“I tell you that I have a long way to go before I am – where one begins….. Resolve to be always beginning – to be a beginner!”
Rainer Maria Rilke
On Love and Other Difficulties
When Odysseus started out on his last journey he knew that he would never return home but continued anyway, driven on by a thirst for knowledge. From Socrates to the German poet Rilke, artists and thinkers have tried to find answers to the point and purpose of existence. Odysseus’ voyage is one of literature’s most potent journeys. The questions posed are fundamental: why are we here, and to what end?
There have always been individuals who travel – physically, emotionally and artistically – looking for answers. As post-Nietzschean moderns we no longer expect to find easy solutions lurking at the end of mountain ranges or rainbows. To be a painter at the beginning of the 21st century, when painting has been declared dead and revivified more times than you can utter ‘ism’, is a complex
task. There are those, such as Cecily Brown and Richard Price, who have embraced irony, pastiche and the history of art as their milieu. For others, the choice to journey into deeper realms remains an abiding concern. To mine a seam that would have felt familiar to Rembrandt, Turner or even Cy Twombly. These artists renounce the polished surfaces and eclecticism of the postmodern to pursue depth, a tough challenge in an essentially senseless existential world. For them, the quest is all. But directions and definitions can prove slippery. Not only psychologically, but within in the medium of paint itself. A medium that has all but become exhausted by continued innovation and novelty.
For the last 50 years the art world has been so distorted by hype and careerism that it has become difficult to see the aesthetic wood for the trees. But one thing, of which we can be certain, is that most assumptions underlying both contemporary art and society are in a state of flux. As W.B. Yeats suggested more than a century ago, centres do not hold or, rather, we can no longer take it as a given that there are any fixed centres – only a ceaseless ebb and flow.
John Beard, both as man and artist, embraces this fluidity. His life has been an Odyssean search for personal and artistic fulfilment. An international rover, a watcher and close observer, he has called London, Sydney, New York and Lisbon home. This peripatetic existence reflects an ongoing internal dialogue. Aware of – as befits the previous Head of Painting at the Western Australian Institute of Technology (now Curtin University) – but outside the current framework of constrictive art world debates, his has been a bid for artistic individualism and freedom of expression.
From his native Welsh valleys to the Australian outback, via romanticism, modernism and postmodernism, John Beard has remained intellectually and artistically itinerant and unfettered. His geographical meanderings parallel his ongoing discourses as painter. The whys, the hows, the wherefores. Through his drawn and painted marks he maps undiscovered spaces like a cartographer charting new terrains. Each brush stroke smeared on canvas or paper becomes a search for fresh vistas and new worlds.
Many years ago, at a lecture by Susan Hiller, he heard her suggest that the structure of the work is its ‘content’, not its ‘subject matter’. That thought stayed with him. In another talk at the University of Exeter in 1993, she claimed that: ‘The ‘self’ of an artist moves reflexively through a practice, modified by what has been learned from each work made.’ By training as an anthropologist, with a profound interest in psychoanalysis, Hiller was intrigued by how the chthonic informs our visual vocabulary. How ancient architypes accessed by visionaries such as William Blake, the Aborigines, even the ancient Greeks visiting their sacred temples in search of signs and prophesies, have long been the wellspring of artist imagination.
Over his career John Beard has experimented with land and seascapes, with animal and human heads. His influences have been diverse, from Andrea Mantegna to John Walker and Philip Guston. He has moved through expressionist abstraction to the minimalism of Japanese mark-making in his beautiful monochromatic Adraga series of 1993, inspired by the rock that lies just off the Atlantic coast near Sintra in Portugal where he was living at the time. The speed of his mark-making, the intuitive gestures and sense of touch stripped bare of artifice, have become the hallmarks of his practice.
