Wednesday, May 25, 2016

'Fleshing' the skeleton

Have been continuing as an 'artist in residence' to work on this painting in the classroom. Perhaps the best way to teach art is to model the creative process itself for the students, turning the classroom into an atelier. Finding the balance and relationship between drawing, which itself is a kind of skeletal structure, and oil paint, the more colourful 'flesh' or 'skin' of the picture, is what this works seems to be about.

As a work I can share the challenges and frustrations or reworking the paint surface with charcoal drawing and oil paint after a period of relative neglect when the picture was lying dormant and the idea was gestating and maturing underground like a plant over winter.

It strikes me that much of the work of an artist is invisible, taking place unseen and hidden, in ways that are mysterious  even perhaps to the artist himself. It is difficult to 'account' for this process, especially when I may have 20 odd unfinished works waiting to be rekindled at an opportune moment when they may or may not reach some kind of resolution. A bit like the orchid in my bathroom which has stood on the shelf being happily inactive for many years and which has suddenly sprouted a string of flowers for no apparent reason.

Whilst the spinal column and ribcage are some of the most beautiful forms in nature and the hidden structure that supports the musculature of the back is the aid to our most powerful and graceful movements, to many people a skeleton is either a morbid or sinister subject matter, despite its rhythmic abstract qualities and the focus it can provide as a scaffold for drawing both the shapes and relationships between positive forms and the negative space between them.

Both familiar and strange at the same time, our skeleton, like our body, the locus of both attraction and loathing, pain and pleasure, is the our only way of knowing the world, and is a source of endless wonder and fascination.  
As one of subjects of meditation in the Satipatthana Sutta in the section on the body, the nine cemetery contemplations, are encouragements to contemplate the true nature of material form as it goes through the process of decay and decomposition, as an aid to realization.

 "A body dead one, two or three day." This is the first contemplation.

"Whilst it is being eaten by crows." This portion of the Discourse where the devouring of the body of various kinds of animals is stated refers to the second contemplation.
"A skeleton together with (some) flesh and blood held in by the tendons." This is the third contemplation.

"A blood-smeared skeleton without flesh but held in by the tendons." This is the fourth.

 "A skeleton held in by the tendons but without flesh and not besmeared with blood." This is the fifth.

"Bones gone loose, scattered in all directions." This is the sixth.

 "Bones white in color like a conch." This is the seventh.

 "Bones more than a year old heaped together." This is the eighth.

 "Bones gone rotten and become dust." This is the ninth.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The art of illusions

The Innocent Eye Test 1981, Mark Tansy.
 I am not a realist painter. In the nineteenth century, photography co-opted the traditional function of realist painters, which was to make faithful renditions of “reality.” Then the realist project was taken over by Modernist abstraction, as later evidenced in the title of Hans Hofmann’s book Search for the Real. Minimalism tried to eliminate the gap between the artwork and the real. After that, the project itself dematerialized. But the problem for representation is to find the other functions beside capturing the real.
In my work, I’m searching for pictorial functions that are based on the idea that the painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformational, fictional. I’m not doing pictures of things that actually exist in the world. The narratives never actually occurred. In contrast to the assertion of one reality, my work investigates how different realities interact and abrade. And the understanding is that the abrasions start within the medium itself.
I think of the painted picture as an embodiment of the very problem that we face with the notion “reality.” The problem or question is, which reality? In a painted picture, is it the depicted reality, or the reality of the picture plane, or the multidimensional reality the artist and viewer exist in? That all three are involved points to the fact that pictures are inherently problematic. This problem is not one that can or ought to be eradicated by reductionist or purist solutions. We know that to successfully achieve the real is to destroy the medium; there is more to be achieved by using it than through its destruction. 

Mark Tansey, quoted in Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, by Arthur C. Dante
In the history of paintings of paintings, pictures that are 'self aware' so to speak, Velasquez' 'Las Meninas' is undoubtably the greatest piece of visual rhetoric concerned with the problematic multidimensional realities of pictorial illusion, time and space, and the relationships between artist, subject/s and viewer/s ever explored through the medium of paint on a flat surface. The painting seems to transcend the limits of its own frame by knowing and understanding them so well. When we study it carefully we see that the perceptual reality which the artist has constructed so convincingly is merely an illusion caught between the mirrored gazes of our own eyes and those of the artist and his subjects, a trick of light and shadows, a game of 'smoke and mirrors' and the alchemy of medium itself - paint.  

When we see the illusion for what it is we know that the pictorial 'reality' is only as deep as the surface of the paint, the context of the frame and gallery is another parallel reality, and our own moment of interaction with the picture, through a variety of digital reproductions acting as intermediaries, another parallel world colliding with these coordinates through time and space.

Things in their true nature and illusions are of the same basic substance ........... (Thich Nhat Hahn) 

In the Satipatthana Sutta in the section on 'mental objects', the five 'khandas' or aggregates which we confuse and grasp at as 'me' and 'mine' are compared to various illusions.  'rupa' or material form is compared to  foam;  'vedanna' or feeling to bubbles;  'sanna', cognition or perception, to a mirage; and 'sankara' or volitional formations, physical or psychological forces that fashion things, to a plantain tree with no heart wood, and finally 'vinanna' or consciousness to a magician's illusion. By seeing clearly into the nature of the arising and cessation of these various phenomena we can discern that they are impermanent and not-self, and that there is no lasting satisfaction in conditioned phenomena which are inherently unstable. 

