Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Negative capability in portrait painting

Facing Facts, acrylic gap filler and paint, 76 x 102 cm


‘The great virtue in life is real courage that knows how to face facts and live beyond them.’
                                                           D.H. Lawrence

I have been searching for a medium that allows impasto work (registering palette knife and brush marks) but that is much cheaper than oil paints yet suited to larger, more complex works. I chose a water based acrylic gap filler used in the building industry. The locally available product that i used is called Selley's No More Gaps. This sealant is water-based and therefore mixes readily with acrylic paints on the canvas.

It's native white color does not alter acrylics colors dropped into it though they are left with a matt finish. However,  once cured, after 24 hours, it can be sealed with polymer gloss which restores color vibrance and prepares the surface prior to glazing with oils. It gives off no toxic fumes during use and so can therefore be spread in large quantities in an enclosed space. Spraying with water softens it into a white buttery slurry.

a charcoal doodle for Facing Facts
The cheapness of the material and its haptic qualities are highly conducive to experimentation, exuberance in application, and exploration in image making. The medium itself contributes significantly to the finished work, becoming an active agent in artistic practice. All this leaves one open to a form of artistic practice that is more open-ended, vague in its intended outcomes, responsive to fluxus and receptive the gifts that serendipity can bring. All of which brings to mind John Keats' notion of negative capability.

John Keats, in 1817 when writing to his brothers about poetry, in a tantalizing brief reference said in his letter:
"I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." There is no surviving record of his ever mentioning it again but it has spawned a considerable commentary over the years ever since.

Robert French, Peter Simpson and Charles Harvey of the Bristol Business School, of all places, summed up the literature on negative capability.
"Negative Capability suggests a peculiarly human capacity for ‘containment’: that is, the capacity to live with and to tolerate ambiguity and paradox, and to ‘remain content with half knowledge’ (Ward, 1963, p. 161), ‘to tolerate anxiety and fear, to stay in the place of uncertainty in order to allow for the emergence of new thoughts or perceptions’ (Eisold, 2000: 65). It implies the capacity to engage in a non-defensive way with change, without being overwhelmed by the ever-present pressure merely to react. It also indicates empathy and even a certain flexibility of character, the ability ‘to tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment’ (Hutter, 1982: 305)."

Particularly pertinent to my questing for images from the unconscious is Diana Voller's application of Keat's notion to psychoanalysis:
"Negative capability’ is the advanced ability of a person to tolerate uncertainty. This does not mean the passive uncertainty associated with ignorance or general insecurity but the active uncertainty that is to do with being without a template and yet being able to tolerate, or even relish, a sense of feeling lost. ‘Negative capability’ involves purposely submitting to being unsettled by a person, or situation, and embracing the feelings and possibilities that emerge ... In my search for clarification, a psycho-analyst I talked to described ‘negative capability’ as ‘the experience of the conscious mind in the presence of the unconscious’."

Her description of what it feels like to be in a state of negative capability is drawn from the accounts of experienced psychotherapists and is most illuminating:
"They described it as being immersed in something, feeling alert and aroused, having a sense of wondering where this is going to go, the excruciating sense of unknown-ness, shame and fraudulence at ‘not knowing’, a familiarity with the recognition that ‘this is the anxiety of not knowing’. At the same time it was also associated with playing, intuitiveness, and experienced as good fun!
No wonder we don’t communicate about it a lot outside the therapy world – shame, fraudulence, playing and fun – how can that be professional?"

This feeling of being a fraud, of floundering in the world of art ... how familiar!

In working on Facing Facts i ran the gamut of emotions. Sometimes i felt i was tapping something true in my character; other times it felt i was contriving an image. Sometimes the work felt spontaneous; other times it felt over-planned. Sometimes i really enjoyed myself and was fully absorbed; other times it was hard labour and a struggle. Sometimes i thought i knew what i wanted to say with this painting; other times i was groping blind and waiting upon the painting to tell me where it was going. Sometimes i felt like an artist; sometimes i felt a sham. I had to be content to be a state of fluxus. I had to be at ease with negative capability.

But to work with negative capability in portrait painting carries implications for me in how i conceptualize my creative practice. It colors my take on portrait painting, which is beginning to take shape as follows:
1   i feel a need for a freeing up and broadening of the definition of a the term portrait
2    i need liberation from realism and the quest for a 'likeness' for its own sake
3    i see 'painting' as process not as an object; the act of creative practice, not the product of that practice; i conceptualize painting as a verb, not a noun; i see a painting as the frozen track-marks resulting from the act of painting
4    the process of portrait painting is one of searching for personal emotional truth
5    in that sense, the work is expressive at its very root
6    freedom to search aspects of identity of the sitter apart from physical appearance
7    a greater openness to instinctive, non-rational creative processes (Surrealists)
8    a sensitization to inner emotional states during the process of painting
9    letting those inner states guide the the choice of, and especially the handling of, media
10   allowing the media to have significant agency in creative practice
11   if the emotion is true, then it is recognized by others (viewers)
12   conceptualizing painting as being an emotional communication stops the work sinking into solipsism, becoming mere self-indulgence
13    being a communication means painting to an audience, not for an audience
14    painting for an audience - for the sake of exhibition, adulation, commissions, or sales - puts static in the way of negative capability
15    for me, painting for an audience interferes with emotional integrity in the work, for the work likely becomes ever more consciously manipulative and formulaic
16   formulaic technique without emotional truth is painting without soul, it tends towards decorative illustration rather than serious art practice
17   a portrait must contain not only a truth but also a kind of beauty - it may be a seductive beauty or a terrible and dark beauty but there needs to an aesthetically satisfying load in the image or in the traces of its mark-making.

