Wednesday 4 November 2015

Séan Benton and Aaron Thompson at NAC

Barry Joe, who usually posts my blog for me because he is so much more technologically adept than I am, has been laid up recently, which is one reason why I have not posted to my blog for a while. 

Another reason is that I did not get an opportunity to speak to Séan Benton, who put on a portrait show in October, or to speak to anybody who could tell me much about him.  I was just faced with a row of full face portraits, some of them actors and actresses, some of people he knew and three of himself, with nothing to explain to me why he thought these faces were important to him or how he felt about them.  With the exception of the self portraits, which were poetic and humorous, all I could say about them was that they were technically successful without going into a lot of fine detail and probably resembled the sitters.  The self portraits were intriguing, especially one with an eye patch which made me think of a pirate, and one with a raven which made me think of Poe's idea of "Nevermore."  But when I tried to arrive at the artist's personal intention, which is what really interests me, I drew a blank.

I was lucky enough to get a personal interview with Aaron Thompson, who told me that he had been very much influenced by a series of paintings by a famous German artist, Gerhard Richter, which are visual references to the ideas of John Cage.  As soon as he mentioned John Cage, I knew what he was talking about because during my last year at the University of Illinois, I spent a lot of time with John Cage, who was a good friend of a friend of mine in the Music Department.  John Cage was there to work on a Happening.  For this event he took certain melodies of Mozart and put them through permutations based on the I Ching.  The I Ching is an ancient Chinese book of divination.  To consult it, you take three coins and cast them six times.  According to the way they fall, you get a hexagram which provides a wise and valid answer for the question you were asking.

The rationale behind this is that because everything in the universe is connected, when you do something completely random, you make a profound connection.  John Cage, believing this, was interested in what was random for its own sake and was trying to make Mozart random.  I did not feel myself that random notes by Mozart were an improvement on notes consciously organized by Mozart, but I found the idea fascinating and have consulted the I Ching ever since.

What Aaron Thompson does, following the example of Gerhard Richter, is apply the search for what is random and thereby meaningful.  He takes a large panel with handles on either side, covers it with dollops of paint and draws it over a canvas.  He repeats this process, with different layers of paint, until he feels it is time to stop.  Knowing when to stop can be quite tricky.  The result is not, as you might expect, a uniform series of messes, because the decision when to stop involves the artist's eye and judgement.

In fact, each canvas is different and has a kind of glow to it that I said made me think of sunrise or sunset on a different planet.  He agreed.  I also said that the light patches on a darker background looked like openings and made me think of the way the older religious literature used the word "opening" to stand for the perception of a certain mystical insight.  He agreed with that too.  But I would never have understood his work in this way if I hadn't inquired about his personal intention.  Revealing each artist's personal intention I take to be the real purpose of this blog.

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