I – Present Perfect Slur
The Present Perfect Progressive tense indicates a continuous action that has been finished at some point in the past or that was initiated in the past and continues to happen. The action is usually of limited duration and has some current relevance: “She has been running and her heart is still beating fast.”
Present Perfect Continuous. This tense is used to talk about an action or actions that started in the past and continued until recently or that continue into the future: we can use it to refer to an action that has finished but you can still see evidence.
I felt like this was a good starting point to think about painting today. As I learned a new oral language in Lyon, France, I began to think about visual languages within painting and where they take place in history, how we talk about them and the possibilities for painters and viewers of painting today.
This text seeks to examine the inter relationship between the historical character of Roman emperor Claudius, the decorative arts history in Lyon, and structures in language through the eyes of a contemporary painter.
During my Masters in fine art exhibition in Dublin in June 2015, I spoke about paintings’ postmodern position within a contemporary arts practice. What I suggested was a postmodern painting position that could incorporate an element of theatre, costume, cosplay or drag. An inherent ability to “try a thing on” to wear/utilise visual ideas, and in this case the trying on of styles within painting creating a painting exhibition that had an element of theatricality and a kind of contrapuntal structure; this was no cop out as a painter, absolutely not. I believe any type of opt-out in painting can only be successful if calculated. I have and continue to negate stylistic commitments as an artist.
I began to think about Lyon, the city in France that I was living in. It became evident that there were elements of the city I wanted to think about in relation to my exhibition at Velours Royal in Lyon. As I was learning the oral/aural language, I was thinking about visual languages and the relationships they share in relation to oral/aural languages and methods of communication. The exhibition was constructed as a thinking process about painting and its possibilities under a new set of creative working procedures set by myself as an artist.
II – A Chapter on the Relevance of Western History and the Roman Emperor Claudius
The Roman Emperor Claudius (10 BC – 54 AD) was born in the city of Lugdunum (Lyon). The historical figure of Claudius survived his youth and escaped the deathly clutches of his grandmother Livia – the wife of Caesar Augustus – as she quietly poisoned, murdered or removed any figure that might stand in the way of her son Tiberius claiming the title of Caesar after Augustus. Claudius survived Livia and then succeeded in surviving his nephew (and Tiberius’ predecessor) Caligula’s empirical reign of terror by being perceived throughout his life as the family fool. Claudius was born with a club foot and a speech disorder; he often dribbled, stuttered and could not articulate his intentions.
Although Claudius believed in the restoration of the Republic, he had no choice but to take the position of Caesar placed upon him by the Praetorian Guard after the assassination of the deranged Caligula by senators, courtiers and a minority of members from the Praetorian Guard with republican sentiments, otherwise he would have suffered the same fate.
The historical account of Claudius hiding behind a curtain expecting imminent death on his discovery and that very moment he is revealed by the Praetorian Guard prior to his proclamation as Caesar is documented in art history. An example of the scene is depicted by the romantic painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) in his painting “A Roman Emperor Claudius”.
The painting by Alma-Tadema formally splits the canvas into two sections: the scene of death (left) and the anticipation and expectation of death (right-Claudius) in the aftermath of death.
Claudius, a character of great intelligence, this historian with a dribble, could be an iconic image for the exhibition. Not only the visual imagery of Claudius hiding behind the curtain, concealing and revealing, but also his inability to speak, to articulate could potentially be an example of the artist in the midst of the post modern condition for painter and artist alike.
“Trying something on” whether it be costumes, characterisations or stylistic approaches exists through observation firstly and any active interpretation following that can potentially be seen as having an element of theatricality.
Another painting that became important to the exhibition was the collaborative painting by Belgian artists Adriaen van der Spelt and Frans van Mieris Trompe l’Oeil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain, 1658. I took the painting, multiplied it and wallpapered an installation wall in the gallery horizontally and vertically. In relation to language – the French words for describing a ‘still life’ is ‘nature morte’ (however the directEnglish translation of those words means ‘dead nature’) – this added a duality of form and meaning in relation to language in an exhibition that was examining relevant painting histories and post modern painting.
Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain with its linguistic translation of dead nature/still life duplicated and multiplied along the gallery wall operates by transforming the depicted curtain within the painting; after a certain distance is reached between the spectator and the gallery wall, the multiplied image gives the illusion of the depicted curtain transforming into Roman columns through duplication, wallpaper patterning, and the distance from the surface itself.
