Tuesday, August 27, 2013

'Vision itself is a picture.......'

work in progress. oil paint on wood.

This statement by Francois Jullien got me thinking....

"In deciding to call the image on the retina not 'imago' but 'pictura', Johannes Kepler connected painting and vision even more intimately. No longer is painting the image of vision; now vision is already in the image of painting. Ut pictura, ita visio: since visual perception is itself an act of representation, it follows that seeing is (already) drawing. And it is that image, not the image rendered in perspective but the optical image- the world "painted" on the retina - that the Dutch painter paints. "

Page 161 chapter 11 'Gaze or Contemplation'.  'The Great Image Has No Form or On the Nonobject through Painting'

If visual perception of 'reality' is based on the mind interpreting (both consciously and/or unconsciously)  'pictures' projected onto the retina through optical mechanics, like a camera obscura, then we are close to Plato's 'Allegory of the Cave' 

'Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Plato's Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.'      wikipedia 

So how do the 'true lies' of the flat oil painted  trompe l' oeil, a fabrication of mirrors and shadows, a trick of the eye masquerading as something real, function in relation to this; what are they saying and how should we 'read' them ? 

If the picture projected onto the retina is already an "illusion" then the trompe l' oeil with its pictures inside pictures, is an illusion of an illusion based on direct observation of a 'reality' which is itself an illusion.......... confusing? 

The Zen Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh says; 

"Things in their true nature and illusions are of the same basic substance" 

What we hold at face value to be 'true' turns out to be only an appearance of 'reality', which is not to say there is no 'truth' or 'reality' but we should be careful of trying to pin it down in words and pictures which can only circumscribe it or define it negatively as 'not this'. We are at the limits of 'language', written and 'visual'. 

Traditionally in Western art, and especially in the 17th century Dutch Calvinist context, trompe l'oeil  painting operated as a particular form of 'Vanitas' still-life genre. It had a classical Stoic ethical character, reflecting on the transient nature of sensual pleasures and desires, especially for beauty, food, riches and worldly power. These are presented allegorically as 'illusions' which are less real than their skilfully rendered appearance in the painting and much more transitory. 

 Painting by its very nature is concerned with aesthetic pleasures, with desire for 'the beautiful' as well as 'the good'. In Protestant Holland it could perhaps very easily have been seen as a vanity in itself but the 17th century painter might allude to Plato's 'Symposium' and the Neo-Platonic idea that attraction to beauty can lead by degrees of realisation towards desire for wisdom in a philosophical sense and insight into the deeper nature of reality and truth.

The painting below is by the Flemish artist, Cornelis Norbetus Gysbrechts. Born in Antwerp he was active in the second half of the 17th century. I love his attention to the texture of the wood surface with  the carefully rendered splinters and cracks and his muted, restrained colours with various whites, greys and browns and the wry humour of the painted dripping paint on his palette. He is clearly a 'painter's painter' and this picture with its references to music, painting and writing, hung like trophies, is an allegory of art and the artist's 'self' as much as it is about the mirrors and shadows of illusions and vanities 

Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts 
Trompe l'oeil with violin, painter's implements and self-portrait (1675), 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Diebenkorn - 'killing two birds with one stone'

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape 1  1963

I have always liked these paintings of Diebenkorn that seem to bridge the gap between figurative and  abstract painting 'killing two birds with one stone'. 

How evocative of a specific time and place are the sun-bleached reflective whites and the long shadows stretching across the road, cast by the geometric shapes of building on the left, the vertiginous view point, foreshortening and sense of perspectival space and distance cut off suddenly by the the rise and fall of the hill (who knows what further vistas lie just out of sight) and the flat blocks of colour and tone made up from the positive and negative shapes and spaces of and between the roads, fields and roof tops, the vertical progression of the road pinched into a waist of the converging diagonals and the broad blue horizontal of the sky closing the syncopated rhythms and opening up to an infinity of space. 

The edges of things always seem to matter especially in the later completely abstract geometric 'Ocean Park' series that still reveal through the skin of paint the architectural scaffolding of the drawing. 

Richard Diebenkorn  Ocean Park. No 67  1973 

Doors, windows and walls ....

I took these photos of a derelict building in Riva Del Garda in July.

Doors and windows mediate the boundaries created by walls and allow the passage of light and motion between interior and exterior space. They frame partial views and also close to block out vision or lock to bar entry or exit between public and private domains. The nature of the door or window frame in architecture means that we read the view in similar ways to the composition of pictorial space in a picture frame. 

New beginnings.

Drawing the process of growth in freshly cut lilies ....... 
Trying to allow each of the these observational drawings to encompass the whole of the plant's cycle of respiration or 'breath-energy' - here are the first stages of growth

.....and later decay as more stages follow and become superimposed on this layer. More to come....

Here are the first three stages of a new painting that continues to explore ideas about the figurative and the abstract, where the picture and the frame begins and ends, what is space and what is surface, what is real what is illusion, what is revealed and what is hidden ? 

Still thinking about the architecture and psychology of the picture in relation to doors, windows and walls and how these mediate boundaries between inner and outer worlds. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Walls, windows and doors ........

Sean Scully, who is, perhaps unusually for an artist, highly articulate, has often talked about the importance of the architecture of walls, widows and doors as key inspirations to the forms and structures of his drawing and painting.  He discusses this on a 'Big Think' interview with the title 'The personal Artistic Philosophy of Sean Scully'. 


Sean Scully - Walls of Aran   ISBN 9780500543399
Thames and Hudson.   First published 2007

In a tiny land where music is sung and played in pubs and in the air daily, these walls are silent. And yet this sculpture is like the music of this place:austere and elemental. - Sean Scully: 

A recent exhibition I would have liked to have seen but sadly couldn't ended in June 2013 at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington; Sean Scully: Passages/Impressions/Surfaces. It clearly highlights this connection between observation of built forms at specific sites in the actual world (in this case Harris and Lewis shacks in the Outer Hebrides photographed on the 1990s) and processing them into two dimensions through the medium of photography and the parallel development of a language of abstract painting. 


The curators select this quote for the website which very clearly articulates his understanding of this relationship.

" I am not fighting for abstraction. Those battles have already been fought. I'm using those victories to make abstraction that is, in fact, more relaxed, more open, and more confident ...... I am trying to make something that is more expressive and that relates to the world in which we live. In that sense my abstraction i quite figurative. It is not very remote. 

Sean Scully, Journal of Contemporary Art ( in conversation with Eric Davis) 1999

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Book of Changes

Below are the currently completed pages of an on-going 'artists book' project. I am working with brush and ink and to explore a cyclical relationship between the circle and the square and to contemplate the unity of opposite forces, light and dark, arising and cessation, form and emptiness, being and nothing, time and space, relative and absolute......... 

I am about half way through and not sure how it will continue to evolve except that I will keep to the format of circle and square and sequence of the pages from left to right until I reach the back of the book - and begin again ? 

Reflections on the painted surface

Applying the oil paint layer on top of the acrylic under-painting several things occur to me:

 The need to focus on the pure abstract compositional elements of the work (the relationship between the vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines, positive and negative shapes and spaces, and the patterns and rhythms of the forms) even while the 'image' is anchored in literal observation of an actual prepared collage and still functions as a trompe l' oeil.  
The importance of balancing colour and tone as key elements of the composition- to allow colours to 'resonate' by mixing complimentary chromatic greys and browns of various degree of saturation and intensity and calibrating tones  to the right degree - so that white is the lightest tone.  
The importance of not over painting - just allowing the fresh gestural marks to fall into place with an apparent 'naturalness' or spontaneity - to keep the gestural painterly qualities of the medium.  
The positive and negative shapes of the spaces that are framed and defined by the forms of torn or folded paper with  trompe  l 'oeil shadows ( like doors or windows ) are areas of 'emptiness'. In this 'emptiness'  the 'image' (or the image of the image') is both revealed and hidden simultaneously. This is in effect a picture of a non picture, a depiction of 'de-piction'  or an a painting of 'un-painting' ( to use a term borrowed from Francios Jullien ) - the act of painting is in a sense an 'assertion' of a 'negation'  
In a world of electronic image overload can the act of painting, (or active contemplation) ironically, perhaps be a way of 'earthing' this charge, of bringing it back 'down to earth' both literally and metaphorically, and of rendering the world of perceptual proliferation, of slick image production and of powerful visual illusion 'safe' again?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Breathing and Drawing

Drawing from the live moving model you become aware of how the drawn gestural mark begins, grows, fades and ends in a split second of observation as the model adopts new poses that evolve from previous ones. This process of looking and drawing becomes  'accumulative' and one starts to anticipate and predict the rise and fall of a movement before, during and after making the mark on the paper in sort of inverse cinematic way, turning the flow of movement back into fragmentary still images.  At first the mind resists this constant change, wanting the image to be still so it can capture the gesture of the model in the mark but strangely as you get used to the process of intense concentrated looking  and drawing the pencil begins to 'dance' and moves on the paper in synchronisation with the movement of the model,going, as it were, 'with the flow' letting go and accepting the constant changes as much as holding on to and trying to capture a frozen moment. 

This seems very like observing the breath in breathing meditation (anapanasati) - you cannot hold the breath in order to observe it but can watch it arise and fall naturally, each inhalation and exhalation conditioning the next in continuous cycles.

" First we contemplate just the breath until we see that it is impermanent. We observe that the breath changes and becomes long. Its long duration is impermanent, always changing, getting long and shorter. Its shortness is impermanent as well. The various conditions and characteristics of the breath are impermanent. "

Page 92 'Mindfulness of breathing' ( a manual for serious beginners) Buddhadasa  Bhikkhu 

I am drawing flowers from observation at the moment in various stages of growth and decay by working on top of and over earlier stages of observation and layers of drawing with various media. I am trying to explore how the drawing itself can 'breath' or 'respire' as the subject changes shape and moves in the various stages of its cycle and the forms and spaces alter and change. Not sure how to know when the drawing is finished but plan to work on several of these drawings as I explore this approach.   