Whether i achieve these aspirations in any given work is a matter of doubt but these notions are gradually firming up into a personal 'manefesto'. (Manifestos in painting went out the window many decades ago which makes having one all the more anachronistically and archaically attractive to me).

In the meantime i always have .... negative capability!


Friday, December 9, 2011

Excursion into Fauvism

My Trickster, charcoal and oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm


My exploratory efforts with this self portrait can be seen in my previous blog post where i have discussed the thematic, autobiographical elements of this self portrait.

In this post i wish to consider artistic elements.

In my quest for expressive mark-making, i have turned to Fauvism.

Nicolas Pioch describes this brief early art movement as follows:
"French Fauvisme, style of painting that flourished in France from 1898 to 1908; it used pure, brilliant colour, applied straight from the paint tubes in an aggressive, direct manner to create a sense of an explosion on the canvas. The Fauves painted directly from nature as the Impressionists had before them, but their works were invested with a strong expressive reaction to the subjects they painted".

John MacTaggart explains that,
"Fauvism was not a formal movement with a manifesto of rules and regulations. It was more an instinctive coming together of artists who wished to express themselves by using bold colours, simplified drawing and expressive brushwork. 'Les Fauves' simply believed that colour had a spiritual quality which linked directly to your emotions and they loved to use it at the highest possible pitch".

Nicolas Pioch attributes the advent of Modernism to Fauvism:
"The advent of Modernism if often dated by the appearance of the Fauves in Paris at the Salon d'Automne in 1905. Their style of painting, using non-naturalistic colors, was one of the first avant-garde developments in European art. They greatly admired van Gogh, who said of his own work: ``Instead of trying to render what I see before me, I use color in a completely arbitrary way to express myself powerfully''. The Fauvists carried this idea further, translating their feelings into color with a rough, almost clumsy style.

The Fauvists believed absolutely in color as an emotional force ... color lost its descriptive qualities and became luminous, creating light rather than imitating it".

Fauvism was around for only a few years and was the subject of much derision at the time. It was essentially subsumed into assorted German Expressionist movements which in turn are a main influence on my artistic practice. To me, Fauvism is an inspiring early form of Expressionism.

But why have i troubled myself, and you gentle reader, with all this detail about Fauvism? Not just for the sake it but to help me stake a claim. So many people i meet, and even fellow artists here in the blogsphere, hold the tacit assumption that portraiture is about the skill of painting accurate descriptive  likenesses of sitters. The tacit assumption is that a painted portrait must bear a photographic resemblance to some particular person in form and color. One hundred and ten years ago Fauvism established how limited such expectations are. Fauvism helped Kandinsky to boldly claim, "There is no must in art, for art is free" and this is a basic premise of my art practice.

John MacTaggart  describes the technique of Matisse, the lead Fauvist of the time:
"At first glance, the apparent freedom of his style seems to deny any skill or technique, but when you begin to analyse his effective use of visual elements you start to realise that there is an instinctive sensibility at work. The key to his success in using such exaggerated colours was the realisation that he had to simplify his drawing. He understood that if he intensified the quality of colour for expressive effect, he must reduce the amount of detail used in drawing the shapes and forms of the image".

The image that i have painted has turned out to be more controlled (contrived?) than i intended.  (Hardly the automatic painting of the Surrealists as a way of tapping the Unconscious - but then, Sigmund Freud was underwhelmed by their efforts at the time). That is because as the colour intensity increased i intuitively decreased the amount of detail in the drawing. It has consequently become more iconic and symbolist than purely expressive. I have taken a particularly perverse delight in contradicting the three dimensionality of the charcoal drawing in my application of colour. So it reads a bit like an impossible figure - apt for The Trickster.

But the image lacks a looseness and freedom that i value and i am beginning to understand that my penchant for monochromes derives from the liberty they give me with form and surface.

So my next portrait (currently in progress) will aim for plastic spontaneity in materials handling. With a restricted, non-realist palette (thanks, Fauves) i hope to find expressive force in what Keats called negative capability. More on Keats and negative capability then.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

In search of my Trickster

Study for The Trickster in charcoal on canvas, 60x50cm


My previous posting, Self portrait in bitumen, was a visual exploration of my Shadow - the dark, anti-Me lurking within. The work is a sombre heavy-brown monochrome.

Trickster Explorations 1, acrylic on paper
But there are other Me's milling round down there in my unconscious; colourful, chameleon, mercurial, edgy, playful, swaggering, gaudy.

So this is a posting of preparatory drawings for a self portrait which i shall call The Trickster. I am wrestling with the image just as i am wrestling to to understand the Jungian archetype of The Trickster within myself and to articulate him to myself.

We each have our own Trickster deep down inside somewhere and i suppose he/she looks different for each of us. Maybe i'm just kidding myself that a brief imaginative exercise is really accessing mine own. A psychoanalyst would no doubt scoff. But the exploration and reflection is fun trying.