III – The Textile in Lyon
I am aware of the recent trends within contemporary art regarding textiles. However my interest to work with the potentials of textiles were circumstantial to my location. My studio, my home and the gallery space were all located in the Croix-Rousse area of the city. This area was where all the weavers of Lyon had been living and working for centuries. The textile is famous in Lyon with its history of silk weaving. A textile is fabric-based, created from manmade or natural fibres, and shares an elasticity with painting in what it can potentially be. From curtains to clothing and carpets to rugs.
The history of the textile became interesting to me in relation to the exhibition also, not
only for the historical and visual account of Claudius being revealed behind a curtain avoiding death in the paintings of art history.
Spending time in the decorative arts museum, I examined many amazing textiles and tapestries that had found their way to Lyon by multiple threads that had travelled the Silk Road. Eastern innovation travelling the Silk Road moving its way west and contributing to the creation of a French culture which in due time contributed a vast amount towards today’s Western culture.
Examples of assimilation of cultures took place in ancient Rome also. It is of interest to take note that after the Romans adapted Grecian culture to their everyday lives, in theatre, ironically it was the Romans who introduced the curtain to the theatrical stage. Ancient Roman architecture adopted the external language of classical Greek architecture, however buildings were not built using marble in the capital of Rome as they were in Athens,
instead concrete became readily available and now the Romans achieved the visual appearance of marble with a new type of cladding, cheaper and easier to produce, however retaining the same visual quality. This type of appropriation is evident today in neo classicism architecture etc. As an artist and as a painter, specifically for this exhibition, these early cultural and aesthetic appropriations are again interesting towards my thinking process, especially if we are thinking about aesthetic lineages and how adoption of styles might have cultural relevance in shaping western cultures or visual languages including painting.
IV – The Effect of the Decorative Arts and Psychology
In the Musée des Tissus et Arts Décoratifs in Lyon, tapestries hung in front of me stitched and sewn magnificently. I looked at the tapestries and the duplication of motif that existed within their woven surfaces and threads. How some would mirror their patterns on the left and right of an invisible line that ran down the very centre of the textile itself, the pattern or motif might unfold on either side of this line, duplicating and mirroring itself.
I thought about language again as I looked at the patterns, however in front of the tapestries it was more about an infinite regress, a thought within a thought. All humans have the ability to take language units of one type — words, phrases, sentences, thoughts, paragraphs, and so on — and place them inside another unit of the same type. An infinite regress; the visual effect you get by holding two mirrors in front of one another.
How many thoughts can exist within a thought before schizophrenic thinking emerges, in postmodern life, art, and painting? There is mirroring in the human brain too: mirror neurons, whose activity provide a neural basis for imitation and observational learning. We have a part in our brains that supports empathy and imitation, it is what underlies our social nature. An excess of mirror neurons could potentially result in echopraxia (the meaningless repetition or imitation of the movements) taking over. The duplication of the patterns in front of me on the tapestries, the symmetry in their designs, the mirrored effect of the motif, reminded me of these mirror neurons and patterns in aesthetic lineages.
The effects of mirror neurons give rise in the ability to infer another person’s mental state through empathy, an ability known as Theory of Mind.
Meaning there is a place in our brain, the task of which is to act as if we were living in other people’s minds, in other people’s bodies. A natural inherent copy-cat coding, Is that not a biological visual equivalent or relationship to “trying on”, “characterization” or “costume”?
We need to remember textile can be a curtain, it can be a tapestry, and it can also become clothing that renders the invisible flesh of the body in actual space. A fashion item that can be invisible and visible simultaneously among its surroundings.
What came to my mind while contemplating the textiles were Andy Warhol’s interior design and decorative aesthetic and his Rorschach paintings. The way a Rorschach is dependent on eliciting an answer as to what is being subjectively perceived by a viewer, and the various response times from individuals that are accounted for in determining a psychological impression of a patient by their psychologist. The different scenes or objects that might be perceived on the card, and the test itself created simply by an impression followed by a compression. How could something so decorative as tapestries in this museum elicit such thoughts within me?
