Jon Groom

© Jon Groom 2017  |   Imprint

Letter to a Traveller

Velten Wagner

Dear Jon,

It may surprise you that I have not chosen to compile the usual catalogue text in the form of a critical treat- ment of art as an introduction to your work, but am writing you a letter instead. Only three years ago, to coincide with the exhibition Jon Groom. Between the Light 1 in the Ludwig Museum in Koblenz, a compre- hensive book was published on your work with scho- larly contributions by well-known authors. As far as objective-associative pictorial analysis and descripti- ons of the paintings and their impact are concerned, it seems to me that everything worth saying has been said there superlatively. Anything one could hope to learn in terms of the way you see yourself as an artist, imbued with oriental spirituality, has been described with great intuitition. What could I hope to add to this? The letter is a linguistic medium in which private, per- sonal communication takes precedence over public address. Normally, we write letters (more likely e- mails nowadays) to inform a specific person about something that is not intended for anyone else. A let- ter addressed to the public, as in this catalogue, is of a different nature, however. With this letter, I am attempting a personal orientation towards your pain- tings, without laying claim to any kind of scientifically based general validity; for the longer I occupy myself with your work, the greater is my need to enter into a dialogue with you that would match my own capacity for experiencing things. In other words, many of your paintings generate fields of energy from forms and colours that overlap with the specific field of energy of the observer and bring about a change in it. That is what makes it so difficult to speak of a single observational perspective, and that is why it seems appro- priate to seek a plane of dialogue with this letter that would reflect the manner and effect of your paintings. Finally, in the three years since the Koblenz publicati- on appeared, you and your works have changed in a way I find quite remarkable, and the paths you have long pursued have become more clearly evident. The latest series, with the title A Luminous Night's Journey, which will form the focus of my observati- ons, bears eloquent witness to this development. If I remember correctly, we first met in 1995. At that time, you had your studio on the Praterinsel, an island in the River Isar in Munich. We were sitting opposite each other at a large table, and on the wall behind you hung works from the Evidence series 2. We talked about Buddhism and oriental philosophy. What fasci- nated and also irritated me about those large pictorial objects was the cool, rational composition, consisting of simple geometric forms: areas of colour, the inten- se aura of which - if one stood in front of them for any length of time - had an almost hypnotic effect, yet in a very controlled manner. Something no less irritating was the harmonious relationship between the autho- ritative rigour and emotional spirituality emanating from the works. You once said of your painting that it seemed capable of encapsulating energy. That is certainly true of the paintings dating from that time; and precisely in this respect I see a fundamental difference from the work of artists like Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, who are commonly cited as sources of inspiration for your art. In contrast to the noble colour spaces of a Newman, dissected by sensitive vertical lines (the so-called "zips"), and the mysterious, mystical colour horizons of a Rothko, the boundless potential of which stimulates the emotional commitment of the observer, the paintings of your Evidence series maintain a certain distance that prevents any unreflected immersion in them. Their energy is encapsulated, objectivized in the coloured volumes of the geometric forms. From the artist's point of view, therefore, they speak a language of the absolute (of insight), of mastery (of a mental space) and of unassailability (through the imponderability of things all too human). From the observer's point of view, the paintings speak a language that meets the demands made of them in terms of spiritual refine- ment, of the unattainable perfection of the aura of distance. I had the impression that the artist sitting opposite me at the table was a gentle taskmaster - the high priest of these cool, spiritual pictorial imagi- nings, I am inclined to say. So much to our early acquaintanceship. In those days, I would have hesitated to stage an exhibition with you. Evidence - of spiritual abstraction and its implicit claim to power - was alien to me. You had for- mulated a goal without indicating the path that led to it. Since then, the whole situation has changed funda- mentally. Over the years, you have traversed a broad human and visual space. The cycle Between the Light (2002-2006) is a further station along this path, on this journey through so many sequences of visual inventions, developments and variations. Describing the series of 19 paintings each 180 x 210 cm in size, Robert C. Morgan speaks in the above-mentioned publication of "a kind of transfer of energy from the artist to the observer". You yourself would have referred to the fact that the "energy fac- tor" in these paintings is "encapsulated" in the way they confine and enclose colour, space and light. In this, though, I see a major difference from the Evidence series. The pictures comprising the cycle Between the Light evidently draw their aural strength from the interplay of contraction and emanation, of charging