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Quantum Poetics

oil on panel
123 x 208 cm

Notes on this work

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Quantum Poetics, preliminary panel Quantum Poetics, detail As at September 2007 Watercolour sketch using preliminary panel Invitation card used as test surface
Printout for planning painting, while at Princeton, Autumn 2007

This article was originally published in TURPS BANANA magazine, March 2008, issn 1749-3994

June ‘07

Just past my 70th birthday. According to the Bible and Dante I’m twice half way through the journey of my life… so this is extra time, the urgent moment for an attack on goal. Luckily I seem to have awarded myself a corner kick...

This small panel (10” x 12”) was originally the study for a portrait. For the last two years or so it has been lying around the studio floor but taken up from time to time to improvise freely on, using colours mixed for the working day gone by (artists are great recyclers). Without any plan shapes emerged like clouds forming and reforming. Each layer of the painting revealed the layers beneath in the form of dots or patterns or larger areas where I liked and left the accidents of colours already present; in effect an abstract palimpsest. Now it seems that the dark shapes have resolved themselves into a kind of cloud calligraphy which suggests a desire to expand into a larger area… suddenly, yes, there is the dread tingle, the warning signal of the artistic imperative, the other side of whose alluring coin is a long grind.

I ask Andy my assistant to make up a few panels of the same size.

July ‘07
I begin to clear the decks somewhat and prepare two of the panels that Andy has made with the sort of roughly painted inchoate surface which would give the picture something to argue against.

Probing into unmapped territory beyond the edges of the initial panel was exciting as the partially resolved shapes reached out to conquer the new areas around them. The main guiding systems were already present, a dialogue between dark and light and a conversation between large calligraphic forms and the intricate ornamentation of which they were made and which they inhabited. My own tendency to over-clarify the boundaries would have to be fought… this means gritting my teeth to relax.

The more general question of how large the work would be remains open.

End of July ‘07
Opposite right is a detail of a more or less fully worked area (about 10” by 14”). The world of ornament has colonised the whole operation forming a secondary visual narrative and continuity. Now I understand that there will be two ways of looking at the picture when it attains a reasonable size. From close up it is a detailed hive of signs. These disappear from any distance and overall it is seen as a simple dark on light design. At such a distance, however, the small patternings and colour shifts serve to vivify and energise surface in general.

Mid- September ‘07
Now it seems possible to determine a size for the picture, indicated here by the optimistic placing of an unworked white panel to mark its top right hand corner. Also a border of masking tape helps to clarify the area on a messy studio wall, the historiated battlefield of many large pastel drawings and paintings in mud.

The need to pin down (or in this case pin up) the likely dimensions, comes from the old pictorial problem of the perilous centre, a Scylla and Charybdis passage which must be passed without stressing that tempting point of natural focus for the viewer. An overemphatic mark or strident clash of colour at this juncture (or a conspicuous absence of event) would make the whole image a vortex trapping the spectator’s attention at its middle. In the West (following a habit of dealing with text) we read pictures from left to right as in the East they are scanned from top to bottom. In either case the eye must be urged to traverse the half way mark. That point as can be seen here (directly above the appropriately anxious artist’s head) is now not too far away.

As the picture continues the pace seems to slow down. When panels are only added at two or three points the rate of progess seems quite good. Now they are added at five points. Entering each new panel is like exploring a dark and only half remembered room with a faulty torch.

Early October ‘07
Off to Princeton once more for a month of calm on Einstein Drive. I had hoped to reach the halfway stage in my painting but failed. Even the ground that seems to be covered contains quite a few provisional gestures that will have to be rehearsed again. Some tentative alterations have already been made, as may be noticed.

Now that the picture is moving forward on all fronts each new manoeuvre questions the rhythm set up by the calligraphic elements as well as the overall territorial balance. Sitting and staring plays as large a part as the act of painting itself. August and early September, empty of meetings and grim obligations, are perfect weeks for work, with only the distraction of an odd afternoon or so spent at the Oval watching cricket... it’s nearly sixty years now since I sat there on the grass watching Bradman’s sad, brief last innings.

End November ’07
Pictures as they progress tend to generate rules; rules of inclusion and rules of avoidance. Abstraction has the problem it sets itself of shunning representation or likeness. As the work develops, a deliberate and authentic breaking of such a rule can be a daring and stimulating manoeuvre, whereas an accidental infringement (a sudden unintended face-like image in a non-referential picture, for example) is merely bathetic.

While I was in Princeton my painting was in Peckham. I did however take with me a print-out of the state I left it in. I pinned this on the wall as soon as I arrived and looked at it every day. I saw that something was wrong but resisted the thought that the part I held most precious was now it’s chief impediment.... how often and sorrowfully this turns out to be the case. The top left hand corner panel, the little painting that had seeded the whole enterprise begins to stick out like… but what if the rest of the hand is sore and the thumb quite healthy? Somehow it now seems an anomaly in the dance of signs that the work had become.

