Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Writing of Art - Inspired by calligraphy

by Rozemin Keshvani

First published IBRAAZ 010_06 / 29 November 2016

Hanieh Delecroix, Soulmate (2016)
Presenting six contemporary artists – Graham Day, Hanieh Delecroix, Parastou Forouhar, Farnaz Jahanbin and Katayoun Rouhi – whose work is inspired by traditional arts based on Persian and Arabic script, The Writing of Art explored the plasticity between word, idea and image, traditionally juxtaposed as discrete systems of the visual and the discursive to pose a challenge to the simple notion that globalisation destroys cultural identity. The exhibition, presented at London's Ismaili Centre as part of the Nour Festival of the Arts, repositioned struggles associated with the loss of language and cultural assimilation to present a kaleidoscope of geographies and practices in which cultural identity is not so much lost as it is redistributed through de-territorialization and distance.

Two paintings from the Paris-based artist Hanieh Delecroix refract both her former practice as a clinical psychologist working with trauma patients and her interest in the power of language, both written and discursive. Influenced by her father who, having left Tehran with his family during the 1979 Revolution, shared with her his passion for Persian poetry when he could no longer practice law, Delecroix became aware of language's power as a vehicle of culture, identity and loss from a very young age. The artist, though enamoured with the lyrical and visual beauty of Persian, never quite achieved her father's command of the language.

The works on show offer a kind of Rorschach text in response to this background. In Ashegh, the artist employs multiple iterations of script laying the word 'amour' atop a fervent torrent of sweeping strokes of black and blue acrylics to cover a two metre stretch of free-floating translucent paper, chosen for its fragility and symbolic skin-like quality. The work's title, Ashegh, is the Farsi counterpart to 'amour'. Hung next to, and partly overlapping, Ashegh was Soulmate, a painting of similar colour and temperamentin which the Farsi word 'ashegh' is repeated again in acrylic on paper. Together these works present counterparts: imperfect translations that inform and provoke one another. Years of being occupied by the language of another has, metaphorically, caused the artist's native tongue to become the 'soulmate' of the other, the French informed by the Persian, the Persian likewise layered by the French... Continue reading

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Pip Benveniste (1921-2010) -- portrait of a forgotten artist

by Rozemin Keshvani

Pip Benveniste needs to be part of the story of 20th century British art. When we think of Modernist Britain, we think a long list of men such as Lucien Freud, Richard Hamilton, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Victor Pasmore or John Piper. Benveniste was all the more singular within her generation in committing herself to being a full time artist. The price that all artists pay for their singular purpose is, I suspect, visited more painfully upon women artists…She clearly had a context, and as happens with many good artists after their death, a deeper and more rewarding revisiting of their legacy and struggle reveals refreshed pleasures and new insights that allow us to validate again their journey and their place in history. - Professor Andrew Dewdney

Pip Benveniste is a tremendously important British artist whose dedication to her art can be seen at every stage of her long and involved career, spanning every media from paint to printing to her most innovative works in film and photography. Her output was prolific as was it experimental and often radical. Her involvements and collaborations with contemporaries place her among the most avant-garde of British artists who were searching for new ways of responding the experience of life during and after World War II.

the pink house

Pip Benveniste was born in 1921 at Myrtle Cottage, a large pink-washed 18th-century house in Newlyn to a family of artists. Her mother Kay Earle, was a painter out of the Newlyn School. Her father Alec Walker co-founded with Tom Heron, Cryséde, a company producing hand printed wood block designs for fine silks.

Pip’s upbringing was hardly typical. She lived among community of artists and writers with whom she studied and learned painting. She was immortalised in Dod Proctor’s painting Kitchen at Myrtle Cottage. She freely roamed the countryside, developing an intuitive appreciation of nature with its harmonious interdependence of forms and its patterns of degeneration and renewal. These early childhood experiences grew into a love and understanding of her physical surroundings which would continually inform her work and shape the artist she would become.

Pip Benveniste, Cornish Woman, 1952 (oil)

a journey begins…

On the outbreak of the Second World War at the age of 18, Pip left home to join a pacifist experimental community grounded in organic agriculture. After the war, she moved to London. She became friends with Lilian Wolfe who introduced her to anarchist philosophy.

Benveniste began reading every book she could lay her hands own and meeting the London underground literati and activists associated with the Freedom Bookshop in Red Lion Street.

In 1949, Benveniste headed for Paris. Here she became familiar with bohemian artists, poets and writers associated with the Bar Verte, among them the writer James Baldwin then exiled in Paris with whom she would become close friends, Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst and two publishers of Zero Magazine, Themistocles Hoetus and the poet Asa Benveniste with whom she would begin a long period of artistic collaboration and together establish Trigram Press in 1965.

Pip Benveniste, Asa Benveniste, 1953 (oil)
Eager and youthful, Benveniste was captivated by her new environment, absorbing the avant-garde Paris art scene, attending literary events, painting portraits and creating work from the surrounding landscapes. After Paris, Benveniste travelled to Tangiers and New York studying colour and painting landscapes which grew progressively expressionist in colour.

