SURVIVAL AND PERSISTENCE; BEAUTY AND PLEASURE. RECENT PAINTINGS BY HENRY SYMONDS

Introduction

“…‘Art’ is the name of the possibility of a conversation over time, a conversation more meaningful than a merely forensic reconstruction of the past.” (Alexander Nagel & Christopher Wood, 2010)1 During the last five years, Henry Symonds has focused on interior spaces in his paintings. He writes that he has been gathering information – documentary and historical photographs – around studio interiors and artifacts within those spaces.2

He adds that his work simultaneously explores domestic interiors in the tradition of the Intimists, such as Bonnard and Vuillard. Looking at the body of work Symonds has recently completed, Matisse’s The Piano Lesson (1916) is obviously another major focus during studio conversations with master painters of the late 19th and early 20th Century.

Responding to the work of earlier artists has been a strategy increasingly deployed by artists in the modernist era; one thinks of famous examples such as Gauguin’s Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Watching) of 1892 in response to Manet’s Olympia of 1863 and nearer our time of Ellsworth Kelly’s Lake 11 (2002) in response to Cézanne’s The Gulf of Marseilles Seen from L’Estaque (1885). Griselda Pollock highlighted such practices in her book entitled Avant-Garde Gambits 1888-1893: Gender and the Color of Art History (1993)3 in which she describes a three-fold process in relation to Gauguin’s response to Manet: reference, deference and difference. She argues that Gauguin referred and deferred to Manet as the earlier master, while pointedly differing from him in one important respect, namely the brown colour of the nude in his painting, a colour which vaulted the work far beyond the concerns of the Parisian demi-monde of the mid-19th Century.

Nearer to our time, Hal Foster points out in “Preposterous Timing”,4 published in 2012, that a new focus on “anachronism” – discussing a work within a temporal frame foreign to it – is apparent in some recent writing in the field of art history. This involves ideas around “substitution” and “pseudo-morphism”. Substitution in this context involves a kind of stacking process whereby works of art anticipate and complete each other across stretches of time. Foster identifies two opposing principles: on the one hand the modern and modernist notion of authorial originality and on the other hand innovation through a succession of substitutions. Pseudo-morphism involves the relating of works that look alike, but do not share any particular temporal context.

This essay argues that Symonds refers and defers to Matisse’s The Piano Lesson and to the work of the earlier Intimists; and that he presents a major point of difference through the foregrounding of frame, fragment, fissure and facture in his recent works. Furthermore, the essay argues that Symonds innovates through a succession of substitutions and pseudo-morphic resemblances. After considering the ways this innovation plays out through the foregrounding of frame, fragment, fissure and facture – deliberately alliterated to suggest their equal importance and co-dependence – in his recent work, the essay concludes with a coda on survival and persistence – preoccupations that today – according to Foster – turn the worm against a postmodern apocalyptic politics of rupture in hailing the end of the story of the end of art.5

Frame

“… the frame is exterior to the field but touches, plays with, rubs, or presses against the limit and intervenes internally only insofar as the inside is missing and missed…” (Jacques Derrida, 1979)6

Symonds’ recent paintings should be seen together for the viewer to understand the full extent to which sustained purpose brought them together in a coherent whole, a whole in which momentum is built by a kind of slowing down while viewing moves from one to the next and to the next. Early on in this process one becomes aware of the importance of the frame in the works and how it ceases to be a marginal element but rather gains in centrality as the body of work unfolds. In the first painting of an interior filled with objects on display, the angularity of the frame manifests as vertical elements around vitrines and plinths, wide lines used to divide the surface into separate parts inhabited by isolated motifs drawn from the artist’s collection of ceramics, sculptures and textiles.

