|EMMA BENNETT | Several Small Fires|
|Exhibition Dates: Friday June 26th - Saturday July 25th 2015|
|CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to present Emma Bennett with her third one person show at the gallery.|
For this exhibition Bennett has created an exquisite set of intimate oil paintings on oak panels. Combining appropriated still life elements with beds, fire and landscapes; this is a significantly personalised series. Exploring the fleeting nature of experience and encounters, Bennett’s paintings are resonant and nostalgic. They also refer to the incomplete, fragmented nature of memory and thought:
‘My recent paintings, like memories, contain small fragments of imagery - these are focused details surrounded by darkness and ambiguity. The imagery of the paintings locates memories in specific places and, as with memories, there are sharply focused details as well as inaccuracies and things that one can't quite recall.’
This fragmented or failed recollection serves to blur the boundaries of reality and imagination, and introduces notions of desire, absence and loss. The illogicality of apparently disparate figurative elements suggests ambiguities in time and space, whilst the intangible nature of the subjects represented intonate dream and flux. We are eluded by the transient nature of smoke, fire and water, and reminded of the impermanence of the corporeal.
Please contact gallery for images and further information
Text | Frances Woodley | 2015
|Tending the Flames of Reverie | Emma Bennett’s Poetics of Painting|
|Exhibition: Several Small Fires|
|Exhibition Dates: Friday June 26th – Saturday July 15th 2015|
Memory, the faculty of recall, is constantly under threat from subsequent experience. Memory is subject to change. Memories are what you are left with. You protect and guard them in case of loss. A memory clung to desperately will petrify. Over time it will occupy you, slows you up. Memories need to be set free.
Remembrance, the marking of a memory you hold dear, an anchoring with things and images to keep it from drifting. Remembrance is heavy with association, recollection, and retelling, but not too heavy to bear. The flames of remembrance must be tended. They must not overheat.
Dream, a sleep-induced unwinding and entwining of rememberings, images and experience, into which forgotten and discarded memories leak out as repressed and unfulfilled desires. ‘The dream proceeds on its way in linear fashion, forgetting its original path as it hastens along.’i Floating and fleeting through time and space, sense and self, the dream intensifies, only to fade away on waking.
Reverie, the waking dream, the day-dream, a fanciful imagining, contracting and expanding as it passes back and forth, in and out of non-sequential instants. Reverie takes its shape in the presence of fire, flow, or cloud. When induced by an image, one that is neither too specific nor too vague, reverie gives rise to a pleasurable dislocation, a losing of oneself. In reverie, time is both long and short, objects magnified and miniaturized, simultaneously.
Imagination, mental worlds invoked by the mind in wakefulness. ‘Material imagination, which always has a demiurgic tonality, would create all white matter from dark matter and overcome the whole history of blackness.ii Imagination makes the familiar strange. It extends the vision and the senses in make-believe. ‘With a single poetic detail, the imagination confronts us with a new world.’iii
Fire, real, fake, fallacious or imagined, is ‘the perpetual antagonist of gravity, giver and destroyer of life.’iv The flames of reverie shoot up, draw breath, suffuse all things with light, and warmth and glow. The picturing of fire, though colder, gives similar rise to reverie.
Emma Bennett’s painted reveries are private imaginings, layered images of elements and objects apparently suspended against a black ground. She plays with memory, time, space and dreaming. Conjuring up both the universal and the particular, her paintings remain nevertheless conjectures, for the daydream’s truths can never be rendered or evidenced in their entirety. Reverie is both resistant, and open, to interpretation. ‘Interpretation’ wrote Sontag in 1962, ‘is the revenge of the intellect on art, to interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings”’.v What was needed in the place of interpretation and its theories, she wrote, was ‘an erotics of art’.vi Almost fifty years later Bennett’s paintings can be considered as a contemporary response to Sontag’s challenge, and with this in mind there are two points concerning interpretation that I will touch on throughout this essay. Firstly, Bennett’s painting exists in forms of highly personal conversation with painting of the past: 16th and 17th century still life painting and 20th century colour field painting. Secondly, if representation is necessarily interpretation, then what does it mean for the representation of reverie to be open to the interpretation and reverie of others? When looking at paintings of the past such as Magritte’s The Ladder of Fire I (1934), or Rothko’s Seagram Murals (1959) interpretation must take a back seat—first you must open yourself up to reverie.vii So too In Bennett’s interpretations, where Sontag’s ‘erotics of art’ is put to work as arousal, awakening, as painted reverie on the paintings of others.
Painted reverie is undoubtedly an interpretation, the daydream regrouped for vision. However, it is important to point out that Bennett’s paintings, though forms of interpretation, are also particularly open to imagining rather than ‘reading’. Her paintings are first experienced as affective rather than symbolic, though such reading may come later.