I made some tests by cutting that segment out of the copy and supplying other marks on a piece of paper pasted in the space. This appeared to help the rhythm of the other elements in their spatial movement.

The little rectangle (1.25” x 1.5” approx) I pasted on to another sheet of stretched paper and surrounded it with eight equal spaces. I found that it naturally generated pictorial matter around itself as in the watercolour sketch below. Perhaps it might go on forever serving to seed paintings from which it would have eventually to be itself banished....

Returning to Peckham I start to feel my way back into the picture. For the moment I have not renewed the panel in question, but, as a gesture have turned it upside down as a reminder of what to tackle soon.

Mid-December ’07
Since this painting daily gets most of my attention it comes to act as a repository of my energies; not a locked chest but one that continually leaks to affect or, in viral fashion, to infect other work in progress. Even some innocent portrait may show symptoms. However it is A Humument that always falls first victim to such benign contagion, as can be seen in the most recent of the reworked pages [see A Humument p7, 2008]. The book as a whole (started in 1966 and still, in its fourth edition, a work in progress) provides a lifetime diary of tropes and trends, strategies and devices, a compact house of memory.

End Dec ‘07
State of play at Christmas 2007 showing the left hand top panel reversed. Still no title.

Today I felt as if I were cleaning a picture which has long existed, moving along a murky surface to reveal a work obscured by time’s dirt and decay. Sculptors often (as in Michelangelo’s poem) say about carving in marble that the imprisoned statue has only to be released from the stone by chipping away the bits that are not it. Here in two dimensions I seem to be working in positive/negative modes taking my cue from what is light to make it dark and vice versa. Together with the ambiguities of the underpainting left untouched this seems to make Time’s Arrow turn back on itself.

By talking of the picture as an improvisation I seem to deny the existence of any preparatory work. In a sense, apart from the choice of the initial panel, there is none. The underpainting of the panels as can be seen is inconsistent and wilfully random: they are provocation rather than preparation.

All painting, since it takes the form of replacing nothing with something, is improvised if only by stealth. So yes, even here a bit of tentative drawing does go on slightly ahead of the brush. I snatch a piece of card that won’t soak up oil paint too quickly and rehearse some marks on it. Here is a card currently in use with apologies to the Designer Bookbinders whose private view invitation it is, or once was.

Another strategy is to print out a photo of the painting in its current state and try out possible next moves on that. This is the one I had pinned on my study wall in Princeton: it features also the initial idea of what might happen in the top left hand panel when it was replaced.

These are utilitarian drawings of the kind that, rather than featuring in exhibitions, usually find their way via the studio floor to oblivion.

January ‘08
My picture was put this week to a daunting test by a visit to CERN and the Large Hadron Collider now in its final stages of construction. It is for the last time viewable in all its gigantic glory with its electrical nerves and engineering muscle anatomically exposed. Like a great beast of mythology it lurks deep underground awaiting its task and is huge in paradoxical proportion to its inconceivably small and evanescent prey. Returning from this cavernous Xanadu in the Jura to a small studio in Peckham was humbling but in no way dispiriting. If anything I felt that the things I saw (and only half understood) had been not merely invigorating but, mysteriously, endorsed what I was doing.

The unknown is common ground. Looking at my painting, which I can no longer think to call large, I see (as if for the first time) that it has no boundaries.

Mid-January ‘08
If I already had a basic title for my painting I could qualify it with the words ‘a fragment’ as in X: a fragment. One of the few things that can be said with any certainty is that the work squarely declares its incompleteness by implying at all edges (so far) its continuation.

Were I now, suddenly, to decide to increase its size and add panels all round I can only imagine I would continue in the same way and end up with edges which would again imply their extension into yet further panels. Thus my painting is a fragment of a larger conjectural fragment which in turn must be a section of a yet larger etc. etc.

In all directions my studio limits the size of the piece. Also, in the dimension of time, the finitude of my life is, unlike the universe (whatever that may turn out to be), contracting rather than expanding.

There is another dimension also which a picture inhabits (one less invoked by mathematicians) and whose questions it has to answer; this is the moral dimension. The testing factor here is whether the marks that meet the edge are genuinely capable of coherent extension in a world whose rhythm, colour, formal vocabulary etc. they have already played a part in.

These speculations seem by their very uncertainty to give the picture the character of a living thing. Perhaps it has indeed proved its organic nature by rejecting the panel with which it started.

Mid-February ‘08
Here Alice has cooked up, by the addition of underpainting yet unmade, a composite image which shows more clearly how the picture is going.

After observing my maladroit fidgeting with clamps to hold any two panels together on the easel Andy suggested making a simple holder, here in use, which does the trick... with the additional benefit of giving the hand a less risky resting place than on the picture surface.

