Palingenesis, and the Art of Everythingism

Two important exhibitions in London last weekend: Natalia Goncharova Retrospective at Tate Modern, and Lee Krasner: Living Colour at Barbican.

In Goncharova’s famous painting, The Cyclist, the figure is willfully heading in the opposite direction to that indicated by the pointing authoritarian finger.

It suitably sums up Goncharova’s spirit. A leading figure of the new avant-garde art scene in Russia, she defied convention at every turn.

The Cyclist (1912-13), with its Futurist devices of depicting time and speed with multiple outlines, challenged the Italian Futurists obsession with machines by choosing a more peaceful mode of transport, a bicycle.

 

Born in 1881, the same year as Picasso, Natalia Goncharova was a generation older than Lee Krasner, with origins very different to that of Krasner’s Jewish parentage.  From a family of impoverished aristocrats, Goncharova learned about the lives and traditions of the peasants who lived on the family estate, which was to become a great influence on her work.

The first modern artist to have a retrospective exhibition in Russia, Goncharova had previously been charged with obscenity and had her paintings confiscated for daring to paint the female nude so explicitly.

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The breadth of her work is astonishing. Painter, printmaker, fashion and set designer, she also embraced and initiated art forms such as Rayonism. To indicate the diverse range of her work,  life-long partner, Mikhail Larionov coined the term ‘everythingism’.

She was one of the first Russian artists to perceive and value the high artistic merits of Russian national creativity, and some wonderful samples are shown in the exhibition. In Round Dance, 1910, for example, the artist imitates peasant woodcuts in paint. She portrays the peasants with faces like in icons, which has the effect of a attributing to them a saintly status.  She explained that ‘the need to go back to these naive forms of art, is necessary to find new forms’.

Natalia-Goncharova-Round-dance       goncharova

Folk art is not refined. But it is sincere, revealing the instinct of the tribe/community, the people unconsciously preserving the treasure of these primal concerns. Goncharova recognised this. She also recognized the power of folk tales and mythology, and her ground-breaking sets and costumes for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel (1914), produced by Diaghilev as a part of the famous Saisons Russes in Paris, are based on the Old Believer lubki’s subjects and colour palette as well.

I got the sense that Lee Krasner (1908-84) was just as determined, radical and brave. She also refused to develop a ‘signature image’;  being restless like Goncharova, she continued to experiment with different styles and forms throughout her life. It was most important to her that her paintings emerged authentically from within.

“I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point.”

The show at the Barbican gives a rich overview of her life and career from early self-portraits and life drawing, showing a progression into the abstract expressionist works for which she is known.

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Siren, 1966

I was particularly interested in the ‘hieroglyphic’ images and her abstract alphabets, what she called her “mysterious writings”. They reminded me of Mark Tobey’s ‘white writing’ paintings:  dense, rhythmic nets of black paint over multicolor backgrounds or meticulously over-written in white like sacred scripts.

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It was after her husband died and she was able to work in the barn space that she really found her artistic identity. Here she could work on an unprecedented scale, tacking lengths of canvas directly to the wall. She then produced her ‘Night Journeys’ series of paintings, made during chronic insomnia using organic, umber tones because she didn’t like using colour in artificial light.

Vibrant colours returned some years later in a shift from soft, biomorphic shapes to more hard-edged abstract forms. Palingenesis, titled after the Greek word for re-birth was something Krasner considered fundamental for her practice.

“Evolution, growth and change go on. Change is life.”

Lee Krasner Palingenesis, 1971 Pollock Krasner Foundation_0

Palingenesis, 1971 by Lee Krasner

In another act of metamorphosis, she tore up work she wasn’t happy with and created astonishing collages from the fragments.

Burning Candles, Desert Moon, and Bald Eagle collages by Lee Krasner.

 

“Painting is a revelation, an act of love…as a painter I can’t experience it any other way.”

lee krasner painting portrait in green in her studio 1969

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Artists Apart

Two exhibitions in Swansea this weekend: Sarah Poland who has a residency in GS Gallery, and Frances Richards at the Glynn Vivian.

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Sarah Poland’s mark making using inks made from oak galls has a zen-like quality. I love how she combines this with photographic images she calls ‘moon-drawings’, made by using a long exposure on full-moon nights in the woods.

Oak Gall Ink – nick-named Ink of poets and Kings – is a very expensive, beautiful, indelible black ink. But for me, the process from start to finish, from gathering the oak galls in an ancient woodland in west Wales, to making the ink, to using it in my work is an important process in the work. At the very least because I can control and play with the viscosity and texture of the material. The work is about exploring drawing through making and using oak gall ink as much as it is about the place and the experience of where they were found. I am working it on paper, canvas and gesso panel.

