The Cathedral Series

When you are working with architectural forms you will immediately encounter the form of the Arch.  This form can be found as a structure for windows, doors, apertures for columns, as a decorative device and if you were to spin the arch on its central vertical axis, you will get the shape of the dome.  In the context of my paintings, the arch is a semicircle mounted on top of vertical supports that refer mostly to the shape of windows, archways and archivolts. This shape is generally European in style and can be found on cathedrals and fortresses in abundance.

Església de Sta. Maria, Lleida, Spain. 12th Century

Església de Sta. Maria, Lleida, Spain. 12th Century

It is used in my paintings to frame the painting itself, very much like the way an archivolt is used to frame the doorway of a church.  A painting is a metaphorical space - in the traditional sense of a picture, the painted image depicts a scene or an imitation of nature - this is not real, often highly stylistic - but in most cases a way to communicate in a non verbal language to the masses.  Walking into the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, Italy - the painted panels by Giotto tell the biblical story that for centuries was the staple of content for all representational art.  Installed like comic-book panels along the walls, visitor could immediately “read’ the image as chapters from the bible.  In the Pompeii frescoes, the use of painted decorative framing transitions the viewer into the tromp l’oeils, featuring idyllic scenes and still-life paintings that offer the viewer an escape from the every day.  The space of the painting is a membrane that offers an experience.  As a portal, it is a way into a system of ideas, a visual language that is activated through the ability of the metaphorical function of the mind. 

In my the painting, when it is more than life size, the arch assumes the scale of an architectural precipice, the way a door or window is the defining edge between the interior and exterior.  As the painting shrinks, our proportional relation to the image makes us think more of our selves, the painting acts as a mirror - the gaze is self reflecting as it is aware simultaneously of the surface, the space it creates but also the awareness of viewing.  In icon paintings which are generally small in size so they may be portable, the figures are often enclosed in the shape of the halo, and sometimes the decorative frame of the panel itself is a representation of a the church setting.  Looking at the icon, is an act of adoration but also a way to enter the sacred space itself.

I am indebted to the historical in my work because I see my work as part of that continuum.  I have always felt a kinship to the things that inspire me, and through that kinship, that sense of relating is a connecting to that world of ideas.  As a painter in the present, making art for the sake of art is not enough for me.  Neither is my work a questioning of any socio-political-economic-gender-critique of the status quo, I leave that to the experts that actually study these topics.  The ideas that shape my paintings come from the experience that every artist shares - why do we make art?

In looking at the blank canvas, the tabla rasa, I feel connected to the early cave dweller.  It is believed, that in the depth and darkness of the cave, this person experienced sensory deprivation, a self induced state of trance and hallucination in which the mental image that was seen within the mind merged with the features of the cave that was seen with sight.  The merging of the mental picture and the physical wall, the placement of drawn images on rock formations, in locations in which the shaman was lying prone to the floor, or looking above at the ceiling… this was the beginning.  The context is extraordinary, because the self induced state to which these images were produced was something that was premeditated.  There is anthropological evidence that shows humans traveling deep into the cave to do this, producing candles and charcoal, segregating themselves from the group, and preparing for this journey.   There are areas of the cave for the group, and sacred areas for the ritual of this image making.  The migration from profane to sacred, from conscious to subconscious was a way to understand a mental ability that has separated us from all other species - the ability to create and think in metaphorical terms.  The journey into the cave and back itself is the metaphorical crossing of states.

We have to picture a time when there is very little context for so many modern day things, in particular the understanding of the mind and neurology.  In the Paleolithic period during which time Homo Sapiens became the dominant humanoid creature, there was established the dynamic of class - social hierarchies to maintain social production and the means for survival.  There was clearly the use of adornment and decoration, the establishment of ritual and ceremony.  But in the Homo Sapien mind is the emergence of metaphorical thinking that separated them from the Neanderthal.  In the cave, we see evidence in the ritual image making in which this cognition of the metaphorical mind - the recognition of another reality, the presence of another consciousness was allowed to merge with the physical world.  Like the Australian Aboriginal ‘dream-world’ - the sensing of a coexistence between different worlds, the idea of traveling to another realm must have been magical.