By his own admission, the artist was influenced by Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage entitled Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? However, instead of the collage of motifs from popular culture to be found in Hamilton’s collage, Symonds uses the frame as a kind of collage tool in these works. They ‘cut’ the field of the canvas, allowing for a ‘pasting’ of motifs within the spaces created by this action, thereby bringing disparate elements – an African mask, various kinds of ceramic vases, a porcelain teapot, a patterned cloth – together on the same surface, while clearly signaling their diverse provenance.

The artist calls this work “a hybrid of some sort”; pointing to crossbreeding of unlike cultures or a composition of elements of different or incongruous kinds. Focusing on details of the work, one becomes aware of how the frame-like elements underpin this sense of difference and incongruity. The frame –associated with the marginal embrace of the central field of the painting – moves into the centre here as a major force. Through its splicing of the painted field it indicates that there is, in fact, no centre but rather an archive of disparate motifs culled from an eclectic collection of objects – artifacts unpacked in a new library or studio far away from an erstwhile ‘home’ in the manner of a Walter Benjamin or Homi Bhabha.7

When Symonds first engages with Matisse’s The Piano Lesson, the frame comes with the work he enters into conversation with. Window, balcony railing, curtain, and music stand frame the boy behind the piano as they also do for the field in which he is placed together with a figure in the background. Symonds’ studies explore these framing devices in what could be called a slow analysis of the structural opportunities signaled within the source work. In every study the frame threatens to overtake the centre of the painted field, whether as broken down linear angularities or as ladder-like scaffoldings for the forms enclosed by their corners and conjunctions.

When the artist moves away from the small studies to engage with large works – still in relation to Matisse’s masterpiece – the frame as motif does in fact overtake the painted field. The result is that these works literally become frame and little else in their linear angularity, with the narrow vertical format supporting this development. However, when the format returns to an approximation of the Matisse’s less vertical proportions, the frame recedes somewhat in favour of a series of playful painterly dialogues with the source work. This essay later returns to the role of facture in these painterly interventions. At present, the issue of the frame still needs some further remarks here, especially as it returns to a major role in the later works.

Where Jacques Derrida discusses the “parergon” in relation to the late 18th-Century writing of Immanuel Kant, he points out that this phenomenon operates in relation to the “ergon” as the work itself or as the centre. Thus, the “parergon” is a kind of “by-work” of which the results can be seen in various kinds of boundary or liminal elements, such as drapery, columns and frames. In agreement with Kant, Derrida regards parerga as non-incidental as they cooperate in the formation of the work. According to him the frame “…constitutes, mounts, enshrines, sets, borders, assembles, protects…” the work, while remaining by-work.8

This essay argues that – to a larger or lesser extent – the frame motif becomes central in many of Symonds’ recent paintings: parergon becomes ergon; by-work becomes the work; an ancient Western trope based on binary oppositions is overturned and superseded. Symonds is not the first painter to effect such an overturning; one thinks, for example, of Clifford Still and Frank Stella 9; but he does so in a particular way. The framing devices brought into view through the simplification of the painted field in Matisse’s painting are acknowledged, enlarged, expanded, centralised and energised in Symonds’s series of explorations through the deployment of fragment, fissure and facture. The centre can now be missing as the frame not “…only touches upon it, puts pressure upon it, presses against it, seeks contact with it…”,10 but overtakes it.

Fragment

“It would seem that…worlds have been built up only to be shattered again and that new worlds were built from the fragments.” (Frantz Boas, 1898: 18)11

Matisse presents the viewer with simplified, abbreviated motifs partly obscured by other motifs or delimited by the format. Nonetheless, it is possible to read each of the motifs quite clearly: window, balcony railing, piano, boy, metronome, bell, statuette, curtain, and figure in the background. Symonds works with fragments that interrupt one another ceaselessly across the field of his paintings. The relative quietude of Matisse’s work gives way to contradictory diagonals fragmenting the field in an early work, to surface interruptions throughout the recent body of work, and to the cutting off by the limits of formats to a much greater extent than is the case in The Piano Lesson. Bonnard and Vuillard come to mind, especially their fragmentation of the surface into a myriad of small elements in the facture of their work.12 No wonder the artist refers specifically to these late 19th-Century artists in his documentary notes alongside the making of his recent paintings. Through the deployment of fissure (discussed below), Symonds, however, takes fragmentation much further. His fields of small elements break up into fragments scurrying across the picture plane, often colliding with one another or breaking into even smaller parts.