-Sarah Poland

Moon drawings and oak gall ink.

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Sarah Poland with work made during the residency

Frances Richards: An Artist Apart at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery – 15 June – 1 September 2019, concentrates on this visionary artist’s  embroidery collages, drawings and monotypes, executed during the war and previously unseen until now, as well as the figurative and flower paintings of her later years.

Richards studied at the Royal College of Art from 1924 to 1927, specialising in tempera and fresco painting. She admired the early Italian renaissance painters Giotto, Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico; the British artists Samuel Palmer, William Blake and David Jones; and the poetry of the Psalms, the Song of Solomon, George Herbert and Arthur Rimbaud. On display at the GV gallery is the collection of her Les Illuminations – illustrations to prose poems by Arthur Rimbaud lithographs.

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Dawn
1973–5

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Bottom
1973–5

Bottom 1973-5 by Frances Richards 1903-1985

Bottom
1973–5

An Artist Apart highlights the perspective of a hugely gifted female artist and how she responded to the dark mood of wartime Britain.

 

 

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Frances Richards, On Being Alone, 1963, Watercolour on board

 

New Work

I have been revisiting Max Ernst’s work, specifically his frottage, grattage and coulage techniques that prioritised automatism. Using his grattage (scraping) technique, Ernst covered his canvases completely with pattern and then interpreted the images that emerged, thus allowing texture to suggest composition in a spontaneous fashion. In The Forest the artist probably placed the canvas over a rough surface (perhaps wood), scraped oil paint over the canvas, and then rubbed, scraped, and overpainted the area of the trees.

The subject of a dense forest appears often in Ernst’s work of the late twenties and early thirties. These canvases, of which The Quiet Forest, 1927, is another example, generally contain a wall of trees, a solar disk, and an apparition of a bird hovering amid the foliage.

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Birth of a Galaxy, 1969. Max Ernst

 

 

Max Ernst, Silence Through the Ages, 1968

Silence through the Ages 1968

 

 

 

 

 

 

Max Ernst

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Moon in a Bottle

 

 

Max Ernst (German, 1891-1976) Demain (Painted in 1962)

       Max Ernst (German, 1891-1976) Violette Sonne

 

 

 

 

 

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Working on the back of a tile, building up texture, using scraffitio technique to scrape layers of paint about. I never know what the composition is going to be. It goes through many transformations and sometimes will not reach a resting point and I must begin again after hours of work.

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Landscape with Sun

 

Painting the Tiles

This year, the fabulous Made in Roath festival have received funding from the Welsh Arts Council, and invited artists to apply to run workshops or exhibitions throughout the festival. I decided to expand on the theme of my last year’s workshop, using one of Picasso’s quotes: ‘To draw, you must close your eyes and sing,’ as a way to encourage visitors to overcome inhibitions about painting and drawing.

I will be using the backs of old carpet tiles that were in my studio when I moved in, as, when primed with emulsion, they make ideal painting surfaces. So that is what myself and a fellow artist have been doing in preparation for the big weekend of 21/22 October. We will be inviting visitors to take a tile and paint it with eyes closed while singing. We are hoping to create a colourful Art Path around the space, continuing outside into the community.

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Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist

I first came across this artist at Tate Modern in 2013, surprised that this was the first exhibition there dedicated to African Modernism. Ibrahim El-Salahi has recently had a solo exhibition at the Ashmolean, Oxford where he now lives.

Ibrahim El-Salahi, ‘Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I’ 1961–5

I stood in front of this 8 foot square painting: Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I

(1961–5) for a long time, entranced by the otherworldly beings that coalesced into a haunting, multi-layered composition. It reminded me of elements of abstract expressionists and surrealists I admired, but with a potent style of its own. There seemed to be an integration of Islamic, African, Arab and Western artistic traditions, with the utilization of spaces and forms in Arabic calligraphy that I read were woven into memories of El-Salahi’s childhood in Sudan where his father ran a Qur’anic school in his house.

Interestingly, working closer with text brought a breakthrough for El-Salahi. As he began breaking down the letters to find what gave them meaning, animal forms, human forms and plant forms began to emerge from the once-abstract symbols. “That was when I really started working. Images just came, as though I was doing it with a spirit I didn’t know I had,” he says.