She returned to the countryside, this time settling at Dutch Cottage in Tenterden, Kent, where she embarked on a study of the space of the canvas, looking beyond its representational field. Working with landscape, au plein air, she discovered that the ‘spaces in between’ were never constant but were rather influenced in colour and texture by what immediately surrounded it -- by its neighbouring subject, as she demonstrated in her work, Cherry Orchard.-- leading her to begin a life-long investigation into colour and medium.
Pip Benveniste, Cherry Orchard, 1956 (oil on canvas)

By 1957, her paintings embodied bold movements in colour and lengthened brushstrokes, reflecting time spent in New York and her experiments with abstract painting. On her return to Britain, she aspired to expand the field of her practice, and to move beyond servitude to the canvas.

She returned to London making her home in West Hampstead where she became part of London’s emerging avant-garde artist scene influenced in part by Paris’s avant-garde and beat counterculture. Benveniste collaborated with poets, writers and artists who sought to make art relevant to life by moving out of the studio and on to the street.
Pip Benveniste, film still (John Latham) from EVENTUAL, 1967
As an artist, Benveniste was fearless. She befriended the ‘bad boys’ of the London art scene, collaborating and learning, while experimenting with multiple media which took her practice far beyond the studio. This period of unparalleled experimentation and collaboration that lasted throughout the 1960s and would prove an extremely influential and important period in Pip’s development. These experiences would deeply affect her subsequent work and have far-reaching implications to her development as a painter, contributing to her unique understanding of colour and time in painting.

Benveniste had her first solo show in May 1965 at the dynamic and defining New Vision Centre at Marble Arch, London. Her work was controlled but explored delineation of energy in space. She was now fully immersed in abstraction and concerned to eliminate superfluous details and break free of representational painting. She was determined to move beyond oil painting, her medium for over 25 years, and she began experimenting with acrylic. This lighter medium allowed her to work to take on calligraphic and gestural qualities. She even began to make her own brushes, smashing bamboo to a fringe and then elongating the brush with a broom handle to create these gestural paintings in her Camden studio.
Pip Benveniste, Untitled, 1967 (acrylic on canvas)

painting and poetry

Benveniste’s practice was deeply influenced by poetry. She collaborated with poets and writers throughout her life and her paintings often expressed a poetic form. In the 1960s, at her Camden studio, Benveniste began to develop her own unique style of an abstract non-representational painting. She was studying Taoist philosophy through the I Ching, and also took inspiration from the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho leading her to incorporate poetic forms and build calligraphic strokes into her work in order to strive beyond representing the material in her work.
Pip Benveniste, Exploding Line, 1966
(ink on paper) caption

She worked on mastering the hand & arm gestures with large brushed marks in black paint on white canvas. A very hard way of painting as just one or two large marks had to be completely acceptable to herself, and needing a lot of peace of mind and well being with the large white canvas surface which incidentally could be ruined in a second, costing a bit too.

- Jasper Vaughan

As a painter, she was concerned to excavate the form of landscape, its idea, its energy. She was unmoved by ‘abstraction’ as such, which she viewed as overly mathematical and out of tune with the truth of the landscape she experienced. Instead, she sought to work with a more organic form of abstraction, and to re-evaluate her understanding of time in her work, making a study of Jung’s theories of ‘synchronicity’ as meaningful coincidence and the relativity of psychic time.

Benveniste began to create a series of works in which the line meets poetry. Sensual and calligraphic, these monochrome works present an idea of abstraction that challenges the traditional canon, alluding to landscape through a process which Benveniste felt to be more organic and alive. She achieved these abstractions through a continued and systematic sketch of a single scene or concept.

Pip Benveniste, repeated sketches
leading to her Breakwater series
(two of numerous sketches), 30th July 1965

Benveniste would repeatedly draw her subject using a process of successive abstraction in order to deconstruct and overcome mimetic form, being careful not to treat this exercise as a form of reduction, but instead to focus on the poetry within and between. She sought to paint the raw energy of her subject matter as idea, as concept, by reaching into liminal, non-material space, exploiting chance and accident as part of her imaginative manipulation of paint. Drawing was essential to Benveniste’s compositional technique and process in painting. She took inspiration from Klee, of whom she often spoke, allowing the pencil to wander and flow until becoming one with the line. The artist was principally concerned to draw negative space. Benveniste interpreted positive space to be subordinate. It would follow once negative space was comprehended.

Pip Benveniste, Breakwater 5, circa 1965
When speaking with her students, she would encourage them to view a piece of furniture and then imagine the piece vanish, leaving only the surrounding negative space. It is this negative space she would encourage them to then paint. Benveniste sought to push the line to its limits.

abandoning the studio

By the mid-1960s, Benveniste like many of her fellow artists felt a deep need to move the making of art from the studio to the street. For her photography and film-making became the ideal medium through which to experiment with time and exploit the context of the street itself. Her first film EVENTUAL collaged and montaged footage she shot from performances by each of John Latham, Stuart Brisley and Jeffrey Shaw (Event Structure Research Group) together with scenes from the 1968 Hornsey Collge of Arts sit-ins to create a psychic reinterpretation through film of what she understood these artist's were trying to achieve in their event-based performance works.

Pip’s camerawork reveals the revolutionary nature and time-based structure of the cinematic experience and the medium’s direct relationship to these event-based performances. The soundtrack is atonal, disturbing, industrial. Her camera reflects and amplifies the fluxus nature of these happenings and her own investigations into time as an essential factor in her work.

