Friday, May 17, 2019

Material Matters

There are days when everything I see seems to me charged with meaning: messages it would be difficult for me to communicate to others, define, translate into words, but which for this very reason appear to me decisive. They are announcements or presages that concern me and the world at once: for my part, not only the external events of my existence but also what happens inside, in the depth of me; and for the world, not some particular event but the general way of being of all things. You will understand therefor my difficulty in speaking about it, except by allusion. 

Italo Calvino ' If on a winter's night a traveler' 

Without the internet connected yet in the house reading the old-fashioned way from a book is a pleasure rediscovered afresh each weekend as I transfer volumes from one set of bookshelves in Brussels to another in Bruges. Books are heavy when you carry them in a bicycle pannier - I find I have to 'weigh my words' literally before I set off.    

I turn in the circle of my days, the wheels of my bicycle turn, morning and evening, in daylight and darkness, in spring when the cherry blossom scatters its pink confetti on the ground and in autumn when the last fiery flames of golden leaves illuminate the sky. Everything turns in its cycle of living and dying, arising and ceasing endlessly. Each weekend I regain the geometry of the house; first at the broad base of it's pyramid; washing, eating, walking, sitting, reading, looking, and  then gradually mounting the pyramid to sleep under the roofs apex - where form meets formlessness - under the celestial zenith - at the breathing point of the roof and sky.

Time and space are defined by a scale and proportion and there is an underlying geometry in things-  Cezanne's cylinder, sphere and cone.

 '...treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point.' 

Letter to Emile Bernard. April 15 1905

Plato's 'solids' were associated with the elements; earth the cube, air the octahedron, water the icosahedron and fire the tetrahedra. Plato attributed the dodecahedron with arrangement of the constellations.

I recently read Spike Bucklow's 'The Alchemy of Paint: Art, Science and Secrets from the Middle Ages' 
Attempting to join up artists’ theory and practice has been a lot of fun. Walking my dog around Cambridgeshire, across fields and over the nearest things to hills that the region has to offer, I saw the sun set and the stars come out, the seasons come and go, and the colours change. I attempted to familiarise myself with what CS Lewis called The Discarded Image, the poetic way that the medieval world view synthesised ‘the whole organisation of their theology, science and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental model of the universe’. In the medieval world, everything had meaning, even the pigments they painted with. Guidance from the ‘discarded image’ helped me to consider artists’ materials and methods in ways that modern science could not.

Liber Divinorum Operum. Theophany of Divine Love
Hildergard Von Bingen 
'Utriusque Cosmi Historia' by Robert Fludd (1574-1637)
Rereading 'The Abyss' by Margaret Youcenar it struck me that Zeno's alchemical insights into the nature of nature and his own body and mind's participation in its processes read surprisingly like the Satipatthana Sutta's four foundations of mindfulness of the body, sensations and feelings aroused by perception and mind/consciousness and 'dhammas' or elements of the Buddhist teaching. 

' The act of thinking interested him now more than did the doubtful products of thought itself. He tried to observe himself while engaged in thinking, just as with his finger on his wrist he might have counted the pulsations of his radial artery, or beneath his ribs, the coming and going of his breath.......From the realm of the mind he came back to the denser world of substance which is contained within the limits of form. Enclosed within his room, he no longer spent his waking hours trying to acquire a more just view of the relations between things, but instead in meditation, wholly unformulated, on the nature of things.' 

Making paintings, renovating a personal dwelling are intensely physical and material activities but they are also metaphysical, concerned with realities beyond the visible and tangible world of appearances. There is a visual language and a material grammar of things. Their history, character and nature can be 'read' as they acquire meanings, both individual and collective, from their changing contexts, and accumulate associated significance. We inhabit a world in time and space in which memory and identity are forged through personal relationships to people, places and things.   

The kind of materials I have used have 'meanings' like these; lime and sand for mortar, stone and marble, fired clay in tiles and bricks; wood, mainly oak, and metal, iron and brass. I have especially sought out reclaimed and recycled materials with qualities of utility and endurance, the signs of both age and use as well as an inherent natural beauty, evident from patterns and textures that indicate natural cycles of growth and decay, repair and reuse over years.

This 18th century English oak dresser from Wales, Lancashire or Yorkshire, which I am currently cleaning had been covered with white emulsion paint by a previous owner. It was made with oak trees that must have been around 200 years old when they were cut down. This means they were saplings in 1550. Likewise the salvaged 18th century solid oak doors which have been used both for their original purpose and as traditional oak paneling to dry-line the hall way. I have a oak chest from around 1680 which must be made with trees that were saplings from around the time of the battle of Bosworth in 1485. The various Belgian marbles that has also been reused from salvage have a grain that reveals liquid processes of metamorphoses taking place in the earth hundreds of millions of years ago. These kind of materials age well. 

Pallassmaa says that unlike, ...'the machine made materials of today - scaleless sheets of glass, enameled metals and synthetic plastics .....Natural materials express their age, as well as the story of their origins and their history of human use. All matter exists in a continuum of time; the patina of wear adds the enriching experience of time to the materials of construction. This fear of the traces of wear and age is related to our fear of death.'

I am struck by how much 'ocularcentrism' in modern and contemporary architecture, which Juhani Pallasmaa regards as fixated on retinal, pictorial and perspective based systems of seeing, privileges the eye over over the other senses and in particular the primordial sense of touch - the mother of all the senses.  This resonates with my own intuitive approach to the house in which the tactile experience of using lime mortar to plaster the walls and tile the floors has been intensely physical and tactile.

