Migration, Memory, Mimesis, at Linen Hall Library, Belfast, September 5-28, 2018

Displayed on the walls of the stairwell and in cabinets on landings are photographs by Lynne Connolly, Moira McIver, and Mo White.

Lynne Connolly manipulates her lens-based or digital images by stitching and texts, some end up like small books or paper houses. Her work focuses my eye on the charming and sensually rich crafts,  even when dealing with a hostility experienced by her central subjects, citizens of Northern Ireland’s “absence of representation of identity”. (see https://lynneconnollyphotography.wordpress.com).

Significantly, in one of her reviews, she proposed that the visual is better than words in slipping into viewers’ consciousness and staying in their memory,  in the sense that and how it rejects questioning of the image’s truthfulness.  I cherished her addition: “… only if we really see, what we are looking at”.

“Everything can be taken from a man,” Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his  treatise on the search for meaning“but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Even the political simplifications of reporting do have their visual equivalent. So the choice of one’s attitude is open-ended.

This is my first contact with Connolly’s visual art. An overwhelming saturation of memory with familiar modes like boxes made by stitching together old photographs and leporellos and other kinds of folded pages came swiftly to my aid.

Her folding books (looking like my childhood leporellos)  are also toy houses, one exhibits an image from her other work

 

Printed on the pages are both words an images, aiming to exhume hope from under despair. She says she likes a “happy ending”. Connolly is a writer of stories, some of which she then “translates” into images, that are aimed to be not just “added”  illustrations.

On her university page she states inter alia: I am interested in the use of constructed imagery to explore meaning….  

While her objects and images slip into a world of playful sweetness through an assembly of not-quite-from this-world-high-keys they are rooted in fragments of that intention.

For me, she visualises kindness in its many appearances and stages.  Perhaps because she indeed aims at “happy endings”.

MO WHITE: KITCHEN ACCOUNTS (2012)

are records of a performance to a camera held by Lynne Connolly (see the artist’s handout).

The series entertains a visualization of similarity and difference as if reading Plato on Demiurge in Timaeus.  The sameness of the set-up introduces a rigorous, cold examination room only formula. It does not explore all the methods of creation Plato mentions.

The words printed under the serene visual composition appear to be superfluous, a sign of unnecessary dependency on the verbal.  On the other hand, they are meant to protect the integrity of the artist’s intention, thus ensuring competition with the dignity of viewing.

White writes that the series has roots in the Irish diaspora to England, specifically the 1950s generation “who were unable to assimilate”.   This claim is not otherwise supported by the images.

(It is also not supported by my experience of teaching in the Middle school where the majority of staff and pupils were recent additions from Northern Ireland, escaping from the Troubles.  They assimilated easily, whereas the treatment of  children from Jamaica drove their fathers to leave the UK.  The Irish boys ruled.)

There is a fundamental dignity in the openness of visual art (not necessarily the artist) to various interpretations and not every intention succeeds without being challenged by real life.

Remy Debes offers elucidation of our problem with dignity:

 And yet, the idea of human dignity is beset by hypocrisy. After all, our Western ethos evolved from, and with, the most violent oppression. For 200 years, we’ve breathed in the heady aspirations of liberty and justice for all, but somehow breathed out genocide, slavery, eugenics, colonisation, segregation, mass incarceration, racism, sexism, classism and, in short, blood, rape, misery and murder. It shocks the imagination.  (https://aeon.co/essays/human-dignity-is-an-ideal-with-remarkably-shallow-roots)

White chose the severe classicist discipline of clarity and order.  In a row on the wall she mimes small acts while sitting behind the table.

I value the intensity and power of visual thought, of what is made visible while preferring to ignore the verbal directive.  The text dilutes the meaning of the visual thought, it directs my response.  It curtails my freedom to relate to the visual directly.  There is a strong symbolic meaning issued through the choice of colours: green background, pristine white empty page,  and the gray subdued I of the sitter.

White’s severe discipline of planning, of order, and the clinical cleanliness evoke clear, incisive images –  the exactitude  compared by ancient Egyptians to  the “fundamental note of the flute” ( as in Italo Calvino, Six memos , p.55)

In practical life it feels like a call to start again from the blank page.

MOIRA McIVER

The two of her photographs have words in Irish attached.  That means that I do not know what they mean. An experience  similar to my looking at Chinese ink paintings, Japanese woodcuts, Arabic illustrated manuscripts etc.

However, for Irish speakers those words have strong emotional associations, I observed.

Making a particular language a condition for “getting” the tenor of a visual / aesthetic trope is a dubious advantage, connected to an inherited divide. McIver tailors words to memory, moreover, uses them sparingly. She kindly translated some for me – they had an easy power to subvert expectation signalled by the image of the child, or of the celebrating a religious rite. Issued a light touch.

In the vitrine, she arranged images from different periods of her practice.  All are visual equivalents of known and anonymous, two of her preferred dualities.

In her thesis submitted for the Higher Research Degree  she writes:

…present and absent elements are equally valid, moreover, they are necessary for diminishing integration and emphasising oscillation and cross-over.  (see Moira McIver, Traces of Self, Between Practice and Theory, May 1996: 180) It is the same open-ended character familiar from poetry.

Her art does live within the riches and confines of visual thoughts, which overcome at least some of the boundaries that divide people and lifetimes.

