Thursday, April 16, 2009

Microcosms of imaginative awakening

Paintings as enterprises of the imagination are two-dimensional microcosms in which a small piece of reality is simplified in two dimensions to reveal a basic pattern culled from its three-dimensional structure. The scale may be reduced to encompass a landscape or a human figure. On the other hand it may be enlarged to accommodate the components of a microscopic system of life or minerals. But what is happening to artistic creativity when the starting point of the imaginative awakening is a painting itself, which is inevitably coupled with the style, customs and values of the social system that motivated the artist to produce it? This is the problem that confronted Susi Bellamy when her imagination was fired by an enforced stay in the Academia Gallery of Venice because a tidal surge in the Adriatic had marooned the first batch of early morning visitors. As the hours passed studying the paintings the many religious works, she began to think of them in terms of their geometric compositions. “I was fascinated by the flatness of their design, the rich colours and the interaction between the Madonna and child”.
A simple ‘mother and child’ pattern was actually the historical basis for the devotional representations produced by the early Christians of the Mother of God with her miraculous child, which date from the Byzantine Era. This is evident from the Fig 1 where the mother and her ‘adult’ child, created in a Cretan cultural backwater, are both draped in plain loose heavily folded cloth. The flat background in glowing gold leaf is the cosmic space for two small angels placed symmetrically on either side of the centred subjects. With the passage of history, the mother’s clothing actually becomes more elaborate. Also, her baby is transformed from a supernatural miniature man to a realistically depicted dimpled lively infant interacting with his now glamorous richly clad Renaissance mother. He also interacts with his immediate surroundings as all human babies do.

For the past three years Susi has developed this ’ Madonna and Child’ theme using Italian paintings dating from the early to mid-14th century to simulate little worlds of patterned fabric building on her former experience as a fashion editor. The cut-out face of the mother of god and the body of her son are embedded in bold collage fields composed of wrapping paper which follow the original artist’s scheme of draping the two figures (Fig 2). The paper fields are in traditional Florentine patterns, and are embellished with beads, shells, and gold filigree paper doilies (baking paper). These simple flat fields of discrete masses of miniature repeat patterns function to transform Renaissance high art into a rich, ironic, kitschy take, as original stand-alone pictures. This novel re-arrangement actually serves to emphasise the relationship between mother and child and their impact on the viewer. The overall effect is present a 21st century interpretation of the famous ‘Venetian web’ by which Madonna painters from the time of Paulo Veneziano to Carlo Crivelli submerged the mother and child in waves of different colours, patterns and textures. This user-friendly decorative quality takes away some of the preciousness of religious art and makes it more accessible. However the overall outcome is to make the viewer think about the splendid surfaces of Venetian art, and evaluate the centuries old staying power of Christian devotion and spiritual reverence to coloured images of a miraculous relationship between mothers and their babies.

Regarding the incorporation of shells as a dominant element of the picture’s boundary, the idea came from the embellishment of street corner shrines. But there is a direct reference to the universal aboriginal belief in the spiritual power of shells emptied of the living beings that formed them. The shells also contain a more subtle message to what Donald Kuspit has called the relentless materialization and mediafication of art, which have stripped it of its transcendental experience leaving the shell of art rather than its spiritual substance. In this respect it is ironic that the Madonna series is Susi’s most successful commercial venture to date.

Fig 1 Madonna and Child (Cretan circa 13th century)

Fig 2 Madonna and child (after Nicolo di Pietro)

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