So why am i now bothering with The Trickster? Well, Helen Lock, in her scholarly article Transformations of the Trickster, believes that:

"in understanding the trickster better, we better understand ourselves, and the perhaps subconscious aspects of ourselves that respond to the trickster’s unsettling and transformative behavior."

I wouldn't claim to actually be a trickster (I have a great distaste for practical jokes for a start - they are so often premised on cruel humiliation of others). But i do accept Jung's notion that we each have buried within us a Trickster tendency that often as not breaks out at our own expense. We become the butt of our own contrary impulses.

Once we are told, "on no account press the red button", how many of us can't resist, against our better judgement? And just who is it that can't resist? Our Trickster.

Trickster Explorations 2, acrylic on paper
Timothy Sexton describes him as follows:

"Jung's archetype of the Trickster is not simply a clown. The Trickster archetype is a rebel who refuses to conform to societal expectations. But he is not a rebel without a cause; the Trickster's resistance to conformity is based on challenging authority, not on simplistic adornments; he will not be seen sporting tattoos or piercings or corporate T-shirts flashing slogans. In fact, the Trickster may very well appear to be inconsequential on the outside. The most famous literary representation of the Trickster is the Fool in William Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear".

He goes on,

"Modern society has basically turned its back on the concept of trickster gods, but they still exist in the form of comics, satirists, and everyone who couches their wisdom behind the concept of the fool. At the same time, it is important to distinguish the Trickster from the actual Fool. Of course, there is no easy way to accomplish this other than by noticing if a fool is acting wise or idiotic.

The fool or clown is also about the ability to either laugh at the ridiculousness of life, or to cut through the social shams and reveal our hypocrisy in an acceptable way. This makes the fool or clown wise, because they can see through who we are and what people do. Their talent is to reveal such things to us".

Speaking of trickster gods, I remember  in my childhood reading stories of the Norse god Loki and his exploits. The character has always stayed with me. An ambiguous, ambivalent, trouble maker with a mean streak for sure, though as i recall, Loki was the one who stole fire from the gods. So he was also a bringer a light, comfort and cooking which also makes him a hero to us humans.

Trickster Explorations 3, acrylic on paper
But mostly i like Tony Crisp's description in Archetype of Trickster - Clown and the Fool.

"the clown has another aspect which is as a man, usually the clown is a male of sorrows. He leads us to tears as often as he leads us to laughter. This is because the clown shows us the wonderful and tragic human feelings underlying the masks we might wear in daily life. Love, life, loss, success and failure, all have their deeply human side and the clown reveals such things to us".

Stylistically these Explorations arguably may be seen as a return to my Fauvist painting Egon Schiele: Harlequin (left) from my Egon Schiele series of 2007 ... except now i am Harlequin!

Now, can i bring these Explorations to some fruition in a finished work? Dunno. What will that work look like? Dunno. When will it be finished? Dunno.

Instead, i am sailing on what John Keats called negative capability. More on that in my next post - if i get to complete The Trickster.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Self-portrait in bitumen

Self portrait, bitumen, styrene and mesh on particle board, 73 x 91.5 cm


"He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul." 
     (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray Ch. 8)

"Look out on a summer's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul"

      (from the song Vincent, lyrics by Josh Groban)

"Beneath the social mask we wear every day, we have a hidden shadow side: an impulsive, wounded, sad, or isolated part that we generally try to ignore."
     (from Romancing the Shadow by Connie Zwieg and Steve Wolf)

"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious."
     (Carl Jung, "The Philosophical Tree” (1945). In CW 13: Alchemical Studies. P.335)  

".. this thing of darkness I
Acknowledge mine".
    (Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Act 5, scene 1, 275-276)

Initially i deliberately didn't add my voice with explanations but just wanted the image and quotes to resonate (or not) with each viewer and each viewing. But Gary's questions and conjectures had me thinking, and before long, writing.

The painting is not a whimsy but born of a troubled few years  and chronically disturbed dreams since my mother's death. Anyway, i take myself far too seriously to be able to enjoy a mere whimsy, haha.

Made from stuff lying around my studio? For sure! This work belongs to my research into expressive mark-making. I see two prime routes to expressive mark-making.

One is to leave a trace of your handling of materials so that your character or emotions register and are preserved in the paint. This usually requires some kind of impasto. Vigor or lethargy, doodling or purposefulness, rage or melancholy are as trapped in the paint surface as a bug in amber.

The second route however, is to set up media to do their work, giving agency to the paint and solvents, enlisting gravity and capillary action, oozings and drippings, mixings and repellings. As i mentioned in an earlier discussion, Heidegger's concept of "at hand" materials is very salient to working in this way. Happen-chance, synchronicity, my material environment and the history of that environment, remnants of my past endeavours, under-workings and palimpsests, all come to the aid of my semi-sighted questing for an expressive image that tells a truth.

And i have been much concerned with truth - emotional truth - in my work.

Albert Tucker, Apocalyptic Horse, 1956 
Which brings to mind an Australian Expressionism pioneer, Albert Tucker, who spent his life exploring the darker side of the soul. (My thanks to the Gallery of NSW who gave me permission to photograph Tucker's amazing horse).

