Monday, September 30, 2013

Audrey Atkinson: 'Bodies of Work'

Looking forward to seeing Audrey's exhibition at the vernissage this Friday in the Greene Gallery at St John's. I have followed her work as a friend since I came to Belgium 16 years ago and have been impressed with her honesty as a person, the quality of her work and integrity of the feelings and processes involved. 

Audrey Atkinson: Bodies of Work.

Audrey’s Atkinson’s paintings are complex things built up over time in multiple layers with surfaces of linen, gesso and paint that recall plastered or distempered walls.  Embedded as collage into these light absorbent and reflective surfaces are shadowy human forms drawn in calligraphic gestural line drawings and sometimes organized in sequences that recall the motion of film strips. These human traces, worked up from sketches and drawings made over time from the live model are fixed into the architecture of the paintings so as to juxtapose dynamic arabesques of movement against the static geometry of the horizontal and vertical axis of the picture plane, which acts like the frame of a door or window, a stage or catwalk for the lines that dance or writhe in a kind of kin-aesthetic notation across the surface before disappearing back into the surface.  Complex formal tensions are played out here between figure and ground, form and space, light and dark and rich visceral blood reds, smeared or stained browns, and inky blacks against bleached whites and creams. At first glance they appear aesthetically pleasing and decorative but look closer and longer, contemplate them, and there is something deeper, more disturbing, more rewarding happening here. 

Audrey’s sketchbooks, etching and engraving and painting have always had a unity and focus that made them an integrated whole with one process flowing into another and developing a rich interaction and symbiosis. More recently she has extended this approach into three dimensions to include work in ceramics and mixed media, wire and cloth assemblages in which the body plays a central role.  Small carefully modeled torsos and other fragments of the human form are draped with slip soaked rags and fired to a hard, rough stone finish with burnt cinder qualities that remind me of the figures from Pompei, frozen in the moment when the volcanic ash buried them only to emerge from their ancient rock cocoons when archeologists took casts by pouring plaster into the cavities to reveal their moments of final surrender. The body is a cipher in which we can read sensuality, pain, and the passage of time that both fixes, even as it erases, the contortions and expressions of the creatures it captures in fossilized stone.
In contrast to this hard sculptural material her soft sculptures involve the more feminine act of sewing fragments of cloth onto carefully constructed wire armatures that are based around the shapes and forms of bones to create three dimensional rag collages that are assembled from many separate parts to make partial or incomplete wholes rather like fragments of bone from an exhumation in the forensic laboratory. Audrey’s background in fashion is clearly evident in this use of materials but the medical and forensic allusions resonate beyond the merely aesthetic and allude to the body as damaged or outraged, in need of healing or justice. There is no raw horror or sensation here, rather quiet and persistent questions about the nature of truth, beauty, goodness.

Audrey’s art is the art of healing through touching pain, a laying on of hands, literally, like touching the earth. Her art is the art of fragmentation and decay even as it is an art of reconstruction and restitution. Ultimately her work is a silent witness to the power of art to transform our understanding of the human condition though forms of expression that pre-empt written or verbal communication, the language of the senses, the language of the body itself that is at once timeless and profound.

Alan Mitchell.

MA Fine Art Studio Practice and Research Methods

Got back from the UK last Tuesday and enrolment on MA Fine Art Studio Practice at Uclan with course leader Pete Clark.

I plan to work on two of the modules, research methods and studio practice, here in Brussels returning at the end of November to work in the print studio and make scheduled student presentations for these modules at Uclan.

I have started reading, researching and writing for this around the theme of 'photography as image in contemporary painting' and will post this presentation on the blog when it is properly ready.

After Pete's introduction the new MA students took a tour around the MA Fine Art Degree Show and the studios facilities which include a very well equipped print room which I am looking forward to using with some prepared copper plates made here in Brussels.

MA Degree show work by Heather Chou 

Print Studios Uclan 

Printmaking Installation in Foyer 

We also met Prof. Lubaina Himid who curated 'Thin Black Lines' at Tate Britain in 2011-12.
She has been active in making, curating and archiving the visual art of the Black Diaspora in Britain and internationally.

I saw her 'Lancaster Dinner Service' installation at The Judge's Lodging in 2007- a powerful reminder of how the history of the slave trade in Lancaster and Liverpool continues to challenge contemporary ideas about British society and culture.

