Icons and Salt at Ikon Birmingham
The photo-realist paintings of John Salt have something approaching the miraculous about them. Could they really be paintings? Pictures of photographs of cars, made with airbrush, they look untouched by human hands.
In the Greek Orthodox tradition isn’t acheiropoieta the name given to icons not made by human hands? They were allegedly painted by saints, or they appeared miraculously like Veronica’s Veil or the Turin shroud. Maybe the images were made of the salt from Jesus’ sweat.
But these are no icons, though my eye was conned from time to time into thinking that I was looking at very large photographs rather than paintings. In some senses they are not even images, the matter of fact way in which they are produced and presented, renders them artless, real, objects, to be viewed but not worshipped. And in that they are also images, they are images of images, the subject matter of which is artless, found, material as opposed to image in the sense of advertisement, shiny gleaming mirror. Other photo-realists seem more interested in images of this kind.
Ikon Gallery Birmingham is showing work by John Salt until 17 July 2011. I wandered through the two rooms of paintings, 18 in all, spanning 42 years of Salt’s artistic output. Not wishing to be impressed (my mission, you may remember, is to view abstract paintings outside of London), I found myself confronted by a body of work that I was hugely impressed by.
I lingered longest on the 2001 painting Tree, a solitary vehicle, parked outside a disused store, next to a weedy self-seeded tree, the long shadows suggesting evening or morning.
I feel it should be evening symbolically, but seeing how the windscreen is condensed it looks like it may be morning. The shadows emphasise the whereabouts of the cables running up the side of the building and bring attention to the puny tree, projecting a larger than life image of it onto the façade of the building, rather like the projected image of a photograph onto a large canvas, the standard technique for drawing in photo-realist art. The car and the store are a similar colour, terracotta, or rust. Knowing even a little about this kind of work I think it highly unlikely that Salt is interested in the symbolic or metaphoric elements in the piece, and maybe these also are projections, but I find it difficult not to see in the terracotta, a symbol of rust and decay, also hinted at in the parked or abandoned car. And I find it difficult not to see in the tree at least a gesture of hope, however futile. I feel sure that this is not the content of the picture as far as the artist is concerned. However, I think the NLP mantra ‘the meaning of a communication is the response you receive rather than the intention you had for it’ applies here.
I found I could also interpret the painting in abstract ‘colour-field‘ terms, enjoying the large expanse of orange, framed above by the light blue band of sky, and below by the darker blue/grey of the tarmac. Then becoming aware of the lemon yellow rectangle on the right hand edge, echoed by the adjacent dark grey or black rectangle of the door, within which is a cut-out of white. At the opposite side, there are similar rectangles in almost complementary colours of blue and lilac. In this reading of the painting the car plays almost no role at all. I realise that here I may have been compensating for the abstract paintings I did not find!
Another reading might concentrate more on the signs. I have already mentioned the index sign of the rust colour and the long shadows: signs of decay and death, the icon sign: the painting of the photograph, and there are also the symbol signs represented in the photograph itself: “No Parking Any Time” and “Store for Rent”.
Well, I had parked myself in front of it for long enough and there were other paintings to see, and work to do. So I left, hoping I would get chance for another viewing before 17 July.
Written by Andy Parkinson
June 25, 2011 at 6:00 am
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