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NO MAN IS AN ISLAND: REFLECTIONS ON ‘THE GREAT WALLS’ by Kurt Schranzer
Essay for the exhibition 16 April — 19 June 2011
Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest, Penrith NSW



Palace Wall
2008–2010, acid catalysed varnish, wood veneers, medium density fibreboard, plywood, welded aluminium frame, 210 x 120 x 6 cm
Fabrication with Josef Schranzer
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMLVII

No Man is an Island
Reflections on 'The Great Walls'


No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
.
John Donne (1573-1631)

My first studies for The Great Walls found their embryonic expression in January 2001, so a decade has passed during which these sketches were elaborated upon, developed into orthographic drawings and digital drafts, and finally, manufactured. For a creative context, my initial ideas flowed from the large-scale wall drawings I was then exhibiting, which were part meditations on the formal and metaphysical expansion of pictorial space, and the rejection of the confining influence of the frame. I was intrigued by the prospect of the gallery wall becoming a principle player along with the drawing, which might allow for multiple and more mysterious interpretations of the finite. Predicated on those interests, The Great Walls has resonances of the projections, flows, and visual arrestments that then occurred. The final panels and high-relief wall pieces (in situ) have become windows, views, and frameworks punctuating architectural space, and trompe-l'il and conceptual extensions of it (the relationship, then, is not just spatial, but metaphoric, symbolic, narratively based).

The artworks are also inspired by and derive their meaning, structure, or content from the architectural element, largely, but not above all else, the wall — halls, courtyards, pilasters, coffers, columns, towers, and the like. They are also poetically conditioned by systems of matching veneer and the material character of woods — their grains, patterns, and features governed by growth and cutting method — and, of course, are technical and material adaptations of intarsia and marquetry as seen in furniture and, not surprisingly, wall decoration.(1)

In development — as the themes and parameters of the exhibition became clearer and more layered — it was evident that the artworks were also the fruit of an association with my father Josef Schranzer (born 1937, St Paul im Lavanttal, Austria), a cabinetmaker, and a posthumous association with Henry Moore, my maternal grandfather (born 1879, Manchester, England), who was working as an engineer’s patternmaker as early as 1901. This ‘alignment’ was increasingly tied to the adoption of forms used by Schranzer and Moore in their joinery and object making practices, reflecting the traditions of their trades and their creative attitudes between the 1940s and 1960s. Moreover, it entailed a physical collaboration with Josef Schranzer in manufacturing the panels, quite appropriate as the exhibition progressively floated itself on the converging currents of self, family, and culture — the ‘passing on’ of patterns, decorative schemes and standards, creative forms, languages, and impulses which would thread the historical and the contemporary, the personal and the collective. So these associations cum collaboration lay a significant aesthetic, conceptual, and practical foundation.(2)

Implicit in these flows through history, in those interpretations and inventions, for instance, of my own father who trained as a cabinetmaker in the 1950s, through his Tischlermeister, who was in turn taught by his Master in carpentry, and so on, are issues of authorship and originality, and the replication and reinvigoration of both style and tradition. This generational transmission finds a parallel in the history of Islamic geometric decoration, with its basic shapes or ‘repeat units’ arranged in different permutations or from which more complicated patterns were constructed. They were, over time, copied, developed, transformed, and applied in any number of increasingly complex (and mathematical) ways to fill and link space, and to increase variety and visual effects. Intrinsic too, is the notion that designs may simply become part of a visual and aesthetic identity, acquired, reordered, and revealed in one’s own art making through an ‘aesthetic osmosis’ — ergo it is not so much a question of ‘borrowing’ the extrinsic but of ‘expressing’ the instinctive. In this sense, John Donne’s words might well be appropriated for the creative type; that no man is a creative island, entire of himself, but a piece of the whole.

