Saturday, May 29, 2010

rage against the dying of the light

Rage Against the Dying of the Light, oil on board, 76 x 60 cm

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Selected Poems 1934-1952, New Revised Edition

or you can listen as Rodney Dangerfield recites Dylan Thomas on YouTube

This is another painting examining the emotions of associated with aging, with entering the winter of life's seasons. Earlier I had looked at horror of dying, and briefly looked at stoic resilience in the face of loss of physical and mental functions. This time i wished to examine rage, what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross saw as a stage of anger in the grieving process. And i believe aging and approaching the end of life to be a kind of pre-grieving, for oneself, and for loved ones that are left behind, bereft.

and so i read afresh Dylan Thomas' wonderful poem, and its words repeated in my head as i savaged the paint from the tubes and grasped the nearest hogs hairs with which to stab at the surface.

i was intending to produce a sequel to my Pulvis et Umbra painting from a couple of weeks back. Thinking i would be doing an overwash of zinc white (it is more transparent than titanium white) as before, with the resulting loss of detail, i did not bother with a charcoal drawing nor with underpainting, as i had with a number of other works in this blog.

instead, direct application of paint to a bare black gesso surface. Black, to signify the absence of light, the infinite black, eternal darkness . "Turn out the light and then turn out the light".  So i reserved a large blank black area to the right to explore how a black space can somehow talk to the figure in a painting (to me, they seem to resonnate off each other, the black almost a figure in its own right).

Fast work, quickly developing an image, not getting bogged down in exact perspectives or precise naturalistic representation. Rather, aiming for just the basic feel of the thing, welcoming distortion as part of the expressive load in the image.

But as i was about to wash over the top in white, my eye caught the quality of the brush marks, and i recalled that my project is an exploration into expressive mark-making in portraiture. And so i left it, rough, raw, urgent.

my belief is that the manner of the brush marks betray, or rather leaks, the emotions of the painter at the time of painting them. The Italian Renaissance had a saying 'Ogni pittore dipinge se" - Every painter paints himself. The characteristic way one makes marks, rather as in handwriting, is specific to the individual and reveals something of the habitual disposition of the painter.  What others recognize as his or her style.

my desire always is for fresh marks of spontaneous energy and power. Maybe this painting will be a step in my journey towards that objective. That is really for others to judge.

so here it is. Rage Against The Dying of the Light, a self-portrait, of striving towards the light, of raging against the engulfing blackness all around, of the blackness seemingly speaking back in dialogue with the figure.

[To accompany this painting, i have posted some photographs celebrating Light and Lamps in my photo blog, the crystal cornea. See column on the right for a blog link.]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

inner voices

Inner Voices, oil & collage on canvas, 40 x 50 cm

and now for something completely different ... (though still a self-portrait)
i needed a break from the rather representational work of late.
i needed a bit a larff about the wailing and gnashing of teeth re aging.
i needed to have a bit of fun.

am now soberly back to depicting the next piece of anguish, promise.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


          Defiance, oil on canvas, 46 x 46 cm

Update:  OK, here is the coloured version, just finished (1.00pm Sunday 23rd), sporting my yellow painting jacket. I've now popped the exploratory sketch that was here down at the end of this post. Thank you everybody for the wonderful comments you have left. They are what makes this blog so rich and rewarding for me.
              ----------------- o O o ---------------------

well, i just got back from a few days in melbourne (have posted some pics in my photo blog the crystal cornea) and dying to get back out into the studio to continue work on my latest. The very day i left i was working on this preliminary sketch in charcoal and acrylic.

the theme continues to be the emotions around aging, around growing old, about the loss of physical and mental powers, the loss of social status, the increasing incidence of serious illness, the ever increasing likelihood of death.

Although these are self-portraits, this work is not actually about me. As i explained at the very start of this blog, i am using self-portraiture chiefly because the model is always available, will do whatever i ask of him, and won't complain about how bad i make him look.

