Thursday, May 19, 2011

Labours in Hades: the Fukushima Samurai

Fukushima Samurai II, oil and bitumen on paper, 170x152cm

Continuing my theme on the Fukushima workers, this painting is a vision of the Daiichi plant workers as the mythical heroes who entered Hell to discharge their labours - Aeneas, Odysseus, Orpheus. Even Hercules who had destroy the three-headed monster, Cerberus. These workers have been sent into the nuclear fires to battle the contamination that threatens the lives and well-being of literally millions. A Herculean labour indeed.

This work is a development of the ealier piece,  Fukushima Samurai I (left)
which in turn evolved from the initial painting Fukushima Future (left).
Fukushima Samurai II also represents my second attempt at a large format painting. Working large format presents a whole new set of problems. But i sense a greater freedom at this scale. Brush-work becomes a whole-body exercise. Hogs hair bristles give way to 3 inch commercial house-paint brushes. The sheer quantity of volatile fumes from solvents sprayed onto an extensive surface presents some special health and safety challenges. I find myself working outdoors much more. 

Even photographing the work at the end is problematic. The craft paper, though 300gsm or more, curls because it come off a roll and I have no wall large enough to pin it out. The result is that the black bar underscoring and supporting  the figure is no longer horizontal in the photo. The gloss surface reflects the sky and so the colours and tonal values are not true. Ironically, a photo doesn't even give a real sense of the overall composition, as one gets from seeing the painting at a considerable distance (the thumbnail pic does that better).

But mostly what is missing from the photo, as with the photo of any large scale painting, is the IMPACT! Whoaaaa. You have turn your neck to take it all in when up close. It is immersive. You ARE in those colors. Marks that barely register in the photo are read as machinery wreathed in smoke when in front of the actual painting.

Similarly, I have no easel large enough to support a 2.5 sq m sheet of paper , so i've jerry-rigged some rickety structures. A properly stretched canvas would be so much easier but would also cost $100. These are just learning exercises and don't warrant such expenditure.

And as important, i've come to realise that using canvases and quality oil paints has robbed me of freedom. I feel too much the burden of responsibility to 'paint a good painting' onto expensive supports. Because small Chinese canvases are cheap i inadvertently became a painter of small paintings.  

Now,  even my artists' oil paints have given way to tins of bitumen and old house paint and varnish stock that has been languishing out in the garden shed for decades. Some is so settled and compacted that stirring the paint to life is impossible. So i'm pouring off the solvents and mixing them with pigments and agents i discover elsewhere.

These are indeed Heidegger's at hand materials. And the constant need to innovate equipment, supports, media, brushes and applicators, body movement and materials skills in my creative praxis well and truly call forth my material thinking (my thoughts on Heidegger, Barbara Bolt and material thinking are here.).

Painting on a large scale almost for free is very liberating. Is the work any good? Dunno. Seems like it's neither fish nor fowl at the moment.  But it's energizing and i am learning a lot.

And .... I'm having fun.

a detail from Fukushima Samurai II

Gary Everest wanted a better sense of the painting's size, so ive added a pic of it pinned up on the lichen-covered awning protecting the door of my studio. The tressel tables on which i sometimes work can be seen outside the bay window.

It makes me realize that size is relative. This seemed huge and difficult to handle in my small studio building. But really it is barely as tall as a person stands. So i will aim to paint something at least twice the size, just for the experience


  1. Harry,

    Beautiful, disturbing and haunting all the the same breath!

    I hope you have been well, my friend!

    Take care,

  2. You are on track with the last piece so go, go, go! Working large can be daunting. Primed canvas wrapped around a piece of plywood works well. It forces a standardization of size but is effective.

    Protect your self from volatile solvents by using acrylics with a pouring medium to start. (Too much water as thinner breaks down the binder and adhesion.) Then finish with oil if you choose.

    Just a thought to help with the logistics of working large. This series is too good to be impeded by the difficulties of working large.

  3. Great atmosphere, Harry! You are reaping the benefits of freedom from the canvas. An impressive, yet disturbing image.
    Regards, Richard.

  4. Harry,
    Wow! I am so impressed by this. And on a scale matching the significance of the disaster. Your use of available materials obviously hasn't stifled your creativity Harry!
    I completely concur with your discourse on costly materials and pressure to produce masterpieces. Some of the most fun I've had painting was throwing bits of fabric, cut-up paper, Elmer's glue, coffee, coffee grounds, varnish and metallic paints on a previously ruined large canvas. It was only 30x40-inches, but that was really big to me at that time. Such freedom!
    My only wish is that you would've been able to use your camera's timer and get yourself along side this monumental work. We'll just have to use our imaginations until you use the "Dumper" utility or a museum buys it!
    Keep up the great work!

  5. Harry,
    this work is not good - it's great!
    the theme and treatment, put us inside the scene! imagine personally!
    Congratulations! I loved to know about paper, bitumen, paint brushes ... ultimately
    a work much alive, and present,
    in all directions, which was proposed!
    a hug...

  6. This is a wonderfully dramatic piece about a heroic subject... The heroic size fits, I think!!

  7. the media you used with bitume is so good for this athmosphere...

  8. Well, that last line was my favorite.

  9. If you're not angry, you're not paying attention, so it says in a song. Thanks, Harry, for keeping the focus on.

  10. Powerful and haunting image Harry. Perfect title.

  11. Thanks, Brian. And yes, my energy levels are returning. Meanwhile, you are steaming ahead like an express train! Wonderful out-put, beautiful work.

  12. Thanks for the practical tips, Davida. I'll investigate the canvas round ply-wood.

    I've tried the acrylics-with-oils-on-top route. Problem is, water-based pigments don't behave in the same way as spirit-based pigments. The don't have the same insinuating capilary action, rapid flow when diluted, 'pocky' way of reacting when part-dry and having solvent sprayed on, etc etc. And the colors are never as vibrant.

    And i suspect ive become addicted to the fumes, haha.

  13. Thanks Richard. Disturbing events call for disturbing images. Or maybe it's just my disturbed mind projecting its nightmares, haha.

  14. this is's appropriately upsetting

  15. I'm so glad you've experienced what i'm talking about, Gary. Coffee grounds?? Yes!!!

    I've added a pic of the painting outside my garden studio in resp[onse to your pondering about its scale. Seeing it here makes me realize it's still way short of monumental in size.

    Right, bigger coming up.

  16. Thanks for your enthusiastic interest in my process and practice, Denise. Glad the work speaks to you.

  17. Thanks Marian. Yes, heroic scale for a heroic subject. Well put.

  18. I agree, Laura. Yes, there is someting smokey, acrid and nasty about bitumen that just seems to suit my subject matter.

    Haha, true, Gabriella. Boys just wanna have fun.

    Ah Rhonda, First you gotta mad, good and mad. Then i want you all to go to your windows etc etc etc. Guess this is me shouting into the street.

    Glad it speaks to you, John. You are actually responsible in part for this series of works. I got so excited about your monoprints that i thought i would play with the process myself. My next post is a case in point.

    Georges Braque once said, "Art is made to disturb. Science reassures". I guess these paintings show i agree, Celeste. Though i suppose Fukushima puts the lie to Braques notion that science reassures. That sentiment belonged to a more idealistic and hopeful age. Then they dropped the bomb.