Sunday, 20 September 2009





Jonathan Waller is well-known as a figurative painter, not least for his bold series of images depicting the process of birth – a subject seldom tackled by Western artists, though quite common in Pre-Columbian sculptures from Mexico and elsewhere. Usually, when it does occur in contemporary art, it is considered to be the province of women artists. The most notable recent examples are the ‘Birth Project’ images designed by the leading American feminist Judy Chicago. Waller’s willingness to venture into this territory was a sign of his essential originality, even when using traditional technical means.


This new series of boxes and sculptures will nevertheless come as a surprise even to people wsho have followed Waller’s career fairly closely. They break away completely from anything that he has produced previously.


Before trying to consider what these strange poetical creations do, it will be helpful, I think, to set up certain markers. The comparisons that can be made cover an extremely wide cultural range, and embrace not only Modern and contemporary artworks, but work made in widely separated cultural contexts in the past.


To begin with the moderns, since these offer the most familiar territory, four artists immediately come to mind, only one of them British.


The first is Kurt Schwitters who, like Waller, made elaborate assemblages out of junk materials. In Waller’s case, the immediate inspiration was provided by the demolition of his former studio. Among the basic materials used for this series are the thin laths into which the building dissolved. There are other recognizable junk elements as well.


The translation of discarded rubbish into sophisticated art is a strategy well established in the history of Modernism. The Cubists, who were the true inventors of collage, used it before Schwitters came on the scene.


In a more general sense the putting-together of incongruous and heterogeneous objects has been an essential way of working for many leading Modernist creators, and particularly for those connected with the Dadaist and Surrealist Movements. This is so much the case that the Surrealist ‘object’ in three dimensions has become a category separate from sculpture – one that relies of association and poetical linkages for its effect, not on relationships between forms that create a visually coherent whole. The collage principle was used by Dadaists and Surrealists to make three-dimensional works as well as two-dimensional ones. Sometimes the two-dimensional works, such Hannah Hoch’s collages using photographs of objects in ethnographic museums imply a pre-existing but purely imaginary object.


Probably the closest parallels to Waller’s boxed works are offered by the magically poetic boxes made by the American artist Joseph Cornell, who is now widely recognized as being perhaps the most original transatlantic contributor to the development of the Surrealist vision. It is not hard to see likenesses between Cornell and some aspects of Waller’s new work.


Another, somewhat later American artist with links to Cornell on the one hand and to Waller on the other is H.C. Westermann. Westermann served as a marine aboard the US carrier Enterprise during World War II. He was deeply affected by what he witnessed in the Pacific, where his ship was the object of Japanese kamikaze attacks, and where he saw other ships sent to the bottom with little hope of saving their crews. Westermann’s ‘Death Ships’ – his most typical productions – offer a paraphrase of 19th century ship models, but add an unexpected but also unmistakable note of anguish.


Though Westermann  is by now safely classified an eccentric member of the American Pop Art movement, in other circumstances it would be easy to classify him as a slightly deviant American folk artist.


The folk status of the Cornish fisherman Alfred Wallis is more obvious. Wallis was a totally unschooled painter who took to making art only late in life, following the death of his wife. In starting late, after some kind of shock or domestic upheaval, Wallis was following a pattern common in the lives of many unschooled artists. The same biographical template fits the careers of many of the naïve religious painters, both black and white, who have flourished in the American South..


What was unusual about Wallis was his contact with the group of sophisticated British Modernist painters who settled in the Cornish fishing-port of St. Ives. In 1928 he met Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson, who bought paintings from him and sent photographs of his work to Jim Ede, then one of the curators at the Tate gallery. The next year he was included in a Seven & Five Society exhibition. Seven & Five was the leading avant-garde group in Britain at that time. His work was discussed and illustrated by the leading art critics of the day, Herbert Read and Adrian Stokes, and in 1940 Nicholson donated one of his paintings to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


Wallis’ obsessional subject was ships and the sea. This theme already had a long history in British, as well as American folk art. Ship models, usually contained in glass showcase, as well as smaller models of ships inserted into bottles, played a prominent part in this Maritime folk-production.


