PAINTER IN THE AUTUMN OF THE MEDIA AGES
Seed Drawing (1998) Ink on paper. 3-1/2 x 5 inches (8.9 x 12.7 cm)
Looking at the evolution of Philip Taaffe’s paintings over the last two years, particularly with regard to the recent examples presented here, one can hardly fail to grasp their marked iconographic shift. His signature geometrical/architectural patterns of imaging, lifted from both the history of art and the experience of things themselves, have been slowly supplanted by the inscription of plant and animal shapes. In addition to revitalizing (re-ﬁguring) the symbolic inhabitations of his pictures, these elements have further contributed to shattering and dis-organizing the order of both the architecture and the geometry that until now had oriented the work’s narrative and construction. The primary grammar of printing and collaging images, and of saturating or staining the canvas’s ground with acrylic color, has continued to define the artist’s means of production. But the iconographical mutation in content from art history to natural history has established a new level of conceptual/existential articulation of the object (and of the Subject) of painting. This vital accent, now flowing within a gestural line, subtly recalls the meandering erotic mysticism of Art Noveau calligraphy. Most of all, it revisits and re-visions the ‘Naturality’ of Abstract Expressionism, perhaps in quest of a massive liquidation of the post-industrial geometrizing of a Minimalism which has been seen as the categorical imperative of the American Aesthetic. For example, plants and insects had informed the imagery of Scarabesque and Siraspatha, in 1993-94, but they were then still geometrically arrayed or rigidly shaped, with shards of mathematical thought still resisting the ﬂuidiﬁcation of the patterning. Afterward, art history and natural history managed to cohabit in the same pictures for several years, until a process of near complete ‘naturalization’ took hold of Taaffe’s iconography.
What relevant, formal/ideological issues can be raised by this shift in the artist’s imagery, that might in turn reorient the observer/reader of contemporary art toward symbolic incarnations of abstractionism in painting? Does its import merely consist in denoting an evolution that only matters inside the artist’s biography? Does it signify an emerging awareness of the growing threats to the earth’s environment, or the thematization of newly liberated, erotic/archetypal impulses? Does painting have to be issue-oriented in order to meet the requirements for acceptance, or for survival, in today’s Advertising-dominated culture? And what should those issues eventually be? The purely presentational, the merely political, the simply aesthetical, or just the sociological? In much recent art criticism it seems that advanced painting is being insistently asked to justify its existence from a cultural/theoretical standpoint. At one end of the argument there is the New Media’s acceleration of techno-craft, which generates claims of an obsolescence of painting as producer of signiﬁcation. At the other end there are the Marxist ideologues, linguistically (if not stylistically) disempowered by the collapse of the political, social, and economic codes of reference provided by Eastern European or Third World socialisms, who are negating the importance of the object to contemporary art history, asserting there can be instead only an art history of contemporary culture. Does Art belong indeed to the history of the goods, or to the history of the Gods? Marx’s misprophecy (or just misreading) of the ﬁnal solution of class conﬂicts, and the accompanying theorem that a culture of the Proletariat will succeed the culture of the Bourgeoisie, reveals the ongoing Marxist ideologism about the fetishistic character of modernist art as being the biggest fetish of all. The resistance of Painting to the de-metaphysicizing barrage of both the New Media and the New Class ideologues arises from its primal impulse to restore the magical mode(l) of its beginning, as prototypically exempliﬁed in the caves of Lascaux. And since in the post-l990s political ‘world reordering’ the New Media and the New Class have begun in effect massively feeding on each other, this will undoubtedly generate in turn new art/language conﬁgurations, which may not become fully visible until the next century.
In Paris in 1531 the ‘occult philosopher’ Agrippa ab Nettesheim published a long, politically astute, and denunciatory essay, “On the Unreliability and Vanity of the Human Sciences” (De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum declamatio invectiva). Himself a kind of ‘culture theorist’ ante litteram, Agrippa developed in this book a sort of negative encyclopedia of all branches of knowledge of his time, including of course painting, which he calls ars monstrosa (both monstrous and marvelous), solely invented in order to seduce the souls of men (invenit artem istam in tentationem animae hominum). Painting had been “originated by evil demons to induce in men vanity, lust, and superstition,” and its ﬁrst creators were people who, in the words of St. Paul, had “transformed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of the corruptible: man and birds, quadrupeds and serpents.” Yet, Agrippa adds (and I am not sure that the telling of this story is completely devoid of a philo-Reformation sarcasm), while traveling in Italy he “learned that it is impossible to deny painting some credibility (autoritatem).” For he found himself, in Rome, in the middle of a dispute amongst the clergy concerning the ways of the monastic habit, and was driven by this to begin researching the origins of the cowl. He scoured the whole of the Old Testament, and then of the New, but could ﬁnd nothing. Then one day, visiting a convent and looking at some frescoes, he suddenly saw before his eyes “a devil in a cowl (diabolus cucullatus), precisely, who was tempting Christ in the desert.” And so he concludes, with a provocative and counter-iconological theorem, gavisus sum plurimum reperisse me in picturis quod hactenus nequivi in literis: “I was very much delighted that I had found in painting what until then I had been unable to ﬁnd in the text.” Which somewhat demonstrates a priori a bit of a rush to judgement when the ‘culture theorists’ pretend, as Boris Groys does in a recent issue of Artforum, that “today the image with commentary no longer interests us as much as the illustrated text,” i.e., that the function of art cannot go beyond that of “providing a good illustration for a [theoretical] text.”
