Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Language reality and image

The artist is the opposite of the politically minded individual, the opposite of the reformer, the opposite of the idealist. The artist does not tinker with the universe, he recreates it out of his own experience and understanding of life. ~Henry Miller

The big question for those researching the languages of representing reality is why do some suggest that the motivations behind art and science represent conflicting impulses, while others see the two approaches as integrally related? Model-making is an essential feature of all human thinking and applies to obtaining both a scientific and an artistic understanding of the world. In both activities, the "abstraction ladder," leads from observations of a material reality to simpler models made visible using the 'languages' of numbers, diagrams, poetic descriptions and pictures. Through abstraction, art as picture making today is becoming increasingly complex and referential; aspects of culture and our ecological identity are constantly being brought to together, by either implication or association, in landscape. The conjunction of these processes in the work of Susi Bellamy, implies a new way of cross-discipline thinking, which needs clarification through the critiques of artists and/or scientists if none is provided by the artist herself.

As soon as a person starts to think she starts to criticize. Human nature is inclined to comparison and discussion, particularly now that we live in an age when the public have come to expect the artist to constantly review her relationship with images. This is usually achieved using abstract forms. The objective is to create a personal language for articulating a sharper reality of relationships between people, environment and the psyche. Explanation of a work of art involves discovering a meaning and its significance to the human condition. An important part of the critics' role is to discover and write about the intended and perceived meanings the work may have for the viewer. This is particularly important when reviewing Susi Bellamy's work because she has been for the past two decades always in the territory of experimentation. There she has engaged with research into pictorial representation aimed at the blurring of direct human references in order to reconstruct a more thoughtful relationship between people's inner and outer worlds.

From time to time she has immersed herself in the skills of representational art to create traditional still life and portraits. But her real motivation has been to apply old master techniques and palettes to create abstract metaphors of topographical mindfulness. In this endeavour she grapples with the historical procession of art in order to re-conceive, experience and revise it as a personal language.

Since the 17th century exotic shells were a favourite item in still life paintings, often in combination with large bouquets of flowers. Many would say that Susi Bellamy has picked up this historical thread of realism to explore the way randomness and precision, which come together in shell pigmentation, may give rise to pleasing patterns.
Every artist has to find a way of describing the inner truth of things. This is the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its subjective uniqueness and differentiates it from other things. Then there comes the definition of a route to transmit it as a mental wholeness to others in the hope that it will be seen as more than a pleasing image. The term 'inscape' was invented by the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, to describe inner truths of things in conjunction with the term "instress." By "inscape" he means the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things, and by "instress" he means either the force of being which holds the inscape together or the impulse from the inscape which carries it whole into the mind of the beholder. He also uses the term to mean ‘the stress within’, the force which binds something or a person into a unit.
It is possible to trace Hopkins’ ideas on the nature of perception to his early encounter in 1872 with the writings of the medieval author, John Duns Scotus (c.1265-1308). Scotus was a Franciscan friar born in Duns, in the Scottish borders, and studied and taught at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Paris. He, in turn, had taken the germ of the ideas from Peter Lombard's ‘Sentences’. Peter Lombard was an Italian theologian (c.1100-c.1160-64) who wrote his book of 'sentences' in about 1150. Arranged in four parts, it discusses all aspects of theological doctrine systematically in a long series of questions. A key phrase in Scotus which seems to have been developed by Hopkins was:

‘By grasping just what things are of themselves, a person separates the essences from the many additional incidental features associated with them in the sense image… and sees what is true… as a more universal truth.’

We can take from Hopkins the essence of probing a divide between descriptive science and spirituality. For example, on 13 August 1874 he wrote;

‘ The laps of running foam striking the sea-wall double on themselves and return in nearly the same order and shape in which they came. This is mechanical reflection and is the same as optical: indeed all nature is mechanaical, but then it is not seen that mechanics contain that which is beyond mechanics’

Modern neuropsychology is investigating these two aspects of seeing and communicating because it is at the heart of both our feelings of 'belonging' and 'alienation'. In the poem "Ad Marian," Hopkins impersonates the inscape of the month of May in a pre-Christan spirtitual setting as Spring's daughter. In so doing, we see the inscape as an archetype of the Mother of all humankind, who is as vital "as Dew unto grass and tree." The poems remind us that the female principle of fecundity is ever present in the landscape. It is significant therefore that Susi Bellamy during a period of residence in Italy came to focus on the re-construction of 13th and 14th century icons of the Madonna. Her starting point was the extensive collection of Madonnas in the Venice Accademia Galleries, where they are stranded high and dry from the sea of faith which produced them seven centuries ago. What she has produced are powerful and disturbing contemporary icons of motherhood in which the naturalistic facial features of Mary and her child are enfolded in a complex expanded decorative collaged cosmos. Their instress emphasises the truth that a noisy unruly world can't take away the persona and its relationships with the processes of nature. They are most essential for each of us. These Madonna inscapes should be reassuring to anyone in the midst of a world of trivial productions that is threatening to remove what is most essential to their individuality.
Susi's choice to manipulate a powerful Christian icon is not the beginnings of cultural disavowal but an attempt to make visible and readable what for most people in the West has become withheld from comprehension and symbolisation. She has made the surfaces of the paintings visibly deeper and each Madonna is the equivalent of a mental 'big bang'.