When we consider that the constructed reality of the painting has long outlasted the artist, his subjects and most of the people who have viewed it since 1656, we can appreciate the singular power of art as a focus for contemplation of both conditional and ultimate realities. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Hortus Conclusus

To see the World in a Grain of Sand 
And a heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. 

William Blake

In the Begijnhof in Bruges every high gable end window overlooking rooftops and chimney stacks or low door opening to a walled courtyard or hidden garden suggests the satisfactions of a deliberately chosen interior life of solitary seclusion, and the disciplines of work and contemplation, amongst a community of like minded individuals, gathered around the paradox of space at the centre of things, at once limited and confined yet infinite and liberating. 

In Rob Aben and Saskia de Wit's 'The Enclosed Garden, History and Development of the Hortus Conclusus and its Reintroduction into the Present-day Urban Landscape', the theme of orientation and alignment of body to cosmos and inner to outer space through the architecture of the enclosed garden, often at the heart of the city, monastery, large or small house, is developed as they describe the evolution of its design from the Middle Ages in both Christian and Islamic traditions with analysis of specific examples up to and including the present day. 

' In the enclosed garden there are palpable references enabling one to orient oneself in time, space and society. 'Cosmic orientation', the primitive experience of being on this earth, is provided by the opposition between earth and heaven, high and low, vertical and horizontal, light and dark. the sun's path and that of the stars aid orientation and give and sense of direction. 'Temporal orientation' is gained from the rhythm of the seasons, of day and night and their utterly different effect on our experience of space, and from the tangible presence of the past. 'Territorial orientation' proceeds from the visible topography, the simultaneous presence from close to far off, the references to the far distance from out of the enclosed space, and the dualities of centre and periphery and inside and outside. These various aspects of orientation take on architectural shape in the physical enclosure, a structure introduced into unspecified natural space: organizing the surface on the one hand and giving spatial form on the other.'

Elsewhere in relation to literary archetypes for heavenly paradises in either a garden or a city they indicate that the Dutch word 'tuin' (garden) and the English word town are related etymologically.  I would suggest this grounds Luc Schuiten's utopian vision of the 'vegetal city' in a much older tradition. 

In Keith D Lilley's 'City and Cosmos' the Holy Blood procession in Bruges, (which took place last Thursday 5th of May) performs a per-ambulatory geography of the Holy Blood that is (according to Boogaart)

'...symbolically and cosmologically significant, tracing an outline of the world in and through the city, taking in the whole city and encompassing it with the holy blood of Christ the Redeemer.'

'There is therefore a social and spatial parallelism in the ordering of city and cosmos as traced out by the geography of the Bruges procession. The procession began at the city's spiritual and symbolic centre, its axis mundi, the place the city's ruling 'head' resided. Then with its movement from the centre to the edge, from inside to outside the city, and in encompassing its perimeter, the procession traced out the moral topography of the cosmic body, with its 'purer' inner core contrasting with its outer margins, the place of the lower orders. Hence through its shared forms and hierarchical ordering, unifying the city's body yet reinforcing its divine order in the social hierarchy, the procession of the Holy Blood drew onto the city a 'map' of the cosmos.'  

Bruges 'egg' shape suggests enclosure and containment, something warm, protective and nurturing, a place for incubating life.  

 In Gaston Bachelard's 'The Poetics of Space', physical and psychological worlds converge in the archetypal 'house', rather than garden or the city, where both body and cosmos, dreams and reality are comfortably accommodated. In the chapter, 'The house, from cellar to garret and the significance of the hut' he writes,

'For our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.'

'And always, in our daydreams, the house is a large cradle.'

'Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house.' 

Quoting Anne Balif on page 72, in the chapter 'House and Universe', he writes,  

"...asking  a child to draw his house is asking him to reveal the deepest dream of shelter he has found for his happiness. If he is happy, he will succeed in drawing a snug, protected house which is well built in deeply rooted foundations". It will have the right shape, and nearly always there will be some indication of inner strength. In certain drawings, quite obviously, to quote Mme. Balif, " it is warm indoors, and there is a fire burning, such a big fire, in fact, that it can be seen coming out of the chimney." When the house is happy, soft smoke rises in gay rings above the roof. 

My own effort to dream up and create renovated fireplace is still a work in progress but the soft contours of NHL 3.5 hydraulic lime plaster give the consolidated walls a traditional, breathable surface that is both beautiful and consistent with the original lime mortar between the old bricks and under the stripped later layers. There is sanding and building to be done tiles and a top to be added to the mantle and surround and the floor has to come out and terracotta tiles have to be laid on a lime-crete slab and breathable insulation layer.


and of houses, bodies and the cosmos, time and space the Buddha had this to say......

  "I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear. But at the same time, I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering & stress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos."

Rohitassa Sutta  AN 4.45 Trans. Thannissaro Bhikkhu

"Seeking but not finding the house builder,
I hurried through the round of many births:
Painful is birth ever and again.

O house builder, you have been seen;
You shall not build the house again.
Your rafters have been broken up,
Your ridgepole is demolished too.

My mind has now attained the unformed Nibbâna
And reached the end of every sort of craving."

Dhp.153 - 154. Trans. by Ñanamoli Thera