The idea that worlds break apart into fragments with which new worlds are reconstituted; the notion that we can only know worlds through the fragments left behind in their wake; and that reconstitution is always only partial, looms large in late 19th-Century and 20th- Century thinking. In “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863),13 Charles Baudelaire wrote about modernity as being concerned with the transient, the fleeting, the contingent, with a unity of disunity. Anthropologists from Boas to Marcel Mauss to Claude Lévi-Strauss acknowledged our fragmentary understanding of culture.14 Lévi-Strauss introduced the term “bricolage” to refer to activities of reconstitution on the basis of such fragmentary understandings.15 In the visual arts of the later 20th Century, the term extends the cut-and-paste method of the collage to include errors, disharmony and working with what is available and at hand – including a Matisse reproduction – and which can be broken down into parts and reconstituted in ways which do not necessarily conform to the unity of the source material.

Fissure

“ … fissure: a narrow opening or crack of considerable length and depth usually occurring from some breaking or parting; a cleft between body parts or in the substance of an organ; a break or slit in tissue usually at the junction of skin and mucous membrane; a separation or disagreement in thought or viewpoint; a schism or disagreement between parties.” (Merriam-Webster, 2013)16

Fragments in Symonds’ recent paintings also act as fissures. They operate as cracks, clefts, breaks, slits or schisms in the field of the canvas. Parts of framing devices cut across surfaces. Fragments lifted from textile patterns or ornamentation on ceramic vases interrupt or slit planes of colour; reflections from glass vitrines function as gashes across the canvas; and angular scaffolding threaten to dismember the body of a painting.

In some works, fissures are grouped closely together, hereby creating pockets of intense activity in parts of the field of the painting. This is especially noticeable when one focuses on details of the larger works. In an analogy with musical composition, one could say that the ‘timing’ in these parts changes and speeds up to a frenetic disruption of the painted field.

Such disruptions combine with colour to suggest scars or wounds on the body of the paintings. Analogies between canvas and skin have permeated the language used in the painting discourse of recent decades. In Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface (2011), Anne Anlin Cheng goes so far as to say that modernist artists “dream of a second skin”17 to be found in the surfaces which surround us in our world. Routinely artists and writers use the phrase ‘a body of work’ when referring to a series or group of works made or shown together.

In Symonds’ recent paintings, the viewer becomes acutely aware of the surface, the skin of the canvas. The painted fissures do not pierce the surface in the way they do in works of an artist like Lucio Fontana,18 but they present one with the possibility of breaking through the skin, thereby creating more of a tension than if they actually had done so.
Stacks Image 226
The Piano Lesson Considered 2010-2011
Facture

“Facture refers to the way a thing is made…an artist’s handling of medium, the brushstroke, how materials are worked…where the artist’s hand meets the work, touching…” (Zurier, 2009)19

Frames, fragments and fissures in Symonds’ work are either presented or embellished through facture. The artist’s signature is present in licks and swabs of colour and texture. This is evident especially when one focuses on small details and when coming up close to see the way in which facture enlivens motifs and energises surfaces. The viscosity of paint, the glistening of its materiality on the skin of the canvas, the trail left of a movement of the artist’s hand by the painterly texture and direction – all of these provide one with an understanding of how the “thing is made”.