Pip Benveniste, film still (Jeffrey Shaw, Stuart Brisely,
 Barbara Steveni, John Latham) from EVENTUAL, 1968
Pip Benveniste, film still from EVENTUAL, 1968
Pip Benveniste, film still (Graham Stevens) from EVENTUAL, 1968
Pip Benveniste, film still  from EVENTUAL, 1968

A forerunner of experimental film-making, Benveniste used the camera to explore ideas about the relativity of psychic time through her study the effects of non-linear composition and juxtaposition of random interpolations. As with her drawing, repetition combined with nonlinearity became a means of progressively abstracting an object’s inherent force. Awareness of the subject is thus replaced by an awareness of essential energy.

a study of the canvas

Pip Benveniste, Transference, 1977 (acrylic on canvas)

Working with film gave Benveniste a renewed appreciation of the possibilities within the canvas, colour and the grid itself. She began to make a study of the canvas as more than mere supports for her painting to discover that the canvas was potentially more significant than the painting it supported.

No medium was passive. No support could be neutral. The canvas itself was an active force in the work, governing the mode and structure of presenting work. Focusing on primary geometries and reflecting on the two dimensional flat surface of the canvas itself, Benveniste began to apply paint so as to force the canvas into an act of self-disclosure that structured the work and allowed it to take on a new and even revelatory aspect.
This new way of painting allowed Benveniste to incorporate the knowledge she had gleaned from her studies of colour and temporality, and from practice outside the studio.
Pip Benveniste, Untitled (Alternate Rectangles), 1978

By the 1980s, Benveniste began to work more and more as a print-maker and eventually became accomplished with etching and biting plates. The print became a new way of interpreting her theories of colour and the dynamics of relatedness. The artist set up her own print studio at Barrington Road in Crouch End, producing aquatints and etchings. Etching provided Pip with the means to embark on a deeper, and more precise, structured, and systematic study of colour.

a return to painting

In 1996, Benveniste returned to the coast, this time settling at a cottage in Dorset. Here she would once again re-focus her efforts toward painting, bring her mastery of colour to the medium of watercolour. For her, watercolour made possible a return to her roots and an encounter with landscape that would allow her to integrate her now vibrant and exploding palette with her ideas about time, organic abstraction, dimensionality and drawing.
Pip Benveniste, Dorset Coast, 2001
Benveniste had been interested in opposition throughout her practice. She viewed negative and positive forces as coming together to create each moment. She sought to find the harmony between the active ocean and its seemingly passive recipient, the coast. She was interested in the flux and flow of nature. The natural balance of light and dark and achieving a balance between two opposite poles, revisiting her ‘groyne’ series, this time through watercolour.
Pip Benveniste, The Sea, 2005

the influence of the coast

The artist’s childhood in her coastal home of Newlyn was a continued source of inspiration throughout her life. And the coastal landscape of Britain became a subject through which to explore her obsessions. The poet Tony Ward has noted that Benveniste’s move to Dorset in the late 1990s was of profoundly significance to her final years of practice, representing a return to her spiritual roots.

Her art changed significantly. Maybe she imagined she was back in Cornwall, a place in which, I believe, her heart always resided, as her work made a very brave move back to her own origins in Newlyn, Mousehole, Penzance, St Just and St Ives. In these later watercolour paintings on handmade papers, the colours became translucent and the images more rural, with frequent references to the landscapes of her youth.Water in all its forms would repeatedly appear in her work to depict emotional energy and the idea of the landscape she experienced. She was incredibly prolific, creating a vast and varied oeuvre. She would continue to produce marvellous work until her death in 2010.

-Tony Ward

further information

Rozemin Keshvani represents the artist's estate and manages the Pip Benveniste archive. If  you are interested in learning more about the artist or accessing the archive or  films of Pip Benveniste, please email here.  We are collecting information on the location of Pip's work for an exhibition and catalogue raisonne, and if you have any works by the artist, we would be very grateful to hear from you.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Brian O’Connell, PALOMAR


LG London 27th February 2016 - 16th April 2016

by Rozemin Keshvani

Los Angeles-based artist Brian O’Connell has a new show at Laure Genillard Gallery that reflects a philosophically rich and technically sophisticated voice. PALOMAR stages a dialogic with Italo Calvino’s novel Palomar, continuing an investigation into the act of looking that is at once a study of the gaze and the quest for knowledge and an analogy for modern day cosmology as presented through the lens of physics.  
Brian O'Connell, The Loves of Tortoises, 2011

Calvino’s Mr Palomar, like his namesake the Palomar Observatory, is an observer who seeks to unlock the mysteries of the universe through observation, but whose experiences evidence a succession of  failures that tour the problems of epistemology. The novel begins with Mr Palomar observing the waves at the beach, seeking to isolate and read the wave. Palomar, we are told, seeks first ‘simply to see a wave – that is, to perceive all its simultaneous components’.  He vainly waits for an exact repetition of a single phenomenon, but while some forms and sequences repeat, they are irregularly distributed in space and time. Palomar thus turns his attention, first observing the naked bosom of a female bather, then two tortoises in an act of coitus. He tries to decipher the whistling of birds and makes an attempt in giving words to silence, then finally directs his attention to the sky, contemplating the stars in the night sky and lamenting the unobserved beauty of the moon in the afternoon:

Nobody looks at the moon in the afternoon, and this is the moment when it should most require our attention, since its existence is still in doubt. It is a whitish shadow that surfaces from the intense blue of the sky, charged with solar light; who can assure us that, once again, it will succeed in assuming a form and glow? It is so fragile and pale and slender, only on one side does it begin to assume a distinct outline like the arc of a sickle while the rest is steeped in azure. It is like a transparent wafer, or half-dissolved pastille, only here the white circle is not dissolving but condensing, collecting itself at the price of gray-bluish patches and shadows that might belong to the moon’s geography or might be spillings of the sky that still soak the satellite, porous as a sponge.[i]

Taking note of Calvino’s reflection, O’Connell does precisely this through his film, Palomar, a 16mm cinematic study of the moon during a partial solar eclipse visible in Southern California in 2014. Rather than positioning a stationary camera to film the eclipse directly, O’Connell created a unique apparatus in which a telescope performed as a camera obscura, allowing the artist to film a real time image of the eclipse as it metamorphosed through its various stages. 

The irony of course is that in observing the afternoon moon through an eclipse, we observe an inversion of the norm. We do not observe the moon (as lit by the sun) during the day, but instead its shadow as it progressively obscures the sun causing the sun to imitate the changing phases of the moon. O’Connell passes these images through a combination of filters, representing the primary colours red, blue and green, to create a moving drama whose origins though derived from nature are unashamedly mediated through the instrument of observation, the colourful shapes, the whirring, hissing and irregular clicking of the film as it feeds through the projector, the cone-shaped stream of flickering light that gives rise to an image on the wall.

The film which we see projected on the wall is of course not the eclipse, but a representation of the eclipse three times removed, first mediated by the camera obscura and then by the process of filming and colourisation, and finally by its projection onto the wall, in each case, a transposition of the electromagnetic waves that form what we experience as the light from the sun. Light travels in waves, a form of electromagnetic radiation with the impossibly unthinkable velocity of 300,000,000 metres per second.  The question of what is a wave and the relationship of waves to seeing and thus knowing is a central theme in Calvino’s Palomar which O’Connell further problematizes throughout this exhibition.We cannot look at the sun directly. Our knowledge of light is always in some sense mediated, through the sun’s illumination of other objects, such as the moon. Moreover, not all forms of looking involve light.

PALOMAR, 2015, 16mm color film print from colour 
negative printed from black and white original
Aluminium, brass and Plexi-glass looper, (2016)
Palomar, O’Connell’s film, like the novel, offers a tripartite structure through which to consider experience, beginning with the act of looking. Calvino hypothesizes three categories of experience. These are reflected in the structure of his novel which he describes as corresponding to three themes, three kinds of experience and inquiry that, in varying proportions, are present in every part of the book. Visual experience, whose object is almost always some natural form, is expressed in descriptively.  Anthropological or cultural knowledge involves, besides visual data, also language, meaning, history. This text tends to take the form of a story.  The final category involves more speculative experience, the cosmos, time, infinity, the relationship between the self and the world, the dimensions of the mind. Here we move from description and narrative into meditation.  This tripartite structure is again reflected through O’Connell’s use of the three processes: moving image in the form of film, the stationary image in the form of photography and the awaited action or speculation which takes the form of sculpture, while the three primary colours, red, green and blue reappear throughout the works.

O’Connell’s gum bichromate prints, The Eye and the Planets, employ a photographic process that engages a relationship with light, much like that of the photogram.  To create these, the artist rolled nine 3-inch balls into a chance position within the boundary of a circular hoop laid upon a stretcher coated with gum and light sensitive dichromate mixture to which he added a single pigment of green, red or blue.  This composition he then exposed to direct sunlight. After washing the canvas, he repeated this process a further two times to produce a monoprint whose indexicality, like the moon in Palomar, is dependent upon the direct trace of the object through its interference or shadow rather than its reflection of light per se.  The presentation of light here is direct, seemingly unmediated, yet again subject to accident and like Palomar’s experience of the wave, unrepeatable.

Brian O'Connell, The Eye and the Planets (2016)

The third type of knowledge may be likened to O’Connell’s sculptures, which here perform as processes, the unfolding of which the objects may only anticipate.  Again the artist alludes to the idea of the wave, this time in the form of radio waves.  Like light, radio signals comprise electromagnetic radiation which travels in waves, these waves being significantly larger than those of light.  Though outside the visible spectrum, radio waves may be rendered into images through a process known as radio interferometry using massive dishes designed to collect the radio signals, a process most often used to render visible the phenomena of the cosmos, such as galaxies, black holes and other disturbances which may not otherwise be photographed through ocular telescopes. It is these dishes which the artist creates using various materials, each a potentially operable radio wave-gathering device. 
Brian O'Connell, The World Looks at the World, 2016

The World Looks at the World, is a large dish formed of 85 individually cast coloured glass hexagonal tiles, the artist’s use of glass, a potentially transparent material, perhaps a nod to Calvino’s suggestion that the "I," the ego, is simply the window through which the world looks at the world and a humourous aside on the more traditional use of the dish. Utilising radio waves rather than light to create images, these radio signal gathering dishes pose a subtle challenge to the idea of a ‘visible’ universe, suggesting perhaps a search for knowledge that looks beyond the use of instruments. Fragmented by the burden of a plethora of individual egos, how can knowledge be possible? And even were the ego to be set aside, whose eyes then would be doing the looking? 