Bennett’s painting is concerned with history and memory. But what is the significance of history here, and what memories are being recalled? A commonly held culture over time? An individual encounter with a historical artwork in the present—a floral still life, a banketje, or vanitas of the Dutch Golden Age or Italian Baroque? In their time, such paintings serviced a collective desire for reflection, both mirrored and meditative. All sorts of people ogled and owned still life paintings of objects that reflected back their never-had-it-so-good present, or vanitas paintings that served as symbolic reminders of what could be lost—life being transient, prosperity and beauty short-lived. At that time the symbols and signs that circulated in visual representation were steeped in conventions of religious and classical iconography that constituted a universal language across the arts, though locally stylized. In the still life paintings of rummers and gilt, lemons and walnuts, oysters and hares, a common culture of collecting, depicting, and signifying existed, through which meaning and memory were shared and valued.
Bennett’s sensibilities are undoubtedly coloured by her own memories of traditional still life painting in museums and collections, of time spent looking at a particularly mournful floral still life by van Huysum in the Dulwich Picture Gallery or Caravaggio’s precariously balanced basket of fruit in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, for example.viii These first encounters, return visits, and memories, are of course intertwined and overlaid with the artist’s other past experiences and imaginings, as well her various lives in the here and now. Though coloured by her viewing of the originals, and though her paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to those originals, it is not they, but their photographic reproductions that ignite Bennett’s imagination. It would seem as though the potential these reproductions offer up for reverie is just as important to her as any intrinsic meaning the originals might once have held, or continue to hold.
With the advent of commercial photography in the latter half of the nineteenth century, photographs began to lose, what Walter Benjamin termed, their ‘aura’. Singular images gave way to mass-produced reproductions. Some were used as mnemonics, miniature memory joggers for original paintings seen in the museum. Printed as postcards and photographic illustrations in books, journals and auction catalogues, they were popular, practical and efficient aides memoires. With advances in print technologies reproductions were even made into full-scale substitutes for the real thing; many a reproduction of a still life has been glazed, framed and displayed over a mantelpiece! All such reproductions of traditional still life painting provide rich pickings for Bennett. It is therefore a basic tenet of her painting practice that in place of originals, her motifs are instead the appropriated and altered fragments of different generations of reproductions—cut and collaged prints, photocopied and photoshopped prints of prints—from which she then paints.
But it is not only photographic reproductions that Bennett makes use of, but also photography’s current theory and criticism. Douglas Crimp, writing in 1980, described ‘the recent school of photography’, stretching from Atget to Rauschenberg and Warhol, as an ‘emptying operation’, and a ‘depletion of the aura’ of photography’.ix
The extraordinary presence of their work is effected through absence, through its unbridgeable distance from the original, from even the possibility of an original. Such presence is what I attribute to the kind of photographic activity I call postmodernist.x
Bennett agrees. For all their dreamy beguiling, the sources of her sources are absent, and in the case of her painting, only a painted reverie remains—reverie being immaterial it only becomes visible in representation. This is the paradox that lies at the heart of Bennett’s paintings: beautifully executed reveries on reproductions from which the aura and meaning of an original has been lanced and supplemented with highly personal significance. Reproduction understood in this way is very different from early forms of photography, or even mimesis as evoked here by Philostratus in the Imagines, 300 AD.xi
It is a good thing to gather figs and also not to pass over in silence the figs in this picture. Purple figs dripping with juice are heaped on vine-leaves; and they are depicted with breaks in the skin, some just cracking open to disgorge their honey, some split apart, they are so ripe. … You would say that even the grapes in the painting are good to eat and full of winey juice. And the most charming point of all this is: on a leafy branch is yellow honey already within the comb and ripe to stream forth if the comb is pressed; and on another leaf is cheese new curdled and quivering; and there are bowls of milk not merely white but gleaming, for the cream floating upon it makes it seem to gleam.
Though you are drawn into Bennett’s paintings of flowers, fruit, fish—even vine leaves—by what appears to be their mimetic richness as described above, you are soon dissuaded from admiring them for this alone. Her manner of depiction is not primarily intended to display mastery, but rather to be a reflection and rumination on images as surface. Her poetic painting is highly ambiguous, not intended to be descriptive of a reality, and sometimes even repellant in its dryness. Bennett’s manner of painting opens itself up to interpretation and reverie in ways that Philostratus’s ekphrastic writing does not. As we have seen, like some floating thief of time Bennett nicks and lifts the grapes and drapes, roses and posies, hares and flares from the likes of Mignon, Ruysch and Weenix, and repositions them by deft acts of reproduction and representation.xii She steals the souls of paintings, compresses their histories, and appropriates what is left of them in reproductions fit to paint from. Her painting is made both melancholic and energetic through the reproductions of its origins in ways that would not have been possible if those originals had been copied or nature imitated.
