Friday, 30 March 2012

Paintings Within Paintings

Work-in-progress 150x122 cms Oil on canvas 2012

 A growing theme in recent work has been paintings of paintings, or more precisely, paintings of objects that themselves contain a picture. This seems to function as a sort of secondary picture space, one situated within the overall confines of the physical picture space (i.e. the canvas). The example above is a work-in-progress based on an image of a Florentine altar piece containing 25 small picture panels.

 I think that the desire to paint these objects is partly an attempt to negotiate a way of incorporating other painting languages or subjects into the schema of my practice, which has come to be quite a specifically defined territory. Generally the paintings need to depict objects in a fairly high level of detail, and presented as a single object against a dark ground. Over the past couple of years I have attempted to paint different types of objects, or groups of objects, or painting in different languages (or styles) without much success. It seems that the painting-within-painting could resolve these issues by allowing me to broaden my range of references (or even 'quote' things that are ostensibly alien to my practice) without being inconsistent.
In the piece shown above, I have deliberately altered the language of the painted panels from those in the original image. Instead of the early Renaissance detail, the images are presented in broad-brushed impasto, a nod to Modernist distortions and re-imaginings such as Graham Sutherland's crucifixions. The altar piece frame itself of course has to be presented in a much more detailed, representational style.

 Here is an earlier work (from the start of 2011) that is as yet unfinished. I think it is the first proper 'painting-within-painting' I made. The image is loosely based on a Renaissance landscape and the frame is from a stock image. I have found this painting quite difficult hence haven't resolved it thus far, but I think it is a useful step in the progression of the current work.

Another long running interest for me has been decorative banners. I am currently planning a large painting of a banner (another type of painting-within-painting) taking reference from the rich visual tradition of trade union and military banners such as the wonderful examples below:

Apart from the strong aesthetic values of these objects (and it is important that they are objects - at once both object and image, a meeting of the material and illusionistic, just as a painting is) I am drawn to their links to heraldic tradition, and connotations of power, ideology and unison in service of a greater cause.

In the past I have made banners as artworks in their own right - such as the example below - and I was pleased to have the opportunity to show these pieces once again in a recent exhibition (Everything London 2012). This seems like a nice meeting place in my practice - as the banner as artwork object connects with the current plans to make a painting of a banner.
Imperial Standard 2007 210x150 cms Appliqued Fabric

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Labour of Painting

Willem Kalf Large Still Life with Armour
Over the past week I've been writing a research application based on my studio practice. Whilst initially confusing me, the process has ultimately helped me clarify my thoughts around what it is that lies at the very heart of my practice at an artist; that is, what are the 'live' issues in what I do (isn't that what all artists are trying to get at?). What I've realised is that it's not just about subject matter.

For a long time my studio practice, and thus my research interest, has stemmed from a fascination with Dutch still life, particularly the Ontbijtjes or 'Breakfast Scenes' of mid C17th painters such as Willem Kalf, Willem Claesz. Heda, Pieter Claesz and Jan Davisz., de Heem.
Elements from this genre such as the dark or sombre background, artificial light source and richly decorated objects have all become important constituents of my own paintings. I have found Norman Bryson's writing on these works particularly important, particularly his essay Abundance in the volume Looking at the Overlooked (Reaktion 1990).
In this essay, Bryson suggests that Willem Kalf's superlatively detailed rendering of ornate objects, themselves testament to the skills of the master metalworkers who wrought them, leads to a kind of symbolic emptying - like the effect of a double negative in mathematics:

The paintings are subject to the paradox of 'the supplement'....If these objects are already masterpieces, why should they be repeated in a second masterpiece? The duplication of elaborative work begins to point to a process that is as endless as it is without reason; the replica indicates a deficiency in the original object that will not be remedied by the supplement, but contaminates it and so to speak hollows it out. 
Bryson 1990 p. 126

The idea that a painting could potentially be so finely detailed that it actually surpasses (and so detracts from) its referent object is fascinating. Stories like that of Zeuxis and Parrhasius would suggest that painting's ultimate quest was always to be mistaken for life. But could it be that the masters of the Dutch still life (arguably one of the zeniths of representational painting) actually go one better?

This has led me to think about detailed painting in general. There seems to be a suspicion around it (particularly at the present time when looseness, gesture, the deitic mark or 'trace' of the artist seem to be championed once more from many corners) - that perhaps it is a self-indulgent quest, an ultimately pointless diversion from the quest for truly Great Art.

Johan Zoffany The Tribuna of the Uffizi
I was interested to see that the RA are shortly to host an exhibition of the work of Johan Zoffany, a German-born painter of the C18th who built a reputation as a society artist in England, and was known for his highly detailed catalogue-like works. It seems that even then there was a suspicion of such a high level of detail. According to Amanda Vickery in her piece A Roll in Gold Dust (Guardian Arts 03.03.2012) Zoffany was never accepted into the premier league of the contemporary artworld, and despite his clearly unnatural skill was dismissed by Joshua Reynolds (then president of the RA) as possessing mere 'mechanical dexterity', 'minuteness' and 'imitation'. 

This perhaps leads to the nub of the practiced-related side of my research interest; What lies at the heart of the desire of artists like myself to make highly detailed work? Can this quest lead to great painting, or merely to deluded self-gratification? Is it in some way an attempt to earn artistic merit through labour - a kind of Protestant work ethic of painting? 
The tension between control and gesture, between a high level of 'finish' and a looser, less contrived-feeling type of painterly language has always been something I've wrestled with, recently in more conscious ways than before. Perhaps it is time to turn the focus of my practice to this very issue.