2000] p. 58.

Norman Bryson, ‘The Gaze In The Expanded Field’, Vision and Visuality, edited by Hal Foster, Seattle, WA: Dia Art Foundation, 1988, pp. 87–113, 103.