O’Connell’s sculpture Model of Models offers a possible trajectory.  Also a model for a radio interferometry dish, this work is composed of individual hexagonal pillars each angled so as to produce a perfectly parabolic dish arranged atop a mirror plinth. Model of Models is a capable receiver of radio waves and, if fitted with an antennae, may well one day generate images of hitherto unknown celestial phenomena. Here placed atop a mirror, the artist seems to invite reflection. At the moment, I lean over to gaze upon the radio dish, I also see myself, a reminder that however powerful the instrument through which information is mediated, it is I, the viewer, who is the final arbiter.  Palomar failed in his attempts to apprehend the world through the powerful lenses of scientific inquiry and instead returns to consider his own inner geography. His conclusion - the only true knowledge available to him is self-knowledge.

We can know nothing about what is outside us if we overlook ourselves," he thinks now. "The universe is the mirror in which we can contemplate only what we have learned to know in ourselves."[ii]

Brian O'Connell, The Model of Models, 2016

Perhaps O’Connell has himself experienced Palomar’s crisis.  For he has, through PALOMAR, taken us on a journey that, however seductive, ends not with an offer of certainty but instead returns us to a world that begins with ourselves. And when we leave the gallery and walk onto the street, however much we may seek a vision of the stars and planets navigating in silence on the parabolas and ellipses of time, like Palomar our gaze is met with scenes of the everyday, “streets full of people, hurrying, elbowing their way ahead, without looking one another in the face, among high walls, sharp and peeling. In the background, the starry sky scatters intermittent flashes like a stalled mechanism, which jerks and creaks in all its unoiled joints, outposts of an endangered universe…”[iii]

[i] Italo Calvino, Mr Palomar, trans. William Weaver (Harvest Books 1985), ‘Moon in the Afternoon’.
[ii] Ibid. ‘The Universe as Mirror’.
[iii] Ibid. 

All images courtesy the artist and Laure Genillard.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Silent Explosion: Ivor Davies and Destruction in Art, National Museum Wales, 14 November 2015–20 March 2016

by Rozemin Keshvani

Silent Explosion, currently on show at the National Museum Wales, is an ambitious exhibition of the work and life of Ivor Davies set against the backdrop of the artist’s meticulously assembled archive, the jewel of which is unquestionably Davies’ exceptional collection of materials from the 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium.  Through archive, film and creative installations, the exhibition pieces together an extraordinary series of performances and happenings staged by Davies in Edinburgh, London, Bristol and Swansea between 1966 and 1968 and explores the artist’s longstanding concern with the destruction of Welsh culture.

The first room contains a selection of the artist’s recent paintings and assemblages, providing an appreciation of the deeper ontology of destruction and transformation ever-present in Davies’ work. Certain pieces stand out, such as the relief, Yr Ysgrifen ar y Mur 1 (The Writing on the Wall 1). Davies formed this piece in 2001 after being presented with his grandfather’s gun on his death, first breaking the gun into pieces and then reassembling it on the hessian canvas, a material ubiquitous during the war.[i] The gun affixed to the top half of the canvas tears through three Welsh books, including a family Bible, as a bullet might drive itself through the spoken word, the voice of a people, or entirely obliterate a people and with it their language and culture. The Welsh Bible, a particularly poignant marker, for its role in preserving the Welsh language. The symbolism here is palpable. Yet Davies’ half empty canvas suggests an unfinished narrative, a space for the viewer, for reflection, for doubt and perhaps even contribution.

Davies is a ‘thinking’ artist. His work, passionate though it may be, unequivocally engages the intellect, establishing an aesthetic means to a Socratic process. Black lettering just visible across one corner of the canvas recalls the noted Welsh proverb taught to every Welsh schoolchild “Gorau arf, arf dysg” (The best weapon is the weapon of learning), the work thus reanimating what is perhaps now a rarefied tenant of Welsh culture.

Ivor Davies speaking on Yr Ysgrifen ar y Mur, 2001, National Museum Wales, March 2016

Throughout Davies’ works, language becomes coterminous with Welsh culture, heritage and communities. The destruction of language entails a destruction of culture whose remnants may perhaps only remain in memory. Remember! -- A dictum deeply embedded in the Welsh psyche, occupies much of the work in this first room.[ii]  Constructed from the debris of memory, ochre in their appearance, organic in their apparel, these reliefs immerse us in a space resonating with lost voices and fragmented recollections. Torn pages from a book, damaged instruments, aged and broken string, rusting tools, a human skull, archaic cottage keys, stained newsprint, fading photographs and even food crumbs, liquids and broken egg shells are continually layered to deepen liminal space, triggering lost memories and providing glimpses into past events.

The role of memory is again addressed in Ysgrifen ar y Mur II, 2001, a multimedia work that uses oil, cement, egg tempera, photographs, books, string and debris to depict a significant act of resistance in Welsh history through an act of graffiti.[iii]  JG Williams, a conscientious objector during World War II, was among several people who refused to take up arms. In 1939, Williams did not attend his physical, painting the words “Ymwrthyd Cymru â rhyfeloedd Lloegr” (Wales rejects England’s wars) on the walls of a ruined chapel Moriah in Llanystumdwy.[iv]  His subsequent imprisonment (during which time he was denied a copy of the Welsh Bible) laid the foundation for nationalism in Wales.  The message though covered with cement, with time has reappeared, the past reasserting its presence.[v]  In Davies depiction of the chapel, an overturned organ can be seen through one window, while in another the newsprint image of the jurors is overlaid with string to which is attached bag of chalk with an invitation to viewers to add to the graffiti to the work. Engaging the viewer in this way transforms both work and viewer. The viewer is empowered through realising the power of graffiti, the viewer’s own act of graffiti reaching into and merging with the past action of these original conscientious objectors.  Simultaneous with this transformation then is a transformation in the work itself which now takes on the role of an archive, acting as a portal, connecting acts of past resistance with present circumstances.  Memory thus becomes both action and archive.