In a vitrine (above)  she installed some older work for surprisingly up-to-date- realism infected by whimsical framing, e.g. the cowhide morphs into a  view down through the gaps in clouds when the flying or viewing snow on rocky mountains from above…

The animation is as spontaneous as seeing may be, and perception, at times, is.  The gently enjoyable reminder of the richness of play.

McIver demobilizes habit by juxtaposing different found images, or, in the image below, by adding a restricted comment.  A few painterly touches on the girl in white look like being made by time collaborating by chance with the atmosphere.

Her focus on memories started in her undergraduate work. It was her fascination with and respect for her family roots in Donegal that nourished her lifelong devotion to memory and history as a subject for her art practice.  Early on she selected four strategies for visibility:  overlap, oscillation, merging and obliteration.  Not to get drowned in Self she fondly cherished dualities, eg unique versus similar, and singular versus multiple, and further eight pairs of expressive dualities to match the visual code to the source.

The photographs in the vitrine illustrate flattening of the depth of space – the cowhide is almost flat, so is the “necklace” of fish.  They also revive the older strategy of the juxtaposition of the fragment as a whole (hands),  favoured by McIver both in her videos and photography.

Her work refuses to fit its own date, in a sense that the decades between the take and the current print do not influence the meaning.  Such a light touch of time, this frivolous play with uncertainty, is never allowed to dissipate the whole.  Her mastery of these complex phenomena is visible both in her close-ups and video loops.  It seems appropriate to summarise her art practice only with the complex concept entertained by Leonardo: mute poetry.   McIver never betrays that.

 

Images courtesy the artists. Installation shots by Moira McIver.

 

 

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Sharon Kelly, Mind Fuel, The Crescent Gallery, Belfast, 27th Aug – 8 Sept 2018

Sharon Kelly introduces the viewer to her exhibition by a brief paragraph on the gallery handout:

“The seeds for the MIND FUEL project began in the closing stages of the World Championship 24 Race held in Belfast Victoria Park in July 2017, a race in which competitors run continuously for 24 hours. The race organizer and director, Ed Smith, had invited me to engage as the race Artist in Residence…”

As a keen runner herself, she accepted the invitation from the organizers and made over 40 sketches then.   In 2918 she stayed for the whole 24 Hour Race, and recorded the Endurance runners, in drawing and interviews.  She also added video.

The Long Path, 2018, video, 7mi 1 sec . Shot, directed and edited by Éanna Mac Cana

The sentence The Solitude is the Comfort  comes from an interview.

Kelly’s observations, and numerous sketches of people taking part in both the World Championship 24 Race  (2017) and Belfast 24 Hours Race (2018) fill all three gallery rooms and the corridor.

Sketch from race day Belfast 24, 2018, charcoal, 40x30cm

For some time – at least since 2013 when she made The Liminal Space of the Runner –  Kelly reflected on the similarity between drawing and running:

Table Sketches, 2018

“finding something out of nothing and that both running and art can take you to another space – it is a force that involves heart, head, and hand (body) just as it is in the process of drawing… trusting your instinct, finding focus – an expression of energy and passion” (her statement on the gallery handout print).

As if new forms of self-knowledge and respect for nature were born from similar sources, a mixture of endurance and exhilaration fired by an intention to dissolve one’s ego in a kind of resonance.

Shared aesthetics of a calm respect for visible truth within each image unifies the different sizes and media, not just in the series of Table sketches (2018, mixed media).

 

Hidden Connection, 2018, ink on watercolour board, 38x56cm

The appearance of cut-outs,  the stark choice of what is visible and what is erased by the ink, accommodates the altruism of three runners. The black and white contrast visibly carves the pain of an exhausted and unwilling body as if out of the light behind the black surface.  The bodies appear in front of it.  The tree in that background marks that light as the will to go on,  as sublime nature, as energy.  The powerful constructs of hiatus and foregrounding secure the truth of the experience in a remarkably chaste use of poetics.

The simile born from both observation and memory forges such truth through confident verism in some other drawings.   The drawing below is a convincing transfer of the dynamics of moving into a still fragment, overcoming the need for “correct” proportions.

Stride, 2018, crayon, ink, 40 x 30cm

There are two lens-based exhibits both edited by Kelly’ son, the young film maker Éanna Mac Cana: Stop Motion Drawing animation of Kelly drawing a head etc.  The other is the video Mac Cana shot, directed and edited: The Long Path (2018).  

It includes the technical background to such events as well as inventive shots of runners behind trees, on the pathways.  The trees erase the chance of identification of the persons taking part, instead, they offer the feeling of two kinds of togetherness:  with the people involved in the race, and with nature willingly embracing it all with dignified disinterest.

In a  series of eight powerful ink drawings  With My Breath (2018, each 38x28cm) Kelly maps the stages of growing fatigue. Usually, her forte is a sensitive and sensual charcoal mark viewing carefully every detail, whereas in this “confession”  the brush stroke and the selection of hue are brutally resolute carving details from the observed real.  Reminiscent of Goya’s portraits of physical and mental pain.  Kelly’s (red and) black paintings?

That intensity of conflict between will and nature is somewhat hidden when she revives her classic way of grading, modulating blacks and greys. The observed reality is subsumed into the distance measured between verism and abstraction.

The deliberate, honest and intimate,  insecurity in the drawing of the left hand in her large drawing below, reminds me of Alberto Giacometti’s complaints.

The Signal, 2018, charcoal, 57×76 cm

The moment before the move.

Giacometti complained about his insecurity when he worked on the portrait of his brother.   His drawings also contain evidence of his sensitive mapping of the gap between the visible and the perceived.

accessed on Google Search, Pinterest

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Images courtesy of Sharon Kelly.

