2017 - Ian Monroe: The Trouble with Shapes
The Trouble with Shapes
Shapes can be remarkably dangerous things. In 1915 the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich painted a small two and a half foot square canvas consisting of a black square hovering on a white background. That was it. With these remarkable simple means Suprematism was born and the pictorial plane was forever emancipated from the chains of representation. Or that was the claim that was made by the circle of artists joining this nascent avant-garde movement. For Stalin, 15 years later in 1930, the finer points of geometric abstraction were less enthralling. He ordered that Malevich be interrogated, and judging by the two month jail sentence for ‘formalism’ that was handed down, Stalin was apparently not impressed.
This is the trouble with shapes. For according to Malevich, the reduction in his paintings was paradoxically intended to increase the possibilities and the meanings of his art, to open it as he said to “the infinite space of the human skull”. In reference to the painting ‘Black Square’ itself, he said “it is from zero, in zero, that the true movement of being begins”. One can only imagine how these claims would have gone down with Malevich’s bourgeois hating interrogators. The goals of the totalitarian state were firmly rooted in a collective Social Realism, in representing the struggle of the working classes, not the pseudo spiritual quest of self actualisation that Malevich was promoting. But of course the irony is that by persecuting this kind of art, this geometric reduction, the Stalinist state was tacitly recognising that all of Malevich’s claims were indeed true, and more importantly to them, very worrying.
They were worried of course because if a simple square can be a signifier for such a massive and potentially universal concept — the liberation of the human mind — then what power does a set of specific political dogmas and doctrines have? If just by gazing at a black square, a shape that everyone around the world can recognise and is familiar with, the “true movement of being begins”, then possibly the specifics of our own beliefs and institutions is a much more slippery concept. Why do we need the state to emancipate our lives when this two and half foot square will do the job? This is indeed a dangerous shape.
But a further complication arises that as far as we know the Stalinist state was not concerned with, and that is the relationship this painting has to language. The painting “Black Square” can be perfectly encapsulated, even compressed in sense, to the words in its title. One almost does not need the painting. The title says it all. Black Square. Got it. So not only does the painting demonstrate the ability of images — or shapes — to suggest much more than they represent, it also engages with the power of language itself, the power of a system of signs.
And this is where the images of Juan Bolivar operate; the place where the eye and the mind attempt to connect a shape with a word or a phrase, where a graphic meets a glyph. This innate desire to know the thing we are looking at, to name it, is a very basic human desire. Once we have a name for a thing we can perform some kind of operation on it and it becomes useful. Bolivars’ work willfully complicates this desire. It reminds us that in the 21st Century our graphics and our glyphs are now so layered, so nuanced that the moment we utter a things name, it will have shifted, it will have resisted the interrogation. The usefulness of this naming, our need to find out how we can benefit from this collection of shapes, therefore gives way to the realisation that no set of signs and signifiers is ever stable, that we may end up in a ever more complicated spiraling of meaning.
Bolivar may start his paintings with the abstractions of a Malevich black square, or a Frank Stella striped triangle, but they become New York’s ground zero with a match stick or a hang glider over a jail cell, which itself is a knowing reference to Peter Haley. There is nothing in the images of Bolivar that is purely abstract, without referent or context, it is all representational. Picasso was
famously skeptical of abstraction, stating that “there is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality”. This is precisely the territory that Bolivar explores. His works vibrate within the question that Malevich demanded from his work; a simultaneous moment of recognition of the form, and the open ended possibility of this form to suggest an entire system beyond the singularity of its shape or its name.
It is important that Picasso said you can remove all traces of reality. He left it open ended, it’s up to you. And this is the game Bolivar delightfully plays. There is always a sense of humour and mischief within his works furthered by his use of titles. The titles often refer to the thing itself, but also open the possibilities to seemingly unrelated contexts. For example, in the 2008 show Geometry Wars (John Hansard Gallery), one painting is of a black, white, and grey lifeguard stand / watchtower. The title is ‘Baywatch’. The painting demands that the viewer simultaneously hold in their mind the history of maritime military conflict as well as Pamela Anderson and David Hasslehof performing titillating life saving duties. It is with a wry shock that we realise the painting accurately reflects the modern barrage of media channels in which we do indeed hold these contradictory images (shapes) in our minds simultaneously.
For High Voltage, Bolivar deploys the same sense of graphic simultaneity and the compression of language found in his previous work. This time the works weave equally disparate elements of early 20th Century geometric modernism with the hard rock of the band AC/DC. The Fender guitar logo sits atop a Mondrian grid with the resulting image hovering between an amplifier cover and sublime geometric minimalism. In another painting a later figurative Malevich work reappears with a backwards baseball cap and a discarded bottle of Lucozade, standing like the members of the band. Indeed, the title of AC/DC’s seventh studio album Back in Black, the second best selling album of all time, suggests a resurrection of the supposed finality of Malevich’s ‘Black Square’. It’s back, and as inscrutable as ever, but this time it’s really loud. That the originality of the avant-garde should return as a commodified Australian rock and roll blues band is something even Malevich himself would have understood. Later in life, having faced the wrath of the state where his work was removed from public view, he began making teacups adorned with Suprematist shapes.
Bolivar fully understands this complication of signifiers. Via humour, historic awareness, and immense graphic acuity the work embraces a new hybridisation of meanings that is inescapable in the 21st Century. This is not work that simply references itself, or is drawn from the artist’s identity, or relies on a cryptic mythology. In fact, it could not be more grounded in the currency of everyday shapes, in our continual desire to trade, manipulate, and know the language of the forms that surround us. It is evidence of the fact that no painting is ever final, that no set of signs or beliefs is ever fixed. We are continually evolving these troubling shapes and giving them new meanings and trading a laugh with one another when we find a particularly good combination.
2014: Graham Crowley: I Heart New York
‘The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald
THAT WAS SCOTT FITZGERALD on New York in the 1920’s. But, what kind of mystery and what kind of beauty? In the late 19th century New York was where the urban and the modern fused. It’s where the idea of the modern became tangible; concrete. The steel, the glass and the geometry have become the grammar of modernity and innovation it’s syntax. I think that what Fitzgerald meant was that to see New York was to see ‘the now’. To experience change. To feel alive. To be present in ourselves; and there lies the metaphor. To paint is to be present in ourselves and to look at painting is to be present in another. Painting as a discourse.
