MARCH 10, 2013
the shape distance
I haven’t painted for six years.
This week I completed four new paintings. They mark a radical departure from the work I finished in 2006. This radical departure is due in part to various developments in my music compositions but also due to much deliberation about the associations between music and painting in general and how, specifically, my work as a painter can be brought closer to that of my music. Writing in VISCER-ebr-AL combined with the many conversations I have had with my dear friend Ian Talbot have helped shape ideas, culminating in a burst of work that draws together many of the threads pondered and discussed.
Before talking about my intention within the paintings, it will help to outline my most recent thoughts in composition as these directly impact upon this series of paintings; indeed, they reference each other through a shared title.
the shape distance are a series of seven pieces constructed somewhat akin to ‘Russian Dolls’ in that each contains the same or similar core material that is ‘enclosed’ by other layers of material.
The core music is represented by two solo pieces that although composed in isolation contain strongly related material. This music for flute and clarinet, either together or individually pervades all subsequent pieces in the series.
the shape distance  flute 1 / clarinet
the shape distance  flute 1 / clarinet / piano
the shape distance  flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola
the shape distance  flutes 1 + 2 / harp
the shape distance  flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola / percussion (1)
the shape distance  flute 1 / clarinet / harp / percussion (1)
the shape distance  flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola / harp / piano / percussion (1)
Percussion set (1 player):
5 differently pitched temple blocks ranging from high to low, 4 differently pitched suspended cymbals ranging from high to low, 1 timpani drum 29″-28″, 1 large, deep, resonant bass drum, 2 differnetly pitched suspended tam-tams
all works circa 12 minutes in duration.
The instrumentalists play independently of each other. Music is cued to begin only, with no ‘fixed’ synchronisation between the instrumentalists. Whilst the relationship of each instrument is flexibly placed against its neighbour, care has been taken to calculate potential outcomes of coincidence and variability. To this end it is vital that metronome markings are adhered to as accurately as possible although the composer appreciates that it is the various interpretations and practicalities inherent in the realisation of tempi that contribute to the richly unique nature and interplay of each performance.
There is only one instructions to the players; to begin together and play until their material is finished.
Compositional material is [largely] derived from a series of distant variations that unify all sections with thematic landmarks. Thematic material is audible throughout the piece, bringing cohesion and structure to the work. All the instrumental roles are written to a high degree of virtuosity and most contain extended techniques and quarter-tones. The music itself [through the simultaneous bringing together of these individual parts] forms dense, highly complex and constantly changing relationships that are frequently wild and sometimes beautiful.
The score and parts:
I have not produced a score for these pieces; difficulties and variables associated with displaying the musical material in vertical alignment as represented in real time are considerable. Each performance will yield different results, interplays, gestural and harmonic references and outcomes. As a result, the material contained within the pieces can only be read via the instrumental parts. Consequently here is no definitive performance of these pieces.
Music in the shape distance can only be realised through performance [as opposed to comprehended by reading through a score; this is the nature of the music – it has to be experienced to be ‘known’.
A note about the title:
‘The shape distance is part of ‘the shape context’ and is intended to be a way of describing shapes that allows for measuring shape similarity and the recovering of point correspondences. The basic idea is to pick n points on the contours of a shape. For each point pi on the shape, consider the n − 1 vectors obtained by connecting pi to all other points. The set of all these vectors is a rich description of the shape localized at that point but is far too detailed. The key idea is that the distribution over relative positions is a robust, compact, and highly discriminative descriptor.’
This process of describing shapes through their similarities resonated with my ambition in these pieces, especially regarding the recognition of shapes [this time shape and gestural recognition in sound rather than physical objects] within a complex, multifaceted fabric of un-synchronous sounds, believing that it is the recognition of these elements that brings both context, excitement and meaning to the music.
It is perhaps this last paragraph that can be used for the jumping-off point into my paintings.
My intention in this work, as stated above, was broadly to bring connectivity from my music into my paintings in a way that at least, resonated with me.
