Monday, January 18, 2010

INTERVIEW: Part Two, Fran Bull and "In Flanders Fields"

By Janet Van Fleet

Ed: This is Part 2 of an interview with Fran Bull, in which we talk about the background and inspiration for her installation In Flanders Fields. You can read Part 1 here.

JVF: A project of this size must take quite a while to put together! How long have you been working on it?

FB: For almost two years now, taking into account the work in Barcelona and the work in my Vermont studio. I leave in March for Barcelona again, where I plan to continue work on this installation.

JVF: Tell us a little bit about the original motivation for this project, and how it came about. Did it come full-blown out of a response to the poem In Flanders Fields, or did the poem kind of bring together some thoughts and ideas you'd been having for awhile?

FB: Janet, I almost can’t recall the precise moments when a series of paintings I was working on entitled Dark Matter moved into etching and became Season of Bones and when Season of Bones evolved and became In Flanders Fields—all during the past four years.

The poem “In Flanders Fields” came to me, emerged from the Rolodex of the mind, (as I’m fond of calling my faculty of memory), memorized in its entirety, (probably from grade school) and I use it here to symbolize all war, all battlefields, through human history. “Flanders Fields” is for me, the metaphysical locus of all battles fought by human beings to solve interpersonal dilemmas—economic, social, religious and otherwise.

Poetry exerts a powerful influence on my visual art. In Flanders Fields, the poem, arrived concurrently with an impulse to move into work that treated the subject of war blatantly. I took it gladly for the overall title of the installation. The poet Frank Reeve, who has read his mordant, sardonic political poetry at Gallery in-the-Field, sent the poet James Scully to my studio while I worked in early stages of the piece. Scully sent me his powerful poem Gaza soon afterwards. Frank had sent me Scully’s wonderful poem that takes off from Donatello’s sculpture of the young biblical King David, Donatello’s Version. I include those two poems in the show, which thus far has gathered into itself a number of elements: poetry, literary quotations, sculpture, etching, flags, banners, and will soon have a series of collage works, large scale sculpture and a Performance piece.

I add, most humbly, I write poetry as well. Certain images showed up in my poetry long before finding their way into the art – mummies, bones, things found on archeological dig. I am mad for these objects – how they look and feel (to the eye) after having been buried for centuries. I find them to have a poignancy and a beauty that invokes transcendent themes such as death and love and what survives or remains for the living – the relics, the tattered fragments, the shards, the stories and histories, the lesson – and of course, the mysteries, the questions that go unanswered and merely hover there, tantalizingly. Early on, I had never seen myself as a political or activist artist, preferring instead to focus on issues relating to art itself, to the contemporary conversation around formal concerns. At a certain point in my life I moved away, very naturally, from self-referential concerns in art and shifted my focus to the world at large. I found myself wanting to respond to global issues, terrible injustices and horrors – as an artist, but through a mythic prism, to try and discern the cosmic dramas being enacted in the present world, and to find in current events the age-old stories. Locating the mythic within the quotidian is a way to apprehend a larger dynamic and to see events in an a-historic, timeless context.

Early in the nineties I took up a range of social issues, Women’s issues in particular, in my art, and these works were my way to respond to feelings of outrage and grief, and they became a way for me to translate response into “responsibility”, or some would say, symbolic action. I looked to such artists as Picasso, who through Guernica and the preliminary drawings for same, commented powerfully on War; to Daumier, who characterized the human condition in a series of satiric paintings and sculptures; to Goya, whose exquisite copper plates for Desastres de la Guerra and Los Disparates I saw in Madrid. These artists and others were and are still sources of inspiration.

The painting series Dark Matter (for images see my web site and go to Painting/Dark Matter) was inspired by strong feelings I had, and still have, regarding the so-called Iraq “War”. I have no wish to denigrate brave soldiers who choose a military life and its consequences, but I see this war more as the willful, profligate vandalizing of a country.

In Dark Matter (Above: Figure in the Ground Group, 2007, each 12x12"), while many of the pieces are abstract, they are intended as images of a “cover-up”, just as the real nature of and reason for this war has been covered up. I suggest that the luxurious folds and drapery, such as found in Renaissance art, conceal bloodshed and body parts-- heads, legs, torsos as well as broken, contorted machinery—the grotesque and hideous covert facts of this war, covered in “gold and velvet”, in silks and brocades, concealing atrocity and senseless wasting of lives.

JVF: Tell us about the materials you’ve been using for these pieces.

FB: A friend, Robin Carter, an artist who specializes in decorative interiors, suggested the use of Italian plaster when I shared my vision for the Dark Matter series. This stuff is a viscous calcium carbonate, a thick slurry. You shape it and as it dries, it returns to a stony state--limestone, becoming very hard and stable. It turned out to be the perfect material with which to create this work, along with the sculptural pieces that came afterward for In Flanders Fields.