Andy Warhol also had a man of fashion status, a relationship to the decorative, wallpapering and interior design. The mechanical duplication of art works and motifs which aestheticized the pop movement, along with Warhol’s uncovering of western cultures’ fascination with death, were all well fitting in contributing towards me producing an element in the exhibition that would operate as fashionable but bind itself to the relationship of death in both western culture and art. Western culture is inherited by the French and in turn French culture has its roots as far back as the Roman Empire (Neo Classicism being an example). Western culture riding off into the sunset as the sun rises in the East. Is this not a metaphor for the expectations of life and death in these cultures? It’s strange to think that the threads from the east, having been assimilated into cultural pieces within the museum, present me with an object that I perceive as being decorative, through a universal ability to look, but a limiting learned western perception of what can be seen.
It reminds me of something the art historian Ernst Gombrich observed in his book The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art:
“There is nothing the abstract painter . . . dislike[s] more than the term ‘decorative’, an epithet which reminded him of the familiar sneer that what he had produced was at best pleasant curtain material” (The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979, 62).
In this instance I was happy to make curtain material paintings that actively champion the subjective and the banal. These paintings would have a breathability about them,
they would examine the relationship between decoration and abstraction, have no dependency on a frame, and have the innate ability to conceal and reveal, retaining an inherent attribute to textiles and tapestries.
The paintings make the invisible visible, not only in the exhibition space itself by obscuring other artwork in the space, but also the via painter’s body dressed in T-shirts that merge with the paintings compositions, coexisting harmoniously by being folded and dyed together producing wearable clothing mimicking the exact compositions of the paintings on the shirts themselves. The paintings would also resist gesture, have a new relationship to the body and have any content created by chance which I believe is an equally interesting conception of painting today, they are paintings because I place them in the context of painting, I am the artist, and I am a painter. And as it seems in the context of the exhibition, I am now a weaver of the visible and the verbal.
V – East, West and the Viewer
Within the compositions of the paintings and T-shirts I wanted to incorporate a sense of duality. A productive tension dealing with two different strands of thought simultaneously, textiles and Claudius, East and West, verbal and visual, abstraction/decoration, this sense of duality was also a reference to Duality of Patterning which is a design feature of language – a characteristic of human language whereby speech can be analysed on two levels: (1) as made up of meaningless elements (i.e. a limited inventory of sounds) and (2) as made up of meaningful elements (i.e. a virtually limitless inventory of words). It is a characteristic of language noted firstly by the linguist Charles Hockett in 1960.
It was interesting to me to think about a duality of
patterning in relation todecorative abstract painting. To incorporate a mirroring effect with a sense of duality within the compositions of the paintings and T-shirts, I firstly used a folding technique with the fabrics, secondly I used a powder tie-dying technique. The relevance of using tie-dying as the determining factor in the composition and colouring in the paintings
is to do with a pun on the words Dye and Die (the relationship to the folding technique relates to the texts surrounding Baroque sculpture by Leibniz and Deleuze). If we summarise the Western version of the history of abstract painting, and modernism’s ultimate end goal, which resulted in the declaration of painting as being dead, due to it having reached a final reduction in form and content, then the procedure of tie-dye in relation to a contemporary painter becomes suggestive of the problems entailed in relating a current painting practice to a history that had no interest in supporting a present progression of the medium.
Another element I thought interesting to the exhibition was the place and manner in which the paintings and T-shirts were dyed. After the paintings and T-shirts were folded so as to ensure symmetrical compositions in both, they were manipulated by hand into various organic forms, tied up and then dyed in a tank. The forms had a chrysalis aesthetic about them. As the dye was left on them, they absorbed what pigment they could over time. Afterwards they would be untied from the small bundles they had originally been formed into, shaken out, dried and hung as paintings. I felt the beginning form which was reminiscent of a chrysalis was more in tune with an Eastern relationship towards death, a transfiguration. Due to this I exhibited a sculptural piece in the exhibition titled “The mat maker” which I thought represented an eastern influence in relation to the decorative arts and tapestries in Lyon, juxtaposed against investigations into Western visual culture.
The folding and dyeing produces an effect similar to what is seen in a Rorschach on the paintings and T-shirts, subjectivity is then encouraged in the compositions of the paintings, leaving the viewer to respond to what they visualise in the subjective formations on the fabrics hanging in front of them and eliciting questions around the value of the subjective experience, the relationships formed between painting and language, and the role of the viewer when confronted with painting.