‘Everything you can imagine is real.’ Pablo Picasso
Few people who’ve ever bought a T-shirt with the slogan – I and the symbol for a heart – have misconstrued it as ‘I heart’. Juan Bolivar is one of the few. It’s obvious that Juan is ignoring convention. But why? Because it draws our attention to the business of thinking. This is thought as play.
Ever since I first saw Juan Bolivar’s work at Tim Sheward Projects in London in 2012, I’ve had a sense of the ‘beautiful mind’ at work in these spare and exquisite paintings. I enjoy his slightly out of whack way of thinking; that and his discipline. It’s this synthesis that makes Juan’s paintings worthy of serious attention.
Juan’s paintings make no apparent claim to authenticity or originality. It’s simply not an issue. The notion of justification has become facile. The myth of expressive integrity has been exposed as an unsustainable absurdity. Integrity isn’t a matter of choice. Wearisome debates as to whether painting is relevant or whatever are long buried. These days we have bigger fish to fry. His work is intelligent without being academic. He doesn’t appear to lose sleep musing over ‘academic kabbalah’*.
‘The picture is a fact.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein
New York’s pre-eminent position in the history of 20th century modernist painting was one of the reasons why in the spring of 2013 Juan Bolivar at the age of 46 eventually went there. His other reason for going was to see the MoMA show ‘Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925’. It would be Juan’s first time in New York and his paintings would be changed by this visit. They would begin to embrace the personal as well as the public; the playful and the theoretical.
In this group of paintings he has fused his experience of the MoMA exhibition with that of New York; the hot dog stands, the streets, the cabs and the culture. Juan has referred to some of these paintings as souvenirs which lends this project a sense of purpose. It’s this kind of focus that distinguishes these paintings as both ambitious and evolutionary.
‘America is the country of the art of the future… Look at the skyscrapers! Has europe anything to show more beautiful than this?’ Marcel Duchamp
Those already familiar with Juan’s paintings will know that his work can quote Mondrian and Malevich whilst simultaneously referring to heavy metal bands such as AC/DC, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. This is not an arbitrary connection. Heavy metal was one of Juan’s first loves. This is autobiography. To state that early abstract paintings and heavy metal music are different is banal. What is remarkable is that they are of equal significance to Juan. As memories they equate. Juan sights the fanzine as a cultural and metaphorical link. The fact that they might at first seem incongruous bed-fellows is what makes the synthesis all the more remarkable. Cultural pluralism at work. It’s a similar pleasure to hearing Homer Simpson mention Wittgenstein; simultaneously subversive and delightful.
‘I came to New York to be a fine artist – that was my ambition.’ David Byrne
Whilst in New York Juan absorbed the sights. But he absorbed them in a particular way. He saw them refracted through his experience of the MoMA show and visualised them by referring to paintings in the exhibition. He was particularly interested in the paintings of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Piet Mondrian, Wladyslaw Strzeminski and Kasimir Malevich. Paintings that had long ago become icons of the abstract. Unsurprisingly, Malevich’s Black Square made a massive impression. Malevich claimed that his painting was year 0. A subsequent visit to Ground Zero had a profound effect. Juan later discovered that the two experiences had become conflated; not by design but by memory. For Juan, the inappropriate gesture or thought won’t be ignored or suppressed. It’s slowly filtered through reflection
In a beautifully written passage (in his essay ‘The Fly in the Ointment’) in the catalogue for his exhibition ‘Geometry Wars’ at The John Hansard Gallery in 2008 Juan acknowledges a growing sense of inappropriateness about his behaviour. He’s not alone in that respect. He’s being candid. Irrespective of what might be termed inappropriate, these paintings are subtle and good natured. A welcome change from the ‘serious’ and the abject which has become the institutional and academic norm. Juan’s paintings elucidate with minimum drama.
‘If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein
Juan Bolivar is full of surprises. For someone who admits to being unaware of post-modernism until 1998 – that’s 20 years after notions of originality and authenticity had first been problematised – he’s certainly caught up. His work isn’t postmodern it is post-conceptual. Juan’s paintings effortlessly epitomise post-conceptual painting. It’s intelligent, un-ironic, humorous and thoughtful. His work appears to be at ease with its materiality. A significant part of the legacy of early non representational painting. The painting as its own object. This is one reason why Juan’s paintings are executed with such precision and care. A profound respect for the discourse that is painting and an established sense of the painting as object.
‘Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.’ Woody Allen
Paintings such as ‘Broadway I’ and ‘II’ which reference Mondrian’s New York are painstakingly colour matched and are exactly the same size as the painting upon which they’re based. Juan’s method involves a refreshing and irreverent take on transcription. He’s not merely appropriating but consciously mis-appropriating. Riffing. He knows what is predictable and consistently reacts against it; this lends his paintings a refreshing and somewhat playful appearance. Which leads the Checker Cab depicted in Broadway 1 to appear planted at the bottom edge of the painting; likewise the police car and fire engine in Broadway 2. All are schematic and rationalised.
‘Most of what’s on television is rubbish.’ Pablo Picasso
As a child Juan had poor health and was often confined to bed. It was on such an occasion as this that he discovered Leonardo and Asterix on the same day. It’s because of this ranging curiosity that he seems to have an unorthodox sense of hierarchy, and it’s this ethos that extends to all aspects of his work. Juan is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful painter. He embraces the legacy of conceptual art. For a painter to attempt to deny or ignore this is perverse. Denial and ignorance are the enemies of creative thought.
Paintings like ‘Wall Street’ which is based upon a painting by Sophie TaeuberArp refers to the ivy league ethos of the financial sector in an effortless manner. The tie depicted is that of Harvard. Are these Tom Wolfe’s ‘masters of the universe’?
There are two small paintings in Juan’s show that employ text and both bear witness to a conceptual legacy. But they represent much more than that. ‘The Armory 2014’, a sign displayed in a museum or gallery that says Wet Paint can’t be ignored. It’s either incongruous or begging to be misinterpreted. Fuel for thought. Either way it’s funny. And ‘No Idling’, a sign seen in a New York street seems to be offering moral guidance rather than a legal imperative. To see the world in this fashion is to delight in it.
