Ways of Seeing and of being Seen – Essay by Curator Dr. Michael Petry

Below is an essay written by Dr. Michael Petry for the catalogue made for the opening of "Rough to Smooth" - the exhibition at the end of my residency. 

He touches on the idea that artists need both skill and creativity in order to be successful, something which I could not agree with more. 

Ways of Seeing and of being Seen – Essay by Curator Dr. Michael Petry

When an artist makes a work, in most cases, they want others to see that work. It seems like a simple statement but it is rather more complex than that. If you view a work of art in a contemporary museum, like Tate Modern, you will see it in a different light than if you view it in an historic museum like the National Gallery. The context alters your perception of how important that work is, and if a painting is shown on the railings of a park, you will see it in a very different light. The American artist David Hammons sold snow balls of various sizes on the streets of New York in 1983 as a performative work called Bliz-aard for a few dollars each. Very few people thought to purchase work from the world famous artist of colour who looked rather like all the other street vendors (regardless of race) wrapped up in a scarf, overcoat and hat against the cold. His works sells for millions of dollars in the galleries and at auction houses, yet seeing work on the street distances most viewers from the possibility of seeing art.

Context is so often tantamount in our reaction to a work of art. If we see a painting in a white cube space we will immediately know that it is contemporary art. So what is a work of art in a Masonic building? That is the core question facing viewers as for many it will be the first time they have ever entered such a space. Historically, membership of Freemasonry has remained private, and masonic rituals remain closed to the public. In recent years Freemasons have become more open about their membership, discussing the meaning of the ritual and what it represents. This year they have opened their doors to an artist in residence who, for the past few months, has had unique access to many spaces. The result of Jacques Viljoen’s efforts, along with works by other artists most of whom have made specific work for this show, will be seen alongside work by two artists who themselves are Freemasons.  They have access to certain rituals that no one who is not a Freemason has, and one of them has made work about it.

How we see is also a context of what we are allowed to see. It is not only Freemasons who have chosen what level of public engagement they seek, but most institutions do so, and many artists also choose what is put out in galleries for an audience to see. The British Museum is well known for housing parts of erotic Egyptian and Classical sculptures that once so offended Victorian tastes. Ever the conservators, the British Museum has kept them, and if you are a scholar, you can write in to have access to them, but they are not on public display even to this day. The Vatican has one of the largest collections of what is termed pornography and that too is only for the Pope’s viewing and those with the right credentials. Art is a powerful force in the world, and has the possibility to disrupt. Even today, in the more liberal West, art can still shock, and it is often those who are never seen, who decide what the viewer is allowed to see.

Then there are many ways that an artist might see and then make their work.  There is no real hierarchy of how to make, or which method is best, as each has its own plusses and minuses. There is Conceptual art, Expressionism, Arte Povera, and also the Academic tradition, amongst the many ways a contemporary artist might chose to see the world and then translate it into their own work. My book The Art of Not Making (Thames & Hudson) looks at the long history of artists handing over their work to fabricators and assistants to physically ‘make’ the work but points out that the finished objects are the work of the original artist. This is a way of making art with a long distinguished history. Many paintings by Rembrandt (1606 – 1669), bought from him in his studio are now considered ‘School of’ as they were either completely or partially painted by his assistants. But do not be in any doubt, Rembrandt signed those works as he saw them as his own. He oversaw and designed them and usually painted at least part of them. They are now virtually discarded by the art world and their value decreased by millions, yet were he alive today Rembrandt would soundly defend them as his – as he sold them as his. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) the man many consider the father of the Baroque, famously only made small models that he gave to his assistant Giuliano Finelli to carve full size in marble. Eventually they fell out and Finelli, who was said to be the best stone carver in Italy, set up his own studio, but it was not a success because he had no ideas of his own. He could carve anything he was given perfectly but he had only a small artistic vision. He could see how to carve what others wanted, but could not see what he should make as his own.

There is an endless list of artists working in this way both in the past and present. The major minus of this method of production is that it is harder for the artists to push the material further if they have little understanding of the physical making process. That said it does not take away from their accomplishments and the same is true for the exact opposite way of making, Sight Size painting. This is a method taught in many classical art academies and requires the artist to set up their canvas so that they can copy exactly what they see. It produces realistic artworks that should also be accurate to the original, be it a portrait, landscape or still life. The system requires the artist to set up their canvas so that when they look at the subject it is the exact same size as they sketch or paint it on the canvas, making it easy to measure the accuracy of the mark making. The artist can make the size of their work bigger or smaller by moving their canvas closer or further away from their subject. Many of the artists in the exhibition use this method of art making and it gives the exhibition its unity. One obvious drawback with this method is it only allows for certain types of views as canvases are not particularly portable and artists are only rarely allowed to view places like the inside of the Freemasons’ Hall.

