Friday, November 14, 2014


Antoni Tàpies: Hieratical, 1990

I spent a couple of days looking at commissions for disabled artists but I had to concede it's all out of reach and that I am not cut out for any of it. Of course one would like to make a difference, but one can really only do that through art by participating in society and making socially relevant work that gets seen by a lot of people. One has to be one of those people who are able to conform to the expectations people now have on contemporary art. I don't feel that any of it is wrong, it's just the way it is. As a contemporary artist you're just another cog in the great big social wheel, you are doing a job and you get paid through commissions and grants to respond to people's needs. Gone are the days when people just made art and would pride themselves that it wasn't their job to explain it to anyone! It also seems to me that the value of expressive gesture, i.e. making a mark with pen or brush and putting one's signature on a surface, has been reduced because of the prevalence of mind centred (and often very narcissistic) art.

Of course people who are able to engage in this kind of socially encouraged art practice sometimes do make meaningful work that make us think about ourselves from a new angle. I should sit back and enjoy what other people do instead of allowing myself to be so frustrated about my own lack of opportunities (to the extent that I can afford it, of course). I do feel segregated because I can't even begin to explore such possibilities. Chronic illness sets you apart from other people who may have physical and mental obstacles but don't suffer from a lack of energy. I am unable to work and thus naturally also unable to sustain focus and energy in order to apply for the big money, let alone execute the work in accordance with the expectations on a job well done. Since I can't do this in the first instance I can't build a track record that would make it easier to carry on pursuing a career. So I think it's best to realise that this is not part of my reality, even if it reduces my practice to a mere hobby. Conceptual art is not something I ever envisaged in the first place, and though it's possible to become passionate about new things in life, I think the fundaments of your psychological make up is often evident from an early stage in life. It's not that I am devoid of ideas, it's that I keep asking myself why I would want to bother. Some different way of expressing my creativity might be possible, though. It may not even be through art, as scary as that is to someone who feels it's their only way of self expression. I'd like to think that the crisis I've been ploughing through for a while now will lead to a new realisation and so the act of giving up is more a case of letting go of the old self and old fixations.

Antoni Tàpies: Large Grey Painting No III, 1955

Antoni Tàpies: Grey Relief in Four Parts, 1963

Antoni Tàpies: Double Beige Door, 1960

Antoni Tàpies: Matter in the Form of an Armpit, 1968
Antoni Tàpies: Red and Black, 1981
I came across the artist Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies (1923-2012) while studying art in Perpignan in 1991, but never actually looked into his work (a lack of internet made it so much more difficult in those days). I felt somewhat interested in the colour and texture of the work I saw then, but then forgot all about it. A friend reminded me of him recently and that prompted me to look up the work on the internet. I was really blown away. It was far more intricate and beautiful than I had imagined. Martin then got a couple of books out for me from the University library. As I worked my way through them I felt that the ideas I've had for abstract work based on texture aren't worth pursuing because he did it all so much better than I ever could. It's in fact too similar to what I had in mind - only better, since my ability to be spontaneous is quite limited (not least due to a lack of energy and work space).

I feel such deep kinship with the mysterious and tactile aspects of his work - to me his evocation of the material is deeply mystical, emotionally intelligent and very sensual, with an aesthetics that speak of the barely contained chaotic nature of matter and its rough naturalness. To me, matter is inherently spiritual. He was initially inspired by the Surrealists, read the authors I also enjoyed when I was younger, and was interested in Eastern philosophies. The ideas that void is an ontological fact and that all aspects of reality are equal, are pillar stones of his world view. He seemed to have wanted to convey a sense of Zen, that is "shock and contemplation". The values of Taoism and Zen come through very strongly in this work, in containing meditative and expressive gestures, a colour scheme that encourages contemplation, a pronounced equality between all aspects of reality, and a profound communion with organic matter. These are semi-abstract matter paintings with an autonomous presence as Shamanic things in themselves rather than windows onto a different reality. They are infused with traces of human emotions, and therefore never detached from subjective reality and human universalities. Interestingly, my feeling of resonance with this work was there before I was made aware of the Eastern link.

