My first impression of Frances Aviva Blane’s work reminded me of why I used to love going to the Fondation Maeght with my mother: you can go there and wander around and through the art without having to stop and read any of the small print – the paintings and sculptures housed there are dynamic and powerful enough to stand alone without reference. We live in an increasingly synthetic world, where technology and innovation afford us more precision in our instruments and better ways of enhancing or modifying our environment.
But are our emotions being slowly buried beneath the layers? We are happy to cover our walls with the naive expressionism of our children, but somehow we assume a more grown-up and sophisticated selection should reflect our maturity and wealth of experience. It is not until we suffer a loss or some great cataclysm that falls out of the easily packaged and marketable solution that we need to move beyond the language of sophistication into the realm of response.
It seems that reactions to Blane’s work oscillate between “strongly attracted” or “angry and repelled”. The point is that the work is highly emotive – it moves you. Blane started life as a painter in her early 30s, saying she used to joke with her tutor that she had to “do it quickly and go home. I used to get to Slade by 10 past eight then go home by eleven. I just want to do it then walk away. Then I come back to it and maybe it’s no good – but I’ve got to do it in a concentrated way.”
She looked to German Expressionism and American Abstract Expressionism, searching for a way to work. “I really want my work to be of itself and leave it open to the viewer to make their own mind up … where ever you go now you are told things: there are maps and ads and directions, everything refers to something else … I don’t want it to refer to something.”
During the last century, the desire to “purify” art – to eliminate representation and instead focus on what it is that defines the work of art as a thing in itself – became a preoccupation for many artists. In the 1940s, primarily in New York, a new vanguard emerged, and a number of artists including Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko, to name a few, created a body of work that dramatically shifted the art world’s focus, by breaking away from established conventions in both technique and subject matter.
Now referred to as Abstract Expressionists these artists valued spontaneity and improvisation – they made art out of their own subjective experiences – and they accorded the highest importance to process. The 1960s saw a generation of British artists such as Turnbull embracing the expressive potential of abstraction – and added to it their specific cultural brand of emotional detachment. What resulted was the growth of objectivity – which possibly led to the outpouring of theory about what the pieces were, as possibly the integrity of their source had been lost.
Central to Blane’s art is the artistic process itself, the act of making, of marking, of creating. I would love to hear the soundtrack of Frances at work – the noise of paint hitting the surface, the footsteps pacing around the perimeter of the canvas, the scrape of its edges as she lifts it off the floor and puts it up on the wall, the brutal sound of its destruction when she sees it is not good enough, not a pure enough expression of what she had first felt.
“The emotion comes first, so if I am painting about loss I try and visualise what loss is and to me that is grey and black and white, and then I want to make an equivalent for loss with paint or charcoal, if it is going to be grey it’s got to be flat.” Like the noise of our words, and not just the words alone, convey the emotion behind them, the boldness of strokes and the power of her gestures imply the emotion they spring from.
“With the self portraits, I want them to be as expressive as possible and then I try to compress that expression down until it becomes almost the bare bones of something.” In the paintings that survive, it is manifest that she has created a powerful visual lexicon – they are very much hers, no one else could have made those. “It’s me. I work with what I’ve got and I want to be as simple and direct as possible because I think that’s the stuff that is the most powerful.”
Then she remembers a conversation with the art critic Ed Winters in which she said, “My work is more primeval, something before speech, something you feel before you are able to articulate it.” Blane’s work is born out of existential and real struggle. She paints herself and her life, pain, grief, loss and sheer desperation from the inside out. It is clear that there have been some pretty significant events in Blane’s life which inform her work and colour her emotions, but this is not relevant to the discussion of it, because they might be the root from which the work grows but too much emphasis on that will undermine the life of the work which ultimately must stand on its own.
There is a compression, like the pressure she puts herself under to get the truth of her emotions out. Two basic inclinations in her work – an emphasis on dynamic, energetic gesture, in contrast to reflective aspect of more open fields of colour. “If I am painting about dissolution, I want the paint to dissolve as well. I’m good with materials – although everything I do is a mess – I try and work quickly and although you then have a high failure rate I’ll go with that – once I start to labour over something I feel I’ve lost it.”
Simple is best. “A compression of an idea, and then the work has got to stand up for itself.” One of the reasons she enjoys working with the gallery De Queeste Art – this is her second exhibition with them – is because they are very direct about her work and show the paintings they respond to. Frances has created a website to coincide with this show, that opened this month and will run until the end of the March. It is refreshingly unpretentious and absent from long text about her work, in fact it is not even a full representation of her work, it is clean edit, a goading snapshot that entices the viewer.
“When I made the website I wanted it to be like ECT – electro shock therapy – short, sharp and punchy before people thought ‘I’ve had enough of her’.” It’s important to Blane that people have the opportunity to make up their own mind about her “and not carry on so much that they get bored”. Which also respects the emotions from which these pieces stem, and does not cheapen their currency. Her work ethic and attitude belie a great integrity, “you can only paint what you know, but being true to yourself means you have to be hard on yourself”.
She does not want you to understand her, she wants you to respond to her work. It is not meant to be anything else – it is not representation. It is art.
by Nico Kos Earle
Frances Aviva Blane’s show is at De Queeste Art, Trappenistenweg 54, Abele/Watou, Belgium until March 31 Posted: 5 March 2013