The same goes for the rather touching painting entitled ‘Dumbo’. Dumbo is ostensibly a landscape, a synthetic landscape. The title is a conflation of the acronym Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass (DUMBO) and the eponymous Disney animation. So Dumbo becomes a tiny sad grey painting. I found myself scrutinising this painting as I felt I’d missed something. I hadn’t. It really was that sad.
‘A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein
Juan’s paintings in spite of their appearance are fuelled by a sense of the tragicomic. None more so than the painting entitled ‘Ground Zero’. This painting which refers to Malevich’s Black Square and the events of 9/11. Juan describes this as a delicate balancing act. To achieve this he has employed a kind of second order meaning.
Juan refers to the candle vigil as a public display of grief without depicting it. He relies instead upon our associative powers. A solitary match is summoned to represent the tragedy and pathos of remembrance. A dreadful hopelessness or a wild optimistic?
He conflates the act of painting and that of remembrance. Painting becomes synonymous with expression and gesture. Put simply; to paint about love necessitates that a painting is crafted lovingly. The painting becomes its subject as well as its object, if that doesn’t sound too esoteric. This isn’t strictly formalism although formal values and strategic thinking play a large part. It’s not about being right. It’s about being prepared to speculate; to see what happens. It’s about thinking. It’s remembering what you’re doing whilst painting.
‘I love New York; I’ve got a gun.’ Charles Barkley
So what’s new? The persistence of illusion in abstract and non-referential painting is well established. In the 1960’s the american critic and curator Robert Rosenblum observed that Jackson Pollock’s paintings were anything but flat. He likened the strands and webs of paint to interstellar and cosmic space. There’s also a constant confusion between abstract and non-referential painting. Abstract painting uses the world of appearances as a reference or starting point and ‘draws out’ – abstracts.
Whereas non-referential painting; Malevich, Mondrian and Kandinsky take the ideas of theosophy as their foundation. The idea of a higher order that is esoteric and spiritual in nature. By around 1907 all three of these painters were members of the Theosophical Society. They were probably aware of books like ‘Thought Forms’ written by Reverend C W Leadbeater (and Annie Besant). Some of them may have owned a copy. They may also have known of the work of Hilma af Klint from the late 19th century. She believed her paintings and automatic drawings were dictated by a higher psychic power. But all of them believed in ‘man’s possible psychic evolution’. It was seen as a ‘trading up’ from the material to the spiritual. The realm of the abstract became an aspiration.
This also approximates to the title of a book by the mathematician and esoteric theorist P D Ouspensky (see bibliography below). It shouldn’t come as a surprise that early abstract and non-referential painting owed more to theosophical thought than avant garde 19th century painting. The conventional thinking that Cezanne and the cubists were precursors is speculative and stylistic, where as theosophical doctrine is programmatic and ultimately – abstract.
One school of 20th century painting that chimes with Juan Bolivar’s work is that of the Precisionist movement, a group of american painters who were active in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The movement included Charles Schiller, Gerald Murphy, Charles Demuth, Ralston Crawford and the photographer Paul Strand. The curious thing is that they were influenced by the same paintings and the same city as Juan – almost a century earlier. They were active in the 1920’s and their crisp, abstracted urban aesthetic can be seen in the paintings of Stuart Davis. Davis is arguably the most important american painter of the 20th century. His biography is the story of urban America in the 20th century; from ‘ash can’ to minimalism.
As I said at the beginning painting is a discourse. A great conversation between ourselves, our past, our fears and our desires. That these paintings employ a tragicomic narrative shouldn’t surprise anyone.
‘Oh dear. Now the end’s come off…’ Oliver Postgate & Peter Firmin
* ‘academic kabbalah’ is an expression first coined by the critic and novelist George Steiner.
Wickham Market, October 2014
2014: OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Juan Bolivar
OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Juan Bolivar
JUAN BOLIVAR's paintings hover between abstraction and representation. Influenced by abstract painters before him, he's enchanted by the possibility of pure, unencumbered form: simple geometric shapes, flatness, expanses of color. But his carefully chosen titles make it impossible for a circle to just be a circle. Juan graduated with an MA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College in 2003 and has had solo shows at Jacobs Island Gallery in London (2011), John Hansard Gallery in Southhampton (2008) and Lucy Mackintosh Gallery in Switzerland (2008). He has work in several upcoming group exhibitions in London: This-Here-Now at no format Gallery (November 2013), I'm Wanted Dead or Alive at Koleksiyon (December 2013) and Zero Tolerance at Lion & Lamb Gallery (January 2014). In February 2014, his solo show Boogie-Woogie will open at Tim Sheward Projects in London, where Juan lives and works.
OtherPeoplesPixels: The press release for your 2008 exhibition Geometry Wars states: "The phrase Geometry Wars describes Bolivar's 'struggle with abstraction'—whether to subjugate 'the square', and present it as pure form or whether to animate it into the world of figuration." Could you talk about your personal struggle with abstraction? Have you resolved anything since 2008?
Juan Bolivar: Yes and no. Many years ago I made what I thought were 'serious' abstract paintings. My aim was for the viewer to see nothing but sublime voids and experience a non-referential, plastic reality. Whenever I exhibited these paintings, the viewer's immediate impulse was to try and make sense of what s/he saw, and often viewers offered their interpretations, ranging from being able to see a room or a face. But it always caused me frustration, as I insisted nothing was there to be seen.
I once read that Georges Braque had a similar experience when he unexpectedly saw the vision of a small squirrel in one of his paintings, and, try as he did, he could not prevent this small creature from coming back to his cubist work. Likewise, I yearn for the idea of 'pure' abstraction—recently I found myself mesmerized by Gerhard Richter's Grey (1974) and Ellsworth Kelly's Orange Relief with Green (1991) at Tate Modern—but, at the same time, I can't help mentally drawing a wall socket or a silly mustache onto works such as these.
In February 2014, I will have my second solo exhibition at Tim Sheward Projects in Bankside, London. I plan to accentuate these conflicting polarities by appropriating and subtly altering some famous abstract paintings I saw earlier this year in the show Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925 at MoMA, not quite making fun of these works, but teasing them the way we only can with those people closest to us or whom we love the most.