Also went to Edinburgh on Sunday 22nd Sept. to see the Peter Doig exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery, 'No Foreign Lands'.  Born in Scotland he grew up in Trinidad and Canada before moving to London and Chelsea School of Art.  He currently lives and works in Trinidad alongside his friend the British African/Carribean artist Chris Offili.

There is an interesting interview with both artists about living and working in Trinidad published in  BOMB maganzine. by Leon Wainwright.  Lecturer in history of art and design at Manchester Metropolitan University (UK)

Doig's best paintings in the exhibition are like large painterly pyrotechnics of light and colour with dazzling greenish, yellow whites on watery surfaces or deep blues of reflected night skies evoking dreamlike and magical places that are as much states of mind as descriptions of real topography.

                                 Peter Doig. 'Music of the future'. Oil on Linen 2003-7

 Working from photographic images as starting points for memory and imagination the work is as much about the visual and expressive qualities of the paint itself as it is about the landscapes we experience through desire and longing or as personal evocations of  'genius loci'.  In the Edinburgh exhibition some of this seems hit and miss however and only a few of his paintings really seem to work for me, many of them falling flat despite their huge scale.  I still remember being bowled over by his painting 'Window Pane' 1993. which I saw at the Musee Correr at the Venice Biennale in 2003 at the exhibition  ‘Pittura,1964-2003 Da Rauschenberg a Murakami’

Peter Doig. 'Window Pane' oil on canvas 1993

Art is neither static nor ideological. In contemporary painting the globalised politics of identity give way to the poetry of constant displacement, where memory and imagination create new visions from old in media that are elemental, like water and ice, altering states from fluid to solid, forming and reforming in ever changing cycles.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ground Work

Once the drawing stage is finished I can start to lay in a ground of under-painting using acrylic which helps me to roughly establish and calibrate the tone and colour relationships and balance the composition before starting to apply the first layer of the oil paint. 

At this stage the work is at its most abstract. 

                                        Triptych.   Drawing layer completed 

 Beginning to roughly lay in the acrylic paint on the right hand panel 

'Feb 2-54' Ben Nicholson, 1954 

Oil paint and graphite on canvas 

Oil paint and graphite on canvas.

 'Relief' 1934 Ben Nicholson 

I particularly like the muted, neutral colours and tones in his painting that evoke natural stone or plaster, raw linen, bleached bone or wood and the cubist spatial and structural aspects of these compositions by Ben Nicholsonabove.  His cubist abstractions of still life subjects and his more geometric shallow reliefs seem to have a strong sense of both the surface and frame as integral to the composition and they always have a lyrical, rhythmic quality charaterised by the relationships between straight lines and curves as they intersect through space and forms. Clearly the circle and the square have profound significance for him in contrast to the geometric pure grid structures of Piet Mondrian, a difference in approach to feeling for geometry which was very apparent in the exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery  'Mondrian, Nicholson: In Parallel' which I saw last year.  

Below central panel with acrylic ground laid in 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Drawing from collage and direct observation

Working with drawing in two spaces at the moment - in the studio room on stage two of a triptych based on the collages in the previous post and around the apartment direct observation of flowers and bones.  The drawing from the collage is the 'skeleton' or 'scaffolding' of the 'architecture' or 'anatomy' of the painting in which I can carefully work out scale and proportion and create a composition based on relationships between the shapes of negative spaces and positive forms that will be the underlying structure of the final work. 

In another part of my apartment I am continuing to work on an series of large drawing of flowers as they 'respire' and go through the process of growth and decay. Interestingly the skeletal anatomical drawings I started at the Ruskin School in Oxford during the art and anatomy workshop there have inspired me to continue with this subject. I bought a skeleton produced by '3B Scientific' from the medical shop 'Brasseur' on Rue du Midi in Brussels and am setting this up in various positions and drawing from direct observation.  As I have been doing this it seemed natural to explore the relationship between human and plant forms, bones and flowers and I will continue with this interlocking and overlapping of forms in layers of drawing and thin washes of acrylic paint and see where it takes me.

