MICHAEL PEDERSEN - supporting text for ‘We Have Invented Nothing’ exhibition at Punt WG, Amsterdam

My friend Jonathan

In these works, as with the stranger’s photographs Jonathan collects, there’s less of a fictional din of the what and more of a lucid ring of the who and why. His way’s to say, let’s pare down the didactic and accentuate the imaginative to ameliorate the aesthetic. If that makes perfect sense then turn back now, it shouldn’t, no not a bit, not yet.

Within all complexities are rudiments, the daunting timbre of the task rests is in revealing one within the other – of myriad layers and analytical abstruseness Jonathan conjures pulps and purees which take us down to the shimmering yolk of colour and contour. So let’s start with an induction, an integral induction into Jonathan’s harvesting of the ‘accidentally interesting’; points, moments, in some cases the people, on which he roosts and realises in each relished piece.

Jonathan’s is a world where face value and gritty urban realism is at most a playful veil; a world where carousels and cultivations of the imagination take a firm precedence in documenting the sights and sounds around him; where Doors of Perception are constantly wedged open, like a cat-flap into the unconscious conscious; the grandiose in gruels; a world where a wisp of orange engulfed by blue is the flick of seaman’s hood blinking out from within the greatness of massive ocean; where the sun can shed and unravel like thread into delicate fibres of crisp copper.

WE HAVE INVENTED NOTHING

Each piece has a geometrical anchor and a sociological sail.
Each piece is a window into the skeleton of shape with a ladder to the psychology of size.
Each piece is Jonathan, who is himself composed of infallible symmetries – so in that way Jonathan is each piece; shape shifting, twisting, prima facie stationery, but moving inside tides of science, moving with an inexorable glacial heave.
Each piece has a fantastical overtone and a social undertone – like lineage being not a title but a perspective.
Each piece has been seen by me before you: it’s in a mews cottage studio where the paints are mixed and applied to panels, where naming and numbering go hand in hand with abstract expressionism and tango into place.
Each piece was constructed with accident in mind, by misaligning majesty, by momentary wholeness.

If this exhibition was punctuation it would be a semi column, the curvy thrill of the comma, juxtaposed by the steely sting of the final full stop; when laid out together, it’s like being hushed to a glassy pause, implored to consider the many skins of the onion, the zing-zang of a peeled orange, then zapped with the catalyst to a carry on regardless.

This is what happens when you ask a poet to write an exhibition briefing. Privilege and pontification by
Michael Pedersen November 2011

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‘We Have Invented Nothing’ Exhibition Artist’s Statement


When Picasso first saw the ancient cave paintings at Lascaux he declared: “We have invented nothing…” This collection of works gathers fragments from my exploration through and into the multiple veiled ‘moment’. My enquiries are underpinned by my suspicion that all linear time is illusory and so the works draw from fleeting experiences of clarity and luminosity where all time appears compressed into one single moment.
Using gathered images, gestures and sounds, my work seeks to illuminate the spaces in between the corporeal and the intuitive, to chase the shadow left by the perceived physical. I look for the glow in an ordinary moment, and the underlying structure of things. 
I work from private moments of heightened consciousness, remembered. Moments flavoured with an intimation of a wider reality and yet often so familiar, like coming home. I look for these flashing sparks of waking amidst the malaise. 
My work is as much about the physicality of paint and printed image as it is about the illusion the image suggests. I straddle a world I long to know and one I love to inhabit.

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JAMES FERGUSSON - ‘Divina Proportione’ exhibition supporting text


I was sceptical about Jono’s idea when he told me about it. Sceptical and, I admit, not entirely enthusiastic. It was the day before my flight to Kabul when he produced a disposable camera with a request to “just photograph anything – anything at all.” I was writing a book about the Taliban, and anxious enough already about a series of interviews with ex-Guantanamo inmates that I was hoping to conduct. Taking rubbishy photographs for an undefined art project was not high on my Afghan to-do list.

On the other hand, it wasn’t much of an imposition if he really did just want ill-composed snaps. So I agreed and, once there, took his instructions extremely literally. There is always a lot of dead time on these trips, especially while travelling about the place, and I filled some of this by photographing whatever happened to be out of the car window. I shot about half the film, fast and with a minimum of care, from the back of a gridlocked taxi as I criss-crossed Kabul between interviews; the rest, I used up on the drive to the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.