OPP: From a viewer's perspective, what I see in the abstraction is affected by what I know and whether I've read the titles. Hoodie, for example, struck me as so funny—and strangely poignant—that I'm still laughing a little. Clearly, it's Kenny from South Park. But if you've never seen South Park, perhaps it's a black circle on top of a grey circle and two white half circles on top of a pointed oval. Other pieces have a Rohrshach effect, like Hero. At first, I saw this piece as way more abstract than some of the others. Then when I read the title, the person jumped out at me, which of course changed what I saw in The Great Suprematist. What's the funniest (or weirdest or most offensive) interpretation you've heard from a viewer about one of your pieces?
JB: Art is a contextualized activity. Its meaning is dependent on the viewer and the context in which it is seen. So, yes, everything you say is true and very pertinent to the interpretation of my work. In linguistic terms, the optimum reader of a text is the theoretical reader, who most understands the embedded references and context of a text. Paintings are the same, and, to some degree, my work investigates how interpretation is a contested territory with its own sliding scale of hierarchies from South Park to high modernism.
One of the strangest and most challenging comments I have had about my work was simply: "What is it?" I think it was from an electrician carrying some work in my studio. He didn't mean to ask, "what was this image of?" or "what did it represent?" but literally “what was the object before us in my studio?” After I explained that the large, grey mass in the corner of the room was a painting, he then asked, "what is it about?" I had to quickly compress all the information flashing inside my head as I had a small short-circuit of my own, and I simply replied that my paintings were about other paintings. He didn't seem satisfied with this answer, but I realized that, for better or worse, this idea of contextualized references was central to my practice.
OPP: Could you talk generally about how you use and respond to space in your work? As you are painting, do you think of space in a purely compositional way? When, if ever, does it take on metaphorical meaning?
JB: Some believe that time doesn't exist, so by default neither might space. The space, however, that painters deal with transcends this argument, and the reason is because they deal with pictorial space. Pictorial space isn't space at all really but more of a game. It is like the boundary of an American football field; one can only play this game within these lines. Outside these lines, the game disappears and does not exist. In the same way, pictorial space is a boundary governed by rules where artists play visual games.
The pictorial space most of us are familiar with in Western painting has been developed for many many years, first through religious iconography, then in the Quattrocento and finally during the High Renaissance. There is a wonderful book by the art historian John White titled The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space, which charts its journey. As result of the pictorial space that we now take for granted, we are able to accept things such as perspective and view the edge of the canvas as if framed by an invisible window to the world. Both of these are very sophisticated notions and actually took many centuries to develop.
This type of pictorial space was shattered by Malevich's Black Square (1914) and turned upside down by Mondrian, Picasso, Joseph Albers, Pollock and many other artists including Hans Hofmann, who addressed the flatness of a painting and the painterly materiality of this reality. Our visual language now is highly complex and layered, to the point that Mickey Mouse's ears owe as much to Cubism as they do to geometric abstraction. These are the complex layers that underpin the pictorial space I am exploring.
OPP: The paintings in Law & Order, your 2013 exhibition at Tim Sheward Projects in London, are titled after classic rock and heavy metal bands from the late 1970s to the early 90s—Rush and Deep Purple are two examples—and songs, such as The Final Countdown, Highway to Hell and Winds of Change. Each painting also includes some visual reference to recognizable abstract painters including Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers. Could you talk about your intention behind the juxtaposition of these popular music and fine art references?
JB: The paintings in Law & Order comprised of two groups: one group was of small works based on postcards purchased from MoMA and Tate Modern of seminal abstract works, and the second group—landscape in format—incorporated these seminal works, appropriating and twisting their meaning. The postcard series' works were titled after rock bands, and the color field landscapes after rock songs, highlighting the source relationship connection between the two.
Besides loved ones, friends and family and my quasi-spiritual beliefs, there have been two constant, guiding forces in my life: geometric abstraction and rock music. Hard as it may be to imagine, bands such as as AC/DC, Saxon, Journey and Rush have gotten me through tough times as much as Mondrian, Albers, Ellsworth Kelly and Peter Halley have. I have always wanted to somehow incorporate these two forces. At first, this seemed idiotic and juvenile. But I later realized that by combining these two aspects in a painting through titling and imagery, I am creating a symbiotic situation that qualifies my relationship to both, whilst at the same time challenging our expectations of these cultural hierarchies.
Bands like Deep Purple are quite well known, but Saxon, Tygers of Pangtang or Budgie, who are all from a similar period in British rock, are far less known. In the same way, Wyndham Lewis, Vanessa Bell or David Bomberg are less well known in the Western cannon, but are equally important to British abstraction. Whilst in New York earlier this year I saw an early Vorticist work by David Bomberg at MoMA, and I got goose pimples as if watching some rare early footage of Led Zeppelin's rendition of Dazed and Confused. I have come to accept that my relationship to abstraction is very nostalgic, just like my relationship to music.
OPP: Do you have a favorite piece of your own work? Will you pick one and give us the inside scoop on what it means to you and why you were thinking about when painting it?
JB: I am a firm believer that the really good paintings have little quirks and are never perfect-perfect. The actress Jennifer Grey describes how following rhinoplasty surgery "she went in the operating room a celebrity and came out anonymous." It's hard to say why her acting career didn't flourish. What many people don't know is that in 1987, just a few weeks before the release of Dirty Dancing, she was involved in a very serious car accident. One can't help thinking this accident may have had an effect on her, but people often cite her post-rhinoplasty visage—her natural nose represented her individuality to the public—as the reason.
I have very few favorite works. I often feel a sense of dissatisfaction when I finish a piece. It is a paradox. If one is too pleased or enamored with a work, it usually means that it isn't very good, but it doesn't stop us from searching for that perfect moment the way a tennis player aims to hit the ball at the sweet spot of a tennis racket.
Two weeks before my Goldsmiths College show in 2003, I had finished a set of paintings that I had planned to exhibit. I was due to have one final tutorial, and I thought it would be a formality. Two hours later, after a lengthy discussion, the visiting tutor threw me a curve ball and announced that he thought this body of work wasn't at all finished and that there were some works that could also be taken out. I went into panic mode, but now I understand what he meant and I am immensely grateful for his intervention. With hindsight, I see that the group was too flat, too neat and trying to be too tasteful. Basically too boring. There was no tension.