Tied to this is the universality of certain motifs, patterns, and schemes across cultures. However mediated by style, setting, materials, and technology, these motifs and visual orders have an elemental and collective resonance. Checkerboard, diamond, cube, Greek-key and simple repeat patterns extending to complex tessellations through isometry can be found in Tribal and Folk Art, Greek Geometric phase pottery, on the floors of Ancient Roman villas, on the walls and ceilings of the Alhambra, and within C20th abstract painting. Many basic forms and patterns are part of (or interpretations of) the phenomenological world, and this ‘taxonomy’ of forms and arrangements satisfies practical, formal, and psychological needs (for instance, the recognition and familiarity of shapes and simple repetitions are a suitable way to hold a viewer’s attention and allow the eye and mind to roam, yet be controlled). Further, they can accrue meaning and therefore play symbolic roles.
Study for Star Walls (The Soul's Antechamber)
2007, (detail) pencil on graph paper


Study for Star Walls (The Soul's Antechamber)
2007, 2nd digital version

Work in progress on Star Walls (The Soul's Antechamber)
Dunheved, NSW, June 2008
Photography: Kurt Schranzer
In The Great Walls these schemes are clearly evident — checkerboard, cube patterns, and stars — for they are very much a part of my father’s traditions, broader visual traditions, and through exposure, mine. Of course, it is interesting to note that despite the cultural importance of certain motifs and geometric patterns, it is also true they have had greater prominence during certain periods within a given culture or within certain disciplines such as architecture and the industrial arts. Oleg Grabar (in The Mediation of Ornament, six lectures delivered at the annual A. W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, 1989) writes of geometrically based patterns being “relegated to a relatively limited role in Western Painting and Sculpture from the Middle Ages onward, except for mosaic and other tessellated floors of Southern Italy and for marquetry and other techniques of applied and industrial arts….” They only resurface as a potent expression in the post Cubist world, particularly in the works of Escher, Mondrian, and hard edge, non-objective abstraction.
Exempting the Islamic world, Grabar largely sees them as being more frequently associated with “areas of creativity [such as textiles] in which functional purpose dominates the fashioning of the objects, where craft predominates over art,” and as the preserve of “the illiterate, the remote, the popularly pious, …women” or creative orphans such as Escher who sit uneasily within the “pantheon of contemporary artists.”

Thankfully, pollination between disciplines and styles is a given within the contemporary art world, and there is little argument about the potency of geometric minimalism and abstraction as expressed in 20th century and contemporary art. Further, postmodern art is less embroiled in the ‘class’ association and snobbery between the High and the Low — to the use of certain forms and the use of techniques like embroidery, weaving, knitting, or inlay — which leads me to the point that I am quite interested in blurring the customs and grammars of Fine and Applied Arts: my paintings circa 1990 incorporated wood veneers, and my drawings over the last 15 years have used the tools of engineering drawing.

One trusts, of course, that this mix of the technical, decorative, artistic, and creative, has been well advanced within The Great Walls. Broken Column, for example, was developed from Henry Moore’s early 1940s hexagonal and dodecagonal receptacle for knitting needles, capped (he was a Freemason) by a pyramid. Translated into a tapering octagonal prism — a final aesthetic and structural synthesis, for me, of all these Euclidean prisms and energies — it is funereal, austere, masculine yet emasculated, in a state of ‘crossing’ over; sinking into the wall of the gallery and by implication entering a hidden, alternative, or higher dimension, perhaps redemptive. It evokes time’s passage and the connections (both concrete and dissolving) we have to ancient cultures and architectural relics. Its awkwardness is also reminiscent of unsettling features within Mannerist architecture such as Michelangelo’s vestibule of the Laurentian Library, Florence, where — beyond the broken pediments, blind niches, and strangely cascading stairway — the pilasters of the niches taper downward and the columns sink into the vestibule’s walls. It is for such an interpretation — for these kinds of allusions — that I speak of myself (and this exhibition) being conscious of, and alive to, the architectural element. It is also obvious how the gallery wall becomes an important player metaphorically and conceptually: the ‘sinking’ nature of the artwork is only made possible by the wall it disappears into.