From the cave to the temple, the use of architectural space to carry a vision continues.  The concept of spectacle to create awe and through shock to provoke a shift in the conscious to another realm for me is the magical power of art.  Architecture not only carries the image, but in many examples is the subject as well.  In the surreal spaces of De Chirico’s painting, the Piazza and the Italian city, a forlorn industrialized version with a Roman setting, is a place for anxiety and displacement - itself a concept of philosophy and a social critique.  For Brunelleschi, architecture was the backdrop for a visual treatise on perspective and the creation of a logical ordering of space.  For Piranesi, famous for his etchings and views of Ancient Rome, and in the context of Neo-Classicism, the inspiration found in architectural forms of Ancient Rome was seen as a nostalgic gaze into the past of a once mighty power - a popular metaphor for the imperfection and transience of human existence.

In the Tibetan tradition of mandala painting, the image of the mandala is a spatial visualization of the cosmos as a structure that is a spiritual and a functional map for the hierarchic structure of principles and ideas.  In the mandala - oriented to the cardinal points - the framing devices we see as concentric squares are stages of a vertical transcending pathway into the center of consciousness. The visualization towards the interior, is a non-Western approach to space that is not based on the concept of perspective.  The mandala  mapping of the physical space is a representation of the metaphysical structure of the Tibetan universe, and the practitioner engages with this space on a meditative level.

The journey into the subconscious is also represented by the architecture itself as it relates to the body.  In the Hindu tradition, temples are arranged as a passage into the chakras of the body, the visitor’s journey into the temple, his spiritual transformation akin to the voyage back into the metaphysical realm, is mirrored by this journey through the temple.  In the Western tradition, the cathedral layout is symbolic of the crucifix.  The visitor enters through the doors of the church positioned at the foot of the crucifix and travels upwards towards the intersection of the cross to receive the communion.  The path to salvation is a literal commute through the body of the church which is the body of Christ.The metaphorical space, as a threshold of transitioning is at the root of many spiritual and ceremonial practices.  For the early H. Sapien to grapple with the transition of death, sensing this other space was terrifying but also mind blowing.  It is in the ritual of the death journey that we see the most examples of art making from the perspective of social production throughout human civilization.  Most notable are the Egyptian tombs and the Chinese terracota armies.  But the death journey has always involved the body interred in some type of sacred space.  When you think about the symbolic body and its connection to the metaphysical use of architectural layout to the ways humans have interred the dead in vessels appropriate for their journeys - boats, mausoleums, burial mounds, raised pyres, the hollow of trees etc.  it makes clear how we have always returned to the thresh hold of the metaphorical as a foundation to our existence.  For the cave painter,  the journey into the cave involves sometimes the drawing of images - these are scenes of ritualistic death - the sacred hunt - and through that, the transferring of the magical powers of the sacred beasts to empower the shaman.  The process of image making in this context was magical, establishing a spiritual foundation for the shaman, his authority and hence function as a mediator for the group.  How similar is the example of Christ appearing resurrected from the tomb cave to emerge as a fully realized symbol of the deity.

Monet’s Rouen Cathedral Paintings

I have taken quite a detour from talking about painting to a loose survey of world architecture, but returning to the metaphysical space of the painting, the use of architectural space is not a coincidence.  The presence of the arch, the framing devices and the use of architectural form in my work has been based on these ideas.  The use of the church as a subject is magnificently so in Monet’s Rouen cathedral paintings.  Painted on site in 1892 and 1893 in Rouen, Normandy - the subject was the gothic cathedral that towered over what once was a Gaul then Roman city.  The cathedral was reconstructed in the gothic style in the 12th century, and Rouen was considered at the time of the Impressionists to be the Venice on the Seine.  In the many portrayals of the city scape, the tower of the Cathedral was the most imposing vertical element.  Monet wanted to paint something different than his contemporaries, and rather than choose a far vantage point, he positioned himself directly across the cathedral square in a small shop.  The series of paintings begun showed Monet’s attempt to capture the fleeting light on the cathedral facade.  Painting multiple canvases at the same time over two sessions, Monet collected the canvases and continued to work on them at his studio in Giverny (1894).  In these canvases, what he was attempting to paint was not the cathedral but the light.

