Tuesday, March 24, 2009

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

I didn’t set out from graduate school with a plan to coat absurd and obscure objects found in junk shops with gold. I was a painter and it was only logical that my artwork would reside mostly within the arena of painting. Yet I am a strong proponent of trusting in whatever direction the artwork is leading. And this gilded path is eventually where it led.

Innocent choices inspire fateful results. My Altarpiece of St. Thomas Eliot was the first official work I produced in the altarpiece format. The original concept for these pieces involved weathered and rusted structures that indicated items far older than their production date. They were like Protestant altarpieces left in the wake of reformational iconoclasm. With this work there was both the rusty grate and the weather stained wood. But when the wood was cut to size it left edges of fresh, clean lumber.

I decided that since so many renaissance era altarpieces were coated in gold that this would be a suitable finish option for those edges. I went to Boise Blue Art Supply (one of my favorite places in Idaho) and purchased a little gold leafing kit. It was actually imitation gold leaf, which is really brass and considerably less expensive. It worked perfectly but it soon presented another finishing option.

There are chemical treatments (surface patinas) that can be applied to brass and other metals if one wishes to give them an aged appearance. Since that was really part of the whole concept I decided to try this with a couple of the next pieces—Altarpiece of St. Francis of L’Abri and Altarpiece of the Martyrdom of St. Bon. After that I have never used real gold leaf because the manipulation of the imitation gold was much more appropriate for my purposes.

What you will find is that the use of gold (or silver or copper) in the works vacillates from worn and degraded to bright and pristine. Aside from referencing age, the treatment of the metal leafing in the altarpieces is quite similar to the use of nude figures in the painted passages of these works.

The figures, referencing saints, take an elevated position in the works. Ordinary people are paid honor and reverence because of their extraordinary character or deeds, At the same time, their nudity places them on the same level or sphere in which you and I inhabit each day. The gold (or imitation gold) that covers the reliquary objects causes those objects to seem valuable, exceptional, and even holy. Yet it can tarnish. These are the common materials of this world that operates in transcendent ways.

By the act of plucking common and unusual objects out of their original contexts I am re-presenting them to the viewer. This allows for a new kind of thinking, a re-imagining of the purpose and power within the objects with which we so easily interact. It enables a reconsideration of the gracious quality that the material world possesses.

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