Now lockdown has given him the chance to take a new direction. Using paper towels soaked in pungent turps held in a rubber-gloved hand, hog and sable brushes loaded with Cobalt and Cerulean Blue, Raw Siena and bleached off-white beeswax, he swept transparent veils across his canvases to conjure a new set of ‘self-portraits’. Memory played its part as an arsenal of letters and numbers drawn from Welsh grammar school O-level art returned, decades later, in a threnody of remembrance – Avenir, Baskerville, Helvetic, Times New Roman, Futura – to delineate the orifice of an eye socket or nose, a lip or cheek bone. These works were to become an extension of his exploratory mapping process: a reaching towards, an exploration that followed wherever the initial marks lead. He insists that he really didn’t know what he was doing when he first embarked on this series but found himself using typographical forms to suggest the structure of a face, playing with the negative space between letters and numerals. Unsure of his direction, he worked on all sixteen canvases simultaneously, like a traveller trying different routes to arrive at some unidentified location. When he hit a dead end in one work, he simply moved to another, slowly resolving the problem through the process of making, without allowing himself to become bogged down in any one image. This continuous Beckett-like process of failing and picking himself up, allowed mistakes to be resolved as solutions. Landscapes became bodies, fonts became faces. The word became image.
He explains that in ‘confronting the scale of an imaged magnified head’, the gestures of his brush marks ‘mimicked the natural flow and movement of the human body’. Made with a sweep of the arms and torso, instead of the hand and wrist more appropriate in scale to a life-sized head, he was following an ancient path – not, he insists, one looked for, but incidentally found – from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs with their references to the human form, via the Roman architect Vitruvius and Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, to the measurements used by builders since the dawn of time which relate to the human reach. For Leonardo, proportions and mechanical properties of the human body were no less than an analogy for the workings of the universe. Slowly, what began to appear was a series of alphabetic and numerical forms – ‘typographical hybrids’ – that took on anthropomorphic elements to reveal parallels between typographic and corporeal anatomy. Andreas
Vesalius, the 16th century Flemish anatomist and physician, author of the influential De Humani Corpus Fabrica, the prototype to modern human anatomy, also became a player in the matrix of influences. As did the 1525 The Book of Hours by the French humanist and engraver, Torins (Geoffroy Tory) that was published as Champfleury (roughly translated as ‘flowery field’) and subtitled ‘The Art and Science of the Proportion of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face’, which claimed alphabetic fonts should reflect the ideal proportions of the human form.
Once he started looking, Beard found infinite connections. In 1917 Sir Darcy Thompson pointed out in his book on Growth and Form the correlations between biological structures and mechanical phenomena, and their relationship to the Fibonacci sequence (1). This was to be taken up later in the 20th century by Le Corbusier, who developed a universal measuring system, the ‘Modulor’ (2) that attempted to relate architecture to a mathematical order orientated to human scale.
Experimenting with various fonts and typefaces, Beard began to create what he refers to as ‘an orchestration of fused and layered marks, the facture of the surface creating a palimpsest, a visible evidence of the chronology and history of the process of the painting itself.’ He started to find parallels between the proportion, scale, contrast and weight of the typefaces with the balance and rhythm of the body, and the flow of letters in a sentence illuminated by the Bouma system (3). Gradually, through this process of experimentation, each painting found its own personality coalescing into closely related families of roughly three or four paintings per group.
As with de Kooning’s Women of the 1950s and 60s, the rectangle of the canvas became packed with highly charged marks, so the compact image virtually filled the picture space. As in de Kooning’s Woman in Landscape III (1968) we are, with John Beard’s iconic images in his body/landscapes – an intrinsic part of them – not simply viewers looking in at them. Enveloped by the image, we plunge into not only their physical typography but their opaque Freudian depths. Meanings are provisional: ambiguous conundrums that raise, like contemporary life itself, more questions than answers. By being with these experimental works, by letting ourselves journey through the process of their making, we become witnesses and fellow travellers, not to some static finite image, but to the artist’s processes of thinking and the electrical charge of paint.
- Fibonnaci Sequence: in mathematics Fibonacci numbers form a sequence such that each number is the sum of the two preceding ones, starting from 0 and 1. Introduced in 1202, these numbers are strongly related to the golden ratio.
- The Modular: an anthropometric scale of proportions devised by the Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965)
- Bouma system: named after Dutch vision researcher Herman Bouma it refers to the overall outline, or shape, of a word when reading.