Yes i draw on my own emotions to fuel the energy of my brush, but this work is not 'confessional'. I am not simply indulging myself in some solipsistic fugue. Rather, i am trying to make more universalistic statements. This Masters project is as much sociological commentary as it is psychological exploration - or will increasingly become so over the coming year.

I am trying to articulate states of feeling that many people know but can't own up to because society maintains a conspiracy of silence about them. We shunt the old and terminally ill into institutions - out of sight, out of mind - while we young ones get on with making and spending money as if getting and spending could never come to end, or could ever be an end in itself.

i had been exploring feelings of horror and terror at the realization of mortality, not simply the intellectual acknowledgement of one's own mortality, but the feeling deep in one's bones, one's gut, that one, me, you, will cease to be. I am now trying to move on from that to other feelings. And the one i am working on now is stoic defiance. Keep away disease. Keep away death. The finger in the dyke. Except i'm too old to trust in failing dykes.

a detail of brushwork from Defiance

the initial sketch for Defiance in charcoal and acrylic

Friday, May 14, 2010

looking to the future

            Looking to the Future, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm

this is the latest, wet off the presses ... still needs some tweaking but will need to wait till tomorrow when some of the medium has evaporated and the surface is more 'leathery'. Timing is everything, i sometimes think.

the theme remains 'the emotions of aging' but moving on from the horrific realization of one's mortality to the slightly more positive and complex 'coping mechanisms'.

the real problem i have is that i don't know where to go with this painting. It is not the style i set out to use, not the marks i intended to make. I got impatient with the underpainting etc and in my exasperation fell back on fast alla prima. I'm just comfortable in the chaos when too many things are happening and they're all happening simultaneously. I get so many gifts from the paint in the panic - not to mention the adrenaline rush.

OK, next one i promise to be methodical and disciplined and to eat up my veggies. (meanwhile, i'll just keep surreptitiously replacing this image with fresh ones till i'm satisfied i can do no more. Fortunately there is a severe limit as to much i can fiddle with this kind of painting before it starts looking tortured to death).

the bits that have some satisfying bits (for me):-

Monday, May 10, 2010

when your intside's out and the outside's in

                    When your inside's out and the outside's in, oil on board (a door), 56 x 76 cm

UPDATE (11-8-10):
I have just been informed that this work has been selected as a finalist in the acquisitive Birchalls Tertiary Art Prize .

The prize is worth $2,500 and although a chief critereon is innovation, i suspect they chose to shortlist my work to hang something a bit unconventional and 'in your face'. But because the winner will hang in the gallery's permanent collection, i expect that in the end they will award the prize to a more conventional canvas. I'll find out 2 September.


But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
'O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

'In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

'The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

from:  As I Walked Out One Evening, W. H. Auden;

Have been revisiting the work of the Canadian expressionist, Phil Iverson. I'm excited by his bold use of colour and impasto brush work in portraiture. And his use of found timber for painting surfaces. I enjoy the strength and drama of his work.

And so to this experiment. i haven't fully worked it out yet, but this painting is about portals and about insides and about Time. It is painted on a spare varnished wooden door to signify Doorways into this life and out of this life. And the trauma of passing through some of those doors. Some doors we can't wait to open. To turn 21, to be able to drive a car or buy a drink or take a bank loan. To step through the door of graduation or maybe of marriage.