Various kinds of attempts to remove facture from the painted equation abound in the history of art during the last century. Kasimir Malevich’s black and white paintings20 and Sol LeWitt’s large geometric paintings21 come to mind. Facture came to be associated with expressionistic tendencies through which the indexical relationship between body and material can manifest. Historically, conceptual art baulked at this relationship and worked towards severing or minimising the link in favour of a gap between idea and index, between mind and how the digits of the hand can make an idea manifest. Nearer to our time, Ernst van Alphen (2005) disagrees with this simplistic division between expressionist and conceptualist tendencies where he writes: “Art is a laboratory where experiments are conducted that shape thought into visual and imaginary ways…”22 He argues for a notion of art as performative, as an actively mobilizing agent. And, like Foster, he assigns an important role to the genealogy that plays out in the art laboratory.

In Symonds’ work, facture re-surfaces the archaeology of the 19th-Century academic painting process. The underpainting or ébauche23 is brought to the surface while its obliteration through a smoothing over of the facture is avoided. Symonds also enlivens his variations on the theme of The Piano Lesson through the deployment of facture and in so doing establishes his link to Bonnard and Vuillard. In his particular variations, facture becomes playful and asserts itself as embellishment.

In Simona Levescu’s “From Plato to Derrida and Theories of Play” (2003)24 the author reviews ways in which ‘play’ has been perceived in the Western tradition. Friedrich Schiller saw it as a way of bridging the divide between the realms of ideas and materials ;25 Mikhail Bakhtin recognized its subversive nature in forms of ludic play to create resistance to officialdom even if its duration is fleeting and has to be constantly repeated in a series or sequence of actions.26 Johann Huizinga arguably wrote a definitive book entitled Homo Ludens (1938) on play, in which he states: “The spirit of playful competition is, as a social impulse, older than culture itself and pervades all life like a veritable ferment. Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were play…civilization is played. It does not come from play…it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.”27 Nearer to our time, Derrida questions the ontology of play where he argues that it negates itself in the very moment of its definition. He states that it is either nothing and then cannot be theorised as it is alogos or without discourse; or it becomes something and then its very essence is under erasure.28

Symonds’ continuous variations are no accident; play has to continue, it has to keep on playing or its energy is erased. Viewing the paintings and their details in his body of work, one is swept along in the energy of the play and this is achieved through the facture, which enlivens frame, fragment and fissure. Being ‘in the play’ as it were, subverts the very notion of a ‘work’ of art in the sense which Roland Barthes’ uses the word. In “Work and Text” (1971),29 he contrasts a ‘work’ as singular and relatively static; while a ‘text’ includes the infinite interplay of signifiers played with joyful pleasure or a jouissance which does not stop. In this respect, Barthes talks about setting a source going again, re-writing it, continuing the circulation of a source, refusing to be separated from it.

Embellishment is central to such continuous play through the use of facture in Symonds’ work. The act of ornamenting is usually associated with embellishment. Since Adolf Loos declared ornament a crime in 1908,30 the relationship between embellishment and modernist formalism has been fraught. The programatic nature of the formalist project could not leave room for allegations of frivolity, fictitiousness and being of an auxiliary or merely supplementary character – synonyms for embellishment. Matisse’s The Piano Lesson reflects the timeframe wherein Loos could argue that the removal of ornament was synonymous with the evolution of culture; but Symonds’ contemporary play on the source work returns embellishment to its earlier productive associations: assisting, aiding, helping, increasing, augmenting, complementing. These activities are carried by the facture in Symonds’ paintings, a facture laden with colour and physical energy; playing the composition of The Piano Lesson in revised register.

Coda

“…There might be … ways to write ‘preposterous’ history… to read art history forward into the (near) present, but one could move in the opposite direction, and use practice as a vantage point from which to revise the (distant) past.” (Foster, 2012)31

The pleasure of play through facture is so evident in Symonds’ recent paintings that one suspects that the modern and modernist notion of authorial originality is rather redundant in his view, with more importance attached to the kind of innovation which Foster recognises within a succession of substitutions and playful pseudo-morphisms. It is exactly this kind of innovation that would openly acknowledge its source material, as is the case with Symonds. Experiencing Symonds’ work, one cannot lose sight of Matisse’s The Piano Lesson to which he refers and defers. Through deployment of frame, fragment, fissure and facture, however, a significant difference plays out successively.

