Saturday, 21 March 2009

Black sunflowers

Last week I took the boys to visit my friend Mark Alexander and his wife Yuko. Mark is an artist and one of the purposes of the visit was to see his new work. 

It was a wonderfully sunny day and as Mark and Yuko live in a cottage on Sir Evelyn Rothschild's Ascott estate we took a leisurely walk through the grounds to Mark's studio. The gardens in springtime and the sweeping southerly views across to the Chilterns were a stirring preparation for what we were to see.

Mark's work is difficult to categorise. Whilst working very much in the fine art tradition his work is also highly conceptual. At the moment he's working on a series of paintings which are exemplary. He's taken Van Gogh's Sunflowers and copied them via a monochrome screen print. He's then overpainted the flowers with black dilute oil paint.

The effect is extraordinary. The screen-printed background because of its sketchy feel has fragility and simplicity. This gives the works a sort of disarming intimacy, heightening the effect created by the flowers. These are rendered in a way that is unfamiliar to me, achieving an effect which is uncanny.

The black oil paint has been diluted with oil and applied thickly so that when it dries it results in a surface that can be variously dripped, wrinkled, stippled or creased. The stamens, petals, stalks, leaves are all picked out in different ways using this technique. This echoes Van Gogh's effects. But, more, the paint's application means that the flowers possess an element of  unpredictability in three dimensions, intensifying their organic quality.

However, the uncanniness arises from the combination of this organic effect with their absolute blackness. The flowers writhe with life but being black must be dead. They're like little volcanic explosions but also delicate, as if seen from space. Ebony filigree.

The frames, specially commissioned from German craftsmen, are worth seeing for themselves. Their grey-cream and black echoes the pictures, with the black picking out elliptical indentations on the surround in the shape of one of the petals.

This is what they look like, beautiful but eery. As to what may be their art historical significance, I'm not qualified to say. Two things strike me though.

Firstly, they have a freshness that would appear unlikely given the almost cliched nature of the originals. Executing them in a new way seems to have restored the freshness of the originals, making one see them anew.

Which leads me onto my second observation. Unexpectedly, you discover that most of the power of the originals is to be found in the draughtsmanship rather than the colour. The explosive ellipses of the petals and the writhing stalks contain so much energy that you hardly miss the striking yellows and oranges and the dusty greens. 

Mark had completed some other remarkable pieces, which I don't have space to describe. But they can all be viewed at Haunch of Venison's Berlin gallery (near the Hamburger Bahnhof) from May.

By the way, do try to get to Berlin for a weekend if you haven't already. I had one of the best weekends away ever there.

UPDATE: Mark and Yuko at the opening of his show at Haunch of Venison, Berlin.

Here's the link to the show.

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