Sunday, 30 August 2009

Adriana Varejão

O Sedutor 2004
Oil on Canvas 230 x 530 cm
Victoria Miro Gallery, London
10 October 2004

The show contained four of these immense, almost life size, paintings of tiled saunas and a number of smaller studies on paper that were framed behind glass. Each had a different monochrome theme and I have chosen the one painted in a variety of blues from tinged white to almost black. The blues themselves range from aqua with a lot of green, right through to almost lavender.

Although she has used a fairly heavy canvas, the weave on the surface isn’t prominent indicating that the surface must be heavily primed to get it flat. The process of painting is fundamental to the reading of meaning behind the work and I would say she has started with a dark red ground, perhaps burnt umber and then painted each tile individually. In light areas colours are not just tonally lighter, but slightly warmer. The paint is uniformly applied, but you can see brush marks when looking closely. There is definitely a glaze with the paint and some of the tiles look like two coats with the paler one underneath. This is left to show at the “tile” edges and helps the 3d illusion as do the edges of shadows’ which are subtlety blended over a small area. The other curious point is that all four of the large canvases had rounded corners; this isn’t easy to do and contradicts the rectangular tiles but I cannot guess the significance.

Whilst the use of the grids that constitute these works could hint at modernist aesthetics, her earlier work depicted fragments of tiled wall with rubble made of flesh bulging and bursting through the painted surface. This use of the tile as a recurrent motif refers to the azulejo, a square terracotta tile used continuously throughout Portugal’s history since the middle ages. Influenced over the years by Moors, Spanish, Oriental and Dutch artisans it was used for decoration in such far distant corners of Portugal’s empire as Brazil. So Varejão is invoking the colonial history of Brazil though the use of tiles albeit in a more subtle way in these Sauna paintings.

In these large scale trompe l’oeil paintings, the tiles have become simple, unadorned, abstract and minimalist, but the space the paintings describe is one of empty luxury, hard and cold. Whilst I find this non-space deeply melancholic on account of the implied solitude, that reading may be at variance with her conceptual impulse. In other words what I am reading as an impersonal modern skin of a contemporary “temple” for the body, she may be referencing the opulence of Portugal’s past fuelled by resources flowing from Brazil. Who is “The Seducer” of the title?

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Luc Tuymans

Bend Over, 2001
Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm
Tate Modern, London
8th July 2004

This remains one of my favourite Tuyman’s paintings despite having seen it a number of times. These notes are from when I saw it in the Tate retrospective. It shared a room with other modestly sized paintings some as early as 1988. Despite this non-linear hang and the different themes, the uniformity of Tuyman’s painting practice makes the room work.

Tuymans’s career began with filmmaking, and consequently his approach to painting often draws from montage so additional meaning is conveyed by the pieces’ adjacency. In this retrospective he must have used this room to set up a new dialogue between the works as this piece was originally shown in a show at “The White Cube” called “The Rumour” amongst a series of paintings of pigeons.

This painting, like the earlier works in the room uses short horizontal brush strokes to build the form and also blur it into the surrounding space. Also all the canvases are pinned around the edge onto thin stretchers, as and have no paint on the edges. I have read that he paints on the canvas prior to stretching, which would explain how he maintains this uniformity of look. The other common feature is the continued use of subdued pastel colours. The oils are thin and have a very flat dry look. The colours in this painting are perhaps best described as “sickly” greens and conjure up the institutional colour of old hospitals.

I suspect the source for the painting is a photograph but I cannot find a reference. The image looks like a man, possibly awaiting a thrashing but he or she could just be bending over doing exercises or picking something up. The background gives no indication of a location and the subject is tightly held by the close cropping of edges of the canvas. The former interpretation is perhaps reinforced by the command implicit in the title "Bend Over" rather than the posture i.e. “bent over”. Coming from a time when corporal punishment was still meted out in schools, I find it a powerful image that reminds me of the degradation we were subjected to. Maybe this painting helped Tuymans close an old wound, but it holds one open for me, and this memory isn’t made any more comfortable by Tuymans placing me (the viewer) in the position of perpetrator.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Giorgio de Chirico

Melanconia 1912
Oil on Canvas, 79 x 63 cm
Estorick Collection, London
March 2003

The show focused on De Chirico’s obsession with the Ariadne myth and contained both early and late examples of paintings based on the troubled Cretan princess.

The myth begins with Minos, the king of Crete, being shamed by his wife’s infidelity with a bull. He has Daedalus construct a labyrinth to keep the progeny of this relationship, the half man, half beast Minotaur imprisoned.

Minos had Athenians fed to the Minotaur by forcing them to enter the Labyrinth. However, his daughter Ariadne falls deeply in love with Theseus, one of the doomed Athenians. She gives Theseus a ball of thread so that he can find his way out of the Labyrinth should he manage to kill the Minotaur. Theseus agrees to marry Ariadne for her help. He succeeds and they escape to the island of Naxos only for Theseus to abandon Ariadne while she slept on the beach. She awakens and laments the loss of Theseus and his treachery.

The painting I have chosen was the earliest on show but like the others depicts Ariadne lying on a pedestal. The title of the painting, "melanconia" is included as an inscription on the base of Ariadne’s plinth, thereby making explicit the intended sentiment of loss and lamentation. There are two figures in the distance but the statue seems to be in an empty square lined with arched arcades. The late afternoon sun is casting long shadows and we realise that there is an onlooker stood behind the pillar of the nearest arch, his/her shadow projecting into the space.