Likewise, the gallery wall is fundamental to the narrative of Porthole Wall. Logically placed at eye level, the circular windows recreate the below-deck opportunity for a much-needed-yet-limited view of the world, and the wall itself legitimately expresses a boat’s hull and corridor. Together they hint at the long horizontal lines and nautical elements of the ‘streamline moderne’ style of the 1930s. Needless to say, Porthole Wall promises a contemplative glimpse of a soft horizon and an expanse of ocean, or, as the artwork (in situ) is in close proximity to the Nepean River, it may well reflect a diverted channel — a metaphysical tributary — of it. The frames for the tondi are copies of those my grandfather Henry Moore manufactured during the late 1940s, to this day still encasing reproductions of great Master paintings.(3)



Broken Column
2009–2010, acid catalysed varnish, wood veneer,
plywood, aluminium channel
Installed dimensions 218 x 100 x 31 cm
Object dimensions 210 x 62 x 31 cm
Fabrication with Josef Schranzer
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date,
catalogue no. MMLIV

Porthole Wall
2009–2010, acid catalysed varnish, wood, wood veneer, medium density fibreboard
6 units, each unit 19 Ø x 3 cm, installed dimensions variable. Fabrication with Josef Schranzer and Darren Clark
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMLXV

Left:
Thatched Tower
2007–2010/2015, acid catalysed varnish, burned matches, wood putty, wood veneer, plywood, welded aluminium frame, 215 x 64.5 x 22 cm
Fabrication with Josef Schranzer
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMLXI


Various essences are at play in Thatched Tower, which was constructed with over 28,000 burnt matches. Aesthetically it is modernist, materially it evokes the medieval, structurally its monolithic quality aligns itself to ancient architectural posts and the heavy upright stones of megalithic portal graves, even Romanesque towers. Not impossibly, it is a cross without its crossbar.(4) Early crosses in swastika-form may well have been a representation of sticks used to kindle fire, so coincident with my use of matches, the artwork has become a symbol of the burning pyre and cross, and within its flames, the heretic at death. Associatively, it toys with the word faggot, pejorative slang for homosexuals and the bundle of sticks or branches tied together and used for fuel. Fire and faggot, the punishment of the outsider and heretic! The use of matches and checkerboard pattern is drawn from a corner table built circa 1967 by Josef Schranzer.

Thatched Tower, therefore, makes numerous historical and architectural references and clearly appropriates patterned schemes that my father has used, but it also pointedly engages with ‘the personal’, enmeshing to greater or lesser degrees — and, for any of these artworks, according to expressive need — the political, the humanistic, the sexual, and the spiritual or esoteric. This conjunction is evident in Star Walls (The Soul's Antechamber), where the panel functions as a window into a small room, an antechamber, with four stars. Again, this work draws upon the familial: cabinets made by my father, their doors having star designs which for Alice in her looking glass might well open to new worlds. Of course, these stars have their own long history, adapted from the mariner’s rose compass and old maps, finding their way into quilting, marquetry and inlay practices. Yet, the panel is more than this sum: it alludes to a text I have often interpreted from the Egyptian Book of the Dead: “I am a child of earth and of starry heaven, but my race is of heaven alone.” It is a little window into a stellar soul. My stellar soul.

The double-panelled Forest Wall, Bavaria (for the Brothers Grimm) constitutes a place of rather nightmarish proportions; trees anthropomorphized into a blockade of ominous sentinels. It uses the metaphor of the wall for its expressive power. I am reminded of Leonardo’s proposition that “it should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds… in which... you may find really marvellous ideas,” an activity synonymous with my childhood history and visualizations. The character and beauty of wood speaks for itself and the panels are allowed to develop that ‘marvellous idea’ into life; the trees transform into the distorted skulls of horses or antelopes, and their strong nasal cavities soon become the vulvae of shrieking harpies.

