Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fragments of an ephemeral art history....

Oil on wood. 30x40cms 

Another painting finished today, a homage to the lost worlds of stone, paper, photography and oil paint hosted here in the even more ephemeral medium of digital technology. What is so difficult to communicate is the physical quality of the painting as an object with a tactile surface and the context of the real frame boxing the object inside a glass case which is surely part of the meaning of the work. 

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know ? Grayson Perry's Reith lectures on BBC Radio 4

During the day while I am painting I listen to the radio and today heard the third of Grayson Perry's four Reith lectures. Popular rather than controversial his assessment of the 'State of Art' from a British perspective in the 21st century is both funny, clever and unpretentious and his sense of dress for a white middle aged man is, like his pottery, challenging, memorable and inspirational.  He seems to have matured from a whimsical doll-like Alice in Wonderland into a full blown establishment artistic matriarch, but what he says is much more interesting than what he wears. 


Monday, October 28, 2013

Something from Nothing ?

Oil on wood panel. 30x40cms

Completed today the painting above using complementary colours orange, blue and white with a touch of yellow ochre to explore 'white on white'. I particularly enjoyed painting the trompe l'oeil battered edges of the corrugated cardboard. In this photograph the actual shadow of the wood panel and the painted shadow of the edge of the cardboard merge. Here there is a plenitude of emptiness with the major picture inside the picture torn away and absent and the minor picture inside the picture a small  residual fragment of photograph with a pensive academic nude. 

Framing time and space in Flanders and Italy

Revisited recently 'Het Lamb God' in Gent's St Bavo's Cathedral, the largest and most famous polyptych of the early Northern Renaissance by the brothers Jan and Hubert Van Eyck who are credited with inventing oil painting. But it is the less well known works of the Flemish masters, encountered yesterday at 'The Heritage of Rogier van de Weyden' exhibition in Brussels http://www.fine-arts-museum.be/en/exhibitions/the-heritage-of-rogier-van-der-weyden that enchant with their quirky observations of daily life framed by the carved stone or wooden lintels of windows and doors.  
An expressive face and the gesture of hands, a richly brocaded floral pattern on the fabric of an elaborate costume or the glint of shiny metal armour or gemstones on the hilt of a sword; the details of flowers, plants and trees carefully observed in a rocky landscape, or distant mountains or the towers and spires of a town on the horizon. There is often humour and whimsy; a small lap dog staring out at the viewer, a butterfly, toad or composite monstrous creatures, demons or dragons, there is even an oversized fly (actual size for the viewer) in perfect trompe l' oeil on the white silk dress of the woman in the far left hand corner of the central panel of the "Triptych of the Miracles of Christ", painted between 1491-1995,  which came all the way from Australia for the exhibition.    
Clearly the artists while commissioned to represent these stories felt no compunction to keep to the letter of the biblical text but creatively interpreted the stories in an imaginative contemporary context, packing them with the kind of ostentatious show of painted wealth and status that a courtly patron, often also suitably represented with their own heavenly patrons, might desire and own in actuality. Here sacred and secular worlds neatly dovetail into and legitimise each other, church and court in collusion to present an image of the ideal world in a theologically ordered cosmos, and supporting the artists and artisans who supplied the goods in their various crafts and guilds including the miracle of painting itself - with its very own patron St Luke. 
St. Luke Painting the Virgin. Studio of Dieric Bouts 1415 (Haarlem) -1475 (Leuven)