Other materials used included what are often called mixed media. I used materials that I found in the building of the overall image. Styrofoam crates, especially large ones made to encase particular items for shipping, were turned into plinths and pedestals. For the Larks (among other materials, including muslin) I used wooden sticks, Gorilla glue and whatever worked to build armatures. The Poppies (see below) were put together with sticks, Styrofoam and metal screening—I see this way of working as a kind of improvisational approach—the materials were put together, securely yes, but in the spirit of a kind of 3-D sketch aimed at creating an illusion.

JVF: How about the two-dimensional work?

I am very fortunate to be working with master printer Virgili Barbara, of the Barcelona family of master printers and editors. Virgili has been a collaborator and mentor for ten years now. His father Joan (Catalan for Juan) worked with Picasso to make some of the latter’s great and innovative etchings. Virgili grew up working with such greats as Miro, Saura, Chillida, Dali, Cruspinera and many others. Far from taking a traditional approach to printmaking, Virgili continually urges innovation, and supports it in his shop (see below).

Every year since 2000 I have made etchings in this workshop (Taller 46). In 2008 I created the series Season of Bones based upon a startling image I found in Archaeology Magazine of two human skeletons found buried in an embrace. These were discovered in Italy and were determined to be around 4000 years old. Working with this image led me to a deep personal meditation on love and death, and I attempted, in my artist’s way, to penetrate to the mystery presented by the image in the photograph, to ask perhaps some of the same questions scientists might ask, such as who were these people, how did they die, why were they together in this particular way, etc. and to attempt to answer them in an artist’s way, through imagination and intuition. The body of work I eventually completed is my speculation on these questions, and my riff on the photographic image as I found it in the magazine.

From Season of Bones (see left), the odyssey towards Flanders Fields progressed. I’d already begun the large sculptural piece, the Wall of the Fallen Ones in my Vermont studio, when I returned to Barcelona early in 09. The poem In Flanders Fields served as a blueprint, and as an image for this current Installation and became my meditation on War and a personal plea for peace. Beyond this intention is a larger aim: to join with those for whom the paradigm of War itself as a solution for human dilemmas is no longer viable.

I layered etchings from the Flanders Fields series, literally, over Season of Bones. In this way, I layered and combined their meanings – Season of Bones became an image of the love that survives death, the liebestod. It now stood for that unknown quantity of love held in bones, in lives lost and interred – on the battlefields and in the cemeteries of War. The violence that had ended the lives of the embracing lovers was a subject for speculation, for the theorizing and investigations of science and left, as well, for the imaginations of poets. This archaeological find was a gift from antiquity. It brought me to a meditation on those fallen in battle, the recent dead ones, who lay buried without acknowledgement or ceremonies. What quantity of love died with them, and of course, what sorrow? And weren’t they all, in a way, also lovers manqué?

Picasso said, “I paint not what I seek, but what I have found”. I have learned, as an artist, to trust my impulses however wild, and seemingly dissociated, and to act upon them. They come to me as memories, dreams, flashes of insight, and most of all, as mind pictures. Certain ideas arrive to my imagination fully realized, and my task is to set about bringing into “incarnation” that which glares at me from an internal screen. I “saw” for instance, the field of wrapped heads I now call The Wall of the Fallen Ones. I “saw” the Greek women of Lysistrata’s circle as “witnesses” and I can trace the voyage of this image back to the poem, Cantata for Leone Andrews, (see poem above) written years before. I know the process is a kind of poetic one wherein seemingly unrelated pieces come together strangely and perfectly. My task then, is to build these images convincingly in the outer world, to “orchestrate”, so to speak, the score living in my imagination.

On my many visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I always make a special pilgrimage to the Classical galleries to commune with the Roman busts of marble. I stand in front of these mute personages, going from one melancholy face to another, marveling at the craftsmanship in their making, and sensing that these are portraits of real human beings. They never fail to move me, and now, I am able to pay a kind of homage to them. They have a great part to play in my “drama”.

In Barcelona in March-April of 2009 I made a total of almost 81 (based upon the number 9) etchings for In Flanders Fields only one of which appears in the current installation. In a very real sense, these works are a kind of “Art of the Fugue” in etching. As a body, they expose a wide range of etching techniques and possibilities, based, as they are, upon the idea of theme and variation. In Flanders Fields, the poem, has three main elements that correspond to an experience of the natural world: the sky with larks singing; the earth, flowering with poppies (the same ones veterans now distribute as they solicit donations!); and the underground space—the domain of the fallen ones.

JVF: I believe the Carving Studio exhibit is the first in a series of exhibits of this work, some of which may add additional elements. Can you tell us where In Flanders Fields may travel next, and when?

FB: I will install In Flanders Fields at Woman Made Gallery in Chicago in June or July of 2010, and in 2011 at the Christine Price Gallery in Castleton. We are currently in conversation with the directors of a number of other exhibition venues. I want to bring this work across America, and let it gather moss, so to speak, see it evolve.

JVF: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us at Vermont Art Zine. We wish you great success with In Flanders Fields as it continues to unfold.