As suggested earlier, there is also a more recent history of painting at work here. From Bennett’s early interest in mid 20th century American colour field painting comes her concern with flatness, and black flatness in particular. Her blacks are fields devoid of colour other than that which is reflected back on them from beyond their picture surface. Materially impenetrable yet phenomenologically penetrative, shallow yet deep, non-representational yet resonant, they pay homage to the blacks of Klein and the sombre hues of Newman and Rothko with their all-encompassing sense of hugeness. ‘I have also followed the imagination to a point well beyond reality, in its task of enlargement, for in order to surpass, one must first enlarge’, wrote Bachelard in 1958.xiii In Bennett’s small paintings too, it is a similar
magnitude of blackness that is being evoked. The mysteriousness of these black grounds is exaggerated by the absence of shadows, cast or attached. Blackness does not intrude, motifs and blackness resist one another. By way of relief, the artist sometimes applies a translucent ‘pour’ of paint to a black surface, to remind you, and herself perhaps, of their immutability, their inscrutability, while on another occasion she might throw a shiny scumbling of dark lacquer at them—a disruption, a spoiling. These blacks, therefore, set the conditions for reverie, it is they that call the shots.
Bennett’s black grounds may be interpreted as traditional symbols of unenlightenment or evil, as metaphors for infinity, or as more straightforward representations of night or universe. They may also conjure up memories of dark spaces—an empty stage or a blacked out cinema. Or, they may simply be forms of vacancy, awaiting imaginative occupation. As the blacks are materially flat the implication is that the ‘objects’ that exist somewhere to the front of them, floating, hanging, pendulous and weightless, must be lit by your world, yet from your position as viewer outside the picture you feel them to be a world apart. As you find yourself caught up in speculation on the apparent incoherence of light, space and form you are carried away by your own imaginings, forgetting yourself in the process. The objects are merely motifs after all, only paintings of reproductions, insubstantial in almost every sense, yet you find yourself inveigled by their disjunctions, pulled into a state of slight uncertainty and unsettling. In this sense her objects and blackness are provocative.
Colours used in painting are not generally transient or fugitive unless subjected to long periods of light, short instances of fire, a dissolving, or a drowning. Paintings are material objects and fairly permanent. They are terra in the classical sense—earthly matter. Other classical elements, aqua, aer and ignis, and phenomena such as time and gravity, unlike terra, resist depiction in themselves. Yet the effect they have on objects, man made as well as natural, have long been depicted by still life artists to address universal concerns regarding the transience of life and the mutability of possessions: the burning candle, the rotting fruit, the half drunk glass, the tipping basket, the dried out cheese. These days they are referred to as ‘states of matter’, solid, liquid, gas and plasma, all of which make their appearance in Bennett’s paintings.
But what of fire, a theme that Bennett returns to periodically? In the past, as Bachelard suggests, poetic, philosophical, and anthropological accounts of fire were written as reveries of desire: of sex, arson, pyrotechnics, transmutation, immolation.xiv Maybe so, but the fire of reverie is more often a quieter one. There exists a thoroughly tamed fire in The Birth of St John the Baptist, a small panel painted in 1454 by Giovanni de Paolo that hangs in the National Gallery in London.xv It is a compliant fire, its hairy flames are flattened to fit with the vanishing lines of a rectangular fireplace, it’s work not to heat, but to reinforce an illusion of depth, space and narrative. Hardly the fire of reverie! So if not mythically dramatic, or quiescent like di Paolo’s, what might Bennett’s several small fires be aspiring to? Are they flattened too, or are they able to cultivate spaces of their own from which daydreams can be coaxed? And if her fires are neither accurately rendered observations, (quite impossible as fire is never still), nor general impressions, nor reproductions, nor simulacra, then what sort of represented fires are even possible? Bennett’s solution to this is to paint her fires as spectral flames. Nothing passes through them, nothing is torched, charred or branded. Because time stands still in her pictures of reverie, a burning or smouldering appears and disappears only in you, the daydreamer’s imagination, where it can flit or roar, in states that are insubstantial and uncontained.
Imagine, you tear out a photograph of fire and you set it jauntily between the fruit in your fruit bowl. You capture little assemblage on your smart phone. Does the image on your phone go up in flames, or the fruit? Whatever the illusion of potentiality such objects are only able to ignite poetically in your imagination. In a similar way, the visual disjunctions of fruit and fire in Bennett’s paintings set off musings on juiciness and inflammability, of sweetness inflamed? Though only fire can ignite matter, fire’s representations and reproductions can ignite reverie.
