A few days ago, I went down to the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea to see the artist Tony Bevan talk about the installation that he has created for the gallery there. The installation comprises three paintings, so big that they each almost completely occupy one wall of the room in which they are hung.
Two portraits face each other. Bevan said that they are self-portraits in that they are his own head, but they’re not meant to be about him; it’s just that when he wants to paint a head, his own is the most convenient. The head on the left (top image) is influenced by Franz Messerschmidt, an 18th century German sculptor.
The third painting turns out also to be a head: it’s the back of an enormous Buddha statue in China. The spirals are snails, the traditional hair of Buddha.
“When the Buddha was sitting under the Bodhi tree he was so deep in meditation that he was unaware that it was extremely hot. A group of snails saw him and realising the importance of his thoughts, crawled up to cover and protect his head with their bodies. The snails died from exposure to the hot sun and became honoured as martyrs who had died to protect the Buddha.” (Iconography of the Buddha, V&A website.)
Tony Bevan was “in conversation” with Richard Cork, the art critic. At one point, Cork asked, “Because you’ve painted the back of the Buddha’s head, should we read this as somehow symbolic, the idea perhaps that you are turning away from religion, or even that religion is turning away from you”.
Bevan replied, “No, it’s just when you visit that statue, you climb up a mountain, and the first sight you have of it is from the back.”
The paintings are acrylic and charcoal on canvas. The canvas is covered with acrylic polymer that sticks the charcoal to the canvas. It’s not clear from the photos, but the white background is actually white paint over the natural brown canvas. The paintings are so big that Bevan painted the canvas flat on the floor, using a ladder to check the progress. When he finished, the canvases were rolled up, taken to the gallery, and then put on stretchers. The first time that Bevan saw them in the traditional vertical position was when they were hung on the gallery wall.
The exhibition continues until 13 June, 2010.