In Taaffe’s new pictures one may see the ‘text’ alluded to, ideographically, in his sequential articulation of icons on the canvas, for example, in the linear ordering of seeds, seedlings, leaves, and ﬂowers. However intensely those icons may break the deadness of Minimalist symmetry, the linear ordering still generates ‘reading’ patterns in the staccato succession of the images. One may even suspect or guess the ‘text’ in the bookish provenance of the pictures’ proliferating ideograms: the seeds and seedcases of Garden of Light and Loculus are lifted from M. Meurer’s “Comparative Morphology of Ornaments and Plants” [Vergleichende Formenlehre des Ornamentes und der Pﬂanze: Dresden, 1909]. Moreover, the serpents of Monocled Cobra and King Snake have evidently been re-photographed from book illustrations and then silkscreened, ﬁrst directly onto the canvas and later onto Gampi paper to be collaged onto the canvas. The relation between printed and painted images is present from the very beginning of Taaffe’s work, as is a Warholian/conceptual strategy for inscribing with mechanical (re-productive) immediacy a media-shaped reality into an invented iconography. The visual metaphors popping from the pictures are, however, pure discoveries of the painting process. On the one hand they are pictorial metaphors, for in emphasizing the sharp edges and shaping lines of the appropriated graphic images, drawing is reinvented as the leading voice of the painting, with color becoming the inﬂecting music that makes their interaction emit a full signiﬁcation. But on the other hand, through the artist’s conflation of distant yet corresponding icons, of colors and symbols, of processes and images, the paintings evolve into conceptual metaphors which emanate a meaning that transcends the mere summation of all the single stages of the work’s making.
Loculus (1997) Mixed media on canvas. 88 x 114-1/2 inches (223.5 x 291 cm)
In the three canvases shown here, as Nature is conceptually mediated by its cultural (re)presentation through book and photography, so too is Painting mediated by the mechanical process of silkscreening and the collaging of pre-printed serial images. In Loculus, thickly layered, pictogram-like renditions of lilies, seedlings, and seedcases in two different sizes have been silkscreened ﬁrst in oil paint directly onto the raw canvas—graphic and architecturalized—in hues of green, red, and blue, of varying intensities. Then two different kinds of seeds, each in two different sizes and sometimes in a reversed position to each other, which first had been silkscreened with enamel ink on water-resistant Italian packaging paper, in turn have been collaged onto the canvas, and at times superimposed on the lilies, seedlings, and seedcases that had been imprinted directly on the canvas’s surface. Whereas some of the lilies and pods are stained, in order to soften the linear sharpness of the silkscreen and to create a palimpsestic density for the imaginal ‘text,’ the collaged seeds instead have been bathed in watercolor and then squeezed dry before being applied onto the canvas, to add texture to text, and another chromatic layer to the work. While the seeds dominate the lower part of the picture, the lilies are protagonists in the upper part; the relation between seed and grown plant thus introduces a symbolic narrative: if the cycle of life is paralleled by the process of painting the picture, the seeds inscribe a generative power and the lilies carry an intimation of resurrection. (This iconographic theme is also referred to in the work’s title, the word loculus denoting in antiquity a receptacle for the dead, and in botany a cell of the reproductive organs of a plant.) The visual interplay of their contrasting phallic and vaselike shapes also imprints a dialogue of the complementary masculine and feminine principles, with claims towards a universiality of Desire. So Loculus seems to achieve an almost perfect balance between the additive and subtractive polarities that are always operative in Taaffe’s work, where a socially-formed ‘text’ appears constitutionally grafted onto a canvas with its own history of previously unmediated drawing and brushwork.