Travis Somerville and Ian Cumberland at Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, 04.08 – 22.09 2018

The gallery calls it a “simultaneous solo exhibitions” connected to “the current themes (….) explored by the GTG  2018 – 2019 programme of approaching ways of looking” (Gallery handout). Like Humpty Dumpty I – you- GTG may  give those words different meaning. One is that the gallery programme aims to present some distinct ways of looking. But – by who? The curator? The artist? The viewer? Is it not always the case?  Seduced by the 20th C obsession with “la différence”, often that becomes the main value.  However, these exhibits allow for sameness to enter.

Travis Somerville, Invasion, 2017, graphite and charcoal on feed sack, Soviet issues gas mask and bag, 118x96cm
Travis Somerville, Invasion, 2017, graphite and charcoal on feed sack, Soviet issues gas mask and bag, 118x96cm

Painting or drawing a person transmutes a sentient person into an inanimate object. Nevertheless, verism holds on to more of the “soul”.  Nothing new about that. Look at Gentile Bellini’s self- portrait, how similar his way of looking at the live body is to that of Somerville above. I am not suggesting the debt of the younger to the older artist. Rather, a comparison of pose and modelling illustrates that the ways of looking do not depend on temporal context. Whereas, using vintage cotton pick sack as a ground, does, as do references to a Soviet gas mask and bag.

Gentile Bellini, Self-portrait, 1496 -97
Gentile Bellini, Self-portrait, 1496 -97

Bellini also added accessories in a portrait of another:  In line with the trends in European portraiture of the time, Bellini depicted the sultan in resplendent detail, his three-quarter profile framed by an illusionistic archway.

Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Sultan Mehmet, 1480
Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Sultan Mehmet, 1480

Mehmet is also represented by the trappings of Islamic authority: His red caftan and luxurious fur mantle are accompanied by a headdress (a wrapped turban over a red taj) that indicates his rank and religious identity; a piece of jewel-encrusted Ottoman embroidery hangs down the front of the frame; and the three crowns of Constantinople, Iconium, and Trebizond flank him on each side.

Travis Somerville, Exiled, 2017, Graphite and charcoal on feed sack, Soviet soldiers epaulets, 106.7 x 96.5 cm
Travis Somerville, Exiled, 2017, Graphite and charcoal on feed sack, Soviet soldiers epaulets, 106.7 x 96.5 cm

Quite a few “samenesses” between the then and now.

I am not sure that the double meaning is intentional in the terms GTG prints in its handout: “approaching ways of looking” – from where? to whom? by what? Are ways of looking distinct from ways of seeing? 

The verbs seeing, looking and watching, situate each activity in subtly different realms of attention and meaning.  In life and in art. Yet – what I see  I perceive as a process to make visible – even, particularly,  the invisible, e.g. empathy, fear, insecurity.  Human condition.

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Travis Somerville, This Land, 2017, graphite on vintage cotton pick sack, appr 256.5 x 133.3. cm

Drawing and painting, both have near hypnotising capacity to find correspondence between a fleeting perception and the unmovable marks on the ground. Between seeing and naming.  Between observed and made up.  I recall  Paul Klee: “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible.”

Therefore, thinking of the art, I tend to replace the words “ways of looking”  with “ways of making visible”.

In the above drawing, the fatal experience of being “lost at sea” between escape and arrival arrests the retrieval of that experience in one moment.  While the reality is inherently fugitive.  As is generally the case with visual perception.  It may imprint on memory if my eidetic memory is good.  The rest is, as Balzac pointed out,  indéfinissable.

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On the image immediately above – a challenging 8-part painting by Travis Somerville that echoes Géricault’s Raft of Medusa, with its political charge. The Raft, 2016, demands to fragment perception into a stream of many partial views, resisting offering one all-embracing one.

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Travis Somerville, The Raft, 2017, Oil on Canvas 8 sections, 67 in. x 126 in.

It successfully transfers to me the impossibility of grasping it as a whole.  Like any of Breughel’s “tableaux”.  The event’s dynamic is not susceptible to one dominant view. This ragged composition mediates an experience of being inside a story.   There is no sign of the order of Alberti’s disegno.  Instead, the colours weep, accuse, make hope not to be swallowed by dark waves. The darkness of what it is they collectively make visible.

The choice of painting it in fragments removes the narrative from sliding into sentimental historical drama. Instead, it revives a mechanism of restraint akin to  Zola’s “j’accuse”… and hits hard the central issue:  the tragedy strikes and unfolds, strikes and unfolds … its duration unpredictable.  Homeland Insecurity  mirrors the experience as it would be lived,  a part after a part.

 

Mediation of reality by subverting the convention by control and absurdity appears in a display of the five exhibits by Ian Cumberland  in Gallery One.

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The title A common fiction appears both ironic and wondrous.  Is it a futile literalism that turns a portrait into a genre, à la Pieter Breughel the Elder? Just with one person, not as many as the 16th painter would do.  Or is it turning a portrait into a still life?

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The first “tableau” includes a carpet covering the floor, also painted on the panel with a fallen man. Suspended from a rough wooden support on the painting’s dorso, the body is seen from its back,  moving its head slightly now and then, movement afforded by the virtue of lens-based media.

Higher up on the wall, two video screens run information about various health issues.