Tàpies' art would escape geometry - albeit retaining some of its fundamental forms - in order to explore the world of organic life, the 'amorphous', ambiguous and unfinished, the expressiveness of pure gesture inspired by Chinese and Japanese traditions. (Jean-Luc Chalumeau: Tàpies)

Antoni Tàpies: Montesy - Montenegre (Detail), 1988

Antoni Tàpies: Breathing In, Breathing Out, 1991

Antoni Tàpies: Matter Spiral (Detail), 1991

Tàpies was clearly able to ride on the wave of art trends in order to synthesise an approach that was deeply personal and esoteric in a way that is rarely seen in modern art. When this kind of connection with contemporary currents doesn't occur, an artist will find themselves in a difficult position that ultimately leads to serious questions about the validity of their practice. Such resonance with surrounding currents has at times been there in my own life, but not in any big way. Perhaps things would be a bit different if I felt more confident in pursuing fine art as a career. Passion is a sign of the prevalence of a true life path, and when that motivation is somewhat tattered you feel that this particular path of destiny is called into question. Too many concerns are distracting me and keeping me from feeling a really deep sense of artistic purpose.

The strange thing is that my abstract photography series "Traces" is so evocative of Tàpies's work, and that I had explained the experience of the video work based on the photos as a form of Asian koan. In 2013 I wrote:

The viewer is also encouraged to contemplate the way we inadvertently leave our personal marks on the many layers that constitute our reality - some of our marks get erased as new people leave theirs. The enigmatic contents with its Cyrillic lettering and random numbers can serve to disrupt “functional fixedness”, breaking old cognitive patterns and helping the brain make new connections. Inspiration has been derived from the ancient Japanese tradition of the koan, a story or statement that is ultimately absurd, offered to Buddhist disciples as a way of breaking out of mental ruts, to drop their rational minds and become susceptible to the greater mystery of life and question the rationale behind the frantic process of dashing about the planet in a state of semi-functionality.

My photographs with their highly gestural and coded content bear an almost uncanny resemblance to his work in general. Even the frequent occurrence of letters like "X" and "T" evoke Tàpies' work.  If I had some money I'd buy a new camera and set out to collect some more. You have to realise that once you decide not to go down the path of conceptual art, no one will pay you to buy materials and equipment and just make some art.

I rewrote a statement today:

“Traces” is a photography project already comprising over 150 images that brings to view the marks that people have made while simply doing their job. The source of these mysterious surfaces that have been repurposed time and time again are old dilapidated goods wagons from Russia. Successive layers of paint, repeatedly stencilled or painted signs and lettering, as well as the corrosion, express the convergence of cultures and efforts to communicate within a professional, and thus exclusive, framework. These real life happenings caught on camera chime in with the instinctive and highly tactile work of Antoni Tapies. They evoke an equal sense of the mysterious communion with the material and intrinsically imperfect aspects of life, as well as codes passed on from person to person The impression of the passing of time becomes evident through the layers of paints and marks. While the workmen who have given rise to the imagery had no artistic intention and tend to be invisible to most passers by, it is the photographer’s eye that has recognised the artistic quality and aesthetic value of these markings. One person’s gesture has thus become another person’s art.

Having now processed Tàpies' life and work for a while and thought about my own inclinations and limited ability to create conceptual art, I just might go ahead and do something handmade in 2D after all, especially as my health has lately improved a bit. On a good day I might find the energy for this kind of work. After all, texture is what I really love (something I also wrote about in my post about William Kentridge). Never mind that it stays flat. In any case I do feel I'm in the process of breaking away from old cognitive patterns...

From the series "Traces" (Vivi-Mari Carpelan 2012, the year Antoni Tàpies died):

You can view more of this work on my website.

Antoni Tapies' lithograph
A few more of Antoni Tàpies' art works:

Antoni Tàpies: Ocher and Pink Relief, 1965

Antoni Tàpies: Rags and Strings on Wood, 1967

Antoni Tàpies: Scribbles and Varnish, 1987

Antoni Tàpies: The Catalan Spirit, 1971
Antoni Tapies: Speak, Speak, 1991

Vivi-Mari Carpelan: Helsinki 4, 2012 (Digital photograph)