MADDER – it’s all in the preparation

Two years ago the Griffin Gallery in West London launched its first Griffin Art Prize competition for UK-based artists who graduated within the past five years. The winner of the prize is awarded a six-month residency at the Griffin Gallery and Studios, resulting in a solo exhibition at the gallery with a published catalogue. They will also have access to a supply of the world’s finest artist materials from a leading supplier of their choice: Winsor & Newton, Liquitex, and Conté à Paris. MADDER is the fruitful product of Griffin Art Prize 2013 winners Luke George and Elizabeth Rose, an artist-couple who won the prize with their abstract piece Gate (2013).

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Luke George and Elizabeth Rose in front of their winning piece Gate (2013). Image via mediacentre.kallaway.co.uk.

For their first solo show they decided to focus on the rose madder pigment, a natural pigment with historical connections tracing back to Ancient Egypt, to J.M.W. Turner, and the colourman and chemist George Field who was seeking a vivid pink shade in 1804. The pigment derives from madder plant extract which is soluble in water, and Field managed to turn this into an insoluble, solid pigment now known as madder lake. Field’s methods were eventually adopted by Winsor & Newton co-founder William Winsor, and the company have been producing the pigment in the same way since 1835, devoid of synthetic chemicals and modern machinery.

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Extracting the madder pigment.

George and Rose have an affinity towards natural materials. In their biography, they state that they “use matter that forms a part of our heritage such as earth, plant and metal pigments, natural glues and gesso.” They have a conscious awareness and appreciation for art history and its methods, and this is reflected in their choice of materials. Whilst researching during the early part of their residency, they visited the British Museum, stating their fascination for the Ancient Egyptians for their “concise use of imagery and their use of pigments” as well as the Parthenon of the Ancient Greeks, finding it “transportive” and made them “consider the time between then and now which felt oddly diminished.” Through the use of natural pigments and materials, George and Rose help bridge the gap between the antique and the contemporary.

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Luke George & Elizabeth Rose, 27.03.14 Madder, 2014.

Working closely with Winsor & Newton’s innovation and development department, the couple were introduced to the painstaking preparation process needed to blend and perfect the madder pigments which take around 13 weeks to produce. This process caught their attention and it remains a visible ingredient in their final products. In the diptych 27.03.14 Madder (2014) there are circular imprints which have been left by the containers of extracted madder dye. The precipitation process is also particularly explosive – due to a chemical reaction between the dye and a chemical compound called alum – and George and Rose have utilised this in their works, noting it as the “essence” of the madder. “We find the ritual of preparation important in that it allows us the opportunity to understand the properties of the medium prior to application.” As part of the process, there is usually a build-up of white foam which is visible in some of the works. Some of these areas crystallise to form intricate patterns that somewhat resemble a network of estuaries.

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Luke George & Elizabeth Rose, 27.03.14 Madder (detail), 2014. Image via mediacentre.kallaway.co.uk.

Other pieces in the exhibition were conceived as representations of the four seasons. Part of the couple’s research was to find out how to vary the hues of the colours that came out of the madder pigment. Bright splashes of orange evoke the falling leaves of autumn in Fall (2014), which dominates an entire wall in an isolated part of the gallery, while some works on paper like 29.04.14 Madder (2014) and 05.05.14 Madder (2014) display colder colours associated with the bare branches of winter. The poetic conception is heavily influenced by artists such as Cy Twombly.

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Vibrant works on paper flank Fall (2014).

They also experimented with a technique known as craquelure, a natural process that creates a series of cracks on the surface as the paint dries, usually a sign of ageing as seen in Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-5). The largest piece in the exhibition utilises this process, made in situ in the gallery in five days. The panel was primed with gesso and left to dry overnight. The following day, Payne’s grey oil paint would be rubbed into the cracks, followed by a layer of sand to remove the excess. The result is an entrancing web of natural abstraction, made up of lines and shapes as intended by nature. However, one often has a tendency to see-in abstraction paintings for familiar shapes, such as figures of a man and woman which one viewer managed to perceive.

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Luke George & Elizabeth Rose, Untitled, 2014.

But how did George and Rose achieve all of this? The answer lies in their Morning Panels (2014), also exhibited here. Based on a method in Julia Cameron’s self-help book The Artist’s Way, the Morning Panels are “an exercise in de-cluttering the mind allowing creativity to come through.” Every morning the couple each paint on to the gessoed panels and photograph the finished product before rubbing them off for the same exercise the next day. Cameron’s original method involved writing three A4 pages of streams of consciousness, never to be kept or re-read. They compared their erasure of the works to Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) which explores the limits and definitions of a work of art, whether an artwork could perhaps be made entirely through erasure rather than an accumulation of marks. As for the works in the exhibition, they are entirely a collaborative effort.

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Luke George & Elizabeth Rose, Morning Panels, 2014.

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Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953. Image via www.sfmoma.org.

The monographic approach of MADDER is one that lends itself to far more than just aesthetic appreciation. It naturally addresses the material elements of the works themselves – one simply cannot leave the gallery without asking how they were made, or the various colours that come out of a single madder root. But by addressing their materials, one must also address their transitory nature, an underlying element to the exhibition. Some of the pieces are already showing signs of deterioration, evidenced by the small pile of debris gathering below each work which the curator Becca Pelly-Fry described as a “growing installation”. Just like the ongoing exercise that creates and destroys forms on the Morning Panels, so too are the prognoses of the other works on display.

A truly insightful exhibition that manages to capture the complexity of madder’s preparatory process as well as George and Rose’s vision of “the act of painting as a means of discovery”. The process is just as much the work of art as the work of art is the final product. Both are significant and the couple emphasise these by making the process part of the product. This alone makes them unique contenders in the contemporary art scene, consciously embedding themselves in the history of painting, and definitely worthy recipients of the Griffin Art Prize.

MADDER runs until 10th October 2014 at the Griffin Gallery, www.griffingallery.co.uk.

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