Love Lies Bleeding
Comme on s’ignore !…C’est la vie qui peu à peu, cas par cas, nous permet de remarquer que ce qui est le plus important pour notre cœur, ou pour notre esprit, ne nous est pas appris par le raisonnement mais par des puissances autres. (Proust, 'A la Recherche Du Temps Perdu')
There is the subject of the work, the thing portrayed, and there is the meaning of the work - the subject behind the subject as it were. Sometimes there may not be any deeper meaning, but often in my own work there is something else going on, which I am reluctant to explain - if a work is any good there are always levels of ambiguity and meaning - my opinion is only my opinion, maybe your interpretation is better than my own, why limit it to one view? But here at least are a few of the things going through my head when I made this series.
The starting point for Love Lies Bleeding was finding photographs, like prison mugshots, of children made orphans by Stalin's 'Great Terror' of the 1930's. These particular photo's were only of boys. The horn-like projections were actually there in the photos, a trick of the harsh light, which I have played with and exaggerated in the paintings. The general theme of my work is human vulnerability - the fragility of life, the fluidity of personality and memory - these poignant images seemed to have fixed in a fraction of a second the fate of a whole generation, and perhaps humanity as a whole - vulnerable, individual, unknowing, ineffable - and alone.
Love Lies Bleeding is the common English name given to the flowering plant amaranthus caudatus, a beautifully ambiguous name with deliciously dark connotations. A title in search of a work - and what better than this series of heads, like flowering buds, some of them looking scared, others defiant, angry, helpless…children who's own love of family, home, their very lives, has been altered by a random act beyond their comprehension. Which of us is not subject to such tides and transformations of fate?
Justin Jones 2010
I made this series with several things in mind. The work is a combination of all these things and something else besides, something that cannot really be spoken about. Afterall, if painting cannot go beyond or in-between words, what is the point of painting at all? This part of the painting, any painting in fact, which defeats explanation is of course the most interesting.
Many years ago I came across the phenomenon of visual agnosia, a rare neurological disorder. To put it very simply (which is the only way I can put it) people with this condition literally don’t know what they are looking at. They may have perfect vision, perfect memory, they are often highly intelligent, but when they gaze into a mirror, or look at their children, or their house, a flower, a car, anything at all, they see only shapes, patterns, details, movement. A face therefore, even their own face, is perceived only as a collection of disjointed meaningless details, shapes of various textures and shades.
The problem seems to be that visual agnosics are not able to categorise objects, not able to say ‘this is a face’, ‘this is a table’, ‘this is a field’, etc, the kind of mental categorisation and recognition that usually occurs instantaneously and subconsciously. They can impose no structure upon what they see, unable to impose order, the kind of order which we all need to impose to enable us to have meaningful experience at all.
Research into this extraordinary condition has bought to light fundamental truths which apply to us all, and this is my point of interest. How many of us know what we are looking at? How much of the world is down to our interpretation, our perception? We like to think we see the world as it really is but in fact it would seem we live in a world of our own making, our interpretation of the world is entirely our own. Kant would have agreed with this. As the old Shamanic saying puts it, the world is as you dream it.
So this work has nothing to do with visual agnosia as such, but it is something I had in mind. And the idea of looking at the same image and seeing something different every time, a state where an image is open to endless interpretation. What is truth? What are the boundaries between what is ‘real’ and what is imposed or imagined? How much do we take in, and how much do we choose not to see? How many interpretive decisions do we unconsciously make every waking moment of our lives? How often do we project our own mental state onto others and the world in general?
I am interested in this because it links with my continuing theme of how well we can know ourselves. Verbal and visual communication can only ever be an abstraction, an expression of the truth, but the 'truth' can never be expressed utterly. This naturally leads on to questions about how well we can ever know ourselves and the world around us. The big questions, maybe the only questions worth asking - Who? What? Why? I'm concerned not so much with the philosophical issues as the spiritual - understanding, fulfillment, self-knowledge and inner peace. Such things seem anathema to much of contemporary art culture.
This series was conceived and executed in the village of Saurat, nestled snugly in a valley high in the Ariége mountains of the French pyrenees. It is a kind of paradise, a small slice of which can be seen through the window in the paintings. Yet people suffer here too, there is still pain and sadness. Misery and ones own daemons will find you out wherever you may hide, as Rilke puts it, "for there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life". Can we not change ourselves, our mental state? and if we change ourselves do we not also change the world?