Tucker's art dealer said of one series of his works, that he dealt not in prettiness, but unsettling truths. The same could be applied to most of his life's work. "Often difficult and abrasive, the work reflects the artist's struggle to come to terms with a society he was at odds with".

Albert Tucker, Apocalyptic Horse, 1956, (detail).

In my case, i guess it is a Self i am at odds with. 

Because the painting is so dark and 'blotchy', it may seem formless at first glance. It may look nothing like a portrait at all and viewers might imagine i have simply entitled a black blob of asphalt a self portrait in a metaphorical way. Not so. If you look with a squint you might see the left side of my face lit in the painting rather like in this recent photo.

Just a word about the media, especially the bitumen. It has long been used by artists but not without criticism. Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa suffers areas that were once bitumen's velvety brown now having become an indiscernible black mass with age (Wikipedia). The Pre-Raphelite's emphasis on brilliance of colour was in reaction to the excessive use of bitumen by earlier British artists, such as Reynolds, David Wilkie and Benjamin Robert Haydon. Bitumen produces unstable areas of muddy darkness, an effect that the Pre-Raphaelites despised. On top of that, there are OH&S issues - bitumen is carcinogenic.

So why have i used it? Well, in archival terms it is a durable medium, even if its brown is fugitive and turns to black. It is cheap. Very cheap compared to oil paints. It has interesting tactile properties in use, ranging from treacle-viscous to free-running stained-turps wash. Like with charcoal, images can be created by building up by applying, or created carving out by removing from a previously applied layer with a turps-dampened rag.

And i like the idea that it is a reject material from passé art movements. I like the idea that is unvalued, undervalued, devalued, even shunned. I like that is not to be found in art supply shops but on the bottom shelf in hardware departments. It is a humble material.

In other words,  mostly i like its poetic qualities. By that i mean its direct appeal to the senses and its metaphoric associations.

It stinks of Hell. It has oozed from the hidden bowels of the earth. It is the very substance of our unconscious.

Qualities all apt, i believe, for the subject of this work.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Harry Kent drawings of self

self portrait, ink and acrylic on paper, 84x60cm

Have been rather poorly over the last two weeks - lots of coughing, no voice for 12 days! ... and no painting. A disaster of a semester so far.

self portrait, ink and acrylic on paper, 84x60cm

So to have something to blog i trawled through my drawings of a few years ago when i first started exploring expressive self portraiture.

self portrait, charcoal and acrylic on paper, 84x60cm

I would look into a mirror positioned beside a large sheet of white paper, look at the paper, look at the mirror, look at the paper, turn on the spot in agitated small circles, back to looking at blank paper, mirror, paper.

Then, still looking into the mirror, make a sudden desperate attack on the paper with gestural marks. These were almost blind contour drawings because my fixation was on the mirror rather than on the paper.

It was all over in a couple of minutes. It was the agitated small circles that took all time! 

self portrait while drawing, charcoal and pastel on paper, 84x60cm

Hopefully i'll be back in the studio producing new work soon ... dancing my little circles of angst.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Portrait painting using plaster and oils

Nostalgia: a portrait of recollection, plaster, acrylic and oil on cotton, 61 x 46 cm

This painting is the first foray into a new medium for mark-making – plaster on canvas. Nostalgia was painted with a plaster slurry by 3 inch brush over charcoal, then tinted with acrylic and finished with oils and lashings of oil medium to bind the plaster together (for how long??) and give it sheen to deepen the cool dreamy colors.

The archival properties, or lack thereof, is a real issue if i am to pursue this technique of mark-making further. The plaster is certainly a stable material, but how long will it stay on a canvas?
It is a self-portrait done without mirrors or photographs; simply my recollected self-image plus promptings from an 'inner me'.

In that sense it may be said to be a non-realist psychological self portrait - a self portrait of recollection.

I've dipped a toe into making some of my bits commercially available. I've signed up with RedBubble so that prints and cards of Nostalgia are now for sale from HERE.

While i was away a picture of my painting Fukushima samurai in the nuclear fires was published in the tri-annual journal Sortir du nucléaire, Issue No. 50, by the French anti-nuclear network Réseau "Sortir du nucléaire", a federation of over 900 anti-nuclear groups from around the world with a membership of over 53,000.

I find it very satisfying that my art is seen as a relevant contemporary voice in the world and is sought out for publication (Réseau "Sortir du nucléaire" discovered the image here in this very blog, folks).

Please be patient - it will take me a while to get around my many bloggy friends to see what wonderful things you have all been painting and writing in my absence.

Good to be back.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Studio

light and chaos

Just so followers of this blog won't be left with a creepy Strontium-90 Hazmat head peering out at them on their blog, i'll post some pics of studio.

I work beside a bay window that looks out onto a terrace garden, with trees and lots of birds. But as you see, the window is filled with clutter. The studio is way too small for my needs and storage is a scarce commodity. Fortunately, it is not my only source of light. The ceiling over where i work has a large skylight and i work with the door open so that myriad skink lizards the run in, manic with sunlight,  can find their way back out again in their own good time.

easel and a lot more spilt paint

store and saw

drawing & watercolor desk

It's now semester break and in a couple of weeks i'm off to London and a cruise on the Rhone River - a chance to check out Vincent's Arle.

outside work area


So endeth Semester 1.

