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UCL Culture Blog


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The trace is the appearance of nearness

By Martine Rouleau, on 30 May 2017

Blog post written by Liz Rideal, Leverhume artist in residence at UCL Art Museum and Reader in Fine Art at the Slade School of Fine Art

Installation view of Terme Di Diocletian by Liz Rideal

Installation view of Terme di Diocleziano by Mike Dye

The trace is the appearance of nearness, however far removed the thing that left it behind may be. The aura is the appearance of a distance, however close the thing that calls it forth. In the trace, we gain possession of the thing; in the aura, it takes possession of us.

Walter Benjamin

All of the UCL Museums exist in compact spaces, the Art Museum is no exception with John Flaxman‘s (1755-1826) sculptural bequests crowding the walls, leaving small gaps for temporary exhibitions. The advantage here is that the plethora adds to the excitement around what is available to see, and the Legacy exhibition of Richard Cooper Jnr (1740-1822) makes an unusual eighteenth century complement to the permanent display. Cooper Jnr’s prints are exhibited so that one can compare, contrast and appreciate their repetition of landscape format and small scale. We can recognise the tropes made familiar by his precedents, Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), Claude Lorraine (1604/5-1682) and lesser known but more famous in his day, Herman van Swanevelt (c.1603-1655) with their reiterated Italianate views made popular by print and available in albums. It emerged that the museum curatorial assistant George Richards’s Masters was on The Dutch golden age. A landscape print of Richard Cooper Jnr’s ‘after Swanevelt’ was in the display, consequently I was able to expand his knowledge of this artist through sharing art historian Sue Russell‘s research into Swanevelt, thus making further connections – another unimagined benefit of my Leverhulme research grant.

The ‘Roman Grand Tour’ views, whether imagined ‘capriccios’, ‘veduti’ or containing ancient Roman monuments obviously pre-date but are in visual accord with a Warholian philosophy vis-a-vis art production through their reliance on repetition and familiarity. Hence Cestius’s Pyramid pops up again and again locating us in Rome, similarly Cecilia’s Mausoleum on the Appian outskirts, the cascades of Tivoli and the lake at Nemi. The idea of referring to another artist, making a homage or copying for inspiration and learning is also present. These are the strands of research that interest me and on which I wish expand, in particular how the figure (or suggestion of) is pictured within the open landscape and connects to immutable rock both there and also in the shape of Roman sculpture. My triptych; Terme Di Diocletian, shows how the coloured drape can breathe life into static ancient form by building on its readymade drapery and adding real drapes, suggesting fleeting energy by photographing the active cloth in motion. In recognition of Cooper Jnr’s interest in new technology, I’m employing the digital to both create images and print them onto translucent silk, for installation in the three window apertures of the UCL Museum.

I’m also showing a series of prints gathered together in portfolios as loose works. Like Cooper Jnr’s, they reveal interpretations of still extant Roman places such as the Theatre of Marcellus and the Temple of Vesta. Additionally subject matter includes abstract quarry spaces, the locus of building materials for all these edifices. These prints hover between what might be called photographic reality and painted interpretation. Some printed and over printed, coloured in layered washes or details painted in specifically to fox the viewer and play games with the notion of suspended disbelief. Because many of the views are ancient the slippage and shift of time comes into play in ways that also reflect the actual production of the artwork whether it be painted, printed or photographed.

My new work, inspired by travels funded by Leverhulme, investigates Roman sculpture, architecture and the Campagna, and explore the idea of disrupting the monumental severity of Classical Antiquity with lightweight, mutable, coloured cloth. The resulting images suggest fleeting human presence through my leitmotif freeform flying fabric; the soft-edged folds of bright silk held in momentary tension against the formal patterns of crafted stone.

I am aiming to create more traces and call forth auras, conjuring aspects of nineteenth century spirit photography and dreamy archaeology. Whereas it seems standard for landscape paintings to be interpretations and sometimes fictional elaborations of known and recognisable scenes – Painting can feign reality without having seen it. According to Roland Barthes, photographic imagery is accepted as a simulation of ‘actual life’ and used as documentary evidence suggesting that the photograph does not lie, when we know that it can and does.

The photograph masquerades as an echo of reality while revealing ghosts – traces of people once living who inhabited their recorded spaces. Furthermore, in nineteenth century portrait photography, when individuals moved during the process of image making, so their liminal trail was equally caught on camera like a soft vapour. It is these ghostings that intrigue me as they appear to reflect a real animated past life in a way that their immobile compatriots cannot.

My images strive to answer questions that elide photography with painting, and focus on drapery as subject. Perhaps these cloth photographs suggest roving spirits by capturing their fleeting presence as translucent wraiths in digital code? My records of activity add a poetic dimension to the layers of data available on Rome and the Campagna and aim to temper the mountain of diagnostic accumulated material on this familiar subject.

Liz Rideal’s work can be seen at UCL Art Museum as part of the Legacy exhibition until the 9th of June 2017.

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