IMITATIO, INVENTIO

 

Gasper Jemec's art is a structure composed of binary oppositions: in his painting, the colour trace creates a non-trace, the absence of colour signals its presence, lack of shape begets familiar forms.

We are talking about the period following his return from New York in 2000, where he had discovered the attractions of a new painting technique, using acrylic gelatine instead of ordinary acrylic colour. First paintings of the kind are a celebration of pleasure in working with a thick, pasty matter that preserves the relief-like quality on canvas, thus giving the impression of directness since the painter applies the colour by touching the canvas with his fingers and palms. In these first paintings, the colouring is elevated to chromatic radiance. The luminous effects of saturated colour filled with light, and the captivating charm of uneven surface take the sensual delight in painting to a higher level: it is a celebration of tactile and visual pleasure. A turn in his painting might therefore, at first, surprise us. The break between those works and his latest black-and-white cycle that we are discussing in this essay is both astonishing and radical. Gone are the lavish colours, thick palm-and-finger layering is replaced by a disciplined use of a brush. The entire surface of the painting moves in a formally unified rhythm be it of strokes or shapes, the former expressive basis of composition has disappeared completely. The difference between the former and the present Jemec's work could be described as the difference between sensual begetting of a painting and a gradual process of rationalising its conception.

The latter, however, by no means suggests that the painter started considering his art an analytical, formalistic activity. It is rather the other way round: absence of colour, its retreat to black and white and the nuances in-between, together with a controlled stroke are chiefly a tendency to self-discipline, a crucial quality for a painter who wants to explore. The shift in colour and restriction to the black and white contrast are a clear demonstration of that. It seems as if the exalted, uncontrolled sensuality was replaced by expression of thoughts, the painter - as is the case in written communication – employing the expressiveness of black scripture upon white surface.

These paintings may be considered scriptures, although Gasper Jemec aborts the "writing" before it can develop the identity of a sign. Therefore we can say that in his work the scripture appears in a regressive role; it signals the generative state of a sign, implying its origins. Similarly as the origins of writing can be traced in a triple structure - from pictographic or iconographic as used in ancient Egypt, ideographic or synthetic as used in China and Japan, to alphabetical employed by the West – a multiplicity can be discovered in the structure of a painted sign as well. The span between mimeticality of a pictograph imitation of nature, and the schematism when the sign represents an idea, is the span we can discuss within the context of Jemec's black and white paintings.

In approaching and distancing from the mimetic identity of a sign, the technique Gasper Jemec is using is of the utmost importance. His black and white paintings are decidedly smaller than the previous ones. Rectangular in format, either vertical or horizontal, their measurements – usually around half a metre - further serve the purpose of better control over the painting's surface. While painted, the works are laid horizontally a few inches above the floor, not unlike a midget table upon which the painter's hand-movements direct the course of features and determine the creation of shapes. The brush is slightly removed from the canvas, never touching it. The shaping of the dripping trace of colour that remains on canvas heavily relies on the viscosity of colour. Sometimes gravity is included within this process of simultaneously controlled and spontaneous shape creation, since the painter allows the colour to find its own shape through the movement of canvas. The paint oozes over the edges, the painter gradually stopping it at the sides. The canvas is primed with acrylic gelatine to make it clear, preserved and smooth. The painter uses black and white, sometimes also grey, which he mixes in advance – for one of the paintings he thus prepared 22 grey nuances. At other times, though, he leaves both the non-colours mix on the canvas. (There are a handful of paintings where he used bluish nuances instead of grey.)

The painter explains that in the process of creation, he allows chance to play an important role. He gives in to automatic application of strokes, then observes the composition, following it for a while, then switching to spontaneity again. With Jemec we can observe the usage of chance on a discursive level. Despite the usage of chance, the painter always retains disciplined control over the creation of the painting. The role of chance in the process is chiefly that of triggering imagination. It is a phenomenon similar to the one when looking at a shapeless blot we suddenly perceive concrete, familiar shapes, stormy landscapes, fantastic cities, castles in a foggy sea, grotesque faces… Already Leonardo da Vinci considered blots an effective means of stimulating painter's imagination:

»If you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, etc. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with abundance of design and subjects perfectly new.«

The renaissance artist evidently believed that free imagination feeding itself on blurred shapes implying concrete scenes is even more important for a painter than his gift to observe. The generator of such new formal concepts is chance. Artist's imagination does not solely derive from models from nature; the images he creates can also be the result of forms emerging through time's effects upon objects, through chemical disintegration of matter.