The Jalalabad road is one of the most spectacular in Afghanistan. It drops 4,000ft through a vertiginous narrow gorge, beginning with the notorious Khoord-Kabul pass through which the British Army once tried to retreat in January 1842. According to legend, of the 16,000 men, women and children who set out, only one man made it through to Jalalabad. Most simply succumbed to the savage cold; the remainder were ambushed by Pashtun tribesmen, cut down with swords or else picked off by snipers in the rocks above. The Khoord-Kabul still feels spooky.

Ten years ago, when the road was still unpaved, it routinely took several hours to complete the 95-mile journey to Jalalabad. The radiators of over-laden trucks would boil over in the thin air as they struggled up the switchbacks, and all traffic would inch to a halt. Climbing out of a car immobilised by another immense tailback, I discovered that even the dust of that road was special. Centuries of trade and invasion, from the chariots of Genghis Khan to the Soviet armour that trundled up and down it in the 1980s, had ground its surface into a substance as super-fine as talcum powder, so soft and deep in places that it came up over the ankles. In those days, driving with the windows open was impossible if one wished to breathe at all. Today, thanks to new, US-funded tarmac, it is possible to appreciate the views other than through obscuring clouds of dust.

I had half-forgotten that sense of anticipation enjoyed by photographers in the pre-digital age. I suppose I hoped I’d taken at least one brilliant photo by accident. When the film was developed, however, the results seemed every bit as dreadful as I suspected they really would be. “Disposable” cameras are disposable for a reason. There is no means of controlling the focal point of their primitive lenses. Large patches of my pictures were so blurred they made me squint, like looking through someone else’s strong prescription glasses.

My first impression was that my pictures were all worthless, but Jono insisted otherwise. He kept babbling about the points of beauty they contained; the surprising symmetries of shape and form and colour. I hadn’t appreciated that the extra randomness generated by a camera lens with a mind of its own was precisely what he was after. He wouldn’t let me dismiss the photographs but made me look at them – really look at them – and I began to see that he was right: certain details had a kind of fragile beauty of their own, and not in spite but because of the technical terribleness of the pictures. The half-dead sapling in sharp, random focus against the headache-inducing blur of its road-and-mountain backdrop has a kind of “found” quality, for instance. I didn’t for a minute intend to photograph a bifurcated twig, but I really like this picture. As an amateur (and lazy, and unskilled) gardener myself, I can relate to this little tree, grimly hanging on to life at the side of a road.

I am also catastrophically short-sighted – a life-long contact lens and glasses wearer – and so can also relate to the weirdness of the focal point. In fact I would argue that the photos I took for Jono more accurately depict my visual world than the ones I usually take with a proper camera – because this is how my world looks when I take off my glasses. Call it speccy pride, if you like, but who is to say that blurriness is not beautiful? There is a theory that Turner’s weird light and colour blendings were not experimental but accurate depictions of what he saw, because he was myopic.

I was thinking about this, after Jono had debriefed me on the pictures, when I read this line in Parrot and Olivier in America, Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-nominated novel: “And who would know me to be a citizen of Myopia whose lands are furred like watercolour washes, whose king is as smudgy as a dancing moth?” Very appropriately, I “found” this passage by chance, while idly flicking through the book (which I still haven’t actually read).
I am surprised and not surprised that Jono found golden rectangles and other geometric perfections in these photographs. Such wonders exist in everyday things and are there for anyone to see who cares to look closely enough. It pleases me that he, like me, wears glasses. Sometimes, the blinder you are, the more you are forced to look beyond the obvious – and the more you see.

Edinburgh, October 2010

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ALEX RENTON - Divina Proportione’ Exhibition supporting text


I’m a writer, not a photographer, and I don’t like taking pictures when I work. They’re useful for swift note-making, but often the camera gets in the way; it puts up a barrier between interviewer and subject. I’m suspicious of the easy truths that the camera delivers. There’s always more to the story.

So it went against the grain to take photographs for Jonathan Freemantle in Haiti last February, six weeks after the earthquake that smashed Port-au-Prince. And it was hard. I don’t mean in some arty photojournalist’s way - “How could one hope to capture the suffering of three million people in a viewfinder?” It was hard to take pictures because people were so angry.

