Alchemy, Artworks, RSA

The Second Coming


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.


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.

detail 2a

detail 1a

Alchemy, Artworks, Drawings

Mathew Barney at the Morgan Library

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


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.

(Photo: Courtesy of Morgan Library)


Michaela Eichwald

Where it is I can’t remember, But now I can remember… now I can remember

Lyrics from “The Classical” by The Fall


Berlin-based artist Michaela Eichwald’s first solo show at Vilma Gold, “The Classical,”

takes its name from a song on The Fall’s album Hex Enduction Hour (1982).

The past is always present in her accumulations of everyday objects, which capture memories like a butterfly in a net. In this exhibition she presents layered paintings and sculptural bricolages, and like all the best things they appear grotesque but seductive. InWitness (2009) the canvas is collaged with leather then painted with quasi-expressionist spills and smears of thick oils, enamels and wood preserver, scraps of masking tape and surface scratches. It looks like an artist’s studio digested, regurgitated and reassembled into a palimpsest of abstractions, experiments and mistakes. And although the result is gross, it is also glossy and decadently attractive.


MICHAELA EICHWALD, Alchemie, 2009. Metal, eraser, gum,plaster, enamel, resin and tin, 53 x 16 x 15 cm. Courtesy Vilma Gold, London.

Eichwald’s sculptures are even more impressive: anti-monuments produced by pouring translucent resin into plastic bags and kitchen gloves filled with found objects. PSB 1978(2009) contains rubber bands and leftover bits of bacon, tomato and cheese; andAlchemie (2009) is a cast hand on a metal stand, displaying an eraser, chewed gum, enamel, plaster and tin. But there is no magical transformation here, only a sculptural collection of ephemera suspended in time like Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen head, forever waiting. Finally, instead of a press release there’s a poster of fragmented texts compiled by the artist: a transcription of a half-remembered conversation, some Nietzsche, a passage from the poem Ludwigslied (881), and a text about forgetting and never really knowing. In this exhibition nothing is ever explained or shown clearly, and the real pleasure is concealed in the details, in the half-obscured objects and memories. To quote Eichwald’s paraphrased Nietzsche quote: “if something has entered the world, it must also be possibly dissolved.”

Flash Art 268  OCTOBER 2009



Borges – La Rose Jaune


Chez Proust, tout autant chez Borges ou chez Ponge, ce double rapport entre le temps et la vie est marqué par l’apparition de la couleur jaune vers la fin de la vie en tant que couleur annonciatrice d’une révélation précédant la mort. L’apparition temporelle de la couleur (avant) détermine la vitalité (la mort) et devient un marqueur temporel désignant la durée de la vitalité. L’événement de la mort de Bergotte chez Proust face au « petit pan de mur jaune », rappelle un autre événement dans Une rose jaune de Borges. De même que dans le cas de Bergotte, il s’agit d’un événement révélateur, dernière révélation avant la mort : « [. . .] mais l’événement immobile et silencieux qui lui arriva à ce moment fut en réalité le dernier de sa vie ». Malgré l’immobilité et l’inaction, l’auteur insiste sur le fait qu’il s’agit tout de même d’un événement. L’inaction est renforcée par le silence – ce qui accentue davantage la portée d’un événement invariable (temporalité figée). Tout semble inerte  : l’homme mourant couché dans un vaste lit, l’ambiance paisible du dehors. Malgré l’annonciation d’une mort ultérieure inévitable, aucune tension intérieure du récit – le silence absolu règne même au moment où l’indolence va être interrompue par l’intrusion de la femme dans la chambre (le mouvement) et par songeste (mouvement) qui met la rose jaune dans une coupe.

Cet événement qui implique l’introduction d’un détail jaune dans la pièce, coïncide avec une réminiscence évoquée chez le poète par cette touche jaune auquel il aurait sans douté porté le regard – l’homme mourant prononce à haute voix (« murmure ») ses propres vers. Mais il est cependant évident que ce n’est pas cet événement auquel Borges a fait allusion au début de son récit, puisqu’il avait bien précisé qu’il s’agissait d’un événement silencieux et immobile  ; alors que l’introduction de larose jaune dans la pièce est accompagnée par une coupure du silence d’une part (le poète prononce ses propres vers) et par une action, d’autre part (l’entrée de la femme qui apporte la rose et la met dans une coupe). L’événement en question est donc celui qui suivra l’intrusion de la rose jaune, rompant la succession immobile des faits :

« Alors se produisit la révélation. Marino vit la rose comme Adam put la voir au paradis terrestre [. . .]. Marino parvint à cette illumination la veille de sa mort ; Homère et Dante la connurent peut-être aussi. »

