Monday, August 24, 2015

AESTHETIC ALCHEMY IN THE ART OF ERIK D’AZEVEDO


Erik d'Azevedo

Hermetically sealed in his various studios in Oakland , Emeryville and  Berkeley, abstract artist Erik d’Azevedo has labored for over thirty five years to produce “alchemical gold” from the often lumpy, dark and disturbing prima materia of the urban and industrial environment.

As a young  boy Erik d’Azevdo participated in swimming and drawing “water spirits” with his black African friends in a world that has disappeared since then into continual war and holocaust. Erik doubts that any of the boys he knew as friends are still alive.  Thrust back into the urban culture of the U.S. , he felt like an outsider and confesses to feeling rebellious and angry.  Then he discovered art again and that became his destiny, his struggle, his reason for being, his spiritual salvation. And so it was with the ancient alchemists, who sought not just to turn base metal into immortal gold, but to explore a corollary change within themselves, a purification on the spiritual level which they represented as the quest for the philosopher’s stone.  Carl Jung felt that ancient alchemy had been an opportunity for consciousness to explore itself through material means, a symbolic representation of what he called in his psychology, the process of individuation which we must all experience.

He favors large canvasses worked on the floor (something that he can trace back, not to the images of Pollock at work on drip paintings, but to the wildchild art he did on the floor of his parent’s house at the age of six with his school mates in Liberia where his anthropologist father was studying the Gola peoples.) And like an alchemist staring into the chaos of bubbling retorts, he developed techniques in which he would be guided by his process and what was taking shape before him that in the best instances would produce wonderful surprises and a finished work of art that would “sing” as he says, with “...the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard.”

Berkeley 1976


In the studio D’Azevedo slathers a large sheet of plastic with layers of paint, in some phases of exploration using roofing paint, oil-based metal paint used for waterproofing rooftops, or acrylics made from metallic powders mixed in a blender with a clear liquid  base.  Then the wet sheet is rolled out over the canvas and pressed with hands and feet, transferring the color to the canvas in the manner of making a Rorschach ink blot. 

“What makes it interesting for me,” he says, “is the surprise element, the fact that I never know quite how it’s going to turn out.”

Working on several large canvasses at once spread out on the studio floor, he may venture deep into chaos. Recalling a certain moment of discovery, he says, “...the floor was covered with paint, sticks, matchbooks, [just] stuff that was on the floor.  It would sort of get glued together in this mass and "I started liking what was on the floor more than what was on the canvas...”

“Chaos is a reaction to rigidity and structure,”he reflects. But he insists there is such a thing as “Purposeful chaos". "There’s a kind of order to the chaos that I make.... The idea of intentionality makes the difference. In other words, the idea of a controlled accident, that’s a deliberate attempt to make a mistake, to see what happens.  If it works, you stick with it.”

D’Azevedo references a book, Man’s Rage for Chaos, by art historian and aesthetic philosopher, Morse Peckham, that has influenced his thinking.  Peckham avers that—contrary to common belief-- art does not unify and order experience. He believes that we are seduced into the fallacy that art satisfies our need for
order by the neat packaging in which art objects are presented in concert halls, museums, metrics and buildings. Too often in the name of order we eliminate the very quality in a work of art which might lead our consciousness into new fields of perception.

In a special series from the mid seventies that d’Azevedo calls “The Industrial Paintings,” he began to hunt hardware or hobby stores and scour trash piles looking for things that would catch his eye. Things like PVC plumbing pipes and fittings, wooden dowels and odd shapes of Styrofoam and foam core that he could glue directly onto the canvas and then paint over. In an uncharacteristically austere group of paintings that might be characterized as minimalist steampunk, he romances the look of large riveted steel structures like the vintage bridges that connect the conurbation of the Bay Area.