He went away, and I looked at work I had made a year earlier too see where things had changed and gone flat. Out of nowhere came Bushman, one of my favorite works of all time. It's a silly and ridiculous painting, and at the same time it employs a very sophisticated language. But most of all, I am not really sure how it happened, and I don’t fully understand what makes it work. The painting was born out of adversity and a desire to surpass my expectations and—oddly enough—because I didn't really fully understanding my own work. It's difficult to recreate all of these circumstances and conditions, and I don't think that one can or should. But as I mentioned earlier, I have a solo show at Tim Sheward Projects in February 2014.
2008 - Stephen Foster: Introduction: Geometry Wars
Stephen Foster: Introduction
Juan Bolivar’s paintings operate within the twin primeval impulses of schematisation and ﬁguration that lie at the root of all graphic representation. On the one hand, the desire to create representational images through the simplest and most economical mark-making is as fundamental to human activity as that of verbal communication, and actually precedes it. This is evident both in Palaeolithic cave paintings and in the earliest schematic face drawings of young children. At the same time, the apprehension of the most abstract of images will tend to be interpreted ﬁguratively, however vague or economical the information. Building on this phenomenon, Geometry Wars addresses the tension between ﬁgurative representation and ‘pure’ abstraction.
We are all familiar with visual riddles such as the simple line drawing that can be read either as a vase or as two faces in proﬁle. Th e two readings can never be comprehended simultaneously, and we switch, backwards and forwards, from one to the other. However quickly we switch, the current reading always excludes the other. Similarly, the apprehension of any mark making becomes ﬁgurative representation, and then as an abstraction. Either or, but never the two simultaneously. Bolivar playfully addresses this phenomenon by referencing the most serious issues of formalist painting, whilst teasing us with the dumbest of schematic representation.
An earlier body of work consisted of paintings of faces, each composed of basic geometrical shapes, painted in a ﬂ at, colour-ﬁeld style. With their muted colour and simple geometrical components, these paintings resemble huge ’fuzzy felt’ portraits, and the degree to which details of personality are read into the barest of signs is remarkable. Once the impulse to interpret two dots as eyes has occurred, more detailed interpretations follow, quickly resorting to the stereotypical. The subject suddenly displays a swarthy complexion, for example, followed by a dodgy haircut and untrustworthy glances. Bolivar does not like to refer to these paintings as portraits, but rather describes them as ‘facialities’. They are imbued with humour, possibly because the viewer becomes aware of gentle teasing in terms of bringing two such apparently incompatible readings together. Humour invariably results from the unexpected collision of the seemingly incompatible.
However, humour in the paintings that make up Geometry Wars has receded whilst other elements move to the fore. Th e muted palette has been further reduced to a near monochromatic grey. Implied imagery tends towards the paraphernalia of war, whether through medieval castellation and armoury, bunkers, watchtowers and warships, to ﬁgures vaguely reminiscent of satellite receivers and futuristic craft. Just as he prefers the term ‘facialities’ over portraits, he might in these prefer ‘representationalisms’ over landscapes. The dumbness of the imagery remains, but is somehow bereft. Objects are anachronistic, useless, broken and patched up.
The humour in these paintings is downplayed because previously it had a tendency to dominate and obscure. These paintings work best when they are bipolar, and where neither reading dominates, like focusing on the head and tail of a ﬂicked spinning coin. It is all about maintaining balance. Th e imagery contained within the works in Geometry Wars provides a grid within which the paintings’ formal qualities reside. Whilst we may enjoy the dumb imagery of narrative gently undermining the rather po-faced intellectualism of formalist painting, at the end of the day, these are unremittingly beautiful paintings that are best enjoyed at a purely intuitive level.
Geometry Wars is the latest in a long line of John Hansard Gallery exhibitions that explore issues of ﬁguration in abstract painting. It stretches as far back as Nicholas May (1990) and includes Chance, Choice and Irony (1994), Gerard Hemsworth (1999), New British Painting (2003/04) and Patrick Heron, Jonathan Lasker, Katie Pratt (2006). We are extremely grateful to Juan Bolivar for making a valuable contribution to this long-standing exploration.
2008: Juan Bolivar: A Fly in the Ointment
Juan Bolivar: A Fly in the Ointment
Meaning: A small but irritating ﬂaw that spoils the whole thing. www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/ﬂ y-in-the-ointment.html
There is a scene in the ﬁlm The Fly where a scientist undergoes a terrible accident involving himself, a teleportation machine and a ﬂy. As a result of this accident, Dr. Delambre emerges from the teleporter, fused with the ﬂy as a bizarre hybrid. His body now has the head of a ﬂy and he has lost one hand and gained a claw-like, ﬂy extremity. Incidentally, I am referring to the often overlooked 1958 original version, directed by Kurt Neumann and starring Vincent Price, not the 80s gore-fest remake, directed by David Cronenberg and starring Jeﬀ Goldblum and Geena Davis.
At this point in the original ﬁlm we don’t see the scientist’s head. It is covered with a black cloak. He is unable to speak but appears to be calm as he proceeds to communicate with his wife Helene, who is becoming aware that something has gone terribly wrong, as he slips typed notes underneath the laboratory door, explaining how she must follow his every instruction in order to help him. The scene is a dark, tragic, science gone wrong as a lesson to humanity, sci-ﬁ tale. Or is it?
Recently, I was watching this ﬁlm whilst making the work for this exhibition. I have seen this ﬁlm before and I wasn’t really paying much attention when suddenly I noticed something unusual – a line in the ﬁlm which took me by surprise and stopped me in my tracks: “Fetch me a bowl of milk laced with rum.” Well, there’s nothing unusual about a man wanting a stiﬀ drink after having a bit of a shock, such as ﬁnding you suddenly have the head of a ﬂy. Th e question is, why ‘milk laced with rum’? Sure, this could be the scientist’s favourite tipple, a ‘hot toddy’ of milk and rum, but that didn’t seem right. He would have clearly asked in his written instructions for this drink to be warmed. But I don’t think that is what he meant. The answer is simple. The man wants the rum... and the ﬂy wants the milk.