Si effectivement la rose jaune rompt la situation stationnaire (figement temporel), c’est aussi pour faire retomber l’événement provoqué dans l’immobilité antérieure, mais qui cette fois ne sera plus la même. Il s’agit dorénavant d’une immobilité et d’un silence autres qu’avant – le changement étant donc le résultat d’une révélation. Tout comme Bergotte devant le « petit pan de mur jaune » qu’il n’avait jamaisregardé ainsi avant (car on sait que la Vue de Delft était la toile préférée de Bergotte, et qu’il connaissait très bien), Marino de même, « vit la rose » comme il ne l’avait jamais vue avant (il aurait sans doute vu des roses jaunes avant), donc – « comme Adam put la voir ». Dans les deux cas il s’agit d’un regard totalementnouveau sur une chose déjà vue : Bergotte ne se rappelait pas du tout dudit détail (« tableau qu’il adorait et croyait connaître très bien, un petit pan de mur jaune(qu’il ne se rappelait pas), alors que Marino voit la rose des yeux d’Adam : c’est-à-dire comme la première fois. La révélation éveillée chez Marino vient d’une chose (dans le sens du détail, du panvraie et non de l’œuvre d’art comme c’était le cas chez Bergotte ou chez Frenhofer (Balzac). C’est la rose réelle qui fait naître le sentiment de vanité de l’œuvre du poète.

Dans le cas de la couleur jaune immatériellement représentée, c’est-à-dire le jaunecomme couleur-lumière, on doit également constater le rôle crucial du temps. C’est ce qu’on pourrait appeler la conception du midi ou de l’heure de midi où le point culminant de la force solaire (de midi à deux heures) amène le changement de la couleur ; cette modification chromatique, surtout à une telle heure, va sans conteste dans le sens du jaunissement (ou de la couleur or – suivant si l’auteur veut souligner ou non la présence du lumineux dans le jaune), quelle que soit la couleur primaire de l’objet. Ainsi la lumière jaune non matérialisée se fixe dans la pure matière du sable/terre ou de l’eau jaunes, sous l’effet d’une identique réflexivité où le ciel lui-même emprunte cette couleur. C’est à partir de cette transformation que latemporalité (l’heure de midi) influe sur la vitalité en cet instant précis – lequel correspond à la réalisation du meurtre, comme ça peut être le cas chez Faulkner, dans les œuvres médiévales françaises et autres.

La couleur jaune, dans son élancement ascendant représente donc doublement latemporalité interrompue. Que ce soit, d’une part, l’heure de midi où toute chose semble soustraite au figement général sous l’influence hallucinatoire de la lumièrejaune – l’impact immatériel (ce qui est évoqué notamment chez Camus, chez Le Clézio, dans les écrits des peintres etc.), alors que le temps se fige et devient temps arrêté, ou bien le silence absolu régnant avant l’introduction du détail jaune – matériellement représenté (comme c’est le cas chez Borges) d’autre part, dans les deux cas, l’action du jaune dans une telle atmosphère est en premier lieu d’interrompre la coagulation et l’arrêt du temps.

La Symbolique du Jaune : le temps délimité et la vie précaire

Colloque “La Vie et le Temps” organisé par RezoDoc (novembre 2006)


Borges: The Rose of Paracelsus

“Insolent vaunt of Paracelsus, that he would restore the original rose or violet out of the ashes settling from its combustion. . . .”

-De Quincey, Writings, XIII: 345

In his laboratory, which comprised two cellar rooms, Paracelsus begged his God- his unspecified God, any God- to send him a disciple. It was growing dark. In the hearth a meager fire cast flickering shadows. To get up and light the iron lamp was too much trouble. His mind dulled by weariness, Paracelsus forgot his request. Night had erased the dusty tubes and retorts, when there was a knock at the door. Drowsily, Paracelsus got up, climbed the short spiral staircase, and opened the door. A stranger entered. He, too, seemed exhausted. Paracelsus motioned to a bench; the other man sat down and waited. For a while, neither of them uttered a word.

The master spoke up first. “I can recall western faces and eastern faces,” he said a bit pompously. “I do not remember yours. Who are you and what is it you want?”

“My name doesn’t matter,” the other man replied. “I’ve walked three days and nights to reach your door. I want to be your disciple. I bring you all my worldly goods.”

He took out a small pouch and, with his right hand, emptied it onto the table. There were many coins, all of them gold. Paracelsus had turned to light the lamp. When he faced around again he noticed that in his left hand the man held a rose. The rose made Paracelsus somehow uneasy.

Sitting back, he put his fingertips together, and said, “You offer me gold, believing I hold the secret of the philosopher’s stone, which turns base metals into gold. It’s not gold I seek. If it’s gold you’re interested in, you’ll never be a disciple of mine.”

“I don’t care about gold,” the other man answered. “These coins are but a token of my willingness to work. I want you to teach me the Grand Secret. I want to follow by your side the path that leads to the stone.”

