Sunday, July 17, 2022



 Filling the gaps around newly installed windows with lime mortar is a very satisfying process. The material, with the right precautions against inhaling dust or getting it in your eyes, is easy to handle with a small trowel, is sticky and has enough body, with sand and additional fibres, to paste and model into the gaps around the edges of the brick and wood. 

Making good the dry split edges and cracked spines of some of my old books is an equally satisfying process. Whilst the materials, comprising Japanese Kozo papers, rice starch paste and PVC bookbinders glue, are more delicate than brick, wood, sand and lime, the process itself is similar. Reinforcing corners and spines, filling gaps and blending these minor interventions into the yellowed paper and battered leather, and massaging with bookbinders wax will help to extend the life of these already well worn books. 

Dry skins and old spines and creaky joints sound like human medical conditions. Books like bodies suffer similar problems along with the aging process. The animate and the inanimate, the articulate and the inarticulate show the effects of time with remarkable affinities. Indeed I have just started to take tumeric again in tablet form to counter the effects to rheumatoid arthritis, although I doubt I will last as long as the books I have been reparing. 

In the work below I am attempting to explore such affinities. Wood and gesso, paper and oil, collage and painting, frame and image, are all elements of recollection, reassemblage and reconstruction. Patterns of personal memory, fragments of collective history, imagination, association and recognition, can help to generate both aesthetic order and provide clues to potential meanings alongside the debris of loss, decay and destruction. The work below, comprising both the collage and the unfinished oil painting, is entitled 'Affinities'. It is one of a series of works painted in oil on oak panels, alluding to both 15th and 17th century panel painting techniques and shallow relief trompe l'oeil.  There is still some way to go before its starts to be as much about the paint and its visceral qualities, of light, texture and colour and before the abstract relationships between the forms and shapes are fully resolved.  

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Living on the edge ........


Emblemata Horatiana: Otto Van Veen 1683

Chacun suit son genie en l'Art, ou la Science
L'un n'a pour un metier que de l'indifference 
Pendant que pour un autre il sent un doux attrait,
L'un s'estudie aux Vers, et l'autre a la Peinture,
Un autre veut passer pour Medecin parfait,
Nous suivons en cela l'instinct de la Nature  

recently had several antiquarian books repaired by a restorer in Brussels who used Japanese paper to repair the split hinges rather than replacement leather.  Healing the joints in this way with carefully attached Kozo papers made from natural fibers, rice starch paste and PVA bookbinders glue, resembles a surgical procedure and seems to mimic the natural healing process of a skin graft. The pictures below from West Dean College conservation department reveal a before and after repair to the corner of a book spine that is deeply satisfying to see.  This 1981 video about a Dublin book binder  shows a similar process with the critical edges of the pages or cover of the book located at the joints of the spine and the corners, like the frame of a picture, occupying the focus of attention.

Having recently had my windows replaced with new approved ‘old’ wooden replicas (with double glazing) I was struck by the way the masonry, plaster and wooden frame itself crucially defines the way we experience light and space which they contextualize.  Using a ready mixed lime plaster, Tubag NHL-P historiche kalkpleister from Tintelijn in Gent, to ‘heal’ the wall where the earlier lime plaster was broken off to mount the windows recalled the more delicate procedures undertaken by the book conservationist.

Matching up the edges of the broken fragments and reassembling them, filling the gaps and then attempting to make them invisible, is also something I have also had to do in a recent porcelain restoration I attempted when I accidently dropped an 18th century 'Chinese' blue and white Caughley bowl which I have had for over 30 years since I bought it in Ironbridge in Shropshire near to the long  defunct factory in Coalbrookdale, the origin of William Blake's, 'Dark Satanic Mills'.  These places are now archeological sites which mark the beginning of the industrial revolution with Abraham Darby's coke blast furnace, and the famous iron bridge itself, locations seminal to the changes and transformations brought about through science, technology, industry and commerce and its subsequent abandonment and decay until recent years, when many of these sites themselves were curated, conserved, restored, and opened as museums.     

