Alchemy, Artworks, RSA

The Second Coming

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The Second Coming, mixed media on wood panels 100 x 140 cm

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats

index: the cupric rockscape of Bellini, the Sound of Sleat, Holbein’s cranial anamorphosis, the melancolic geometry of Durer, Giordano Bruno’s On the Composition of Images, Signs and Ideas, Barney’s Canopic Chest, the lapis blue alchemical pelican (silica, lime, copper, and alkali), “the smoke of their torment”, Revelation 14:11, the dead trees of Calvary, the emblem of emblems, Piero’s trapped landscape; the glass domes (through their transparency and shine, have the virtue of simultaneously animating and distancing the objects within), Kandor, Carpaccio’s Preparation of Christ’s Tomb, with the anvil-like red stone of unction, The Beast of the Earth Makes Fire Come Down from the Heavens, the Apocalypse Tapestry of Angers, and Durer’s Flügel einer Blauracke, from which all of the colours in the work are derived.

 

Borges, Fiction, Natural History

Heavenly Emporium

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Jorge Luis Borges’ famous citation:

“Chinese encyclopedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.”

Alchemy, Artworks, Natural History

The Death of Magic

Ian Howard_The Death of Magic copyIan Howard: The Death of Magic 2015 mixed media on canvas 240 x 300cm

(photo Chris Park)

Wunderkammer as magic Wunderkammer as the death of magic

In 1565, Samuel Quiccheberg published the earliest known treatise on museums, the Inscriptiones vel tituli Theatri Amplissimi. Quiccheberg proposes a model for the ideal Wunderkammer as an ordered and comprehensive collection of naturalia and artificialia. A Wunderkammer was an encyclopedic collection in Renaissance Europe of types of objects whose categorical boundaries were yet to be defined. Modern terminology would categorise the objects included as belonging to natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art and antiquities. Renaissance Wunderkammer were private spaces, created and formed around a deeply held belief that all things were linked to one another through either visible or invisible similarities, and the belief that by detecting those visible and invisible signs and by recognising the similarities between objects, there would come an understanding of how the world functioned, and what was humanity’s place in it. But although everything can be connected – mystically – that is not to say everything is connected. The Wunderkammer became a machine for both the birth of reason and the death of magic. The dilemma of the Wunderkammer could ( and should ) be celebrated like the failure of Babel – for its polyphony of wondrous and beautiful mistranslations, misreadings and misunderstandings, and its grasp of the power of objects and beauty of ruins.

index: the geometry of Beuys, the mandragora, names for the Devil, the lost languages in which no books were written, Giordano Bruno On the Composition of Images, Signs and Ideas, the alchemical tree, the transcripts of Babel, Basilius Valentinus Ein kurtz summarischer Tractat, von dem grossen Stein der Uralten, Polpo, the Constructivist dart, the nautical charts from the Ship of Fools, Quaratesi saviour St. Nicolas, the devil’s footage of the temptation of St. Anthony, the Russian experiment, the damaged dragon of Bellini, the hieroglyphs which meant nothing, the glass domes ( through their transparency and shine, have the rare virtue of simultaneously animating and distancing the objects they cover), Mike Kelley’s Kandors, the inhabitants of Quixote’s windmills, MDF, Jorge Luis Borges Ramón Llull’s Thinking Machine, the experiments of Luigi Galvani, De Lama Lamina of Matthew Barney, wunderkammer as magic, wunderkammer as the death of magic.

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Fiction

A Yellow Rose J. L. Borges

Neither that afternoon nor the next did the illustrious Giambattista Marino die, he whom the unanimous mouths of Fame — to use an image dear to him — proclaimed as the new Homer and the new Dante. But still, the noiseless fact that took place then was in reality the last event of his life. Laden with years and with glory, he lay dying in a huge Spanish bed with carved bedposts. It is not hard to imagine a serene balcony a few steps away, facing the west, and, below, marble and laurels and a garden whose various levels are duplicated in a rectangle of water. A woman has placed in a goblet a yellow rose. The man murmurs the inevitable lines that now, to tell the truth, bore even him a little:
Purple of the garden, pomp of the meadow,
Gem of the spring, April’s eye . . .
Then the revelation occured: Marino saw the rose as Adam might have seen it in Paradise, and he thought that the rose was to be found in its own eternity and not in his words; and that we may mention or allude to a thing, but not express it; and that the tall, proud volumes casting a golden shadow in a corner were not — as his vanity had dreamed — a mirror of the world, but rather one thing more added to the world.
Marino achieved this illumination on the eve of his death, and Homer and Dante may have achieved it as well.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

Uncategorized

The Quays and Calvino

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The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1986).