After so many statements concerning the death of art and particularly the death of painting, Foster writes about art and arts writing today: “…there is a preoccupation with stories of survival and persistence across a range of discourses…the grands récits of modernity might be gone, but there is now a fatigue with the rhetoric of rupture [and death].”32 Symonds just gets on with the work; he survives and persists; and in the process brings us what Lucretius33 considered the necessities of life: beauty and pleasure.

Stephen Greenblatt has recently reminded his readers in Swerve: How the Renaissance Began (2011) of the re-surfacing of Lucretius’ Epicurean ideas on beauty and the pleasure of life in the early modern Renaissance of the 15th Century.34 After modernism’s 20th-Century reluctance to embrace pleasure and beauty,35 we now find a plethora of new perspectives on their increasingly crucial role in contemporary art.36 Henry Symonds’ recent works make these rediscoveries manifest through the materiality of facture; while subtly acknowledging the politics of a migrant life through the deployment of frame, fragment and fissure.

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” (T.S Elliot, The Wasteland, 1922)37

Leoni Schmidt
Dunedin, New Zealand, 2013
1. See Anachronic Renaissance, 2010, Cambridge MIT: Zone Books, 4.
2. Studio notes provided to the author by the artist, 2013.
3. London: Thames & Hudson, 1993.
4. London Review of Books, 34: 21, November 2012: 12-14.
5. Ibid,14.
6. See "The Parergon", October, 9, Summer 1979, 21.
7. See Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking my Library", in Hannah Arendt, 1968, Illuminations, New York: Schocken & Homi Bhabha, "Unpacking my Library Again", The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 28:1, 1995, 5-18.
8. See endnote 6.
9. E.g. Clifford Still, Untitled, 1960, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Frank Stella, Framework, date unknown.
10. See endnote 6, Kant quoted by Derrida, 20.
11. Introduction, in James Teit, "Traditions of the Thomson River Indians", Memoirs of the American Folklore Society, 1898, 18.
12. E.g. Vuillard, Interior of the Work-table, 1893; Bonnard, Dining Room in the Country, 1913.
13. In The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, 1995, Jonathan Mayne, London: Phaidon.
14. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, 1958/1983, New York: University of Chicago Press.
15. Ibid.
16. See www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fissure
17. Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface, 2011.
18. E.g. Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept, 1959.
19. Rebecca Zurier, "Facture", American Art, 25:1, 2009, 29.
20. E.g. Kasimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915.
21. E.g. Sol LeWitt, Vertical, Straight Lines from Left to Right, 1972,
22. Ernst van Alphen, Art in Mind: How Contemporary Images Shape Thought, 2005, New York: University of Chicago Press, xiii-xiv.
23. See Albert Boime, The Academy and French Painting in the 19th Century, 1971, London: Phaidon.
24. Simona Levescu, "From Plato to Derrida and Theories of Play", Comparative Literature and Culture, 5: 4, December 2003, http://clcwebjournal.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb03.html
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid.
29. Roland Barthes, "From Work to Text", 1971, in Charles Harrison & Paul Wood (eds), Art in Theory 1900- 1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 1994, London: Blackwell, 940-46.
30. See Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime at www.gwu.edu/-art/Temporary
31. See endnote 4, 14.
32. Ibid.
33. Titus Lucretius Carus (99 BC – 55 BC) was a Roman poet and Epicurean philosopher. His long poem De rerum natura has been translated into English as On the Nature of Things.
34. London: The Bodley Head.
35. E.g. W. Steiner, Venis in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-Century Art, 2002, New York: University of Chicago Press.
36. Ibid.
37. Section 5.