If Leonardo was the first to include a blot within his theory of painting, Alexander Cozens, 18th century English landscapist, was the one who built an entire theory on the concept of the painting trace as blot. He produced a number of theoretical systems, best known of which was the New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape. This procedure enabled the painter to develop a trace of ink on paper, more a blot than a sketch, into an image of landscape.

»An artificial blot is a production of chance, with a small degree of design; for in making it, the attention of the performer must be employed on the whole, or the general form of the composition, and upon this only; whilst the subordinate parts are left to the casual motion of the hand and the brush.«

The process is a play between imitation and invention, between the normative method and creative enthusiasm, between concept and chance. The scope of these extremes allows an uncharted search for nuances.

Cozens defined

»A true blot is an assemblage of dark shapes or masses made with ink upon a piece of paper, and likewise of light ones produced by the paper being left blank. All the shapes are rude and unmeaning, as they are formed with the swiftest hand. But at the same time there appears a general disposition of these masses, producing one comprehensive form, which may be conceived and purposely intended before the blot is begun.«

This is why, for Cozens, a blot is not a drawing but a collection of coincidental forms that can initiate creation of a drawing. He describes the concept through a comparison to distancing the drawing from the eye. The further it is the less it is detailed, until at some point it becomes a blot again. With this method, the blot became of such an importance to Cozens he claimed that observing a blot, that blurred, picturesque trace, was far more inspiring to an artist then studying of nature.

In the years to come, blot has retained an important role in the theory of art and in art itself. In the second half of the 19th century, the blot – provided with the romanticist impulse by Cozens already - was appropriated by the macchiaioli and the impressionists. It was at that time that Vittorio Imbriani defined blot (macchia) as painter's idea, as the first impression of content in a work of art. "Blot is the essence of artist's work; it is a way how the artist will transmit the topic of his work, it is the idea of a work of art, the subjective part of the painting and its content, the part that we value and that attracts us; the execution of work is merely its objective, technical part." The blot is artist's intuition, an image from his inside.

In the 20th century art observing and imitating nature were gradually losing their artistic importance to notions as blot, intuition, chance… The latter have, after all, marked the development of abstract art – the blot even became the central topic of tachisme. At the same time creative processes relying on spontaneity and chance became just as valuable and substantial as the more rational ones with concepts planned in advance. Let us just mention the surrealists who introduced the concept of automatism in art, which remained central also in the decades to come in the work of abstract expressionists, for example.

Gasper Jemec's manner of creating could also be described as automatism. Similar to the surrealists, he does not limit himself to this particular technique but allows the thoroughly abstract forms thus created to assume the identity of allusive forms, connecting them to the images from concrete world. The painter consciously encourages the viewer to a content reading of abstract forms. What is more, by providing surprisingly descriptive titles (for example The Doorman, Two Observers, In the Valley of Three Forces …) to his decidedly abstract, non-object art, he allows and helps the viewer to identify concrete contents within it. In their imagination, the viewers can wallow through a multiplicity of scenes, from romantic landscapes to the scenes typical of Chinese art, from desolate plains after the battle to lake-views. Already Leonardo established that allusive forms most often connect to images of landscapes. However, some of these object-alluding forms are also connected with visual effects enabled by modern technology. We are talking about the micro and telescopic views of human epidermis, views within the inside of a cell structure, miniaturised invisible world of microbes, views of distant planets and galaxies. There is more: mass-production industrial patterns; repetitive prints of draperies, camouflage patterns on uniforms in protective colours, linoleum patterns reminding of decorative marbled murals of the past; an abundance of allusive forms that no longer reminisce on concrete world of objects but merely imitate the two-dimensional impressions from the concrete world. Within this context, Gasper Jemec can be considered a "collector" of unusual textures.

In the past, the principles that a coincidental trace on the wall or a pattern on a stone will stimulate painter's imagination, and that the artist should form an image in his imagination from a trace "tossed" upon the canvas with a brush, sometimes collided and became one. In the 17th century, the collectors of rare objects developed an enthusiasm for painted stones. The stones were marble or agate with natural structures reminding of different landscapes. These served as backgrounds for figural scenes the painters painted upon them. Northern artists ordered such stones from Italy, therefore they were called Florentine stones. They favoured the stones over the entirely painted surface for providing a more accurate feeling of depth, since the scenes are not merely laid upon the painting surface but penetrate the deeper layers. In Last Judgement, for example, the stone's agitated and wavy natural structures have contributed greatly to the essence of the scene motif. The vanishing shapes in the stone more than adequately signalled that due to the consequences of the last judgement the mankind shall sink back to chaos. Therefore the pictorial stones were considered to depict the natural process encompassing all the metamorphoses from man to stone. The stones were, then, the representation of "the primal configuration of the animate world." Nature-created forms thus enabled a metaphysical interpretation of painted motives.

