The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament.
Adolf Loos, Ornament and crime, 1908.
... the grid states the autonomy of the world of art. Flattened, geometricized, ordered, it is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature.
Rosalind Krauss, The originality of the avant-garde, 1981.
Wolfflin noted that the Baroque is marked by a certain number of material traits: ... matter handled in masses or aggregates, with the rounding of angles and avoidance of perpendiculars ... spongy, cavernous shapes, or to constitute a vortical form always put in motion by renewed turbulence ... matter tends to spill over in space, to be reconciled with fluidity at the same time fluids themselves are divided into masses.
Gilles Deleuze, The fold: Liebniz and the baroque, 1988.
Wall zip (for Brancusi and Barnett Newman) is part of my current project, loosely titled Mappa mundi, which articulates my interest in the representation of organic form in art and science. This body of work looks at human attempts to define and order nature, and how our position in relation to the natural world has evolved according to the fashions of scientific and artistic enquiry. Much of my current work explores a boundary between pure abstraction and ornamentation (modernism and historicism). I see both of these opposed systems as forms of abstraction, one against the natural world and the other informed by it.
This piece is my reaction to the traces of architectural ornament left by successive waves of immigrants in East London. Some of the Neo-Classical houses of Spitalfields were built by Huguenots fleeing religious repression in France. The Piano Nobile, with its proportionally taller windows, is the grand reception level on the first floor of these houses. Their perfect Palladian proportions are offset by French Rococo ceilings, fields of cerulean blue within which white plaster putti and intricate curlicues writhe.
This swirling vegetative ornament of the European Baroque is echoed powerfully for me in the sinuous patterning of Maori and Pacific Islander carving and tattooing. I wonder whether the gentlemen explorers of the Enlightenment – Pedro Fernández de Quirós, Durmont D’urville or Captain Cook – made the connection?
Wall zip also plays with the high-minded seriousness of Barnett Newman’s zip paintings. His zip motif suggests a mystical reality underlying our own that is normally obscured. Wall zip is an ornament-encrusted zip, a wrinkle in space that deforms the wall and, by extension, the building.
Wall zip expresses an implied architectonic lattice. It forms along a vertical line on the wall and grows out horizontally at 60 cm nodes. It is a crystalline ivy that left to its own devices would eventually engulf the wall. In Wall zip the ornament is the structure. My reworking of Barnett Newman’s zip in this highly ornamental way is a critique of the banality of purist abstraction and the tendency of such (masculine) abstraction to ignore more emotional, embodied (feminine) aspects of experience. Wall zip is a feminised masculine structure – Barnett Newman in drag.
Image: Installation view at University of Hertfordshire Galleries, Hatfield, England
Photography: Tom Baker