An attempt to write about a painting

I have a list in front of me of all the things I need to do. I’ve crossed off some of them and this morning I read through the ones I haven’t crossed off and realised that I’ve done the easy ones first. The others have been lurking for a while, jumping through days and weeks in my diary, stubbornly remaining un-done, until reappearing on the list. One of them is to write about a project that I’m about to embark on at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht. I suppose the idea is to write a sort of explanation of what the project is, so it can be printed in a programme or put on the museum’s website; something like that. I’ve been putting it off because I’ve had a few other writing projects to do and at the time they seemed to be more pressing, but now it’s only seventeen days until I travel to Maastricht to start work.

While I was dithering, looking for a book on the shelves, I thought that maybe I should use my stupid blog as a way in; if I write about it in the way i used to before I started using twitter and instagram, then maybe I can edit what I write in a sort of casual way into something worth printing. in some ways it’s easier to write in a more chatty way than try to be some sort of essay-writer. Well, that’s the idea, anyway.

The Bonnefantenmuseum is a really big purpose-built art museum, constructed in the 1990s. From the sky it looks like an upper-case E, and at the end of the middle bar of the E is a sort of tower that looks like an elongated dome. It reminds me of the Gherkin in the City of London, only smaller. It’s still pretty big though; taller than the rest of the museum. It must be one of the tallest structures in Maastricht, and definitely the tallest building that I’ve ever painted, except for perhaps a chimney in Plymouth. But that was a very long time ago. Anyway, the inside of the dome (which is actually known as the ‘cupola’) is an octagonal shape, somewhat like a closed flower, with each petal rising up high to a small octagon that lets in daylight. Acoustically it’s quite incredible; in fact, it is quite simply an incredible space. At the moment the work inside this space is a wall drawing by Sol LeWitt called Spiral, a thin white line which spirals around the walls from the floor to the very top; it’s about five kilometers long. Here’s what it says on the museum’s website about it:

“Sol LeWitt is one of today’s most influential artists and is best known for his large-scale wall drawings. At the root of every wall drawing by Sol LeWitt lies a precisely formulated assignment, or concise work description. This contains all the painting instructions which his assistants – often artists – have to follow as precisely as possible. In the execution, LeWitt’s strict concepts appear infinitely more inviting than one would expect from the original underlying principle. This is also the case with ‘Wall drawing #801 : Spiral’, which was executed for the first time in the Cupola of the museum in 1996. The essentially simple principle of a slightly sloping white line spanning the whole Cupola produces an overwhelming result in practise.”

So, no pressure there, as people say. Sol Lewitt died in 2007, so I won’t actually piss him off, but I might piss off other people who could wonder why someone who’s done a few record sleeves is painting over his work. Which is partly why I feel the need to write about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it; because in some way I feel the need to validate what I’m going to paint with words. It’s probably unnecessary. Never mind, never mind.

The work I’m going to make inside the cupola is called Optical Glade.

For a long time I’ve been very interested in the idea that the northern European sense of spirituality, and also religion, has its roots in the forests. The natural state of these lands is arboreal, and until the advent of agriculture they remained so, apart from limited tree felling. What remains of the sacred structures of the early inhabitants of Europe are often found in bleak areas not amenable to agriculture; barren moorland, remote, treeless islands. But when they where built they would have been in deeply wooded lands, long before domesticated ruminants and humans denuded the landscape. Spirituality, or religion, or whatever you choose to call a sense of awe that is inspired within would have been experienced amongst the trees. The cathedrals and churches of the region often have fluted columns and intricate stone tracery above, suggesting a woodland setting, the stone appearing almost as if it has grown from the earth.

The cupola at the Bonnefantenmuseum seems to me to capture the sort of feeling that I feel when I walk into a cathedral or a mosque or a long barrow; an urge to be quiet or silent and a sort of suspension of thought. Maybe my mouth opens a little, involuntarily. The need to look up, so infrequent in normal, everyday life, is much more evident.

I remember when I was small an effect I enjoyed was obtained by standing very close to a tall building and simply looking up. If you try this as an adult, you’ll find it still works, that you still get a sense of dizziness, as if the building will wobble and fall over, or you will, you’re not sure. It’s like spinning around and around as fast as you can. Children do this all the time, but as adults we ‘grow out’ of mind-altering activities (unless we are Sufi dervishes) and resort of drugs and religion to try to recapture some of these feelings.

So, putting these thoughts together… I see the cupola as a sacred space, in which I’m going to paint an optical glade, for refection and also to make people feel kind of dizzy. The painting is derived from a linocut I made a few years ago called Optical Tree, which was a geometric reduction of the essentials of a tree. Using 3D modelling software I’ve been able to twist the verticals of the image so where the walls begin to curve in towards the apex of the dome, the verticals will spiral around a little as they reach the top. I want people to feel the sense of awe and silence of a forest glade, and also the dizziness of looking up, to feel something that is older than the established religions that have dominated us for so long.

I’m also considering using the audio work Subterranea v2 which Thom Yorke composed for the show I did called The Panic Office in Sydney a couple of years ago. Not sure about that yet, though.

Anyway! That’s great; I’ve done some writing about it. Ok. Bye now.

7th April 2017