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Bearing Witness
Leigh Davis, February 2001

(Stephen Bambury's Siena Paintings)


Siena is not a place it is a category and a technology.

Along with Giotto and Duccio, Fra Angelico was among the first computer graphics artists in the world and he worked at Florence near Siena in Tuscany. After him Florentine and Sienese art became associated with the art of virtual reality.

When you look at Fra Angelico's art you can see windows at work. These windows are not the metaphors of perception they were later to become for several hundred years. They are not about modes of outlook, each framed differently, each more or less transparent, each belonging to the literature of irony since each defines a misleading shortfall between the picture and the reality to which it is addressed.

Fra Angelico's windows are plastic transformations of a world, in his case beatific, arranged within a space where everything interlocks. They are pictures. They are also philosophical exemplars. As virtually real paintings they both are and are not paintings from nature. They portray the worldly geometry of epiphany. They do this using intensity : of colour, of complexity and compression of perspective, of pictorial events per square centimetre. They are elaborately staged but bear not sense of misleading shortfall. They carry their weight of gilt without guilt. Their fine poise seduces : between empirical observation and abstraction ; between height of vision and graduation of detail. In apprehending Fra Angelico's pictures it does not occur to you to discount the picture as an idealised vision, as something that is merely virtual.

These pictures also incorporate the viewer. The space of the picture expands in and surrounds the viewer's face.

These windows are experienced as arguments whose rhetorical framework is as equally displayed as any of the other picture elements. In a digital world one can analogise an answer to the question, Where do Fra Angelico's paintings exist ? They exist in the space of the machine. You view them as you do the inner workings of the barrel of a lock.

When you see windows at work you are a viewer standing in good fortune.

At all times you know the air is beating invisibly with countless angels' wings to give you meaningful vision. Space in your picture is not an absence, it is not compared to air, it is not empty distance between objects as though it and you have not been invented and are estranged.

Space is a presence, an element in an operating system, and so are you.

This is partly why, in 19th century New Zealand when Hau Hau put flags in the air they were conducting a powerful demonstration : not of the absences of space but of its physics, depth and thickness.

For these people the Renaissance did not exist. As it did not for Fra Angelico. And no longer does for us.

These pre Renaissance emotions arise again, this sense of living in thickness.

Stephen Bambury's Siena works belong to this remastered domain.

These works are full of verisimilitude and argument by analogy. This time, cutting the window at a different compositional level, not analogically revealing of things in the world but of elements of the world.

The Bambury objects collectively reveal a window within which can be seen both a vision of the saturated glory of colour and the glorious nature of interlocking space, with all its fine distinctions and compositional rules. These objects punch above their weight. As abstractions they are small but have great reach.

The harder you look at a window the harder it looks back. It casts a shadow. We might now more naturally understand this shadow to be that of social capital, a residue in the domain of human work. Fra Angelico clearly thought of such a shadow as a residue in the domain of God. The effect is the same.


( On the Siena works made in Slovenia)

So then : you want to paint that, the residue in the domain, and not realistic things. In terms from another convention : you wish to paint the supernatural, that proper object of devoted and close attention. But how do you paint the supernatural ? By not painting the natural, first, and by a process of dyslexia, as well.

You cannot call it abstraction, this process of painting the something else. And you cannot call these face-sized Siena paintings abstract, yet that is what they appear to be. To subsume them categorically is to render such works "already-read" and make them inert. Yet it is the ability of these new Siena's to be not-yet-read, to disconcert at least relative to their earlier peers, that gives them their lightness and gravity. This ability to disconcert is dyslexia : trouble with respect to the order of a language and its conventional depictions.

Up until now, the Siena paintings have used an achieved Bambury grammar of axes and fields, torqued, so as to twist, in locked order. They have been images regarded as events in space. But these new works deform that grammar. The new works are images regarded as events in time. And they go whoosh, because of this.

The new Siena's are laminated messages, thoroughly activated. They touch upon the quality of implication that is the peculiar property of Fra Angelico's angels : their near-whirring ; and their half craning forward to charge the space within which messages of power are given and received. The Bambury diptych idea, in these new works, has become an engineering of beating wings. They "beat" because different mechanics, working with materials including the material of meanings taken from art history, reinforce.

Principal of these mechanics is the use of found, distressed or aged, stone-like tiles as the material for new paintings in the Siena series. Such tiles never lose their identity as tiles. They are thick, irregular, and patinated. But it is their work to register peculiar excitement through the meaning they possess already (as building bricks, sort of), and the new images they carry. They portray a history. It is their function to call attention to laminations.

These stone-like tiles are not painted but illuminated (that is, they are as though projected upon) in a soft application of modulated colour and near-gilding, mostly. They also portray a process occurring in time. There is a before, and an after, and an after-that : before they were touched with colour they were undifferentiated and laid on a floor or a wall ; then something came in or down and left them with a new gorgeous surface ; and this application was a kind of fusion, that did fade in time, to leave a negative trace, as of the mark of a watch strap on a sunburned arm. And this process, this cycle, left objects less rich than what they bore witness to, as objects becoming a kind of mirror. They bore witness to a mystery excited. So then : What has left such a glowing, degradable, surface on these tile-like stones ? What has come down or in to produce this ? Where or what is the source to which these objects point, that has made these ordinary things sunburned ?

Let us trace these laminations again. The tile surface is laminated on the tile, first. But second, the tile surface itself is also laminated upon with an overlayer that is invisible, or more strictly, is a source portrayed as an implication in painted images, that leads the viewer to inference. In the European Middle Ages this layer implied by the painting and inferred by the viewer was Heaven. Therefore the viewer came to feel he or she was standing in the middle of a divine lamination, as in a sandwich.

And there is a property of near-sound to these architectural building blocks too, to bring into the record. One wants to say, they have an acoustics. This is a literal nonsense : dead stones don't sing. But these hard objects set up a repercussion of ideas. They have a physics of meaning. (Do not the severe vaulted chambers of Fra Angelico's Annunciation paintings have this peculiar physics too, as of echo chambers?)

First, and literally, all these stone-like tiles once rang - chinked - when pushed together to form these two-part works. This is part of what you know when you see them butted - clashed - together. Second, and less literally, there is a relay in these stones. They assert the knowledge that they are tiles or bricks from some kind of wall or pavement. When you see them, in an individual Siena diptych that you look at from time to time, you know that these works cannot be thought of as complete. Each separate work touches an edge, beyond which its meaning as an individual object is displaced by the part it plays in a wider whole, being the street where the stone-like tiles came from. Each work by sleight of hand is therefore an ambassador for a world of ordinary bricks too numerous to count. Therefore : re-percussion, like this - we have part and whole, compression and expansion, small and large, single and numberless. That is, a chain reaction of things that can, well, ring.

The viewer is taken, too, by a constant shifting in these works between the shape of the figure and the shape of the ground, the one the inverse of the other, and vice versa, work by work, when the left side of the diptych is compared to the right side. This activation is also a property of the movement in the series from positive to negative images, (and back).

And, finally, there is the resemblance these two-sided works bear to the openings of a book - a resemblance perhaps to one book with many openings, set in printer's block form, if you consider the Siena series as a whole. And what is as pressed in this blurry and well-worn book is some text-like body, and some illuminated geometry, each opening - but out of recognition or registration compared to what we might have expected. Dyslexia, or that trouble, again : original meaning arriving with more pressure or insistence through confusion in the signs.