The following article, published in Aerial Views, May 2007,was a response to a piece by Don Connoly in the preceding issue which stressed the need to explore "beyond the box" regarding the shapes for our paintings and their frames, to go beyond the usual rectilinear proportions.
Once upon a time, in Iron Age Britain, the typical tribal abode was the round, free-standing thatched cottage. Much like the Native American Wigwam, Eskimo Igloo, Mongolian Yurt or African mud hut, it perhaps resonated with the hemispherical visible universe of those free-living early peoples. Came the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and the resulting population explosion and settled, high-density living, the abodes morphed into straight-sided shapes which fitted more readily against one another. So in this new urbanized world the living space became rectilinear, as well as the outlook on the world via doorways and windows, and whatever hieroglyphics and murals decorated the intervening walls had to be adjusted to flat surfaces. This outlook was further reinforced by the written/ illustrated page, and now dominates our visual world through the vast tide of printed matter and the cinema, TV and computer screens.
The point is that there are often good reasons for things. Wheels are round, not because of any lack of imagination on our part but because by and large that's what works. Much of so-called novelty these days is basically add-ons and gimmickry, tweaking around the edges. Most really useful things have been around a long time, and to try and deviate willy-nilly in the hope of "innovation" is often to revisit and rediscover the limitations and drawbacks inherent in those other boxes in the first place. Note that to seek difference for its own sake is quite apart from doing good original painting with the wealth of existing tools, materials and techniques on hand which are more than adequate for the purpose( I'm inspired by Layne's piece on egg tempera, and intend to explore that curious medium sometime), and incurs the peril of being sidetracked into the inconsequential or even retrogressive. Not to say the game may not be improved by redesigning the old chessboard, but there are abundant tactics and strategies to explore without doing so.
In previous writings in the ASAA journal (AeroBrush Vol.17 No.4 & Vol.18 No.1 ) I pointed out how, in my long experience of viewing the paintings passing through our Guild of Aviation Artists, most pretensions to innovation in style and presentation prove little more than just that....pretensions. With aviation art, the one unfailing source of innovation is actually the endless richness of the subject matter itself, and to think in narrow terms of style or presentation in the name of innovation is a red herring that can be one of the most cramping and deadening things to do. With mundane subject matter like generalized scenery or too-familiar genre the urge to boost visual interest by diversions of brushwork or other stylistic trivia is understandable. Not least if these lead to significant labour-saving in the bargain. But with subject matter of such intrinsic fascination as aviation, or maritime or wildlife subjects, there is little cause to resort to such detours, and to do so easily incurs a negative effect. When you have a slice of fresh wild salmon, there is no need to overlay it with some concocted sauce to render it more palatable (just a little lemon juice will do).
So I regard the perennial attempts by mainstream Art to take the moral high ground on "innovation" with significant scepticism. I see much of the contemporary artbabble as transparent efforts to mimick the thrusting progressiveness of the scientifiic and technical in our times*( of which our own subject matter is a prime example). Not unlike that old church religion trying to come to terms with modernity by going clappy-feely, to the tune of electronic guitars. "Hopeful Monsters" is a term which has been used in evolutionary biology to describe the chaotic mutations endlessly thrown up by Nature; three-legged frogs, furry fish, feathery lizards and whatever....which supposedly provide the genetic raw material for ruthless natural selection to produce the stable species and balanced ecosystems in those David Attenborough TV programs. In the field of aircraft design , many weird and wonderful experimental shapes are devised, few of which emerge unscathed from the wind tunnel hangars. From this perspective one could be forgiven for thinking that across the "post-modern" art scene, where style has overtaken substance, the mutants have usurped the evolved forms, and the inmates have taken over the asylum.
Beyond defining the visual space which is to contain the artist's work, which certainly has an impact compositionally, the shapes and proportions of the supporting materials need to be as neutral as possible. For these to come forward in their own right easily interferes with the semi-mystical act of make-belief which happens every time we stare at smears of paint and see into them dramatic vistas of flight. Few cinema goers would wish the design of the screen to intrude into their absorption with whatever gory thriller is being shone on it. An obvious way to achieve this visual neutrality in rectilinear surroundings is to reflect these spatial parameters. Likewise, the choice of picture framing is not for its own sake but to complete the painting as an item of furnishing. In this consideration it has to harmonize with both the content of the painting itself and the likely environment it will be displayed in. Often a delicate balancing task, as the vast choice of mouldings on offer in any framing shop attests.
