Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Ornament, pencil 2011, 30cm diameter

Long ago I teamed myself up with Jessica Rawson to prepare an exhibition at the Royal Academy that would define and celebrate Ornament. We made a trip to the vaults of the Vatican to start the hunt for likely exhibits, and travelled to Vienna to continue the search. It was there over supper at the Sacher Hotel that we discussed in earnest what the show would say and what it might contain.

We questioned each other's choices of the previous days. It soon emerged that our concepts of ornament, its nature, status and role in art were quite different; in effect irreconcilably opposed. With tempers frayed we retired to our respective rooms.

I intended, before finally turning in, to jot down a few clarifying notes, but eventually sat up half the night composing a manifesto that I could read out to Jessica (and to Simonetta Fraquelli who was with us) over breakfast. I only half realised that this would mark the end of the collaboration and the evaporation of the project as a whole. It was this polemical pamphlet that some months later I presented at the RA's Architecture Forum.

Ornament frequently creeps into what I do, usually by way of borders and framing devices. That it was on my mind at the time can be seen in the drawings that obliterate the many agendas and minutes of Merry Meetings (D3 Editions 2005) including its cover illustration.

On my return from Vienna, remembering Derrida's contention that the margins are at the centre, I set about an ambitious exercise in pure ornamental mode. I soon got lost in its improvised and unsystematic convolutions and set it aside as unsolvable. My artistic performance had not matched my rhetoric.

I have now retired from the business of formal portrait painting and stepped down from committees. Taking advantage of new resultant gaps of time I could return to the drawing abandoned so many months ago. Unravelling and reravelling I managed at last to bring it off.

Duino Ornament, h42cm x w29cm, 2011

I made a smaller coloured version, making minor adjustments to balance the field of energy. To this I added, as if to challenge the ornament's autonomy, the opening words from Rilke's first Duino Elegy which kept running through my mind; with various translations forming and reforming as I worked. Not a title but an accompaniment. Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen? Perhaps this could be the official badge of the order of angels.

1 comment:

Mike C. said...

I have always thought that "Ornament" essay would be a perfect text for a little "artist's book". Very intrigued to hear the story behind it.

As to the Rilke... I have to say the subjunctive / conditional in that first line ("schriee" rather than "schreie") is crucial, to my ear ("Who, if I were to cry out would hear me..."), even if this betrays me as the sort of pedant who counts the buttons on Guards' uniforms in historical movies...