Finally, the central image of the woman's head and the title of the series is taken from the 1928 film by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the part of Jeanne played unforgettably by Renée Falconetti, oozing martyrdom from every pore. Dreyer made brilliant use of the close-up shot throughout this film. He was a great portraitist. These paintings are - if they are anything at all - a homage to this old master.
"It is possible that when we travel deep enough, we always encounter an element of sadness, for full awareness of ourselves always includes the knowledge of our own ephemerality and the passage of time. But it is only in that knowledge—not its denial—that things gain their true dimensions, and we begin to feel the simplicity of being alive." Eva Hoffman, 'Lost In Translation'
There is the source of a work of art and then there is the subject of a work of art, these two things are not always the same. In many respects this is my perfect source material. I have been aware of it for many years, certainly since seeing a series of pastels from 1917 by the great draughtsman and teacher Henry Tonks when I was a student. But I have a slow mind, things are fed into it and disappear for years before popping out again, seemingly out of nowhere. I think it's because whilst it is quite easy to have ideas, it is more difficult to devise the best method of expressing them, what I call the delivery system. Ideas often start out as a sort of internal pressure or ache, and it can take a long time to discover exactly what it is that needs to be expressed.
The spark for this series which was to occupy me for most of 2006 and has recently resurfaced again with the mask sculptures, was simply coming across the phrase les gueules cassées in a French magazine article. Literally translated as broken mouths, or broken faces, it gripped me immediately, igniting something else that had long been smoldering in my mind. The phrase was coined to describe soldiers from the first world war who suffered horrendous facial injury from gunshot, burns, blast and shrapnel. Quite a bit of documentary evidence exists about these men who - if they survived - underwent long, tortuous skin grafts and pioneering reconstructive plastic surgery.
For my series I used documentary archival photographs found on the internet. The first portraits I did were fairly naturalistic and ultimately unsatisfying. They looked like Francis Bacon's, which was not surprising as the wounded men themselves looked like Francis Bacon's. They were Bacon's made flesh. I required a more fitting delivery system. I wanted to use these heads as metaphors for something larger. These photographs asked questions about the nature of identity, recognition, humanity. I wasn't interested as such in individualised portraits. I was more interested by what these images tell us about ourselves, our 'human condition'. Human vulnerability is a common enough theme, but human resilience in the face of that shattering vulnerability - that's much more interesting.
I had the idea to retain the silhouettes of the actual men then create a sort of skull-helmet like form within this that reflected the general area and form of the particular wound. It was important though that the heads retained their humanity and, if possible, a sense of dignity and warmth. This was the challenge - to portray human faces, human mien - by nothing more than amorphous pinkish blobs of pigment.
As with the 'Enemies of the People' series, I do not think it necessary to know the derivation of these portraits, the history of the people behind them, because the paintings and the masks are not 'about' them, or the first world war or facial injuries as such, they are more about you and me. What matters is the sense of presence - of recognition - one might have standing before them.
Justin Jones, France. 2007
“Certainly, it is the victims that move humanity forward” Leon Trotsky
These heads have their origin in a book called Ordinary Citizens, by David King, a collection of photographs from the archives of the NKVD, Stalin's political police, in the 1930's. The people photographed, ordinary folk from every walk of life, were arrested, accused of trumped up charges and then summarily shot, sometimes on the same day. They were accused of being anti-revolutionaries, saboteurs, secret agents, in short, 'enemies of the people'. Much later their judgements were quashed and the dead were 'rehabilitated'.
But it is not their stories or the history of Soviet repression that interests me. I am interested in what they tell us about ourselves. They are images that show us that human beings suffer and make us want to know why, but they also show us human beings endure, and make us want to know how.
These heads were also inspired by the great Epyptian Fayum portraits. Often painted while the subject was still alive they were designed to be attached to the person's mummy after death. They date from the 1st to the 4th centuries AD but they possess a remarkable modernity, they have the same direct frankness of the NKVD photographs. What the paintings also possess is an intense presence, an unexpectedness, as if they have just stepped out towards us. The portraits of Fayum, like the NKVD mugshots, were not designed to be publicly viewed, they were destined, in one way or another, to be buried.
The Fayum sitter was not viewed as a model, he was present simply to record the existence of his client. It was the painter rather than the model who submitted to being looked at. We should consider these works not simply as portraits but as paintings about the experience of being looked at. The Fayum painter submitted to the look of the sitter, for whom he was Death's painter. The functionary who took the photos for the NKVD, was he not, in a sense, death's photographer? Our gaze is returned by these portraits and it is we who are challenged, the question they demand of us - Who are we, what are we, who is here?
Justin Jones, France. 2011