For me the key is that wherever possible, it is the creative image in the artist's mind that should lead in the choice of overall shape or proportions for the work, and even of technique, material and style. The dog wags the tail. As for the old "golden ratio", I believe it was not an entirely arbitrary convention, but simply an expression of what fits our binocular visual field....originally ovoid perhaps, but since squared off along with much else. So it is not surprising to find that the majority of my own canvasses are pretty close to the golden section, e.g. 20 x 30 or 21 x 28 inches, but the few examples here show that the occasional departures certainly can work. Exceptions which prove the rule....like some 3-wheel car designs, or the marsupials. Limited case alternatives certainly, but it surely takes a special mind-set to see them as anything innovative. Again, it is clearly the subject matter itself which is the determining factor, and the shapes which follow. The exception here being the round format ( Fig.4 ) which was a prerequisite for a series of commissions from a decorative plate company. I feel the circular/ovoid box has limited appeal with aviation subjects, but can work surprisingly well for nautical subjects, possibly because of their resonance with the porthole view of the universe. But stretching the canvasses for such shapes, not to speak of framing them, are challenges in themselves!
The painting which incorporates the framing itself (Fig.5) was an inspiration which proved successful in that the painting quickly sold at one of the Guild's annual London exhibitions. But the disruptive practice was equally quickly frowned upon by our noble selectors and is seen no more. Here the exigencies of exhibition selectors and venues clearly impact, and one wonders how Don's ideas for possible 3D forms would be accommodated, even when such semi-sculptural display forms are not uncommon on the stands of aerospace corporations at big-money air shows like Farnborough. As for multi-panel forms, I distinctly recall just such a piece, a large old-fashioned triptych, by no less than our late Frank Wootton, on display somewhere inside the RAF Club in London; so visitors to that august establishment, keep your eyes peeled. Peter Sumpter, a Guild colleague( have a search in www.gava.org.uk), seems especially prone to such multiple-image efforts in our shows, although I'm not sure he would go as far as to claim innovation just because the rest of us rarely choose to go down that old route.
Finally, if you sometimes feel like getting shot of the whole framing rigmarole, why not try scroll paintings? I have yet to muster the courage to submit one for our Guild exhibitions, but they are quite feasible(Fig.6) using items readily available from your DIY supermarket. Instead of the flimsy traditional rice paper, you have the endless choice of hardy wallpapers of every colour, texture and weight. You will also need reasonably weighty rollable batons, also available at the DIY, to affix to at least the lower end of the scroll. Keep in mind that scrolls, like canvasses, can be horizontal as well as vertical. For that final exotic touch, you may even have your gweilo ("barbarian") name transliterated into Eastern ideograms to sign on to your masterpiece! Handy, lighthearted, decorative, but will the scroll approach sustain a painting of the solemnity and intensity of say The Night Bombing of Dresden? I suspect not, and here we come up against an unexpected dimension to that humble old picture frame. It evidently serves to carve out a separate, subjective space, and provides that window into another time and reality for the crucial act of mental projection which is at the heart of art. By comparison the frameless scrolls are a little too open, a little too merged with the present moment. Yet another little box with its own limitations. Yet again, the subject decides the choice. Now we know why modernist, decorative styles often require minimal framing around them. From the start, they command little visual depth or imaginary space to speak of. On the other hand the sense of space, spatial reasoning, is central to the portrayal of flight, as it is to flying itself.
Thanks to Don for an interesting piece, which as you can see has certainly made me think.
*Our vulnerability to that buzzword "innovation" in art is also explained as a legacy of the Cold War. In the 50s and 60s "modernist" art like that of Jackson Pollock(Jack the Dripper) was covertly funded and promoted to enhance the aura of cultural freedom in the West and as a counter to communist/socialist "realism". For more on that interesting historical byway Google "CIA and Modern Art".)