What is now the town of Lincoln in Lincolnshire, England was settled more than two thousand years ago and, in the first century C.E., it became the capital of the Roman province that covered eastern England. Flourishing during the medieval period as an inland port and a center of wool production, the town was visited by pilgrims and became home to several communities of friars. They were drawn to the region by its cathedral, the third largest in England, consecrated in 1092 and reconstructed one hundred years later in the Gothic style. Today, its looming towers still command the view above a medieval town center making Lincoln a valuable destination for an aspiring art historian particularly interested in the later Middle Ages. During the summer of 2005, I spent eight weeks working in the Lincoln Cathedral Library, which gave me the rare opportunity to live in this region of extraordinary history while assisting with a project that would itself expand my knowledge of medieval culture and art.
The libraries of the Lincoln Cathedral contain manuscripts that date as far back as one thousand years. The Medieval Library was built in the 1420's and is now used for regular exhibitions of books and manuscripts. The Wren Library, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1675, houses an important collection of early printed books. My project was to create a computer database classifying the woodcuts from the library's holdings of incunabula and early printed books . It is estimated that around five hundred of the books printed before 1535 contain woodcuts. I compared these images with those catalogued in Edward Hodnett's English Woodcuts, 1480 to 1535 . This involved digital photography of the woodcuts and the creation of subject fields to enable cross-referencing.
The librarians arranged a visit to the Cathedral Works Department where we were shown around the stonemason's workshop and were allowed to see pieces of the Dean's Eye rose window on the light box. I attended cathedral concerts, Shakespeare plays, and a study day in the Wren Library. On the weekends, I traveled to London, York, Nottingham, and Haworth (the home of the lovely Brontë sisters). I took a trip to Cambridge with the library staff and visited King's College Chapel and the Wren Library at Trinity College.
My summer work inspired my choice of thesis topic - I am now writing on a subject involving fifteenth and sixteenth century woodcut images. But, what I learned from my internship that was most lasting came from my experience of the cathedral itself. I remember seeing Lincoln's towering West Front for the first time, not over the rooftops of the town but as a image projected in a darkened Bryn Mawr classroom. Until I spent a summer in Lincoln, I had not truly realized that its Gothic monument was in fact still the center of so many lives. In the morning, choir men walked their dogs around the circling drive and stonemasons walked the roof. Organ music often drifted into the cloister where students from the Minster School took their lunches. Many of my co-workers, as children, had played rowdy games dangerously close to the chapter house windows. In the short time I'd spent working in the cathedral library, I grew to love this town in eastern England and was fortunate to be among those people whose faith and care had sustained this place for more than a thousand years.
Unless the giddy Heaven fall,
And Earth some new convulsion tear;
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramped into a Planisphere.
Andrew Marvell, from "The Definition of Love"
It seems that Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Ryman, Jasper Johns, and Cy Twombly, all nearly perfect contemporaries, made their strongest artistic statements in the sixties and seventies. In these decades they seemed to at once continue and profoundly misread the gestures of Jackson Pollack and Franz Kline (say) and to employ to excess the liquid and staining layers of Helen Frankenthaler and Mark Rothko (for another example). It is their excessive, troubled surfaces that I seek to research and explore.
One can describe these surfaces as radical build-up: waxy, caked with varying layerings of paint, globbed on or dripped on, in dimension, down the surface. In Twombly, Johns, and Rauschenberg, canvases are further littered with words, symbol, and notation. The latter two artists project furthesttheir canvases are often hung with ornaments, lit up, spliced into and cantilevered off of. In Ryman, the mechanics of the painting itself are turned inside out, and we often see, "coming toward us," that which was inside, part of the hanging apparatus. And, yet, too, there is, almost always, across these works, a great deal of bare canvas. (Although I should acknowledge canvas isnt always the material for the painted plane.) In fact, it might be these bare patches which, by contrast, highlights those "moments" where the paint literally projects.
The interpretative questions that this work engenders center, for me, around what these layered, projecting, slowed down, built-up, yet, simultaneously bare and exiguous surfaces can signify.
Beyond the obvious (and perhaps weary-making) questions of queerness and gender, what is it about the gummed up painting plane that can be called an expression; specifically, what part of the gelid, dried liquid of paint is theoretically linked to an idea of subversion and protest? And, moreover, where does projection become a site of difference? Does dried paint metaphorically "equal" dried blood, womb issue, and the watery-yet-solid inner workings of a human? And what about dimension itself: do these paintings evince an interlocution between a wholly dimensional, enveloping space and the flat, inevitably planispherical property of a painted surface?
I want to focus these questions of material and projection through the work of Georges Bataille, Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixcous and their varying ideas of an un-enunciated, corrosive, & abject substance. There is also some work to be done with signification: for instance the difference between paint as a signifier and paint that depicts other systems of signification (such as language, figures, and symbol).
Finally, there are (at least) two moments of execution here. The first is the moment that the painting was being painted, but was still unfinished. In these moments the work was neither dry nor formally determined, its definition was fluid. Those moments are truly corporeal and expressive, the "abject" substance can be literally touched and formed by the painting body. However, a viewing moment is differentthe form has been set, the painting is determined, unless the painting "itself," formally, keeps its viewer somehow ensnared. It is that optical (psychological?) possibility, which we can call the possibility to re-view, which might be paramount to the exploration of these simultaneously not quite atmospheric nor absolutely flat paintings.