HIVE mixed media on wood panel 100 x 140 cm
(photo Chris Park)
Babel in ruins.
‘Almost all linguistic mythologies, from Brahmin wisdom to Celtic and North African lore, concurred in believing that original speech had shivered into seventy-two shards, or into a number that was a simple multiple of seventy-two. Which were the primal fragments? Surely if these could be identified, diligent search would discover in them lexical and syntactic traces of the lost language of Paradise, remnants equitably scattered by an incensed God and whose reconstruction, like that of a broken mosaic, would lead men back to the universal grammar of Adam. If they did exist, these clues would be deep-hidden. They ought to be ferreted out, as Kabbalists and adepts of Hermes Trismegistus sought to do, by words and syllables, by inverting words and applying to ancient names, particularly to the diverse nominations of the Creator, a calculus as intricate as that of chiromancers and astrologers. The stakes were very high. If man could break down the prison walls of scattered and polluted speech (the rubble of the smashed tower), he would again have access to the inner penetralia of reality. He would know the truth as he spoke it.’
George Steiner After Babel Oxford University Press 1975
Semper Augustus 2015
Mixed Media on two wood panels, 30×20 cm each panel.
Semper Augustus is one of a series of small works based on the writings and images by Basil Valentine. Basil Valentine is the anglicised version of the name Basilius Valentinus, ostensibly a 15th-century alchemist, possibly Canon of the Benedictine Priory of Saint Peter in Erfurt, but more likely a pseudonym used by one or several 16th-century German authors and alchemists.
All the works in the series refer to alchemical processes and are in effect emblems. Emblems of what? Emblems of emblems. All the works are the same scale and the double panel format represents an open book page. Here the left hand panel shows a page from the “Vier Tractatlien” 1625, with the alchemical motto VITRIOL: Visitetis Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenietis Occultum Lapidem ; ‘Visit the interior of the earth and rectifying (i.e. purifying), you will find the hidden/secret stone’. This refers to the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, and the there are various references in the painting to the stages, levels and colours of the alchemical process; nigredo, a blackening or melanosis; albedo, a whitening or leucosis; citrinitas,a yellowing or zanthosis; rubedo, a reddening or iosis. These are also represented by the images and colours of the demons of the underworld. These demons are quoted from the 14th century frescoes of the Spanish Chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Florence by Andrea Di Bonaiuto (Andrea Di Firenze).
The tulip image is from a 17th century still-life painting by Johannes Goedaert, showing the ‘broken’ tulip Semper Augustus – those dwarf (diseased) tulips which were at the centre of the17th century Dutch tulip mania. In 1637, a single Semper Augustus bulb sold for more than ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsworker. This image appears on the cover of ‘The Art of Arts’, Rediscovering Painting by Anita Albus, University of California Press Ltd., 2001, – a book which has been a major influence on the technical aspects of my painting.
There is also a Scottish connection. The 1637 event was popularised in 1841 by the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, written by Scottish journalist Charles Mackay, which also has a chapter debunking alchemy and alchemists.
Several years ago, I undertook some research into traditional and largely lost painting methods and materials. In this I was inspired by ‘The Art of Arts’, Rediscovering Painting by Anita Albus, University of California Press Ltd., 2001. In this book, among many other things, Anita Albus describes the ‘lost colours”, and the chemical make up and crystalline form of those pigments. Pigments such as Orpiment, Realgar, Cinnabar, Malachite and Lapis Lazuli, and including the highly poisonous Lead Tin Yellow and the mystical Dragon’s Blood-Powder. A very particular effect can be created by applying layers of thin colour made from these pigments, over a monochrome underpainting or an imprinted decal, and using an amber based varnish. As my subject matter- symbols, science and alchemy – involves a layering of imagery, this seemed an appropriate matching of method and meaning. Also the links between the physicality of alchemical practice and that of the grinding of pigment did not escape me, as I worked my pestle and mortar.
All mixed media on wood 30 x 40 cm
NATURAL & SUPERNATURAL THINGS.
Of the first Tincture, Root, and Spirit of METALS and MINERALS, how the same are Conceived, Generated, Brought forth, Changed, and Augmented.
The Death of Magic 2015 mixed media on canvas 240 x 300cm (photo Chris Park)
Wunderkammer as magic Wunderkammer as the death of magic
In 1565, Samuel Quiccheberg published the earliest known treatise on museums, the Inscriptiones vel tituli Theatri Amplissimi. Quiccheberg proposes a model for the ideal Wunderkammer as an ordered and comprehensive collection of naturalia and artificialia. A Wunderkammer was an encyclopedic collection in Renaissance Europe of types of objects whose categorical boundaries were yet to be defined. Modern terminology would categorise the objects included as belonging to natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art and antiquities. Renaissance Wunderkammer were private spaces, created and formed around a deeply held belief that all things were linked to one another through either visible or invisible similarities, and the belief that by detecting those visible and invisible signs and by recognising the similarities between objects, there would come an understanding of how the world functioned, and what was humanity’s place in it. But although everything can be connected – mystically – that is not to say everything is connected. The Wunderkammer became a machine for both the birth of reason and the death of magic. The dilemma of the Wunderkammer could ( and should ) be celebrated like the failure of Babel – for its polyphony of wondrous and beautiful mistranslations, misreadings and misunderstandings, and its grasp of the power of objects and beauty of ruins.
index: the geometry of Beuys, the mandragora, names for the Devil, the lost languages in which no books were written, Giordano Bruno On the Composition of Images, Signs and Ideas, the alchemical tree, the transcripts of Babel, Basilius Valentinus Ein kurtz summarischer Tractat, von dem grossen Stein der Uralten, Polpo, the Constructivist dart, the nautical charts from the Ship of Fools, Quaratesi saviour St. Nicolas, the devil’s footage of the temptation of St. Anthony, the Russian experiment, the damaged dragon of Bellini, the hieroglyphs which meant nothing, the glass domes ( through their transparency and shine, have the rare virtue of simultaneously animating and distancing the objects they cover), Mike Kelley’s Kandors, the inhabitants of Quixote’s windmills, MDF, Jorge Luis Borges Ramón Llull’s Thinking Machine, the experiments of Luigi Galvani, De Lama Lamina of Matthew Barney, wunderkammer as magic, wunderkammer as the death of magic.