Sunday, 8 April 2018

It deepens like a coastal shelf

An unidentifiable shape, compacted layers, an angular blob, a series of locked-together tessellated forms; seepage through the gaps, surfaces weathered and worn. Circles within blobs, within forms within forms. Earthy reds, yellow ochre, moss green, burnt umber, scraped, smeared and poured. Fissures. The cracked resistance between opposing surfaces.    

It was starring-up at the ceiling in the Royal Danish Library a.k.a the Black Diamond that I had my first, of what was to be many more encounters (in Denmark) with the work of artist, Per Kirkeby [1938-].

View looking up at Per Kirkeby fresco at the Black Diamond, Copenhagen
Mostly known for its sparse, angular architecture, the Black Diamond is not the first place you might expect to see a 210 metre squared fresco. Apart from the foremost connection the artist has with being Danish, the untitled piece is contrastingly colourful and wildly expressive in relation to its more formal, structured surroundings. Kirkeby’s fresco is expressively abstract but with a clear likeness in its painted forms and textures to rock strata, geological shelves and layers of shifting earth. The artist had previously trained as a geologist. I was interested in how these interpretations, within the context of the library, could also be read as symbolic of the processes through which knowledge is sought and acquired. Exploring ‘a subject in-depth’, ‘the layering of knowledge’, ‘sifting’ and ‘excavating’ to source the correct content being words that neatly link the geological with the ‘search for information’. Kirkeby’s painting, is visually similar to looking at a cross-section of coastal shelf, for me at least, it is a visual aesthetic that is in ways parallel to the library being its own kind of coastal shelf; the horizontal and vertical lines of books on shelves, different colours, each section, every shelf and row of books filed into separate categories like the layers of geological time. It takes time for collections of books to accumulate, as it does for new layers of mineral strata to form. Dozens of individual components that make-up a bigger whole. The shifting as things settle and move in a state of flux and uncertainty also echo some of the ideas within how information is edited and acquired. That is, at least, how I saw it.    

Portugalia (Portugalien) 2008 Oil on canvas. 300.5 x 500cm
In truth, I had been fortunate to see many of Per Kirkeby’s paintings nine years ago, in an exhibition at the Tate Modern. Though this was the first time I had seen so many new works (and been reunited with some of the ones I had seen) in the artist’s native country. Then as now, I feel that he is such a prolific and diverse maker, in painting, brick and bronze producing  so many large works that I should have probably written about him a lot sooner!

On a half-hour train journey through the bleak Scandinavian forests and coastline travelling to Humblebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art I had a second insightful experience into how much of a contrast the grey, still and desolate Scandinavian winter landscape has in comparison to the lively, relatively rich, warm colours in Per Kirkeby’s paintings such as, Portugalia (Portugalien) 2008. Presumably, the titles of many of his works suggest that they were not all based on the landscape his native country? I admit, that I would have to do some more digging to find out the answer to this question. Generally speaking, Kirkeby’s art draws from his experiences as a geologist and his inspiration from images in both popular culture and art history. The 3 metre by 4 metre painting titled, Flight into Egypt 1996 was, in-part, based on German Romanticist, Philipp Otto Runge’s, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt 1805-6. It affirms Kirkeby’s interests in art to landscape as a subject matter within his own work. Though some of the implied seriousness of this connection to Runge is slightly lost on me and I am not entirely convinced that some of Kirkeby’s paintings need this explanation in order to carry institutionalised significance. His own writing offers a more spontaneous interpretation into the use of paint as a medium for conveying landscape that I am more inclined to believe in, 

“The world is a material of which one makes art: through a natural-historical process which, at its most profound cannot be controlled.”

Both Portugalia and Flight into Egypt are in many ways abstract paintings but share a sense of panoramic scale, as though either looking onto a landscape from above or from within. The territorialising of shapes become like mapping, reminding me of the compositions in paintings by Jasper Johns, yet neither appear static, instead they are enlivened by a huge element of gestural drawing and vigorous mark making on the surface and within the layers of the painting, creating a sense of movement or mimicking the textures of ploughed fields or sun-dried cracked earth. Both of these later works saw Kirkeby linked with in the 80s with Neo-Expressionists along with artists such as Georg Baselitz.  The drawn elements in many of Kirkeby’s works actually remind me more of Cy Twombly but I enjoy the way his work reminds me of all these other artists without being too-like any of them to make it repetitive.  

Car Pictures 1964-5 Mixed media on Masonite. (detail)
Whilst in Copenhagen I also saw a lot of Kirkeby’s earlier paintings which are very different to these later ones. Equally they demonstrate the breadth of his 40 year career as an artist. Car Pictures 1964-5 [pictured right and below] is a series of four mixed-media works on masonite depicting traces of car-like iconography amidst, for me, what I can only describe as a  joyous cacophony of pop-art benday dots, gestured mark-making, flat areas of bright colour and a mixture of hard-edged shapes. Aesthetically speaking, there is a lot about the variety in surfaces in these four works that appeals to me, it is also their similarity to other favourite pop art-era paintings by Richard Hamilton such as Hommage à Chrysler Corp 1957 and Robert Rauschenberg. Whilst there is no fixed-narrative to these they could be read left to right as a series of comic-book style panels. Other paintings by Kirkeby during the 60s include The murder in Finnerup Barn 1967 [pictured below] which features imagery from Tintin comics, fairytale characters and a title that ‘alludes to the murder of King Erik Klipping in 1286’. This patchwork-like use of sources within one work should be disparingly chaotic but visually it seems to work. Kirkeby, I also learnt is a keen writer about art and artists and I think that this enthusiasm for knowledge, dualism of interests and collecting of sources comes across strongly in these 60s based paintings which seem to combine multiple ideas in the same way that a body of text might. Alternatively, they could also be experiments with another form of language, one that is visual and are more spontaneous than they are preconceived. As the artist himself states,  

Car Pictures 1964-5 Mixed media on masonite, 4 panels. Each 122 x 85cm

“Drawings are full of untrammelled thought and devoid of language. I have never drawn in order to produce a drawing. But simply in order to find something out.”

It is a fascinating philosophy to have towards drawing. I have long been a believer in the pragmatics of drawing as a way of ‘working out’ or ‘thinking’ through doing. I would probably like to be able to fully adopt Kirkeby’s statement in my own practice, but I am always usually more than conscious of the fact that I am producing a drawing whilst drawing-it! It would be interesting to try and ‘let go’ of that conscientiousness more often, if I can, to see what it may produce. I suppose it is then a question of whether you find out something you were expecting, wanted to know or not?! Seeing as how this post somehow began looking up at the ceiling in a library in Copenhagen, that is not a bad point to have come to some sort of realization!

Borchardt-Hume, A, Per Kikeby -An Introduction 2009: London, Tate Publishing p24.
Shiff, R, It doesn't reveal itself 2009: London, Tate Publishing p43