Over the past three years I have been working in a studio in Ivry-sur-Seine, a short bike ride to the Manufacture des Gobelins, a museum and manufacturer of tapestries in Paris that has been operating since the seventeenth century. In a recent series of works, I developed painting tools and techniques that mimic the surface of a tapestry. These paintings have sweeping ribbon-like marks that appear superimposed, obscuring recognisable readings of the scene behind. A series I recently exhibited included works inspired by Les Chasses de Maximilien (Hunts of Maximilian), a twelve part tapestry series crafted in the 1500s.
When the weavers weave those fabrics…A grey that’s woven from red, blue, yellow, off-white and black threads, a blue broken by a green and an orange, red or yellow thread are very different from plain colours—that is, they vibrate more and make whole colours look harsh, whole, and lifeless beside them.
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Nuenen, Thursday, 30 April 18851
In 1888, Van Gogh made numerous paintings of the landscape in Arles using multicoloured, lozenge-like marks that referenced the woven surface of fabrics and tapestries. During this period, he had studied the colour theories of French chemist Michael E. Chevreul who was the director of the Gobelins Tapestry Manufactory in Paris and had developed a method of intensifying the brilliance of colours by means of contrast.2 Van Gogh tested the effects of different colour combinations based on Chevreul’s theories aided by a box of colourful balls of wool that he referenced when making paintings.3
Ahead of my recent exhibition at Sullivan+Strumpf earlier this year in July, Lights, Figures, and Landscapes, I had been looking at The Hunts of Maximilian, a series of 4.5 x 6 metre tapestries displayed in the Richelieu wing in the Louvre. Woven in Brussels in the 1530s, they came into the collection of Louis XV of France in 1665. The original drawings for these tapestries are attributed to the Netherlandish painter Bernaert Van Orley (1488-1541). Depicting hunting scenes in the Soignes Forest on the outskirts of Brussels, each of the twelve tapestries are dedicated to a month of the year. The landscapes represent the changing seasons and architectural details of the surrounding areas. In the foregrounds are figures dressed in elaborate costumes riding on horses accompanied by dogs hunting dear and boar.
Looking closely at the details of these tapestries played an important role in the development of my paintings for the exhibition. Scanning across their surfaces one can trace subtle shifts in tone and texture achieved by the weaving together of different coloured threads, along with the gold and silver that was woven into the picture plane. Up-close, in the details, these tapestries reveal a microcosm of visual information and studying them has helped me develop new painterly strategies.
Tapestries of this size required enormous resources and large workshops of skilled craftspeople. This series took approximately sixty weavers three years to complete. In the mid 1500s, around one third of the population of Brussels worked, in some form or another, in the manufacture and sale of tapestries. Amazingly, in 1797, most tapestries held in the collection of Louis XV that contained gold and silver were burned to recover their precious metals. For reasons unknown, The Hunts of Maximillian, were spared.
For these paintings, I experimented with a range of different textural painted marks that emulated meticulously woven surfaces. By layering fast drying acrylic paint applied with various adapted tools, the up-close surface of my paintings reveals the fluidity of the material and the speed in which they were made.
An ongoing part of my practice is to generate source material by making coloured pencil drawings and digital collages. My recent drawings are rendererd using intersecting directional marks to mimic the appearance of warp and weft. My drawings and collages combine cut-out fragments of my own photographs of tapestries, landscapes, plants and interiors with gestural painterly marks. Translating these collages and drawings into paintings brings further complexities and distortions to the compositions as the representational elements are obscured.
In these new works, there is an interplay between my systemic rules of mimicry and moments of more intuitive freedom as decisions take place in the process of painting. The stacked layers oscillate between optical trickery and nuanced painterly expression. The variation of textured organic spaces, with crisp and defined masked edges, further disrupt literal readings of the representational imagery.
In The Hunt of Maximilian series, each scene is framed by an elaborate border. This framing acts as a decorative device and emphasizes the drama playing out in the scenes. In my paintings, trompe l’oeil trims act as an important pictorial strategy. Painted territories are contained within these frames while gestural marks not bound to the systems of the weave underneath, hover like loose threads, draping fabric or ribbons appear to project out into space, defying logic, in a moment of baroque theatricality.