On my first day in the city, I stopped the car to get out and photograph the gaping mouth of a church whose whole facade had slipped away. A crowd gathered in seconds, shouting and then pulling at me. Some wanted the camera, or my money, or to ask where was the food aid they’d been promised. I think most wanted me to bugger off and leave them in peace. I tried to photograph some of those angry faces, once I was back in the car and we were driving away. But I’d forgotten – as usual - to wind the film in the throwaway camera on.

Usually in such disasters – “humanitarian events” as they’re known - I’ve found people are too dazed to worry about being photographed. Or they are pleased, as if pointing the lens at them was some sort of gift, the charitable act of noticing them and their plight. Of course it isn’t that at all – it is an appropriation of their tragedy in order to make money, often to adorn a newspaper or magazine article that makes some point quite at odds with their desires. Photojournalists don’t generally ask permission to take victims’ pictures. I feel for the people on the other end of those prying lenses, and I am disgusted sometimes with myself – a tourist of tragedy, rather thinly disguised as a journalist.

Embarrassed after the church incident, I took most of the pictures by stealth – from under my jacket or through the windscreen of the Oxfam car in which I sat cocooned from the smells and heat and despair of post-earthquake Port-au-Prince. So most of my photos came out wrong. Developed, the shots often turned out to be of moments a second after, or a few metres further on from what I’d tried to capture. Though, later, I realised that didn’t mean they showed any more or less of the truth. “Through a glass darkly” was the phrase I kept thinking of, for both my blurred efforts at photography for Jono and my feeble attempts to do my work in that city where nothing was working at all.

I took only one posed photograph. It is there in part on the invitation to Jono’s show. It’s the front of Hérold’s house. He is an Oxfam worker, tall, quiet and sad. We shared desk space, and one day we went together to look at a camp on the city’s outskirts where the NGO was installing a well. In the car on the way back he asked if I’d like to see what had been his home.

So we pulled up on a leafy street half-blocked with rubble and Hérold showed me the pile of concrete, like a plate of pancakes, that had been his apartment building. He showed me his car, squashed, and the dark hole into which he’d crawled looking for his three-year-old. The boy’s corpse was still there. I didn’t know what to do or say. So I took a photo. I still wish I’d done something better.

I photographed more broken churches during the trip. They were fascinating. They said something so stark to the Haitians, as obsessively religious a people as I’ve ever met. Many of them, educated and uneducated, talked first of God when you asked them about the causes of the disasters that have befallen the country. “We offended Our Lord”. “God abandoned us long ago because Haitians are all sinners.” They said these things with a level gaze and a hopelessness that seemed deeper than that I’ve seen in survivors of other conflicts and disasters.

Those broken churches and the maimed statues of Jesus the Saviour must have pictured their divine abandonment – the debris left by a God turned so angry he would break his own things. It made me think of what I’d read about the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, when more than 1000 churches were destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed. That catastrophe had a rather different intellectual outcome: Lisbon is said to have become a crucial driver of the rationalist revolution in Europe called the Enlightenment. People used the destruction of Lisbon to ask what was the point in God, who could do such things to his people. But the Haitians I met did not use the earthquake to question divine wisdom. Rather, it seemed to have reinforced the ancient rules of God and His implacable vengeance.

So when Jono told me that he wanted to use the photos to explore the “divine proportions” I was fascinated. In Haiti an awful lot of seemingly eternal rules had been upset: lines, both visual and philosophical, broken. Reliable certainties, like the earth beneath your feet staying where it should, or the essential benevolence of God, had been obliterated. What could ever again be seen as dependable truth? What could be left but anger?

I don’t think there is more truth in the digital age – just more noise. The camera may not lie but it does distort and misrepresent and the new technology makes that process easier and swifter. The shapes, the proportions and the beauty Jono found in those clumsy pictures carry an equal weight – no more meaning and no less - than the most artfully framed shot of a father beside his child’s grave. The rationalist in me finds that very pleasing. But the chief point is that we stopped and looked, and now you are doing so too.

ends

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‘Divina Proportione’ Exhibition Artists Statement


I have found through practice that if one looks carefully and for long enough at anything it will resonate within. After a while of this kind of looking there is a moment where one stops seeing the surface of the thing and there is a change. In a sense there is a transformation, not in the object, but in oneself. Everything for this moment is different: deeper, quieter and somehow more real. In my work I am seeking these flashing moments; full of colour, dazzling even, when the distortion subsides and we truly see.

