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
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
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.
updated 14.05.2003 | designed and maintained by Adrian