up with energy and its emission. What espe- cially interests me about this observation is the inter- play that occurs between picture and observer. To be able to experience the spirituality radiated by a pain- ting in the first place, the observer must have a cer- tain receptivity; that means an openness and ability to surrender him or herself to the reception of spiritual forms of energy. But it also implies that in speaking of the aura of a work of art, one must speak of the spe- cific aura of the observer as well. When the two encounter each other, a kind of intermediate image comes about that feeds on the energy charging the picture and on the energy disposition of the observer. What takes place in such a situation is not so much a dialogue based on the duality of word and intellect as a conjunction between the physical entity of the pain- ting and that of the observer - a common ground of mutual participation that sets in motion a transforma- tional, aesthetic process of recognition. You will certainly be aware by now where my line of argument in this letter is leading: to the idea of con- tact with your paintings - assuming the possibility of contact, of course - though not in any sentimental way. For contact presumes movement, a profoundly human, sensuously experienced movement. The paintings move past the traveller in a seemingly end- less sequence of daytime and night-time images. Some of them flash by; others penetrate that part of the skin that is visually acuitive, namely the retina, sending impulses via the brain to our largest sensory organ: the skin, which is the organ that envelops the human body. This perceptual process can also be reversed with the same if not an even greater degree of intensity. Human behaviour towards the world, by which it is constantly surrounded, shows how little dualistic explanatory models of the world help; for certain images become bright and gleaming only through the night. A Luminous Night's Journey, the title of the series, is taken from A. H. Almaas's publication with the same title in which he depicts his own personal path of spi- ritual and psychological self-perception and develop- ment. "In the lucidity of space, a question appears, carefree and delighted: "˜And what is me?'," he writes at the very beginning. You yourself gave me an idea for the preparation of this introduction, an idea that not only provides an answer to Almaas's question, but that charts the bounds of your own artistic capa- city for making experiences. "Painting is a vehicle that travels towards a knowled- ge of oneself. It is a mirror of its maker. It comes about when humility and sensitivity combine with strength and belief." - "Let colour be itself released from its function of telling a story." As an initial, general approach, one might formulate your own understanding of your painting as a spiritual-pictorial process of self-exploration, using forms and colours; i.e. painting as a vehicle or medium. The pictorial means are not self-contained in the sense of a self-referential autonomy, however. They refer to something else, to an inner stance, the authenticity of which includes a sense of awareness and determina- tion, a readiness to make experiences and to apply them. Only when it has become an inner human need will painting - non-illustrative coloration, freed of figurative references - become an all-embracing event. That is why, for you, colour is not just a pictori- al means and light not just a means of illumination to lend form to objects. Rather, the transformation of light into colour and colour into light creates a men- tal-emotional field of energy conducive to perception. The process does not take place exclusively "in" the painting nor "in" the observer; it opens up a common space of mutual participation, an involvement that is the outcome of mutual contact. I should like to consider this graphic experience, taking the series A Luminous Night's Journey as an example. For the whole series of works, you have adopted an almost square form with the dimensions 38 x 35 cm, 43 x 38 cm and chosen tin-sheet panels as the base. The slight deviation from a true square form indicates that you were concerned not with a strict geometry, but with proportional relationships - i.e. setting forms and colours in relation to each other. The intimate dimensions invite the observer to take a closer look, visually to enter the spaces formed by the fields of colour. "It is like a physical experience with the eyes," you commented. The three-dimensional quality of the base panel underlines the physical presence of the paintings, their real, by no means illusionistic, cha- racter. Since the pictures have no ground, the silvery shimmering surface textures of the industrially manu- factured tin panels modify the effect of the colours - quite directly when they manifest themselves in colour as bases, or in a more restrained form, as cool, moon-like light that shines through the colours applied to the panels. One is taking something of a risk, of course, in divi- ding a still unfinished series of paintings into various phases. Nevertheless, I can recognize three so far. The first approach to the subject is visible in all those works in which the surface of the tin panels is incor- porated in the composition of the fields of colour; in other words, where the base is left exposed in part. One has the impression that the mostly vertical or horizontal rectangular fields of colour hover above the silvery background, depending on the amount of paint applied. Then again, formal and colour tensions are established; imaginary colour spaces unfold, creating areas that are more agitated or more homo- geneous; different degrees of luminescence and den- sity are contrasted with each other and merge to form a pictorial volume. In this group, the base panel and colour fields complement each other, as indetermina- te manifestations of space in which the interior spa- ces of the fields of colour unfold. This first phase also marks the beginning of a journey in which the sur- rounding space and the inner images of the traveller interact, but do not yet merge with each other. That occurs only in the second phase, in which the tin panels are painted over their entire area, and their material effect now develops in a more restrained form. Visually and emotionally, I should like to approach the highly individual pictorial language of this phase step by step, beginning with the structures of the paintings. Most of the panels are divided horizontally into two almost equal halves. At times, this structural line assumes an almost tectonic quality; when the resultant horizontal fields are clearly contrasted in colour and the overall image is dominated by light and dark contrasts (ill. GII # 19). In other cases, it has the function of a mirroring line that sets the pictorial fields in a congruent relationship, even if this is distin- guished by subtle variations (ill. GII # 22). As a rule, it assumes the quality of a demarcation line that goes beyond a purely structural element and facilitates the interplay and opening of different spatial-colour zones. I hardly need to add that the colour fields have been created with a freehand application of paint and not by means of stencils or by masking the surrounding areas. The free brushstroke and the blurred edges of the fields of colour generate subtle vibrations in the pictures that transcend the structural images of the geometric forms. In addition to the interplay between light and dark, salient and receding fields of colour - alongside the application of different tones that (as in ill. GII # 21) result in shaded and illuminated areas and transform fields of colour into spatial realms - it is the open nature of the forms at the edges that allow com- plex, intercommunicating relationships to come about within the simplicity of the overall work. What is the nature of these relationships, though? What exactly occurs in such situations? You have been concerned with the theme of nature and landscape for a long time now, and more intense- ly over the past ten years or more, when I call to mind the series Cycles of the Day (1999-2007), for example. The second phase (as I have termed it) of A Luminous Night's Journey is mainly in green, yellow and earth tones. In other words, it explicitly adopts natural colours. In this respect, though, you are concerned neither with a reflection nor with an idyllic rendering of nature. The subject is more a journey, a journey through natural spaces, which have always been the spaces inhabited by man, the spaces in which his journeys take place and in which the perils to which he is exposed are located. The journey follows an inner path, a path elevated to the plane of visual per- ception and made to sound and reverberate through the interplay of forms and colours; for the forms, which are open or in some cases blurred at their edges, the lighter and darker areas of colour open up spaces in which correspondences, tensions and interactions can occur within the painting and that conjure deeply human associations. The blurred edges, the overlapping colours and the act of trans- cending boundaries, the radiation of the spatial colour into the inner form and the liberation of the inner form from its formal isolation can be translated into words that describe human experiences and objects: fragility, convergence, tension, contact, envelopment, vulnerability, liberation. In this respect, the series reminds me of the still lifes by Giorgio Morandi, especially his later ones, and of Vitale Bloch's remark about an "interpersonal" relationship between visual objects. In respect of A Luminous Night's Journey, one can indeed speak of a heighte- ned sensibility and permeability of the colours and their boundaries, of a communicative modulation wit- hin the paintings and the link they establish - in an extremely subtle, poetic form - with the observer. The fields of colour are not simply set next to each other; they are in contact with each other, and thus with the observer as well. There are no autonomous areas, but interactive, active and enduring bodies of colour. As a result of their intimate proportions, the paintings invite the observer to immerse him or herself in them. It is no coincidence that the vertical fields of colour resemble doors or suggest a gateway situation. The spaces can be entered with the eyes; the tesselati- ons, or divisions into fields of colour, are like mental maps that indicate a path through spaces of light and shadow. In a third phase, created in your studio only recently, violet colour shades prevail. The inner light has turned into an intermediate twilight state - all the more intensively, almost in a visionary manner, the lighter areas of the fields of colour are illuminated. In A Luminous Night's Journey, you continue in the medium of oil painting a journey that had its begin- nings at the latest in 2004 with the watercolours and their fluid, living, running tones. It is a journey that leads to the heart of life, to the point where one seeks the very essence of things. With this exhibition, I am delighted to be able to accompany you on your jour- ney for part of the way.

Velten Wagner

Translated by Peter Green