VI – A Necessary Theatricality within the Exhibition
The revealing of Claudius behind the curtain, and his sudden revelation that he is not facing death, feeds again into the theatrical and formal within historical painting. Think of the collapse of the frame by 17th century Baroque painters, a historical era within painting that also championed decadence in design. In Present, Perfect, Slur the actual physical disappearing and appearing (invisible/visible) of the spectator being able to enter behind the large scale painting “Teeth and Tongue” (below) – which as a painting is essentially frameless – is to view the exhibition from the inside out, behind the painting, beyond the exhibition.
Another aspect of theatricality in painting, the “trying on” of painting, is the example of the artist “wearing painting” through the T-shirts, re-referencing the notion of performativity inherent to painting, costume or travesty. Underneath the bust of the Emperor Claudius on the tie dyed T-shirts is the caption “C C C CLAU……SE”. A clause in language can be dependent or independent within a sentence, very much like the T-shirts that replicate the designs from sections of the paintings and exist dependently or independently away from the Tie-Dyed paintings, a play on the name of Claudius and his stammer and repetition. Not only do those tie dyed T-shirts exist as a visual example of a clause in language, they also exist as another example of a structure within language: recursion. Recursion is a thought, formed within a thought, an example of this would be Descartes’ “Je pense, donc je suis” – “ I think therefore I am” – something that we believe to be unique to human beings. A thought formed within a thought which has the ability to exist dependently or independently from its context; another example of contemporary painting and another example of agency and subjectivity in artworks?
Recursion is universal among humans; humans must be able to think that other humans think. And they must be able to think that other people know that other people think.
Simultaneously a new visual reference is made in the artist’s golden cap. The wearing of the cap by the artist, casually backwards on his head, could be equally seen as a casual re-examination of painterly histories delivered by the artist with broken French and English explanations through performance within the context of the exhibition; however the adornment of wings on the cap is visually referential to either/or the Roman and Greek god Mercury/Hermes (the god(s) of thieves and travel). The cap acts as an example of a duality of the two gods existing in unity but is also referential to Myth (with some audience members believing it to be Gallic). The cap is present to evoke these dualities that exist in unity and mythology in the context of painting.
Let’s think about the “circumstances of circulation” when the duplications of Claudius’ bust, adorning the tie-dyed T-shirts, circulate in the exhibition space, either worn by the artist, spectators or consumers, under the “circumstances of circulation”. The appropriating of the Emperor Claudius as a fashionable icon, and re-purposing him into a new context within the exhibition to be worn on the body of the artist, or the bodies of the spectator has effects in relation to myth also. Exploiting the image in this manner is an example of second order signification which is in fact also another example of mythologising a subject.
It is interesting to think of how John Berger describes notions of myth within painting in his book, Ways of Seeing
“ A painting of Greek or ancient figures was automatically more highly esteemed than a still-life, a portrait or a landscape. Except for certain exceptional works in which the painter’s own personal Lyricism was expressed, these mythological paintings strike us today as the most vacuous of all. They are like tired tableaux in wax that won’t melt. Yet their prestige and their emptiness were directly connected. Until very recently – and in certain milieux even today – a certain moral value was ascribed to the study of the classics. This was because the classic texts, whatever their intrinsic worth, supplied the higher strata of the ruling
class with a system of references for the forms of their own idealized behaviour. As well as poetry, logic and philosophy, the classics offered a system of etiquette. They offered examples of how the heightened moments of life – to be found in heroic action, the dignified exercise of power, passion, courageous death, the noble pursuit of pleasure – should be lived, or, at least, should be seen to be lived. Yet why are these pictures so vacuous and so perfunctory in their evocation of the scenes they are meant to recreate? They did not need to stimulate the imagination. If they had, they would have served their purpose less well. The purpose was not to transport their spectator – owners into new experience, but to embellish such experience as they already possessed.
Sometimes the whole mythological scene functions like a garment held out for the spectator – owner to put his arms into and wear. The fact that the scene is substantially, empty, facilitates the ‘wearing’ of it.”
Why would the artist be interested in any notion of Myth within the exhibition? Is the notion of Myth relevant to the western canon of art history?