Post script: proof that i can also paint out of just a small box of paints! (Yes, it IS me!).

Monday, June 6, 2011

Strontium-90 and the poisoned earth

Strontium-90: poisoned earth, oil on paper, 42x30 cm

Strontium-90: poisoned earth is the third of a trilogy including Iodine-131: winds of change  and Cesium-137: bitter harvest .  This series can be seen as a form of Neo Arte Nucleare (a French art movement of 1950's Art Informel).

I won't write at length about how nasty strontium-90 is or document how it has been leaking from the Fukushima plant. Suffice it to say, i had always connected strontium-90 with nuclear weapons and leukemia and bone cancer. But i learn that it is present in those half a million spent and damaged fuel rods that were for some reason stored in the Fukushima reactor buildings, stored on the floor right above the reactors only to collapse into them.

From my youth i had always associated strontium-90 with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bitter irony that it is now being released in Japan once again but this time courtesy of Japanese industry and government.

This painting is the last of my experiments with monoprint, originally inspired by the wonderfully evocative small landscapes of John Stinson (visit his fascinating blog here) though he uses quite a different process than the one i have evolved for my more messy approach. It may also be the last of my Fukushima series. I am not sure what's next or where to from here, other than continue to work on large format works and revisit self-portraiture.

Thanks everyone for the interest you have shown in these Fukushima works. It is confronting subject-matter and they have been confronting images - not ideal fare for a relaxing browse among art blogs. But i have aimed to be relevant, current and expressive in my work, and the on-going events of Fukushima grabbed my imagination. So once again, thank you my bloggy friends.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Cesium-137 and the bitter harvest

Cesium-137: bitter harvest, oil on Fabriano paper, 58x38 cm

This image is part of my exploration of the artistic fallout of the bitter events at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It started life as an oil monoprint on Fabriano Artistico 300gsm cold press W/C paper. It is a companion piece to Iodine-131: winds of change and Strontium-90: poisoned earth. This series can be seen as a form of Neo Arte Nucleare (a French art movement of 1950's Art Informel).

Cesium-137 is a particularly nasty by-product of fission in nuclear power plants  - and of atomic weapons, of course. As it undergoes decay to barium-137m it emits strong gamma radiation which makes it extremely hazardous.

Cesium, as well as cesium-137, is a soft, silvery white metal that is chemically related to potassium. It's this chemical similarity that makes it so dangerous to life-forms, for we all need to constantly take up potassium to live. But plants and animals will take up cesium instead, mistaking it for potassium. It will then make its way up the food chain in growing concentrations.

Though the metal itself is silver, this pic (from here) of a mound of powdered Cesium-137 has the sickly radio-active green look of Kryptonite in old B class Sci Fi movies, and hence inspired  the fluro-green vapour enveloping the Hazmat-suited figure in the painting.

The USA Environment Protection Agency (EPA) explains that breathing in contaminated dust would result in internal exposure, which means leaving the contaminated site would not end the exposure. Drinking contaminated water would also place the cesium-137 inside the body where it would expose living tissue to intense gamma and beta radiation. Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, which means it will contaminate soil for hundreds of years. Which is still better than the mildly radioactive cesium-135 which, however, has a half-life of 2.3 million years. Where do cesium-137 and cesium-135 come from around Fukushima Daiici? From exposed fuel rods.

But it's worse. These are not just the fuel rods involved in the melt-down of the reactors there. In a decision that defies the common sense of ordinary folk nuclear engineers decided to store old spent rod inside the reactor buildings, on the first floor right above the reactors. It is estimated that as many as 600,000 radioactive old rods were stored on site, 70% of which may be damaged and leaking.

But wait, there's more. Because they were stored on the floor above the reactors it meant that when the containment buildings of Units 1 & 3 exploded, thousands of old rods dropped into the reactors below. And the rest got blown sky-high, which is why bits of rod could be found up to 2km away! The rest are in the ocean and scattered in the surrounding terrain.

What makes TEPCO even more culpable is that it was known that Mark 1 reactors of the kind at Fukushima are vulnerable to explosion. Thirty-five years ago, Dale G. Bridenbaugh and two of his colleagues at General Electric resigned from their jobs after becoming increasingly convinced that the nuclear reactor design they were reviewing - the Mark 1 - was so flawed it could lead to a devastating accident.

"The problems we identified in 1975 were that, in doing the design of the containment, they did not take into account the dynamic loads that could be experienced with a loss of coolant," Bridenbaugh told ABC News in an interview. "The impact loads the containment would receive by this very rapid release of energy could tear the containment apart and create an uncontrolled release."

The Fukushima reactors were so old they had already exceeded their operational design life and were due to be mothballed. So why store those spent rods in there? This has nothing to do with abstruse nuclear physics and everything to do with sound risk management and responsible decision-making. Seems to me that too many managers, engineers and government officials were too complacent, too self-assured and cocky for too long and their luck ran out. As it has now, regrettably, for the people living in the region.

Chu-oni, in Japan, has blown the whistle on the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology (MEXT) by revealing that the accumulated Cesium 137 on the land as far away as 80km from the plant was higher in May than the areas around Chernobyl which people evacuated. He concludes that "the Japanese government's intervention after the accident is much less humane than the former Soviet Union".

