Court Tree Gallery proudly presents "New Dawn Fades" by Christian Nguyen, a collection of paintings inspired by Claude Monet's “Rouen Cathedral” - a series of 30 paintings observing the light changing on the facade of the Rouen Cathedral painted in the early 1890's. Nguyen's primarily focus is architecture and how it embodies the mind, body and soul. He has discovered in these paintings the transformation of a subject (the Cathedral) into a metaphor for the subconscious (Architecture : structure of the mind : spirit) and how it is communicated by the vehicle of light (also a symbol for spirit/mind but also the ephemeral, impermanence etc.)
On the Cathedral Series
When you are working with architectural forms you will immediately encounter the form of the Arch. This form can be found as a structure for windows, doors, apertures for columns, as a decorative device and if you were to spin the arch on its central vertical axis, you will get the shape of the dome. In the context of my paintings, the arch is a semicircle mounted on top of vertical supports that refer mostly to the shape of windows, archways and archivolts. This shape is generally European in style and can be found on cathedrals and fortresses in abundance.
It is used in my paintings to frame the painting itself, very much like the way an archivolt is used to frame the doorway of a church. A painting is a metaphorical space - in the traditional sense of a picture, the painted image depicts a scene or an imitation of nature - this is not real, often highly stylistic - but in most cases a way to communicate in a non verbal language to the masses. Walking into the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, Italy - the painted panels by Giotto tell the biblical story that for centuries was the staple of content for all representational art. Installed like comic-book panels along the walls, visitor could immediately “read’ the image as chapters from the bible. In the Pompeii frescoes, the use of painted decorative framing transitions the viewer into the tromp l’oeils, featuring idyllic scenes and still-life paintings that offer the viewer an escape from the every day. The space of the painting is a membrane that offers an experience. As a portal, it is a way into a system of ideas, a visual language that is activated through the ability of the metaphorical function of the mind.
In my the painting, when it is more than life size, the arch assumes the scale of an architectural precipice, the way a door or window is the defining edge between the interior and exterior. As the painting shrinks, our proportional relation to the image makes us think more of our selves, the painting acts as a mirror - the gaze is self reflecting as it is aware simultaneously of the surface, the space it creates but also the awareness of viewing. In icon paintings which are generally small in size so they may be portable, the figures are often enclosed in the shape of the halo, and sometimes the decorative frame of the panel itself is a representation of a the church setting. Looking at the icon, is an act of adoration but also a way to enter the sacred space itself.
I am indebted to the historical in my work because I see my work as part of that continuum. I have always felt a kinship to the things that inspire me, and through that kinship, that sense of relating is a connecting to that world of ideas. As a painter in the present, making art for the sake of art is not enough for me. Neither is my work a questioning of any socio-politicaleconomic-gender-critique of the status quo, I leave that to the experts that actually study these topics. The ideas that shape my paintings come from the experience that every artist shares -why do we make art?
In looking at the blank canvas, the tabla rasa, I feel connected to the early cave dweller. It is believed, that in the depth and darkness of the cave, this person experienced sensory deprivation, a self induced state of trance and hallucination in which the mental image that was seen within the mind merged with the features of the cave that was seen with sight. The merging of the mental picture and the physical wall, the placement of drawn images on rock formations, in locations in which the shaman was lying prone to the floor, or looking above at the ceiling… this was the beginning. The context is extraordinary, because the self induced state to which these images were produced was something that was premeditated. There is anthropological evidence that shows humans traveling deep into the cave to do this, producing candles and charcoal, segregating themselves from the group, and preparing for this journey. There are areas of the cave for the group, and sacred areas for the ritual of this image making. The migration from profane to sacred, from conscious to subconscious was a way to understand a mental ability that has separated us from all other species - the ability to create and think in metaphorical terms. The journey into the cave an back itself is the metaphorical crossing of states.
We have to picture a time when there is very little context for so many modern day things, in particular the understanding of the mind and neurology. In the Paleolithic period during which time Homo Sapiens became the dominant humanoid creature, there was established the dynamic of class - social hierarchies to maintain social production and the means for survival. There was clearly the use of adornment and decoration, the establishment of ritual and ceremony. But in the Homo Sapien mind is the emergence of metaphorical thinking that separated them from the Neanderthal. In the cave, we see evidence in the ritual image making in which this cognition of the metaphorical mind - the recognition of another reality, the presence of another consciousness was allowed to merge with the physical world. Like the Australian Aboriginal ‘dream-world’ - the sensing of a coexistence between different worlds, the idea of traveling to another realm must have been magical.
From the cave to the temple, the use of architectural space to carry a vision continues. The concept of spectacle to create awe and through shock to provoke a shift in the conscious to another realm for me is the magical power of art. Architecture not only carries the image, but in many examples is the subject as well. In the surreal spaces of De Chirico’s painting, the Piazza and the Italian city, a forlorn industrialized version with a Roman setting, is a place for anxiety and displacement - itself a concept of philosophy and a social critique. For Brunelleschi, architecture was the backdrop for a visual treatise on perspective and the creation of a logical ordering of space. For Piranesi, famous for his etchings and views of Ancient Rome, and in the context of Neo-Classicism, the inspiration found in architectural
forms of Ancient Rome was seen as a nostalgic gaze into the past of a once mighty power - a popular metaphor for the imperfection and transience of human existence.