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The All Consuming Selfie (2918)   presents a tromp l’oeil of the carpet around the hyperrealist (photorealist) rendering of the body. The painting and its support are the mute, unmovable parts.  The faith in the power of the painted image is immediately undermined by screens with words on the wall and projection of the pose of the man seen from the back.  Is it a pleonasm? Is it needed because the trust in mute poetry is waining? Matching up the two modes of representation cannot escape the dominance of “la différance” in the perception of visual images and text.

Adrian Navarro (Boston, 1973. Living and working in London)  pointed to a paradox inherent in painting practice.

“Man is an alienated being who thinks he is free. The same thing happens with painting, it is a free and expressive medium whose aim is the communication of a view of the world, where that freedom is not possible. This is the paradox I try to represent. “

Cumberland also explores the dichotomy between confinement and freedom inherent in painting and by focusing on a figure,  extended to the human being.

Ian Cumberland, Boom and Bust, 2017/18, oil on linen, video.
Ian Cumberland, Boom and Bust, 2017/18, oil on linen, video.

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To a certain extent, the installations are similar to still life.  The presence of the human being does not violate the terms of still life, as formulated by 17th C Dutch paintings.  Hypnotic ambivalence erases any chance of hebetude. Like Paul Cezanne, the painter is first true to the motif, but after that he plays with omens of impermanence.  Spark -germinate-unravel.  There are clues in brushtrokes and in attachments of real objects: flag, cage, wood, neon, carpet….

Ian Cumberland, Manufacturing consent (detail), 2018, oil on linen, wood, metal, 200 x 340 x 156 cm
Ian Cumberland, Manufacturing consent (detail), 2018, oil on linen, wood, metal, 200 x 340 x 156 cm
Ian Cumberland, Manufacturing consent, 2018, oil on linen, wood, metal, 200 x 340 x 156 cm
Ian Cumberland, Manufacturing consent, 2018, oil on linen, wood, metal, 200 x 340 x 156 cm

Quiet confrontations of representational accuracy and installed objects create less dissonance than the sudden “blind” gris-en-gris divided brushstrokes. Could be intentional or not. Make me think of decay.

Objects are there as if the painting needed them.  As if without them it would be incomplete.  Their “reality” results in estrangement of the painted part.  The question arises – what kind of alienation is that?

Ian Cumberland, False Flags 2018, oil on linen, mixed media
Ian Cumberland, False Flags 2018, oil on linen, mixed media

Marxism  defines alienation as hiatus between the worker and the product of work.  That’s not the case here.  Bertold Brecht established that estrangement enhances criticality and awareness.

That is applicable to these exhibits.  The caged painting and the woman’s gesture align to indicate a court procedure. Only to be undermined by the domestic setting behind her.  So this alienation is both similar and different from Brecht’s proposition.

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Ian Cumberland, Get the look, 2027-18, oil on linen, neon
Ian Cumberland, Get the look, 2027-18, oil on linen, neon

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Handwritten over the above  painting is the cost of each item in GBP, e.g. material, the model, etc.

Listing the model is a significant marker, that the painter works in the European tradition  – not the newer way of using photographs or video or cinema stills.

That leads me to conclude that this painter defends representational figurative painting by wishing it, letting it, win a competition with real objects.  That is, what I sense to be foregrounded. Through exposing it to estrangement, alienation works like Shklovsky’s foregrounding or defamiliarisation.

In his 1917 text Art as Technique he distinguishes poetic language from ordinary language :

The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” (Shklovsky 16)

Cumberland  moves in the world of common reality, such as the animation of inanimate objects, but evolves defamiliarizing the viewer and provoking an uncanny feeling.

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The slowing down of perception ( like the smear of the blind blue-grey of the pills onto the hand) injects energy into a physical system of paint to “originate” difference, change, value, motion, presence.  Making painting strange (e.g. both by tromp l’oeil of the carpet and confrontation with real carpet) motivates comparison and recognition of “la différance”…

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Images courtesy Simon Mills and Golden Thread Gallery.

Phil Collins: This is the day. MAC Belfast, 10 Aug – 21 Oct 2018

A mix of installation,  still photography, video, painting, sound, water and black sand, are installed in all three MAC galleries:

Ceremony, 2017 in Upper Gallery

Delete Beach, 2o16, in the Tall Gallery

Free Fotolab, 2009 in the adjacent room

The meaning of Style,2011 in the Sunken Gallery

John Stuart Mill thought in On Liberty (1859) that a largely mistaken position can still contain some small elements of truth, as well as serving as a stimulus to thought by provoking us to demonstrate what is wrong with it.  By “a mistaken position” I mean the decision to stretch the story of moving a mediocre sculpture of F Engels from a Ukrainian village to Manchester to 60 minutes.  Visitors to the art gallery were overheard on returning the handout with words – “I do not have an hour ” – few others stayed.  I did not watch it in its entirety, although visited it twice.

This installation with HD video, colour and sound have been supported by Arts Council England’s Ambition for Excellence, the BBC, the Henry Moore Foundation and My Festival Circle.  No mere visitor can add to these fanfares. It was co-commissioned by 14 – 18 Now, Home, Manchester and the Manchester International Festival and produced by them, Shady Lane Production and Tigerlily Production.

Collins has a master’s touch to enliven the elements of truth with a chance  and a whim as well as with meticulously planned and executed craft, which I sensed to be valuable for a film director.