But other doors we hope will not to have to open. The door of a prison, or the door to the operating theatre, or the oncology unit... or the door to the crematorium. Doors of pain. Doors of shame. Doors of doom.

this painting is also a response to Time. Our clocks are all ticking. We are each born with a fatal wound. We are each haemorrhaging time as our lives ebb away. As Bob Dylan sang in  It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding),

“... he not busy being born
Is busy dying”.

and the painting is also about insides. Insides out. Outsides looking in. Subjective-Objective. Self-revelation. Self-portraiture as a kind of public self-immolation. Blood speaking to blood in a language more ancient than words. It passes over the boundaries of national borders and across the divide of centuries more effectively than a Google translator.

i became interested in old images of anatomy and autopsy as a metaphor of our concealed inner selves, a way of depicting what lies within, hidden from the world and even from ourselves.

for this work, I've also been interested in exploring Brett Whiteley's breaking of the surface plane (on what is otherwise a fairly conventionally painted surface, say in Alchemy. And so to bring these interests together i've  created a three dimensional 'wound', a fissure through which internal anatomy becomes external, through which Time ebbs. It is built from builder's putty extruded through fly-wire, with dangling plastic tubing to suggest arteries.

 Maybe i’ll rework the found timber some weeks from now.

paint over it more? though i did want the weathered timber to read as the tell-tale hand of Time

cut it into narrower sections (adjust compositional elements)?
though i did want the figure hemmed in and claustrophobic inside Time.

attack it with a blunt weapon (the violence of Time)?  ...  Igor, hand me my Berzerker axe.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

acrylic portrait in blue

the new piece i'm working on is proving very rebellious ... so while the paint is hardening prior to another attack, i climbed up a ladder in my room to fetch down a self-portrait that i have had up there since 2006 but have never photographed and so had no digital record. But it such an effort to get down, unframe, photograph, reframe, put back up. So now it it's sitting on the floor in a corner of my room stacked with several others.

I expect my story is not unique.
Indeed, so many pieces have disappeared - sold or out with the rubbish - of which i have no record. I really must be more systematic about this. But half the time i forget to sign things, and frame them only to have to pull it all apart again. I guess i feel that i'm not the important thing, the work is. It somehow comes to me from somewhere even though i can't draw or paint. So it often seems a bit presumptious to sign it.

And just to keep the pot boiling between actually having something to show, here is a photo i took the other day while trying to work out facial structure for my next study. But have decided next time back to contact lenses (so i can have more fun with the bags under my eyes).

So won’t be using this photo series with glasses.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Harry Kent landscapes

Twilight - The Cataract Gorge, oil on canvas, 90 x 60 cm  

While i'm working on my next nasty portrait, here are some tranquil Tasmanian landscapes i did over the last couple of years just to show my gentle pastoral side.

Twilight Cataract Gorge (above) was exhibited and sold at the Tasmanian Art Award  2010.

The preliminary charcoal sketch for this painting, as i searched for ideas, looked like this:

While i was wandering the Cataract Gorge looking for interesting rock formations, i came across this one near the First Basin.

Sentinel - The Cataract Gorge,
acrylic on paper, 60 x 140 cm

I came up with this fantasy work while imagining the Gorge in the grip of glacial ice (i'm not sure it ever was, but the First Basin lake is immensely deep).

The Land of Ice and Snow, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 60 cm

"And southward aye we fled.
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by"       

read the Coleridge's whole poem free from here: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ,
or buy the book:  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Other Poems

because i live 42° South,

in Tasmania,

with the Mariner's albatross

      and, of course,

... a lost penguin

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dust and Shadows - Pulvis et Umbra

                        Pulvis et Umbra, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm

no substance to this solid globe on which we tramp . some rotting, like the earth  .  others, like the moon, stable in desolation . this vital putrescence of the dust . rots uncleanly into something we call life . a mere issue of worms . scurrying abroad with myriad feet . the anchored vermin . this mountain mass of the revolting and the inconceivable  .  all these prey upon each other  . lives tearing other lives in pieces, cramming then inside themselves . the vegetarian is only the eater of the dumb . our rotary island loaded with predatory life . drenched with blood, both animal and vegetable . turns alternate cheeks to the reverberations of a blazing world, ninety million miles away  .  there is no habitable city for the mind of man .

extracted from  R.L. Stevenson, PULVIS ET UMBRA., 1910, the full text available free here