What is striking is how the conventions of the picture frame itself, often an elaborate architectural structure like a triptych with folding panels opening like a window or door to reveal further frames within frames, is an integral part of the whole conceit. Sometimes the side of a room or building is removed, like in a doll's house to reveal the interior spaces and further views are then framed through painted windows and doors. The picture itself is like the side of a box which has been taken off to reveal the space within through the illusions of perspective and the play of light on various forms in chiaroscuro.  Often different times and spaces are framed to create episodes in a narrative sequence that runs through the picture, with the same central characters in recognisable dress  occurring in various tableaux at each stage in the story like a repeating musical or visual motif in a pattern. This kaleidoscopic vision is unified into the present moment by the viewer whose eye unfolds the narrative, simultaneously reading and experiencing both the internal logic of the picture and the subjective pleasure of pure visual sensation.  
Painting is like a door in a wall which opens to reveal a Hortus Conclusus, a secret garden to delight the senses and engage the mind, a quiet retreat for contemplation and reflection. The silent world of these jewel like paintings is both magic and real, highly decorated and ornate with an intense feeling for texture, pattern and surface rendered with loving detail and often all the dramatic tension, moral certitude and gory realism of a murder mystery, the iconographic clues to which can be read in the attributes, gestures and faces of the main protagonists for the amateur sleuth and art historian  
At 'The Academia' in Venice in Marco Basaiti's 'Agony in the Garden', originally painted for The Church of San Giobbe, the picture frame itself integrates with the architecture of the loggia forming one side of the four arched rib vaulted section  under which St Francis and the other saints look towards the garden which lies outside the opposite arch and beyond the tiled floor. Here the disciples, in the middle ground, are asleep below a small hill on which Christ is seen kneeling in prayer whilst in the distance descending the path from a hill top town the solders who will arrest him are heading towards the scene.  This is the calm before the storm - the moment of optimal dramatic tension to which the saints in the loggia direct our attention as though to a framed picture which is in the same 'real' space they  inhabit - all they need to do is walk through the arch to be in the garden  
Marco Basaiti  'Agony in the Garden'  
The story unfolds in time and space within each frame, the spatial illusion unfolding with the scientific logic of perspective from the background of the picture through the middle ground towards the foreground and ultimately outside the frame to the viewer in the actual world of the immediate present.  Painting becomes an intersection through which one can travel backwards and forwards in time and space, both real and imaginary. Mundane and supra-mundane, relative and absolute time and space converge in an elaborate and sophisticated visual play of pictorial composition. The picture is a continuing event in which each viewer is an active participant in the process of both un-folding and 'in-folding its meaning and context.

Monday, October 21, 2013

To be or not to be at the Venice Biennale.......

Back from Venice after four days of autumn sunshine and a two hour delay returning due to thunder storm...


Despite being one of the most pictured cities in the world, reproduced endlessly in tourist itineraries and holiday snaps, now in the age of the iphone more than ever - being in this unique city with as many narratives as there are canals one can read the 'Stones of Venice' ( to quote Ruskin's famous work) as one moves through its closed dark and bright open spaces,  and one is made aware of the importance of the sense of place and history to understanding the meaning of things.  

Understanding the context as a work unfolds in time and space is crucial to the critical experience and engaging directly and in person with the work engenders an exchange and dialogue that is human in scale, has dimensions, is proportional, measured and balanced. 

Being with the work matters.............

This is true of the many historical works by Tintoretto, Veronese, Titian, Bellini or Lotto that one encounters in situ in the churches and palaces they were designed for as well as for the contemporary artists whose work has been curated in the national pavilions and for the overarching theme of 'The Encyclopedic Palace' curated by Massimiliani Gioni. This is quoted from the text on the biennale website

The Exhibition draws inspiration from the model of a utopian dream by Marino Auriti who filed a design with the U.S. Patent office in 1955, depicting his Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace), an imaginary museum that was meant to house all worldly knowledge. Auriti planned the model of a 136-story building to be built in Washington, in that would stand 700 meters tall and take up over 16 blocks.
“Auriti’s plan was never carried out, of course – Massimiliano Gioni says - but the dream of universal, all-embracing knowledge crops up throughout the history of art and humanity, as one that eccentrics like Auriti share with many other artists, writers, scientists, and self-proclaimed prophets who have tried—often in vain—to fashion an image of the world that will capture its infinite variety and richness. Today, as we grapple with a constant flood of information, such attempts to structure knowledge into all-inclusive systems seem even more necessary and even more desperate.”

Being with the work matters. 

 In Jesper Just's  'Intercourses' at the Danish Pavilion both the pavilion itself and the video installation explore the liminal spaces between ruin and construction.  One experiences a sense of dislocation and displacement that challenges us to question both who, what and where we are.


