At Hand and Far Away, an exhibition of new work. Originating in the study of Hindu Temples whilst artist in residence at the International Institute of Fine Art, Modinagar, India in 2012, Silverman’s new paintings focus on the power of symbolic architectures and their exploration through the process of painting.
While in conversation with the artist, it was inevitable that, art history still in the making, contrary to postmodern epitaphs, certain names would be mentioned, primarily Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Paul Gauguin, Francis Bacon and Peter Doig. Since neither the individual, nor the artist is an island, it was no surprise the painter would acquiesce the references spanning a few centuries. These ancestors of ours wander in the conduits of collective consciousness, tracing the lines on the palm of a universal hand, itself pointing at the 13th hour, the element of surprise at the heart of this work. Jonathan would agree with Guston when the latter affirms it is illegal to understand the working out(of a painting) in time, intellectually. He is repelled by the possibility of cracking an age-old mystery, reducing it to a psychological act, or a logical hypothesis. The interesting thing about Guston was his U turn from abstract to figurative painting in 1967, for which his followers condemned him to eternal shame. On the other hand, Paul Gauguin, also a renegade abruptly left the cool solace of Europe ‘s art’s hub for the hot haven of the Pacific island of Tahiti where his days ended among works we now admire for their remarkable bluntness, their sculpted colour, their invention, although Gauguin had doubted in the validity of his own quest. Then there is Francis Bacon who sublimated a continuous desire for the ultimate pleasure, sharing his name with a philosopher whom Voltaire called the father of scientific method, our first empiricist, an antithesis of his 20th century alter ego of sorts, but also the writer of New Atlantis, a utopian novel surely based on pious fears of divine grilling for his uncouth attractions. Bacon, the artist was ferocious and merciless in his experimentations, stretching the form to its limit and breaking away from the consternation of applied observation, intently opening the way for a hybrid, abstract figuration or a figurative abstraction , depending on whether you see the glass half full or half empty. Lastly, Rothko, having pursued the last visible layers of self in the expanse of pure colour, and unable to sustain the pressure of his own untranslatable illumination, was swallowed in his entirety in the void he had invoked perhaps absolutely lucidly.
Jonathan has created temples from the verso. He is treading conscientiously as he lights a path thwarted by moral misconceptions, violent politics, and traditional booby traps, yet, his is a quasi spiritual endeavour, and like Turner painting the Houses of Parliament on fire, he is not making any social statement but imprinting our memory with the nuance of personal history touching the edge of a world, that for all its divine potency, remains in peril. And this we feel, as we let the traces of his journey penetrate the shadows of our stasis. We are immobile before these scenes, as they turn to skin, to bones, to meat, and to stone, yet, we ponder still, immersed in the lactose evanescence of contemplation.
The view is obstructed by a shape. It embodies Jonathan’s words about the organic, the sensual and the physical. Despite the evident exotic abundance of this apparition, I sense the truthful simplicity of Christ’s teaching, prior to the corruption of the Catholic Church. Incidentally, the prophet was said to have traveled to India and this would have altered his views on the culture he had been born into to the point of irrevocable conflict. The word made flesh is what I mean, and no specific faith can lay claim to this occurrence. In this image, we see the body desiring to reclaim the spirit. This edifice is a temple of flesh, and blood will flow in other worlds. We will encounter the warm syrupy vermilion throughout his series of images, the bloodline of the pilgrim in search of the authentic. We follow henceforth the initiatic steps of a painter who asks us: can the unknowable incandescence of divinity inhabit visceral truths, can they co exist? The medium of paint itself seems to fathom an answer. Here the architectural construct is understood as a body, more so, I see it as a severed head speaking of unspeakable lands, where no man has trod. The mouth is open and we witness the silence as we gaze into the oesophagus while standing at the base of a stairway. The steps are quasi absent; their substance appears to us as part of a diaphanous structure, the subterranean translucent glimpse of an entry into the entrails of wisdom.
Jonathan leads us inside the enigma of Shiva. This God is the most mysterious, his nature being far more complex than his brethren; destroyer and dancer in the hall of consciousness, he embraces the male and the female in his ‘oneness’ while devouring ego to transmute all forms into the joyful energy of universal love. Of all the gods he is the ultimate unpredictable transformer, the stroke of inspiration, the accident, the blessing in disguise that attains its goal with the precision and speed of an arrow. The Himalayan Nandi is no longer a physical presence; its abode resides in the greys we find in vapours and clouds on the outset of dusk awaiting the glance of a poet. Yet, Nandi is the rock that supports the sky, the bull that carries the god. Vegetation pierces through and melts in the heat, in ways echoing Gustave Palmer and Paul Gauguin. Shadows are filled with the weight of Earth, blood spills into the sky that coagulates into flesh, and the stones become sublimated into an infinite shade of greys. A fire rages behind the sited figure in the doorway. We wonder if here lays a faith in doubt, or if another holy bush has burst into flames.As I review this journey, I move against the clock, but the tide is leading the eye according to the painter’s logic.