Following through on my theme of the emotions of aging, this painting about Dissolution appeared under my brush. I wanted to express something of the horror of corporal Auflösung. From the moment we are each thrust into this universe, into our conscious existence, we must each struggle for Being, for Dasein, in a universe implacably ruled by the law of entropy. I wanted the image to contain a note of menace in the inexhorably approaching doom. I chose to put the figure on the margins, already undergoing vernichten at the edge of Being. Half the canvas i left as raw black gesso undercoat. It signifies the the ineffable darkness in which Shiva dances.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

self-portraits of a gargoyle in a Claude Mirror

Blue gargoyle, oil on polypropylene panel, 44 x 60 cm

Finally gotten round to playing with my reflections in my ‘Claude mirror’ (here). I wanted to see if they had any capacity to reveal something truthful about the mirror-gazer (me, in this instance) that an ordinary mirror could not. I also wanted to explore what kind of mark-making might be most suited to images of this type. I wanted to continue with polypropylene sheet rather than canvas, but didn’t want to just fall back on Kanevsky palette-knife and paint-mixing techniques. I want to develop my own voice, discover my own lexicon of mark-making.

And so after a little trial and error i found a kind of drybrush method that used paint directly from the tube. Being a latter-day Fauvist, i like working directly from the tube, keeping the colour as pure and intense as i can. I am not troubled by monochrome painting in the least. On the contrary, it imposes a kind of rigor and discipline that i like to struggle against.

So this is today’s effort – self-portrait of a blue gargoyle. I intend to produce two more, a gargoyle trilogy, in order to become quite familiar with this technique. My intention is to then choose one of the three gargoyle paintings and produce a fourth, larger portrait from it but using palette knives instead of dry brush.

Gargoyle No 2 - a bit more gentle humour in this one. If the No 1 betrays my melancholic disposition, then this more candied image hints at my loopy side.

Purple gargoyle, oil on polypropylene panel, 44 x 60 cm

And, No3. In this third and final gargoyle i have paid closer attention to the direction or 'grain' of the brush marks in an attempt not only to suggest a more naturalistic contouring of the facial features, but at the same time create a greater sense of abstract 'swirl' or movement in the work.

Green gargoyle, oil on polypropylene sheet, 44 x 60 cm

plus, some detail and fun with a camera which suggests you don't need a Claude Mirror, just a camera with a wide-angle macro lens capability to 're-configure' your own art into more surreal forms.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

on the solitude of artists

Commenting the other day on my translation of a Rilke poem (my post exposed on the cliffs of my art with Rilke here), Regina raised the very interesting issue of artists’ solitude, of community of artists, and what Rilke had to say about it. In reply, I don’t wish to be seen as simply romanticising or mystifying writers, composers or visual artists. Most are not social misfits nor are they starving in garrets. Nor do all experience the solitude of which Rilke writes. But many do and it is such an important solitude that I wished to reflect on it for a little and so wrote this post.

There are a number of solitudes that come to mind. The first is social solitude – loneliness – the hidden and unacknowledged disease endemic in our suburbs and urban high-rises. Christmas for many is the loneliest time of the year - the widowed, the elderly whose kids are engrossed in their own lives, the crowded household where inhabitants are emotionally absent, the dispossessed, the homeless, the unloved, all those who only have the tele for human company or who wander aimless in town just to be among humans beings. (I am personally most fortunate in never having had to endure this kind of social isolation). However, it is not really this kind of solitude that Rilke or we are speaking of here.

The second sort of solitude that comes to mind is the existential anxiety that comes from one’s awareness of mortality and one’s own singleness of journey through this finite life. This is the Angst of Kierkegaard and Heidegger. This kind of solitude occurs because each individual is their own locus of consciousness. One can share ideas, but one can’t share actual consciousness. Because we each have separate brains and nervous systems we can’t co-experience sensations and we can’t recall each other’s memories. Yes, we can each taste some sugar at the same time, but how can we ever know if we each experienced the identical sensation of sweetness?