 An overwhelming sense of the sheer physical materiality in both the waxy smell and the claustrophobic darkness seemed to absorb the viewer who entered Belgian pavilion. In 2012 the Flemish artist Belinda De Bruyckere and the South African writer J M Coetzee  created in both a book, 'Allen Vlees' (All Flesh) and this work a testament to 'kindred spirits' to use the words of the artist. Hovering between life and death this giant sculpture of a horizontal bandaged 'cripple-wood' tree explores the body as a complex metaphor with profound historical resonance which touches a contemporary nerve and challenges the viewer to confront difficult existential questions. 


The Australian pavilion was the site for Simryn Gill's ' Here art grows on trees'.  Simple circular found objects picked off the street and tiny delicate fragments of text collage on paper panels were left exposed to the weather and the effects of time in a roofless pavilion. Photographs of mines and a video of mangrove trees evoke the marginal zones of human and vegetal intervention and elemental existence between air, earth and water. The poetry of the ephemeral, the impermanent and the transient resonates in a city which like the mangroves occupies the zone between land and water and bears the marks of history and the passage of time. 

The greatest art is perhaps timeless and universal but at the biennale it is difficult to ignore the zeitgeist. 

 Vadim Zakharov references the Greek myth of Danae as a poetical cipher to explore contemporary issues of gender, money, power, and corruption in an interactive performance installation in the Russian pavilion 

Danae was the mother of the the Greek hero Perseus. Imprisoned by her father Acrisius to keep her childless because an oracle predicted he would be killed his daughter's son, she she was impregnated by Zeus who appeared in the form of golden rain. Patriarchy of both father and god, fear and desire, the corrupting or liberating power of money, divine intervention into mortal affairs and heroic action influence personal fate as it unfolds across generations in unexpected and tragic ways 

The Greek pavilion, not surprisingly perhaps given the current financial crisis, hosted an exploration by Stefanos Tsivoploulos of value and money in ' History Zero'.  With its gently ironic 'currency archive' and a series of three films the artist presents a mediated reality through the parallel lives of a migrant, an artist and an art collector whose different social and economic worlds intersect. 

The Palasso Grassi hosted the work of Rudolf Stingel, a Italian artist based in New York,  whose work reminded me of Gerhard Richter. 

Large and small metallic paint abstractions and monochromatic photo-realist works exploited a rich web of painterly qualities of texture, pattern and gesture, often superimposed, in which the photograph or reproduction of a work of art functioned as the image. Interspersed over three floors they worked well juxtaposed against the baroque richness of the decorated coffered ceilings of the palace 'piano nobile' and the oversized carpeted installation that covered both walls and floors throughout the entire building with a slightly manic overindulgence and studied precision. The gilded splendour of the past colliding with the clinical white modernist spaces of the gallery as laboratory 

Photography: mirror and image in contemporary painting. 

This is the title of my research paper for presentation in mid November.  I will make an initial brief examination of the work of four painters, Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans, Micheal Borremans and Peter Doig, as a point of departure for further investigations to support my ongoing studio practice.  

Despite the crowds it is still possible to find silence and emptiness in Venice .......

Cimitero.  Isole di San Michele 

Palazzo Grimani 

Cloister. Chiesa di San Francesco della Vigna 

San Giorgio dei Greci 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Venice - an exquisite corpse ?

English mist and Adriatic sunshine fuse in Turner's elemental atmospheric vision of Venice's monumental stones, reflected in water and light - a liquid dream in paint where nothing is quite what it seems or where it should actually be. Is this a real city or a Romantic myth? 