Forest Wall, Bavaria (For the Brothers Grimm)
2008–2010/2015, acid catalysed varnish, wood veneers, medium density fibreboard, plywood, welded aluminium frame
2 panels 220 x 120 x 6 cm, overall dimensions 220 x 240 x 6 cm. Fabrication with Josef Schranzer
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMLV

Above right:
Forest Wall, Persia
2008–2010/2015, acid catalysed varnish, wood veneers, medium density fibreboard, plywood, welded aluminium frame
220 x 120 x 6 cm. Fabrication with Josef Schranzer
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMLVI


Simple in design, but complexly fusing themes of culture, history, place, and the architectonic, Forest Wall, Persia makes reference to the land of Iran though more broadly alludes to Mesopotamia, the ‘land between the rivers’ (Tigris and Euphrates) corresponding to Iraq, parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran. It evokes palm trees, the cane-breaks of the marshlands, and forest-rivers and floodplains. It also suggests palaces set in walled gardens, since the Babylonians and Assyrians planted fruit trees in their courtyards and temples to recreate the concept of paradeisos, Paradise and the Garden of Eden. It calls to mind the famed hanging gardens constructed not at Babylon, but at Nineveh by the Assyrian king Sennacherib. I am mindful of the Babylonian and Assyrian sacred tree, and semi-engaged columns imitating the trunks of date palms, the columned palaces at Persepolis, Nimrud, Khorsabad, and Nineveh; especially Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room façade (restored and housed in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum) with its four tiled palm trees.

Reflecting on the ancient Chaldæan art of enamelling on bricks and tiles carried on by the Susians, Persians, and Babylonians — the great Palace of Darius at Susa with its tiled lion friezes, winged sphinxes, and rows of archers, and Nebuchadnezzar’s Ishtar Gate and Processional Way — Processional Wall can be interpreted as a re-presentation or homage to such decorative architecture. Yet, without its splendor — stripped of its bas-relief elements, with an austerity and melancholy pervading the artwork — it is also in keeping with the awkward spatial projections and the ‘stillness’ of both Italian mid-15th century Annunciation painting and 20th century Metaphysical painting.

Secret Window also announces historical debts to the staged and stilted spaces of Proto and Early Renaissance painting (Duccio, Monaco, di Paolo, Giotto, and later Uccello). Through a window, the checkerboard path of a hortus conclusus, an enclosed garden, is tilted upright in a nod to 20th century abstraction, and beyond the courtyard, the grain of walnut veneer (upper-right) suggests a row of Cypress, Poplar, or Pine trees, the latter common in the background of Madonna paintings. It is a mannered amalgam, the artwork advancing and intruding into physical space while its projective illusionism leads our eye into pictorial space. Palace Wall is another busily patterned work that references interior spaces and courtyard enclosures, whilst The Great Hall, Egypt is a more stern, unadorned architectural description whose columns and wall — reminiscent of peristyle courts and hypostyle halls — plays a subtle game, shifting between salient and recessive positions.

Processional Wall
2008–2010, acid catalysed varnish, wood veneers, medium density fibreboard, plywood, welded aluminium frame, 2 panels 220 x 120 x 6 cm, overall dimensions 220 x 240 x 6 cm. Fabrication with Josef Schranzer
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMLVIII

Right:
Secret Window
2009–2010, acid catalysed varnish, wood veneers, medium density fibreboard, plywood, welded aluminium frame, 210 x 90 x 25 cm.
Fabrication with Josef Schranzer
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMLIX


Woven Wall (alongside Broken Column and Thatched Tower) is one of the more reductive and abstract artworks on exhibition, relying on a simple geometric repeat pattern based on woven baskets, yet it too might be read as part of an edifice, an interpretation, perhaps, of the glazed tiles and brick patterns of Mesopotamian architecture. The repeat configuration (also adopted in an early painting The Alchemist, 1992) draws upon a circa 1960 jewelry box made by my father. Its technique of scorching or burning veneer with hot sand (to shade or suggest roundness) is an established process going back to the 15th and 16th centuries. This technique was also exploited in Window to the Universe, with its pulsating stars and gridded and woven pathways constituting, perhaps, some new hypothesis or explanation or offshoot of mathematics and quantum super-string theory, contrasted with its burl walnut heart articulating the unfathomable mysteries and nebulous nature of the universe. Does it only question, or does it posit and mirror theoretical, natural and esoteric laws, expressed in symbols and geometry?


Woven Wall
2008–2010, acid catalysed varnish, wood veneers, burned wood veneer, watercolour,
medium density fibreboard, plywood, welded aluminium frame, 120 x 235 x 6 cm
Fabrication with Josef Schranzer
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMLXIV


As abstract investigations these latter works search for many syntheses, and ideally aim to be revelatory of the archetypal, and the deep and fundamental, sublime nature of things: Window to the Universe, for instance, seeks to express the universe’s connective threads; it’s fabric. Quoting art historian Charlotte Douglas (Pamela Schaeffer, ‘Spirituality in Art’ in Christian Century, 1987), such abstract language has been prompted by a need for new dimensions of consciousness, suited to “‘serve as a passport to and report from’ the so-called higher realms.” Intrinsically, it is linked to the desire for a universal metaphysical lexis and, if we borrow a term from Schwaller de Lubicz,(5) Window to the Universe attempts to express "symbolique" or the "Language of the Gods," using symbols as letters in an alphabet that makes sense of both scientific and esoteric realms; reflecting spirit manifesting into matter and their harmonic relationships, underpinned by the pandeist’s belief that the Universe as God took physical form in order to experience the being and the play between the elements of the universe (that is, itself).

As part of that abstract language, these panels build upon a visual and conceptual base evolved in earlier wall drawings, as well as painted and pencilled artworks from The Great Library series (circa 2000), which developed from collaborative drawings made with the artist Joe Frost (b. Sydney 1974), who in turn had drawn inspiration from Agnes Martin’s abstract drawings and paintings. Some of these panels also hold resonances with the work of Andrew Christofides (b. Cyprus 1946), a contemporary and colleague. I make note of these facts to further illuminate the connective threads that operate between artists, or generations, within and across various traditions.

Window to the Universe
2008–2010/2015, acid catalysed varnish, wood veneers, burned wood veneers, watercolour,
medium density fibreboard, plywood, welded aluminium frame, 120 x 235 x 6 cm
Fabrication with Josef Schranzer
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMLXIII

In the case of Christofides, it is no surprise that patterns and compositional devices within Window to the Universe, and segments of Palace Wall, strike visual chords with his paintings. In An Interview with Artist Andrew Christofides (2008, geoform.net), Christofides speaks of his works having links to the Italian Renaissance and “the early European utopian movements — Suprematism, De Stijl, Constructivism,” though his geometric sources are enmeshed quite broadly, “initially [arising] out of [his] game sequence paintings of the mid 70s,” an early empathy with Paul Klee’s paintings of “irregular checkered patterns of color”,(6) later of antique maps, and more recently the “gridded excavations of ancient architectural foundations” and icon painting. Over the years, and through many subtle transitions, his work has always retained the significant motifs of the checker and grid, which are also elemental patterns found in weaving, marquetry, mosaic, and architecture. It is true to say that for both of us, checkers, grids, and basic repeat patterns have been passed through personal and cultural filters, and (whether major or intermittently used motifs) have become our own.


