Catalogue Essay for the Exhibition at Ben Brown Arts
In my writing I am acting as a map maker, explorer of psychic area… a cosomonaut of inner space, and I see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed
William S. Burroughs
What does it mean to make a chart or a map? In the conventional sense it is, of course, about topography, and concerns the contours of land, the flow of rivers and the height of mountains. But it can have an altogether more metaphorical meaning, for as Jürgen Habermas writes in Modernity – An Incomplete Project:The avant-garde must find a direction in a landscape into which no one seems to have yet ventured.
Head and Neck, 2007
Since Modernism, nothing can be taken as given, nothing is fixed. What Jürgen Habermas calls “these forward gropings” anticipate an undefined future. “The new value placed on the transitory, the elusive and the ephemeral”, he argues “… discloses a longing for an undefiled, immaculate and stable present”. To “map” in this context, therefore, implies charting the unknowable territory of the psyche, starting out on a journey without a clear sense of direction, or of the final destination. It is an act of faith in a faithless world, for there is no certainty as to where that journey might end. It is propelled only by the desire to find (whilst knowing the impossibility of doing so) something ‘undefiled’ and possibly ‘immaculate’.
Tony Bevan’s heads and architectural spaces, along with his newer series of studio furniture, do not fit neatly into any painterly category. They are neither figurative, in the strict sense that they are ‘copies’ of what he has observed in the world, nor are they entirely abstract, in that the imagery has been broken down into a series of painterly gestures divorced from the actual visible world. Born out of the reality of observation, they are a tentative exploration of the one-dimensional space of the canvas, which seems to undergo some sort of transformation so that the paintings open out into a metaphysical space that is experienced as beyond that of the physical picture plane. The canvas becomes an arena in which to act and explore, a space to “express” – to borrow Harold Rosenberg’s word used when describing American Abstract Expressionism – an object, actual or imagined. Painting, Rosenberg argues, “is the same metaphysical substance as the artist’s existence”, a process that reveals the personality of the painter. Through contact with a painting we come to understand something of the artist – not in terms of cod psychology – but rather how he translates his psychological experience into something new, to say what has been previously unsaid. What we witness, if we are mindful, is the creative process enacted.
In Tony Bevan’s painting, Crossing, a bridge appears to hang in space. Vertical poles are strung out on wires. It is the sort of bridge that might traverse a ravine or a fast river. The structure is similar to that of bridges known from many Japanese paintings and prints beloved by van Gogh. Yet here it is impossible to determine where the bridge begins and ends. No human presence is detectable. There are no scuttling merchants, no horses and carts, no one on a bicycle; it seems simply to be a transitional point linking one unidentified place with another. All that we know is that it connects two spaces. But these spaces remain tantalisingly unknown and inchoate. Like the cartographer travelling in an unfamiliar land, we can only trust, as we make the crossing, and see where we end up. There is a sense that this bridge leads to a different realm, to somewhere deeper and more profound than we are used to on a daily basis. Yes, it is a bridge, but it is a psychological bridge between two states, whilst the fact that it is painted in a sort of rusty ox-blood red suggests a connection with the body, and the possibility of arteries or tendons. This red recurs time and again in Bevan’s paintings, along with primal orange and sometimes cobalt blue. With his use of charcoal, it suggests something very ancient, a connection to art’s roots, to aboriginal painting made from the earth’s pigments or the magical ochre and soot paintings on the walls of the caves at Lascaux in France.
This feeling that there is something important going on beneath the surface of things is integral to all Tony Bevan’s work. Blood-red cicatrices run like knife wounds diagonally across the surface of the face and across the neck in Head and Neck. It is impossible not to read these marks as wounds, though Sevan himself talks of them rather as “flow patterns”. Yet with their jagged edges, they look like the ragged stitch marks left by some cack-handed surgeon, and suggest that there’s been an attempt to peel back the flesh from the bone to reveal what lies beneath. The tendons of the attenuated neck are taut and stretched as if trying to hold up the lacerated head. It is impossible to look at these self-portraits without thinking of Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas, where the Phrygian satyr, in a fit of hubristic pride, dared challenge the god Apollo to a musical contest. As punishment for his presumption, Apollo had Marsyas tied to a tree and flayed him alive. And then, too, there is Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp, where collective medical students collect around the dissecting table to peer at the sinews of a cadaver, a common criminal hung that very morning. Both these paintings are connected by the revelation of what lies beneath the surface.