The difficulty is in looking, or to be accurate, seeing. The more one actively seeks images of resonance the more they tend conform to one’s own particular set of preferences. Essentially what I ‘see’ is a rehash of what I have already seen with a few contextual revisions. Frustrated by this I began to contrive ways of finding new, random images to work from.

With this in mind I asked two friends, Alex Renton and James Fergusson, to take photographs for me and have then used only these images as a departure for this series of paintings. Both award wining writers, Alex was about to go to Haiti post Earthquake and James was heading to Afghanistan so I gave them each a shoddy disposable camera with the request to shoot the 24 exposures at random, without fuss.

I found the developed photographs astonishing. Uncluttered, unframed and largely instinctive, the images felt more authentic somehow in all their lack of gloss. There was something tremendously silent about them, deceptively bland at first and yet almost magical on closer inspection.

Having spent time with each photograph I began to distil them to their essential internal geometry while retaining the external rectangular dimension. From this process I made small collage paintings, some are exhibited in the exhibition. I used colours from the photographs and exaggerated the intensity, often using only a small element of the photograph as a spectral key. I then analysed the photographs and collages together using the golden ratio, looking for the golden mean within the shapes and forms of the image.

The next step was to change the external dimension to a square to remove the landscape element of the images. I wanted to remove all sense of the narrative representation of the image to give the essential (internal) geometry free reign and allude to the essence behind the form. At this point I also wanted to introduce a painterly and instinctive response to the shapes, forms and structure.

Each painting from this point on is an amalgam of my response to the photograph, the distilled geometry and golden ratio and to an abstract inner feeling. The paintings are as much about the present moment when they are being painted in my studio as they are about their genesis on a dusty road in Afghanistan or Haiti. They are an attempt to puncture the linear illusion of time in a sense. They are a look at (and behind) the image and a look within simultaneously.

*‘Divina Proportione’ is taken from the title of the 1509AD manuscript ‘De Divina Proportione’ written by Luca Pacioli with illustrations (and collaboration) by Leonardo Da Vinci. The book outlines mathematical and artistic proportion, especially the mathematics of the golden ratio.

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Interview by Matthew Freemantle for JRNL, March 2011

JRNL: Why not just take a photo?
Jonathan Freemantle: It’s a personal thing I guess. I can’t say absolutely but I know that just taking a photograph isn’t enough for me to be able to understand my vision. So many things that I see are only transformed when I begin to paint them, not even counting the things I can’t see physically. For me painting is a language that I can use to search myself; it is a conversation, an enquiry. The finished painting is in a sense the smallest part of the picture. With a photograph there is less of a journey for me. I love taking photographs though; they are like short films or a haiku. Paintings are the motion picture.

What question do you ask yourself most often?

Is this real? Is this painting real? Is this moment real? Mostly though my head is filled with an incredible jumble of monotonous banality (did I get an email, who won the game, what’s on TV tonight, what is the answer to 4-down 7 letters starting with W) and a niggling feeling that everything is just an illusion.

Must all artists suffer?
No, and yes. Essentially no. To me, suffering appears to come from not embracing the situation you’re in, wanting to get out, longing for something other. My best work comes when I’m painting from instinct, but every painting will have a moment where it has gone dead. Francis Bacon was adamant that every work of art needs to be destroyed before it can truly succeed and I agree. There is a kind of suffering in this, not wanting to let go but I’m often happiest when I’ve just wiped off a week’s work from a canvas and I know this so there isn’t real suffering. I think the cliché of the suffering artist is very misleading. Some people suffer, and happen to be artists. Perhaps if they locked themselves to a desk and held out for a golfing retirement they wouldn’t have suffered merely because they hadn’t asked themselves any questions in life. Being an artist brings these questions right up to you, every day so you have to deal with them. Certainly it isn’t comfortable being an artist some of the time but there is tremendous joy in being free.

Did you think you’d be better known at this age, or have you done better than you thought you would?

