Complexity + Vehicles of time + Urban space
What am I on about?
I have been thinking about the difference between complexity and complicated and how I react to each. I have also been thinking about how chefs, distillers and vintners make use of time as an ingredient to add depth of flavour or complexity. I have been thinking about what it is that I respond to in a city. What is it about the places that I have loved and wanted to paint and all of the spaces that left me with a sense of disease and a reticence to return.
The secret is the ingredient of complexity and I am convinced that oil painting lends itself to the maturing of time. If I can harness this ingredient the way that the chef and the vintner does and master it as I do colour and brushstroke, the next door opens. But the question is: what is the vehicle for time in oil painting? The chef makes use of slow cooking, multi-level process’ and sometimes just allowing the elements to act. The vintner uses casks, the harvest seasons and bottle closing methods, so what is the vehicle in painting?
There is no reason to perfect too soon but what is the most beneficial method in painting to slow things down so that time can work her magic and complexity can creep in? Is slowing down the painting process sufficient to use time as an active pigment?
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Final January Painting
The January painting video
So why the Viaducts?
Good question and one that I have been asking myself since I chose to use them as the subject. It seemed to be a ‘no-brainer’ at the time but the more I look at them the more I am not sure what to do. After all, this is not meant to be a insightful and concise history on the structures nor a thoughtful, educated critique of the plans that have unfolded for this area of the city. At the time of choosing the Viaducts, they presented a meeting point for discourse as their presence and also the lack of presence of the rest of the Freeway system to which they were meant to be attached, represent varied political, racial, economical and urban dreams. They have been bullies, murderers, caretakers, capitalists, communists, friends, enemies and orphans. It is hard to keep in mind that this is about painting as it is easy to run with the prevailing temperature of a moment and think only about the story but the main question for me is where is the intersection with painting? I have chosen a naturally complex urban structure but where and what are the paintings? This is the question that lead me to understand that this collection while being the Death Mask of the Viaducts (they are intended to reflect the physical spaces which the Viaducts occupy and define), intersect with painting through the idea of complexity. All that stands now is to understand how to use time as a pigment to introduce a complexity similar to that of the Viaducts, into the paintings.
Initial observations on complexity
Googling the idea of complexity was not the best place to start directing my own thoughts on the difference between complex and complicated. My perspective did shift as I realized that the idea of complexity spills over into many fields and at the risk of descending down a rabbit hole I have restricted my thoughts for now to the area of what I guess could be included under the banner of urban sociology?
Complexity is different to and far more engaging than complicated and it is simplistically defined as a system made up of many parts, all of which have independent relationships to each other. Remove one part or break one part and it is virtually impossible to remedy because it is hard to understand how the parts interact with and influence each other. A complicated system is made up of many parts but they are not interlinked and can be thought of more in terms of linear relationships. Break one part and it is easy to understand and repair. In thinking about what I find invigorating in the city and culture, it is the complex that stimulates the imagination because it generates endless wondering. Complicated is fun but lacks the stimulation and intrigue. I am convinced that a sophisticated painting is a complex one possessing a depth of flavour and intrigue.
The second painting in progress
The Plaza. Oil on canvas. 60" x 60" - the final painting. Rositch Collection
Painting 2 Video: The Plaza
Complexity is instilled in painting when we understand destination and build in flexibility by taking the time to arrive thoughtfully. Not looking for the quickest route, not accepting the first solution but by examining the already existing layers and seeing what can be preserved and developed and what can be removed or reworked so that the final work is rich, multi layered and complex. Oil Painting is a perfect vehicle for complexity as it allows you to develop a conversation with a very visceral medium which allows for organic growth of the work.
Creating an active ingredient from time
Meandering along the idea of the iconic-soon-to-be-no-more-Vancouver-Viaducts, the areas of the urbanscape that invigorate and those that repulse and the realization that time is an important element lead me to thinking about time not just a passive passage but an active ingredient. The question then becomes one of how to activate it so that it works on something in a non destructive way and the answer seems to be relationship. Not the gooey community relationship stuff that can be bought at the corner kitsch store but the deviant, misaligned, misinformed and always narcissistic connections that we create between objects and people based on our often uncritical thoughts. So if time can be activated to be a positive ingredient which can introduce complexity through the mental strings that we attach to things, ideas and events – how can it be harnessed for use in painting? I return to the urban and the Viaducts for answers. It appears that the key is to introduce some guidance for use or the introduction of a new idea and then allowing the other to use their already existing relationships to create new ones with the area, idea or object and to surrender your control to this new relationship so that it has the ability to evolve in as many unique ways as there are people who interact with the original object or the use/interpretation that the relationships of others introduced. How much more invigorating can this be in painting as it literally means introducing and harnessing time by applying your marks in such a way that they activate the viewer by signalling that this is not a passive act, they are not consumers but co-creators and when they engage with the painting create a permissive space to do so and then surrender control of the completion of the painting to them.
Painting 3 in progress
3rd Painting: 49°16'36"7 N 123°05'50"7 W
In February 2017 I was invited by the African Descent Society BC, to exhibit the Death Mask body of works created to date and to provide an Artist talk. This talk and exhibition was part of the Hogan’s Alley memory exhibition and concert which was part of the Forum on People of African Descent and the UN International decade for people of African Descent.
The transcript of the video can be found here and the 26 minute video of the talk can be found below
Artist Talk on Death Mask and Complexity. Forum on people of African Descent, UN International Decade for people of African Descent and the Hogan's Alley Memory Exhibition and Concert
Notes on death masks
Death masks in Egypt
death mask of tutankhamun
Egyptian death masks were not for the living but for the dead as the dead needed to find their own bodies in order to live in the afterlife. In later periods the masks were idealized representations of the person but originally they captured the likeness of the person. Materials used varied from the first intermediate period onwards varied from cartonnage for poorer people to more precious materials for the richer. The masks served to protect the head and to provide recognition for the dead but more importantly they provided the face of who the person would be in their after life. The markings and materials chosen for the masks were indicative of the status that one was going to have in afterlife.
I like the intersection with painting on canvas and the fact that cartonnage is made from papyrus or linen which is covered in plaster. I also like that during the Ptolemaic period, papyrus that was waste was recycled into the cartonnage and as a result, some masks are providing us with valuable insight through the documents which were incorporated.
Death masks in Africa
death mask of Doei or Kwere
Death Masks in Africa tended to be idealized based on the beliefs of the group and the function that the mask had for the group. Unlike in Egypt, the masks were for the living not the dead as they were integral parts of the religious belief system which includes ancestor worship. They were not modeled after the person who had died but had relevant markers such as youthful features. Death masks were functional objects which were worn during ceremonies. Most often made of wood.
L'Inconnue de la Seine
The DeathMask of an unknown woman
The face of the unknown woman who drowned in the Seine in the 1800’s. This death mask had no purpose other than documentary, it was made by the mortician who tended to her after death who simply wanted to record this unknown woman’s visage because of the beauty that he saw in her face and expression. As time played out, the mask was replicated and became popular consumer item and the muse and subject for many artists including Man Ray.
The story is somewhat anecdotal as the mask is impossibly perfect to be that of a drowned woman especially as the muscles relax in death and decomposition and swelling take place quicker in water. I like though that it has influenced literature and art as she inspires the romantic imagination.
This woman’s death mask has ended up as a mass produced object as she is the face of the modern CPR doll.
Subject notes(Viaducts timeline)
links to follow up with and interesting links: