Recollecting and Forgetting 2

“Every photograph is a certificate of presence.  This certificate is the new embarrassment which its invention has introduced into the family of images.

…..The important thing is that the photograph possesses an evidential force, and that it testimony bears not on the object but on time.  From a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.”                                                                        Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, pp87 – 89

This work explores the photograph’s connection to time and to memory; and it seeks to show how this aspect of the medium makes it both fascinating and potentially uncanny.

A photograph authenticates a person’s existence, because, as Roland Barthes says, it is “the certificate of presence.”  But it also denotes absence. We have our memories but back them up with the evidential force of the photograph portrait.  We value the images of our departed relatives; they are the evidence that once that person existed, and like our memory even photographs fade. They fade slowly, and infuriatingly sometimes, only the general outline of that person, like a shadow, like a ghost, like a faulty memory is all we have left.

These twelve Polymer Etchings are derived from one photograph of my grandmother taken in the 1930’s when she was my age; I was not there when they were taken and she is not here now.  They describe through sequentially diminishing imagery, the process of time on memory loss or dementia.


MARLENE DUMAS: The Image as Burden

Marlene Dumas - Sigmund's wife Marlene Dumas - The White Disease Marlene Dumas - Martha - My Grandmother

You seldom see portrait paintings by contemporary artists these days and Dumas’ The Eyes of the Night Creatures are a rare treat.  They are so close cropped you are physically forced to concentrate just on the face, no clothes, no stage setting, no background and sometimes no features, just a head-shaped space with the odd feature added or subtracted.  “The isolating focus gives a certain grandeur to each image”.

Sometimes those features, like the eyes, have been smudged or the paint thinned to such an extent that you worry whether the sitter was quite all there; ‘The Jewish Girl’ has large round, questioning eyes surrounded by white sclera, and there is an expression that hints at something, hysteria, paranoia, what?  There is a tiny worm of sky blue on the mouth teasingly taking the eye down to the shaded lower portion of her face and the set of her mouth.  Is the artist conveying something here that can’t be spoken about?

Sometimes Dumas smuggles in a bruise or smudge of random colour, on the forehead and running down the nose, as in Martha – Sigmund’s Wife, evoking powerful abstract expressionist emotions.  Occasionally there is a face that powerfully confronts you by withdrawing from you, like Martha – My Grandmother.  This painting is all blue, the eponymous grandmother so enigmatic that you want more, but those eyes are blank beneath those half-closed lids.  She is private and secret but the expression is benign and peaceful.  And why was this one painting hung so much higher than its neighbour, Sigmund’s wife?

The Baby is an almost perfectly detailed which has nothing added or removed, but Emily seems to have smashed her mouth somehow and blood oozes from under her bottom lip.  The painting, The White Disease is so bland, so bluey white that I am intrigued, drawn in by what is being conveyed here.  It is haunting and dignified, one of my favourites.  You could describe Marlene Dumas’ portraits as stark, but that would be to ignore the immense impact and ethereal beauty that confront you when you walk into the exhibition space at the Tate Modern.

Throughout this excellent exhibition I could feel the personality of the artist becoming more present as I followed her works through the rooms. I wanted to know more about her, she was an ephemeral presence that I needed to pin down.

Her way of painting can appear rhetorical: those vague attenuations around the neck that make you wonder what happened to the rest of this poor person; those coloured auras that seem to emanate from certain faces; those seeping blurs that allow for extraordinary ambiguities in a face – seeing or sightless, unconscious or dead? Shapely masks – chalk white, pale blue, tinged with fading pink or magenta – are superimposed on heads for an immediate sense of misfit or detachment.

As John Berger asserts “perhaps one needs to be a painter rather than a scholar to perceive it clearly” and in that same way these portraits spoke to me directly and I felt an empathy for the person who had executed these “magnificent and powerful” works (Waldemar Januszczak).

In Rejects, we are faced with botched and buckled faces in black and white paint, eyes skewed, noses bashed, heads broken and awkward. The features are out of register, out of whack, sometimes a replacement face has been added to the one below – the eyes and mouth cut out like a burn mask – to keep on trying for something better. “The images are delicate yet damaged, by life, it seems, as much art” (Laura Cumming).  Time spent examining these faces reveals a many-layered complexity redolent of the implications implied by the title and provenance of these drawings.

Having made that contact with the artist through her art, I was happy to discover that she is modest, uncertain and humble.  “Dumas doesn’t simply accept compliments as her due; it’s clear that they still have the power to thrill, and on receiving a genuine one she radiates graciousness, relief and a kind of simmering excitement” (Rachel Cooke), but I was not surprised to discover that she is also gregarious and full of energy, you can read that in her work.

This is an impressive show about human frailty and could not have been accomplished by a super-ego.  Dumas can handle scale from the very big to the miniature (the Amy Winehouse picture is small but very powerful). She has her own instantly recognizable style which I envy and crave to copy. Technically she’s a virtuoso – she really can draw and paint. She takes risks, every painting seems to be a new beginning, she dares to fail (Becket’s lovely phrase) yet the overall quality of her work is incredibly high.  Her ambition cannot be faulted.

