Reflections on the work of Alan Feltus
'Objects after all are what makes infinity private' Joseph Brodsky
The constants in the work of Alan feltus are so inexorable, so unyielding, that any encounter with his paintings returns us to the things that characterise and comprise the strange other worldliness and timeless solemnity of their presence: states of stillness, silence, suspension, intense solitariness, interiority, absorption. These states that the paintings embody, are: as states of being, and of relational exchange, the states they invoke in us. They are more than starting points, or touch stones; more pivotal even than being the subject matter itself: they seem to be the very modus operandi of the paintings existence.
'I paint figures, people in groups of two or three, and also singly. They are usually in interior spaces, sometimes in the landscape. I make up these figures and their surroundings.' (1)
The personae (and more recently, the characters) of each painting are suspended in varieties of states of absorption. The forces that draw them inwards - including preoccupation and estrangement - seem to counter any possibility of movement. When they gaze, even when this gaze is directed outwards and towards us, it is not a gaze that anticipates being met; there is no possibility of encounter, of transaction. Tension, poignancy and disquietude often emanate from this absence of anticipation of being seen. Whilst aloneness is the prerequisite state of solitude, the essential state of absorption and of self forgetting; the other face of aloneness - that of loneliness - is never free of an accompanying sense of loss, of incompleteness.
' I don't paint from models and rarely refer to objects in my studio. What I paint comes from within myself. I use mirrors to observe various parts of my own face and body and occasionally I can find some part of a photo or a painting in a book that will be helpful.' (2) 'it's nice not to compromise my solitude, my privacy, with another person present.' (3)
From the beginning questions seem posed by the paintings concerning solitude which seem central to the notion of dialogue within the work. What, for instance, does solitude permit that company might interfere with?
The paintings are made in the absence of the figure and of any objects that might appear in the paintings. The activity of making them is essentially solitary. The only dialogue that takes place, is that between the painter and the painting evolving. Each painting, beginning with the size and proportion of the canvas, is a way of entering the dialogue of what painting is. Nothing is allowed to diffuse or impinge upon the space of this dialogue, except those things that have become so fused with the self that is the artist.
Alan Feltus is mercurial and his paintings importantly contain references to what he reveres and loves in the paintings of others, sometimes as straight forward, declared inclusions: objects, part objects, the shapes of space and intervals between them, and sometimes as echoes, as kinds of reminiscent reverberations. Whilst some of these are talismanic, all might be claimed to be icons of interiority. Some part of this aspect of the activity appears to be a carrying forward, a kind of mission, of running errands for the dead. A need to make space again for those things that might otherwise become obscured and even lost. An assertion that these things live potently still, as inexhaustible, full of reserves. 'My paintings are fairly carefully rendered , to a degree realistic, one could think, while at the same time they are altogether invented images and have within them all manner of visual distortion or unreality' (4)
What happens in his paintings have little to do with reality, or verisimilitude. He is not interested in painting what he sees or has seen. The use he makes of himself, therefore, to engage with parts of himself as seen in a mirror, in order to resolve and specificate the images evolving on the canvas, seems of profound significance.
When looking at himself in the mirror, he meets his appearance, approaches it, from the inside. It feels, perhaps, as much like: looking for, or looking into, as looking at. And what is seen are reflections, reversals; he sees himself in virtual space. In performing an action, arranging part of the body in front of a mirror, for instance, that of crossing his arms, what is seen cannot exactly correlate with the proprioceptive sense of the body. The resulting ambiguity, dualism and tension seems to have a corresponding existence in the paintings. This seems one of the ways in which the body is presented as an enigma to itself, and significantly also, this enigma is one that takes many forms in dreaming.
'I start a painting with little more than a sense of where something might be placed . I then take it from there. when there are forms to see I start shifting things about.' (5)
The paintings have a completeness that do not declare their history, even though their genesis is elaborate and difficult. Special things get relinquished to this process in which not only shedding but losing things is a part. At some point the paintings become "muddled and chaotic" and the phenomena of multi layered accretions might seem overwhelmingly at odds with the states that he works to give rise to, and yet, in terms of his dialogue with the paintings he knows the indispensability of this phase. For in the search for the obscured and for the things that have been lost, he is able to find: not what he was looking for, but what he wouldn't, otherwise, have been able to imagine that he would find. As if, each time, what he finds, appears, as though it has found him. 'I move things around in layers until I have what works in the composition, basically , refining and defining and searching for structure as I paint. I think of it as choreographing figures and objects.' (6)
Choreography - the moving and arranging of bodies and parts of bodies in space - is rarely without an undercurrent, at least, of the erotic. And, even more importantly, it is an instance of space taking shape from the dynamic structure of gestural forms: their varieties of interaction and interconnection. It is also, significantly, the mysterious experience of a relationship in which no one speaks. It is not, however, just figures that he is choreographing. For him every component of the paintings have gesture. Not only objects, but planes, boundaries, intervals, colour light and touch - as evidence of facture - exist to mirror, to converge, to concatenate and to hold; to create a space of stillness in which silence is a part. The structure of this space is unique to each painting. Their sense of separateness, as part of their essential completeness, arises from this uniqueness.
'I am reducing the range of possibilities - what can happen on the the canvas - to familiar content: my own characters , my own sort of light and colour.' (7)
There appears to be a comparative clarity and simplicity about the recent paintings that is, in the latter at least, in some ways misleading. Ambiguities and points of tension are less obvious and are slower in their release. In fact their sense of time, as space, time combination, in contrast to what was previously seemingly more multi layered and collaged - in reference, as much as space - their properties of the distillatory and the reduced: leaves time, not only suspended, but also, as compressed. The 'stage' is less dramatic, and the impulse to contrive and invent is made to serve this greater requirement for restraint, to shed all that might strive for obvious effect. The meditative is not simply depicted, it is generated by these paintings, and the seesaw of finding: the real in the unreal and the unreal in the real, remains untipped.
The paintings appear to have been formed through a process of reverie in which reverie is the subject. This cast of characters seem assembled for this purpose. As custodians of reverie, they become mirrors in which we may adjust our inner states, and prepare ourselves to see. In accepting the invitation to enter this dialogue of silence - in solitude, in absorption, in self forgetting - we may be able to suspend the impulse to read the paintings, and begin to sense, instead, that the paintings may be reading us.
The extracts from the writings of Alan feltus were taken from the following: Extracts: 1, 2.& 4. from the draft version of essay: ' The Composition of Paintings: An Artist’s Perspective ' . Published in American Arts Quarterly, fall issue 2005. 3. & 6. Letter to Mira Gerrard, November 1999. 5. Alan feltus Journals, 28,3,05. 7. e-mail to Teana Newman, 14,5,05.
Teana Newman is a painter, who, in recent years, has worked almost exclusively in 3 dimensions. She studied Fine Art at Birmingham (England), and Psychology and Philosophy at the University of London. From 1969-89, she was Lecturer in Fine Art in Colleges of Art and Universities in the south of England, including Goldsmiths college, the University of London and Maidstone College of Art. Since 1989 she has lived and worked in Central Italy.