Cesium-137 was discovered at levels 100 times higher the usual in Osaka on 19 May. Authorities claimed these were trace amounts and had no implications from human health. But what were they doing there? Nuclear reactors should not be putting Cesium-137 into the environment unless a melt-down has occurred and the containment vessel has been breached.

Osaka is a long way from Fukushima. So maybe it is less surprising that 500,000 becquerels per kg of dust collected from the roof drains of Yamagata University, 70 kms away, is far less benign. The government measure to deal with this reality? Local high schools are allowing students to continue their winter uniform of long sleeves, although the summer season has now started, to prevent Cesium-137 landing on their skin.

A local mum has had enough and is moving away with her children. "We haven't believed the government from the start," Mrs Watanabe says. "When the explosion happened, they didn't say anything about it being dangerous. We don't trust the media either, since the nuclear plant operator sponsors many newspapers and television stations." Parents with their own radiation monitors believe the government has been under-reporting radiation levels. Already school gutters contain 60 times the level considered safe, and that's what is officially conceded.

Months later, in November 2011, reports were out that the area of eastern Fukushima had levels of the radioactive element that exceeded official government limits for arable land. Fukishima's neighbouring regions, such as, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata, Niigata, Tochigi, Ibaraki, and Chiba are very likely  affected, though the government is producing contamination figures lower than those discovered by the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, US in a recent survey of 47 regions. A serious drop in food production in Japan can be expected.

But cesium-137 has also been found in milk in Vermont. Indeed, cesium-137 has been detected in drinking water and milk, albeit in levels well below the EPA's maximum contaminant level, in Boise, Las Vegas, Nome and Dutch Harbor, Honolulu, Kauai and Oahu, Anaheim, Riverside, San Francisco, and San Bernardino, Jacksonville and Orlando, Salt Lake City, Guam, and Saipan. Cesium-137 depositation over the USA is being tracked by numerous governmental, scientific, and academic organisations, and you can link to their results here.

I guess it's a small world after all.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Iodine-131 and the winds of change

Iodine-131: winds of change, oil on paper, 76x56 cm

Iodine is a mysterious element. At room temperature it appears to have no liquid state. It's dark crystals sublimate directly into violet fumes (watch it do that here). That is why this latest 'portrait' is not only a representation of a hazmat-suited Fukushima worker but also a personification of airborne iodine vapour. Hence the purple curling fumes and haze in the painting. This is a companion piece in a trilogy along with Cesium-137: bitter harvest and Strontium-90: poisoned earth. This series can be seen as a form of Neo Arte Nucleare (a French art movement of 1950's Art Informel).

We need trace amounts of iodine in our diet to keep thyroid growth normal. Maybe that's because we once came from the ocean (our blood serum is basically seawater) and ocean is the greatest source of iodine compounds. Countries far from the ocean experience the most iodine deficiencies for it seems iodine compounds are wind born in ocean spray and deposit on our crops, get ingested by cows, get concentrated in milk.

All good for us - until you substitute good old home-brand iodine for radio-active Iodine -131 that gets taken up by the thyroid in the usual way. But it leaves unusual results in its train - cancer.

As the American Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) explains, "The primary risk of concern with iodine-131 is thyroid cancer, with children more at risk than adults. A high enough intake of iodine-131 by children can also cause developmental problems and other thyroid diseases. Young girls are at greater risk than boys. Female infants have a risk of thyroid cancer 70 times greater than adult males for the same radiation exposure. Some iodine-131 deposits on land, including pastures. When contaminated grass is eaten by cows and goats, iodine-131 concentrates in milk. It has a half-life of about eight days, meaning that appreciable amounts will remain in the environment for a few months after large releases." One blogger has declared himself radiolactoseintollerant.

So in Fukushima prefecture during May there were restrictions on the distribution and consumption of fish, milk, turnips, bamboo shoots, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and shiitake mushrooms. But it's contamination has spread well outside of Japan.

Too late for Nagasaki staffers exposed to Fukushima radiation while on a mission there to assist. Blogger Gabi Greve in Japan reports that Nagasaki University Hospital says that at least 40% of the Nagasaki helpers sent to Fukushima Prefecture returned suffering internal radiation exposure from iodine-131 and cesium-137.

The Fukushima-meltdown dispersion cloud has deposited Iodine-131 onto Michigan and California. In Hawaii boron is being feed to cows and sprayed on crops to absorb radioactive iodine. Berkley has radioactive strawberries. It was reported that on 9 April iodine-131 had been found, albeit in levels well below the EPA's maximum contaminant level, in the milk of Oak Ridge, Chatanooga, Helena,  Columbia, Cincinatti, Pittsburgh, Painesville, Denver, Detroit, Trenton, Waretown NJ and Muscle Shoals, AL.

Meanwhile,  Réseau "Sortir du nucléaire" has asked permission to publish a painting or two in their tri-monthly magazine from my Fukushima series. I have agreed and have forwarded Fukushima Future, Fukushima Samurai I, Fukushima Samurai II, and Fukushima Samurai in the nuclear fires for them to choose from. My work is expected to appear in the July edition of the magazine.

Sortir du nucléaire is an anti-nuclear alliance of 874 organisations based in France. Their charter is to rid the world of nuclear weapons and power plants. With a membership of 50,251 individuals, Sortir du nucléaire publishes a monthly newsletter with a circulation of 20,000. You can visit their website here and see clips of some of their anti-nuclear activities here, herehere and here. Or follow them on Faceook here. One can subscribe to their monthly digital newsletter by emailing this web address.

