Friday, December 6, 2019

Collage Contrapuntal Rhythms

What do a yellowed paperback copy of D. H. Lawrence's 'Sea and Sardinia', a 1960s book of American photography, and old Sotheby's and Christie's catalogues of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art have in common?  

'Happy accidents' occur when incongruous juxtapositions suggest significant connections or resonate with some inner psychological tension suggesting possible narratives in the mind of the viewer, like clues at the scene of a crime. I have been plundering a few sources for images that reference art, literature and history and imposing an arbitrary pattern through the structure of the sequence, cutting out frames and framing cut out pictures. This allows certain motifs, elements and visual themes to be repeated or reflected in a subtle and unexpected counterpoint rhythm. 

This is the beginning of a series that I have just started to play with ....................


Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Mirror and the Mask

               When I  came upon the diary it was lying at the bottom of a rather battered red cardboard box, in which as a small boy I kept my Eton collars. Someone, probably my mother, had filled it with treasures dating from those days. There were two dry, empty sea-urchins; two rusty magnets, a large one and a small one, which had almost lost their magnetism; some negatives rolled up in a tight coil; some stumps of sealing wax; a small combination lock with three rows of letters; a twist of very fine whipcord, and one or two ambiguous objects, pieces of things, of which the use was not at once apparent:I could not tell what they belonged to. The relics were not exactly dirty nor were they quite clean, they had the patina of age; and as I handled them, for the first time for over fifty years, a recollection of what each had meant to me came back, faint as the magnets power to draw, but as perceptible. Something came and went up between us: the intimate pleasure of recognition, the almost mystical thrill of early ownership- feelings of which, at sixty-odd, I felt ashamed. 

Prologue  The Go-Between. L.P.Hartley.

Nostalgia:noun. /nəˈstældʒə/ , /nɑˈstældʒə/ [uncountable] a feeling of sadness mixed with pleasure and affection when you think of happy times in the past a sense/wave/pang of nostalgia (definition in Oxford English dictionary)
A fragment of ivory silk with trailing threads reflecting the pale light of an autumn afternoon, some dried yellowed leaves showing their skeletal veins, a stray piece of torn paper with an incomplete phrase of dislocated words, the scuffed or broken gilded plaster molding reflecting pale fire or the glimpse of a segment of blue sky and white billowing clouds framed against rooftops or red tiled eves ignites a small epiphany, like Proust’s famous Madeleine. The heart/mind latches on to these fleeting sensory moments when something interior aligns itself to some exterior stimulus and the process of perception, memory and imagination creates a series of associations between art and life that open a space of contemplation in which the transcendent is immanent. We are transported to another dimension without leaving this one through the door of the mind and the senses - an embodied rather than out-of-body experience- an 'incarnation'. Within this enclosed interior space there is paradoxically a window into infinity  Within the ordinary and even banal snatches of everyday reality a door opens to an augmented consciousness.

'Une Petite Madeleine de Proust': With acknowledgments to both Marcel Proust and Fauchon Patisserie, Paris. 
Cette expression fait allusion à ces petits actes, petits évènements, odeurs, sensations qui, brutalement, font ressurgir des tréfonds de notre mémoire de lointains souvenirs, souvent chargés d'émotion.

Themes that seem to be emerging from the process of making collage and painting trompe l'oeil  ..... art, religion and myth,  collective history and personal memory, sacred and profane desire, mystery and metamorphoses, magic and illusion, inner and outer worlds and realities, aligned, hidden and/or revealed. Playful surreal juxtapositions emerge out of association, dissonance, dislocation, alignment, displacement, accident, intention............. 

The examples below are works in progress- everything in the larger images is painted in acrylic underneath with later oil paint 'interventions' on top although it gives the illusion of collage. The smaller images below are still experimental half collage/half paint with the two bottom ones entirely in a fluid state of collage. 

Untitled : Acrylic, ink, gel medium transfer and oil paint. 

'The Cloud of Unknowing' acrylic, ink, gel medium transfer and oil paint. 

'The Mirror and the Mask' would be perhaps a good title for an exhibition of these and around 5-10 more paintings I am working to be completed by the summer. The mirror can be a metaphor for painting/photography as it reflects reality through an illusion and the mask both hides the outer appearance, self or reality and reveals or projects another inner hidden one and involves trance like states, make believe or dreamworlds.......... 

Titian: Penitent Magdalene. 1533 
Elisabetta Sirani: 1638-64. Penitent Magdalene

Over the summer I spent a week in Florence in a hands-on workshop with the restorer Chiara Mignani      //     learning about cleaning and restoring oil paintings on canvas. The aesthetic qualities of multi-layered surfaces which have been damaged and restored over time and the interventions of the present day with its new technologies into the fragile material body of an art work creates a heightened sense of the beauty and transience of material forms. These are also qualities I want to capture both in the process and final outcome of my own original paintings, which are themselves often initiated, worked on and then abandoned for several years before I 'rediscover' them and make further interventions into the existing layers, bringing out new and altered interpretations in response to earlier ideas and marks. These 'traces' reveal perceptual shifts over time like the facade of an old house that has many times had windows and doors opened up, bricked up, and then plastered over before being stripped and remodeled again in the present day.