I know it is impossible to ‘paint music’ in any real [truthful] sense and have observed that when most visual artists cite a connection between their visual work and music it is through affectation [a purely emotional, indulgent or even nostalgic response], illustration or pure fiction.
I felt it necessary, as far as I was able to avoid these pitfalls.
In starting the paintings I had a very rough idea of where I might be heading but the detail was unknown. I was very anxious about making marks on my virgin whiteboards. Initially, I was scared to commit. A six-year gap in painting leaves both a desire to paint again as well as a void that has been filled by uncertainties around one’s abilities to actually paint anything of worth ever again.
My first attempt took me straight back to where I left off. I put that one aside. My second attempt [the first to be finished] immediately showed the way forward as I recognised within it many of the ideas I had previously thought about. It was this painting that became the measure for the others. I removed the surface from the first painting and started again. This process of assimilation between the works continued until I felt I had left the past behind sufficiently and had indicated the way forward. I wasn’t sure I ‘liked’ what I had produced, but on a subconscious level the work resonated and I ‘knew’ this was the right direction. I took me a few days to acclimatise to this new work. Now I am enjoying it and my mind is stimulated with more to come.
Yes, I needed to bring ‘music’ into the visual, but how had I intended to do this.
I took an approach based very much on mapping ‘gesture’ in music. In sound, a gesture can be a flourish of notes, a sudden loud to quiet, a phrase or technique, a crescendo, a musical shape – a moment. All these gestures have physical counterparts. Rather, they can all be represented through a physical movement [we may call this dance, but I have something less formalised in mind], single movements that capture the kinetic energy that the gestural sound produces. It is this movement that I wanted to capture through the gesture of mark-making, solidifying ‘a moment in sound’ through line, colour and texture.
These paintings, called ‘the shape distance’ are mapping exercises; they ‘petrify’ a moment in time, an event or gesture[s] from one of my scores. They are not illustrative or affective; they translate a gesture in sound through a related gesture in line, the impetus and guide being the kinetic energy needed to bridge this gap. Therefore, the mark making in these paintings is pre-conceived, experienced and spontaneously translated into the mark in one [or several] bold gestures.
As mapping these gestures is central to the work, my titles reflect the connection: ‘the shape distance’ [map 1], ‘the shape distance [map 2], and so on.
Other elements are at play, too.
These paintings have taken their elements of form, texture and colour to the minimum necessary to effectively express my intent. This is where the radical departure from my previous work is centred. I had produced large works of an ‘epic’ intensity [by comparison], full of rich colour, deep texture, impasto and complex forms. Now, the paintings are set upon pale, delicately textured backdrops that have an almost [slightly grubby] clinical feel – a bit like setting the mark-making, the gestures against a background of white-noise, or indeed, silence. This juxtaposition only serves to heighten the mark-making and minimal colour present in the work. The focus has been sharpened towards what is vital for the form of the piece to work.
These pieces are not minimal in any sense like ‘minimalism in music’; on the surface and in comparison to my previous work there has been a significant paring down of content and spectrum of expression, but what I am left with is in no way minimal. If anything, the reduction has increased the intensity of the gesture and spontaneity of the work making it more potent. It may not have the initial visual ‘wow’ factor of my previous work, but upon deeper inspection reveals a passionate dynamic that reflects its origins in music.
Additionally, these ‘reduced’ backgrounds, these settings for the gestural mark-making provide a platform akin to derelict internal walls that exude the beauty of ‘domestic erosion and decay’, or external urban walls that call for graffiti. There is a sense in which I view this new work as a kind of graffiti with the board being the wall. Perhaps I could call the work I am producing gestural graffiti?
Having said all of this I shall close by stating that I am fully aware my intentions in this work, all that I have written, thought and made, may not be apparent to the viewer who has no knowledge of my previous work, connection to music or given intent. Does that weaken the work? I think not. The intent of the artist is paramount; it gives the context and raison d’être for the work. These ideas resonate with me and will resonate with others but with those for whom such resonances are not apparent, my hope is that the dynamic of the work will ‘speak’ to them in other ways.