Palimpsests – Research Notes – Gregg Chadwick and Victoria Crowe

With various exercises in the course I have thinking of ways to convey childhood memories including experimenting with ideas from a childhood sketchbook, using photos taken with a Holga camera, and layering and scraping techniques to conceal and reveal what is underneath. This latter idea came into focus more recently with the work of Gregg Chadwick and Victoria Crowe.

In earlier stages of the course part of the appeal of medieval art and polychrome figures was the quality of wear and tear on the icons and sculptures. I liked this sense of time being conveyed in the layers of paint that have worn away and the scrapes and scratches that hint at the life of the object, where it has been and who has touched it.

I liked this idea but, at that stage, didn’t think to consider it in more depth. Then the word palimpsest began to crop up in reference to artists I was reading about and whose work I liked and, finally, I started to think that, in relation to my work around memory this was worth further investigation.

In medieval times creating manuscripts was a time-consuming and expensive task. One way to make the endeavour more cost-effective was to reuse the parchment which the manuscripts were written on. Papyrus scrolls were re-cycled by writing on the back. With manuscripts often both sides of the parchment were written on. In order to use them again the pages were washed and scraped and the result was known as a palimpsest. It was not always possible to create a completely clean page and beneath the new writing glimpses of the previous work could be seen.

Gregg Chadwick

At my tutor’s suggestion I have been looking at the work of Gregg Chadwick, particularly at a collection of his work, ‘Theater of Memory’.

In the catalogue for the exhibition Chadwick writes,

‘One could say we all create paintings as we distill meaning from the rush of life. Experiences, moments, thoughts, actions, memories, and dreams mix together and overlap in our minds and hearts bringing patterns and understanding in our everyday life.’ (Chadwick, 2011: 4)

This is all very relevant to the work I am exploring. There are times when I have doubted the wisdom of working with the theme of memories given that, as a family, we are all coming to terms with mum’s death. At times it has felt like too much and yet, paradoxically, working in this way has allowed me to think in different ways about these memories.

Chadwick also comments on his processes in relation to his work.

‘In Antiquity and later during the Middle Ages, manuscript pages from animal hides were often scraped down and used again. Faint traces of the underwritings on these parchments, called palimpsests, survived. My painting process involves a series of applications and erasures, echoing these layered fragments from the past. At times, I scrape down entire wet paintings leaving a fragile palimpsest. These under images often bring forth mysterious fragments from my subconscious.’ (Chadwick, 2011: 4-5)

Theater of Memory (2011) [External link – opens in new window]

The title piece for the exhibition shows Chadwick’s interpretation of the palimpsest. Across the canvas layers of blue, cream and peach create the effect of what could be a sunset or sunrise. Darker layers could be land in the distance or the Earth from above the clouds. You are in an indeterminate world. On the lower left of the painting the face of a child gazes into the distance, looking beyond the confines of the canvas. To the right the hazy figure of a man is walking towards us as if coming out of the mist. He appears to be looking directly towards the viewer.

The relationship of the two is not apparent from the image. It could be father and son or the child shown as the adult he will become. I like the ambiguity in the painting. Something my tutor has suggested is the idea of allowing more space for the viewer’s mind to wander as in previous exercises I have created work that is too busy and doesn’t leave room to breathe. Chadwick’s work allows for this, leaving plenty of room for reflection.

Victoria Crowe

In many of Victoria Crowe’s paintings, regardless of the subject, you can see the directness of her relationship with the canvas. Initial layers of paint show through, thicker layers are added, the surface is scraped and reshaped, there are glimpses of added texture and gold. There is a real sense of how she has worked and reworked the canvas and responded to each element. I have written about the exhibition Victoria Crowe: Beyond Likeness but, in this post, I concentrate on one of her works that seems to me to embody the idea of the palimpsest.

Sign and Symbol: Herbarium Pages (2007), Oil and mixed media on linen [External link – opens in new window]

This work was part of the exhibition Plant Memory held in 2007. In Duncan Macmillan’s text ‘Victoria Crowe’ the artist talks about her process,

‘…I’ve used a collage of paper, applied linen and thickened the primer with pumice powder to split up and distress the surface, making some areas very absorbent, others very crisp. I used the iris watercolours as basis, treating each individual image very differently…Scraps of labels, descriptions, a books frontispiece, botanical cross section are all there. They have become a kind of poetic subtext and the plants, far from ‘reality’ now, become ciphers or hieroglyphs.’ (Macmillan, 2012: 112)

Even without the description the image itself gives so much insight into that process. The variations in style, exploration of different media and experimentation with texture offer a glimpse into her thinking as she works. I have been working with my own memory of being among, what seemed to be, very tall irises as a small child. Seeing this has given me ideas of ways in which I can explore this theme further and be more experimental with sketchbook work.

Notes for studio practice

  • More experimentation with ideas and techniques inspired by palimpsests
  • Think about this in relation to ideas about scrapbooks – the idea of individual elements brought together on the page, their connection in the mind of the person creating the scrapbook but also meaningful to others.
  • Experiment with space – actual space, faded images, fragments

Images [External links open in new tab]

Art Daily (2011) ‘Gregg Chadwick’s Theater of Memory at the Monterey Peninsula College Art Gallery’ [online] At: http://artdaily.com/news/50895/Gregg-Chadwick-s-Theater-of-Memory-at-the-Monterey-Peninsula-College-Art-Gallery#.XGHM-uRCdZ (Accessed 24/09/20)

Crowe, V. (2005) Sign and Symbol – Herbarium Pages [Painting] At: http://victoriacrowe.com/gallery/PlantMemory/070629vc_13  (Accessed 24/09/20)

Related Pages

Memories – Irises and Bees – https://katespainting2.wordpress.com/finding-your-place/memories-irises-and-bees/

Victoria Crowe – Beyond Likeness – https://katespainting2.wordpress.com/2019/01/30/victoria-crowe-beyond-likeness/

References [External links open in new tab]

Chadwick, G. (2011) Theater of Memory. [online] At: http://www.blurb.com/b/2484189-theater-of-memory-paintings-by-gregg-chadwick (Accessed 24/09/20)

Macmillan, D. (2012) Victoria Crowe. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd.

Toth, P. (2016) British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog [online blog] In: blogs.bl.uk At: http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2016/09/palimpsests-the-art-of-medieval-recycling.html (Accessed 24/09/20)

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