“Steampunk” was a word put into cultural circulation by the noir sci-fi writer, William Gibson, in his novel (with collaborator Bruce Sterling) The Difference Engine. And indeed it would be easy to imagine many of d’Azevedo’s paintings as components in set designs for movies based on novels by this author, who gave us as well, the words cyberpunk and cyberspace and defined a genre  that mingled lowlife with high tech.

But there is also beauty in d’Azevedo’s paintings, of the sort that one might associate with the art brut, or raw art of Jean Dubuffet who in the early days of modernist movements approached with the radical understanding that beauty must be fertilized with ugliness to keep art alive. Like d’Azevedo, Dubuffet was drawn to unorthodox materials such as cement, plaster, tar and asphalt scraped, carved and drawn upon with a rudimentary, spontaneous line. Dubuffet was also drawn to the art of the insane and the untrained artist, what we now call outsider art.  And it is interesting that even though Erik d’Azevedo holds a BFA and an MFA from CCAC and has received several grants and awards, he recalls being worried
at the outset of his formal training in art that formal training would ruin him.

d'Azevedo 2003 Acrylic 96x75 inches Farhat Art Museum collection

Since the advent of modern abstract art in the 1940s and 50s—and continuing into the present—our eyes have been opened, not only to new ideas of what a painting can be, but also to new kinds of beauty to be seen everywhere. The flattened milk carton beside a skid mark on the pavement forms a perfect composition or a gorgeous plume of bright orange running down from a rusted
nail driven into the siding of a weathered house may suddenly be seen as “a painting,” a formal arrangement of shape and color with great beauty.  And things in the world around us seem to take on a mysterious life of their own.

The sterile monotony of the rectilinear designs of the city environment—seen in the grid of streets, boxy buildings, the sky framed by windows—is continually assaulted by the ever-present forces of Nature, including that original, pre-civilized nature that is still operative within our own psyche.  Rain washes, cracks appear,
a trail of ants streams up the cabinet to the jar of honey inside, raccoons go through the garbage cans, the homeless encamp with their refuse under the elevated freeways while tidier forms of corruption go down in city hall, and the radio gives the daily traffic report of crashes across the lanes.

I have styled Erik d’Azevedo as an art-alchemist not because he professes to be an alchemist or even an interest in historic alchemy, but because it seems to be the perfect metaphor for understanding his art. The medieval alchemists had observed the paradox that Nature produced good  and edible things from the rot of compost and they sought to emulate this transformative power of natural process in their laboratories.  Expressing himself in several self-published books of poetry as well as painting, d’Azevedo offers this description of “urban compost”—

   I hear the garbage trucks as they go
   predawn squealing machinery gathering
   filthy loads wet with raw
   and undigested food, baby diapers.
   I hear siren’s anxiety signals
   a punctuation of pointless life.
   Computers keep score of an environment
   that lives on black refuse, fed black gas
   of burning rubber, fat and gristle.

As Taun Relihan notes in her short essay on alchemy in the catalogue to the SUPERTITION show at the San Francisco Center for the Book: “Alchemical work was difficult, tedious, expensive, lonely and often deadly.  Alchemists were noted to be a depressed lot, prone to melancholy, as in Albrecht Durer’s engraving, Melancholia I... Whatever else, the images and literature of Alchemy are fascinating, luring us to further exploration of the wonders of ourselves, the works of nature, and the transformative depths of art.”

The same can be said, I believe, of the art and poetry of Erik d’Azevedo.


from APPLIANCE POEMS, Erik d’Azevedo (1988, Albino Press)

   Dismantle anyone who can’t give self
   completely to it...

   Hands of 1000 moments forgotten either
   too good
   For or not good enough to make stones
   cry out and be more than vulgar
   colorless variations of a known thing...

   Something to remember at the end of a
   day
   At the end of a youth
   when the mind ponders what it created of
   A body of best years...


Essay: AESTHETIC ALCHEMY IN THE ART OF ERIK d’AZEVEDO 
by Will Cloughley, August 2015 

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