The black coal particles shimmer on the handmade mulberry leaf paper, held in place by carefully layered black Chinese ink.I find myself fascinated with this material; it is at once beautiful and mysterious. Containing within it millions of years of compressed plant and animal matter from deep within the earth's surface.A medium which holds a sense of ancient time, yet simultaneously poses grave questions for our future.
I first visited China in 2007 during an artist residency, and was overwhelmed by the presence of coal, infiltrating every aspect of life. It was the beginning of winter and the coal fires were burning in the villages near my studio. It left an indelible impression which refused to leave me and inspired my investigation into coal both as medium and concept.
I returned to China in 2008 to travel along the East Silk Road.As I journeyed by train to ancient capital cities, climbing sacred DaoismMountains, camping under the starry skies in the sand dunes of XinJiuang province and visiting Buddhist cave paintings on the edge of the GobiDesert, the presence of coal was always evident.
I finally reached what is known as the original Daoist temple in China at Tian Chi, HeavenlyLake, and spent time in contemplation and meditation. It was an important time to reflect on the Daoist philosophy of the harmony of multiplicities and its relevance to my world. In my art work, this manifest through formal qualities of opposing elements, bringing together such elements as contrasting smooth surfaces of layered ink and graphite to the textured areas of layered coal particles, the black of the ink against the white of the canvas, sharply defined edges abut panels of bleeding ink. The use of coal became even more relevant, as it appeared everywhere in the Chinese landscape, from humble dwellings to the rapid industrialization of her large cities.
In “Ancient Sunlight”, a suite of 44 paintings, I used ink, coal fines, coal particles and graphite.Although quite precise in its application, I allowed the process to guide me. It was very intuitive; beginning with an initial layer of ink, which then informed the following sections and further marks in the composition. Graphite being a by product of coal with its seductive silvery sheen adds a further contrasting element.
I found the blackness of the ink, rich in color, warmth and depth, and I painted each brush stroke, as in a meditation, finding myself entering deep places within my own psyche. The mark of the hand in the application of the ink and graphite was crucial as it added sensuality to the marks on the canvas. The personal and sensorial is thus emphasized, allowing the viewer to respond to the works not only on an aesthetic level but also on a phenomenological one. The paintings are to be experienced, felt, rather than reasoned, and that is indeed the way in which they were created.
Barnett Newman spoke of the way in which painting “declares space” and Rothko pursued the emotional quality in color.I wanted to further explore in these small canvases a space that is both evocative and subjective; a space that is at once deeply innate and personal, and yet directly physical and material. The viewer is invited to respond in his/her own way, I don't set out with a specific message in mind for the work; they are simply meditations, guided by the materiality of the medium.
On my return to Melbourne, my studio was filled with the inks, paper, brushes and silk threads from my travels. The thread had lain dormant in my studio for many months as I toyed with the idea of its inclusion into art works. I had notions of stitching designs into the paper, yet in the end, I was again drawn to the raw materiality of the medium itself. Unlike the ink and coal which I could readily apply in a structured and contained manner, the thread, I felt, needed to be left forming its own web of lines. I allowed the silk to guide me in its placement on the paper, at times embedded within layers of black ink, at others breaking free form the inky confines and falling from the white surface of the mulberry leaf paper; leaving traces of a personal journey for the eye to follow. The process resulted in the creation of the eight panels, “Silken Desires”.
“Chinese Whispers” #1 and #2, consist of eight small compositions of ink, and graphite on mulberry leaf paper. Red pigment offers an element of life force energy into the composition, a color often associated with the Chinese culture.
“Black Diamonds” #1 and #2 are the namesakes of this exhibition. Traditional mulberry leaf paper is heavily layered in undiluted ink and encrusted with black coal particles. The coal pieces shine like diamonds, reminiscent of the night sky in the desert and also the complexity of such a humble material.
The works for this show were created in my studio in Melbourne. Yet the sights, sounds and impressions of my journey through China and along the East Silk Road were never far away as they permeated the mediums and techniques used in this body of work.
This body of work, “Black Diamonds” is in many ways my journey through China.