The installation underestimates mute poetry, propping the visual thoughts at all times with words.  As if the appropriation of a documentary mode cannot be visually beautiful and exciting without speaking. As if a video had not a gate for every value from vulgar curiosity to sublime imagination.  Whim aligns with the description in visual terms,  I recall one powerful detail, when the screen is filled with a part of the side of the container lorry.  Vertigo ensued.  Or the comical details of the torso of the statue anchored in a car tyre for stability.  The images on the sides of the screen were bloodless.  Lifeless in the shadows.  Banal. They attracted curiosity and repelled the attention.

The world does not need another video.  As if anticipating that fatigue, the appropriated mode and look of Japanese anime was projected in darkness on the screen and accessed over heaps of – what seems to be – polluted sand, black from oil, with puddles of dark liquid.  Ostensibly, the environmental “death”  revives the need to end dependence on fossil fuels.

Delete Beach (4 min 50 sec)  was commissioned by Bergen Assembly and supported by Vestnorsk Filmsenter and the German Cultural Foundation.

Again, it is quite verbose, as if not trusting that visual thought can stand alone. It is an erroneous hope that independence from fossil fuels will remove inequality.

The Free Fotolab  is a 35 mm slide projection of 80 anonymous archival photographs, the result of Collins’s call for rolls of undeveloped films.  After being developed,  they were returned to participants on condition that they relinquish the copyright to the artist.  The images come from Milton Keynes, St Gallen, Belgrade, Eindhoven and Banja Luka (=my favourite stopover).

A jet photographic print  Mici’s Last Night, 2002, completes the Tall Gallery installation.

As art belongs more to the viewer than its creator,  Collins’s propulsive efficiency sways the installations and projections into a spectacle.   The Meaning of Style, 2011, is a particularly immersive take on cinéma verité. Aesthetically it flattens into a stasis which insists on sameness. The wish to break free descends palpably in the views of men silently reading, or letting butterflies perch on one’s ear.

Made me think of Fluxus – specifically Eric Andersen’s mastery of “being busy” reading words backward.

Indeed, the economy of means matters, when escaping from that cave (Plato)

Écho, parlant quant bruit on mène
Dessus rivière ou sus étang,
Qui beauté   trop plus qu’humaine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?

(Francois Villon….)

 

 

 

The World Smallest Exhibition of Paintings (probably)

Fenderesky Gallery (Belfast, August 2 – September 7, 2018) has displayed paintings from 41 artists, the larger ones on Gallery Ground Floor, the small ones upstairs on two walls facing each other.

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Photo credit Charlie Scott

Good eye and sense of adventure allowed the diagonals to stutter, turn back on themselves, make room for other lines of vision or just be confident to keep their initial direction.  Visual melody effortlessly issues, insisting that each painting submits its difference to connect to the others.  I see it as an installation, as a chorus of different voices harmonizing with the others.  Polyphony  – mute and visible.

Fenderesky second wall
Photo credit Charlie Scott

Compare the confidence of Dan Shipsides application of golden section

Dan Shipsides
Photo credit Helen G Blake

with Helen G Blake patiently breathing spirit into a pattern and repeat and willful red destroyers of the sameness. That hers is twice the size of the enigmatic three tones above seems to undermine the popular understanding of scale as determining aesthetic value. Both deliciously private,  to the point and without fanfare.

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Helen G Blake, Cake, 2018. photo Helen G Blake

The majority of paintings upstairs are the size of a postcard or a little less or little more.  They all are full blooded compositions, confident not to ask for more support than a holding palm.

Barbara Freeman feeds the hues with energy sufficient for a larger size of canvas. Yet – these are not miniatures.

Barbara Freeman
Photo Helen G Blake

A miniature refuses such promiscuity,  insisting on the chosen small scale.

Anja-Markiewicz-2

Anja Markiewicz makes contemporary miniatures, which, like butterflies or flowers, are faithful to the determined size.  I noted few of the small paintings on either wall heading in that direction too but stopping just there.

installation shot Fenderesky
Photo Helen G Blake
Lisa Gingles
Lisa Gingles

It appears to me that the eye zooms on the size of the “brushstroke” to become convinced that the size is right.  The onscreen reproduction removes that certainty.

Pat Harris
Pat Harris

The intense open-ended scale allows intoxication by playful promiscuity. In the sense and to what extent mute poetry belonged to the audience,  numerous of these small paintings are sedulous.

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Paddy McCann, photo credit Charlie Scott.

And immersive. Evocative like medieval portable small paintings can be.

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Wilton Diptych, NG London , 1395 – 9, egg on oak, 53 x 37 cm

 

Ronnie Hughes
Ronnie Hughes, Photo Helen G Blake

 

Tony Hill
Tony Hill, photo Helen G Blake

The promiscuity of scale in abstract paintings allows access to enjoyable insecurity –  it is not threatening.  Does it work differently in narrative, figurative mode?  Possibly –  the scale is internally bound to the size of the brushstroke in its descriptive mode.  If the canvas were bigger – the marks would need to be bigger – like in a  fresco. I recall that Goya preferred to use a sponge instead of a brush while working on the fresco at San Antonio de la Florida.

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Peter Burns, photo Helen G Blake

Whereas abstraction sits comfortably with brush strokes or stains of any size.

Louise Wallace at FDSC_4043
Louise Wallace, photo Helen G Blake
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David Crone, photo Helen G Blake

Whereas – when Sharon Kelly combines stains with writing the image gets locked in the small size.

Sharon Kelly at F

It is representational as well as autonomous.

In the space of several yards, the distance between Fenderesky and Engine Room galleries,  there were around 130  paintings on show.  Some harvest! Some trust in the mute poetry.

Peter FitzGerald: Rotated Works: Land, Portrait, Built (e-books 2018)

The artist (he is a painter) selects photographs from archives and turns them 90 degrees either way.

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Ansel Adams: Detail of Cactus “Saguaros, Saguro National Monument,” Arizona; National Archives, #519974

FitzGerald invites the reader / viewer thus:

“Look at a ‘great’ photo – that is, a photo by one of the many great photographers. Rotate it 90 degrees (either way). Are you seeing new things / new aspects / a different story in the photo? Almost certainly the answer is ‘yes’; the photo is showing you something you hadn’t registered before. The message has changed – unsurprisingly – between the physical thing and you.”

In the illustration above the meaning of the portrait of a cactus morphs into appendages of an alien, as if a tolerant monster calmly allows human fingers, the index finger is still pointing, to nestle in the cavity.  It also looks like a torso of a figure in protective clothing.

On what does this morphing depend? The details are clearly defined, there is no deformation of the whole, the acuity of vision is not in any way impaired.  The knowledge what a cactus looks like also collaborate.  I trust there is a secret working of play and imagination.

As children, we would hang head-down from farming instruments, railings and tree branches to see the same world “wrongly”.  In hindsight, it seems like a training in differences triggered by one’s position in the world, but then it was just daring and play.  Growing up, we dare less and play less.

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Carleton Watkins: [Mirror. The Three Brothers.], 1880; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Reflection in water easily triggers both admiration and a strong – almost mythical – force of beauty. Its power is enhanced by the removal of the practical aspect – like safety, a direction of walking, etc.

FitzGerald’s offer is an invitation to recover some of both, they cultivate our powers to recognise differences and to make comparisons. Both are perceived as significant for the cognitive process. Armin W Schultz recently advanced some of the arguments in an example of a decision whether to accept a new job:

“What makes it exciting for cognitive scientists is that, in making this decision, you mentally represent the different factors that go into it (what it is like to accept the job, what your current situation is like, and so on), and then act based on these mental representations.” (https://aeon.co/ideas/picture-this-why-we-use-mental-representations-to-make-choices)

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Ansel Adams: View with Shadowed Ravine, “Grand Canyon from South Rim, 1941,” Arizona; National Archives, #519885

He defines “internal models: intermediaries between the world and your reactions to the world”; it appears as the same space where aesthetic experience lives.  The sublime rock valley appears to overwhelm any viewing angle.  In this right turn the rocks nonchalantly drop the narrative of human presence that is quite strong when seen upright.   Schultz significantly zooms in on the “meaning” of our mental representations: “To the extent that it moves you at all, it does so via the way it is represented in your mind.” 

What is this “via the way”? Is it distinct from knowing what and from knowing how?  I sense that it offers the viewer freedom in constructing a meaning.  This statement holds an implication that there are differences in representation of the world in our mind.  FitzGerald sees it as meddling with smooth perceptions and gives an example from Modernism:

“‘Verfremdung’, ‘making-strange’: by distancing us from the commonplace and making it seem odd, we see the everyday differently and hopefully in a new way. The process is discomfiting. We’re used to perception and interpretation functioning seamlessly, and Verfremdung-like effects mess with the underlying processes on which smooth reception relies.”

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Eugène Atget: [Wheat], 1900; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
In the above cluster  – the smooth reception happens… the wheat in both an upright and rotated variant appear convincingly growing and entangled. The change of viewing angle is subtly disabled by the multitude of directions taken by individual stems.

The concept of making strange has a sibling: in ‘Art as Technique’ (1917) Viktor Shklovsky calls it defamiliarisations / foregrounding.  Also, the aesthetic function’s ability to switch meaning, as observed by  Jan Mukařovský in Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts (publ 1936), introduced foregrounding with a difference: aesthetic function is transparent and can switch meaning by attaching itself to different social contexts. Can it switch meaning by attaching itself to different viewpoints?  No doubt. The European painting offers a multitude of examples between use and not use of perspective.  This image offers an optical illusion: what was the overgrown ground  I see as a sunlit tree on the left – why do the tiny scale of the trees and house at the top of cliff appear like an uneven edge of rock sliced off from the big mass?

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Ansel Adams: Rock Formation, from Below, “In Zion National Park,” Utah; Library of Congress

However, the process is not easily described; Wellek and Warren also referred to it in their Theory of Literature published in 1949: “Poetic language organises, tightens, the resources of everyday language, and sometimes does even violence to them, in an effort to force us into awareness and attention … every work of art imposes an order, an organisation, a unity on its material” (my emphasis).

Turning an image is a kind of violence. FitzGerald proposes that it enhances awareness and trains attention.  No doubt, it does redirect attention, replaces some of the meaning. But not always. So when? What is the constellation of conditions that will secure that change?  When metamorphosis takes over is one of the constellation of conditions.  Below, the monstrous head is convincing. 

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Carleton Watkins: [Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point], 1865 – 1866, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Leonardo defined seeking meaning in stains on the wall and clouds as a training for painters, as an inspiration to make mute poetry.  Here the defining trope caresses the contrast between dark and light.

It is possible that nature is more susceptible to morphing into something it is not?

Schultz questions why we need mental representation on top of reflexes, habits and conditional behaviour. Why does our organism allow it?  He points out that habitual thinking carries a great deal of redundancy.  Whereas mental representations allow reasoning without such waste: “… the organism can streamline its decision-making machinery.” If so it should apply to human bodies. 

