Published with permission from the author, the following is a critique of Robert Dawson‘s exhibition En Avant by writer Kimberley Chandler. First opening in July, the exhibition wraps up September 17, 2017. Some of the paintings remain available for sale, with a share of the price going to the Friends of St Augustine’s for the running and restoration of the shrine.
Featured image: Robert Dawson, Icons, 170630 (detail), 2017, clay and fabric printing pigment on canvas, 129 x 53 cm
A Multiplicity of Times
By: Kimberley Chandler, 2017
‘A. W. N. Pugin was proud of being out of time,’ wrote craft historian Glenn Adamson about the Gothic Revival designer and architect, whose radical book Contrasts (1836) criticised the inferiority and immorality of the architecture of his time in contrast to that of medieval England. Contrasts is, primarily, a visual polemic against such “modern” architecture, featuring a series of paired images that show the marked contrast between medieval and contemporary structures, and, for Pugin, ‘the present decay of taste’. Pugin believed that morality and architecture were linked, and that restoring gothic ornament to architecture would instill social virtues and goodness. His vision was born of his Christian fervour; medieval architecture, for Pugin, was a force for good.
Being out of time, then, meant relying on an idealised and “stable” vision of the past, in contrast to the shifting and uncertain present. Pugin wanted to reinstate the edifying details and craftsmanship of the medieval past to cushion the vicissitudes of the modern, ‘a fantasy of unity restored’. Artist Robert Dawson, by contrast, seeks to destabilise Pugin’s medievalising aesthetic, yet in a way that is respectful towards the integrity of the original. Dawson draws from Pugin’s design principles, attuned to its refinements of form, pattern, and proportion, but his intention is not to edify; rather, it is to divert and distract. En Avant is not about restaging the past for its own sake, but about acknowledging the continuation of the past in the present, to look forwards and backwards, as well as side-to-side. To counter what he deems the conservative tendencies of conceptualism, Dawson pushes for a new decorative aesthetic that riffs on Pugin’s visual grammar, on the language of heraldic motifs, ornamental patterns, and stained glass, while conceding to the potential of modern tooling and techniques.
Dawson’s clay paintings, in fact, challenge Pugin’s fundamental belief in the sanctity of hand craftsmanship. Pugin’s unease about the machine, about inventions ‘purely of a mechanical nature’ that, he believed, led to the degradation of artworks, disappears when confronted with one of Dawson’s multi-layered canvases. Each one is highly crafted, yet depends on the seamless integration of different technologies. Each canvas starts from a digital photograph, which Dawson painstakingly redraws using image-editing software, mindful of the symmetry and balance of Pugin’s original design – whether fleur-de-lis, scrolling foliage, or roundel. Through this careful process, Dawson assimilates the exactitude and nuance of the smallest details, while thinking through the possibilities for their reimagining. Using a diverse set of Photoshop tools and commands, the now-new media artwork is manipulated, translated, refashioned, and reformed.
It is now time to play.
The computer screen has a depth and infinity that extends beyond the limitations of its physical counterparts. Pugin’s prudent design for an encaustic tile, for example, becomes an infinitely variable, software object. Dawson plays with patterns and “draws rhythms” into their order and symmetry, a process of experimentation that can last three to four days. In 161102 (2016, pictured below), Dawson reinterprets the loop pattern from one of Pugin’s stained-glass windows as a three-dimensional volume; it literally unfolds across illusory planes and surfaces, giving the impression of depth. 170306 (2017, pictured below) stretches and compresses a fourfold fleur-de-lis motif to achieve a subtle asymmetry. Dawson’s digital inventiveness does not jeopardise Pugin’s original designs, but simply extends the capabilities of the hand.
Next, the modified design is simplified, smoothing out the vestigial hard edges and burs of the original, before being cut out in vinyl to form a stencil. This transition from screen to canvas is where serendipity creeps in. Dawson affixes the vinyl to (a sometimes pre-painted) canvas, before building up layers of paint, adhesive, and clay slip in colours as diverse as rust brown, azure, pink, and cream. The thick mixture of clay, water, and pigment seeps, at times, beneath the vinyl. Layers crust up and coarseness sets in. Then, with the vinyl carefully removed, the clay painting reveals itself. Dawson’s technique resembles the manufacture of ceramic encaustic tiles, or wood inlay; it is a process of embedding different materials within the final design. The clay paintings are thick, laborious, stratified.
And this notion of ‘embedding’ brings us back to the temporal discontinuity of modernity that Pugin was so eager to dispel. Pugin’s desire to escape the present relied on historical fantasy; his Gothic Revival relied on a confected memory of the past, a past that, to Pugin, was fixed and uncomplicated. Instead, writes historian Tom Crook, we should think of history as ‘a multiplicity of dialogs between past, present and future’, with Dawson’s clay paintings a metaphor for all that is past and embedded in the present. Using Pugin’s Gothic motifs as his subject, Dawson accentuates the inevitable tension in the original designs: experimentation alongside tried-and-tested methods; serendipity as well as contemplation; and reflexivity together with purpose. En Avant is a series of works that throw light on the high-mindedness of Pugin’s Gothic Revivalism, encouraging us to think again about the multiplicity of times that merge in any object, or artwork.
About the author: Kimberley Chandler is a London-based researcher, writer, and editor, who holds a PhD in Design and Architecture from the University of Brighton. Her particular focus is craft theory and practice, material agency, and temporality. She received her BA in Graphic Design at the University of Brighton (2001–2004) and MA in History of Design at the Royal College of Art/Victoria & Albert Museum (2007–2009).
Visit Chandler’s website.
You can read Cfile’s earlier reflections of Dawson’s exhibition here.
Do you love or loathe Chandler’s musings from the worlds of contemporary ceramic art and contemporary ceramics? Let us know in the comments.