In 2016 Tony Oates curated Repurpose at the Drill Hall Gallery. The exhibition took its impetus from the revelation of Cubist collage and the re-positioning of the found object to act as a signifier, sparking a catalytic chain of events. Separated by several generations from the founders of Cubism, the artists in the exhibition – Matt Arbuckle, Peter Atkins, Chris Carmody, Nicole Ellis, Erwin Fabian, Robert Motherwell, Elizabeth Newman and Trish Roan – tackled the depiction and understanding of our world through abstract means. Their art featured a foreign object, a third party, a ready-made pretext or a pre-existing structure from which a fresh outcome or insight was generated. Repurpose was a celebration of poetic transformation, intuitive response and the creative process of invention.
In his catalogue essay, Tony Oates asked “How does one approach representing a world that has been predicated on a false understanding? How does one confront the inconceivable?” Highly relevant questions in the world today. In a series of three posts we are reprinting the essay here, accompanied by images from the exhibition.
for part one of three click here:
part two of three
What is the most vital moment of realisation – of creation – held in common by all these artists? Within objects, found materials and discarded substances there lies an invitation to create, to perform a poetic transformation. In this regard, Peter Atkins can speak for his peers and predecessors: ‘I am totally directed by found materials and I am constantly surprised by the possibilities they present,’ he says.(8)
Atkins’ practice consists of collecting, cataloguing, analysing and synthesising objects that, for him, convey an irresistible aesthetic fascination and emotive charge. The artist sees his Journal series (see Brunswick Journal) as an experiential recording of his environment, binding together the most disparate found materials to develop episodes vivified by memory. Memory is ‘just the intersection of mind and matter,’(9) stated Henri Bergson. From this Bertrand Russell extrapolated that ‘things remembered survive in memory, and thus interpenetrate present things: past and present are not mutually external but are mingled in the unity of consciousness.’(10) Hence time does not function in a linear direction, but can be refracted by the multiplicity of association and the richness of felt immediacy to precipitate a creative realisation.
The spectator of Atkins’ Journal must correlate a plurality of cross-references, deducing hypothetical connections. The human imagination spontaneously strives to determine an order, even one that is not possible to verify or which cannot be precisely fixed.
In contrast to the dispersal of attention in the Journal series, Atkins’ large paintings (see The Bix Beiderbecke Legend) are commandingly single and static in focus. The pretext here is a found object which is an already sophisticated graphic construct. The record covers of the 1950s and 60s were created by graphic designers steeped in the Bauhaus aesthetic. Atkins effects a purification of their designs and reveals the elegant, striking, timelessly stylish abstract underpinnings. It is the informational content (the names, titles, typography, logos, photographic inserts) that Atkins purges and the compositional essence that he foregrounds.
In his essay Entropy and Art, Rudolf Arnheim notes that ‘tension reduction is achieved when, in interest of orderliness, superfluous components are eliminated from a system and needed ones supplied.’(11) However it is important to note that in Peter Atkins’ case tensions are by no means abolished. In the EP Project (see Let’s get Together (LP Project)) there is the discreet application of collaged elements, causing a subtle effect of fragmentation, in that the collage does not entirely support the imperatives of the graphic template. The gritty materiality of the support is affirmed in opposition to the hard-edged smoothness of the graphic configuration. By reducing the complexity of formal relationships and carefully moderating the competing claims of a slightly discordant materiality, Atkins retains a productive dialectical tension.
The pre-existence of a chosen object acts as a poetic source for Chris Carmody’s recent series of paintings, where books provide the model (see 803 ABR). A quotation that the artist is particularly fond of comes from Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson:
‘Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries.’(12)
It may be claimed that the whole history of human thought is contained within the pages of books – yet, as Dr Johnson implies, there are things we know best ‘in themselves,’ through empirical experience. Carmody’s paintings highlight this discrepancy by contradicting the solidity of the book with the fleeting, vaporous qualities of light. Carmody’s subjects have been selected from various libraries where they have been shelved in some instances for decades, coexisting all this time with their neighbouring titles. Shafts of light beaming onto the stacks effect a slow degradation: the books begin to fade. The profile of one book may act as a shield to its neighbour, masking out the light to imprint an echo of its form on the opposing cover. The books have been catalogued, arranged and codified before they were encountered by the artist – subjected to particular administrative, physical and temporal circumstances which define their appearance and ultimately recommend them as pretexts for Carmody’s paintings.
As he says:
‘There is a relationship between the books and the paintings as objects, which has been mediated through my sight and hands, with the measured application of line and edges soft and hard, colours and other things. A canvas is stretched to resemble the proportions of
a particular book, at an exact scale. But the painting can only be exactly itself.’(13)
Carmody’s paintings hinge on the dualism of their subjects: the ambivalence of presence and absence, objectness and immateriality, mathematical certainty and intuition, presentation and representation. They make visible a durational act: in Creative Evolution, Bergson noted that ‘form is only a snapshot view of transition.’(14) As a foil to the dreamy, metaphysical, abstract qualities of Carmody’s paintings, the tokens of representation – the trompe-l’œil book spine, call numbers, areas of removed tape and the publication details – jolt the spectator back to a world of hard facts. A cyclical loop ensues, recalling Bergson’s epochmaking vision: ‘We see the material world melt back into a single flux.’(15) Indeed, the paradoxes of Carmody’s art align his paintings almost perfectly with Bergson’s characterisation of an ‘image’:
‘By image we mean a certain existence which is more than that which the idealist calls a representation, but less than that which the realist calls a thing, – an existence placed halfway between the “thing” and the representation.’(16)
Carmody intentionally plays on the viewer’s knowledge of modern abstraction, collapsing the abstractionists’ evocation of sublimity (a metaphor for creative force) with the evocation of the destructive powers of light. He is aware of the fact that, during its long history, the discourse on the sublime has been fixated on events of light – sunrise, sunset, the rainbow, lightning, moonlight. Carmody’s paintings attest to the transformative power of light, and perhaps nothing among his works evokes the sublime as potently as Inner North (illus. p. 11). As Apollinaire wrote in The Cubist Painters: Aesthetic Meditations: ‘All bodies are equal before the light and their modifications result from the luminous power that constructs at its whim.’(17)
For Apollinaire it was light whose vibrations activated the musical instruments in Braque’s paintings, although ‘it is Saint Cecilia herself who makes his instruments sound.’(18) Here Apollinaire looked to Mallarmé’s poem Sainte Cecilia (1865) where an old viola sits faded beneath a stained-glass window. Light streaming through the glass and the apparition of Saint Cecilia, her wings forming a harp, stimulates the instrument to produce music from the void.(19) The poem infers that a virtual musicality exists within the instrument. Within its void is a latency awaiting imminent manifestation.
