Peter Shield on Gordons work
Random thoughts on curating an exhibition of Gordon Fazakerley’s paintings in 2000 at Silkeborg Kunstmuseum by the British art critic Peter Shield.
Gordon Fazakerley’s art can loosely be regarded as spontaneous abstract art, but this is a description that hides more than it reveals. The paintings are built up layers, and if one layer is spontaneous, then the next has to take that in consideration. And in some ways the paintings are anything but abstract, because they contain a multitude of associations, conscious and unconscious. There is a strange feeling of both engagement and distance in many of his works.
While many artists prefer to empty their head before their paintings in a kind of kenosis, Fazakerley claims that he likes to confront his canvases with as many ideas in his head as possible. The ongoing process can be discerned from Fazakerley’s own statement:
“When difficulties arise in the paintings, the drawings run down the gutter, if one is lucky. The tricks of art are not enough. The canvas is about to be turned to the wall. One visualises and consults a memory‑bank of pictures to get out of the dead‑water. If not one is leaving them in the waiting room. Paradoxical situations arise. You pick up an ornamental passage from an illuminated manuscript to discover later that it was just a joke made by a monk to stimulate his memory. The paintings are full of quotations from memory”.
With Fazakerley one clearly feels these various layers. Here it is worth noting that his titles always mean something, that they are a layer in themselves and not just designations. Take a painting he put aside in 1972, and did not remember making, which became damaged. Initially it was Untitled, a rare designation in his work, until we suggested Title Eaten by an Insect! But other than this serendipity, in all his other titles there are traces of the ideas that were present when he started.
This ongoing process is very complicated. He begins to read a book of translated Mexican poems. He finds poets like Mirón and Balbuena. Mirón he interprets as a very strong human being, soldier and writer in the tropical forest. Out of this comes a slim picture in browns of a fragile but heroic male figure. Balbuena’s poem La Grandeza Mexicana is a long sumptuous baroque work with many colourful metaphors from the natural world of Central America. But in Fazakerley’s painting La grandeza Mexicana there are only large lurking human figures. Although he had in mind precisely the Mexican splendour of the poem, it was the dark power ‑ Ferdinand and Isabella? ‑ that brought the Spaniards into contact with it, that came through.
It was only when we had to give the paintings labels that we began to see the importance of the titles. They were associations, complicated associations, sometimes associations we did not understand. Not that it is unusual in today’s art.
Here we have Fazakerley, an artist with access to two cultures, the English and the Danish, but without roots in either. This complicated existence can be tracked in his art. On one hand, we have the perfect nature idylls from his summer stays in Skåne, very Scandinavian. Yet they are not without problems, but they are a kind of formula. They use the moment of recognition ‑ we are there, even if we have never been there. The smell of luxuriant plants by the water, or the warm stones. Summer? Or a disposition of pleasant forms and colours? Or an intellectual enigma, where the reflection in the water contradicts the painted “reality”? Should we be inside the painting to experience this or outside to read it?
The exhibition begins ‑ literally at the entrance with Ship of Fools after a long satirical poem by the German poet Sebastian Brant (1457/58‑ 1521) with woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer. There is a red glow of a ship in a red‑glowing seascape. The figures burn, the ship of fools sails on into an eternity sublimated by the golden arrow. The fools of Brant and Dürer have to endure each other for eternity. The destiny for the fools of Fazakerley is also to suffer for ever. It is, by the way, a very fine picture with electric green strokes along the side of the ship.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is known to every well‑educated Englishman. I can myself cite more than a hundred lines from his play without difficulty. But when you come to Denmark, there are many little displacements. For instance Hamlet sees his father’s ghost on a “platform”, that is a guard tower with a flat top. In Denmark it becomes a bastion with walls. Kronborg has here an influence that has nothing to do with Shakespeare. As Saxo’s Amled was already in the Danish consciousness before Shakespeare, it also has to play a part which does not exist in English‑speaking countries. There is Hamlet, traditionally regarded as the melancholic and meditative young man in black from the miniature picture of the English Renaissance. Without this tradition, a Danish Prince of Denmark is less dependent on his time. Fazakerley has painted the moment when the ghost is disturbing the soldiers on “the platform”, here the bastion. It is cold grey‑blue (“Tis bitter cold,” says the soldier Francisco) The moon is veiled. (“Look, the moon in russet mantle clad,” says Hamlet’s friend Horatio). Thus without the walls around the bastion, the picture is correct. But it is not an English painting, I can assure you. Why I do not know. The riddle got even more mysterious, when Kirsten Jordahn from the museum found an old Danish Shakespeare with a similar illustration and showed it to Fazakerley. He was shaken. It was not to his liking and he was alarmed, because he had never seen it before. Had his English point of view changed to a Danish point of view during his long stay in Denmark?
And what is it like to always be the foreigner?
I end with the last painting in the exhibition, just before you leave the galleries. When you approach the picture you have the impression of a dark space, a beautiful blue and green landscape with a level horizon and daylight high up on the plane. But as in Shostakovitch’s music there is something else lying in wait. In the lower part of the painting there is another horizon with barbed wire. The large figure to the left is a boot, the right is a barrel. In former times one threw the people that crossed the border into a barrel and kicked them out. The blood‑red colour around this horizon is closer to the light from an arc lamp or perhaps of a bombardment. The name of the painting is The border ( Dannevirke).
Ship of fools and Dannevirke is photographed by Lars Bay, Eaten by an insect, La Grandexa Mexicana and Hamlet by Jakob Jakobsen