The Brothers Quay are known for their animated films but in the 1980s they were also working as book illustrators and stage designers. Here are some of their paperback designs for Italo Calvino, part of a series they produced for Picador when the books were reprinted after his death.

Information about this aspect of the Quays’ work is virtually non-existent.  A pity that the publisher managed to credit the designs to the “Brothers Quai”.

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Our Ancestors (1986)

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Difficult Loves (1985).

The Calvino covers by the Quays at MOMA 2012.

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Artworks, Drawings

Turris Babel

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Turris Babel: Athanasius Kircher

The last of his books to be published during his lifetime, Turris Babel was Kircher’s attempt to reconstruct the specifics surrounding the famous biblical story, recounted in Genesis 10-11, of Nimrod’s attempt to build a tower that reached the heavens. Apart from his interest in ancient civilizations and biblical historicism, the story was of particular interest to Kircher as an account of the origin of languages, and, by Kircher’s extension, of polytheism. The second half of Turris is devoted to Kircher’s theories on linguistics. The first section, similar to his Arca Noë of four years earlier, contains an imaginative speculative expansion of the Tower of Babel story in light of Kircher’s knowledge of history, geography, and physics.

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Towers: Ian Howard 1983, 183×183 cm. Drawing,

University of Warwick Art Collection,UK

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Landscape with Towers: Ian Howard 1981 , 80x100cm.  Drawing.

Alchemy, Artworks, Drawings

Mathew Barney at the Morgan Library

Subliming Vessel: Matthew Barney at the Morgan Library : Deborah Barlow

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Matthew Barney (Photo: Private collection, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels)

The Cremaster by Matthew Barney, a five part film cycle, was shown repeatedly during a retrospective of Barney’s work at the Guggenheim Museum in 2003. I drove down from Boston three times to see it and dragged my friends, family and children with me. It was all encompassing, brilliantly provocative, enigmatic and so engaging.

In the words of curator Nancy Spector, Cremaster is a “self-enclosed aesthetic system.” It is chock full of thematic proclivities and Barneyesque tropes that get recycled in so many unexpected ways. Barney is a 21st century William Blake in his ability to construct a highly evolved cosmology that is conceptually big and fearlessly presented. That Guggenheim show was one of the most polarizing art events I remember in recent history, and everybody chose sides. Was he the most brilliant artist of his generation (my view) or is he, as my son contends, a talent who became grandiose and corrupted by money and fame?

No matter where you come out on Barney, it is hard to find another artist who moves so easily from the epic-scaled Cremaster to a small, intricately intimate body of drawings and artifacts. For me he stands strong at both ends of that spectrum. I find his work beguiling, no matter the size.

As art critic Holland Cotter pointed out in his review of the show, “The Morgan Library, with its Gospels, missals and reliquaries, is just the right place for ‘Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney,’ the first survey of graphic work by the most medievalizing of American contemporary artists.”

Medievalizing is a perfect word to capture Barney’s attraction to the arcane and the esoteric, to enigmatic symbols and symbologies, to the mystic belief systems of ancient Egypt and early Mormonism. In Cotter’s dismissive review (he is clearly not in my fan camp) he does capture this eccentric proclivity in the way Barney goes about his art making: “What he had going for him was an expansively hermetic sensibility. His actions and stories were deeply abstruse, but epic, apocalyptic. And this sense of the idiosyncratic promoted to the realm of myth is the strength of this drawings show.”

Subliming Vessel (what an evocative title with its suggestion of solidity moving into vapor) is appropriately positioned right next door to an exhibit about the Eucharist as portrayed in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. SV consists of over 100 drawings as well as “storyboards”—staged assemblages of items that revisit the narratives Barney has explored (or is still developing, such as his current project, The River of Fundament.) Each of these vitrines is a staged set of the myriad influences that brought Barney’s alternative realities into form. These curio cabinets are laid out meticulously and include open books that Barney picked for inclusion from the Morgan Library’s extensive collection of ancient texts.

I was so enthralled by the work that I spent most of my afternoon in the exhibit. For those artists and writers who cultivate the inexplicable, irritation can set in when their constructs feel forced or exploitative. While Barney’s work is definitely hermetic and highly personal in its iconography, the threads of meaning are there to unravel and explore.

Others feel differently about Barney’s accessibility, like Thomas Micchelli in Hyperallergic:

The drawings revolve around their own narrative logic, exhibiting a hermeticism that precludes the potential for communal experience or shared emotion…Barney assembles networks of personally significant arcana (a practice manifested in the scrapbook-style collections of clippings, sketches, art objects and other items housed in the massive vitrines) that remain inanimate and unintelligible beneath his shimmering surfaces. The artworks are beautifully realized, but the viewer remains on the outside looking in.

Not my way of seeing it, but I understand that point of view.

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(Photo: Courtesy of Morgan Library)