Obviously there are things in this exhibition that don’t work for me like Great Britain and Against the Wall (with the exception of Mindblocks which I loved), but isn’t that what we demand of our artists, that they should, above all, always pushing themselves to try new and innovative ways forward?  Unfortunately I am sorry to say that I cannot agree with Januszczak when he says that this exhibition should have been called ‘How to be Old-Fashioned in a Contemporary Way’ and is a clumsy attempt by deep and ancient human emotions to express themselves with fiddly and ill-fitting conceptual methods.  This is where I humbly suggest that you need to be a practitioner yourself to appreciate exactly what she has achieved in her works and just how accomplished she is, and what a joy they impart.  Marlene Dumas is a breath of fresh air and her work combines both conceptual acuity and visual pleasure which, I submit, is what the visual arts are all about.




This print is called Cross References 7 – A double plate photo-etching by Sheila de Rosa


Cross References: 1 – 14 is a body of fourteen works that were produced for Brighton Festival Fringe in 2003.  These photo-etchings are a response to the fourteen Stations of the Cross that appear generally in Catholic Churches and in particular in St. Thomas More’s Church in Patcham, Brighton.  The church played host to a number of contemporary artists participating in this peer-selected exhibition and is a contemplation on Loneliness, Temptation & Forgiveness – some of the 21st century crosses.

These etchings are made using the ImagOn laminating film method and are hand pulled onto 280gsm cotton rag ‘Somerset’ paper from Cuthbert Mills.

The quiet eloquence of these pieces lie in what they don’t say, what is missing and what we are being asked to contemplate in these images.

You can also cross reference this image with my post on




“And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be exceeding well.”
― Julian of Norwich

On my way to see Bill Viola’s video installation at St. Paul’s I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew the work, Martyrs, was displayed on four vertical plasma displays on the South Quire Aisle and I knew that each screen contained a figure being subjected to the elemental forces of earth, wind, fire and water.

I was hoping for was an echo of Viola’s stunning projection The Messenger, made for Durham Cathedral, in which he pulled off a transcendent piece of art shot-through with pulsating, gurgling colour; an incredible and disturbing soundtrack; and at four metres high an artwork on the grand scale.

I was worried that it might resemble The Passions in which he recreated scenes from the bible using actors and shown on LCD screens lying on their sides.

What I found was fresh and didn’t actually look like either of these.  Approaching this work you see the installation positioned on the side of the high altar at the end of the quire. The structure in which the screens sit, designed by Sir Norman Foster, fits the space perfectly, measuring 140 x 338 x 10 cms, neither huge nor mundane.

On the left hand screen there is a man covered in a pile of earth holding his head.  Slowly the earth flies upwards and the man stands, ultimately alone, looking upwards.  The second screen is the only woman, who is bound hand and foot and held, dimly hanging from above.  Wind blows her from side to side, painfully twisting her around.  Eventually her ordeal ends and she hangs, now still but looking upwards.  In the third screen sits a man in a darkened space.  Very slowly little tongues of fire fall around him, culminating in a conflagration that engulfs him.  The flames stop and he rests, looking upwards. The final screen on the right shows a man lying on his side and bound at the ankles, his eyes shut.  He is pulled upright, upside down.  He hangs with his arms raised in the horizontal, with water falling heavily onto his feet and down his body. The water lessens and he is drawn upwards, his arms back at his sides, and out of vision.

Many thoughts were sparked by looking at this and many religious parallels could be made. Many questions about man’s endurance, persistence and steadfastness also came to my mind.  I repeatedly wondered at the pain the woman must have felt, hanging there, and I wondered, was it deliberate that Viola give the woman the heaviest burden?

Bill Viola uses technology but his sources of inspiration are the Western and Eastern mystics.  And many of Viola’s titlesimply areligious content. It seems to me that Viola is asking fundamental questions that traditionally we look to religion for the answers.  By asking those questions it doesn’t automatically make the work religious.  If that echoes the way we pray and meditate that merely reflects man’s insecurities not religious faith.

I thought the work might take on something of a moving stained glass window but this work is not concerned with colour, then I realised there are no stained glass windows in St. Pauls – too Popish I suppose – and maybe he was respecting this.  He also eschews sound, sadly but understandably, especially as, when I was there, a simple sequence was being played quietly by an organ somewhere.

Like most of his work, Martyrs is shown in slow-motion (the second screen may have been in real time, it’s not exactly clear) a device that has been criticised for being inappropriate, ponderous and achingly obvious, but isn’t the point of slowing things down more to do with exposing the true elegance and wonder of the world around us, of giving us time to think?

Viola’s work The Passions has been called vulgar, smug and tear-jerking hocus-pocus but I can honestly say Martyrs struck me as understated and dignified. I can see that some of his comments can be seen as self-satisfied but this work is anything but vulgar or smug.  Bill Viola and his technology have come of age.  This work shows an artist at his peak, assured of his tools but restrained and considered.

All was exceeding well.