Ivor-Davies-Ysgrifen-ar-y-Mur II-2001-installation-view-National-Museum-Wales-March-2016
Ivor Davies, Ysgrifen ar y Mur II, 2001, installation view National Museum Wales, March 2016

Perhaps the exhibition’s greatest achievement is the multiple ways in which it presents an interpretation of Davies work through the prism of the archive, combining the canon of documentation, film and sound using traditional stand-alone vitrines, wall mountings, screens and monitors with more radical and creative forms of presentation that might properly be described as ‘performative installation’.

The installation revisiting Davies’ 1968 Swansea performance piece, Adam on St Agnes Eve, highlights the artist's pioneering work to establish a creative and transformational form of performance art, one which was capable of transforming the participants themselves. Here the performers themselves engage in a process which investigates the act of looking, challenging ideals of the human body within art and anatomy, and the more invidious and continued instrumentalisation of the human anatomical form. Using archival footage and ephemera, together with sound and voice-overs, Davies and co-curators Nicholas Thornton and Judit Bodor have choreographed a creative intermedia installation that performs as a ‘total artwork’. The archive thus becomes a tool through which ‘to blur the boundaries between history and mythology’.[vi]

Relics from the original performance combine with new material to offer insight into an experience of the original piece that is at once emotive and immediate, yet contextualised as an event which took place in the past.  Resting on wire plinths are two human size rectangular boxes first used in Davies' performance work Still Life Story, 1967, suggesting male and female archetypes, the female figure layered with magazine cut-out lips, the male a panoply of eyes, while opposite sits a piano on which another visitor to the exhibition is playing.  Plain white cardboard constructions resembling rectangular mannequins occupy the room. Together with the roaming visitor, they form an ever-changing topology, receiving and interrupting the projections of archival footage from the actual performance of Adam on St Agnes Eve to create an expanded cinema installation in which the viewer once again becomes a performer in the work.

Adam on St Agnes Eve, partial installation view, Silent Explosion, National Museum Wales, March 2016.

The penultimate rooms of the exhibition re-engage memory yet again, but this time through the phenomenon of collecting in which Davies' extensive archive of the Destruction in Art Symposium takes centre stage, occupying the better part of the second floor of the exhibition. For the archivist and student of DIAS, this exhibition is unmissable, making available to the public, for the first time, countless treasures of documentation, photographs, records, correspondence and other ephemera. The final room allows us a privileged view into the artist's own memories, offering a deeper understanding of the man and the artist, for here we see childhood paintings and other works of juvenelia depicting the artist's most personal encounters with destruction during the Second World War as a child.

Silent Explosion is most certainly an exhibition that will be remembered as standing out from the crowd. An explosion it may well be. Silent it most certainly is not.

[i] Stephen Bahn, 'Paths of Experiment in the Art of the 1960s', Burnt Poetry: Ivor Davies and Destruction/ Creation in Art and Word, Conference, Cardiff University (26-28 February 2016).
[ii]  "Cofiwch Dryweryn" being an example of this dictum.
[iii] For insightful discussions on these works, see Andrew Wilson, 'Engaging Thought and Action: Notes on the Work of Ivor Davies', Silent Explosion: Ivor Davies and Destruction in Art (Occasional Papers, 2016).
[v] ‘Arddangoswr:Ifor Davies’, BBC Wales eistedsfod celf achrefft 2002.
[vi] Judit Bodor, 'Silent Explosion: the Making of an Exhibition', Silent Explosion: Ivor Davies and Destruction in Art.

All images courtesy the artist and the National Museum Wales.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Stuart Brisley, Drawn 2016, DRAF Studio, David Roberts Foundation, 2 - 5 March

by Rozemin Keshvani

As the European Union increasingly faces defection and dismantling, Stuart Brisley’s recent performance based on the Greek myth of Procrustes doubles as an artwork on the implications of Modernity and a parable on the politics of globalisation and the suppression of difference. I enter the DRAF studio on Day 3 of Brisely’s 4 day performance.

The room is filled with a marginalised violence, the floor littered with the memories of physical violations. Large sheets of brown parcel paper mostly crumpled, some packed into lugubrious misshapen balls, limbless anthropomorphic forms. Brown cardboard packaging of various sizes in various moments of opened iterations cover the floor scattered about with erratic frustration. Rolls of plastic cling wrap stand propped against the wall. Strings formed from twisted plastic, like bloodless veins, crisscross the room. The floor no longer a surface but instead a living topology, corrugated, undulating, layered, adopting the language of a Burri canvas.