But the last word today i will give i to French rappeur Duval Mc, his rap rage made chic by the seductive sibilants, exquisite edgy vowels, and cultured charm of French language on the attack. The spirit of Rousseau lives: "Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains."

Monday, May 30, 2011

Expressive mark-making and 'likeness' in abstract figurative portraiture

Fukushima Ghosts III, oil on paper, 58x46 cm

My experimentation continues at creating evocative and  expressive images of people under extreme stress with this piece, the third of my Fukushima ghosts (see the previous two here) . My aims are to explore expressive mark-making in portrait painting, to make social comment on a current world event, and to create eloquent images about the human condition.

For this painting i switched to a black absorbent paper that soaked up the oil paint and medium. I flooded the paper with both. The pigment moved about through gravity as i rotated the paper at strategic moments. I was allowing the paint its agency. I was relying on its agency. It was a partnership. We, the paint and i, are co-responsible for the way the work turned out.

The  first painting  of my Fukushima series was fairly realistic, if somewhat stylized. Subsequent images have moved progressively deeper into what may be described as an abstract figurative style.

Abstract figurative painting developed as American Abstract Expressionism was running out of steam in the 1950's. Many had declared the death of figurative painting some years earlier, and saw Abstract Figurative painting as a contradiction in terms. These theorists maintained that abstraction and figuration were at opposite ends of a continuum and so it made no sense to mix them.

But in hindsight such assertions were silly and pointless. As Kandinsky says, "There is no must in art, for art is free." This was quite the sentiment of the new journal Reality, founded in 1953, when the founding committee stated  that the Journal's intention was “to rise to the defense of any painter’s right to paint any ways he wants.”

The movement referred to itself as Figurative Expressionism. So i guess that makes me a Neo-figurative Expressionist painter dabbling in Abstract Figurative portraiture. Not that i'm setting out to revive any art movement nor to prove some abstruse point in art theory. I'm just following the principle of a painter's right to paint any damn way he wants to.

But all that abstraction and expressionism does the raise the question, "What ever happened to portraiture being the painting of a likeness to someone?". How can a puddle of paint be called a 'likeness'? It may, at a stretch, be called figurative, but surely not portraiture.

I have touched on this issue in a  previous post when considering the legitimacy of using photography as a basis for portrait painting. Let me just add now that notions of what might be a portrait have considerably expanded over the previous century.

The Social Media Group observe that, "Traditionally, the ideal portrait both resembled the subject's physical appearance and captured the essence of that person. Contemporary portraits, however, are made within a cultural and artistic context with deep questions about the nature of identity, of representation, and of authenticity ... and technology is also changing the how we think about human identity: to portray the essence of a person, do we show the face? DNA? surveillance data? shopping transactions?" 

William Dobell's 1943 Archibald Prize win was controversial, as some people argued that his portrait of Joshua Smith so distorted Smith's features that it could not be called a portrait. The issue went to court, the case hinging on the accepted definition of portraiture: how faithfully did a portrait have to represent the sitter? Dobell's vindication expanded the concept of what could be a portrait, and abstract interpretations as well as conventional portraits were subsequently admitted to the Archibald.
The Post-Sigmund Freud years have seen more interest in the personality, the neuroses even, of the subject, and less insistence on accurate draughtsmanship in the production of a photographic physical likeness. With the rise of Expressionism we have come to value discovering the personality of the artist in his or her work. We prize Egon Schiele's drawings for those very reasons.
Francis Bacon painted a portrait of Lucian Freud not from a sitting by LF, not even from a photo of LF, but from a photo of Kafka as his inspiration (Kafa was LF's fav author at the time). Bacon's self-portraits contain some talisman of himself (a bag under an eye, or the sweep of hair across the forehead) but these iconic indicators hardly constitute a likeness in the conventional sense. Yet we accept that Bacon painted a portrait of Lucian Freud and numerous self-portraits.
A spokesperson from the British National Portrait Gallery put the view in an on-line portrait painting forum that “all of the body is a portrait. I've seen fabulous portraits, full of character, showing only a hand, personified in such a way that the entire character of the person was contained. Such work is rare, but possible.”
So a mere personification may be considered a portrait. Paintings containing symbolic objects alluding to the identity of the sitter may be considered portraits. A DNA printout, suitably framed and hung in the National Portrait Gallery, would be considered a portrait.
Maybe Fukushima Ghosts III is not a portrait. It is not of any known individual. Even if it were, the face is contained within the mask of a Hazmat suit. And the painterly treatment of the suit is so fluid that it is hardly even recognizable as a protective item of clothing.
Furthermore, the painting purports to be that of a ghost. And ghosts don't exist. So all-in-all, it can't be a portrait. It can't really even be called a figurative painting. Maybe a fantasy painting? Surreal?
Yet i don't think so. I think it is a portrait. It is a generic portrait representing many anonymous individuals currently alive and working hard in Japan. Indeed, the anonymity of the workers has been one the key themes running through my Fukushima series, for it is a socially telling marker. Their anonymity is revealing!
These generic portraits of anonymous workers are like the statues at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The identity of the statue does not have to be known but the sense of humanity, of service and of suffering behind the work is palpable come Remembrance Day ceremonials.
Actually, we don't recognize the persons in the vast majority of portraits we come across in our lives! And i'm talking Rembrandt and Singer Sargent.
That leaves us unable to say anything about the quality of the likeness. Yet we prize the portraits of these artists. We prize them for the painterly skill in their execution and we prize them for the humanity they reveal about an unknown sitter, about an artist long dead, about a time and society otherwise obscured in history.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Fukushima Ghosts