So, each a universe unto themselves, we die alone and a whole universe dies with us, even if others crowd round the bed. We are even born alone despite all the physical intimacy involved in the event. The trauma of birth separation simply serves to underscore that essential aloneness. As the old gospel song has it, “you gotta walk that lonesome valley, you gotta walk it by yourself ... ain’t nobody else gonna walk it for you, you gotta walk it by yourself”. This solitude touches on our artistic concerns.

But there is a third kind of solitude, I think the one we are most concerned with here. The isolation of imagination. To have colour reception in a world where most only seem to tune in on black & white sets. Does this kind of solitude breed depression, or is a melancholic disposition needed in order to be aware of it? (Rilke battled depression, especially after WW1). This solitude of imagination particularly occurs when the above existential solitude is consciously observed and acutely felt.

Also, in large part, it is a solitude that comes from being in the small upper percentiles of the population in regard to giftedness. It may be very high intelligence, or exceptional aesthetic awareness, or highly attuned emotional and social intelligences, or creative imagination, or facility with language or music. Inevitably there are limited numbers of persons in a population who are capable understanding the mental and creative output of such individuals. And so they seek out compatriots that are similarly gifted. For example, Rilke joined the Worpswede Group, the German proto-expressionist colony of the late 19th century (could his verse be regarded as a kind of lyrical expressionism?).

Everyone knows the solitude of an unshared interest or hobby. It is the reason why people join book clubs, fly-fishing clubs, and orchid societies. Fortunately there are plenty of people about who like to read or go fishing or grow flowers. But what if one has a heightened facility for imaginative engagement and lucid understanding of what one reads, or is so obsessed with trout he will sleep in the snow just to caste a line at dawn. Already the club becomes less attractive.

Collaborative art making is in vogue at the moment, made possible because installations have become ubiquitous and they lend themselves to committee work. Situational comedy and Hollywood script writing certainly illustrate that highly skilled writing can be done, even must be done in large ‘industry’ projects, collaboratively. Seventeenth century paintings were frequently studio productions where the master would paint in the face, the fabric specialist was called in for the costumes and then apprentices filled in the background. Drama too was workshopped and not simply scripted. Nevertheless, nearly all our serious great works that deal with the human condition have been written, painted or composed by individuals. The reason for this goes directly back to the existential and imaginative solitudes already described. The great works, not of science and engineering, but of the arts, are the voices of gifted individuals rising to cry out ‘how it is’.

Which puts me in mind of the opening lines of the Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me from amongst the orders of angels?”.

 Rilke’s cry is not heard by the angels, could not even be heard by the immortals, but is heard by those fellow mortals who are themselves familiar with his human condition. This was not only an evocative statement of solitude, but required solitude to write. Writing and painting need ‘space’. Furthermore, there is a ‘cone of silence’ that descends during the writing or the painting process when one gets ‘in the zone’. This is the solitude of rapt attention, absorbed focus, singularity of purpose, distraction from daily routine, absorption in ideas, preoccupation with complex activity.

The creative process has a meditative or hypnotic quality about it at times. And it is during those times that the content of the unconscious is able to well up and spill into the work. In his first letter,  Letters to a Young Poet , Rilke writes of the “descent into yourself and into your solitude “. He explains, “Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. ... I can't give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows.” Collaborative projects are the very antithesis of this. They have the greatest difficulty in accessing the unconscious in any compelling way.

But art practice in solitude is bitter-sweet. Art is a communication. The poet writes, the painter paints, in the hope that others might read or see – and understand. But the law of percentiles means that few will. If the art is too solipsistic and esoteric then maybe none will.

But skylarks must sing whether we are below to hear or not. Alpine plants will bloom in the most inhospitable of places while the herd tramples past.

What other choice is there? ... Not to bloom at all? ... For skylarks to fall silent?
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