Stuart Brisely, DRAWN, 2016,
Photo: Maya Balcioglu
This umber palette. Browns, blacks, ochres. A rotting banana on the floor, its striking yellow blackened by time and the repeated mutilation of Brisley’s careless footsteps.  Two step ladders, a number of black chairs, long narrow tables and a long mirror, six feet perhaps, occupy the space. Each is for me a symbol with meaning, each an object containing a universe of meaning. Brisely occupies this landscape as his alter ego, Rosse Yael Sirbhis. We are told -- ‘Sirb. responds to the environment, viewers and a selection of domestic furniture props, chairs, tables, a mirror and wrapping materials are subjected to improvised precarious balancing acts and destruction, referencing the violent myth of Procrustes.’[i]

An ancient Greek story tells about a half-god, half-human being named Procrustes who way-laid travellers on the road to present-day Athens and forced them to lie down in his iron bed... Once travellers lay down on the bed, Procrustes made them fit it. If the person was too long and hung off the end of the bed, he whacked their legs off with an axe. If the person was too short and did not fill the bed, he put them on a rack and tore their joints apart to stretch them out appropriately.[ii]

Brisely stands pocket knife in hand. His mind focused on the looming task. The knife fits easily into his pocket. He handles it as if he has carried it forever. The memory of this knife slicing deep into the caverns left by previous works, influencing, affecting, ordaining his now carefully placed cuts. One hand holds the knife; the other unrolls a large roll of brown parcel paper. With a glance he measures then cuts off a sheet. He drapes himself in this sheet, then removes it. Wraps it now around a black chair. An action that creates a brief terra di ombra.  The chair struggles against accepting its role as armature to this apparel, the paper falls away. Brisely seems untroubled.
Stuart Brisely, DRAWN, 2016, Day 3
Photo: Maya Balcioglu
Trudging on, he unrolls and cuts more paper, stabbing Fontana-like punctures, gashing the fabric, inflicting multiple wounds. Folding it half, he places the sheet over a shirt hanging from a piece of white parcel string tied to the wooden rafter beam. It floats ghost-like. More cuts to the bottom of the sheet, torn now to form two diamond shapes which hang at the bottom edge. Almost a figure now, it dances mournfully, a forlorn sail lost in a gentle breeze.

Two large black square moving palettes occupy one end of the long rectangular studio. Atop a third smaller pallet stands a chair with an effigy of what appears a body swaddled in brown paper. This one Brisley moves by kicking it along the floor. He lifts the chair and carries is back to the wall. More paper is unrolled. I am uneasy. There is something threatening in his quiet determination. I sense he may set the room on fire, the paper and cardboard becoming willing conspirators, kindling, for a destruction that is certain to come.

Brisley approaches a table, sits in a chair. In his hands he holds a white triangular block which he places upright on the table top and begins to rub along the table’s surface, polishing the table, round and round, both arms working in a clockwise circular motion. Brisley, his back to us, summons from his body an ache that slowly penetrates the room. Drawn from deep within, this throaty low guttural wormwood-like lament occupies a space somewhere between groaning, hissing and gurgling. It is the moan of death itself that becomes more and more exposed. It is vile. A suppressed scream, a cry perhaps before marching to the certain death of a futile battle. It seems to seep through and from his body, unanimous with the surrounding debris, yet emanating from deep within the body, his body, every body. Brisley suddenly smacks the block against the table with both hands. Once, twice and again. Stillness. He pushes against the table with his hands, pushes the chair backwards and away from the table, a grating sound, wood scraping against the floor, pushing back further and further until his fingertips can no longer reach the table. Still he pushes back and back, his hands repelling the now distant table, his feet providing leverage against the floor. He begins to clap his hands against his lap, methodically counting time, like the constant drip of water from a forgotten tap, louder and more pronounced in the otherwise eerie silence.

Brisley slowly rises. He gradually makes his way across the room. From somewhere he picks up a saw. Walks back to the centre and lifts a long table top, begins to saw into the table top to reveal an inner core of hexagon formations, the familiar geodesic layers of the honeycomb now giving this table its inner strength. Yet another piece is sawn off.

Sounds, so many sounds, a harmonics of ordinary objects, each discrete, distinct, yet together forming a narrative of crumpling, rustling, scraping, cutting, stabbing, brushing, rubbing, shifting and sawing of material, the sounds of concerted work, of a room being made and unmade, of objects in transition toward their eventual destruction.

Brisley stands, toying, flirting with the scene before him.  Searching for something, combing the landscape, he picks up a torn sleeve from the floor and rolls it over his forearm. Chairs everywhere, the ubiquitous straight back chair. How many times have similar chairs occupied the space of the gallery? What unavoidable meanings, what art-historical discourses are brought into the performance space through this black chair? Now implicated somehow, this conceptual chair, this modular chair, this throne chair, offers itself up for ruin. The word ‘Stefan’, set out in large black typeface on cardboard packaging jumbled across the floor. Modular furniture, a unification of art and industrial design, the ultimate gift of Bauhaus modernism. Brisley begins carefully placing chairs upon a recently constructed trestle table. One at a time, the first with its back toward us, the next reversing this position. Three chairs now sit equidistant upon the table. Lifting a recently sawn and damaged table top, he balances this misshapen rectangle atop the chairs to form a perilous structure, which he then crowns by a final stratum of black chairs in various states of breakage. We are left to ponder over it, its presence hanging on the edge of some imminent act of creative destruction.