‘The path is the stone,” Paracelsus said slowly. “The stone is the point of departure. If you don’t understand these words you have not even begun to understand. Each step along the path is the destination.”

The other man looked at the master with misgivings. “But is there a destination?” he said, his voice changed.

Paracelsus laughed. “My detractors, who are as numerous as they are stupid, say no, and they brand me an imposter. I disagree with them, though I may be wrong. Yet, there is a Path, I know.”

A silence fell, into which the other man said, “I am prepared to go by your side however many years the journey takes. Let me cross the wilderness. Whether or not my stars allow me to set foot there, I want to see the promised land- even if from afar. But before I set out I want some proof.”

“When do you want it?” asked Paracelsus, suspicious.

Suddenly decisive, the disciple said, “At once.”

The two had been speaking in Latin; now they spoke in German. The young man held the rose aloft.

“Everyone knows you are able to burn a rose and then by your art make it rise again out of its own ash,” he said. “Let me bear witness to this wonder. I ask only this, and then I’ll entrust my whole life to you.”

“You are most credulous,” said the master. “But it’s not belief I require, it’s faith.”

“That’s just it,” the other man insisted. “Because I believe I want to see the destruction and rebirth of the rose with my own eyes.”

Paracelsus had taken up the flower, toying with it as he spoke. “You believe, then, that I can destroy the rose?”

“Anyone can destroy it,” said the disciple.

“You are wrong. Do you believe something can be turned into nothing? Do you believe the first Adam in Paradise could have destroyed a single flower or blade of grass?”

“We are not in Paradise,” the young man said stubbornly. “Here, beneath the moon, everything is mortal.”

Paracelsus had risen to his feet. “Where are we, then? Do you think the godhead could create a place other than Paradise? Do you consider the Fall to be anything more than our ignorance of the fact that we dwell in Paradise?”

“A rose can be burned,” said the disciple defiantly.

“There’s still fire in the hearth,” said Paracelsus. “If you were to throw this rose onto the coals, you would believe it to have been consumed and its ash real. I say that the rose is eternal and that only its appearance undergoes change. With a single word I could make you see it again.”

“One word?” said the disciple, full of wonderment. “Your still is cold, your retorts coated with dust. By what means would you bring the rose to life again?”

Paracelsus regarded him sadly. “My still is cold,” he repeated, “and my retorts coated with dust. At my time of life I employ other tools.”

“I dare not ask what they are,” said the other man cleverly- or humbly.

“I speak of the tool used by the divinity to create heaven and earth and the unseen Paradise in which we dwell but which original sin conceals from us. I speak of the Word, which the teachings of the Kabbalah reveal.”

“I beg you, please show me the disappearance and reappearance of the rose,” the disciple said matter-of-factly. “I don’t care how you do it- with your still and retorts or the Word.”

Paracelsus considered, then said, “If I were to do what you ask, you’d say it was merely an appearance forced on your eyes by magic. The marvel would not confer the faith you seek. So spare the rose.”

The young man stared at him, doubting as ever.

“Besides,” Paracelsus said, raising his voice, “who are you to enter the house of a master and demand a miracle of him? What have you done to deserve such a gift?”

“I know I’ve done little,” the other man said, quavering. “I beseech you in the name of the many years I will study in your shadow to let me see the ash and then the rose. I’ll ask nothing else of you. I shall believe the evidence of my eyes.”

Abruptly, he picked up the bloodred rose that Paracelsus had left on the desk and cast it into the flames. The color went out of it, until all that remained was a heap of ash. For an endless moment the young man awaited the Word and the miracle.

Paracelsus displayed no change of expression. With a strange simplicity he said, “AU the physicians and apothecaries of Basel claim I’m a fake. Perhaps they are right. There’s the ash that was once a rose and will never be a rose again.”

The young man felt ashamed. Paracelsus was a charlatan or mere dreamer, and he, the would-be disciple- an intruder- had burst in and was forcing the master to admit that his renowned magic arts were but a piece of vanity.

“What I have done is unforgivable,” said the young man, dropping to his knees. “I lack the faith the Lord demands of true believers. Let me go on seeing the ash. I’ll return when I am fitter and will be your disciple, and at the end of the journey I’ll see the rose.”

He spoke with genuine passion, but his passion was the piety inspired by the aging master, so venerated, so maligned, so illustrious, and therefore so hollow. Who was he, Johannes Grisebach, to discover with a sacrilegious hand that behind the mask there was no one?

To have left the gold coins behind would have amounted to an act of charity. On his way out, the young man gathered them up. Paracelsus accompanied him to the foot of the staircase, telling his visitor he would always be welcome in this house. Each knew they would never meet again.

Paracelsus stood there alone. Before extinguishing the lamp and sitting in his weary armchair, he turned the handful of delicate ash in his cupped palm and under his breath spoke one word. The rose sprang to life.