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Text from ‘Colin Crumplin   Paintings 1997-2000’  









Flesh and Bones: Meaning and Value in the Paintings of Colin Crumplin

Stephen Foster

Since the middle of the twentieth century painting genres such as American abstract expressionism, English lyrical abstraction and the art informel of continental Europe have relied upon chance processes to create an approach to imaging that mimics nature, rather than represents it. Each artist develops a vocabulary of gestures and mark-making, consisting of dripping, daubing or applying paint with a particular repetitive action that results in a recognizable family of images. Essentially the product of high modernism, the artist's presence is felt through the signature of his or her personal language, whereby each painting is shaped by the particular combination of gestures that are the author's trademark. It is because of the unique style - the identifiable hand of the individual artist - that we apply the notion of expression to such work.

The relationship to nature occurs because the process of creating accretions of mark-making to build up a complex image appears to imitate the way in which types of things in nature have occurred. All the oak leaves in the world are different, yet conform to a single type of structure to make an assortment of shapes that create an identifiable family of coherence within infinite variety. The leaves occur on all of the oak trees in the world, and all the oak trees conform to a type within the family of trees, which have particular characteristics within all the plant life in the world, and so on.   All the flora and fauna, macro and micro systems of land mass and cell structures fall within this lexicon of taxonomies, and each contributes to a matrix of interactions creating an infinity of infinities in which chaos is structured through an endless range of types and classifications.

Where painting ultimately fails in this regard is that it is a pale shadow of such a mighty system. A vocabulary based on the limited possibilities of dripping, scraping, pouring or bleeding of pigment cannot possibly compete with the endless potential represented in nature.   Such a quest, one could argue, is invariably doomed because so specific a language will invariably become mannered. Some painters of later generations, recognising the hopelessness of their task, developed an ironic position in relation to such noble failure.

But painting can only be material itself or some kind of metaphor or a depiction of nature. This and an awareness of these mannerisms of painting underlies Colin Crumplin's activity in the making of his work. For many years he has made paintings that consist of two halves.   In the first, a fairly limited range of actions creates a type of semi-accidental form of image making. Using a limited palette - red, blue, yellow or green, black and white, for instance, the paint is loaded onto a canvas, which is then folded and pressed by hand to create an image that is not visible at the time of making.   The canvas is then unfolded to reveal the arrangement of shapes and colours.   It would not be accurate to suggest that the images are entirely accidental, as the loading of   acrylic paints,   the selection of colours, and the pressing by hand or board on the outside of the folded image are all made by conscious decision,   and can be controlled to some extent   - but they are made without any particular expectation. The second half of the painting consists of a figurative image, painted in a photorealist style. The relationship to photography is important, and Crumplin keeps a bank of photographic images - cuttings from magazines, snapshots and photographs he has taken himself - which he keeps and works with over a period of time. Eventually, sometimes years later, one such picture reveals a visual similarity to one of the abstract images and it is used as the basis for a figurative painting in oils. When the two canvases are conjoined, they create a perpetual play between a purely formal statement and a figurative image, constantly flipping from one to the other. The emphasis on structure in the one simplifies the figurative element of the other, first pushing the structure to the fore, and then the figure. This constant shifting between figure and structure gives the image a presence that lodges itself, icon-like, in the back of the head.

In a recent radio interview, an American scientist claimed that he had evidence that birds dream. What is more, they dream to practice their songs; they dream the songs so that they will know them during their waking hours.   This is important, clearly, as birds need to be able to recognise the pattern of their song, both in terms of producing the song themselves, and recognising the song of their brethren, lest they get confused with other species. The dream, for a bird at least, appears to be nature's way of teaching a skill that is essential to the basic biological instinct of survival.   This explains for me a phenomenon with which we are all familiar. In moments of distraction I am aware that a more or less random refrain of a current pop song is repeating itself in my head, over and over again, like a broken record. The tune or even a small extract of words and melody lodges itself into the brain and is impossible to remove. Whilst concentrating on other things, the sample of song will suddenly surface from the subconscious, where it has apparently been playing all along. It appears that a function of this unconscious (and I suspect, for most of us unwelcome) activity is to reinforce the tune until it occupies a special place in the brain; a default system built into the brain at the time of manufacture. It would not be too fanciful to suggest that is a throwback to some basic biological instinct which is in place as a part of the preservation of the species, the iconic nature of the sound being a part of this instinct.   As it is with sound, so surely it is with images. An image may strike us, and our visual memory mechanism locks it away at the back of the brain as an iconic part of the visual structure. Following from the bird/dream theory, the most powerful images are those that may contribute to self-preservation and which concentrate, therefore on what may be described as the aesthetics of danger and death. It is well known that there is a relationship between desire and danger, and that we are attracted (most often visually) to that which is a threat to us.