Bennett’s paintings are full of conceits such as these. A painted curtain, that classical convention used by many a Golden Age still life painter, may appear to float instead of hang, drawing you in your reverie into a timeless, weightless, spaceless, state of suspension. A tablecloth is painted without its table, so that you are left wondering at the absence of something that had never been present. Bennett makes no significant incursion into flatness with curtain or cloth. No fixed picture plane emerges, and no dimension. If other things exist in their absence then they do so only in our imaginings. Most recently Bennett has invited objects of the here and now to enter this ‘world’ of flatness. These small-scale paintings with their intimate intrusions are more ambiguous and paradoxical than ever. Take Tender Visiting (2014) and its bed, that home of the half thought, half dream of half sleep, half wake. This half bed, with one pillow, cropped half way up, has made a brazen push into flat blackness, suggesting a depth not apprehended before. As if to secure its tenuous footing the artist has painted every crumpled fold of bedding, and within each fold, every inner fold imaginable. The bed linen is worked to death; it is imprisoned in its awkward dimension. Yet, over the bed, a posy drops languorously, and curls a stem or two to beckon you, the absent dreamer.
The outline shapes of images, irrespective of their scale, have also begun to echo one another across the canvas. Suggestions of similarity and association occasionally disturb the stillness. In reverie things can change and connections may be made not countenancedbefore. So, in Bennett’s recent painting Tipping (towards love) (2014), a stone bridge, through which water tumbles, appears on the canvas as miniature yet in reverie— hers and yours—it is able to become yet more shrunken, huge and distant in the same instant. Its water is suspended, it neither soaks back into the black, nor drips downwards, nor strays across. The motifs in this painting seem to reach out in anticipation of a meeting across time and space. Foamy water and folded cloth seem to mirror one another to suggest a potential connection. Both float, deflated and inflated, in a state of longing. Bachelard writes of ‘a dialectic of inwardness and expansion’, a sort of coming and going:
[It] ‘takes so subdued a form that we forget the dialectic of the large and the small. … the imagination no longer delineates …The dream withdraws into this interior space and develops in the most paradoxical delight, in the most ineffable happiness.’xvi
Flat, poured over, intruded upon, these paintings dwell on the paradoxes of time, space, history and memory, gravity and weightlessness. Bennett represents a poetics of instants. There is no duration here, no depth, and hence no narrative. There is only spectral presence. Physical laws are waived and the ‘one thing leads to another’ of imagination takes hold. The reveries, hers and yours, bound only by blackness, are experienced as disconnects, dislocations, incongruous couplings that exist in forms of suspension. ‘In its countless alveoli space contains compressed time. That is what space is for.’xvii
Bennett’s paintings are flat sites for deep reverie. It is a practice that is hard won, emotional, and time consuming, one that relies on memories, knowledge, skill, vision, and intuition, as well as an openness to the interpretations of those artists who precede her. ‘Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived.’xviii
I Bachalard, G. 1968. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Boston: Beacon Press. p.14.
II Bachelard, G. 2005 On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Connecticut: Putnam. p. 9.
III Bachelard, G. 1994 The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 134. IV Bachelard, 1968. p. 81.
V Sontag, S. 2009, ‘Against Interpretation and Other Essays’, London: Penguin. pp. 6,
XI ibid. p.12.
VII The Ladder of Fire I, 1934, Rene Magritte, oil on canvas, 54x73 cm. Private Collection.
The Seagram Murals, 1958-9, Mark Rothko, oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London.
VIII Vase with Flowers, ca. 1715, Jan van Huysum, Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Basket of Fruit, 1599, Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio oil on canvas, 31x47 cm, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan
VIIII Crimp, D. ‘The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism’, October, Vol. 15 (Winter, 1980), 91-101. MIT Press. 95.
X Crimp, (Winter 1980). 95.
XI Philostratus the Elder, The Imagines, Philostratus the Younger, The Imagines, Callistratus, Descriptions, 1931, The Loed Classical Library No. 256, New Haven: Harvard Press. p. 123.
XII Abraham Mignon (1640-1679), Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), Jan Weenix (1640/9-1719)
XIII Bachelard, 1994. p. 112XIIII Bachelard, 1968. pp. 74-90.
XV The Birth of Saint John the Baptist: Predella Panel from Baptist Predella, 1454, Giovanni di Paolo, egg tempera on wood, 30.5x36 cm. Collection National Gallery, London.
XVI Bachelard, 2005. pp. 91-92.
XVII Bachelard, 1994. p. 8.
XVIII ibid. p.12.
Frances Woodley is Principal Lecturer - Arts and Media, Faculty of Creative Industries.