Cadenza is a collaborative project by artists Don Andrus and Jinny Yu. They agreed upon a starting point, a mural by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Italian 1696-1770). But this is not strictly an homage to Tiepolo, the past, or the history of painting. Equally, it is an artist-generated inquiry into the nature of painting today, and their respective studio practices.
The Brazen Serpent, one of Tiepolo’s earliest major murals (although not titled as such at the time), is based on a biblical story of Moses. It was commissioned for the 15th century church SS. Cosma e Damiano, on the island of Giudecca in Venice. As a consequence of Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1797, and the suppression of the church, the mural was removed and taken to Castelfranco, 40 km inland from Venice. It was left rolled up until the end of the 19th century when it was reinstalled at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice, a museum dedicated to Venetian painting from the Byzantine era to the 18th century.
The why of Tiepolo, and this mural, is different for the two artists. For Jinny Yu, it was the condition of the work, the striations and loss of painting that occurred during its history, that opened up “modern questions.” For Don Andrus, it was the challenge of working figuratively, and at the same time, understanding and admiring Tiepolo’s contribution as one of the great colourists of the 18th century. But as he also stated, reflecting on an essay by American writer and critic Dave Hickey, it was the importance and value in mining art history as if a geological undertaking, thereby revealing something below the surface-the what we see. The same is true of Yu’s approach. But the only thing they agreed on as a prescribed outcome was the scale-both work to the original dimensions, 164 x 1356 cm, and that their respective works would be installed facing each other. Yu did preparatory work during a Charlottetown residency, and completed her work while in residence in New York. Andrus visited Yu during this time, and adjusted the colour of his work to resonate with hers. But in essence, it is a dialogue on walls.
In this and other ways, their project is of a different order than that of other contemporary collaborative work-often using collective names such as General Idea and N.E.Thing Co., in Canada; Art & Language, which operated in England and New York; and Guerrilla Girls, in the U.S.A.-and focusing on specific cultural, social and even political strategies and ideologies. The Andrus-Yu collaboration is also vastly different from historical examples, where master artists had studio apprentices working to a singular outcome. Tiepolo himself apprenticed as a studio assistant to Gregorio Lazzarini, and later in his own studio, employed two of his sons as assistants.
The title Cadenza is apt, a term in music referring to improvisations within a scored piece of music. It was chosen as a reference to their intention in creating their own particular variation on Tiepolo’s mural.
Yu’s medium is oil on aluminum panels using a grisaille technique; a term for near-monochromatic work, often in shades of grey, and which has a long history in art. She adhered to the figuration and composition of the mural, but foregrounds the distress marks that accumulated over time. Yu wrote:
I am fascinated by the pictorial tension that is present due to the co-existence of illusional space Tiepolo created and the cracks on the surface of painting left by years of bad conservation. I “express” these cracks on the surface of my work to emphasize a receding space-to explore the boundary between illusion and reality in painting.
Andrus decided to “extract” ten heads/portraits from the Tiepolo, rather than tackle what he called the “formal composition problem over such a vast wingspan”-also an unusual proportion for modern and contemporary art. He based nine of his portraits on individuals on Prince Edward Island-the tenth is Jinny Yu. And in isolation, they are no longer absorbed inside the “theatre” of composition, as in Tiepolo’s mural. His remaining panels are anatomical studies loosely based on details in the mural. Andrus wrote: This allowed me to do several things at once: my iconography is attached to each portrait, rather than to an overarching symbolism, and since each figure is in some way connected to the arts on PEI, the iconography for my painting is essentially art itself.
While both approaches may appear to be distanced and remote from the source inspiration, a further comment by Andrus, clarifies the connection:
I still see Tiepolo as a source in that as a man of the Enlightenment, he begins to understand the workings of religion in terms of humanity rather than miracle. I am most concerned with the physicality and materiality and formal elements of painting as a metaphor for idea, thought and imagination. In this way, I can align myself absolutely with Jinny Yu in terms of how she views this “argument.”
Time, and therefore history, is unrecoverable; in a local history perspective, Tiepolo’s mural was completed 15 years after the establishment of continuous French settlement on PEI. Works of art can be literally lost to the vicissitudes of time. Poor Tiepolo, could he ever have imagined that his mural would be a minor pawn in the Napoleonic “dress rehearsal” for the terrors of the 20th century. Yet it survived, and close to 300 years later, its signal is amplified and rests on the walls of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery —food for thought and quiet contemplation in the 21st century.