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 
The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa exhibited 1842

This is the city of reflections, introspection and speculations par excellence - it practically invented mirrors ( in Latin 'speculum') and the modern merchant adventurer and everywhere the reflected image of the city appears to have relatively more permanence than the crumbling fabric of it's sinking palazzi  

Meeting place of East and West, melting pot of cultures and crucible of early modern capitalism, the city, the republic and its maritime empire was an emporium of luxury goods and lax morals, which created in its golden age iconic art and architecture, as well as the first Jewish ghetto and the horror of the plague which remain potent symbols of a lost and conflicted world which still haunts the popular imagination 

A gilded bauble floating on a restless sea, Venice is a mirror, an illusion in which the hapless willingly (or unwillingly?) collude. Never was a place more conducive to meditations on impermanence. Venice  is a living embodiment of a 'Vanitas' or 'Memento Mori',  a meeting place for desire and loss, beauty and death. 

It is ironic that this place, which seemingly has resisted the Modern era more than any other, living off a vision of its glorious and decadent past, should have hosted the International Contemporary Art Biennale for over a hundred years, showcasing some of the most avant garde artists from around the world in various venues ancient and modern around the city, including the specially built National Pavilions at the Giardini

There is a frisson in the collision/collusion of political and cultural perspectives, both old and new as in Ai WeiWei's 'Sacred' which depicts scenes from his recent incarceration. 

ai weiwei
S.A.C.R.E.D., 2011-2013
six-part work composed of (i) S upper, (ii) A ccusers, (iii) C leansing, (iv) R itual, (v) E ntropy, (vi) D oubt
six dioramas in fiberglass and iron, each 377 x 198 x 153 cm
installation view,chiesa di sant' antonin, 2013

This place is all about 'frissons' and is premised on a paradox.  The solidity of its hybridised architecture seems to defy the fluidity of the lagoon; is it working with or against nature?

The city's declining indigenous residents are vastly outnumbered by the global migration of transient tourist populations - yet it cannot bite the hand that feeds it...

Will the city's delicate architectural and artistic fabric survive industrial pollution, damage to the delicate ecosystem of the lagoon, climate change, rising waters and flooding and the ever increasing onslaught of mass tourism with its cheap and tacky consumerism?  In this digital age is Venice an authentic or just a 'virtual' reality in an electronic 'Hall of Mirrors' or perhaps a cipher for our contemporary dilemmas ?

I leave this afternoon to meet up with colleagues and students on the St. John's International School high school art trip to find out ......... 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Ruined paper Propylaea and the art of memory

Started work on one of the collages from an earlier triptych by drawing the outlines on the gessoed wood panel and painting in an acrylic undercoat of ground colours to build on top of with oil paint. This helps me establish the balance between compositional elements like scale, proportion, positive and negative shapes and spaces, and to calibrate the tonal and colour resonance. 

This painting includes collage with photographic fragments of Greek classical architecture from old art history books, (in this case looking outwards through the door of the Propylaea which forms the monumental gateway to the Athenian Acropolis, and here frames a view of the city beyond and below which surrounds the sacred hill) and human figures in various poses from 19th century academic life studies for artists. 

The western wing of the Propylaea was used to house paintings of important battles in antiquity - a kind of monumental 'theatre of memory' for the ancient Greeks 

The Propylaea, the photographs and the paper collage are all in a state of ruin as they are slowly and inevitably composted by time....

Is this a reflection on how art and memory collude in the present moment with the construction of an imaginary future's past........ ? 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Painting an Oxymoron ?

I think this oil painting on wood 30x40 cm is ready to let go of and fix into a real frame ......

 I hope it functions simultaneously as a tromp l oeil and a delicate painterly abstraction which frames the frame itself as the image, asserting the negation of a further framed image inside these frames, which is present by its absence

surface depth
window wall
flat relief
open closed
full empty
positive negative
something nothing
present absent
assertion negation
reality illusion
form space
revealed hidden
sight blind
visible invisible
light dark
clear obscure
still motion
becoming ceasing

            'Amid the vastness of the things among which we live, the existence of nothingness holds the first place; its function extends over all things that have no existence, and its essence, as regards time, lies precisely between the past and the future, and has nothing in the present. This nothingness has the part equal to the whole, and the whole to the part, the divisible to the indivisible; and the product of the sum is the same whether we divide or multiply, and in addition as in subtraction; as is proved by arithmeticians by their tenth figure which represents zero; and its power has not extension among the things of Nature.'

Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci