Homage to the Cube

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Painted  Cube I 2011 

oil on marouflaged panel  60 x 60cm



Five-Cube Cube 2011 oil on canvas 100 x 90cm


Post-Impressionist Cubes 2010

oil on marouflaged panel 100 x 100cm



 Magic Cubes 2007 painted relief 60 x 60 x 10 cm

Six-Cube Cube 2011 oil on canvas 120 x 100cm

Four-Cube Cube 2011 oil on canvas 90 x 90cm

Ambiguity I 2011

 oil on marouflaged panel 60 x 60cm

Iso Cube 2010 painted relief 60 x 60 x 18cm

Cube Vertigo 2008 oil on canvas 100 x 100cm

Causeway 2011 oil on canvas 90 x 70cm

Triad I 2011

oil on marouflaged panel 80 x 80cm



Two Cubes in a Space 2009

 painted relief 60 x 60 x 10cm



Stratified Cube I  2009 oil on canvas 120 x 120cm



Boxed Landscape   1995

 painted relief 60 x 60 x 10cm




Vasca I  2002 oil on canvas 90 x 80cm



Segments of a Land  2005

 oil on canvas 60 x 70cm



Triad II   2011  oil on marouflaged panel 80 x 67cm



Two-Cube Flux  2010  oil on canvas 120 x 120cm


Life Between Two Cubes   2010

 oil on canvas 100 x 125cm




Interior of the Cube 2011 oil on canvas 70 x 70cm



Earthquake Sections III 2011

 oil on canvas 60 x 50cm



Sicilian Iso Cube 2011 oil on canvas 90 x 70cm



Broken Cube 2011

watercolour and pen 40 x 30cm



Eruption of the Cube: Youth of the Artist 2010

gouache 61 x 46cm


Archaeo Cubic I  2009

 painted relief 60 x 60 x 10cm



Two Cubes and Cloud of the Unknowing   2010  oil on marouflaged panel 120 x 120cm



Halo for Two Cubes   2010  oil on marouflaged panel 120 x 100cm



Boxed Orchard 2011  gouache 50 x 40cm



Boxed Day in the Countryside 2011  gouache 50 x 40cm



Eruption of the Cube: Sicily 2010

oil on canvas 120 x 90cm


Abandoned Old Cubes  2011

 oil on canvas 120 x 100cm



Eruption of the Cube: Photography 2010

gouache 61 x 46cm



Two Cubes and Soft Cloud 2010

watercolour 61 x 46cm



Stratified Time in a Cube 2010

watercolour and pencil 40 x 30cm



Iso Village Box 2010

watercolour and pencil 40 x 30cm



Cloud of Memories 2011

watercolour  46 x 61cm


In my personal prehistory I visited the caves of Altamira in Spain and was amazed at the rendering of chiaroscuro created by those painters of twenty-five thousand years ago. In a couple of places, on the cavern roof, they had even exploited the swelling forms of the rock to give real three dimensionality to the animals. The attempt to create an illusion of three-dimensional forms is as old as painting itself.


            For thousands of years painters have been creating three dimensional illusions on flat two-dimensional surfaces. In the wall paintings of Pompeii there are elements of colour, line and tone which produce various levels of shallow or deeper space. Here we can see the first signs of linear perspective, later taken up and formulated by the artists of the Renaissance.


          Classical painting formulae gradually atrophied in the 19th century and various rebellious painters categorized as belonging to the various ‘isms’ brought new vigour and excitement to pictorial expression. Impressionism succeeded in substituting the use of browns and blacks in shadows as used in previous generations with warm and cold colours to create light and shade. Colour, the principal tool of expression developed by the Post-Impressionists, Symbolists and Fauves, was no longer a decorative supplement but an essential element in the creation of the painting’s form, space and expressiveness. A late Monet painting reproduced in black and white loses its essential meaning.


         This passion for colour has continued to interest painters in many different ways.  The Dutch De Stijl painters such as Mondrian used simplified linear structures to enclose primary colours. Here the amazing thing is that even with a black line holding the colours rigidly in place, the colours act as window spaces, more or less spacious depending on their hue and temperature.


         Paul Klee’s Magic Squares exploit the juxtaposition of colour changes in a chequer board pattern creating inner spaces with intense luminosity. The brighter colours are surrounded by a mysterious space created by more somber hues.     


         When I lived in London in the 1960’s I came in contact with the ‘flat’ painters. Like the proponents of the ‘flat earth’ school in mediaeval times, blind to the reality of the surrounding world,  these painters aimed at creating ‘pure’ paintings without any illusion of space. As far as I was concerned, that search, like that for the philosopher’s stone or the Holy Grail, was doomed to failure. It is enough to look at the paintings in the sacred room at the Tate Gallery dedicated to Mark Rothko to appreciate how 'flat' colours can create spiritual and illusionistic spaces.


         There were others in London with more convincing ideas. My teacher Anton Ehrenzweig, in his book The Hidden Order of Art, wrote of many visual experiments performed by artists and psychologists. As a psychologist from the Viennese School he appreciated that our perception of colour is subjective and relative to its context. We looked at Albers and worked on a project exploring colour interaction. According to Ehrenzweig, Albers chose the square as the structure for his experiments because of its ‘weak’ shape. It was the shape offering the least resistance to overflows or influences from the other side of its confines. These squares arranged concentrically formed the simplest linear composition possible in which to place side by side various harmonious, discordant or contrasting colours. By removing changes of tone (lighter or darker) everything depends on hue and interaction becomes more fluid.              