Andrew Christofides, Echoes, 2006
acrylic on canvas, 40.5 x 60.5 cm
It is interesting to note that as I was mindful of his paintings when constructing Window to the Universe and Palace Wall, Christofides was to make use of the composition from the digital study for Forest Wall, adapting it to his usual geometric abstractions in Study for Pantheon: after Kurt, and Pantheon: after Kurt I and II, produced in 2007 and 2008. These kinds of pollinations are a wonderful tribute to art and visual form and the subconscious or seminally conscious transmissions that can occur; communicating the visual pull and hold that ‘things’, ‘objects’, and ‘designs’ can have; reminding us of the expressive, compositional, stylistic and aesthetic continuities between family generations, artists, genres, and applied and fine art traditions. I use the analogy that artists and their creative trajectories are part of a cloth that is woven, knitted, embroidered, even complexly knotted. It is romantic and indulgent to think of our selves in a vacuum — as creative orphans or geniuses — beyond the forces of evolution, untouched by voices that, in a sense, are ours already. No man is an island.


Study for Forest Wall, 2007, digital study

Andrew Christofides, Pantheon: after Kurt II, 2008
acrylic on canvas, 213 x 244 cm

Though I take Philip Guston’s words out of context in his dialogue with Harold Rosenberg (Philip Guston’s Object, a Dialogue, 1966 interview), his statement is a fitting address to these confluences, influences and the development of forms: “It has to be new and old at the same time, as if that image has been in you for a long time but you’ve never seen it before. When it comes out, [you] must have this double experience in yourself. I can’t accept something which is so new that there’s no recognition of myself in it.” In all this absorbing and reconstituting, there is a sense of taking and making something old, something new… slipping on a coat owned by many that sits beautifully, comfortably, uniquely moulded, at one with the self.


Kurt Schranzer
March 2011




NOTES
1. Marquetry, inlay, and intarsia have been used to embellish walls, furniture, boxes, reliquaries and ceremonial regalia. Their traditions go back to ancient Egypt, Rome, and Persia, finding strong expression in 13th–16th century Italy and Germany. Examples might emphasise vegetal, zoomorphic, abstract and geometric schemes, or showcase complex pictorial and perspectival effects. Intarsia and marquetry are similar. The technique of intarsia — derived from the Latin interserere “to insert” — inlays selected pieces of wood (or ivory, metal) within a solid matrix, or more often, by individually cutting, shaping, and sanding separate pieces of wood and fitting them together on a surface like a jigsaw. By contrast, marquetry is the gluing of a pattern of thin veneers upon the wood carcass.
2. Suffice it to say, working together with my father has time and again elicited the question “What is it about fathers and sons?” as if the undertaking has been one of romantic and symbolic reconciliation and reconnection — an unfolding story about prodigal and penitent sons. This thinking underestimates the complexity of my intent.
3. A tondo (plural tondi) is a circular painting or relief, and is often used to describe the circular representations of Madonna and Child that are characteristic of the Florentine school from the mid–15th to the early 16th century.
4. Crosses may have a single or double crossbar, in numerous stylistic and structural variations, for example the Tau cross, St Peter’s cross, the Lorraine cross, and the Greek cross. The artist can easily adopt, adapt, or create an entirely new ideograph without prior convention to meet personal and symbolic needs.
5. René Adolphe Schwaller de Lubicz (1887–1961) spent 15 years studying the art and architecture of Egypt’s Temple of Luxor, publishing the book The Temple of Man, pursuing the link between the cosmic and terrestrial realms, and focusing on alchemy, physics, mathematics, sacred geometry, art, astronomy, and symbolism.
6. Here, Christofides refers to Paul Klee’s ‘magic squares’ paintings, for example Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black; Harmony in Blue and Orange; Abstract Colour Harmony. Many were painted in the 1920s, with their rhythmic chromatic relationships expressive of polyphony.
 

 
Photo credits: Jennifer Leahy, silversalt photography, 2010, unless otherwise attributed
Andrew Christofides' images courtesy of the artist and King St Gallery on William, Sydney, © Andrew Christofides

© Kurt Schranzer 2011