“…when you look at walls mottled with various stains or stones made of diverse substances, if you have to invent some scene, you may discover on them the likeness of various countries, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, great valleys and hills in diverse arrangement; again, you may be able to see battles and figures in action and strange effects of physiognomy and costumes, and infinite objects which you could reduce to complete and harmonious forms. And the effect produced by these mottled walls is like that of the sound of bells, in the vibrating of which you may recognize any name or word you choose to imagine. I have seen blots in the clouds and in mottled walls which have stimulated me to the invention of various objects, and although the blots themselves were altogether devoid of perfection in any one of their parts, they lacked not perfection in their movement and circumstance.”
Leonardo Da Vinci Treatise on Painting
What Leonardo was letting us know was that nature, happenstance and imagination can work in concert. He was discussing a visual theoretics that would later fuel the early part of the 20th century, something that would become the basis for the exploration of the primal urges lurking beneath the Modern sensibility. To depict the world beneath that “civilized” era Picasso turned to the mythologies of Africa and the Mediterranean, the Surrealists invoked Freud and Jung looking for archetypal experiences and dream visions, and Pollock explored the ecstatic spirituality of the American West. But there in Leonardo’s Renaissance those seeking new visual understanding had to work through Dark Age superstitions and doctrinaire persecution. One could find monsters and visions behind every tree and blade of grass, in every image and every statement. To see them was dangerous, to paint them foolish, but to tell how one might conjure them where none existed was blasphemous. Leonardo, whose imagination spans centuries, understood the power of nature and imagination. He understood that the need to connect to something deeper in the secret visual life around us could fuel a new kind of art, a new kind of painting. And he left it there like a map for those that followed.
This past fall I had a visit with the artist and painter Giles Lyon. His studio is in Brooklyn at the back of a building shared by other artists and exhibition spaces. The studio is filled with works in progress, older work stacked neatly, and bits and pieces of life collected and set aside for inspiration. Outside the windows there are garden yards and full-formed trees. Daylight slants into the space moving across the room with the time. Color is everywhere – mottled, bright sheets of color – greens, yellows, reds, and blues. These moments of urban greenery outside and artist’s life inside combine all at once to feel vibrant and expressive. There’s a connection to nature that’s a bit startling in these very artificial times and in this very artificial city. I spent a pleasant afternoon with Giles talking about all manner of things; art, politics, life. All of this experience feeds back into his work in ways that many professional artists can not be bothered with here in the 21st Century. We are far too connected and far too involved with one another to notice. In this Giles is a throw-back and I mean that in the very best sense.
I “found” Giles’ work a few years ago at a gallery show in Chelsea at the then named Feigen Contemporary. I connected immediately with the paintings. Giles was working in an AbEx style but doing it very self consciously. He was changing the intent of the historical style to make over “action painting” into a thoughtful reexamination of the act of painting. It was an abstraction of processes. After laying down the drip, the slash or the stroke he would delineate the graphic nature of the result. It was a way to reclaim the pictorial, to push the edges of the lost abstract “figure” against the ground. This process was done without irony using history directly to express something personal instead of merely commenting on the past. Giles found a way to manipulate an academic style, to make it his own, to create a language of abstract poetic forms from within the meme. This was no small feat, an ambitious undertaking. Over the years I’ve caught bits and pieces of his work and have always been impressed at the visual rigor he has applied to these painting.
These newer works begin with color washed and stained into the canvases. He’s moved from the skeins of paint to the field of hue, from Pollock to Rothko in a way. This encompassing ground starts out of the old school Color Field painters. It’s a technique connected to the flow of paint, the way it pools and streaks, absorbs into the canvas creating space, light and veils of hue. This use of color, the push and pull within it, was part of the AbEx “action painting” imperative, part of the physicality of the materials themselves, and part of the will of the artist guiding and defining these processes. These Post-painterly Abstractionists explored the openness of the field, the beauty of the ground itself. This movement was the poignant coda at the end of Modernism. It carried within it the last of the School of Paris, the last of a Modernist sensibility. Giles’ use of color to define the field comes out of that time and connects directly to the bright expressive color preferred by Matisse and the Nabis. He is intent on defining his painting’s connections to Modernism’s emotive possibilities rather than to Postmoderism’s artificial colors and product placements. These grounds become visual sounding boards from which the artist begins to look deeper, both within the painted surface and within himself. He is seeking archetypes, nature, older mythologies, things that resonate beneath the polite surfaces of our contemporary personalities.
Giles feels a connection to aboriginal culture, to the Shamanistic religiosity and vision quests practiced in the Northwest. This visual language is arcane and foreign to me and many like me, but I respond viscerally to the drawings, to the beautiful line work and the dreamlike imagery. I understand that this is a personal experience for this painter, and he’s going somewhere that many of us would not. He’s trying to achieve a deeper involvement in a kind of living and understanding of our subconscious lives that many of us, myself included, only read about in literature or see in movies. This connection allows Giles to take the Color Field further, literally, to reach back to the Surreal, to Miro, to Pollock, to find a connection to a more primal experience of our contemporary culture. Within the field there are things to be found, images to pull from the beautiful color ground just as Leonardo advised. The line work is impeccable, strong, involved. Eyes, teeth, mouths, abstract landscapes, birds, animals, gentle or angry, appear from the Color Field. It’s a cosmology of imagery found deep within the spaces of the painting surfaces. He is conjuring, pulling our primal past into the Postmodern. It’s a Jungian tight rope strung between the performance of the line and the power of visual imagination. He asks a lot of us, to go on this quest for nature, to find a different kind of painterly interaction using an older experience of vision. What I find arresting in this work is the way the images emerge, the way Giles’ incisive line pulls those images into view as if they were always there, as if we were somehow ignoring our own deeper urges while losing ourselves within those veiled surfaces. It’s surprising. And it leads one to believe that these menageries from our subconscious lurk everywhere in our past even in the most cliched of Modernist tropes, even in the most beautiful abstraction.
In these vibrant paintings Giles hopes to remind us of our humanity, of our history, and of our collective memories. For more about Giles Lyon and his work link here.