A diffused sexuality of plants, but here with almost yoni/linga Tantric connotations, similarly marks the celestially pictorial Garden of Light. Its ground is literally awash with different shades of celestial blue, at the center of which there rises, in four rows of seeds superimposed on ferns, a totem-like tower of angelic force. In Garden of Light the canvas was ﬁrst imprinted in oil with large silkscreened shapes of sage seeds and images of ferns, then painted over with an acrylic wash of three different tones of blue. The blue decreases in intensity as it gradually moves from the edges to the center of the picture, where large stains of three different shades of yellow underline the distinct red, black, and blue seeds, and the many paler green and blue ferns. The seeds and pods are generally oriented toward the top of the picture; only in the lower row does a trinity point toward east, north, and west. The ferns lie almost as background shadows, and the sharply deﬁned contours of the seeds are decidedly phallic at one end and markedly concave at the opposite end: figures of centrality, verticality, and sexuality seem to direct the work toward the metaphor of a general and pronounced erotization. However, this is counteracted and sublimated by the ﬁnal, collaged superimposition of another contrasting totemic column, this time of white (or rather ivory) calligraphic shapes silkscreened in enamel on Gampi paper, plainly round in the middle and sharply pointed at their double ends. They are letters selectively taken from penmanship exercise books of the Sinhalese alphabet, visibly chosen for their ascending degree of choreographic movement. Arranged vertically in ﬁve rows of two identical letters each, with each letter in counterpoise to the other, they are interlaced at bottom, and then gradually distanced as they rise toward the top of the picture, as if their simulation of text and inscription of language were to convey a mystical opening up of the image to a hierogplyphic transcendence. The still important link for Taaffe between painting and experience transpires from this account he has given of the originating memory lying behind the imagery of Garden of Light:
“The town of Nuwara Eliya is in a valley of the highest mountain in Sri Lanka, Mount Pedro, and is surrounded by tea plantations: Nuwara Eliya is translated in English as ‘City of Light.’ Very near Nuwara Eliya, on the outskirts, are the Hakgala Botanical Gardens—originally set up by the British for the cultivation of quinine, the anti-malarial medicine. These enormous gardens are themselves surrounded by an ancient fern forest; and there are steep trails through this forest on the side of a mountain. Families of monkeys leap across the canopy above the density of fern overgrowth which seems to define, and at the same time cover, these trails. It is my experience of this place I wanted to allude to in Garden of Light.. It is interesting to note that Sinhalese is an Indo-European language, as opposed to the Dravidian languages which predominate in southern India. My feeling, also, is that the influence of Buddhist culture has been decisive in the formation of Sinhalese letters—the roundness and softness of the shapes. Finally, we should not forget that Ananda Coomaraswamy, the renowned scholar and curator of Asian art who spent a significant part of his career at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
In its treatment of the interaction between symbolic colors and photo-generated images, Garden of Light evidences that the ‘fullness’ of painting cannot be envisioned simply in terms of smart brushwork in oil paint on a primed surface, just as its emptiness cannot be measured only by the degrees of self-negation that a picture enacts with respect to the history of the medium. The allover proliferation of twisting black, blue, green, and crimson serpents over the intensely red ground of Monocled Cobra and King Snake seems to evoke and mimic the gestural expanse of Pollock’s drip paintings, yet does not avoid the metaphorical surge of the snake pit or the long history of demonic and divinic associations that culture and religion have piled on these erectile reptiles. Surely serpents do not signify nature less than seeds and ﬂowers do, but the intertwining and overlapping of Nature and Culture in this picture, just like the intertwining and overlapping of cobras and king snakes on its surface, carries all the psychological and aesthetic conﬂicts of which contemporary painting has become a repository. As in Garden of Light, the compounding of seeds, ferns, and Buddhist script suggests an angelic imagery, with their transparency and shadowiness resulting in an ectoplasmic ascending of astral creatures, the chthonic implications of the snakes in this work conversely insinuate a falling down, an infernal descent. Here too the picture started with an oil silkscreening on the raw canvas of four separate screens of monocled cobras and horizontally striped king snakes facing each other, in battle formation as it were. To underline the depth of the battle, the artist used ten to twelve degrees of density of the various oil colors in imprinting the snakes. He then saturated the canvas with a deep red acrylic wash, over which he later collaged six different sets of striped king snakes and monocled cobras, silkscreened onto Gampi paper in a blend of crimson, green, and blue hues, but now in a position of rest rather than battle. Another layer of deep red wash was finally applied to the surface of the picture, again to blend battle and rest into a single field of Demonic energy. In this way Taaffe exorcises the demons of Abstract Expressionism still haunting American Art as the last enunciation of the Sublime that painting has been able to sustain.
[Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore]
Published on the occasion of the exhibition
October 18 – November 15, 1997
at the Mario Diacono Gallery
208 South Street, Boston
Text copyright © Mario Diacono 1997. All rights reserved.