The study of flowers or plant morphology and the skeleton in human anatomy whist having a long and respectable scientific history (I remember my brother when he was training to be a doctor bringing home half of a human skeleton and doing dissection in his first year at Leeds as part of his medical training) has an even older and longer tradition in both East and West as a meditation on the human condition, the brevity of life and impermanence. The forms of flowers and bones are no less beautiful for this indeed they are perhaps a contemplation on both what is beautiful and true in the whole existential cycle of life and death.  The offering of flowers to a Buddha 'rupa' or image  during a 'puja' is often accompanied with this reflection. 

I worship the Buddha with these flowers;
May this virtue be helpful for my emancipation;
Just as these flowers fade,
Our body will undergo decay.
Pujemi Buddham kusumenanena
Puññenametena ca hotu mokkham
Puppham milāyāti yathā idam me
Kāyo tathā yāti vinā

Monday, September 9, 2013

Ars Longa Vita Brevis

Managed today to finally resolve the three collages below into a triptych format. The small 19th century academic studio photographic fragments create a human scale and proportion in relation to the 'empty', 'closed' or 'blocked' windows and frames that have an architectural quality by way of scale ratios between picture and wall. The pictorial surface space functions as the facade of a building might with doors or windows set into a flat surface articulated with shallow relief.  It alludes to the quality of patina that might be found on a weathered wall whilst also exploring the various nuances of texture and tone that emerge from torn layers of card, tape and paper in the process of collage over time with carefully planned 'accidents'. Evoking the incidental passage of time is in fact the result of many days work and much trial and effort before the composition finally emerges and feels 'right'.

The next stage will be to work with oil paint on a wood surface prepared with layers of sanded gesso to 'translate' this image into colours, tones and texture of oil paint medium that works both as paint in its own right at the same time that it  evokes the material quality of papery collage.... 


Travel broadens the mind.............

Below are various photographs taken in the urban environments of Naples, Pompei and Brussels with architectural facades and surfaces that include sculptural and ornamental relief around doors and windows, painted walls, photography, collage and illusionist trompe l'oeil creating depth in shallow surfaces and opening up views into distance spaces. These images and experiences are inspirational for me especially the way they show what Marguerite Yourcenar called 'That Mighty Sculptor, Time'.  There is a remarkable resilience in human creation, in architectural and sculptural forms, marks and images, which continue to persist against the inevitable passage of time and the transience of all things.  Ars Longa, Vita Brevis ( Art is long, Life is short ) 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Painting, time's fugitive ?

oil painting on wood 30x40cms  -nearly finished 

and detail 

In attempting to capture and fix in the medium of oil paint, the appearance of other media, a fragile collage of torn paper fragments caught in flux and a photographic image, which is itself an attempt to capture the fleeting forms of life in mirrored shadows, the viewer is invited to engage in a discourse not only about the physical materiality of processes involving paint, paper, collage, photography and of how these are related to each other through mimesis, translation or as visual metaphors, but also to confront the true nature of pictorial illusions and realities, both inside and outside the frame, as well as to consider the nature of time and the transience of all material forms - including the image itself - time's fugitive. 
   Below two examples of Fayum Mummy Portraits from around first century BCE first century CE painted in an encuastic wax technique in a Greaco-Roman illussionistic style on panels inserted into mummy wrapping and cases for traditional Egyptian burials

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Poetry of Decay

Time and transience - the aesthetics of ruins and broken statues......

The oil painting on wood, 30x40cms below I think is completed. 

The following thoughts and observations go towards providing a context to understanding a fascination with fragments of torn paper and bits of old photographs as subjects for oil painting. By making these kind of things the focus of particular visual attention and contemplation it confers on them a peculiar significance and aesthetic quality and suggests potential interest and value  can be found in things that are ordinary, unexceptional and conventionally worthless, even perhaps boring. Sustained concentration can reveal layers of meaning in unexpected objects, in discarded detritus or abandoned places.   
Circle of Giovanni Battista Piranesi 1720-1778
Travellers in the ruins of a vaulted rotunda 
The Romantic cult of ruins in the 18th and 19th cen. created a 'poetry of decay' by evoking a largely imaginary historical past that served to satisfy contemporary fashions and tastes and function perhaps as a warning or 'memento mori' or 'vanitas' for an emerging power with imperial ambitions as Shelley's 'Ozymandias' poem published in 1818 so famously expresses
I met a traveller from an antique land 
Who said Two vast and trunkless legs of stone,
Stand in the desert. near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,  
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear: 
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The Lone and level sands stretch far away. 