I couldn’t help laughing. I started to wonder if this ﬁlm was some kind of comedy ‘noir’ and decided to do some research, but the more I looked, the funnier the ﬁlm became. Lines from the film started to jump out like quips from a Carry On movie. “Did your brother (Dr Delambre) ever experiment with animals?”, or when Dr Delambre is asked by his wife of the whereabouts of their family pet cat (missing after a teleporter experiment), he replies “Into space ... a stream of cat atoms”, as if Monty Python's John Cleese had written the script.
I tried to rent the movie. I needed to see it again but nobody seemed to stock this 1958 sci-ﬁ classic; however, I found some clips on ‘YouTube’. Most of them show the moments just after his demand for milk and rum. And again, it is all strangely comical. Th e scientist is seen shuﬄing around wearing a black cloak over his head, as his wife desperately tries to communicate with him. He grunts and stomps, occasionally writing messages on the lab’s blackboard or typing them with one hand. I don’t know why I found this amusing. To tell you the truth, I felt a little guilty that I couldn’t respond to it otherwise. But even right at the end, after the scientist takes his own life in order to protect humanity and end his own nightmare by placing his head and arm under an industrial press, I found myself thinking – what is an industrial press doing in a lab like this?
The ﬁlm ends with the realisation that Helen Delambre was not crazy after all. Th at she was telling the truth. We ﬁnd her husband’s other hybrid half caught in a spider’s web screaming “Help me! Help meeee!”, more Mini Mouse than Spider Man, and his previously missing head now stuck to a tiny ﬂy, about to be eaten by a large spider in the same web.
I don’t think any of this was intended to be seen as comedy when the ﬁlm was made. Th ere is no evidence or mention of comedy in reviews or descriptions of the ﬁlm. “Based on a Short Story/ Tragedy/ Crushed Head/ Ballet/ Laboratory Accident”, these are some of the key words that crop up, but not comedy. So why do I now ﬁnd this ﬁlm amusing? I’ll never really know. What I do know is that whilst the ﬁlm may not have changed since it was made in 1958, maybe the way in which we view the world has changed.
I am not suggesting that ‘dark humour’ or ‘tragicomedy’ are solely modern phenomena, unbeknown in the 1950s or before. But I am suggesting that their status may have shifted from ‘genre’ to a ‘condition’. A condition of our times where ‘tragicomedy’ seems to be at best a necessity and at worst a bad habit.
A few years ago I saw a documentary about Jonny Kennedy, a man who suﬀered with a terrible genetic condition called Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB) and died in 2003, aged thirty six. It meant that his skin literally fell oﬀ at the slightest touch. Prior to his death he ﬁlmed a documentary where he shared his story with the world. It was a heart-breaking tale of his tenacity and determination to grab a slice of life. At one point he was meeting the celebrity model Nell McAndrew, who was running in a charity fund raising event when, moments after she walks away, weeping with tears full of pain and empathy for him, he turns to the camera and says “...they always fall for it” – no doubt pretending the whole thing was just a caddish stunt to pull the girls.
More recently I heard a man, suﬀering with the mind degenerative Alzheimer’s disease, reply to a journalist on television, asking him about his fears of this disease: “…the future ... forget about it” and again I wondered whether this ‘joke’ was intentional. Another example is of the Chinese man, Huang Chuncai, in Channel 4’s recent series Bodyshock, suﬀering with Neuroﬁ Bromatosis (NF), who described himself as ‘lucky’ when winning at cards, despite a 25KG tumour engulﬁng his face, so much that his head melted into a large mass spilling over beyond all recognition, onto the very table where he played cards with friends. And at that point I realised that all these men made comments such as these, not as accidental or gratuitous one-liners, but as deliberate weapons, intrinsic to their survival in the face of enormous adversity.
Tragedy is not exactly a new thing. Nor are tragic events new. But, maybe we have never laughed so much in between the two. Perhaps this ‘condition’, this form of self-defence, is no longer the prerequisite of extreme cases or circumstances such as these men’s, but one which we have adopted, as we collectively share our fears and experience tragic events through the World Wide Web, satellite communication and daily newspapers. As one. Perhaps more than ever we feel a little confused and we just don’t know whether to laugh or cry as we face the world, shielded only by our very own ‘silver screen’ of Frasier, Will & Grace and Friends.
I have heard stories of women in certain parts of the world who add the poison of scorpions to their children’s milk, so that they will become immune to the poison as they grow up. Protected by embracing their fears. And I wonder if the sorbitol in our diets has hooked us equally to cope with our world. And our fears.