In the Tibetan tradition of mandala painting, the image of the mandala is a spatial visualization of the cosmos as a structure that is a spiritual and a functional map for the hierarchic structure of principles and ideas. In the mandala - oriented to the cardinal points - the framing devices we see as concentric squares are stages of a vertical transcending pathway into the center of consciousness. The visualization towards the interior, is a non-Western approach to space that is not based on the concept of perspective. The mandala mapping of the physical space is a representation of the metaphysical structure of the Tibetan universe, and the practitioner engages with this space on a meditative level.
The journey into the subconscious is also represented by the architecture itself as it relates to the body. In the Hindu tradition, temples are arranged as a passage into the chakras of the body, the visitor’s journey into the temple, his spiritual transformation akin to the voyage back into the metaphysical realm, is mirrored by this journey through the temple. In the Western tradition, the cathedral layout is symbolic of the crucifix. The visitor enters through the doors of the church positioned at the foot of the crucifix and travels upwards towards the intersection of the cross to receive the communion. The path to salvation is a literal commute through the body of the church which is the body of Christ.
The metaphorical space, as a threshold of transitioning is at the root of many spiritual and ceremonial practices. For the early H. Sapien to grapple with the transition of death, sensing this other space was terrifying but also mind blowing. It is in the ritual of the death journey that we see the most examples of art making from the perspective of social production throughout human civilization. Most notable are the Egyptian tombs and the Chinese terracota armies. But the death journey has always involved the body interred in some type of sacred space.
When you think about the symbolic body and its connection to the metaphysical use of architectural layout to the ways humans have interred the dead in vessels appropriate for their journeys - boats, mausoleums, burial mounds, raised pyres, the hollow of trees etc. it makes clear how we have always returned to the thresh hold of the metaphorical as a foundation to our existence. For the cave painter, the journey into the cave involves sometimes the drawing of images - these are scenes of ritualistic death - the sacred hunt - and through that, the transferring of the magical powers of the sacred beasts to empower the shaman. The process of image making in this context was magical, establishing a spiritual foundation for the shaman, his authority and hence function as a mediator for the group. How similar is the example of Christ appearing resurrected from the tomb cave to emerge as a fully realized symbol of the deity.
Monet’s Rouen Cathedral Paintings
I have taken quite a detour from talking about painting to a loose survey of world architecture, but returning to the metaphysical space of the painting, the use of architectural space is not a coincidence. The presence of the arch, the framing devices and the use of architectural form in my work has been based on these ideas. The use of the church as a subject is magnificently so in Monet’s Rouen cathedral paintings. Painted on site in 1892 and 1893 in Rouen, Normandy - the subject was the gothic cathedral that towered over what once was a Gaul then Roman city. The cathedral was reconstructed in the gothic style in the 12th century, and Rouen was considered at the time of the Impressionists to be the Venice on the Seine. In the many portrayals of the city scape, the tower of the Cathedral was the most imposing vertical element. Monet wanted to paint something different than his contemporaries, and rather than choose a far vantage point, he positioned himself directly across the cathedral square in a small shop. The series of paintings begun showed Monet’s attempt to capture the fleeting light on the cathedral facade. Painting multiple canvases at the same time over two sessions, Monet collected the canvases and continued to work on them at his studio in Giverny (1894). In these canvases, what he was attempting to paint was not the cathedral but the light.
For me the connection between Monet’s cathedrals and the process of painting in the cave had many striking similarities. Pushing the architectural subject to the side, Monet’s endeavor was one that was performative and site specific even in the contemporary sense. In the context of performance, the subject of the painting was not in the representation of the cathedral as object but in the process of engaging with time, place, and the artist body in space. The position in front of the facade eliminated the possibility of representing the cathedral as a whole and thus as an autonomous object. What we see through the multiple canvases is the fragmented reality of one thing repeated over and over. The cathedral became a wall, its contoured surfaces of archivolts, decorations and supports dissolved into a surface that was transmutable and reflective. The stone surface became a membrane with which the perception of time and reality merged, the capture of a moment evolved to become a broader concept of time. In the reworking of the canvas, off-site a year later, the painting as an observational image was replaced by the conceptual image of what the paintings meant for Monet. What began as a copy of nature became an experience with painted matter. The dissolution of matter into atmosphere - the physical elements of earth, stone, sky loses its materiality to become texture, color, surface. The journey from the real into the metaphorical is my experience of these paintings, and why as a reference, the Arch paintings are so indebted to them.
“Here and there, in the 1880’s in a letter to Durand-Ruel or in a remark of Pisarro’s, we sense the difficulty Monet encountered in transforming the picture as the representation of something seen into a painting as an expressive work of art, that is to say, as an expression of his inner sensibility, as a fact of consciousness rather than merely of observation.”
The process of painting, using the architectural form is rich and goes beyond the purely the depiction of space. In this practice, what I consider is the connection to an ancestral practice that one may say goes even beyond the idea making of art. There is an inwardly journey with every painting of recognizing familiar ideas, concepts that are foundational to the work - but as with every adventure, of meeting unexpected things, there is always a slightly different story, a slightly different experience when one emerges.