The decorative random, yet ordered, matrix constructed from mass-produced paper patterns produces a deep cosmic depth in which many narratives are possible in the mind of the viewer. Her pictures, like the works that led up to them, are really toolkits for meditation on our affair with consumerism, which today pervades everything we are.

Every day, we move through landscapes that are the historical results of local economic processes of programmed randomness. Susi began painting on the premise that there are many ways to combine abstract language with the stylistic forms of figurative painting to reveal intermediate hidden truths of mental picturing. This is evident in her many 'halfway away/half way back' effects, which are the outcomes of moving up and down the ladder of abstraction on a quest to capture and transmit more than is visible to the naked eye. This has involved the controlled use of randomness to enable works to form freely. The Madonna pictures came after a period when she was engaged in producing formless but dynamic 'plasmas' which explored combining chaos and order of liquid paint on tilted canvas. In the end, order prevailed in which areas of colour were arranged like rows of classified rocks and vibrant microcosms constrained within golden ribbons. The Madonnas and their characteristic colour palette seem to emerge from the end point of this phase where entities coalesced like technicoloured polished sections cut through meteorites.
This emphasises that Susi's consistent probing approach to reveal inscapes has been based on the adoption of a distinctive, vibrant palette echoing the false digitised colours used by astronomers to delineate the complexity of galaxies and the birth and death of stars. In this respect, they are miniature expressions of cosmic thinking. Another development of randomness-with-order, was her printmaking carried out in the Florentine print workshops, which served Picasso and Henry Moore. In these experiments rows of darker, angular, horizontal structures divide up a landscape format, like inscribed stone walls. These are inscapes where the instress could focus on compartmentation as symbolising either 'belonging' or 'exclusion'.
Regarding the expressive power of her work, an ambiguity of meaning is one of its most definitive characteristics. At one time you may imagine you are looking at a section of Hadrian's Wall in the empty Northumbrian landscape. Another time, the same picture may appear as a piece of crumpled patterned fabric. A jagged mass of blue might be a transient break in a threatening sky implying a forthcoming natural disaster, whereas its incidental feature was the surface of a lighted swimming pool overlooking a deep Tuscan valley in twilight. Here, as in most of her work, Susi literally harnesses randomness and makes it operate on the entities selected for exploration. Many people like her paintings, probably because, as just another species, and the result of natural selection, we seem to gladly embrace fractal and chaotic structures and work on them to discern some kind of order. In the ever-threatening world in which our biological evolution occurred, such behaviour would confer a survival advantage by reinforcing a sense of place.
With her early background in fashion journalism it was inevitable that Susi would become interested in the relationship between the frame and the picture. In contemplating a picture, the frame is generally taken for granted. It is a fait accompli, and most of us may be unaware of how powerfully the frame can influence our perception and enjoyment of the picture within. It was in Florence that she studied the classical proportions, abstracted sculptural ornament and muted patina of Renaissance and Baroque frames. Florentine frame-making is part and parcel of the family histories of master carpenters who still ply a trade as old as the Madonna icons.
The marriage of picture and frame may be harmonious or discordant, enhancing or depressing, or somewhere in between. In Susi’s view, most private and public collections contain pictures the true impact of which has been compromised by their frames - often in an insidious way - for decades or even centuries. Susi is adamant that the artist should devote much thought to the way a frame can enhance the 'performance' of an image. Her frames possess a timeless quality, not necessarily related to a specific period of interior decoration.
In all her works, Susi has produced modern icons for meditation on the birthing moments we all have when suddenly becoming aware of a new arrangement of the natural or built environment. This is a pointer to the fact that for many modern artists the instress of human adaptation to environment is a steady process of being at one with the physical laws of the universe and the random events they produce. Humanity is not the one-off supernatural project of an omniscient being.

The opening up of windows on non-religious spirituality happened for Susi Bellamy when she gave up strict control over the application of paint with a brush to dribble and paste directly onto the canvas. The actual shapes, patterns and textures were largely determined by the random dynamics of the material and her process: the viscosity of the paint and the speed and direction of its flow on the canvas. An important random factor in the making of Madonnas was the availability of commercial patterned papers. This is simply to say that throughout her career Susi has been firmly in the territory of artistic experimentation, intent on making various kinds of paintings as alternative solutions of equal worth rather than attesting to a life-long process of relentless technical development. Her consistent aim has been to render visible 'inner' or 'immaterial' phenomena. In this respect, she sits firmly at the forefront of part of the contemporary art scene, which is a play of language, reality and image. As art and science continue to bump up against each other, new images are constantly required to express new models of reality and Susi's diversity of artistic style becomes a deliberate stylistic principle of cross-disciplinary research.