Monday, September 24, 2012

And God Cryed. John Blackburn @ Studio 3, University of Kent

John Blackburn, And God Cryed, 2011-12

It was with great delight that I returned to work last week to find the walls of the Jarman building covered from top to bottom like never before with abstract paintings. And moreover, these were paintings that, even if they were not outside my office door, I would want to spend time with them. Because the 88 paintings covering every spare inch of wall space in Jarman move along the spectrum of black to grey to white, they push at the boundary that lies between abstraction and figuration, and in all their variety, they carry the viewer through a whole gamut of viewing possibilities. 

Jarman Building, Ground Floor filled with Blackburn paintings

And God Cryed exhibits the vastness and diversity of paintings made by contemporary British painter, John Blackburn. In a film made to accompany the exhibition, Blackburn adamantly reinforces that Scott (presumably British Abstract painter William Scott) has no influence on his thinking or aesthetic. And what’s unique about the works is that in the very same moment that we see Rothko, Rothko disappears. Of all the Americans, as I walked around the building, I wanted to make the connection to Rauschenberg’s combines, and then in the very next moment I saw Twombly everywhere in the large drips, scribbles and scrawls. And yet, like the gesture towards Rauschenberg or Rothko, Pollock or British artists such as Scott, Twombly is somehow both there and not there on the canvas or wooden support. My temptation to connect the paintings to what I know, and their insistence on eluding that connection is indicative of their innovation. 

Jarman Building, Mezzanine

The very same could be said of the shifting vicissitudes of the paintings themselves. The dense conglomerations that are the black paintings with appropriated texts are all but dark and depressing, that is, just until, up close we trace a thread of red paint as it weaves through a clump of black. Again and again, a thread of color becomes the light and hope that consciously always gets caught up on the surface of Blackburn’s paintings. Things, literal things, find their way onto these paintings and together with the words that striate the surface, like graffiti left on a dilapidated gravestone, the hair, the shoes, pieces of paper, and all manner of things get caught up in the dense, dark coagulations of black paint. These things might make the works physically heavy and gothic, but they also relieve the paint of its darkness. The presence of the everyday on these surfaces simultaneously reveals their familiarity.
John Blackburn, No No, 2012

In the film, Blackburn is unequivocal in his explanation of the bleakness of his paintings. He says they are about life, and that “life itself is terribly dangerous, terribly cruel, terribly rewarding”. He says without blinking “The human condition drives my work. I would be lost … without that.” For all of the density of the paint, the intensity of the buildup on the canvas, there is a precariousness to these paintings. The wires that protrude form Five Forms Imprisoned (2010) echo the chilling pain of incarceration, hiding behind its bars the tenderness of human emotional turmoil. And the drips of Tin Bath, 2005 remind me of tears, shed by the inability to be comforted in a time of trauma.

John Blackburn, Black/White/Grey, 2007
When he describes the gothic black paintings, Blackburn says, again without flinching “The actual reality is that man never learns anything. There is still the same amount of treachery and evil” and here he most obviously refers to the presence of war and agression in the paintings. All of those who died on the battlefield in the world war that began when Blackburn was 7 years old seem to be remembered on the surfaces. As well as the memories, caught in the brushstroke, the burnt paint, distressed surfaces and aged, mangled objects, there is a resounding melancholy. And in this gesture, the works become figurative. They sit on the precipice between aesthetic abstraction, and the emotions tied to memory that lead them into the realm of figuration. They are angry, sad, surprising, moving, holding up mirrors to the breadth of our emotions –

John Blackburn, Black Shoe Trilogy, 2011-12

One of the greatest joys of having the paintings in Jarman comes as I catch one of my colleagues contemplating a painting, having been stopped in his or her tracks on the way to a meeting somewhere else in the building. It’s difficult not to get caught up in the drama and provocation of the work because the paintings are the object of our look no matter where we turn. What I love most about the exhibition is that the paintings are integrated into the day to day life of the building. We hold parties on the mezzanine, teach on the first floor, the gallery spaces host events and talks, drama students are in the habit of lurking through the building making strange noises as they practice their performances, and the students sit around talking throughout the day on the ground floor. Blackburn’s paintings participate in every activity. When I asked Ben Thomas, my colleague and exhibition curator, what was going to happen when pieces of bubble gum found their way into one of the shoes in the Black Shoe Trilogy, he shrugged his shoulders and said “it’s not a problem, I think John is quite happy for that to happen.”


All images courtesy of the Artist 

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