2008: Suhail Malik: Measure for Measure
Suhail Malik: Measure for MeasureAs you approach the speed of light, space shrinks and time stretches. Well, not for you but for someone else who would be looking at your fantastically accelerated kinetics and gauging it according to their own much, much slower-moving measures. For you, it would all still be one metre and one second as you have always known them. You wouldn’t know the diﬀerence. At least, so says Einstein in his theories of relativity from about a century ago, observing the basic stipulation his whole theory turns upon: that the speed of light – 300,000 kilometres per second, give or take – is constant, whether you are stationary or are moving. Imagine if it wasn’t: you are going at close to the speed of light and switch on a torch, pointing it in front of you at a startled fox (curiously also travelling at the same high speed, which is perhaps why it is startled). Because you are close to the speed of light anyway and it would not go that much faster than you, it would take much, much longer for the torchlight to get to the fox. The fox could slip away before you saw its startled face. You might just be left with its sly grin and wink, hovering long after it had gone, a distant cousin of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat. Similarly, the light from your face would take a while to hit the mirror you hold out in front of you to check your lipstick, by which time you may even have moved away, taking the risk of a slightly misapplied line. Images, light and information would be in the retardation Dan Graham gave to the mirror function of live video monitors in Time Delay Room (1974): two rooms with two monitors next to one another, one of which shows what happens in front of it – you watching – from eight seconds before. Th e second monitor in each room shows what is happening in the other one in real time. You then have a time delay for the ‘present’ room’s self-imaging (a retardation of real space from itself) and live, near-instant images (real-time contracting space) from the other room, and you have this twice. We don’t need to get into the details of Graham’s piece here other than to note that he posits eight seconds as the ‘outer limit of the neurophysiological short-term memory that forms an immediate part of our present perception’. If you were moving at something close to the speed of light and it took four seconds to get to the mirror in front of you (and so four seconds for the light to get back to your retina, never mind internal brain-processing time) then your lipstick application or any other image based activity would be constantly hovering at the limit of short-term memory of what Graham proposes to be our lived present. It would be a visual equivalent to hearing feedback as you try to speak yourself into the future of your phrase, retarded, interrupted, defeated by the way your immediate past catches up with you and trips you up, immediately transmitted words muddling your here and now of language and expression. A chronic visual interruption, a near impossibility of ever getting your lipstick just right. No, for Einstein the speed of light is always the speed of light no matter how fast you are going (unless it is the speed of light itself). Light will not get in the way of the image, nor of itself. And the consequence of this is that space and time become very mutable – not the space and time of perception in relation to memory and consciousness that Graham messes up in his piece but their real, (im)material physicality. It does so because if speed is a distance traversed in a certain amount of time, then as the speed gets closer to the speed of light the distance travelled in a fraction of time obviously increases (300,000 kilometres per second is obviously a lot more – 100,000,000 times more – than the three metres per second or so you might do in a brisk walk on a chilly spring day). If the speed of light is constant however, then at close to the speed of light it is not that more and more distance is covered in shorter and shorter amounts of time, otherwise you would end up either in the optical feedback noted above or go faster than the speed of light, which is prohibited (in a vacuum). Th e constancy of light’s speed requires rather that, when measured from another (stationary) position, either distance itself starts to shrink, so that for the stationary observer space itself (as measured) takes less time to cover or, equivalently, that time expands so it takes less time (as measured) to cover a certain distance. And of course it is not one or the other, but both. Light then always travels at the speed of light, which is a constant speed, no matter how fast you are going, because distance covered shrinks and time taken expands such that, as you approach the speed of light, it covers the same amount of distance in the same amount of time as it did when you were stationary (up to the speed of light itself, when distance shrinks to a point and time dilates to inﬁnity); just that distance and time are now diﬀerent to what they used to be (for someone else, not for you). And, just to add to the mind-melt of these results, the contracting of space and the dilation of time does not just take place for the one going fast as far as the stationary onlooker is concerned, but also the other way round since, of course, the stationary onlooker is going relatively fast from the point of view of the one who was initially said to be moving. (You know this from when you are on a train and you ﬁnd yourself parallel to another train travelling momentarily at the same speed in the same direction such that it looks to you as though you are both stationary; you compensate for this, reminding yourself that both trains are moving, and that the Earth remains stationary. No such reassurance in Einstein’s theory.)
It gets even worse (or better, as you wish) if you are to think about moving at non-constant speeds. If you are falling through space you accelerate downwards because of gravity. As you fall you think about the constancy of the speed of light. Being constant, it does not accelerate with you. Rather, for someone looking at your hapless descent, the contraction of length (not that of the distance between the ground and you hurtling towards it, full of glee and trepidation, but that of space itself) and the dilation of time (not the eternity of fear as the ground rushes up to you but that of time itself) are intensifying as you go faster and faster. Put the other way, gravity (associated with mass) is this ‘intensiﬁcation’ of space and time to a point where there is no length and inﬁnite time – the black hole you will never reach because, alas, the ground is in the way and the earth just isn’t massive enough. Th ere is a spatial three-dimensional analogue for this point: the poles of the earth where all the longitudinal measures meet. Similarly, in accelerated frames of reference – such as your plummeting to the ground under gravity – space and time curve for the one who observes, as theirs does for you, towards the limit of a zero-point with a perplexingly inﬁnite mass. With Einstein, that is what gravity is: the curvature of space-time.
For all its contractions, dilation, curving and warping, space-time remains a continuum up to the point of spacetime saturation of the black hole. It bends, stretches, shrinks and even twists but, through all this, retains its fabric integrity. Length, time, mass and their measures are subject to geometrical transformations. (Einstein’s theories, for all their challenge to physical common sense, are but theories of geometrical transformation of the fabric of space-time.) Space-time and measure are not stable. Geometric instabilities can also be seen in Juan Bolivar’s art and though they are obviously distinct from the cold dramas of Einstein’s relativity theories, they nonetheless call up similar startling challenges – if, that is, they do not propose a diﬀerent kind of geometrical appreciation altogether. Bolivar’s paintings are made of the simplest two-dimensional geometrical shapes – regular rectangles, triangles, circles and so on – combined to form quasi-images, nearly fully-formed or perhaps over-formed cousins of ‘proper representations’ of odd spaces, or particular views on standard objects: an abstracted ship, a broken hut, the space of a stairwell. But the geometry of the compositional element gets in the way of the images ever falling over to the side of full representation, preferring instead to hover, by more than a fraction, on this side of the abstraction art has had to contend with since Malevich’s Black Square of 1913 or 1915 (already an ambiguity at this apparently most deﬁnitive of punctuation points in art, the black square being a full stop in some typeface of giants). Unlike the pristine version or ideal of Malevich’s degree-zero art, or Mondrian’s relatively ﬂorid intersecting strips and segmented squares, Bolivar’s geometrical objects and what they depict are, however, of a world that is a bit wonky, unstraight, oﬀ. Sometimes unhinged. What is paradoxically depicted in the paintings’ precise and perfect, or near-perfect, geometrical shapes are equivalents of the historical cracks and misalignments that these ideals of modernism have historically become: the warped stretcher, the ﬂaking and cracked paint, the colour separation of the surfaces; the fragility of the material decomposition of their purposeful purity. This absorption into the elements of composition of Bolivar’s paintings of the wonkiness of the historical mis-shaping of the ideality represented by the black square, puts them into another conﬁguration of space than that of the ideal space of geometry shared by the Einsteinian insistence on the integrity of space-time. Th e chance processes of historical decay are the constituent re-idealized forms of Bolivar’s paintings but these elements attest to the leakages and involutions of ideal geo-space, the historical refutation of the ideality of geometry whose only equivalent in Einsteinian space-time is the black hole. Th e space that Bolivar’s paintings propagate (and propagate themselves along) is then a picture equivalent of the black hole that is the limit-condition of the space-time continuum in its geometric consistency and smooth self-referentiality. While the geometrical and surface tidiness of Bolivar’s paintings present a simulacrum of an ideal space, they no less attest to the degradation of the physical idealism of the spatio-temporal continuum through its rupturing and leaking, as much as the wearing out of its historical idealism through the well-known depredation of material processes called aging. This is space as it would be if a ﬂat Euclidean plane of geometry were constituted by a proliferation of black-holes rather than monotonically ﬂ at space, by chance rather than continuity.
