Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Agon Gallery

Five very different paintings in this particular room in the gallery. Black is not much used in European art, because it is seen as the colour of mourning and of evil, which is also the starting-point of most of the racism in the western world; ironically it is much used in Chinese and Japanese art, because there white is the colour of mourning. Black pigment was used in the earliest cave-paintings, because it could be obtained from the charcoal of the fires, but more recent artists have tended to avoid pure black, preferring to mix, say, ultramarine blue with cadmium orange or burnt umber to create a black that suits whatever it is they are trying to darken, shade, or emphasise. The tendency anyway is to paint grey.

1. Tribute to Sam Beckett (Black on White, 1977)

Beckett is the great reductionist of modern philosophical literature, he who strips away all veneers, all illusions, all that is prolix, and leaves us only with the most meaningless fundamentals of human existence, until there really does not seem much point in carrying on at all. "Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn. Front right, a door. Hanging near door, its face to wall, a picture. Front left, touching each other, covered with an old sheet, two ashbins. Center, in an armchair on castors, covered with an old sheet, Hamm." This, from "Endgame", is one of his least desolate landscapes; in "Not I" there is nothing but a lone beam of light focused on the actress' mouth, and in "Breath" just twenty-five seconds of silence preceded by a birth-cry and interrupted and terminated by someone inhaling and exhaling. Life, and Death of course, in the form of Zero Negative. "Breath" was the logical outcome of his fastidious use of silence throughout his work; where Harold Pinter would later invent the pregnant pause as an idiosyncrasy of theatrical writing and direction, it was Samuel Beckett who developed the silence as a form of musical notation, distinguishing the long from the short pause in much the same way that Mozart's Sonata K. 331, for example, distinguishes a regular andante, played at around 121 beats per minutes, from an andante grazioso, played at 120, though I have heard versions which rush the piece at 120 point 5. How, I wondered, might Beckett have drawn his own face, using the same principles that he used in the theatre? This portrait is of the left profile.
"Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." 

2. Obloquy on the Death of Samuel Beckett (White on Black, 1983)

In the first painting I paid tribute, because he was a remarkable man, gifted as a writer in both English and French, who transformed the theatre in a dozen ways, and influenced writers, artists and composers in their own realms. Tribute paid, now for the posthumous appraisal. Like Duschamp, who gave us Dada, Beckett's work provides the tombstone on the grave of western art, culture and intellectual life. The descent into the cul-de-sac began with Byron and Lermontov and Pushkin and early Turgenev, through the notion of "the superfluous man"; from there Nietzsche reduced Man to the nihilistic, supported by Schopenhauer and Heidegger, popularised by late Turgenev and Dostoievski, Melville's "Bartleby", and then a hundred other writers, artists, composers from the Absurdists to the Existentialists, all of whom concurred that, without the illusion of God, life is completely meaningless and pointless, and all artistic and literary endeavour merely the self-importance of the bourgeois elite. Blank canvases and Philip Glass silences and reworkings of Duschamp's toilet-bowl are all we appear to have left, outside the world of commercial entertainment. The great challenge to writers and artists and intellectuals in the first quarter of the 21st century is to find a way out of this dead end, by making the Zero Positive.
"Where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on." 

3. The Return of Mephistopheles

Because he always does return, no matter what we do to get rid of him. He returns, and not to the actual world, but to the foolishness and childishness of our psyche. This is what he looks like - pure black, or pure emptiness, however you prefer to imagine it.

4. Rear-Window

Probably the most difficult photograph I have ever taken (and yes, I am aware that this is meant to be an art gallery, and should not, in principle, include photographs). The view was from the back bedroom of my house in Crouch End, North London, in the autumn of 1989. Our long street of Victorian terraced houses backed onto another of the same, with postage-stamp gardens dividing us, and trees obscuring much of the voyeurism. On the other side of the window a very beautiful young woman was performing fellatio on a strapping youth of probably middle eastern origin, with arc-lights illuminating the room, and several of those silver umbrellas that we photographers use to focus the light precisely on the target. I had noticed the making of this home-porn movie several days earlier, but my wife felt that it was improper for us to look, and in truth both of us were less interested in the commonplace activities in that bedroom - which were no different from the ones we shared in our bedroom, except that we didn't film ourselves, and kept the curtains closed - than in the extraordinary impact of those arc-lights on the refractory capacities of the window, which at certain moments, at certain angles of the arc-lights and the moon, became opaque. For those of you who would like to see inside the window, I am sure it's on the Internet somewhere, but so are a million others, absolutely identical. The opacity of the window, which required an immensely long and slow shutter speed to catch it, is, I believe, unique.

5. Black Canvas

For a while I thought about titling this painting "Ferguson, Missouri, 2015", though "Soweto 1978" or "Wolverhampton, 1978" or any one of a thousand other dates would have served just as well. "A glimpse inside the mind of a member of the Ku Klux Klan" would probably put my life at risk, and "A glimpse inside the mind of a typical American or British police officer" might not improve my chances of getting help if I happen to be mugged or burgled. "Nightfall Over the Sea" would work at a more romantic-sentimental level, but in the end it is what it is, regardless of the semiotics of the title: a mere black canvas.

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