I am also reading 'The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject through Painting¨ by Francois Jullien (translated by Jane Marie Todd) and am finding lots of suggested relationships in this text between drawing and painting in traditional Chinese painting as described by the author and insight from traditional Buddhist meditation although the writer quotes the Laozi and Zhuangzi as the great Taoist texts and philosophies that were informing many of the seminal Chinese landscape painters of the Sung dynasty. One of the key figures, the painter/poet Wang Wei, was a practising Buddhist. 

Here is an example to do with 'breath-resonance'

"Instead of categorically setting up presence and absence as opposites, expiration and inspiration govern each other and indefinitely allow passage. The disappearing -reappearing path in Chinese painting, far from serving to construct the painting's perpective by designating a vanishing line by virtue of which progressive and proportional diminution of objects would be rendered, serves rather to unfurl the landscape in continuous renewal" 

Page 11 'Presence-Absence ' 'The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject through Painting¨ by Francois Jullien (translated by Jane Marie Todd) 

       What is the relationship between the practising art and meditation, between Dhamma and Painting?  Perhaps it has to do with trying to actively understand how we perceive and construct 'realities' in worlds and images. 

Ajahn Amaro the current abbot of Amaravarti Buddhist Monastery in England says this or something very similar in a recent podcast. I apologise for any inaccuracies.  

"We don't experience the world, we experience our minds representation of the world which is not to say there is no real world."

and this from the Dhammapada translated by Juan Mascaro,

" What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday; and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow; our life is the creation of the mind. "

The work in progress below in acrylic under-painting represents the stages so far of a new painting. The problem is how to keep the fresh, lightness of touch and the sketch-like painterly unfinished quality when the work is either finished or abandoned ?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Drawing and Modelling Art and Anatomy at the Ruskin

Programme Feedback

Review of the Art and Anatomy Course at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art.    University of Oxford.   4th-10th August 2013

The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine art in Oxford provided a unique setting for this art and anatomy workshop.  Oxford's compactness meant it was easy to get to the important artistic and scientific collections at the Bodleian Library, Ashmolean Museum, Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museums and Botanical Gardens, etc; which were only a few minutes walk away and its great architectural heritage made an ideal setting to enrich the practical studio work and critical lectures and discussions.  
I was able to go to three ancient music concerts in the evening during the week and was stimulated by trips to Blackwell's Bookshop and walks in Christchurch meadows in the early morning summer sunshine. Oxford may sometimes seem like a small provincial English town but the whole world seemed to be there on every street corner and yet this global reach did not diminish its human scale.
The 17 students on the course represented a balance of ages and nationalities and all were serious and focused throughout in the friendly and sociable atmosphere set by the tutors and the generous supplies of tea, coffee, biscuits and cake provided by the Ruskin support staff. 
Some of the younger students were preparing for college applications but my own interest as a mature student was to reinvigorate a critical approach to drawing practice as part of a four month sabbatical designed to enrich my teaching of art at St. John's International School in Belgium and I was not disappointed.
We were taken through a series of formal lectures alternating with practical studio sessions, drawing and modeling directly from the skeleton and excellent live models in the studio. These activities gave an accumulative critical insight into the development  and culture of scientific and artistic anatomy and its images, placing them into both historical and contemporary contexts by reviewing key examples. Professors Brian Catling, Sarah Simblet and Eleanor Crook also generously shared examples their  work and expertise in slides and handouts and recommended reading lists as well as by bringing in actual examples of their own work. It was a great privilege to see the clarity of Sarah's jewel like botanical drawings for her books and her enormous early dreamlike anatomical drawings first hand. Indeed seeing this work and hearing Sarah talk about drawing opened up so many possibilities for understanding and practicing this great universal visual language.   
With both group and individual tutoring placing an emphasis on the process of looking and drawing throughout the pace was rigorous and challenging but the atmosphere was positive and enjoyable and we covered a large amount of material in only one week and everyone was productive - I made two wax models with facial and torso musculature and around 12 large drawings of the skeleton and human figure informed by Sarah and Eleanor's clear explanations of the human anatomy and critical reading of it in various contexts.
For me this course was about so much more than learning to draw the human body by studying bones and muscles, although it achieved this aim successfully in the limited time.  I found I was also stimulated and inspired to connect the topography of the human form in a pivotal way with a whole matrix of connected critical ideas and understandings of biology, geometry, language, architecture, geography, social, ethical and cultural history, religion, mythology, psychology, etc., that opened up a world of potential meanings and possible further investigation of cross-curricular connections that underline the importance of this subject - indeed without a human body/mind to experience it there is no world. 

All in all it was a wonderful and memorable experience that will continue to inform and enrich my own thinking, studio practice and teaching for some time to come and for this I am grateful.

Alan Mitchell
August 2013

Links to Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art and Tutors of the art and antomy course







Below is a selection of drawings and models I made during the course.