An early work, exhibited at the Ashmolean, represents the time when the artist was finding his own visual narrative, developing his own artistic identity. In Untitled, 1957 (below), he paints his own face, influenced by abstract writing and African and European visual culture, continuing to develop this style in his 1961 portrait  Self-Portrait of Suffering.

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                                                                                                     Self-Portrait of Suffering,1961

Other figures in El-Salahi’s works come into existence through an intuitive artistic process relating to the artist’s inner self rather than the outer world, the faces suggesting a spiritual dimension where human existence is linked to a world of dreams and meditations.

 

Pen and ink drawings on watercolour paper.

Meditative drawings that El-Salahi has made on envelopes and medicine packets when suffering from physical pain.

 

In the Oxford exhibition, El-Salahi’s works are placed in dialogue with specially selected ancient Sudanese objects from the Ashmolean’s collection that reflect El-Salahi’s use of rich earthy tones, a conscious attempt to create a Sudanese aesthetic.  Examples of pottery, decorated with images of the people, plants and animals of the region, were chosen together with the artist.

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                          ‘Untitled’, Ibrahim El-Salahi, 1967                ‘No shade but his shade’, 1968

The exhibition also featured works from El-Salahi’s Tree Series, the tree being a major motif in his work. He became interested in the haraz tree, an acacia indigenous to Sudan that grows in the Nile valley, when exploring the nomadic nature of Sudanese identity. The haraz becomes a symbol of the Sudanese and their resilience. It is uniquely contradictory, remaining leafless and bare during the rainy season and being the only plant that blossoms in the dry season. El-Salahi uses the tree metaphorically as a link between heaven and earth, creator and created.

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https://www.ashmolean.org/event/ibrahim-el-salahi-a-sudanese-artist-in-oxford

Exhibition: Pioneering Abstract Artists

The exhibition Surface Work (11 April – 16 June 2018 at the Victoria Miro, Mayfair) was a rich feast, with abstract work by more than 50 artists, all women, from five continents, spanning every decade between 1918 and 2018.

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I knew of some of the artists who have “shaped and transformed, and continue to influence and expand, the language and definition of abstract painting”: Helen Frankenthaler, Yayoi Kusama, Lee Krasner, Agnes Martin, Mira Schendel, Gillian Ayres to name a few, but the majority were new to me, and it was revelatory to ‘discover’ so many artists who had been there for years, producing fantastic work in obscurity.

The exhibition gave me the opportunity to see work I had only seen small reproductions of in books such as one of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets.  Kusama began painting the Nets in the early sixties shortly after she moved to New York, living in poverty until she began to sell work through a dealer. I love the intensity and repetition of the repeating loops that seem to expand and contract like a murmuration. There is a tension between a random and systematic aesthetic. Apparently, Kusama would paint the Nets for uninterrupted sessions of 40 to 50 hours as a way to channel and contain her mania. She has repeatedly revisited and expanded this body of work throughout her career.

 

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Infinity Net (HNBKY) made in 2012

 

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 Kusama with early ‘Infinity Net’ paintings in her New York studio, 1961

 

Also immersed in the tradition of the sublime is Loie Hollowell’s work. Link Lingam (yellow, green, blue, purple, pink) 2018, has an intriguing undulating surface that folds into the design giving it a sculptural element.

Loie Hollowell

 

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Jessica Warboys’ large canvases are ‘painted’ by the sea shifting and scattering mineral pigments into them. The coast and landscape are a source of inspiration and influence for Warboys, who draws upon pagan history and folklore in her films and performances. She had a solo exhibition at Tate St Ives recently that included Hill of Dreams, a film that draws from Welsh fantasy writer Arthur Machen’s book of the same name.

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See here for the online catalogue with overview of every artist.

 

 

Natural Abstracts

Some stunning paintings made in response to two stories from Africa today on the Children’s Art and Storytelling course that I am running at Llanover Hall Arts Centre. ‘Why the Sun and Moon Live in the Sky’ – a Nigerian folktale, and ‘The Lion’s Whisker’ – an Ethiopian Folktale.

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Elements by Jim age 9

 

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African landscape by Paddy, age 9

 

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Camouflaged Lion by Iolo, age 6

 

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Sun by Paddy, age 9

 

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Witch Doctor by George, age 7

 

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Witch Doctor Dance by Jim, age 9

 

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Elements II by Jim age 9

 

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African Landscape By George, age 7

Preliminary Drawings:

Lion, by George; Winged Lion with Horn by Paddy, Mask by Paddy, Compound of Sun and Moon for the Water by George, Sun and Water by Iolo.