In 'Essays in Idleness, The Tsurezurgusa of Kenko'  written sometime between 1330 and 1332 by the Buddhist priest Kenko and translated by Donald Keene, published by Columbia University Press in a second edition in 1997, a Buddhist aesthetics of impermanence emerges that gives beauty and significance to people, things and places. Indeed, for Kenko then as as for Buddhists today all phenomena or 'Dhamma' are characterised by 'the three marks of existence',  'Anicca' ("inconstancy" or "impermanence"),  'Anatta' or "non-self"  and  'Dukkha' or dissatisfaction. 
'Kenko puts forward the most peculiarly Japanese of aesthetic principles; beauty is indissolubly bound to its perishability. he wrote; 
"If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in this world, how things would lose their power to move us !  The most precious thing in life is uncertainty." ....... 
Whatever has survived has aged, and the faded quality, the reminder of impermanence despite long survival, has been especially prized. Kenko quoted with approbation the poet Ton'a who said,   
" It is only after the silk wrapper has frayed at top and bottom, and the mother of pearl has fallen from the roller, that the scroll looks beautiful," ' 

Corner of a frayed Edo period Japanese gold silk damask Kesa or patchwork Zen priests robe decorated with peonies and chrysanthemums

How different is the tone of anger and bitterness directed towards the aged fragments, the 'broken statues' and 'battered books' of the Western civilization which Ezra Pound imagined symbolised the morally bankrupt culture which a lost generation had died for in the futile slaughter of the first world war.  
                                                             "THERE died a myriad
And the best, among them
For an old bitch gone in the teeth ,
For a botched civilisation,

Charm, smiling at the good mouth

Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books

Poem V,   'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley'    Ezra Pound  

This violent rejection of the aesthetic of ruins and broken statues that had so preoccupied the artists and connoisseurs of the 18th and 19th centuries was a premise that lay behind much of the revolutionary avant garde of early European Modernism. Rejecting the old and embracing the new involved a kind of violent wrenching, and sometimes a frenzied intoxication with the new technology of a imagined utopian machine age that has fascist overtones and undercurrents. This is from 'The Futurist Manifesto' by F. T.  Marinetti in 1909. 

   "We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath ... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace."

The book 'Francis Bacon, 'A Terrible Beauty'  investigates the studio archive at the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane.  (Pub. Steid,  2009) It reproduces and discusses many of the the fragments of stained, yellowing, battered and creased photographs which Bacon used as sources for his painting. Although they clearly are part of a process of almost literally breaking down,  'masticating' and 'digesting' the image prior to 'regurgitating' it as a painted distortion of form, an excretion of paint, or as he famously put it,
" I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of human a snail leaves its slime, " 
 the photographic fragments reproduced in the book remain as charged seminal images in their own right and they take on the curated aura of venerated relics rather than the rubbish or left over detritus of the artist's creative process.  

 John Deakin, photographs of George Dyer c.1965
These same fragments of paper and other detritus charged with significance can be found on the walls and surfaces of any street corner of any city the world over, wherever the processes of time and change have a chance to reveal the 'marks of existence'. 

Photograph,  'Wall',  Naples.  2013

"One day I tried to arrive at silence … Those millions of furious clawings were transformed into millions of grains of dust, of sand … A whole new landscape, as in the story of one who goes through the looking glass, opened before me as if to communicate the most secret innerness of things … And the most sensational surprise was to discover one day, suddenly, that my paintings, for the first time in history, had turned into walls."       Antoni Tapies, Quoted in The Guardian Obituary.  2012  

                                                          Pintura XXVIII by Antoni Tapies

The Catalan artist Antoni Tapies, who died last year,  had a profound interest in Buddhism. This is quoted from the website of the Fondacio Antoni Tapies in Barcelona  

" Influenced by Buddhist thought, Tàpies believes that a better knowledge of pain allows us to soften its effects and therefore improve our quality of life. The passage of time, which has always been a constant in his work, now takes on fresh nuances when lived as a personal experience which brings greater self-knowledge and a clearer understanding of the world around him. "