In Picasso and Braque’s collages this metaphorical aptitude, the ability to be activated and become awakened to participate, was of central concern. The form of the guitar or mandolin was completely mutable and could alter into a cipher for a head, a woman’s body, or a womb pregnant with thought.(20) Papiers collés such as Picasso’s Guitar, sheet music and wine glass (1912) or his Guitar constructions (1912) are centred around a potent empty space, ‘au creux néant musicien’ (whose hollow nothingness is musical). From the condensed void a note forms, resonates and proceeds to engulf the space that surrounds it.
Like Picasso’s Guitar, sheet music and wine glass, Elizabeth Newman’s collages (see Immaterial space isn’t necessarily ethically superior 2) pivot around reversals of positive and negative, affirming the plasticity of space and the ambiguous character of the void. ‘I like to bring “the nothing” into being for some reason. Making a cut, finding a hole; pointing to a void,’ she says.(21) Newman’s art emphasises an inherent division in her subjects – of inside and outside, object and image: a wood-grain monolith becomes porous, shedding its mass; a breathing volume devours space while simultaneously radiating it back into the world; an object corresponds to the breadth of its possibility. As the poet Francis Ponge wrote:
‘Only here can we see how, in the void, things are made and unmade, how they are born and die and are reborn different, by the permutation of their elements. And so we see the whole, where nothing is ever created out of nothing.’(22)
For these artists the void might be synonymous with Bergson’s fourth dimension: the realm of imagination, its infinite reach offering the freedom to construct at one’s whim. (23) Newman’s found object, Untitled (illus. p. 31), not only focuses on the void as a gateway – open to anything and everything beyond it – but may also function symbolically, denoting the creative evolution of something out of nothing. ‘For me’ Newman says, ‘artmaking is an expression and manifestation of the artist’s subjectivity. It is some Thing of the subject made incarnate.’ We may recall here Heidegger’s famous philosophical meditation, The Thing, where he considers the jug as a counterpart of the void, its character determined by a core of emptiness.
For the jug Heidegger traces an ontological pathway from the origins of clay in the earth, mapping in addition a conceptual and etymological pathway of the word thing, revealing that the old German word dinc conveyed an unexpectedly rich range of meanings. Dinc signified a gathering; a coming together for deliberation or discourse; an ‘affair or matter of pertinence.’ Thus, for Heidegger, a ‘thing’ implies not only the object’s resilient, assertive autonomy, but also its social, intersubjective context.24 For Newman too, a found object, removed from its original purpose can become a overdetermined Thing. The object is transfigured into a repurposed entity: the gate now operates as a gate for our gazing, a gate for reflection, a gate for poetry.
Note: Part three of this essay will be reproduced shortly.
8 Artist correspondence with the author (questionnaire, 3 June
9 Henri Bergson (trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer),
Matter and Memory, (New York: Macmillan Co, 1911), p. xii.
10 Bertrand Russell, ‘Philosophy of Bergson’, The Monist, vol. 22
(1912), p. 341. https://archive.org/details/jstor-27900381 (22
11 Rudolf Arnheim, Entropy and art: An Essay on Disorder and Order
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 43.
12 James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, p. 387. Quoted by the
artist in correspondence with the author (questionnaire, 7 August
13 Correspondence with the author, ibid.
14 Henri Bergson (trans. Arthur Mitchell), Creative Evolution (New
York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911), p. 319. https://archive.
org/details/creativeevolu1st00berguoft (22 August 2016).
15 ibid., p. 390.
16 Henri Bergson, Mind and Matter, op. cit., p. vii.
17 Guillaume Apollinaire, Les Peintres Cubistes: Méditations
Ésthétiques, op. cit., p. 478.
18 Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Georges Braque’, Exposition Georges Braque
(9-28 November 1908, Galerie Kahnweiler, Paris), quoted in Mark
Antliff and Patricia Leighten (eds), op. cit., p. 43.
19 See translation in Peter Daysan, op. cit., p. 24.
20 Works such as Braque’s The Portuguese Guitar Player (1911) are
clear in their structural reference to portrayals of the Virgin and
Child – an immaculate conception.
21 Correspondence with the author 7 June 2016, following quotes are
from this source unless noted.
22 Francis Ponge, op. cit., p. 68.
23 This idea was proposed by Guillaume Apollinaire in Les Peintres
Cubistes: Méditations Ésthétiques, op. cit., p. 482.
24 See Martin Heidegger (trans. Albert Hofstader), ‘The Thing’,
Poetry, Language, Thought (1971), pp. 163-184. http://people.