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Heinrich Kühn: Miss Mary [Warner] at Her Night Table, 1907; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
The rotated photograph of the woman in her bedroom (above) replaces the atmosphere of the calm private moment with an unexplained upheaval. She is falling or searching under the bed, keeping the certainty inaccessible in the dark nothingness. That creates mystery where there was a narrative.

The question arises, when is the experiential narrative replaced?  And why it works without any change to the detail? What are the constellations of conditions for this convincing lie?  Is viewing angle stronger than the intended composition?

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Gordon Parks: Washington, D.C. Government charwoman; Library of Congress, #20540

There is no metamorphosis. Clarity of the image forbids entry to fantasy – it is what it is. Classicism at work: clarity, order, emphasis on austere linear design in the depiction of classical themes and subject matter, using archaeologically correct settings and costumes.  The authority of the original photography allows me to see this only as unchanged by rotation.  However – something changed, even if subtly: in an upright view I sense the pulse of life, on this rotated version the life form is once removed, it is a print presented sideways. So rotating may also take away.

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Julia Margaret Cameron: The Vision of Infant Samuel, about 1865; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Almost an opposite happens above.  The rotated version conjures up that the subject of the gaze is above that corner. In the original,  its siting is somewhere around there on the parallel in front.

What happens when there is more than one subject? In addition, this photograph turns each of the three figures around a different axis.  Upright the man is the vertical centre, one young listener comes from the depth,  the other from the front and engages me with direct gaze out.  This dynamic of volumes becomes flattened in the rotated version  The volumes flatten, his left hand could be mistaken for hers (in a split second only before the eye attends the signs of age), his other hand orders my eye to get out of frame,  and the little girl is the only one upright, real, domineering. As if standing in front of a painting leaning sideways at the wall.

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Julia Margaret Cameron: The Whisper of the Muse / Portrait of G.F. Watts, April 1865; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The classic principle of “moira” – measure – comes to mind as one key.  In parallel Italo Calvino introduced the value we should protect: “exactitude” as in the ancient Egyptians’ Maat definition of a standard brick and of a fundamental note on the flute. (Six memos…, p55). Calvino lists three conditions:

  1. a well-defined plan: FitzGerald’s decision to turn images by 90 degrees is demonstrably that.
  2. an evocation of … memorable visual image: this is not guaranteed for all of FitzGerald’s samples.
  3. as Calvino thinks of literature he defines this condition as “a language as precise as possible both in a choice of words and in the expression of subtleties of thoughts and imaginations” (ibidem,  p56)

 

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Berenice Abbott: Chanon Building, New York; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Given our familiarity with flying rotating this image adds height to the viewer’s viewpoint,  a habitual surrender.  Not so when the original image transforms so much that its rotated version rounds on imaginary truth.

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David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Plate 32 – Close, No. 128 Saltmarket, 1868-1871; National Gallery of Art

The windows obediently become flat rectangles on a flat floor with derelict construction that leads nowhere.  Is it sky or smoke? That question is one of many raised by rotation of the perfectly understandable descriptive image.  It amazes me how the rational correctness disappears so completely by turning the viewing angle.   The change is convincing in its clarity, akin to Magritte’s rock in the sky.   Where it indulges in intimate feelings it reminds me of the testimony by Rothko.

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Berenice Abbott: Manhattan Bridge, Manhattan; New York Public Library

In parallel to Calvino’s reasoning, I sense that photography is used in a random, careless manner, flooding our perception. Indeed, we live “in an unending rainfall of images.” He proposes that images are being stripped of the “inner inevitability that ought to mark every image as form and as meaning, as a claim on the attention and as a source of possible meaning” (p57).   I do not doubt that the photographs of bridges are ubiquitous.  In the upright view, Abbott presents form and function with clarity in crisp successful choices.  At first, I ignored the pedestrians, and read it as two roofs at different height, the one on the left unfinished.  The juxtaposition of full and empty harmoniously supported my incorrect identification of what it was I saw.  I prefer it for allowing me to insert different meaning into clear description. The rotation found an opening for imagining what it may be.

There is a caveat: Calvino adheres to Giacomo Leopardi’s thought that “the more vague and imprecise language is, the more poetic it becomes” … and in turn, given Mukarovsky’s offer of a transparent aesthetic, function more powerfully to produce multiple mental representations. Or at least to revive the power to do so.

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Berenice Abbott: Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan; New York Public Library

So – what is the power of Pythagorean geometry?

Elegant equations suggest some perfection, gracefulness and pleasure; the right angle is not formless, random or confused.  A right-angle turn may be sufficient and necessary to create another valuable version of what the lens saw – or insufficient or unnecessary.

(more on a constellation of conditions in  J L MACKIE, The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation, Clarendon Press (1980))

My last example entangles angles and clarity of meaning with morphing with such a freedom that it succeeded in making me smile.

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Eadweard Muybridge: First Order Light-House At Punta De Los Reyes; Wikimedia

No doubt my seeing the head of a medieval warrior with a lighthouse for a hat was not intended.  The rotation freed it from the artist’s intention, making space for mine, as a viewer.

On fast viewing FitzGerald’s three e-books –  Land succeeded more often than Portrait and Built.  In particular, in Portrait there was not enough emptiness to fill or replace,  or  the right-angle turn was not powerful enough to remove the original meaning or to shift the image beyond an awkward to a persuasive new experience.  Those multiple stages of departure from the original intention highlight that the rotation needs to switch on the power to replace the original optical perception.  At times, I concluded, 90 degrees is too feeble to achieve change, but FitzGerald offers contrary evidence.