On the subject of Madeleines....In Florence I found what is possibly an 18th century painting in a 17th century style to work on. Clearly it is derived from more famous earlier examples of the same subject by Titian, Guido Reni, Artemisia Gentileschi or  Elisabetta Sirani  It was a very dirty penitent Magdalene with an old relining but in relatively good condition despite a thick layer of yellow dirt which I suppose comes from both aging varnish and possibly years of tobacco smoke and domestic dust and pollution.  Using experimental mixtures of synthetic saliva, tween and Emulsione di Certosa in various phases I have managed to clean the surface without damaging the paint. The next stage is to consolidate the edges and fill some tiny losses of paint and then to give a protective coat of mastic varnish before carefully retouching with varnish paint designed for restoration in some small areas. Finally I will fit a new 17th century style frame.

The subject was a favorite of Baroque artists. This image combining death and desire, the sacred and profane, philosophical reflections and theatrical forms with Caravaggesque contrasts between light and shadow gave great creative and imaginative scope to artists within the format. The iconography of the cave, the skull, and the ointment jar, alluding to the biblical narrative, and the interior of the cave, with its intimate space bringing us up close to intense emotion of the face, contrasts with the distant mountainous landscape seen through the cave opening, framed by roots, branches and leaves, on either side of the figure. The spiraling vortex of the figure itself, half hiding and revealing the body in white and red robes, describes an asymmetrical cone of movement upwards along with the direction of the gaze, expressing a tension between both stability and dynamism as well as the complex, conflicted emotions of the Magdalene herself. Perhaps this tells us more about the painter and his/her intended audience between the 16th and 18th centuries in Italy than it does about the real or mythical character of Mary Magdalene as she appears in the biblical texts or traditional interpretations.

Plaster casts in the Accademia Gallery, Florence 

Friday, September 27, 2019

In Search of Lost Time............

Collage: 'Broken Idol' ( Homage to C.P. Cavafy).  

"Doomsday Song"
by W.H. Auden

Jumbled in one common box
Of their dark stupidity, 
Orchid, swan, and Caesar lie;
Time that tires of everyone
Has corroded all the locks
Thrown away the key for fun.

This first stanza of Auden's " Doomsday Song" suggests to me a wunderkammer or 'cabinet of curiosities' with is surreal assortment of images that time has consigned to the unconscious mind and forgotten. Yet this strange and seemingly incongruous collection of oddments, some clearly beautiful and others footnotes in tragedy from classical history, create a poetry of loss that seems psychologically charged with meaning and significance, however obscure or hidden.  The odd collection of torn fragments in my collage are above taken from old art history books; the Hermes of Praxiteles, Bronzino's Portrait of a youth and Eadweard Muybridge's,' Figure in Motion' studies.  

Oil on Panel, Trompe l'oeil 

I have been experimenting with making a surfaces for painting using oak panels and wood moldings recycled from old doors and ceilings as a basis for laying a gesso ground and water-gilding prior to working in oils. The collage at the top of the page will be painted in a trompe l'oeil style similar to the rather loosely painted panel above which I made a couple of years ago, but on top of an ivory-like surface prepared following the recipe of Cennino Cennini in his Il Libro dell'Arte.  I plan to gild the attached outer molding after the fashion of a 15th century Flemish panel in the style of Hans Memling. The collage although flat and two-dimensional perhaps resembles more the work of Joseph Cornell below whose boxes form a kind of surreal 'theatre of the imagination' 
Medici Slot Machine: Joseph Cornell ( 1903-1972)

There are various stages in the preparation of a surface for painting which take quite a long time but yield remarkably satisfying visual and tactile qualities that cannot be achieved by other means. The materials do indeed matter as does the process and they are part and parcel of the meanings which are literally embedded in the final work. Below are a couple of pictures that show the initial stages of gluing and clamping the carefully sanded and cleaned panels together from sections of wood cut to size with  battens on the back to give stability and the engaged moldings on the front - everything secured with animal glue, heated in a Bain-Marie and used whilst it is still hot. The front of the panel has linen glued onto the surface and the beginnings of a filler made from glue and plaster to mold the corners. The picture at the top of the blog entry with the collage shows the dried panel ready for final sanding and the the application of many layers of rabbit skin gesso to both size and prime the surface ready for  the gold leaf and paint. 

Voices, loved and idealized,
of those who have died, or of those
lost for us like the dead.

Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;
sometimes deep in thought the mind hears them.

And with their sound for a moment return
sounds from our life's first poetry -
like music at night, distant, faded away.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard.
C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. 

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'