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Katrina Blannin | Annodam at Jessica Carlisle

11 March - 9 April 2016

A review by Andy Parkinson

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Katrina Blannin - Annodam - copyright Tom Carter, by Courtesy of Jessica Carlisle

It seems fitting that I should be visiting Katrina Blannin’s show at Jessica Carlisle gallery just before Easter and attempting to get this review written during the Easter holidays.  I see that Geoff Hands, writing in Abcrit, has just beaten me to it (and I am resisting reading his review until after I have completed mine). It is fitting because the colour and abstract geometry on view here are derived from a religious painting, Madonna del Parto (c.1455-60), a fresco by Piero della Francesca, ostensibly a portrait of the virgin Mary in her visibly pregnant state. I can understand the attraction of the image; while del parto suggests birth, this looks more like a celebration of pregnancy itself, maybe even of womanhood in general, perhaps a vestige of that early Christian feminism, eroded over time, in which women (unreliable witnesses according to the dominant culture) were the first to be entrusted with the news of the resurrection. There is also something very earthly, material, fleshy, about this image of a heavily pregnant woman. In the Christian narrative of word made flesh, it is flesh that is emphasised here. However, the meanings of the image are multi-layered. It is feminist (centred on Mary as a person) and material, but Jesus is also present here although not yet visible, a sign not just of the advent but of the church’s function to ‘contain’ the invisible Christ. Typologically, I think, it is also a reference to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, a meditation on the divine self-emptying, from heaven to womb, to earth and tomb. Mary’s pregnancy becomes a type for the entombment of the dead Jesus, and an anticipation of his resurrection. It’s the same typology that makes an egg a symbol of resurrection, becoming today the chocolate Easter egg, now only a parody of the Eucharist meal, or Holy Communion. That Mary is flanked by two angels, and that the compositional geometry puts her womb almost dead centre below a cruciform arrangement, is surely also meant to remind us of the crucifixion; the two angels prefigure the two others between whom Jesus was crucified. For a worshipper, the small church, Santa Maria a Momentana, on the outskirts of the hill-town of Monterchi, is transformed, via its fresco portrait, into a sign of the advent in the image of the pregnant Mary, and even becomes the site of Golgotha, the tomb and the resurrection all in one, in a kind of sacramental compression of space and time.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto (c.1455-60)

Yet Blannin’s are not religious paintings. I doubt I could have made the connection to the Madonna del Parto had it not been specifically referenced in the gallery notes and in the exhibition title, Annodam (Madonna backwards). Or does the backwards reading suggest an irreligious, or even sacrilegious interpretation? These paintings hardly resemble their source. Piero’s fresco is sizeable, and site-specific, whereas Blannin’s canvases are small and portable. The fresco is peopled with religious figures, its function having been didactic and liturgical. The paintings, on the other hand, are geometric, completely devoid of representational figuration, whether religious or otherwise. The invited comparison opens to question the function of contemporary abstract painting. When I view them, despite the hushed tones of the gallery and the meditative state they tend to elicit, their function is decidedly neither didactic nor sacramental. The rise of easel painting since the 16th century was associated with the secularisation of art, and the implication that a painting could be an object of worth in its own right. The move from figuration to abstraction in the 20th century could be seen as a continuation of this trend.

Katrina Blannin, Red in Four Directions, 2016, Acrylic on flax, 30 x 30 cm, Image Copyright of the artist, photo by Ben Deakin

In Red in Four Directions all content has been emptied out. Blannin concentrates instead on the formal qualities of the square support and the compositional direction lines: two cross-formations, one perpendicular and one diagonal, resulting in a 3 x 3 cell grid. Direction lines are indicated with circular ‘markers’, which have become the main event, two differently-sized circles in reds based on the colours of the Francesca, situated on a white ground, although strictly speaking I think the ground is painted last, around or over masked circles. The strong suggestion of direction lines, whether of crosses or a grid, prevents the circles from floating freely, or rather the sense that they are floating is continually interrupted by this other sense that they are fixed.

Katrina Blannin, Green in Four Directions, 2016, Acrylic on flax, 30 x 30 cm, Image copyright of the artist, photo by Ben Deakin

In Green in Four Directions the central cruciform shape has given way to a green circle, much larger than in Red in Four Directions, and surrounded by smaller circles, of a different green, one positioned in each of the four corners. There’s much more optical action taking place when I look at this than I might have imagined. The central circle appears to breathe, in time with my own breathing perhaps, a kind of gentle pulsating, enlarging very slightly with each in-breath and contracting on the out-breath. Then again, it might have nothing to do with my breathing, only my seeing. That I am aware of my own presence, just me and this strange other, belongs specifically, I think, to the kind of art that Katrina Blannin makes. The apparent simplicity, the paring down to only that which seems necessary, foregrounds, in my experience, the relationship, my relation to this external object on the wall, within this environment (a great space for these works). But reflexive self-awareness isn’t the whole story. There are interesting things happening ‘out there’ in the paintings themselves. I just keep getting reminded that what’s ‘out there’ is affected by my observing it. Just as in studying a religious image, but in a different register perhaps, the viewer is continually brought back to the issue of their relationship to it.

I get up close and study the way the edges are dealt with. In some of these paintings Blannin takes the paint (always very neatly) around the edge, whereas in others the paint stops right there. The edge is important: that this object/image starts and ends here. The edge of the painting is its own frame, marking out the object-of-worth-in-its-own-right. While it would be too speculative to suggest a passage here from icon to idol, there is a movement from referential image to autonomous object, and one that appears quite in line with the Reformation attitude to visual art, in which, for religious reasons, images should be kept entirely secular. Such an argument links for me to the separation of church and state, the contemporary merging of which is turning out very badly.

Katrina Blannin, Tabernacle, 2016, Acrylic on flax, 30 x 30 cm, Image copyright of the artist, photo by Ben Deakin

In Tabernacle, a larger central circle, this time in a deep red, is surrounded by small red discs in the corners and white ones in a cross-formation. If in Green in Four Directions the central circle seems to be held in place by the corner circles, in Tabernacle the cross-formation fulfils this function; the darker red discs in the corners almost disappear, as they are closer in tonal value to the black ground.

Blannin’s images are constructed in layers of semi-transparent paint. ‘Staining’ seems almost the right word for it, and it results in sonorous tones and subtle hues that hint at the method of their own production; the process is evidenced although not explicitly documented. If in the source imagery the meanings are layered, in the paintings the physical output is layered, which also leads to meaning of a different kind, empty of content, generalised, abstract. The layering of meaning in these works is imminent rather than transcendent. Whatever narrative is contained here is held within the image as the record of its making, much as we all carry around in our own bodies the narrative of how we came to be this way. But is there symbolic meaning? It is difficult not to see in Green in Four Directions and in Tabernacle a symbol of the empty tomb, especially now that we know about the source imagery.

These are smart paintings, quite beautiful in their own right, and knowledge of the source material adds a level of complexity to their interpretation that is new in Blannin’s output. Or is it? The series of hexads, which have become characteristic of her work prior to this show, are the result of a systems approach to abstraction. The question she now seems to be asking in relation to this new source might be “what (geometric) system underpins the construction?” The task of deciphering the connection to the source is not much different to that of working out the systems upon which some of her other works are predicated. In both sets of production it is how the word becomes flesh; the relationship between system and resultant image, between abstract and concrete, pattern and material presence that interests me, as well as the fundamental relationship, or indeed difference, between the artist’s physical construction and the perceptual construction of the viewer.

Katrina Blannin, Annodam, is on show at Jessica Carlisle until 9 April.