Brisley walks to his leather jacket, also hanging from a string attached to a ceiling beam, the knife again appearing in Brisely’s hand, instrument of precision, more incisions in the jacket. They act as records, markers of the passage of time, markers of action, records of mutilation. Knife returned to pocket, he marches slowly across the room to collect a large roll of plastic wrap, skilfully unrolling and cutting the plastic wrap. Every action suggestive of the surgeon’s precision.  Brisley applies the plastic wrap to a three-legged chair on which is seated an anthropomorphic ball of scrunched parcel paper. One leg of the chair suggestively torn off at its knee. The wrapping seems to form an ineffectual bandage.

Stuart Brisely, DRAWN, 2016, Day 2
Photo: Maya Balcioglu
Knife still in hand, pacing across the room, collecting his nightgown from the floor, constructs a hanger from cardboard and string and ties it to another ceiling beam. Housekeeping, tidying, he kicks paper and rubbish to form a pile toward the back of the room, hidden away from the action, away from us, the audience participants. He removes the remains of plastic wrap tied to a long step ladder, cutting it away with swift steady motions, absolving the ladder of its participation in past events. An act of clearing, replacing tools, cleaning.

Picks up the wrapped chair and places it upon a small square pallet with wheels to which he has tied a long rope made of wretchedly twisted plastic wrap. Pulling on this rope, he drags pallet and chair to the far end of the room, drawing again and again upon the plastic rope, finally abandoning the palette.

More plastic wrap is slowly unrolled. Brisley twists and twists the plastic to form new ropes which he cuts with his knife. Ties this rope to the step long ladder and begins again to pull, gradually centimetre by centimetre, dragging the ladder on a reluctant crusade through the cardboard landscape. It is drawn, bitterly drawn toward the action, inexorably drawn, it struggles to move against the onslaught of debris until eventually it crashes to the floor.  Now prostrate, the step ladder, a grudging participant in a reified yet interconnected ontology. Jacob’s ladder. Wittgenstein’s ladder. Led Zepplin’s ladder. The builder’s ladder.

Brisley walks away, now seeming less secure, seeming somehow more weary, walking appearing as a struggle. Lifting table top from the floor, it becomes a burden he carries and places against the now fallen ladder, balancing between ladder and the floor. The table top crashes to the floor. Brisley winds paper and plastic rope on his head. Both fall away. Brisley collects this with both hands and squeezes, packs, squeezes, rolls it up into a ball, dragging it to the table. Now walking to the far wall, the artist picks up the long mirror, carries it lengthwise, combing the circumference of the room, causing the mirror to reflect each one of us, for us and for others, Brisley’s ritual interrupted by an unexpected act of self-awareness, then replaces the mirror against the wall.

The performance is the total space. No sound extraneous. Brisely says nothing. Yet I hear his voice and in his voice, the echoes of other voices. Vito Acconci, Thomas Schmidt, Alberto Burri, Joseph Kosuth, Lucio Fontana, Jackson Pollack. I can’t avoid hearing them. The past flows in through Brisely’s body, informing this present struggle.  There is violence here, supressed violence and organised violence too.

Brisley now returns to the three-tiered structure of tables and chairs. Taking hold of the plastic rope he tied to the large square palette, he begins pulling the palette carefully toward the structure. The palette now pressing itself against the trestle legs, the strain slowly imperceptibly forcing the structure to take on a new form. Objects begin turning, moving, finding new balances among each other, continually re-establishing their delicate equilibrium, chairs appearing to hang in mid-air, supported by an arm here, a leg precariously balanced against a broken back rest. Brisley now drawing on the rope of the fallen ladder; the objects continue in unplanned motion, igniting a slowly evolving transition toward destruction. Objects flying, smashing, an explosion of sound, collisions crash, striking the ground, toppling over one another. A table top hurtles toward me. The woman next to me shocked immobile, debris at the edge of her feet.  The falling has ended. All collapses into a quiet stillness. Brisley walks toward her – ‘are you okay’ he gently asks. There is danger here, danger in this process, danger, uncertainty and destruction, but it brings exhilaration too, catharsis and finally release, someone’s tears staining my face.
Stuart Brisley, DRAWN, 2016, Day 1
Photo: Maya Balcioglu

One table top has landed at a precarious angle half pivoted against the damaged trestle legs, the other half against the floor balances atop debris. Brisley reunites himself to his work, struggles to spread himself upon this table, lies upon it as if it were a bed but his body cannot remain in this position. He is slipping, sliding, he rolls, rolls and tumbles among the wreckage. Bas Jan Adder rolling off a building. The bed of Procrustes, it seems now broken. Brisley lifts himself up and walks toward the mirror leaning against the wall, picks it up, turns it lengthwise and faces it toward us, navigating the perimeter of the room. We see ourselves now no longer participants. Self-awareness replaces immersion. The body somehow transfigured. A renewal of self-consciousness. He returns the mirror to the wall and recommences his action.

[i] Exhibition leaflet, ‘Stuart Brisley, Drawn 2016’, Wed 2-Sat 5 Mar 2106, 12-6pm, DRAFStudio.
[ii] Dawn Hill Adams, Assessment as Acculturation: Procrustes in the Land Between the Mountain and the Sea.Vol. 1, No. 2, May 2015 http://tapestryinstitute.org/occasional-papers/assessment-as-acculturation-vol-1-no-2-may-2015/.