Crossing Cultures: One Painter's Attentive Eye

The Scottish painter Elizabeth Blackadder is a purposeful traveler.

Her art has always been fed by other cultures she's visited: France, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Japan. But she could not be characterized as a "travel artist" bringing home vedute (recognizable views) of places. Such accurate documentation, once the province of serious and successful painters from Francesco Guardi to J.M.W. Turner, has today been taken over by the photograph and the video camera.

Ms. Blackadder's sensitivities are concentrated not so much on place as on feel and atmosphere, and on differences and unfamiliarities. What gives these cultures their character is often traditional, and their earlier periods attract her more than their modernity (which is often startlingly Western).

Her attention is not drawn exclusively to the art and architecture - the museum culture - of the places she visits. Small artifacts, unpretentious and generally inexpensive, catch her eye, arouse her magpie instincts, and suggest paintability.

She is a hoarder of what others consider trifles. To her they are anything but. Her Edinburgh studio is piled high with collected bits and pieces, any one of which might insinuate itself into a painting. Some reappear often, favored tokens of a personal aesthetic that brings together disparate, enigmatic objects in an improvisory way.

Each of these objects, given a new definition in her paintings, is a small painting in its own right. She locates them on her paper or canvas so that they look as if they'd been casually put - but with space around them - on a table or on the floor.

There is in ancient Roman art a kind of floor mosaic known as an asaroton or "unswept floor." It represented a white floor strewn with the remains of a feast - fruit, nuts, and fragments often hard to identify. These items rarely overlap. Each has white space around it. Blackadder's unconventional "still life" paintings are not so much remains of a feast as a potential feast for both the eye and the palate.

Her "Marzapane Siciliana" is a seductive little watercolor example of the genre, though in other works a much wider area is covered with many more objects. They share something with the Roman asaroton mosaics. Even the words she includes in thin Roman capital letters are an echo of Roman inscriptions (or of the labeling that is part of Byzantine mosaics, also a favorite Blackadder study).

In the alchemy of her memory and imagination, Blackadder's taste for a wide variety of cultures and periods of art is mixed and transformed. This means that if she is eclectic, she is never an imitator.

"Marzapane Siciliana" is as much like some botanical illustration of exotic fruits as it is like a Roman mosaic. Botanical illustration is another of Blackadder's interests, as her paintings of flowers bear witness. She paints from living specimens, but simultaneously seems aware that a flower is a kind of art form, traditionally depicted in certain ways by botanical artists. Since in "Marzapane Siciliana" at least some of the fruits shown are not real but versions made of marzipan (ground almonds), they are objects already once removed from "reality" before she painted them.

Perhaps they appeal to her just because they have already been subjected to a degree of artifice. It is as if she is investigating the nature of art and the complex relationship of painting to what is natural and what is artificial.

THIS is done, though, without the slightest intellectualism and with the lightest, most beguiling touch. Her way of painting is so open, so direct, and so free of stylistic sleights of hand that it seems as natural as breathing. Its calculations and depths of reference are, however, there to be discerned by a viewer who is not merely charmed by their immediacy.

Japan and things Japanese have long inspired Blackadder, something she makes no attempt to hide.

Japanese friends sometimes find the particulars of her Japonisme unexpected. The inconsequentiality or idiosyncrasy of some of the objects she sees as typically Japanese strikes them as at least odd. But it is, after all, her response to Japan and to Japanese art and artifacts that she continually explores. Being as conscious of art history as she is, she is well aware of the longstanding absorption of Japanese art into Western art. At the end of the 19th century, a number of Scottish artists were obsessed with Japan; they went there, collected fans, costumes, and ephemera, and incorporated these into their paintings. Blackadder's Japonism is consciously heir to their work. Yet once again, her adaptations of Japanese art and architecture are thoroughly expressive of her own (modern) sensibilities.

The large, striking watercolor "Shrine, Nara" of 1995 is a splendid instance of this with its bold, free depiction in red of a torii or gateway to a Shinto shrine. One immediately recognizes this image as indelibly Japanese. And certainly its shallow pictorial space (its tendency to screen whatever depths there are, rather than allow perspective to lead the eye to a vanishing point) derives to some extent from traditional Japanese prints and from a style of architecture that seems to both invite and discourage entrance into a building. If this is a gateway, to what does it give access?

The grid screens, which in her painting (as in the architecture itself) actually appear to block ingress, are painted by Blackadder with imaginative delight and thoroughness.

Changing colors and lights are glimpsed through the multiplicity of small squares and diamonds. It is not possible to distinguish what these broken colors represent - and in the end, the viewer opts for enjoying them on their own decorative terms. They are like the tesserae, the pieces used in mosaics, and have a similarly scintillated surface. So this Japanese painting is as much Roman or Byzantine in origin and inspiration as it is Japanese. Above all, of course, it is a Blackadder.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.