For me the connection between Monet’s cathedrals and the process of painting in the cave had many striking similarities.  Pushing the architectural subject to the side, Monet’s endeavor was one that was performative and site specific even in the contemporary sense. In the context of performance, the subject of the painting was not in the representation of the cathedral as object but in the process of engaging with time, place, and the artist body in space.  The position in front of the facade eliminated the possibility of representing the cathedral as a whole and thus as an autonomous object.  What we see through the multiple canvases is the fragmented reality of one thing repeated over and over.  The cathedral became a wall, its contoured surfaces of archivolts, decorations and supports dissolved into a surface that was transmutable and reflective.  The stone surface became a membrane with which the perception of time and reality merged, a moment evolved to become a broader concept of time.  In the reworking of the canvas, off-site a year later, the painting as an observational image was replaced by the conceptual image of what the paintings meant for Monet.  What began as a copy of nature became an experience with painted matter.  The dissolution of matter into atmosphere - the physical elements of earth, stone, sky loses its materiality to become texture, color, surface.  The journey from the real into the metaphorical is my experience of these paintings, and why as a reference, the Arch paintings are so indebted to them.  

Here and there, in the 1880’s in a letter to Durand-Ruel or in a remark of Pisarro’s, we sense the difficulty Monet encountered in transforming the picture as the representation of something seen into a painting as an expressive work of art, that is to say, as an expression of his inner sensibility, as a fact of consciousness rather than merely of observation.
— Quotation from G.H Hamilton, Claude Monet’s Paintings of Rouen Cathedral. 1960. London, Oxford Press. Cited from Joachim Pissarro (1990). Monet's Cathedral : Rouen, 1892-1894 (1st American ed.). New York: Knopf.

The process of painting, using the architectural form is rich and goes beyond the purely the depiction of space.  In this practice, what I consider is the connection to an ancestral practice that one may say goes even beyond the idea making of art.  There is an inwardly journey with every painting of recognizing familiar ideas, concepts that are foundational to the work - but as with every adventure, of meeting unexpected things, there is always a slightly different story, a slightly different experience when one emerges.

Claude Monet,  Rouen Cathedral, Red, Sunlight  1892  National Museum of Serbia Belgrade, Serbia.

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, Red, Sunlight 1892

National Museum of Serbia Belgrade, Serbia.

The concept of Enframing is used in my work as a way to define an approach or method to making a body of work.  I was introduced to this concept in researching my thesis in reading Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays” (New York: Harper, 1977) in Grad school.  Heidegger writes - 

Enframing [Ge-stell] means the gathering together of that setting-upon which sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve. Enframing means that way of revealing which holds sway in the essence of modern technology and which is itself nothing technological.  (p20)

Pretty incomprehensible … but what struck me about this idea was that the word, its action and its meaning where so connected to the way I make art.  Pushing onward, Heidegger uses this term in an active sense that points to the contextualization that defines a potential quality, something like the notion of a “standing reserve” - ie. a body of water is a resource as defined by an electrical plant.  In its standard sense - “gestell” - means framework.  For a bookshelf it is the structure - but in the active sense - the bookshelf as a container for knowledge means something entirely different.

In its application to making art work, I used it to define the structure of a context as well as the visual form of the work.  In the visual forms of a painting, the shapes, colors and arrangement are charged with suggestions and references.  This notion of ‘enframing’ was a way to understand how those connections were made to those references - why do we read a brush stroke as energy, motion direction? Why are angular structures male and spherical structures female? 

Other concepts that are central to art making is the idea of Poesies and Praxis - “to make” and “to excercise”.  Poesis is the activity in which something comes into being that did not exist before.  Praxis is the act of practice without having an end result.  Both can be physical - like birth (Poesis) and improvisation (Praxis) or metaphysical - the blossoming of an idea, thought or experience (for Poesis, the end is the intention, for Praxis, the process).  In considering the two concepts (and there a centuries of debate) Aristotle seems holds the idea of Praxis in higher regard: 

Such for example, is the relation in which workmen and tools stand to their work: the house and the builder have nothing in common, but the art of the builder is for the sake of the house. (Pol. 1328 a 27-35)

Using these concepts - frame-work and the process of “bringing -forth” has provided wonderful pathways of thought that guide my practice as an artist.

