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Splinter, Paper and Tape: On Paintings by Alastair John Gordon

Vibac Grid Formation, 2013, Oil on gaboon marine ply, 50 x 40cm

On 23 September 2013, in the site of a former chapel of a Mission founded by Danish sailors, I first stepped into the Husk Gallery, Departure Arts Centre at Limehouse, London to view the Danish Departed exhibition, featuring work by its artist-in-residence, Alastair Gordon. His paintings of splinters, one ‘Falling’ and another ‘Rising’, made me recall the lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’ (line 430). When painting evokes the memory of poetry, I believe a miracle has taken place – the miracle of echoing insights uttered by a poetic voice from the past, drawing a parallel between a text and an image created by two different imaginations. It just goes to show that poetry is not dead, that its voices resonates beyond the page even into the space of a gallery, and that art has the capacity to provoke memory, inspiring a ‘look at what is going on inside the heart’ (Stanley Cavell, Little Did I Know (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 1).

Gordon and I share a common interest in finding our inspiration for our artistic/literary productions in what we read. I quote in full here his thoughts regarding the relationship between reading and creativity: In System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard writes, ‘we are fascinated by what has been created because the moment of creation cannot be reproduced’. I read this book three years ago and this singular statement has stuck with me ever since. I also find Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality a regular go-to. In some ways, my painting is a similar enquiry into the world of the world of authentic fakery. I find myself looking for the hand of the author be it in a scratch found on the surface of a letter or the residual brush marks on masking tape left over after a painting has been completed. For me, there is a symbiotic relationship between what I read and what I paint. My research is driven by painting but it most usually begins with a text or story. Splinter Falling and Splinter Rising as a pair of paintings show two epistemological possibilities – a descent and, its opposite, an ascent – as such they speak of two, perhaps, parallel trajectories in life.

The fact that they inspired the recollection of those famous lines by Eliot hints at not only their fragmentary nature but at the possibility that they can be collected, 'shored', against the monstrosity of derelictions, of the wasteland in every person's heart, and beyond the singular onto the general, the uninhabited city whose walls have been broken down and where only bits of stone, dirt and dust have settled on the ground. In this way, they commemorate a history where destruction and fragmentation occurred while gesturing towards a future of appropriation in which the fragment becomes a story of a future of either falling onto something or rising towards something else.

The paintings do not spell out what the fragments are falling on to or what they are rising to but if the antique wood surfaces on which the painted wooden fragments are acknowledged as part of the meaning they convey, then another layer of a story is opened up – a religious aspect, particularly a Christian one in which the cross of the crucified Christ is laid bare. Stanley Cavell following Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, ‘The crucified human body is our best picture of the unacknowledged human soul’ (The Claim of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 430). I would suggest that these paintings remember that point in human history when the rest of a community failed to acknowledge a love before their eyes by virtue of being remnants, reminders of a larger whole, wooden pieces on which the Christ was crucified. Gordon’s paintings are grounded in the strong narrative of his research. In his autumn show last year, he worked with aural accounts and document archives of Departure.

Thus, some of the paintings recollect the post-industrial life of dockland workers and sailors who would visit the site in need of shelter. In his current exhibition, he found it necessary to document the history of his studio practice. He informs me that, ‘I painted objects that appear at the beginning and end of my own creative process such as paper fresh from the sketchbook and used masking tape…[which is in itself a] new narrative...’ Gordon is interested in what remains from a moment in history whether momentous, such as the crucifixion described above, or trivial, such as the leftovers of tape and paper of a painting torn from a wooden backdrop.

The event of a finished and unfinished painting as seen in his Sacrament series in his current exhibition, What You Will, Bearspace invites the viewer to imagine the possibilities of what could have been painted on the paper, suggesting that every painting is unfinished because of the interpretations imputed on to them, whether philosophical, imaginative or anything else. The possibilities are endless and yet paradoxically it has also ended with nothing and something – an offering or a sacrifice to the viewer to make something out of the nothing, giving us artistic licence to join in the creative venture, to participate in the making of art. By the time I saw the Vibac series, I had only partially acknowledged to myself the development of Gordon’s ideas on fragments, fragmentation and the collecting of such remainders. Gordon tells me that these group of paintings strongly refer to the Quodlibet tromp l’oeil painting that was widespread in Northern Europe in the 1600s.

This painterly illusionistic technique literally translates as ‘what you will’ and was later inflected by visual artists to mean ‘as it falls’. In this appropriation finds the hint to the ‘accidental’ nature of Gordon’s paintings. The paintings of tape, particularly those in parallel to each other in Vibac XII, are a reminder of Barnett Newman’s abstract expressionist paintings two of which I first encountered at the Tate Modern a few years ago, Adam and Eve, with a difference – where Newman uses paint to highlight the alteration in perspective, subject and tone, Gordon’s painterly description of pieces of tape show the remnants of a painting while referring to the paintings that have been removed and discarded to leave something wholly new and as rich as what could have been presented had they been left alone.

By Faith Amurao, 2013


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