Fukushima Ghosts 1, oil on paper, 76x56 cm

The fiasco at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant will haunt Japan and the world's nuclear industry for a long time to come. The web is rife with rumour and anecdote, largely because the Japanese government, meteorologists, and most of all, TEPCO, are so parsimonious with information, let alone frank and open disclosure.

So, for example, the chief of the Meteorological Society of Japan has drawn flak from within the academic circles over his request for meteorologists to refrain from releasing forecasts on the spread of radioactive substances from the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. I guess that's because of the numerous animated maps of the fallout moving over Canada and the US were populating Youtube and made plausible by reports of levels of Iodine-131 in Californian water 181 times higher than normal. Michigan was reporting elevated wind-born Iodine-131 levels. Now even Europe has fallen into line and stopped prognostications.

Or the case of Professor Toshiso Kosako  who resigned in disgust a few weeks back as nuclear advisor to Japanese Prime Minister because the government simply moved the goal posts for nuclear exposure for children despite the Professor's stern warnings. So now the children around Fukushima play in radioactive playgrounds.

And so stories circulate about TEPCO's inept handling of situation as they lurch from crisis to crisis due to an apparent incapacity to take quick executive decisions, assume irresponsible for the turn of events, and to stop worrying about the 80% share plunge and care a little more about the anonymous workers in the front line battle to contain disaster.

For example, this account dated 15 May:

"The crap coming out of this disaster is nightmarish. A temp worker that had truck driving experience took what he was told was a job driving truck for the tsunami clean up. He was put on a bus and taken to Fukushima to do liquidation work that had nothing to do with driving a truck. A guy that was a sub contractor was put to work installing hoses. He had no plumbing experience and the connections required some level of plumbing knowledge. The people he was working with dropped the hose in radioactive water in the turbine building because they were heavy. Then they had to pick up the hose to move it. He got hit with the wet hose in the back of the neck. The protection suits they were wearing are not waterproof and he has contamination they can't remove on the back of his neck."

So while the Keystone Cops run the site containment measures, the first deaths are starting to trickle in. A worker died on May 14. The place he was working exposed to him to 0.17 millisieverts of radiation. Butch geeks who love to parade their cool savvy delight in doing their Sievert sums to prove he was not actually a radiation victim.

No, he died of heat-stress and possibly a heart attack. He was 60 years old, worked longer in that heat-containing Hazmat suit than he should have, carrying heavy debris, and collapsed at the scene.

TEPCO is hiring older workers. By the time their cancers appear many years from now they will either already be near-dead from some other cause or have a difficult time proving in a court it was working for TEPCO that was the cause. Old age will claim them and tidy up for TEPCO. Maybe they are trying to spare young workers still in their reproductive years. Just part of the no-win that is Fukushima. Meanwhile with similar set of beliefs and a sense that their generation is responsible, elderly retirees are volunteering to rebuild the cooling systems

They say there were no ambulances or medics on standby at the scene, despite the risks of such dangerous work environment and the age of the workers. No helicopter to rush some-one, any-one, this old gent, to hospital. So he rode in a car to hospital for 2 hours instead. DOA. So they say. 

Meanwhile, despite the moratorium on weather maps prognosticating the drift of Iodine-133, assorted sources have been calculating likely deaths from Fukushima. To date it has released about 10% as much radiation as Chernobyl. It is reported that crops up to 75 miles from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant were found to be unsafe to eat, and tap water in greater Tokyo – home to 30 million people – has also been contaminated by fall-out.

Already, says Arnold Gunderson, Fukushima is going to kill 200,000 from increased cancers over the next 50 years. John Large, a British nuc­lear engineer, predicted the eventual toll could exceed 500,00. The International Atomic Energy Agency has its own formula for projecting population deaths - 0.05 fatal cancers per Sievert of radiation released. Chernobyl released an estimated total collective dose of 600,000 Sieverts over 50 years. Chernobyl was located in a sparsely populated rural region. Fukushima is in a densely populated urbanised region. Time will tell.

In my Fukushima series of paintings (still on-going) i have been using the Hazmat suit as a motif and metaphor (see previous post). Now i need to expand my understanding.

The Hazmat suit is not only the armour of anonymous worker-samurai. It is also their shroud and coffin.

They die in there - from pride, over zealous sense of duty, macho determination, lack of training, inadequate supervision, insufficient back-up, poor executive planning, stingy allocation of funds to do the job at hand.

They die from weary old hearts working on a heart-breaking task in a heart-broken region of Japan.

The ghosts of Fukushima are released. They already haunt the land.

Fukushima Ghosts 2, oil on paper, 76x56 cm

UPDATE 10-1-12:
Fukushima Ghosts I has just been published by Kosmos Journal. Read the details HERE.