 

Images courtesy Peter FitzGerald.

Islands & Myths, Belfast Exposed Photography, 29 June – 18 August 2018

Sanne de Wilde, Nicholas Muellner and Jon Tonks shared the gallery space in a harmonious display of their story-telling images, connected to an underlying sameness: interest in distant and exotic island-centred life, literally or metaphorically.

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The Island of the Colorblind

by Sanne de Wilde(1987)  is series of infrared and black-and-white images of people living on two Pacific islands, Pingelap and Pohnpei, people living with a hereditary condition of complete colourblindnes (achrompatopsia).

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In a constructed darkroom with taped instructions and changes of light, visitors can mimic that condition of not seeing colours.  Told to paint over a xeroxed image,  they are expected to pin the result on the outer walls.

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While the experience feels disorienting, de Wilde’s images do not.  They slot easily into the current obsession with the technical virtuosity of photographers.  Something else dominates what she makes visible – the freedom to use colours in a non-descriptive way. She carefully matches the palette to the idea, the island attracts by its seductive untrue beauty that embraces the described forms, trees, boat, clouds, people. It is both representational and autonomous.

Whereas the  image of the colourblind man presents the raw truth, viscerally there.

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Color is just a word to those who cannot see it. What if the colorblind people paint with their mind, how would they color the world, the trees, themselves. Initiating my visual research in FSM I tried to find ways to envision how people with achromatopsia see the world. I tried to see the island through their eyes. Daylight is too bright to bear, moonlight turns night into day, colors dance around in shades we cannot imagine. Imagine flames lighting up in black and white, trees turning pink, waves of grey. A rainbow revisited. The islanders often refer to green as their favourite color, growing up in a lush environment, living in the jungle. But green is also the color that the most common kind of colorblindness (deutaranomaly, five out of 100 males) can’t distinguish. I learned that the color the islanders say to ‘see’ most is red.” (accessed on sannedewilde.com)

The image of the bird (below) appears to me as being painted while simulating the colourblindness.  If so, than the image is grounded in personal presence of the artist  who aims at extending our knowledge of the hidden condition.  It reminds me of LN Tolstoy valuing “emotional infection” as a sign of good art. Others, e.g. Victorian  painters of the mid 19th C,  may use it for rather sentimental aims. One of the most enduring critical legacies of modernism has been the condemnation of the sentimentality of Victorian art.  The image below is not a tender beauty, rather it is a one disabled by not matching the appearance, staying sincere to the given visual perception, to  its insecurity.

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Installation near the entrance of images by Sanne de Wilde
Installation near the entrance of images by Sanne de Wilde

Nicholas Muellner (1969)

self-published the image-text book In Most Tides an Island in 2017. It is available to browse online on his website and on Vimeo.

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The installation shot above is defiant in parting with any details… it indicates a personal preference for black-and-white – (there are colour photographs too among the exhibits) –photography grounded in his presence in the natural environment, not in imitating perceived colourful fields, trees, etc. It makes me think about the distance between the colour green and the word green. In that gap, my memories, my imagination fill in the meaning.  A process akin to  reading poetry.  Muellner lets words and images in the book stand alone and together. Exhibited, the images appear like documents of the world distant from me as a viewer, politely waiting for my response to surprising details.

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His ability to respect the observable while lifting it out of the ordinary with discipline, dignity, and craft, does not rule out playful denials, if it allows him to enhance the poetic and emotional impact.  Although different in the way it is made, his image carries the secrets Josef Sudek (1896 -1976 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=…) knew about and  resonates with the split-second surprises Bill Brandt could catch so effortlessly, fresh and strange (his words. See more on www.billbrandt.com).

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The untrue proportions become utterly believable. Muellner enjoys play – akin to the surrealists daring to let the impossible become convincing, by cherishing what others consider a mistake. It is poetic, and admirable craft too.

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His is a complex visual art, admirably  achieved through a lens-based medium and related techniques. No seams. No awkward juxtapositions, only the elegant smooth mystery of seeing, imagining, of being.  Document willingly dissolves into a dream.  And the light! I know it from sunsets, and the above image hold that link for me.  The narrative, the backstory, is pedestrian: stories of gay men in Russia, solitary woman on an island.  Muellner’s art succeeds in making it unexpectedly beautiful and poetic, emotionally infectious.

Jon Tonks

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His travel to Vanuatu in the South Pacific with a friend, a writer, Christopher Lord, in 2014, resulted in the series of photographs Blong, presenting a once-a-year ritual, “Cargo Cults”.

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Based on a prophesy that an American soldier named John Frum will return with a “cargo” of riches and renewal of tradition customs, the yearly festival includes “people wearing military uniforms, carving muskets out of bamboo and saluting an American flag.”

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His is a narrative photography insisting on “correct” representation of what is seen.  Yet, his subtle interference with the obvious undermines that  correctness by a fusion of the real and the believed, observed and imagined.  That fusion contains something else. An obsession of Westerners with “the other”, the less developed, the looked down upon, to  feed their own corrupt superiority.  And maybe a well hidden sorrow at lost paradise, which people visit while harbouring a hope to recharge, to recover from their daily routine. I sense a touch of smile in the image of an expensive ship near the muddy  ground, an incongruous relationship.

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An interesting interview  with Jon Tonks is here.

Images credit: the artists and Belfast Exposed Gallery.