The Search

One of the many obstacles an artist faces is this pressure to make ‘new’ work.  I believe first in making work of some quality, which means there has to be a level of craft, connection and understanding of material, as well as having good ideas and stimulation in the work. I rarely concern myself with the concept of originality, believing rather, that evolution, time and history will decide what stands out or not.  Work that touts itself as ‘NEW” is often so mediocre once your eyes adjust to the glare.

My search lead me to one of my central ideas - and its the basic questions of how did ‘art’ come about in the first place? It’s so hard to escape references especially growing up through the period of Semiotics, Post-Modernism and being educated - that the search for a personal space to find one’s own process is difficult amid the din of culture and contemporary discourse.  I found myself looking into the past to a period of making art where there were few cultural references to art, and where the references were indeed primal.  

The Paleolithic period in which humans painted on walls and made ornamental designs on carved ivory was a creative sanctuary for me.  It was rich and full of beginnings.  The space of the cave which later evolved into the powerful shapes of domes, mosques, and temples display the centuries of artistic creativity.  The surface of these edifices  are encrusted with the same desire for imagery that moved the original cave dwellers to express the forms of a cosmological world and vision.  As with the concept of ‘enframing’, the technology defined but also expressed the character of the vision - in the case of Paleolithic Art, the connection to the wall was tactile and direct.

The connection to the cave - as a physical space - as a relationship to our physical bodies is an experience that we reconnect to whenever we enter into a sacred space, whether real or metaphysical. In researching my central question, I learned that the way the cave dweller made images was influenced by the neurology of the Homo Sapien mind.  H.sapien which literally means “wise man” share the same neural network today as it was 70,000 years ago.  For Linnaeus, the father of modern biological classification, to connect the classification of species with the function of “thought” emphasizes not only our egocentric orientation but also underlines the fact that the H.Sapien was an intellectual creature.  This intellectual function and our unique ability to think in metaphors, is where the process and practice of making art originates.  

The hallucinatory functions of our brains also play into why we are such image driven cultures and individuals. Like many sighted creatures, we see with our eyes but also with our minds.  The function of what science call “duality” is a function in which mirroring takes place on a neurological and subconscious level.  The brain is even able to duplicate affected functions in healthy areas, moving areas of speech etc. to different parts of the brain.  I make this detour to point out that hallucination as a mental picture is “real”.  In the sensory deprivation of the cave - shamans endure long periods in which the hallucination is the same as what is visibly seen.  The merging of the real and mental image is how these cave paintings are thought to be made - a projected image that fuses with the physical dimension of the wall. ( For more read: “The Cave in the Mind” by David Lewis-Williams. Thames & Hudson; Reprint edition (April 2004). “The Origins of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes. Mariner Books, 1976)

Created around 32,000 years ago, the art of Chauvet consists of Europe's oldest cave paintings. The cave was discovered quite recently, in 1994. The charcoal is not the only mark on the wall, frequently there are scratches incised into the rock surface itself. It is still unknown whether these incisions are made in conjunction with the drawings themselves. Also, each layer of drawing could be separated by thousands of years that were revisited and redrawn upon.

Created around 32,000 years ago, the art of Chauvet consists of Europe's oldest cave paintings. The cave was discovered quite recently, in 1994. The charcoal is not the only mark on the wall, frequently there are scratches incised into the rock surface itself. It is still unknown whether these incisions are made in conjunction with the drawings themselves. Also, each layer of drawing could be separated by thousands of years that were revisited and redrawn upon.

The artist staring at the tabla rasa, the museum goer gazing at a painting share a common experience with their artistic predecessor, although each coming from very different points of view.  What i was interested was the construct that allowed the eye to be mediated - sight controlled through the mechanism of thought, psychology, neurology - to bring forth the possibility of the artistic experience and form.

Finding Form

My experience as an architectural photographer introduced a way of seeing through the frame of a 4x5 camera - under the black cloth, the world was dark and upside down.  Using the camera itself was a mode of ‘enframing’ which trained you to have a preconditioned idea of the image you were recording.  The picture was taken not looking through the camera but by looking directly at the scene before you, the shutter clicked when you recognized the moment the image occurred.  This mode of visualizing the work imprinted on the way I would look at space on the canvas  The image was already there as a concept, whatever revealed itself was a separate reality that was either accepted or not.  The challenge was to merge the idea of the picture with the actual photographic negative.  The analogy of the cave - whether  Platonic or with the experience of the cave painter - relates closely to the photographic process.