In his self-portraits, Tony Bevan lays bare the social face that is presented to the world, peeling it back to reveal an essential essence or fundamental truth. This process is similar to setting out on a journey into the interior, into that heart of darkness that lurks at the centre of all modern individuals. And the place we arrive at? Well, it is one of existential doubt, a place where only more questions can be asked, where all that is discovered is an approximation. That is art’s inherent failure. For as Alberto Giacometti said: “All I can do will only ever be a faint image of what I see and my success will always be less than my failure or perhaps equal to the failure”.
In Head, the image has become even more deconstructed. The top has gone, and the face seems to dissolve and collapse, so that we are reminded of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray portrait hidden in the attic, taking on the marks of its subject’s lived experience. All that is left behind by the series of lines that run horizontally across the face, like wires holding down Gulliver, or musical staves, is the suggestion of a nose, with its prominent nostrils and a mouth. The whole has been reduced to these basic components, the minimum needed to constitute life; points of inhalation and exhalation thrust up like some animal snout gasping for air. The image conjures, in its isolation and distress, the articulating mouth in Samuel Beckett’s Not I, which itself was suggested, according to the author in a letter postmarked 30 April 1974, by Caravaggio’s ‘The Beheading of John the Baptist’ in Valletta Cathedral. Bevan has talked of a disembodied sense of existence, which he has experienced several times in the studio – an experience known as “autoscopy”, in which a person, while believing himself to be awake, sees his body and the world from a location outside his physical body.
Studio Tower, 2008
When discussing his work, Bevan gives little away other than talking in terms of form and space. He has said that painting is a silent language that he can’t easily talk about. Interpretation is left to others. Yet looking at his piles of rounded stones or boulders, it is not hard to read these painted potato forms as even further-reduced references to the head, by now completely disembodied and featureless – difficult not to see them as oblique references to the skulls found in mass graves. Of course, they are not about these things. Bevan talks of them simply as piles of stones, but, as with all good art, they spark the imagination of the viewer and suggest multiple readings.
He likes to work with his drawings and recent paintings all around him, for they act as notes reminding him of particular concerns. To work in an empty studio is uncomfortable. He starts on an unstretched canvas, often working on the floor on his hands and knees. Much comes through the process of drawing, and is suggested by how his material behaves. He tries not to make conscious decisions, but simply to allow a stream of consciousness to flow. Often the material determines what should be a drawing or a painting. Using the physical resistance of the floor, the charcoal splinters and spits, leaving a residue that is locked in with acrylic medium. It is this unpredictability that he cherishes. Marks are also dependent on how paint is loaded onto the brush. The physical quality of his medium is paramount. Yet for such a mild-mannered man, these are violently sensual paintings. It is perhaps for this quality, along with the isolation of the subject within the picture space, as well as the dominance of red and black, that he is so often compared to Francis Bacon.
Following a number of paintings depicting open roofs and rafters, he has taken to painting what he calls studio furniture. The result is a number of horizontal skeletal structures reminiscent of Vladimir Tallin’s famous Modernist tower. With their open lattice-work of girders, they suggest electrical pylons or oil rigs, though on closer observation many of the lines do not connect, and these edifices, as in Furniture, seem on the point of disintegration. Again, there are many readings, from the Tower of Babel to the collapse of Modernism. For these images seem to suggest the fragmentation of the holistic grid that was the Utopian arena of so much Modernist art. There is a quiet irony to a painting such as Monument, where a Piranesian stack stands in isolation on a red ground like an empty symbol of some discredited dogma; for who in the modern world can believe in monuments now?
In Table Top the studio objects have been parred down to the bone so that the whole resembles, on its spindly legs, a citadel of pagodas and towers, a city of the imagination such as might have been conjured in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Its nervy lines also recall something of Giacometti’s Apple on the Sideboard (1937), with its edgy contrasts of light and dark. Tony Bevan is one of the most authentic and fearless artists working today. He is unafraid of undertaking deep philosophical and psychological investigations. His tough, uncompromising works are raw and profoundly human and do not shirk from showing vulnerability.
Enlightenment thinkers still had the expectation that both art and science could promote an understanding of the world and of the self, as well as defining moral progress and even human happiness. The twentieth century shattered such optimism. This has lead to a reduced space in which artists who want to explore the human condition can operate. By working in a fairly narrow terrain, Bevan’s self-portraits, his roofs, towers and studio furniture, with their charcoal drawing, their single inconsistent pigments, their lacerations and strange perspectives speak eloquently of what it means to inhabit the contemporary world. “I have,” wrote Albert Camus, “seen many people die because life for them was not worth living. From this I conclude that the question of life’s meaning is the most question of them all.”
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Tony Bevan 2007-2008