Visual test: Tools | Frieze

This visual essay is a continuation of a collaboration with the Turin painter Giorgio Griffa, which began last year following the discovery of a very particular brush with a urushi [lacquer] workshop in Wajima, Japan. Only 5cm wide with a flat wooden handle, the brush is used to apply the critical final coat of lacquer to dishes and furniture in this laborious and seemingly anachronistic process, which dates back to the prehistoric period of Jomon (14,000 to 1000 BCE). Mostly, her bristles are made from Japanese pearl diver or ama hair. I bought one of these highly evocative objects with the intention of using it in a work of art and yet, for a while, I was intimidated by the idea of ​​making marks of it. In May of last year, however, I found myself sitting with Giorgio at a dinner to celebrate his participation in the Venice Biennale and I realized on the spot that I had to ask him to collaborate on the ‘artwork. There seemed to be something in the nature of the brush that matched its measured but exuberant (and often calligraphic) marking. His generous response consisted of three works in ink on paper resembling numbers, organized within a grid of folds that in turn led to a series of gridded notations from me – notations that reconnected this tool very particular to its origins.

When I arrived with my 8×10 inch camera to photograph Giorgio’s studio at the end of December last year, I found a small trestle table in the middle of the main space with a battery of canvas neatly folded on top. (The artist has used exclusively unstretched and unprimed pieces of canvas, burlap and linen as supports for his paintings since the mid-1970s.) This modest pile – not exceeding 30cm – would include, m it has been said, the entirety of his next solo show at Camden Arts Center, London. In folded form, the paintings affirmed a quiet materiality; textiles – in a range of white, cream and brown hues – often frayed at the edges. Even when hung, simply with pins along the top edge, the works retain the feeling of being objects that resolutely exist in time and space. Seeing this small pile of paintings and, later, the remarkable studio archives – which house much of the artist’s output from the past 40 years or more – in piles resembling geological strata, I realized that I had brought the right tool to photograph the space. The slowness (exhibitions can last several minutes), insistent materiality, and process-oriented nature of large-format film photography rhymed with Giorgio’s practice in ways I hadn’t fully anticipated: even the screen The camera’s frosted grid glass focus seemed to echo the structuring folds of his paintings. The resulting images are, I hope, a celebration of the lean economy and subtle materiality of these extraordinary works of art.

Main image: Giorgio Griffa, Turin, 2018. Photography: Karl Isakson. All other images are courtesy of: © Simon Starling

Giorgio Griffa, ‘A Continous Becoming’ is taking place at the Camden Arts Center, London, until April 8.

About Debra D. Johnson

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