In the Gallo Roman Museum in Lyon, you can see the Table Claudienne or Claudian Tablet (it was found in the very area of the city that the exhibition took place, and in the same area where the sanctuary of The Three Gauls, a pagan altar that once existed in the Croix-Rousse area of the city but the exact whereabouts of which remain unknown). It is a lengthy record of an inscribed speech by Claudius before the Roman Senate in 48 AD. It was a proposal to allow monied, landed citizens from further Gaul to enter the Senatorial class, and thus the Senate itself describing in detail why, from that day forth, the Gauls would be able to vote in the Roman senate. What the Claudian tablet expresses is inclusion. Currently in France, I believe the notion of inclusion again to be particularly relevant. On the topic of inclusion it is interesting to think about artistic inclusion also. Who designates status to the artist in society today, what prescription is necessary for a relevant artistic practice in the eyes of arts councils, MFA programmes, awarding bodies? Is it a question of style? Is it a question of identity, cultural relevance, visual quality? Is it the ability for an artist to speak about their artistic practice? Good market value? Should artists be seen as people who occupy particular positions in society, who work under the constraints and broadly within the belief/system of that society, rather than as individual creators for whom anything is possible? Is it a question of understanding the generalisations of “ism’s”? Being able to utilise theories against visual languages? Is it the role of the artist to answer questions or is it the role of the artist to pose new questions?
What if in this case the artist is suggesting that the “Ism” is in fact a myth? And the postmodern position within painting, the fragmentation of modernism with no belief in progress, is nothing more than a myth also? Or perhaps modernism is the myth (modernism in painting, not human history, the artist values science and enlightenment proposals but can be seen here to question the notions of absolute truths and absolute universals that are incorporated into modernism in art), modernism in paintings two dimensional characteristic of flatness is in fact not unique to painting and is shared with writing. Or modernism’s belief that successful painting acknowledged the surface of painting giving it its ‘quality’. Modernist painting also refuted narrative, and as we can see here in this very text (and the artist’s performance in the exhibition), that context, narratives and use of language that are woven into the meaning of this exhibition are all equally important elements with again the artist as weaver of the visible and verbal.
The artist as Mercury/Hermes with the painting “Teeth and Tongue” at Velours Royal, Lyon, France 2016.
It is also of interest in the painting “Teeth and Tongue” the letters ‘I’ ‘S’ ‘M’ are inscribed across the lower half of the painting. This can be read as an ‘ism’ in relation to the last one hundred years or so of paintings histories but it can also be read as ‘I SM’: the initials of the artist, signifying identity. But is the identity of the artist and exhibition dependent on a linear canon of modernist thought or is it separate, situating a subjective artistic identity that is dependent on paintings and painters’ immediate circumstantial environment. The top half of the work of “Teeth and Tongue” has the inscription “The painter making the straight warp of time visible” (in Times New Roman font) insinuating a ‘straight warp’ of time visible, an oxymoron which could be seen as readdressing the meta narrative (a focal point of postmodernism) of western painting.
Perhaps there is something to re-examine here in relation to the French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire’s explanation and version of what he termed modernity. In “The Painter of Modern Life” Baudelaire articulates a sense of difference from the past and describes a peculiarly modern identity. The modern, in this context, does not mean merely ‘of the present’ but represents a particular attitude to the present.
Baudelaire could define modernity as follows: ‘ by “modernity” I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.’ (The Painter of Modern Life, p. 13) These two aspects – the transitory or fleeting on the one hand and the eternal on the other – were two sides of a duality. There was a mutual dependence and a productive tension between them. Ironically Baudelaire argued, for example, that painters should paint figures in contemporary dress, rather than in archaic costumes from the past, and that the contemporary, in all its diverse and fleeting guises, had indeed its own heroic or epic dimension.
It is these ideas and influences (among others) that accumulate themselves into the exhibition Present Perfect Slur which took place in Velours Royal, Lyon, France, 2016. An exhibition that makes the viewer question what they might expect from a painting show. The exhibition elicits subjective responses to visual imagery from viewers and allows them to respond and think about languages in relation to weaving histories, visual and otherwise, it also allows them to actively observe a productive tension between paintings’ potentials of representation, elasticity, and infiltration in a contemporary context.