Non-specialists do not always realize, however, that ship models fall into several categories, not just one. There are, for example, the models once made by professional ship builders, as miniature versions of the final product. These, made with great precision, were intended to show clients such as the British Admiralty exactly what they were getting.


In addition to these there were exquisitely exact small-scale replicas of actual ships, made by hobbyists [the craft survives to this day], or sometimes as a commercial product. The best known of these high-end commercial models are the elaborate replicas of warships produced in the Napoleonic period by French prisoners-of-war.


Quite different from both of these are more obviously naïve ship models, some made for their own sake, but others clearly produced as children’s toys. It is these that seem to have provided Waller with suggestions for some of the work included in the exhibition.


The development does have at least one parallel in the recent history of British art. It can be found in the work of Sam Smith, who in 1980-1 shared an exhibition with Westermann [whom he greatly admired] at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Smith, like Wallis, had a nautical background. His father was a sea-captain, and he grew up in Southampton. He trained as a painter, but, like many aspiring artists, failed to make a career of it. He then shifted into the craft field, making small wooden toys. After a spell as a technical draughtsman during World War II, Smith return to craft. From the mid-1950s onwards his toys grew steadily more elaborate, until they reached a point in the 1970s where they were better regarded as humorous small-scale sculptures and automatons. By this time he was an unclassifiable cult figure, working in a realm that was neither quite recognizably craft nor quite to be thought of as high art. Much of Smith’s work is concerned with images of ships and boats – they were perhaps his favourite subject.


Pure maritime folk-art takes on many guises. In addition to ship models of many kinds, the craftsman we now out in this category produced elaborate boxed sailors’ ‘keepsakes’ or ‘valentines’ made of small sea-shells collaged into elaborate decorative patterns. In addition to these, there are actual three-dimensional objects made of agglomerations of shells. These, too find, a certain echo in Waller’s work – not in the ship models, but in another series of artworks included in the show.


Sailors and people connected with the sea were not the only artistic creators who uszed shells as an important or even primary material. European maritime exploration of increasingly remote regions brought with it a mania for collecting rare sea-shells. In the Netherlands, during the first half of the 17th century, a single Viceroy tulip bulb was worth 2500 florins, or more than 2000 dollars US. The purchasing power of the florin was, however, much more than this suggests. It was been calculated that a single Viceroy bulb was worth the equivalent of ten tons of Dutch cheese.


Rare shells very reached quite these heights, but prices also never fell as far when the boom was over. Even today, prices for a good specimen of the rare Golden Cowrie, a symbol of kingship in Fiji, but also found in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines, can go as high as 200 dollars US on the Internet auction-site Ebay. Internet-based shell dealers ask as much as 880 dollars. The 17th century Dutch passion for rare shells was commemorated in still life paintings featuring these objects, either as the sole subject of the composition, or intermingled with other luxury items as symbols of wealth.


Even before the 17th century Dutch conceived a passion for them, shells were used for the production of luxury objects of the sort that filled the shelves of princely wunderkammers all over Europe. Sometimes mounted elaborately in silver, to make cups and other items, they were also intermingled with branches of coral, to build fantasy objects that may sometimes have been used as table-decorations, like the porcelain figurines produced at Meissen and other factories at a later date. Waller’s use of shells as raw material for his sculptured heads finds an obvious parallel here.


His heads, however, find closer cousins in works somewhat different from these wunderkammer objects. Some of their most obvious predecessors are to be found, not in 16th century Mannerist fantasies in three dimensions, but in the paintings of the Milanese-born artist Giuseppe Archimboldo [c.1527-1593]. Archimboldo’s most productive years were spent working for the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolph II in Prague. His most typical productions are fantasy heads made up from collections of inanimate objects. Usually the objects belong to a single class or genre. Thus a representation of Flora will be composed entirely of flowers, while the head of a gardener is created from vegetables piled in a bowl. In this second case, the human image appears only when the painting is turned upside down, and the bowl is transformed into a hat.


Achimboldo’s creations sometimes have a slightly nightmarish quality – an unexpected emotional vehemence. While they are generally described as proto-Surrealist, they occasionally trespass into the territory of 20th century Expressionism.


