Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Secret Life of Art: Piotr Nathan's How Far Do You Dare To Go

There is that portion of a life which is presented to the world and seen, and that other portion, the secret life, which is cloaked, known only to whose life it is and perhaps a select group.  What constitutes this secret life can run from the mundane to the extreme, but everybody has one. 

If you haven't been to the Belkin Art Gallery at UBC to see Piotr Nathan's How Far Do You Dare To Go, go while there's still time before the show closes on December 4th.  Not only is the Belkin one of Vancouver's best designed spaces in which to see art, but it now offers the first Canadian exhibition of an artist well known in Europe and the United States.  Covering the past ten years, the work is rich, and varied, and fascinating, with imagery that runs from natural history to homosexual sadomasochism.  The Secret Life and The Crystal Metaphor are the links of this diversity.

The Garment of a Fleeting Notion is a small vitrine inside of which a large glop of brilliant red oil paint rests atop a copy of the illustration of an iceberg which Nathan used for his series of five paintings Notes on the Future Becoming the Past.  The paint is like a little iceberg of its own, amplifying the notion that what is seen on the surface of ocean or painting is only a fraction of what lies below.  Ninety percent of an iceberg is below the water's surface, submerged below sight and consciousness.  This is the hidden mystery of the iceberg, the iceberg's secret life.  The iceberg is a perfect metaphor for art.  The portion of art which is seen is analogous to what's above, its metaphor, the vastness of its meaning  is what is unseen below.  It's this below, in the secret communication that each person shares with a piece of art beyond the intention, desire, and control of the artist that constitutes the secret life of art.        

An iceberg is a crystallized form.  One which turns water from a common element into something imposing and magnificent.  This is one of the main themes of the Crystal Metaphor - the transmutation of base matter - like water, or paint.  Rituals of Disappearance is an allegorical representation of the four elements transformed from the ordinary to the sublime:  earth to dust storm, air to Northern Lights, water to waterspout, fire to volcanic eruption.  Taken from wood engravings from a nineteenth century work on natural history, Nathan has enlarged and traced them directly onto square aluminum panels.  As presented, the picture has been crystalized into regular units and shattered into a grid.  The indication is that the quality of the experience - of the pictures' former meaning and the experiences represented - has been transformed.  

In the lush and colorful painting Margarethe's Treasure Chest two caves lie side by side.  They meet in a common interior filled with crystals and geodes of all type and color.  On the right is the Blue Grotto of Capri, on the left the Scottish Fingal's Cave formed of columns of basalt.  A pair of small figures appear in each.  They're looking at the caves, but outwards towards sky and light, missing the real treasure which lies unseen in the chamber behind them in which we imaginatively stand.  With the high domed ceiling and dual sockets there's an unmistakable impression of being on the inside of a skull, standing amongst the riches of the mind, looking out.  The figures are turned away from this - another example of the secret life - seeing only surfaces.

First published in The Vancouver Courier

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