“Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be at all”. The last sentence of André Breton’s 1928 Surrealist novel Nadja could have been written in reaction to the work of Frances Aviva Blane.
Her latest book, FAB, accompanying her forthcoming exhibition at De Queeste Art in Belgium, delivers a series of visceral shocks.
Its format is big – almost a square foot –and it shouts loud pinks with black paint dripping over block capitals FAB, Blane’s nickname since attending art school.
Therapist/writer Susie Orbach believes that Blane’s Heads are a salutary antidote to the anodyne smoothing over that characterises so many of the made-up faces considered beautiful in today’s world of selfies and über-self-enhancement.
Orbach is right. An obsessive desire for “perfection” has became a global epidemic, with countless young people – male and female alike – falling prey to the notion that only by massively altering your looks can you be truly attractive and successful. A notion which of course is heavily marketed by make-up companies and those selling costly and dangerous medical procedures.
Thus, it’s perhaps strange that a glossy “celebrity” shot of the artist, her face dominated by massive sunglasses, wearing vibrant red lipstick and sitting in the back seat of a car, adorns the opening pages of FAB. It’s the “acceptable” beauty that Orbach talks about.
There is no hint of what is to come. But there they are: “The Heads”. The conflicts of the inner soul are revealed.
April: No spring hopes, but a long face with a mop of messy hair, the mouth sagging, red and brown paint smeared across. It gets gloomier. Summer Head, also contradicting its title, is even scrawlier and more smudged, with square black holes for eyes and a mouth that dribbles downwards. Only when you reach Blue Head, is there a note of humour, though the red crayoned eyes look questioning more than happy.
Childlike? Yes, but without naiveté. Instead infinite honesty and grief. And a brilliant control of how images and mark-making occupies and controls pictorial space.
Orbach notes in her introduction to FAB: “It is her use of the paint or the charcoal, and the way the slashed eyes or the slanted mouth tell of fragmenting while holding within the boundary of the paper, that so impresses.”
Yellow Head is unbearably sad. Clown-white, smeared mouth against a yellow background. The eyes seem puffy and half-closed. The last image, Split Head, has only one suggested eye. The rest is red acrylic rubbed over white. Half the face has spills flowing over it like Rorschach test shadows. The message is loud and clear:
“I am alive and here. I feel. I suffer. I reach out. I am your other. I show what you may be afraid to admit.”
For Blane, the Heads are a kind of five-finger exercise, a touching base, a a kind of “movement in minor” in relation to her grander symphonies. But I’ve jumped ahead. You only reach the Heads after navigating the earlier sections of the book which highlight oil paintings on linen.
Black on Pink is in the square format so often used by the artist. Every millimetre is full of life, the black and pink struggling against each other – no hint of any recognisable form, but rhythms of drips and unexpected touches of blue, red and yellow. It’s a pure joy in the movement of colour, texture and what the French call matière. Over the deep blacks are blue touches and scores and scratches revealing pink below the black. The edges relieve the black.
The very large Morning is exceptionally bright. The lightest of light – only yellow, a bit of red on a white ground, almost blinding. It’s followed immediately by White on Blue 2, an explosion of electric blue and violet. White lightning drips and dances over a black continent floating in a blue and purple sky. It’s a cosmic fantasy created in only four colours. It defies association with anything you might have seen or know. Just oil paint on linen doing things.
In the middle section of FAB called “The Paint”, the camera zooms in to highlight the substance of the oil paint and the texture of the canvas. It’s as though you have the canvas before you under a magnifying glass. Landscapes are created by using paint impossibly thick – in the tradition of Frank Auerbach and the late Leon Kossoff – or by thinning it so that it makes the most delicate of veiled shadows, recalling Mark Rothko’s floating masterpieces.
Which brings us back to André Breton. The opening words of Nadja are “Who am I?”
What defines Blane’s artistic personality is a total honesty. No artificiality, no subterfuge, no descriptions. Instead, a generosity of spirit, a love of experimentation and strict self-control. Can matter think? asked Duns Scotus, a Scottish monk in the 13th century. Yes, in the hands of this artist it can.
FAB. By Susie Orbach and Frances Aviva Blane is published by Starmount Publishing. Design is by Joe Corr.
In the beginning was the mark 28 April 2018
German expressionism’s night at the embassy 3 May 2017
All or nothing 18 December 2015
Before, yesterday and now 3 September 2014
Back to black 10 March 2014
Heart of darkness 10 September 2011