If geometry is in general the account of shapes, spaces and manifolds that presume a smooth continuity of surfaces then, confounded by chance and leakage, the shapes, lines, areas and depicted volumes in Bolivar’s paintings conduct geometry wars, as the show title tells us. Not the war of otherwise stable geometrical elements with one another, as per the computer game, nor of one kind of geometry against another (Riemannian against Euclidean, to return momentarily to the Einsteinian transformation), but a war with geometry itself and one conducted on its plane. Such a war is at once a war with measurement as the standardizing gauge of ratios of length, time, mass and so on. This is in fact an old struggle renewed, since measurement has a long and arduous history, bound up with the changing determinations of what constitutes the grounds for a stable unit. In its metric convention, the unit of length was decreed not long after the French Revolution to be the metre. But this unity was itself split and unstable at its beginning, being deﬁned by the French Academy of sciences in 1790 as the length of a pendulum that would take one second to go from one side of its oscillation to the other. Recognizing that this deﬁnition could not produce standardization enough since the period of the pendulum varied with local gravitational eﬀects (height above sea level, mountain ranges), the deﬁnition changed in 1791 to be the length of one ten millionth of the line along the curvature of the Earth from the Equator to the North Pole as it passed through Paris. Th e Earth rather than time became the ﬁnal reference point for spatial measure. Th e determination of what this length actually was required a seven-year expedition, led by Delambre and Méchain, to as far aﬁeld as Barcelona to Dunkirk. From this vast enquiry, representing a universal ambition, a standard platinum bar deﬁning one metre was inaugurated in 1799 in Paris. However, this authoritative measure of the metre was not quite right according to its deﬁnition since the explorations that determined its length overestimated the ﬂattening of the Earth at the poles. Consequently, this second, meridional attempt at the metre was in fact one ﬁfth of a millimetre shorter that it should have been. Despite this errancy in the length of the metre, the manufactured length became the standard and the Earth’s circumference through the poles via Paris was more than it should have been – forty million metres – by deﬁnition. Since 1983, all references to Earth and other unconstant, variable or contingent elements have been removed from the deﬁnition of the metre: it now relies on the speed of light as, per Einstein’s theories of relativity, the universal constant. Th e metre is the distance travelled by light in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second, that very small number being of course an inversion of the very large distance that light travels in one second (just under seven and half times the wrongly-measured polar circumference of the Earth). Th e great advantage of this deﬁnition is that the metre will stay resolutely and constantly the same metre no matter how fast you are going, accelerating or decelerating for anyone looking from any frame of reference. Well, nearly. Because what a second is – deﬁned in 1980 as the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperﬁne levels of the ground state of the Caesium-133 atom at rest at absolute zero – depends upon measurements being taken locally to those oscillations, in what is called the proper time of the system. There are two variants to consider here. First, the relativistic problem that though such a deﬁnition is also light-based (since the oscillation of this very cold Caesium atom is electromagnetic radiation, as light is), the deﬁnitional oscillation and its duration will warp for another observer moving past or around the atom and the more so the closer that movement is to the speed of light. Th ese eﬀects can however be accounted for by relativity theory, presuming the local continuity of the space-time frame of reference. The second variation is, however, harder to accommodate. When the conditions of local continuity are irrevocably ruptured and leaky, ridden with a set of chances that they cannot circumscribe because the region of time measurement is punctuated by black hole-squares that do not permit of the constitution of a local time, there cannot be any assurance in the authority of the standard second nor then of the metre. Light is no longer the consistent and reliable source that will get you out of the indeﬁniteness you are then cast into by history. Th ere is only the arbitrariness of any measure, disconnected from a self-consistent geometry. In these bereft conditions, and in the z-axis perpendicular to the plane of the paintings, Bolivar constructs two attempts at measures that will see us through to anything that might conceivably allow you to work your way around such a disjointed space-time. Here is another go at the metre, given an authority of weight and solidity, as is the revised and reformulated kilogram. But perhaps these aren’t quite right for what the standard measures must now be. You might expect them to be a bit oﬀ, a bit skewy: they are after all perhaps only sketches and try-outs for a ﬁnished-oﬀ version that will take its place somewhere in prestigious authoritative institutions, discarded remnants that won’t quite make the ﬁnal cut; prototypes, as Bolivar calls them. But how could you know? Unable to assume a consistent manifold or the conceptual idealism of geometry, there is no stability here, no constancy that will allow the task of making measure to come to a rest. Th ere can be only oﬀ -casts, try-outs, attempts and abortions of measure. If it was Duchamp who opened up measure to the dimension of chance in art with the Three Standard Stoppages (allegedly dropping onto a canvas surface three one metre pieces of standard tailor’s thread held parallel to it, gluing down the resulting curved lines to form putatively arbitrary shapes redescribing the metre – the ‘metre diminished’ as he put it – that would form constituent elements of his subsequent art production), the Geometry Wars Bolivar conducts across the planar surfaces of the paintings and the volumetricmassy space of his prototypes hybridize the aleatory redeterminations of Duchamp’s conceptual abstraction with the cracking and suppurating residues of Malevich’s pictorial abstraction. Th is not so much redescribes the standard measures as to make palpable a spatio-temporal leakage and dehiscence that exposes the ﬁnal, intrinsic arbitrariness of measure and that which is measured, the unsteadiness of the spatiotemporal manifold and the unreliability of geometry. And this through the perverse order of a constrained lexicon of proto-idealized shapes and spaces. This is a war waged against a geometry that has always encapsulated regular shapes into an ideality that claims to circumscribe them, a war fought for an inconsistent geometry.