My teenage self would have thought I would have been the world’s most famous painter by now, the next Picasso. The grace of still painting at 32 is that my measurement of success has shifted. I’m making work now that I’m very excited about; I look forward to being back in my studio when I’m out of it. Everyone wants success but recently I’ve been surprised that in moments when the success has arrived I’ve felt very ambivalent to it. Success is knowing that I’ve made something real and I’m the only one who can judge that in my work, or should I say I’m the only judge I’ll actually trust!

Apart from the rare foray into painting & decorating or whatever you’ve always stuck to your art. Has there ever been a time when you thought - screw this I’m going into advertising?
I thought it once, I remember the day. It lasted an afternoon and in that time I visualised my life playing out ahead of me. I felt very ill by the evening and knew then that painting wasn’t my ‘job’ but more like oxygen. I’m not precious about being a painter, it’s just what I do but there’s nothing else I want to do more and life is short so what’s the point in doing anything else?

You always dress really well - which is mainly why I always steal your clothes - why is this important to you?

I can’t say really, it’s about how I feel I guess. I read somewhere that painters are often a bit dandy but it’s not really a put on thing. I’ll walk across the hallway into my studio some days and walk straight back to the bedroom and change because I didn’t feel right. I probably wouldn’t have seen anyone that day but it wouldn’t have been about that. I’m a visual guy, sure, but it seems to run a bit deeper than that. I’ve got a uniform for each activity; it helps me get into the spirit. I was very depressed by the snow in Edinburgh recently because I had the wrong shoes. I got a pair of old army boots off eBay, got them covered in paint and put some great laces on them and suddenly I felt amazing and went for long walks. There was a time where dressing was taken more seriously and I have an inert annoyance with the slouchyness of how we are now. Clothes to sit on a sofa and play Nintendo with are the new benchmark for acceptability. Comfort is the new god.

You had a son recently and you’ve having another one soon. I remember when you had him you were pretty broke. Did you shit yourself when you became a father - and more than that, and artist father?
Yes, I still am shitting myself but not in the way I thought I would. Surprisingly I’m less worried about things like money than I ever have been. I mean, I’m doing OK but having a kid has given me a much stronger determination to realise my vision, in full. From the moment Max was born I have felt like I have stepped out from the wings and on to the stage. It’s inspiring. On paper I have less time I guess but since he arrived I’ve done more work than ever - braver work, stronger work. The stakes are higher now that I’m facing my work more directly and this is what keeps me awake from time to time. I’m not studying anymore, I’m a dad and an artist but I love it and can’t imagine my life without him.

How does your art help you when something crap happens in your personal life? Does it help?

It definitely helps, in the sense that it can give voice to subterranean emotions, things that are having an effect without you even being aware of them. Painting is essentially a language for me by which I can begin to fathom the unknown. Whenever something difficult comes along in my life I’m very powerfully drawn to paint, I like the solitude of it. Having said this I’m not prone to much darkness or brooding, I’m very blessed and am surrounded by wonderful people.

Who’s at you ideal dinner?

Well, you for a start. Picasso for the joie de vivre. Laurens van der Post for the stories. Stephen Fry for the conversation. [My wife] Anna of course, for love. Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg for glamour. Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney, Philip Guston, Robert Rauchenberg, Anna Wintour, Franz Kline, Cy Twombly, Giorgio Morandi, Paul Cezanne, Gwen John, Alberto Giacommeti to talk painting. My grandmother Pat because she could sit next to Steven Fry and he would be charmed. Andrew Wyeth. Francis Bacon for the danger of it. I could go on… We wouldn’t talk politics so no politicians, we’d talk about life, love, art and the soul.

I struggle with this idea that bringing art into the world is adding to the noise unless it’s great, but then it’s hard to judge what is great - how do you know?

I don’t really worry about that. I know what you mean but actually I’m really only making work for myself. It’s an internal inquiry and if it’s any good it will connect with people but that isn’t a guarantee. Great art meets a wider need, people call it out somehow but this isn’t why I make art. If the world needs my art they will reach for it. If you’re trying to be great you’re not trying to be yourself and the greatest art is absolutely itself. There’s so much noise anyway that art barely registers on the wavelength but it is so important. I know I’ll come across all romantic by saying this but I really believe we’re fucked without it, even if it isn’t quite great.