Friday, October 24, 2008
Friday, October 17, 2008
Advances on the Western front of my painting have been slowed by diversionary manoeuvres in the studio as I grapple with the last stages of preparing the memorial for Westminster Abbey. As mentioned previously we no longer speak of war. Hence this Conflict Memorial will be unveiled, with much fanfare and bemedalled dignitaries in full uniform, by a royal personage on the 29th October.
After much sieving and grinding with pestle and mortar I have my pigment ready, a mixture of earth from the world's battlefields. It is tricky to paint on round sectioned wire with its four dimensions, back, front, sides and the bit-out-of-sight-one-always-seems-to-miss.
Meanwhile at the Abbey itself, locked in a little worker's lean-to, Phil Surey is chipping away at the cloister wall to carve the lettering that frames the metal centrepiece.
It is uneasily strange to be celebrating warfare (I have not yet learned to say conflictfare) but the artistic problems remain the same; of probity in design, truth to materials and the combination of these with propriety to the subject, to present a unity.
Asked to make a statement describing the work for the upcoming occasion I tried to imagine what would make sense for the bereaved (and the comrades and friends) of the fallen, for whom the memorial should carry most meaning.
This memorial takes the form of a text (adapted from that provided by the Armed Services Memorial committee) worked in welded steel so that the letters of which it is made support and strengthen each other in free space. With this structural interdependence and the presence of steel, the generic material of ordnance, a military metaphor is tacitly present. This is symbolically reinforced by the overall covering given to the metal which is made up from earth gathered world-wide (with the assistance of travelling friends) from various sites of conflict. These date from 1066 (Battle itself) via Agincourt, the Somme and onwards to the present day. Fifteen such earth samples were mixed and ground together to make a pigment bound in colourless acrylic resin. Thus, in an echo of Rupert Brooke's famous poem, "some corner(s) of a foreign field" are brought to an appropriate place to indicate the long ancestry of national courage. The not unexpected resemblance in colour and granular texture to rust could be thought quietly to voice the artist's hope of an ultimate peace. Framing the metal sculpture and beginning similarly with the all important word 'remember' is the motto of the Armed Services Memorial Appeal carved into the fabric of the Abbey itself, a stone that is the same as that used throughout the world by the War Graves Commission. The carving is made as deep as is practicable to catch the maximum amount of defining shadow.
The services and their dead are memorialised in bonded steel, camouflaged in the earth of battle, with a surrounding call to remembrance marked in sanctified stone.
I am of course invited to the ceremony though, looking at the embossed card I am not sure what, for an artist, 'full dress uniform without sword' might be.
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
As at 1.10.08
An encouraging thing about the painting is that, for all its pleas for revision, it does begin to benefit from its barmy method of execution.
As I had hoped it really offers two distinct experiences for anyone looking at it. Moreover these almost contradictory perceptions cannot quite be had simultaneously. Thus it protects itself from at-a-glance appraisal by the casual spectator (or lazy critic).
From any distance it reads as a relatively simple image of large calligraphic shapes floating in a variegated ether of lighter colour. Close up however it presents a continuum. Both light and dark areas are inhabited by ornament on a scale that keeps itself more or less a secret from even a few feet away.
A crucial part of the game (and every work must have the combative playfulness of a game) has been, from early on, to explore what Owen Jones described in the title of his unwieldy and wonderful Victorian tome The Grammar of Ornament. I have always regarded ornament as a high art - as distinct from decoration which is added to something rather than being the matter from which it is made.
Ornament often goes hand in intricate hand with script both in the great illuminated pages of Christian illumination and the masterpieces of Arabic art which respond to the restrictive anti-representational challenge of Islam.
One of my art school tutors said of some work I was doing that it was 'just like knitting'. He meant this to be caustically damning but, as time went by, I realised that what is originally seen as a fault in one's work can be its particularity; something that should be intensified rather than adandoned. So here I am, fifty years later, knitting again and with unflagging enthusiasm for the variations that can be performed on the themes of net and maze, interlace, foliation and meander. A thousand streams of influence come into play in this abstract vocabulary.
One such I am daily reminded of at the moment as I prepare my long delayed book (promised two years ago to Hansjörg Mayer) on Akan goldweights of which I have an embarrassingly large collection. These miniature bronzes, some figurative but most abstract, were used by the Asante (Ashanti) for weighing the gold dust that was their currency for many centuries. They exhibit a rich repertoire of ornamental strategies as in this sample group of the miniature boxes (cast via the lost wax process) for carrying an individual's tiny packages of gold.