The Nizzamudin Tomb defies gravity. It is a celestial meeting point anchored in the phantasm leaking out of a zoom lens where forms, people and walls are distorted, giving an impression of optical illusionism. The black stripes that constitute an elegy to renaissance perspective reminiscent of St Mark’s body brought to Venice by Tintoretto are integrated into a game of cat and mouse on the pre-ordained board of rationality. Jonathan turns the notion of inner space and outer space inside out by shifting the composition out of the linear scale while exploiting it, as Vincent Van Gogh did in his own cataclysmic way to the horror of his contemporaries. Space on this plane of manifestation, the canvas, becomes a point of departure towards non-space, a state of quiet meditation. The dome harbours an alluvial alliance with the firmament where one cannot help noticing the sharp pale gold reflection of a setting sun on a minuscule cloud. One figure in the left hand corner looks eerie, almost alien, perhaps an old man leaving the last scene. Friday Dargah looks like an altered colour negative of the Nizzamudin. Is this an after image left on the retina after staring at it for hours?
Jonathan called Devi Jagadambi Temple the jelly. But I see the jelly mould too. Its plasticity contains the recurrence of corporeal (de)formation. It incorporates space while simultaneously inhabiting it. As the painter I once was, I recognise the love of pigment impregnating the oil medium, like a personality defining a face either wise expressionless. This union between transparent liquid and coloured dust is primeval. To make sense of the world, artists create new ones. Jonathan has captured the evanescence of the sky in perpetual motion adding some kind of slower substance to the combination, as if heavier molecules of air had crystallised in mid flight. He economises on detail. He is aware too much information contrives and hampers the clarity of our imagination
In The Ghat of Changes Jonathan takes a risk of a different order. Despite widespread knowledge of a Buddhist and Hindu tradition in our western society the symbol of the Swastika is inevitably associated with the advent of the 3d Reich leading to the second world war. Yet, seeing it upright and accompanied by the crucial four dots painted delicately on the side of a stairway points to C.G Jung’s analysis of this symbol. Jung saw it as a psychic quaternity, a design of dynamic wholeness, and in this he partly described the original meaning of this ideogram: auspiciousness, good fortune and well-being. It was also associated to tantra, the creation of calendars and the image of the labyrinth amongst other things. It is once more ironic how easily we forget our ancestral language, on which our cultures are founded. The sign that was found as a carving from the late Palaeolithic period takes on a new life also because it has infiltrated the fabric of a place, thus relocated and re-contextualised, in a sense restored to its original potency and primordial potential. But this is the painter’s invention. The figures feel real. We know as Jonathan pointed out that these paintings were realised later in his London studio, from photos and drawings made on site. Yet the paintings feel more present, more there. How can this be? This painter demonstrates the power of the emotional content of memory giving rise to a variant of reality. Nevertheless on close inspection, he plays optical tricks as part of a game of ironies.
To the far right, an orange background seems to have been left unfinished, the original veil of time in the unfolding scheme of creation. The colour is not a coincidence, orange is the colour of the second chakra and reoccurs in several works (but no deliberate symbolism is at work, this is an intuitive response), yet his use of primaries is the more intriguing for the way in which he subdues their primal intensity with a sensitive and strategic placing of secondary and complementary hues. There is green, a formidable conveyor of natural force, of birth, of floral immersion, but Jonathan keeps it in check, it is sparse and calculated, a corner event, essential and succinct. Green is the colour of the heart chakra. Temples are places of worship and the heart features, but not as an open wound, as a romantic instance or a personal token. It is evanescent and omnipresent. In this work, it resides in the left corner while orange resides in the bottom right corner. A strategic spiritual annotation, perhaps not, but I get a new sense of what a painting can be, a map extending not only on the surface but in the degrees of colour and tone. A depth is created that relies on tactical points of reference usually hidden from the viewer. Were there a didactic intent, the spell would vanish.
I end my journey with The Jain Temple, an embodiment of the idea of worship. We view it from the standpoint of a devotee. The pure sensuality of this vision, approached more closely in Sand Stone Figures is entrancing. Jonathan explained that in order to emphasise the material presence of the temple, the only way was to contradict painterly representational rules and in place of say dark purple for shadows and interstices, use Sienna brown. Further more, details are submerged by impression. What we are left with is the sensation of a place, an atmosphere in a shape that we somehow recognise as an architectural form. Green has become darker, deep olive shades on each side of the elongated dome that stretches to the zenith, as if pushing against the limit of the frame. It is still growing like an organism; the sculpture of a prayer lifting the mind into the celestial realm while retaining full consciousness of its material vehicle. I purposely did not read Jonathan Silverman’s statement until now and having written this review can attest to the veracity of his words and the realisation of his thinking. This is surely proof painting will always be with us, and will outlive our age of cyber politics. Because what is at stake is what the alchemists called the great work, art being a crucial recipient of this process. Jonathan indeed is working it out for real.
Copyright © Pascal Ancel Bartholdi 2014
Jonathan Silverman at Serena Morton’s gallery, Ladbroke Grove, London