The search to understand perspective brought me to the world of early European painting - the Northern circles around Bruegel, Van de Leyden, and in the South, the Italian painters of the Renaissance.  Visiting the Cathedral in Assisi, Italy confirmed all the creative suspicions and notions I had of why there was painting on walls, of hallucinatory spaces and the use of architectural structures as a living vessel that we cherish from the womb to the cave to the temples.  There was embodied the use of framing devices that separated the images from one another as well as the image as defined by the paneling of the walls and floors.  Geometry abstract shapes created sensory experiences of depth and movement around the painted figures and walked the visitor through the layout.  The entire edifice was a total visual system and has continued to inspire my choice of color, shape and subject matter.

The central nave of Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, Italy. 1228 AD.

The central nave of Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, Italy. 1228 AD.

The Wall

Much has been mentioned about the wall - and it continues to be important in my work as a conceptual and physical construct.  As a conceptual matter, the wall links my contemporary practice with the early cave activity of wall painting, the canvas as a surface onto which a mental projection is taking place that is guided by the painted forms of the picture.  It is interesting to note that the hallucinatory experience of cave painting is different to Paleolithic cultures that make work outdoors where the sensory input has its own unique influence.  In the cave, the absence of light, warmth, and comfort all attribute to provoke the hallucination - as if the shaman was eliminating all external influences to isolate only that which is mental.

I like Ellsworth Kelly’s idea that the wall is the support of the image, and that by extension the configuration of the room plays into how we see the artwork.  Kelly’s acknowledgment and modern interpretation comes from European influences as much as Sean Scully’s paintings are about the physicality of the brick walls that borders and dissect the Irish country side.

As framing devices, the wall is the theatrical membrane on which illusion, reality, narration and metaphor exist.  The first tromp l’oeils were painted on the frescoed walls of Pompeiian villas, and there we can see the framing devices that transitioned our visual journey from the “real” parts of the wall to the areas in which the eye was tricked into seeing a still life or a scene from life.  This concept of trickery, and to expand further, the ‘other’, the ‘outside of reality’ has resonated much in contemporary culture. We see but not see because what we see is theater - how much of this device is used as spectacle in present day politics and gender issues…  It is interesting to note that similar attempts to create illusive spaces were also done with tile mosaics.  However the tile maintained its object-ness while the painted image was transmutable.  In the long run, the painted surface, as a veil, was a membrane that was more believable and thus more successful because it was embedded in the surface of the wall.

The transition from real to illusion, from profane to sacred space, from conscious to metaphor are subtle visual games that I include in the artworks.  In the early large scale drawings on canvas, the architectural space becomes inconceivable through the tyranny of a didactic pictorial system (Image 1).  The perspective point, which brought resolution and logic to pictorial rendering of space is here the omniscient ruler, stretching its law to the edges of the deformed images. (Note:  The first known picture to make use of linear perspective was created by the Florentine architect Fillipo Brunelleshi (1377-1446). Painted in 1415, it depicted the Baptistery in Florence from the front gate of the unfinished cathedral. The linear perspective system projected the illusion of depth onto a two dimensional plane by use of ‘vanishing points’ to which all lines converged, at eye level, on the horizon. Soon after Brunelleshi’s painting, the concept caught on and many Italian artists started to use linear perspective in their paintings. Also see De pictura (English: "On Painting") a treatise written by the Italian architect and art theorist Leon Battista Alberti. In first version, written in vernacular Italian in 1435, Alberti credits Brunelleschi with the invention of linear perspective.)