Equally Freemasons are in the process of seeing themselves anew and this openness is to be commended and it is hoped other closed institutions will learn by their example. Being seen is as important as seeing, ask any minority group who now demand to see their own faces on film and television. The veil has a long history in many cultures, but in the end, it is always the desire to lift it that wins the day.

Dr. Michael Petry

Visibility of the Concealed – Essay by Curator Robert Ekholm

"Rough to Smooth" was the title of the exhibition which took place at the end of my residency. It was open for three weeks and attracted an estimated 3800 people, with coverage in TimeOut and The Times.

Nine other artists exhibited alongside me, including Alexander Debenham, Lizet DingmansSofia Welch, Jack Ford, Nicholas Chaundy and Elika Bo.

The following essay was written for curator Robert Ekholm, curator at MOCA London, for the "Rough to Smooth" exhibition, and sums up the exhibition very well.

United Grand Lodge of England’s Artist in Residence for 2017

Visibility of the Concealed –  Essay by Curator Robert Ekholm


Freemasonry has a history of being seen as a mysterious organisation.

On the occasion of its tercentenary, the United Grand Lodge of England invited Jacques Viljoen to be their first artist in residence. Viljoen has spent four months at Freemasons’ Hall, the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge researching many different aspects of Freemasonry. He has been given unprecedented access to objects and spaces in the building. To become a Freemason is to start a process of a personal journey, a rite of passage. Through initiation ceremonies, Freemasons experience various states of enlightenment. Viljoen has made a series of paintings capturing parts of the masonic journey: a portrait of a father and son tells us about brotherhood, a set-up of a lodge room, and a masonic still life.

His still life titled The Craft is composed of objects which have a direct relation to Freemasonry: the processional sword of the Supreme Grand Chapter, the candlestick used in the Grand Temple, a master's collar with enamelled badge to commemorate the 250th anniversary of English Freemasonry, the maul (stone mason's mallet) that was used to carve the arms on the tower of Freemasons' Hall London, and the perfect ashlar (cubic stone) that represents the complete Freemason. Many of the historic masonic artists in their collection, and some of the young invited artists for the exhibition, use the sight-size painting technique which is to paint exactly what you see. Looking at the still life and the other paintings it is not their mimetic quality that intrigues us, but the selection of objects or the room that is being captured. It is what we do not see that draws us in; it both intrigues us to explore the hidden parts of Freemasonry and makes us aware we cannot find all the answers.

Here symbols and objects are not just used in a classical way of reading a still life, but they tell of a journey filled with ritual, ceremonies and codes only Freemasons can decipher. Looking at these paintings we get a glimpse of the world behind the closed doors, but it also tells of a multi-layered narrative of Freemasons. The works in the exhibition are placed around the building and some of Viljoen’s works are displayed in the Library and Museum amongst the historic collection.

On a selection of books used for Masonic ceremonies, Viljoen has painted objects on the covers. At first look, they seem to be the original book covers but, on a closer inspection, we realise they have been painted on. Here the book becomes a painting and the painting becomes an object. As we look at these books, the painted cover acts as a key to both the meaning of the book and the object itself. The objects refer to the books and specific parts of Freemasonry. In a display cabinet, on the cover of one book Rules and Regulations, there is a ballot box painted; on the shelf underneath on The Master Mason a Master apron has been painted, and at the bottom on The Past Master, a Past Master’s collar for Composite Lodge. The books are placed next to the objects, not to display their likeness in reproduction, but to suggest a dialogue between the history of the objects, the significance of the book, and their contemporary relevance.

The display tells us of a passing of time and process to become a Mason. Some of the books presented throughout the library and museum are opened on specific pages, and some are closed. There is a play between enclosed and disclosed, to invite you to engage but to remind you of the complexities of the Freemason’s journey.

Viljoen invited nine other artists to take part in the exhibition. The artists have taken it upon themselves to portray or capture Masonic elements. Alexander Debenham's Room 6 at Freemasons' Hall, painted from life, presents a room set up for a Royal Arch chapter meeting. Ensigns, objects and plinths are organised in a ritualistic and symbolical structure. Debenham has painted the scene exactly as a Freemason set it up for him. We are again given a peek into the order; the room is filled with pageantry and symbolism. Here the artist's painting becomes the window to look in, but he leaves us with no clues, suggestions, or answers to what it means or what the meetings entail. Sofia Welch's Eye of Providence is open and looks out at us from a void. The reflective pupil suggests both an inquisitive and a self-reflective gaze, much as Freemasonry has opened up as it moves into its next 300 years. Many layers of meaning and journeys are gesticulated throughout the exhibition. The rough to perfect ashlar is the source of knowledge in Jack Ford's The Creation of Brotherhood. Painted from his imagination, Ford presents a symbol of transition from a rough stone to a perfectly smooth polished one. This is the moral and spiritual life to be achieved by living according to Masonic principles.