The statue is a Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic sculpture of Ariadne that I think is in the Vatican, and may be a symbol of his childhood in Greece (he was on the run in Paris at the time, charged with desertion from the army). It also has a link with the nostalgia for the irrecoverable past that he saw in the work of Arnold Böcklin. In fact the shape of the mysterious shadow matches the form of the grieving Odysseus longing to return to Ithaca and his wife from an earlier De Chirico painting “The Enigma of the Oracle”. This work is clearly adapted from a 1882 Böcklin painting of the same theme, “Odysseus and Calypso” that shows a portrait of a shrouded grief stricken Odysseus staring out to sea. In a later painting in the exhibition “The Melancholy of a Beautiful Day” the standing shrouded Odysseus is in the same square as Ariadne reinforcing the alienation and loss she will experience on waking.

The crucial point being De Chirico’s development of the same symbolist-derived aesthetic of loss using an avant-garde cubist approach. The simple forms of the painting, like the others from this period, are executed in a dry, thin manner with sombre colours; only in the later works did his palette become more acidic.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Lucas Cranach

An Allegory of Melancholy 1528
Oil and Tempera on Panel 113 x 72 cm
Royal Academy, London
08 April 2008

I always find the Sackler Wing galleries in the Royal Academy claustrophobic and this exhibition was no exception. There appeared to be no logic to the 'hang', which was neither chronological nor thematic, and I flitted from painting to painting where space in the crowds allowed. Despite the difficulty in seeing the work properly I did gain some appreciation of the diversity of his images and the skill of his workshop.

In the corner of one of the galleries was this little known work that seems to be based on the Albrecht Dürer engraving “Melencholia I” from 14 years earlier. The painting is much more surreal, with clouds full of horses and witches riding cattle and pigs to the left of two towns perched on precipitous rocks in the background. On a balcony overlooking this mayhem sits a woman in an orange dress in a similar position to the angel of the Dürer engraving.

Cranach went on to do at least three more versions of this painting and in two of them the woman in the red dress has angel’s wings, one black wings one white. Strangely the later three also have a bizarre apocalyptic vision in the upper-left corner, a distant landscape and in each the woman whittles while children play.

In this painting there are four children on the balcony seemingly tormenting the same scrawny dog that was sleeping in the Dürer engraving. One of the children (or putti) looks slyly and knowingly at the viewer. There is also a scattering of emblematic devices from Dürer’s work. Instead of a compass her hand holds a knife that she is using to whittle a stick and although not sunk in gloom her expression is one of boredom as she stares into space ignoring the mischievous children. The other elements in the painting are a table and bench bearing two glasses, one empty, and some blackened fruit; on the bench is a puppy sleeping on a red cushion; and above the woman is a tree bearing fruit the same colour as her dress.

My interpretation would be that this is a portrayal of a woman who feels she has accomplished little and is destined to while away her time bringing up the children and that these thoughts are the devil’s work, signified by the Saturnalian ‘dreams’ in the background. Painted at a time when persecution for witchcraft was prevalent in Germany, it explains why the ride to the sabbat has found its way into the melancholic iconography. Cranach lived in Wittenberg and was a close friend of Martin Luther who shared and reinforced the witchcraft beliefs of the culture that produced him[1].

[1] Kors, Alan Charles Peters, Edward “Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700” Pennsylvania Press 2000 p261

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Michael Simpson

Bench Number 59, 2000-05
Oil on canvas 244 x 534cm
The Tithe Barn, Bradford on Avon
September 2005

This is one of four related paintings exhibited in 2005 in Bradford on Avon. Psalm (Bench #54) and Prayer (Bench #55) at the Old Gas Works and Hymn (Bench #58) and Song (Bench #59) at the Tithe Barn. They are four paintings that form part of Simpson’s ongoing body of work that started in December 1989 and are known as bench paintings, each un-named but sequentially numbered. They are an ongoing homage to the Neopolitan philosopher Giordano Bruno, mutilated and burnt alive at the Campo di Fiore in Rome for heresy in 1600.

Bruno had written of an infinite universe which had left no room for that greater infinite conception which is called God. He could not conceive that God and nature could be separate and distinct entities as taught by Genesis, as taught by the Church and as even taught by Aristotle. Living in Venice in 1592 he was imprisoned and then sent to Rome where he was questioned and tortured in a papal prison and finally judged a heretic. A sensitive, imaginative poet, fired with the enthusiasm of a vision of a larger universe he was martyred not for politics, but for his scientific thinking being ahead of his time.

The use of the bench as a motif can be seen as a metaphor for Bruno’s time spent waiting in prison for his fate to be decided but also a place where justice and injustice are administered. Apart from the very first bench painting none of the works have any figures in them and over time they have become more austere. This series of four perhaps relate directly to the Church and by inference atrocities committed in the name of God. The elements in the painting are few; apart from the bench itself, the division of the space into shallow foreground and wall the other two elements are the ventilation grids below the bench and a church notice board in the upper right hand corner. Psalm (Bench #54) and Hymn (Bench #58) have specific collections of uplifting spiritual works listed on the notice board. Prayer (Bench #55) and Song (Bench #59) are blank. In a more chilling interpretation of the grids, I could see them as drains but perhaps my imagination is too active. They certainly help establish depth on the flat surface.

The most striking aspect of all of the works is their scale which is twice life size. This prevents the image being read as a window onto another world despite the illusion of depth that has been created. For me this anchors the paintings in reality and makes them an object of contemplation. In fact looking hard has its rewards too; gradually you note the making of the painting is evident. The subtle ribbing of the surface, the subsequent layers of ground colour stopping short of the perimeter edge (impossible to see in the reproduction) and the delicate glazes evoking the fall of light on the bench.

They are paintings that give expression to the idea of the dark, insolent and terrible power of belief, giving form and colour to the nonrepresentable. A very minimalist melancholic vision that was well suited to the exhibition venue.

©blackdog 2009