What are mosaics?
Part one of a three part blog on the place of mosaics in contemporary art.
PART ONE: WHAT ARE MOSAICS? FIVE THINGS THAT THEY ARE NOT
Joan Eardley‘s paintings are urgent; running-to-catch-the-last-bus kind of urgent. They are full of rushed energy, of stops and darts, turns and returns. They grapple and wrestle and finally heave the beast to the ground. There is no diffidence in them. There are scribbles and swirls and drips and blotches and slap-it-down-on-the-table flashes of pure, gorgeous, rich, deep (so deep you could sink) colour. You can see why she stuck to her two beloved places – the Scottish sea and the Glasgow city streets, why she didnt feel any need to tramp around looking for new subjects to paint. ‘It seems silly to shift about,’ she wrote and so, standing still, she found everything she needed right where she was.
If their urgency means they are unruly and dishevelled, that only makes them more compelling. They are piled and layered and flung. I wandered around the current exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art recently with two reluctant teenage boys. ‘How can you keep looking?’ one asked petulantly. The other had already disappeared. ‘What are you looking at, what do you see?’
I couldn’t answer so I went back without the boys and then I realised that what I saw is what mosaics are. Or rather what they are not. They are not these paintings. If our minds are like those banks of monitoring screens you see behind the scenes in security firms, then at least one of my screens is more or less continuously playing a mosaic theme. The theme of the moment is the place of mosaics in contemporary art. I came up with a theory about why pre-Byzantine mosaics don’t appear in art history books, so now I am thinking about mosaics in art galleries: I want to know where mosaics are, what they are called and what they are doing.
To do this it helps to step away from mosaics and to look at other mediums, to look at Eardley’s brush strokes for example, and then to think about them in relation to mosaics. As it happens the exhibiton was as much about Eardley’s sketching and working practices as it was about her paintings which is helpful. It allows us to use her work to delve into the nature of mosaics and to show, by contrast with Eardley’s pieces (although the points would apply equally to other visual arts), what mosaics are by listing what they are not:
FIVE THINGS THAT MOSAICS ARE NOT
- Alterable. Eardley drew and redrew, composed and shifted her compositions, worked and re-worked the canvases before finally completing her paintings. Looking at her scribbles and smudges brought it starkly home to me that the one sure thing mosaics are not is alterable.Yes, you can dig out a bit of thinset, un-glue a wrongly placed tesserae or even a whole section if you are using the reverse paper method but by and large once you’ve laid a piece, you’ve laid it. The scribbling and smudging stage goes into the designing process but once you’ve commited to the design, that’s it.
- Spontaneous. This is a sub-point of the one above. Eardley’s works are brimming with spontaneity. The medium of mosaic holds and restrains. However much you can do with mosaic, they is still a lot that can’t be done. Mosaics can’t spit and scream and pogo. I would hazard a guess that mosaic artists like Rachel Sager or Cleo Mussi are fairly spontaneous as they work – allowing the moment and the mood to dictate the laying of the tesserae. But only up to a point. You can choose a particular piece as you work which will be influenced by the pieces around it and your feeling about that piece but once you’ve placed it, that’s it. (see above)
- Layered. When you look at the surface of an Eardley painting you can see how the layers of paint have been applied and scratched away. Sometimes she dabbed thick Van Gogh-like globs of paint onto the canvas or stuck down blades of grass or sweet wrappers and painted over them. The works are two dimensional with a three dimensional impact. Mosaics are full of texture and can of course be three dimensional but the materials in mosaics, the individual tesserae themselves, each have their one and indivisible surface quality. That quality can be intense and the juxtaposition of different qualities within one piece can be highly effective but you cannot look through a tessera as you can look through Eardley’s painted surfaces.
- Contextual.The rooms containing Eardley’s paintings in the exhibition also include glass cases displaying among other things, her letters, newspaper clippings and photographs. Eardley writes of Gauguin, Picasso and Jackson Pollock and there are also references to Pop Art in her work. But even without these clear pointers, it is obvious that Eardley saw and admired other painters and there are shadows and reflections in her paintings which refer back to previous and contemporary artists.
Such is often the way with artists, but not so with mosaics. The more I think about it, the more I can convinced that this plays a major role in why mosaics are comparatively marginalised in contemporary art. You can experiment as much as you like with mosaics, push boundaries, break traditions and be one hundred per cent artistically original, but nonetheless almost the first thing an observor will think of, or compare your work to, is the mosaics of the ancient world. Mosaics are shackled by their ancientness. Never mind what artistic influences might have been swirling through your veins including (but not limited to) Diego Rivera and the other great muralists, Marc Chagall, Picasso, or Fernand Leger ( who all experimented with mosaics) or even Gabriele Munter, Pontillism, Piet Mondrian or Bridget Riley who either use blocks or dots of colour to build an image or pattern the way mosaics do. Forget it, the Roman tradition is so deeply embedded into mosaics’ identity that they struggle to be understood on their own terms.
- Ambiguous/fluid. Although this is not fully true of Eardley’s paintings, there are some where it is almost true – you can look at them and interpret them however you please. Patches of paint run and merge and fade into other patches. Mosaic compositions can also be ambiguous, playing with the surface and texture and colour rather than sticking to a clear design, but the individual tesserae or the lines which make up the overall composition will always be clear: whatever you do, mosaics are pixallated.
So where does that get us? Well, it answers my son’s question about what I was looking at and I think it helps to see how the mosaic medium differs from other artistic media in order to understand where mosaics are placed in the world of contemporary art and why they are perceived in a certain way. Now sit tight and get ready for Part II of this three-part series on what mosaics are.