From the time Freemasonry began, to the present, our ways of seeing have changed. What was once relevant, as in the search for purity and the divine, has different meanings for today's younger generation. In Lizet Dingemans’ Fallen Dove, the dove has become a pigeon; it lies on the ground, it looks partly fallen or rested. Playing on the symbolism of "the dove and olive branch" Fallen Dove speaks of changes in time. History is very present at the United Grand Lodge but as time changes so are the messages.

Michael Harrison, one of the Masonic artists in the exhibition, depicts both the Masonic process, and the honouring of time. In Do Hereby and Here on and Quarterly Communication, he alludes to the underlying theme of the journey to become a Mason. The paintings In Glad Thanksgiving and The Calling Up depicts a small group of brethren, one at present time facing the memorial window, the other "the fallen". To be a Mason is to understand and honour the passing of time. Similar themes are alluded to in Nicholas Chaundy's In memoriâ, a response to the memory of the 3,225 Freemasons who died in the First World War. Freemasons’ Hall was built in memory of the English Freemasons who died in that war. Buildings are part of the ideology of Freemasons; as an allegory or a metaphor of how we build our lives. Martin Taylor, the second Masonic artist in the exhibition, painted Freemasons' Hall. 60 Great Queen St, London. WC2B 5AZ.  It depicts the building as a powerful and stoic memory of the many craftsmen who built it, but also the present, with a blue hoarding in front of the building, tying it to a specific moment and continuous change around it.

Looking through the art collection in Freemasons’ Hall you can see how the material culture of Freemasonry adheres to traditional designs but are also works that use old symbolism in new ways. They reflect the changes of time and the Masonic artistic expressions in different periods. Elika Bo spent a month looking through Masonic archival materials. Through a process of scanning, painting on glass, and layering of imagery she creates abstracted painterly photographs. Her large-scale photographs, filled with textured layers of imagery and symbols, are both intriguing and mesmerising. To be invited to make art inspired by Freemasonry and to reflect on modern times, thinking and relevance is a challenge. Through concepts and process Bo's work confronts this challenge to decipher the many hidden meanings and at the same time speak to a contemporary audience. Looking at these photographs we are immersed in the richness of symbolism of the Masons as well as intrigued by her artistic language. Her use of today's technology, and contemporary gestures encourages us to explore the Freemason’s history, even if viewers are left without all the answers.

The exhibition Rough to smooth: Art inspired by Freemasonry – past, present and future, invites the public to explore the rich history of the Freemasons through the works of these artists. We are in new times and Freemasons are evolving. In Henrik Uldalen's Placid, he uses classic figurative painting within contemporary language. On the one hand, it is figurative, but with patches of thick textured paint, and the viewer becomes aware of the materiality of the painting. It suggests a journey and a transformation, from brush strokes of pigments to shades of light and colour. As the title Placid suggest it is about letting go, surrendering to find serenity.

These works speak of many challenges ahead for future generations and aim to capture the relevance of Freemasonry today. We might not get all the answers we as outsiders seek, but we have been invited to peek in and to ponder on new ways to be contemporary, while continuing the long story of the brethren.

 

Roberto Ekholm

 

Vistitors admiring Elika Bo's work

Vistitors admiring Elika Bo's work

Sofia Welch with her exquisite painting, "The Eye of Providence".

Sofia Welch with her exquisite painting, "The Eye of Providence".

Residency: The United Grand Lodge of England's Tercentenary

Before starting the residency at Freemason’s Hall, I knew very little about the craft. I had the same misconceptions that most outsiders have: that it is a dark, shady and secretive organisation. But this, I was soon to discover, could not be further from the truth.

When I first visited the building I was immediately impressed with the architecture and collection of exquisite paintings. It seemed to be a place that respected the past and traditions of previous generations and yet was incredibly contemporary. This I felt, was similar to the art that I was looking to create, and a place which would inform my practice.  

I paint from life, using as many traditional techniques as possible, but I firmly consider myself a contemporary artist and reject any label such as “classical” or “traditional” as this sets up a power structure within the art world which seeks to separate my peers from the mainstream artworld.  

We are part of a new movement in art, which does not seek to break with the past, or co-opt it; an art that seeks to elevates craft to an equal status with fine art through practice and discipline; an art very much grounded in the present moment, acknowledging that it cannot escape its history and yet, no artist can escape their time either.

All of this can be applied to contemporary freemasonry. While a mason is performing a ritual, he is using the past to create a moment which grounds him in the present. By reciting a text, you are drawing on three hundred years of tradition, and yet here you are, in that particular place, at that particular time, reciting those lines, and by partaking in that ritual, you the mason, have created a unique moment which can never happen ever again.

This is how I approach painting. For me, the act of doing it is more important than the final object that i have created, as doing it adds value to my life. When visiting Freemasons’ Hall, it is easy to assume that masonry is about the ornate clothing, expensive objects and visually impressive ceremonies, but scratch a little deeper and you’ll see that all of this is is not true. All of this merely supports and adds to the experience of freemasonry, enjoyed by thousands of people across the globe, and it is the teaching and values which the craft imparts which are actually most important.