Monday, November 3, 2008

Contemporary Altarpieces and the Italian Tradition

Ideas for artwork come from everywhere. For me, this is especially the case with my altarpiece assemblages. The first dozen were mostly conceived through reading I had undertaken in the mid-1990s, but that was just the starting point. As the series developed and there became a greater emphasis on the reliquary objects component, the overall design began to evolve. I don’t know that I even envisioned them as altarpieces, per se, initially. I am certain that the use of gilding was an afterthought, when I needed some kind of surface treatment to mask the freshly cut wood—weathered and grey on its other exposed surfaces.

Once I began the process of determining what type of objects should be used for the reliquaries for particular "saints," the form and direction took a new turn. When I asked a friend what object(s) might be appropriate for the St. Clive altarpiece she suggested Scrabble tiles. This impacted the entire composition of the work in ways I had not previously considered. Soon, I started finding objects that sparked ideas for new pieces and moved the constructions into a more conceptual realm—not based so closely on specific individuals.

Trips to antique shops and flea markets provided more than enough material to get me thinking. Old wire-rimmed spectacles brought to mind the accumulations of Arman, so I began collecting them for some undiscovered use. Cast iron bathtub claw feet would enable the pieces to come down off the wall and become more interactive. I did not, however, always know what some items would represent or in what way I would eventually incorporate them. One of my best finds, that impacted me greatly when I spotted it, though I did not know why, was a pair of battered, antique porcelain doll arms. I talked the dealer down to 50 cents. It took a few months of studying them to discover their meaning and in which piece they would work.

In October and November of 2006 I spent four weeks in Italy teaching a class on collage and assemblage for Gordon College. Until that point I had been scanning art history volumes in order to establish some of the design elements for my altarpieces. The opportunity to spend days studying functional altarpieces and reliquaries in churches, and others preserved in museums, was invaluable. I spent hour upon hour sketching and taking notes on architectural elements and ornamental structures. A flat photograph from only one view is simply not sufficient. Even detail photographs don’t provide adequate information about how the objects were created.

One day while cleaning out the studio spaces in the Italian convent where we lived and worked, I stumbled upon some spare fragments of old, punched metal screening. It isn’t that unusual of an item and I have even seen similar materials here in the U.S. In Italy, in the setting of a convent, and with imagery from churches and cathedrals swimming in my head, this provided a unique revelation. History is preserved in Italy’s architecture. There are ornamental embellishments on everything. The same types of designs appear inside and outside the buildings. The screen was reminiscent of the screen in a confessional. I had been sketching confessional booths for weeks at this point. The altarpiece I then had in mind would incorporate the idea of confession and would contain this golden brass screen in some way.

Again, this object provided just the initial concept. It would still take several weeks or months of sketching and planning to decipher the structure of the work and determine how the screen would be used in conjunction with other objects that had not yet been uncovered. Even though much of that has now been set down on paper, it will inevitably change once I begin building the structure. It always happens that way.

The process of producing these works is long. It often takes several years, but it always follows a similar pattern. The concept arises through something I have seen, read, or heard. I probe the idea through sketching, reading, and other forms of research. Some specific texts and objects assert themselves as appropriate and then I compile all the elements and design the structure. At that point one might imagine that I jump right in to finish the work. Instead, I work for a bit, put the piece side for awhile, then keep slowly revisiting it over several months or perhaps a couple years. I have found that the longer I let the idea gestate, the more it becomes multilayered, with the end result that I am seeking.

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