Journeys Through Layers of Time
I'VE always described my paintings as 'slow paintings Jenny Franklin told me. There are "hidden things" in them, things that "start to emerge later."
It's true that although her works have immediate impact by means of deep and rich qualities of color, and a sensitivity to surface that is by turns liquid and textural, atmospheric and earthy, they also ask for long looking. They reward slow consideration. The eye needs to investigate, to study, to penetrate, to travel in these paintings.
Franklin is herself an experienced traveler. But travel is much more than an enthusiastic pastime for this artist. It is nearer to being the lifeblood of her art. "When I return from somewhere," she says, "I think that's always when my work is at its best ... because I am full of images and memories."
She is, however, a long way from being a modern topographical painter, chronicling journeys, recording places visited. She is hardly a touring diarist with a paintbrush.
Chosen places are, of course, the focal points; but Franklin is just as significantly a time-traveler. She feels affinity, in particular, with the ancient, both cultural and geological. Fossils forming, strata petrified, and the metamorphoses of the earth feed her art. And when she has "been somewhere," she says, she brings back "a lot of notebooks, full of drawings from archaic sources - Minoan, Cycladic, whatever - and from the things I see, strange shapes on a wall...."
Ancient walls have potent meaning for her. She recently spent a year studying on a scholarship to the British School at Rome. There the light reminded her of her native South Africa - reawakening desire for a certain dusty intensity that she has brought into her painting - and it was "the layering of history on walls" in Rome that spoke to her with powerful directness, with empathy, because it was like a symbol of her method of painting: a "process of images emerging and re-emerging."
So her images bespeak time and its shiftings and require time to see into their buried, half-hidden, underlying, reappearing surfaces. She has adopted the word "palimpsest" to describe this. It is a word derived from the Greek, meaning something rubbed or scraped smooth again. It is applied usually to manuscripts partly or completely erased to make room for new writing, so it suggests a surface subjected to the layering and changes of the centuries. It might equally apply to walls undergoing the wear and
tear of history. But Franklin is not a painter of walls and their surfaces. It is more a question of her absorbing the idea as an analogy for her art, so that her imagery evolves through a process of emergence and submergence. She speaks of day-dreaming, of reverie, of some images quite clear, others ambiguous, of "strange juxtapositions" that "come to us in odd ways.
"It's a bit like Rorschach, but in a more complicated way - a mark suggesting something ... not just a mark or a line but color itself ... a certain color and quality of surface, and you can't divorce the two, will suggest a rocky outcrop, or a wing, or flowing water."
It's as if memory encounters possibility as she works; the forgotten, even, may be brought to the front as surprise; the past prompts an uncharted future. She believes in "listening to the picture." She adds: "My best pictures are when I don't impose too much."
The idea of "genesis" is a preoccupation. She thinks of it as time, as "primeval beginnings ... but not in any direct Biblical or narrative sense." A predominant theme at present shows itself as a form or shape like an egg. She is fully aware of its symbolism - its "female fecundity" but says that it appears in her work not by deliberate intent but "almost [as] an automatic thing ... as I paint." Her symbols do not stand isolated in the paintings; they are an integral part of the whole. But on the other
hand they are not parts of some "abstract structure."
She vigorously denies being in any way an abstract painter. She attributes the egg and circle (the one closely connected with the other) in her paintings to, among other sources, a stay in Australia in December 1986. She has spent long periods in a "paradise place" in that country underneath the world "getting back in touch with myself." She calls this location an "early place" and says the Aboriginal circles moved into her consciousness then. "They can mean all sorts of things - sun, a [camp] fire sign - and then there are the circles in Byzantine art in Italy." Circles that contain, and circles of a sacred nature.
Franklin is aware that her art is essentially Romantic and argues that there are certain human qualities which continue to have meaning whatever current aesthetic theories might suggest to the contrary. She evidently sees no reason why a live art cannot still be dreamed up out of persistent depths of human feeling.
Her work is evidence of a strange fact in the recent history of 20th-century painting: that procedures once considered revolutionary or even disruptive, such as the free pouring of paint on canvas or the way the Surrealists used chance to rouse subconscious impulses, are simply taken for granted by any painter who wants to use them as tools of the trade. She also draws on the language of independent movements of color and form that were once the special province of the abstractionists. To her they are me thod.
It seems extraordinary that Jenny Franklin has not yet (as she eagerly wants to do some time) visited the rock-art caves of France and Spain. Yet I wonder if she needs to: Her instinct for the deep, dark beginnings of art seems already in full swing. The charcoal-black and earth-red bison and reindeer of Altamira or Lascaux could only confirm in her what she already knows.
One further telling image remains from my conversation with this painter. Franklin was much moved by a sequence in Fellini's film, "Roma.That wonderful sequence of the frescoes appearing and then fading," she recalls. Hollis Alpert in his biography of the director describes it: "Fellini takes a journey through time by accompanying engineers through the strata of centuries, until an archaeological discovery is made - an ancient Roman house with frescoes on its walls. Unfor- tunately, the air let into the
excavation chamber disintegrates the paintings, and the faces slowly fade into a monotone of muddy gray."
A monotone of muddy gray is not to be found in Jenny Franklin's paintings, but there is in them a tension between the appearing and the disappearing, between that which disintegrates, and that which integrates.