These processes, which speak so eloquently about the passage of time, of ageing and decay, and the possibility of restoration, of healing and making whole again through caring for what is precious and repairing and conserving objects or places which are valued, help to preserve a living memory of people and a tangible link to the material past.

In my own work with collage and oil paint, (for instance in the example above, entitled 'Exiles', which is a work in progress, and the example below) I try to evoke the same sense of both the ravages of time and the attempt to freeze or capture its fragile and fugitive nature, contrasting the ephemeral delicacy of the paper and it's relatively more permanent or monumental trompe l’oeil illusion using wood, linen, gesso, oil paint and other traditional materials of the painter’s craft. I am concerned not only with the realism of the illusion based on careful observation of light and shadow form and shape, space and colour, but also on the formal abstract qualities of the work, and the gestural, visceral quality of the oil paint medium itself. It seems to me that the edges of the picture, the liminal space between where the picture begins and ends, both inside and outside border of the frame, is the most ambiguous, challenging and highly charged area; the one which is often overlooked when the focus of attention is the subject of the picture, or the view through the frame.  In the work below, which is an oil painting on wood, the recessed mount with its fragment of paper is also part of the painted illusion. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

100 Years of 'Mertz': 1922 -2022. The poetry of fragmentation and decay.

Mertz. 458 Wriedt  Kurt Schwitters  1922

Collage: Alan Mitchell 2022
(Work in progress, preparation for a trompe l'oeil gilded and gesso wood panel with partial engaged frame) 

 G.M.Hopkins. Spelt from Sybil's Leaves. 1886 

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, ' vaulty, voluminous, . . . stupendous
Evening strains to be time’s vást, ' womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.
Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ' her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height
Waste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, ' stárs principal, overbend us,
Fíre-féaturing heaven. For earth ' her being as unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-
tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; ' self ín self steepèd and páshed – quite
Disremembering, dísmémbering, ' áll now. Heart, you round me right
With: Óur évening is over us; óur night ' whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.
Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ' damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,
Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! ' Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind
Off hér once skéined stained véined varíety ' upon áll on twó spools; párt, pen, páck
Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds – black, white; ' right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But thése two; wáre of a wórld where bút these ' twó tell, each off the óther; of a rack
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, ' thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.

Word Rambling ..............

Haruspication from detritus,  significant insignificance,  broken books, creased paper, torn card, glued and stained linen, wood gouged and filled, plastered, painted, leaves of gold, arte povera......... 

..........a thought, a thing, part object, part process in time and space, a personal memory, or collective history, presence, absence, sense, senseless, meaning, meaningless, desire and loss, metaphor, puzzle, code, sign, mark, elegy, poetic evocation, layered, hidden, buried, enigmatic, mysterious......... 

cyclical, un-ended, repetitive, a pattern of recurrence.................................

..............closed narratives, locked or circumscribed images, icon and iconoclasm, taboo or fetish, through windows and doors, frames, boundaries, edges, liminal spaces, vertical and horizontal axis,  diagonal leanings, beginning towards ending, reality, illusion, abstract, representational, trompe l'oeil, plumbing surface to depth, peeling back veneers, skins, anatomizing space, time ..............

...................transient, forgotten, fragile, fugitive, fragmented, dislocated, ephemeral, discontinuity, destruction, disassembled, shattered, broken, lost, loose, faded, decayed, neglected, damaged, old, poor, dirty, fractured, torn, peeling, flaking, stained, sick, chaotic, wasted, wounded, ripped, defaced, defiled, profaned, interrupted, incomplete, in disarray, abandoned, rubbish, absent, unknown, nameless, nothing,  hidden, masked, emasculated, un-seamed............................. 

re-presented, revitalized, returned, re-established continuity, assembled, reconstructed, repaired, retrieved,  preserved, conserved, restored, renewed growth, re-created, enriched, cleaned, fixed, sewn together, strengthened, healed, glued, complete, ordered and organized, re-attached, valued, precious, treasured, sacred, known, named, something  revealed .......