Masaccio  (1401 – 1428) the first great painter of the early Renaissance period, was the first artist who demonstrated full command of the new rules of perspective; the figures in his paintings have volume and the buildings and landscapes realistically recede into the distance. Masaccio is seen now as being the initiator of the new style of Florentine Realism. From

Masaccio (1401 – 1428) the first great painter of the early Renaissance period, was the first artist who demonstrated full command of the new rules of perspective; the figures in his paintings have volume and the buildings and landscapes realistically recede into the distance. Masaccio is seen now as being the initiator of the new style of Florentine Realism. From

In the resin based drawings, layers of perspective views are assembled on top of each other, the depth of the entire space is seen all at once, making it impossible to see one particular space. One has to except the image as a whole, and navigate through the tangled lines with sheer logic. (Image 2)  This seems to be the strategy found in Islamic Art and the use of Arabesque.  The density of Islamic decoration provokes an utter surrender of the senses to the artistic forms that originate through Allah. (Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987)

I made a departure from the perspective works in the Mosaic based paintings to explore the image using just the decorative elements that would adorn the buildings.  Arranged in groups and individual cells, the tiles form relationships and recognizable patterns that are repeated throughout the different paintings. (Image 3)  Just as the large drawn canvas pieces would represent one continuous interior, the Mosaics paintings act like a magnifying glass on the floor of an endless space that the viewer is crawling through, with their eyes close to the floor or the wall.  This adherence to the flat surface is a reaction against my former works which dealt with deep space as the subject matter.  In the process of making these Mosaic paintings, I discovered that a visual vernacular was forming - in this case the language spoken just by triangles.  The canvas was divided with consecutive diagonal divisions, and the triangle, formed by cutting the rectangle diagonally became the unit that all the patterns where made from.  Similar to cuneiform writing, made with a singular triangle stylus imprinted on clay ( another version of a malleable membrane), the Mosaics became over time a reality of their own.  Interesting to note that the invention of cuneiform was not to create written language, but as a system to monetize economy transactions - they were the first ledgers, invoices, contracts and checks that expanding civilizations needed in order to trade. 

This journey has brought me to my current work which uses simply the framing devices as a starting point for my paintings.  (Image 4) There is nothing that gives your work meaning other than the aspect of time - it is the one thing that establishes a sense of evolution and history.  I could not have gotten to this point before going through everything else, and the arches and frames that I’m painting now carry all the proverbial luggage of the past works.  In the Frame paintings, the ground is worked with multiple layers of primer.  Sometimes the ground is under painted with darker colors and sometimes the priming is thin enough to see the canvas texture.  The paintings in many ways is about the ground… in school they teach you to prepare the ground for the type of painting you want to make.  Rembrandt starts with the traditional Umber and brings forth the figure from the shadows, and Morris Louis stains the raw canvas allowing the paint to seep and flow.

Somewhere in between, I develop space in my ground as a place for emptiness and where you meet the surface.  There are moments when I am applying gesso to the raw canvas that I feel I am corrupting something by masking it, hence the awareness of the surface is constant in the process of painting.  On the “framed” areas, I build up from the ground so the paint lies on top away from the canvas texture.  Here, the colors play with modes of shading and modulation, interlocking tiles of color that absorb and repel the attention of the gaze.  As a whole, the frame moves the gaze into pockets of emptiness, there is no perspective point to offer any logical reference to pictorial space, there is no central figure, no story.  The subject matter is missing in the traditional sense, but its is open and invites interpretation.  When art stopped having to mimic nature, it turned the mirror on itself.  Nevertheless, reflected in the background, the laws of nature prevails - light, gravity, form.  Paintings for me reveal their own process, narration and history.  The way one sees the work is the painting, the paint itself is the subject and the practice is for the sake of painting.


Images 1  Altar, Temple, Mosque 2005. Charcoal on canvas - 3 x 12 feet.

Images 1 Altar, Temple, Mosque 2005. Charcoal on canvas - 3 x 12 feet.

Image 2  La Mezquita 2013. Charcoal drawn on epoxy resin, with acrylic. 24 x 36 inches.

Image 2 La Mezquita 2013. Charcoal drawn on epoxy resin, with acrylic. 24 x 36 inches.

Image 3  Well I Wonder 2017. Acrylic on canvas. 52 x 42 inches.

Image 3 Well I Wonder 2017. Acrylic on canvas. 52 x 42 inches.

Image 4  Vesuvius 2018. Acrylic on canvas. 20 x 16 inches

Image 4 Vesuvius 2018. Acrylic on canvas. 20 x 16 inches