Tony Bevan New Paintings Ben Brown Fine Arts Catalogue SUE HUBBARD
In my writing I am acting as a map maker, an explorer of psychic areas … A cosmonaut of inner space, and I see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed. William S Burroughs
What does it mean to make a chart or map? In the conventional sense it is, or course, about topography and concerns the contours of the land, the flow of rivers and the height of mountains. But it can have an altogether more metaphorical meaning, for as Jürgen Habermas wrote in Modernity – An Incomplete Project :“The avant-garde must find a direction in a landscape into which no one seems to have yet ventured.”
Since modernism nothing can be taken as given, nothing is fixed. What Habermas calls “these forward gropings” anticipate an undefined future. “The new value placed on the transitory, the elusive and the ephemeral”, he argues, “discloses a longing for an undefiled, immaculate and stable present.”. To ‘map’ in this context, therefore, implies charting the unknowable territory of the psyche, starting out on a journey without a clear sense of direction or of the final destination. It is an act of faith in a faithless world; for there is no certainty as to where that journey might end. It is propelled only by the desire to find (whilst knowing the impossibility of doing so) something ‘undefiled’ and possibly ‘immaculate’.
Tony Bevan’s heads and architectural spaces, along with his newer series of studio furniture, do not fit neatly into any painterly category. They are neither figurative, in the strict sense that they are ‘copies’ of what he has observed in the world, nor are they entirely abstract, in that the imaginary has been broken down into a series of painterly gestures divorced from the actual visible world. Born out of the reality of observation they are a tentative exploration of the one-dimensional space of the canvas, which seems to undergo some sort of transformation so that the paintings open out into a metaphysical space that is experienced as beyond that of the physical picture plane. The canvas becomes an arena in which to act and explore, a space to ‘express’ – to borrow Harold Rosenberg’s word used when describing American Abstract Expressionism – an object, actual or imagined. Painting, Rosenberg argues, “is the same metaphysical substance as the artist’s existence,” a process that reveals the personality of the painter. Through contact with a painting we come to understand something of the artist – not in the terms of cod psychology – but rather how he translates his psychological experience into something new, to say what has been previously unsaid. What we witness, if we are mindful, is the creative process enacted.
In Tony Bevan’s painting Crossing, a bridge appears to hang in space. Vertical poles are strung out on wires. It is the sort of bridge that might traverse a ravine or fast river. The structure is similar to that of bridges known from many Japanese paintings and prints beloved by Van Gough. Yet here it is impossible to determine where the bridge begins and ends. No human presence is detectable. There are no scuttling merchants, no horses, no carts, no one on a bicycle; it seems to be a transitional point linking one unidentified place with another. All that we know is that it connects two spaces. But these spaces remain tantalisingly unknown and inchoate. Like the cartographer travelling in an unfamiliar land we can only trust, as we make the crossing, and see where we end up. There is a sense that this bridge leads to a different realm, to somewhere deeper and more profound than we are used to on a daily basis. Yes, it is a bridge, but it is a psychological bridge between two states and the fact is that it is painted in a sort of rusty ox-blood suggests a connections with the body, and the possibility of arteries or tendons. This red recurs time and again in Bevan’s paintings, along with primal oranges and sometimes cobalt blue. As with his use of charcoal, it suggests something very ancient, a connection to art’s roots, to aboriginal painting made from the earth’s pigments or the magical ochre and soot paintings on the walls of the caves at Lascaux in France.
This feeling that there is something important going on beneath the surface of things is integral to all Tony Bevan’s work. Blood red cicatrices run like knife wounds diagonally across the surface of the face and across the neck in Head and Neck. It is impossible not to read these marks as wounds. Though Bevan, himself, talks of them rather as ‘flow patterns’. Yet with their jagged edges they look like the ragged stitch marks left by some cack-handed surgeon and suggest that has been an attempt to peel back the flesh from the bone to reveal what lies beneath. The tendons of the attenuated neck are taught and stretched as if trying to hold up the lacerated head. It is impossible to look at these self-portraits without thinking of Titan’s The Flaying of Marsyas, where the Phrygian Satyr, in a fit of hubristic pride, dared challenge the god Apollon to a musical contest. As punishment for his presumption, Apllon had Marsyas tied to a tree and flayed him alive. And then, too, there is Rembrandt’s 1632 The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholaes Tulp, where collective medical students gather around the dissecting table to peer at the sinews of a cadaver, a common criminal hung that very morning as if by staring into the depths of the body they will also understand something of the depths of the soul. Both these paintings are connected by the revelation of what lies beneath the surface.