'Construction in traditional cultures is guided by the body in the same way that a bird shapes its nest by movements of its body. Indigenous clay and mud architectures in various parts of the world seem to be born of the muscular and haptic senses more than the eye.' 

Juhani Pallasmaa's 'The Eyes Of The Skin'

Monday, March 18, 2019

Ascetic Aesthetic in Spain and Flanders

Francisco de Zurbaran. c 1638 - 16-39 St Francis Meditating 

The exhibition just opened of Spanish Baroque painting and sculpture, which I saw this weekend, features this imposing and psychologically charged painting by Zurbaran. The warm, muted colours and dramatic light and shadow, and the arching curve of the figure and counter curve of the skull hands and face in the composition add a brooding intensity to the existential dilemma it poses like an insistent question. The rich attention Zurbaran lavishes on these sensual and aesthetic qualities; the precise tactile nature of the patched robe, its weight and thickness and the subtle modelling of its surface texture, carefully rendered over the the contours of each fold with directional brush marks, is in contrast to its evident physical and symbolic embodiment of the principles Franciscan poverty and simplicity and the meditation on death.  This representation of an ascetic is also a visual essay in 17th century Spanish aesthetics- a kind of Franscican 'wabi sabi'. Derived from a traditional Japanese Buddhist approach to life Wabi Sabi expresses an inherent transient and imperfect beauty evident in natural materials, object and processes defined by a rough simplicity, modesty and austerity. 

The Zurbaran St. Francis reminds me of Velazques' famous 'Waterseller of Seville' at Apsley House painted a little earlier in 1618-22. Although not a religious painting it shares the same frugality of subject matter, a similar muted colour scheme of earth tones like raw umber, yellow ochre, stark light and shadow, realistic rendering of material surfaces and an elemental and dignified attitude to poverty and simplicity. One has the same sense of the artist's intense gaze and loving attention to very precise tactile and visual qualities of ordinary and even poor everyday objects and surfaces revealed by strong directional raking light. 

The Belgian art collector and designer Axel Vervoordt, who also appreciates the quality of light on different natural surfaces, has explained his philosophy of 'Wabi' in many articles and books. Writing in the New York Times Style Magazine in 2014 in an article entitled, 'The Luxury of Humility', David Netto quotes him below: 

The costs of achieving this kind of minimalism are eye-watering, and seemingly inconsistent with its mission of aesthetic humility. He explains that this is a kind of luxury for a select few: “The Emperor of Japan had a wabi garden. Wabi is for people who already have a lot.” 
It is a 'rich' paradox that poverty and simplicity should cost so much time and effort but then; 'there is more simplicity in a man who drinks champagne on impulse than eats grape nuts on principle' 

Monday, January 7, 2019

Painting the Fugitive Image


Painting the Fugitive Image

Alan Mitchell

The Greene Gallery in the VPAC
St John’s International School
Waterloo, Belgium.

Opening/ Vernissage
18th January 2019
From 4-6pm
‘Ars Longa, Vita Brevis’

In Greco-Roman antiquity creating illusions of depth on flat surfaces by painting trompe l’oeil was a source of fascination and wonder to viewers. The painter seemed, through the alchemy of materials, craft and qualities of light and colour, to be able to capture a mirrored reflection of visible appearances that resembled an almost tangible reality. Somehow, as if by magic, the image preserved the fleeting moment, whether it was the freshness of a young face or the bloom of flowers or fruit, and fixed it, sometimes for generations, giving it the illusion of permanence if not actual immortality.

The work of art- the image itself- was of course made of materials that were subject to change and decay. Paint on plaster, wood, paper, clay and even stone are fleeting and fugitive and ultimately fall apart, fade, break or become fragmented, lost or destroyed. The ephemeral, transient and impermanent nature of these ancient civilizations was itself a subject of art from the Renaissance till the 19th century and fragments of broken statuary and the overgrown ruins of once powerful empires were subjects for Romantic and Neo-Classical artists which contained important philosophical and moral insights considered worthy of contemplation by later generations. ‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.’

The invention of photography in the early 19th century enabled artists to fix with greater scientific accuracy and new technological skills the fleeting moment and this in turn supplemented and informed the artist’s eye altering the focus of painting and perhaps even its traditional illusionist function. In the 20th century film and photography have created evermore convincing mirrors of reality until today we are surrounded by a veritable electronic and digital ‘hall of mirrors’ that includes holograms of sound and light that can create illusions of existing things and aspects of our lost past in seemingly solid reality.

My painting is concerned with the ephemeral nature of pictorial illusion as well as the nature of the reality depicted. It is an elegy to the fragile surfaces on which illusions exist as simulacra. Using collage as an integral part of the process I work from direct observation in oil paint, acrylic and mixed media on paper, board or canvas. Evoking the tradition of trompe l’oeil I try to find a melancholy beauty and poetry in the transitory nature of small things; fragments of photographic images, torn or crumpled paper, butterfly wings, a shell or a feather. I search for the gap between reality and illusion in the forgotten or ignored margins of the paper, the frayed edge of the image where the picture meets the frame, in the neglected corners of the room, offstage behind the scenery after the performance rather than in the full glare of the theatrical spectacle.  

If, as Kepler says, vision itself is a picture, then understanding the nature of pictorial illusions is key to understanding reality itself.  

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said that things in their true nature and illusions are of the same basic substance. Could painting therefor be a useful tool for contemplating the ultimate as well as the conditional nature of reality? I will leave the viewer to decide for themselves.

Alan Mitchell