The mobility of transition between nature and art and back again, at the same time enabling a leap into metaphysics, draws the boundaries around a very large territory. We know that the art of painting is unique in offering such a rich scope of thematisations. Its advantage of using matter as means of expression, which adds to convincingness, and the economy of its carrier - the two-dimensional painting surface – still provide the medium with a far-reaching force. Convincingness of communication through painted images and the simultaneous charm of matter, throbbing upon the canvas as a restless blob, is still a privilege artists find very hard to resist.

Gasper Jemec's decision for painting was doubtlessly a conscious and a deliberate one. The relationship is productive on many levels since it enables comments on the world and its structure: nature, culture, metaphysics. The painter sets structural binary oppositions: trace - non-trace, white – black, abstract – allusive form within the schematism of unified surface, gained through a more or less regular fragmentation of the entire territory of the painted surface. The painting thus becomes a playground, a scene where a certain painted structure is carried into effect by drawing attention to itself. The substance is just as emphasised as the content.

In this gradual artistic development, regular miniaturised fragmentation of the surface was followed by action with the emphasis moving from the surface into deeper levels through evident application of layers and broadening of view onto the background of the painting, onto its canvas basis. Transparent gelatine has greatly contributed to the interplay between the opaque and transparent forms. Translucent membranes, at their side-edges revealing the thickness of colour applied to neighbouring surfaces, create a special relation to the transparent foundation. Thus created surfaces are not blanks lacking colour but surfaces defined by that translucency. The allusion to skin is therefore not created merely as an imitation of skin's macro-view surface; the skin, that transparent covering of human body, becomes a useful artistic metaphor. The skin simultaneously hides and reveals, it is a protective surface that is yet incredibly vulnerable due to its function of body's final frontier; the changes upon it might affect the entire fate of the body. It is sometimes covered with textile functioning as protection and disguise.

Painting's function is similarly manifold. It can protect the conventional image of the world or, on the contrary, it can reach within its depths, revealing its secrets by means of artist's creative force and imagination. Since - in contemporary painting - the mechanical imitation of copying objects in front of our eyes has been entirely replaced by ideal imitation relying on images from imagination, the reality has lost its decisive role in art. It is paradoxical, though, that although advanced technologies enable very exact imitations of the real world, we are increasingly surrounded by the world of ideal images precisely because of such technologies and the media employing them. We are losing our touch with reality. Figures staring at us from advertising photographs, billboards and television commercials are capable of meeting our collective expectations. As such they do not represent something emerging from a creative process, in their imitation process they do not search for concealed mysteries of the real world. Their objective is to serve the image of desire, providing it with an available body.

The world of conceived forms is disappearing in order to remain connected to visual impulses, regardless whether they be triggered by a natural or an artificial "blot," which is why the bond between created images and reality is loosening. Imagination is losing touch with the creative source it feeds upon. We need the art of painting to re-establish the connection. Its efficiency lies in its manipulation with matter and flirting with familiar images. And such is Gasper Jemec's art. Perhaps the origins of contemporary tendencies of encouraging art to start imitating nature again go back to the past belief that one of the abilities of nature is that of imitating art. Since art and nature had been similar once, they are becoming similar today in order to join forces in re-creation of the lost bond with reality.

 

Nadja Zgonik, PhD

Ljubljana, 2000

 

Author bio 

Nadja Zgonik, born in 1964, is an art historian and art critic. She received PhD from the Department of Art History at the Faculty of Arts, University in Ljubljana in 1997. Since 1989, she is a lecturer of art history at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana. She was one of the founders and the first editor of M'ars, the magazine of the Museum of Modern Art Ljubljana. She has been the curator of several exhibition, some of them were projects for specific places (1995 – Gustav Gnamus at Spital's Chapel, Celje; 1997 – Wise Hand: Art – Science – Technology, Rihard Jakopic Gallery, Ljubljana; 1997 – The Cabinet of Found Objects – Exhibition of Artist's Personal Fetishes, Obalne galerije, Koper). She also curated exhibitions of contemporary Slovene art abroad (TAIEX, Bruxelles; Kunstforum, Bonn; MIB, Trieste). In 1994 she published a book Marij Pregelj. A Drawing into a Painting (M'ars Series, Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana), in 2001 a book about Slovene painter Zdenko Huzjan (Pomurska zalozba, Murska Sobota) and Images of the Slovene national identity (Nova revija, Ljubljana).




back