"Lacuna / Anamnesis” series
“Lacuna,” the tale of a eucalypt forest that became a baroque library that became a show…
Lacuna n. pl. la·cu·nae (-n) or la·cu·nas
Lacuna is a vacancy. Time, decay and weathering are responsible for lacunae; a section of a manuscript or text that has disappeared. From the Latin (“ditch, gap”), it can result in words, sentences or whole pages missing or illegible on the page. In music, Lacuna is a silence; an absence of notes. In linguistics, it is a lexical gap that is lost, meaningless, non-existent when translated into another language. Lacuna is a tool used to unlock cultural differences in a missing part within an ancient text. When one experiences amnesia, there is a gap in our record of memory. It is a blank space, missing intrinsic detail. Anamnesis an·am·ne·sis (nm-nss) stems the Attic Greek ἀνάμνησις meaning reminiscence memorial sacrifice. refers to a recalling to mind, a remembrance. According to Plato's theory, anamnesis is the concept that humans possess deep-rooted knowledge from past incarnations which we rediscover when learning. Anamnesis is also the historical term for the complete medical history of a patient, obtained with the aim of forming a diagnosis and consequently, a treatment.
Imagine you are an En plein air , wandering into an Australian eucalyptus forest to work, only to discover a 500-year-old baroque monastic library within it. Empty, filled with what? Why? Let's say that I was that artist and the paintings in this show are what I saw in that forest.
To start, I never saw myself doing an Australian landscape painting…ever. This show contains my first paintings of an Australian forest. My lack of knowledge on Indigenous story, law or culture* meant any concept of painting an Australian landscape was just creative hubris. To this end, I never felt I could "see" or understand it fundamentally in order to paint it. My studies and training have been steeped in European art tradition, I was a studio assistant to a Neo-Renaissance painter in Paris at age seventeen. I was not sure if any western European envisioning would be appropriate.
For the last few years I have spent my holidays with my children in Kangaroo Valley. Beside our house is a small eucalyptus forest in which I've spent many hours. For all the time I've spent in the forest with my children playing hide and seek, it never occurred to me to paint it. It was simply visually incomprehensible to me.
In a way, this show is the making of something I said I never would. This makes it both exciting and contradictory and it is this paradox the paintings “sit” within. Their visual juxtaposition and the contrast between the library, animals and eucalyptus play out my metaphorical musings as I sit beneath the trees. The forest (Kangaroo Valley) and the library (Prague) exist, although at opposite ends of the world. Time-wise, I have spent the last few years in Kangaroo Valley, but the library I was granted permission to enter for only five isolated days, two years ago in Prague.
About a year ago I was sitting alone amongst the trees at sunset (of course it had to be sunset) thinking again how indecipherable this forest was to me (why is there stringy bark, anyway?) It occurred to me that this was exactly how I had felt in the Prague library when I sat in it the year before (see previous show “Ex Libris”). Alone and frankly intimidated, the old library and the giant trees were equally unreadable (I was not allowed to touch the 500-year-old books). Then I envisioned the forest via the library's baroque architectural framework and suddenly I "saw" the forest. It stopped being chaotic and instead became, and this will sound strange, a baroque theatre space. There in front of me was a stage: the foreground to background layers of sets, side lighting from the lowering sun. Instead of "bush" I saw perceptive lines, I saw how a story could be told. Then I had to paint the story…
*The first inhabitants of Kangaroo Valley were the Wodi-Wodi Aboriginals who had reportedly occupied the land for around 20,000 years before the European settlement of Australia in 1788. An 1826 census indicated 79 Aborigines lived in the valley in 5 separate encampments.
Shelves of bone-white, cracked parchments are ghost-like apparitions of their origin: the book and the library. In an age dominated by electronic books and information technology, the space evokes both the familiar authority of these artefacts and their inevitable demise. The contrast at the heart of the work refers not only to the old and the new, but to the stillness of the library against the living, breathing images that dwell amongst the books.
"Ex Libris" was derived from the Latin term, "from the books." This latest show is a consequence of hundreds of sketches inspired by the grand interior of the Strahov Baroque Monastic Library in Prague, where McGrath was granted exclusive access in 2010. With the backdrop of 125,000 volumes on philosophical and theological texts, flora and fauna motifs are superimposed as caricatures of the artist on a timeless stage. “For several days I studied and drew, visually describing the library, part by part; one frame at a time. Over the last 18 months I have re-assembled these works to re-construct at 1:1 scale a 'library of metaphors' using metaphors to re-build the compositions and my mental state while in the library.
An analogy the artist uses of this ' rebuilding,' is the purchasing of European castles by the 19th century American wealthy who numbered the stones, pulled them down and shipped them to the new world. The castle would then be reassembled according to the numbers on the stones. However, it could also be reassembled in a random numbering and the 'new' castle would be completely unique but still retain notions of its original 'castle-ness.' The library in Ex Libris has been rebuilt according to a pattern, a memory or abstraction, an analogy of the creative process itself.
“ While spending days on my own in library drawing studies, the feeling of a transient being amongst fixed knowledge was palpable. The stillness of the bookshelves observed via drawings from multiple viewpoints, one's own movement and absence of a trace, is unrecorded in the memory of the library space. Hence this notion of lost motion/memory in fixed space is paired in my work with the images of falling tulips or cornered rabbits, metaphors of transient bodies in continuity of space.”
Ex Libris pays homage to the origin of the narrative
Born in Sydney in 1969, McGrath studied the techniques and principles of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century masters at the studio school of Patrick Betaudier in Paris. Before graduating as an architect he worked as a studio assistant with Australia’s greatest expressionist painter, Arthur Boyd. While a lecturer in design and communications at New South Wales University, he was awarded several prizes for architecture and art, including the Australian Postgraduate Award and a residency in Paris. Over the last ten years he has exhibited in New York, London, Sydney and Paris. He has also produced highly original digital installations and videos commissioned by several Australian museums and subsequently presented at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, in 2000. In 1999 and 2000 his work was included in the Sydney and New York film festivals.
2013 Lacuna/Anamnesis, Olsen Irwin, Sydney
2012 Marnling Press, Group show, Maitland Regional Art Gallery
Screening of “theatres of anatomy"
Select Solo Exhibitions
- James McGrath – Lacuna/ Anamnesis
- James McGrath – Ex Libris
Tim Olsen Gallery
- James McGrath – New Work
Tim Olsen Gallery
Select Group Exhibitions