Connect 2
Circulate 2
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Cornucopia - recent paintings by Vivien Blackett

The recent work of Vivien Blackett is based on bringing together two very different sources of imagery. She uses an eclectic range of quotations from Renaissance art, mainly Italian and more recently that of Northern Europe. Her current preferences include Memling, Cranach and Van Eyck with their primary emphasis on mythological rather than religious imagery, a distinction which appeals to Blackett because of the potentially wider remit of secular subjects. Also, since the early 1990’s she has been trawling through the almost unlimited range of images, both historical and contemporary, stored in the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine which, despite it’s name, includes books on subjects as diverse as astronomy and cooking.

The consistency of her approach stands at perfect counterpoint to the seemingly endless variety of images she appropriates and scavenges, and despite the apparent disparity of these two main elements which feature in the paintings, there is a visual logic which at once surprises and makes perfect sense.

The juxtaposed images - in most cases two but in some extended to three - are made to interconnect through a number of tactics : implied narratives and actions, or commonalities in colour and form, are all triggers for interconnectedness and continuity between different parts.

The artist, however, seems to insist that it is activities which take priority as the main link, as the titles, mostly, verbs, indicate : in ‘Circulate 2’, the movement implied in the title is depicted in a close up of blood vessels and echoed by the mythical and cosmic connotations of the adjacent ring shape, which seems to be spinning in an indefinite blue sky.

In ‘Fissile’, a man who appears to have stepped out of a Breughel painting tentatively holds forth an egg, its fragility emphasised by the accompanying close-up of what could be the surface of cracked porcelain.

The tree of knowledge appears to be growing from a brain in ‘Know’, the images so different yet so fitting.

In ‘Probe’, a man points and prods at the sky with a stick on the upper panel, which appears to be linked to the one below by a ladder which, in turn, descends onto a spinal column which lies horizontally, like a landscape to be explored - heaven and earth.

The paintings are populated by human figures who represent everyman’s quest for experience and knowledge, an activity which , as Blackett’s continuing lexicon proves, cannot be presumed as finite or exhausted.

The relationship between art and science is a perennially topical area of debate, not least because these two forms of knowledge and negotiating the world have traditionally been seen as having diametrically different objectives. Whilst science is supposed to be an empirical verifier of truths, art is seen as a questioning discourse which seeks to challenge meanings and assumptions. It is precisely this opposition which fuels the continuing dialogue between the two disciplines, and allows one to act as a foil for the other. The dogma of science has, meanwhile, been challenged from within by an understanding that discoveries and knowledge are tentative and valid only until the next theory or discovery disproves what has been believed before.

A main characteristic in Blackett’s seemingly odd juxtapositions is an obvious disjuncture as well as different points of unity. These opposing qualities work at different levels in constant counterpoint, animating the potential connections yet emphasising all the while that each image is a separate entity which has its origin in quotation and illusion. The extreme detail in each image, for example, both accentuates the sense of an almost organic connection between the two images ; on the other hand, the placing together of two disparate pictorial elements in such an obvious way emphasises that, for all the attention to detail and osmosis, the images are mere illusions which hint at possibilities but which, in the end, cannot be trusted or assimilated.

Despite all their pretensions to verisimilitude, the images quoted by Blackett do not hide their status as, essentially, second hand fragments from larger wholes, which through being brought together are made to hint at possibilities and connections nevertheless. It is this dynamic tension which finds the most fruitful expression in the paintings and it is precisely because of maintaining such tension between apparent unity and obvious disparity that the work is energised and remains vital and valid.

The paintings manage to make links and insinuate a chain of thoughts, connections and events between the macrocosmic and microcosmic; they hint at the persistence of certain constant qualities through their presence, depiction or allusion in very different images. At the same time as addressing and referring to certain attributes and to ‘a world out there’, there is a persistent and simultaneous questioning - through the very obvious constructedness of the images and their juxtaposition, both incongruous and common sense - that provides a constant counterpoint which is necessary if meaning is not to lapse into presumption and fixity.

The images in Blackett’s paintings may appear exacting and precise, yet many of them are composites from a number of sources or merely triggered by an image which the artist then customises to make her own. Their feigned verisimilitude is there not to convey empirical information but to delight in the mastery of illusion and to trigger associations beyond those of the original source.

The images are untethered from their context and put to work in new configurations, opening up their possibilities within the realm of quotation, in a new syntax. Their fragmented quality and status as part of a larger whole accentuates their status as skins of paint which are
shifted in place and encouraged to communicate through possible association.

In the end, despite their rigorous questioning, Blackett’s paintings communicate a fascination and infatuation with the richness and diversity of experience which the paintings embrace in potentially infinite variations and permutations. The very fact that the artist chooses to paint images which already exist and which could therefore be communicated through the much more precise and efficient medium of photography - without that being an assumption that photography equals truth, merely the surface and appearance of truth - is indicative of a need to engage with the real at the slow, luxurious pace which painting allows ; at the same time, each brushstroke reminds us that the sumptuousness of colour, form and representation that is being created is all an accomplished illusion.

Sotiris Kyriacou 2003

Sotiris Kyriacou is Director of Exhibitions at Richard Salmon Gallery, London and Previews Editor for 'Contemporary' magazine.

last updated 14.05.2003 | designed and maintained by Adrian Cousins