Monday, August 14, 2023

objects with narratives ....


Wandering through the city the other day I photographed this shop window in a building in the middle of a major refit and renovation. It had provided someone with an impromtu pop-up 'gallery' with a 'sculptural installation' featuring a large wooden crate containing something unidentified marked 'fragile' occupying the centre of a paint besplattered floor in a space undergoing a redecoration complete with builders ladders, and loose wires still waiting to be fitted into plug sockets. Were it not for the clearly stenciled words 'objects with narratives' it would be easy to walk right past this window without taking any notice. Clearly, however, this assemblage of words and objects in such a very visible space, framed like a picture by the display window, created precisely the 'white cube' that we expect a modern gallery to be, turning anything placed in this space into something approaching an aesthetic experience, one which elicites a response or a search for meaning beyond the literal and banal nature of the objects themselves, which become, at the very least, either by accident or design, 'self-conscious' with their accompanying provocative text. 

Duchamp's infamous 'Fontein' of 1917 is clearly seminal to any later potential reading of the banal and the everyday aestheticised through inclusion in a gallery, although in the case of the wooden crate the shop window was as banal as the object displayed within it, but the precedent has been set and popularized, 'ad nauseam'. 

Placing anything in a frame under glass is equivalent to placing it in a gallery. It elicits a response from the viewer who expects the image to signify, to convey meaning, either asethetic or metaphysical, something more that just registering the objects for what they are in their ordinary context.  

Photographs of Morandi's atelier in Bologna

In a world awash with brash and banal electronic images, the unexceptional ordinariness of the bottles, jugs, and boxes that are the quiet and self-effacing characters in the small, precise and intense relationships of Morandi' tightly composed still-life compositions would, perhaps, on the shelf of a kitchen, not be noticed. In the artist's atelier, his refuge or 'cell', they become objects of profound and obsessive contemplation. They command our attention and stand out by persisting, being patient, modest, almost self-effacing in their stillness and silence. Their muted colours and tones are natural, earthy, utilitarian and frugal but in their very 'poverty' they challenge our concepts of what constitutes 'value'. In a painting simplicity of form, space, light and colour and a sense of emptiness are sufficient for an aesthestic 'fullness'. Less is more if it heightens awareness of elemental visual qualities. 

Oil paint, like stone, confers monumentality on the ephemeral, transitory nature of the ordinary and the  banal. Fragile, inanimate, everyday objects aquire a certain dignity, even humanity, through the slow process of being observed, as the artist notices the changing light on different materials and surfaces, and it's way of describing individual forms in space though time. For the painter this creative process is itself deeply contemplative and meditative. One is dependent on focus, concentration, stillness and silence in order to become aware of and attentive to phenomena; to look at, see and even listen to the remarkable un-remarkable 'thusness' of things. One is actually 'present' to things in and through the work itself. 

John Berger had this to say about Morandi 

His pictures have the inconsequence of margin notes but they embody true observation. Light never convinces unless it has space to fill: Morandi’s subjects exist in space. However frayed, worked, muted the objects in his pictures may be, warm air surrounds them, the ground plane on which they stand comes forward, distances increase, and when one form comes to the front of another, one can calculate the exact number of inches or yards between them. His famous still-lifes of bottles have the same passive precision as his landscapes. One suspects that the bottles only contain a little water for sprinkling on the floor or eau-de-cologne for cooling the forehead—certainly nothing as strong as wine. Yet they convince—one suspends belief in the clamorous life outside the secluded room in which they stand—because of the accuracy of the contemplation that lies behind them: a contemplation so exclusive and silent that one is convinced that nothing else except Morandi’s cherished light could possibly fall on the table or shelf—not even another speck of dust.

Georgio Morandi, Natura morta (Still Life), 1956, oil on canvas.

The crisis of Western art today is due to the isolation, the over-specialization and, above all, the inflated sense of individuality of the artist. Morandi’s example cannot in the least alter the truth of this, but it can remind us that there is such a thing as a genuine recluse who can still belong to—and not sabotage—the humanist tradition. I defend Morandi’s work because for an artist inhabiting an ivory tower he is remarkably humble; or, to put it another way, because he allows the same light to fall on his few precious, eccentric possessions as falls on Italy outside.

Georgio Morandi, Natura morta (Still Life), 1956, oil on canvas.

As for a recall to order, again that can only mean something if the example set derives from a new assimilation of experience. Morandi’s work derives from rejection: it is monastic.

Berger's use of the term 'monastic' to describe Morandi's creative process recalls to mind another artist, Francesco de Zurbaran.  The subject, or motif does, of course, matter. It is no concidence that Zurbaran's wonderful painting of Saint Francis at prayer, the saint who aesthetecises poverty more than any other in the history of art, is done with such economy of colour, mostly warm and cool earthy browns or muted greys, and such dramatic effects of light and shadow to describe the qualities of a few simple, perhaps even, ironcally, sensual, surfaces; the hidden pinched flesh of face and hands, the rough textile of the habit with its frayed hole in the elbow of the sleeve, or the smooth rounded dome of the skull bone, the memento mori object of the saint's contemplation. Its frugality and artistic economy of means are both subject and metaphor. The eye is directed towards an interiority beyond outward appearances, a richer metaphysical reality below or beyond the surface of things and outside of the frame. We are directed towards what is invisible.  The painting itself is a contemplation of contemplation. 

In one sense all art is by definition, self-referencing.  It is constructed from within or in relation to the existing conventions of making and seeing.  Materials, techniques and processes carry with them cultural conditioning, traditions and an historical memory, even as they may break and remake them to speak to new experiences. Reading Colm Toibin's 'The Magician', one follows the contemporary novelist writing his novel grafted onto the biographical facts and imagined interior life and creative process of the other novelist, Thomas Mann, as he concieves and writes his novels in his historical context.  Is it indirectly a self-portrait at the same time as a portrait of his subject, weaving past, present and future into an historical researched, imaginatively re-constructed, self-aware narrative?  Like Velasquez', 'Las Meninas', a portrait of the artist making a work of art, a painting of a painting, a mirror of a mirror, a representation of representation itself. Do the patterns of history repeat themselves and is creative process itself a kind of reproduction, with works of art bearing a familial likeness to their literary or artistic forbears?   

The subject of my painting below, which is a work in progress, involves fragmentary glimpses into the history if art garnered from the pages of long defunct and damaged art history books with their faded black and white illustrations. It is a representation of representation. The fragile and ephemeral nature of paper, creased, torn, and fragmented, damaged, like the art itself, by time and the inevitable process of decay. Collage is visual palimpsest, an attempt to reuse and reconfigure various fragments, to reassemble them into an new aesthetic visual order, and to find, through both accident and design, significance in certain formal relationships and abstract visual quaities which emerge because of the missing fragments and inevitable lacunas. The process of turning the collage into an oil painting in the tradition of trompe l'oeil creates a kind of 'mirror' of reality that monumentalises the more transitory, delicate paper collage into something relatively more fixed and permanent. Is this oil painting 'mimesis' the original or the copy? Are these twinned images simulacra? Are they separate and different creative works, or are they inextricably linked, connected by a process involving both loss and recouperation, reality and illusion?