Another artist who does this, but in a very different fashion, is the 18th century Austrian sculptor Franz-Xaver Messerschmidt [1736-1783]. Messrschmidt created an extraordinary series of ‘character heads’ that had a very specific purpose. They were intended to ward off the evil spirits who had haunted him since his recovery from an illness in 1774. Believing that this would benefit others who suffered from the same problem as himself, he arranged these grimacing self-portraits to create a quasi-scientific system. His heads, with their curious mixture of the rational and irrational, seem to deny the intellectual context of their time, and to foreshadow aspects of contemporary art. Waller notes that Messerschmidt’s sculptures have been among his own conscious influences.


Yet another possible influence, in this case probably subliminal but nevertheless impossible to ignore, are the Aztec masks and human skulls covered with plaques of turquoise mosaic, intermingled with other hard stones.  The rare examples that have survived to our own day very often reached Europe at an early date,  sent homer by the conquistadors who, under the leadership of Hernán Cortez, destroyed the Aztec Empire.


There are also links, as Waller points out, with 18th and early 19th century ship decorations, particularly ships’ figureheads, which often add naively fantastic details, such as strange headdresses featuring crocodiles and other beats, to a naïve re-interpretation of Neo-classicism.


One final influence is that of 19th century caricature. The history of caricature has always been controversial. Purists would like to see it as a 16th century invention, which had its beginnings in the grotesque heads drawn by Leonardo and which was further refined by Annibal Carracci. In fact, representations that are recognizable as true caricatures can be found in Egyptian papyri, in Hellenistic and Roman art [particularly the art emanating from Alexandria], and in the margins of medieval manuscripts and the minor carvings half-hidden in medieval churches.


Caricatures are often thought of as being purely and simply satirical representations – things that exaggerate physical disproportion for purposes of mockery. In fact they often take matter much further than this, moving into a realm of fantasy that remained closed and unavailable to nearly all would-be ‘serious’ art until the beginning of the 20th century [though there are of course exceptions – Archimboldo is one of the most conspicuous]. One standard device is visual punning – the much derided Emperor Napoleon III, for instance, is represented as a moulting eagle, or else his face is insultingly superimposed on the backside of a pig. The Emperor’s formidable mustachios, much loved by those who caricatured him, also seem to have fascinated Waller.


The multiple links to other and very diverse art works to be found in this exhibition are part of a now familiar phenomenon. In the course of the past hundred years the cultural consciousness of the Western art world has expanded enormously. This is partly the result of and information system that is more sophisticated and whose reach is immensely more widespread than anything that preceded it. However this expansion of consciousness is not due to technology alone. It is also the consequence of the intellectual explorations undertaken by cultural historians and philosophers who seized upon the availability of new knowledge to evolve new attitudes towards the visual arts, and also towards the kind of tasks these arts might be called upon to perform within the framework of a particular culture. Jonathan Waller’s new work is very much a consequence of this new freedom to explore a vast range of artistic data.


Nevertheless it would be a pity if these rather solemn-sounding considerations blinded visitors to the exhibition to what is perhaps the most striking characteristic of this particular group of objects – their playfulness.


Psychiatric researchers have long recognized that a fundamental element in all creative activity is play – man-the-maker is also, and essentially, homo ludens. That element is conspicuous here. The idea of the ‘playful man’ as the archetype of humanity was first put forward by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga [1872-1945] in his book of the same title published in 1938.  Seeing the instinct for play as the central element in human culture, Huizinga believed that “law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primeval soil of play.”


The playful element is certainly conspicuous here, While Jonathan Waller is an artist who is thoroughly schooled in traditional ways of making art – one who has won admiration in the course of his career for his easy command of the technical means of the painter – he has here launched himself into unfamiliar waters. Given the number of ship and generically maritime images in the show this metaphor is appropriate. In doing so, he has liberated a quality of joyfully humorous fantasy that is new in his work. Yet there is no mistaking the fact that these are also artworks that manipulate cultural references and resonances in a profoundly sophisticated fashion.



This site was last updated 20-09-2009