The heightened aesthetic sensibility of intense experience is well recorded, and is at its most vivid in the presence of extreme danger or trauma. In Robert Graves' biography of his own First World War experiences, Goodbye to All That the author offers with great clarity the aesthetics of horror, as he describes the changing colour of flesh as his dead colleagues rot beside him in the trenches for days. Monet, however, described as beautiful the changing hues of yellow of his wife's forehead as he watched and tended her at her deathbed. Things that are a danger to us are designed to attract us visually whilst we in turn develop a heightened response to them, and it is images that elicit such responses that appear to occupy Colin Crumplin in the subject matter of his paintings.

The types of subjects fall into various groups. First, there are injuries caused through accident or illness. Earlier works featured the scars of illnesses such as shingles, but recent works deal with wounds to human flesh caused by other types of danger.   In one, the torn ear of Evander after it had been bitten in a bout with Mike Tyson was an image of almost universal fascination. We were excited and repulsed as we saw the zoomed-in view of a human bite fill the front pages of our tabloid press. Similarly, the damage caused to human survivors has thrilled us ever since the menace of shark bites became the pinnacle of mass entertainment in Steven Spielberg's movie Jaws.

The second group consists of exotic fauna which, like all such plants, are biologically designed to attract, but in such an extreme form they contain the visual lexicon of desire. Their flowers are exaggeratedly voluptuous, taut and bulging, intensely and wildly pigmented with startling and highly contrasting markings. At the same time, they are outrageously oversized, so that the various attractions of their visual qualities are magnified. Throughout nature such visual excess masks a threat or danger, and many such plants are death traps to other living things. Related to this group are the highly exotic adornments that are intended for other types of human attraction. The Native-American headdress is a sign of authority and power, and yet for the colonialising forces of the nineteenth century represented threat and danger. The African headdress similarly is an exotic attraction and yet within a Western culture represents the threat of the unknown other.

A third series consists of images of natural disasters resulting from natural phenomena created from a threatening and dangerous excess; rivers swollen to a flood, tidal waves dwarfing surrounding structures and buildings, lava flows following volcanic explosions. All such occurrences create a compelling spectacle coupled with the intense thrill of danger. During a year of exceptional rainfall in Britain with concomitant extensive flooding how many of us have secretly wished for just a few more days' storms and just a little extra riverbank-bursting for just a little more record-breaking excess   - somehow divorcing this secret desire from the human suffering which goes with it.   This phenomenon is well known to those who slow down when passing the site of a motor accident, simultaneously repulsed and fascinated at the spectacle of horror.

Looking across the subject groupings contained within oeuvre there are other connections that are rooted in the visual; the visual attraction of the swelling of an exotic flower has a visual relationship lo swollen flood waters. The lava flow visually offers that which is ever present beneath the surface of the earth, but which requires an exceptional event for it to erupt into view, exposing that which is normally hidden. This relates to the image of flesh from a recent shark wound, brutally exposed to reveal the inner structure with discomforting clarity. This in turn relates to the images of meat and so on.

If it is true that the relationship between desire and danger, between curiosity and repulsion, is a common theme in the selection of images, then another connecting factor is that the attraction/repulsion dichotomy revolves around our constantly flipping between the figurative fact of what we're seeing, and the formal structure of the image.   The beef, the clouds and the headdress all have strong parallel repetitive stripes; the visual cropping of the plants makes them bulge out of the picture plane; the rare sight of juxtaposed primary colours in nature emphasises the intensity of the colours themselves. If we return to the twinned images that make up each painting, the same flipping between form and content occurs. We 'recognise' the figurative image in the abstract picture, which draws our attention to the formal structure of the image, which we seek in the figurative image, and so on. The dual image device gets to the heart of painting's purpose by constantly pushing forward the supremacy of form over content and then vice versa in perpetual alternation, and this in turn addresses directly the relationship between meaning and value in painting.

From:                         Colin Crumplin 1997-2000

                        Artworth and Evelyn de Beir 2000

                        ISBN 0 95130023 7 X