Mid-February ‘08
It is Dante time in the enterprise, nel mezzo del cammin… just half way through the journey… on what is getting to be a bumpy road judging from the bulge of chaos in the centre, plus the many elements still unresolved; and a beginning panel yet to be fully reworked.

Nevertheless it seems a natural break in the story, like the interval in a two act opera when the plot is known and the aesthetic established even if the outcome is only to be guessed at. Whatever the case Vincero! Vinc-e-ero! seems a long way off.

It would be a strange opera however that, by the time the audience sought bars and lavatories or the ever shrinking smoker’s ghetto, had not announced its title. I am still somehow left with Untitled: A Fragment which is neither resonant, inviting nor informative, and which begs the question, “What’s it all about then, guv?” This question properly dogs my working day where every certainty has its corresponding doubt and in which the only absolute certainty is doubt itself. On the other hand it is axiomatic of abstract art that it strives to be nonreferential and thus it is an appropriate and primary aim of this picture that it should be an autonomous act of painting.

However the difficulty of finding a title is caused more by a multiplicity rather than a paucity of allusion; though allusion is not quite the right word. Dante says that his Comedy (it was not he that called it Divine) in terms of its meaning is polysemous, a many layered thing. My picture avoids his particularity of meaning and its visual dialectic might better be described as polyanalogical. Passing through it there are ghosts of many kinds of enquiry and activity from cosmology to tattooing. These include, among others, mapmaking, dance, territorial board games, quantum physics, ping pong, calligraphy, topology, semiotics, form and growth in nature and the markmaking of early man. Of some I have little understanding (quantum physics) or am a lowly practitioner (ping pong) but there is one more familiar parallel world whose totality, as well as its parts (pitch, key, tonal spectrum, rhythms, form and dynamic), proves a constant model for much of what I do, and that is music.

Yet the upper stratum of my thought when working, or just staring dumbly wondering how to go on, is purely pictorial. The picture, by alluding to no thing specifically, remains for me a permeable structure which associations can enter freely, visit and leave, or stay and inhabit.

My goal is that those who see it will find it equally porous, and, remembering the girl heroine of Eleanora H. Porter’s popular novel, Pollyanna, will relish the ‘glad game’ I hope to make (which makes me think that polyanalogical was not such a bad word).

Technical Notes
Technically there are no mysteries. The fabrication is simple and the means austere. Andy has now provided me with panels for the whole work based on the one I started with (now replaced). The surface of each is 3.2mm untempered hardboard braced by pine battens 27mm x 27mm glued on with Titebond (aliphatic resin wood adhesive). They are primed with Golden Acrylic white primer toned down with Mars Black (Tri Art). The primer has been given some ‘tooth’ by the addition of pumice (grade 250 grit) which also makes for a more matte surface. Proportion is approx one teaspoonful to a litre of primer, which is applied in 4 or 5 coats with 24hr hardening time between each application. The final surface is then lightly sanded with 400 grit wet and dry paper (silicon carbide) used dry.

Each panel is underpainted with an all over, hastily brushed, random field of muted colour with mid-tones predominating and the occasional accent of purer hues amongst the general diffuseness. This is what happened with the second panel I started and became the general practise, though not too much effort is made to achieve the same effect with each.

As for the oil paint itself I now tend to use Michael Harding’s rich pigments for the most part though I retain old favourites from Winsor & Newton’s range, notably the pungent Winsor Green and the potent Winsor Violet. There are of course other tubes occasionally brought into play variously bought at various times, some as long as thirty years ago, including a seemingly inexhaustible tube of Indian Red from Spectrum, a relic of art school days. I don’t use any fancy driers or extra mediums, relying on white spirit. Only in the world of art mags is there no substitute for turps.

For the underpainting I’m happy to use any medium size brush that comes to hand. The delicate tracery and detailed patterning that rapidly became the norm of the second stage called for small fine brushes that would retain their point and have the necessary spring. In my schoolboy days this would have evoked the hushed mention of Kolinsky Sable. One knew that for really fine painting only this treasured hair, gathered from rare and rufous rodents in the Steppes of central Asia, would do. This is a myth, or has become one. I have tried the ever improving range of artificial fibres which started a generation ago with very floppy nylon but now firm mixtures of hair are used, which keep their spring and shape after repeated use and only need a brisk rinse in white spirit at the end of the day. Prolene (Pro-Arte) and Cotman (Winsor & Newton) are excellent in small sizes but I have a slight preference for Sablette made by Utrecht, which I found in the shop opposite the Chelsea Hotel. In all the surface painting so far I have used up no more than three such size 1 brushes. No weasel fears my easel: let mustela sibirica scamper free.

NB. The full diary of the progress of this painting can be followed on the studio blog throughout 2007-2009