Valencia: IVAM, 2005 Painting Heads KLAUSS OTTMANN .... contd

In Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, which takes place at a lung sanatorium in Switzerland, patients converse through and with their deceased organs.  In one episode, Mann describes a young woman, who has learned to whistle with her pneumothorax from within a small incision on one side of her chest, which the doctors keep filled with nitrogen gas, a common procedure to relieve the ailing half of a lung:  “they have formed a group, for or course a thing like the pneumothorax brings people together.  They call themselves the Half-Lung Club; everybody knows them by that name.  And Hermine Kleefeld is the pride of the club, because she can whistle with hers.  It’s a special gift., by no means everybody can do it. I can’t tell you how it is done, and she herself can’t exactly describe it.  But when she has been walking rather fast, she can make it whistle …  Also, I believe she uses up nitrogen when she does it, for she has to be refilled once a week” 3

Another peculiarity of Bevan’s art is the fact that he executes his paintings and drawings American style: on the floor, like Jackson Pollock, Larry Poons or more recently, Toba Khadoori.  Bevan literally works inside his works, leaving traces of his knees and hands visible on the canvas or paper; “I need that physical contact with the painting.  They are almost like body prints.” 4 

In another twist of the rules of traditional painting, Bevan confuses the symbolic order between the painted body and the body of the painter.

The performative character of this process is underscored by his excessive and forceful use of charcoal.  Using various types and thicknesses and applying considerable pressure, he creates drawings and paintings that are strikingly sensual and tactile, material and physical.  They are layered and constructed like an architectural object, with the lines having an almost three-dimensional presence: “I call that the debris in the making.  The charcoal gets locked into that.  There is no mystery [as to] how the material got in there.  The process, the debris, is important to me.”  Bevan sees himself like an alchemist transforming pigment and charcoal into form.

Unlike Khedoori’s architectural drawings, which also often feature her footprints in the white, unused areas, Bevan’s paintings are much less calculated and controlled, closer to Pollock’s or Richard Serra’s “sculptural” drawings are covered with thick layers of oil crayons.

Bevan grinds his own pigments and considers their different weights and properties carefully.  He uses charcoal made from willow, poplar, or vine, each one possessing a unique softness and “colour”.  He devised a “canvas-folding” technique, which created ghostly impressions from the charcoal and lend his drawings and paintings their characteristic transparency.  Bevan translates the physical connection between interior and exterior space, which he has captured in his paintings of roof rafters in open spaces, into the process of painting itself: the threshold between pigment, charcoal, and empty canvas.

3 Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, trans J.J. Lowe-Porter (Vintage, New York, 1969), pp.50-51

4 All quotations by the artist are from a conversation with the author, which took place in the artist’s studio in Deptford on April 11, 2005.

Cutting the bristles of his paint brushes extremely short, he is practically painting with the equivalent of a wooden stick. His frantic working method sometimes causes the pigments to spill over and charcoal to fracture. This messiness and unpredictability serves to emphasise the materiality of his works:  “That physical quality is important to me ….. It’s almost like looking at a bright sunlit room, when you see all the dust.”

But even the most “non-figurative” paintings, such as his architectural studies and the studio “still-lifes” (the “things around me”) whose energetic execution belies their stillness are, for Bevan, not without a human dimension:  “for me they still have a human connection.”  Just as the lines of red pigment and black charcoal on the bodies and faces of his portraits can be read as architectural structures, so the red or black rafters and outlines of studio objects and furniture can be seen as scars or arteries carrying life-supporting blood.

The materiality of the pigments and charcoal in Bevan’s painted lines bestow upon his works a self-revelatory quality, which does not depend on outside references.  It brings to mind Charles Sanders Peirce’s notion of “Firstness”, the American nineteenth-century philosopher who with the French linguist Fedinand de Saussure, was one of the fathers of semiotics.  According to Peirce there exists a logical category he named Firstness, which possesses and immediate, absolute quality that is independent of any another (any “Secondness”):  “Firstness is that which is such as it is positively and regardless of anything else … For an example of Firstness, look at anything red.  That redness is positively what it is … it is absolute…  We not only have an immediate acquaintance with Firstness in the qualities of feelings and sensations, but we attribute it to outward things.”5

Bevan’s particular process of working with pigment and charcoal also evokes Oriental ink painting, which is infused by the artist’s own inner energy though the varying of speed and pressure of the brush.  For the Oriental painter everything within this world has a spirit within itself, which in Chinese and Japanese painting is called “bone-structure”6, revealed only after years of close observation and by eliminating all Secondness, any subordinate elements and external factors.

In like manner, Bevan concentrates on exposing spiritual force or “bone structure” of his subjects. Bevan’s self-portraits and studio tableaus possess a first order of presentness and intensity that transcends the schizophrenic split of the external world and the internal world of the mind.

5  Charles Sanders Pierce, “Sundry Logical Conceptions”, in the Essential Peirce, vol 2 (1893-1913), (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1998), p 267 – 70

6 Cf Toshikihiko Izutsu, , “The Elimination of Color in Far Eastern Art and Philosophy.” In Color Symbolism: The Eranos Lectures, ed. Klaus Ottmann (Spring Publications, Putnam, CT, 2005).