         This series of Albers paintings Homage to the Square is really a homage to the way the human brain exaggerates contrasts to make vision clearer than reality. Johannes Itten explores this in his book The Art of Colour and demonstrates clearly this mechanism by placing the same colour against different background colours to show how it seems to change tone or hue creating more contrast than that which actually exists.


         Paul Cezanne is considered to be the precursor of cubism. Following on from Leonardo da Vinci who had discovered various fallacies in the classical Renaissance theories of perspective and had realized that using a single point of observation like the pinhole in a camera oscura was a simplification of the stereoscopic vision, Cezanne looked at a table and objects, first closing one eye, then the other. The resulting image is a composite structure with elements demonstrating a certain discontinuity. For example, the horizontal line of the table is at a certain height on one side of the composition and emerges, after the interruption created by objects, at a different level on the other.


         These discoveries involved lines and geometrical forms more than colour. The famous letter Cezanne wrote to Émile Bernard in 1904 talks of a simplification of forms in Nature reducing them to their essentials in terms of geometrical solids:

 ‘Allow me to repeat what I said when you were here: deal with nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone, all placed in perspective, so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point.’

There is no mention of cubes but the seeds are sown.


         Braque and Picasso took Cezanne’s ideas further by combining multiple views of the object or figure, at the same time simplifying the forms into a series of geometrical planes tilting or turning to catch more or less light, as explained by Georges Braque:

            ‘…that was the earliest Cubist painting – the quest for space. Colour played only a small part. The only aspect of colour that concerned us was light. Light and space are connected, aren’t they, and we tackled them together… People called us abstract painters!’


         Like the word impressionist the word cubist began as a derogatory term. The critic Louis Vauxcelles talked about cubes in his comment on Braque's exhibition in the Kahnweiler Gallery, in 1908. Vauxcelles described cubiques bizarreries which led to the use of the word cubist. Then he named many of the Indépendants, painters that exhibited in 1910 influenced by Cezanne, as ‘stupid geometers who mistake landscape and the human body as insipid cubes.’


         In fact there are very few cubes in Cubist paintings. The forms are more complex, sometimes flat, sometimes curving, sometimes creating three-dimensional illusions.


            My interest in cubes is, more than the Cubists, directly concerned with this very particular geometrical solid. It offers so many possibilities.


            I discovered the beauty of the cube when I was very small. At home I had a set of large coloured wooden blocks that were cubes. At four years old in my first year at school we also played with blocks. Many of the games with these blocks were the first steps towards mathematics. On the windowsill of the classroom there were some blocks in natural wood constructed in various multiples of a cube which were used as a very visual representation of addition and subtraction. These cubes were often placed in stepping order so that it was easy to count how many cubes there were in each block.


         A small child mixes his senses in early experience. The grouping of these experiences into more general abstract concepts comes later. The birth of the concept and word ‘cube’ took place in my mother’s kitchen. To make a jelly she opened a pack containing a rectangular block of concentrated red or orange (strawberry or orange flavoured) gelatine. These blocks were partially cut into cubes to help them dissolve more rapidly in the hot water used to dilute them.


         During the Second World War, sugar was very scarce and we had to use saccharin as a sweetener. So it was a big treat when I saw the first packs of rationed sugar. Mum used sugar cubes on special occasions or when we had visitors in the front room. These scintillating white crystalline blocks were placed in her best china sugar bowl with a pair of silver prongs to lift them into our cups of tea. Then there were the classic Oxo cubes in their red and silver wrappers. The word cubes was part of the name on the box, so the concept was imbedded in my mind. It is worth explaining all this to show the importance of these early experiences. In the first volume of my autobiography Childhood Shapes I attempt to demonstrate how these early visual experiences influence the mature painter in his choice of forms, his obsession with recurrent visual themes.


         I was 11 years old when the art teacher explained the first rudiments of parallel perspective. We drew three squares on a baseline and then joined the corners of each square to a central vanishing point. We cut off these lines to form three cubes. After those previous primitively flat childhood drawings this drawing, with some shading scribbled on the sides of the solids, made the cubes leap out of the paper!


         Unlike Albers where the square was chosen for its weakness, I chose the cube as a strong solid breaking the confines of the flat canvas. Colour might interact but chiaroscuro gave a stronger illusion of solidity. However, I have tried in a couple of reliefs Magic Cubes, to make colour the dominant element.  


         One of my main interests has been the play between two and three dimensions. To help these illusions I started isolating the cube’s form from its base point of reference. The first experiment was a cube shape containing a landscape with a front and two visible sides suspended from a hidden block on the back in an ambiguous space. Although the shape was flat I discovered how the eye could be deceived into perceiving the sides to be receding in space.


            Another kind of ambiguity is created when sides are shared with other cubes. The brain fluctuates in its interpretation of which is a solid cube coming forward and which is an internal fragment remaining incomplete. The balance between the two interpretations depends on factors of colour and isometric projection. An important factor is also the tendency of the brain to interpret lighter, more illuminated planes to be facing upwards to an illuminated psychological sky, an inbred education formed from birth on a planet with a sun above our heads.


         One of the best places to explore the no-man’s land between two and three dimensions is New York’s Natural History Museum. In dimly lit corridors one is confronted by rows of large windows like rows of illuminated shop windows. Behind each sheet of glass is a diorama, an incredibly realistic natural habitat containing stuffed animals. The largest is full of full-sized buffaloes in a plain that seems to extend for miles to a range of distant mountains. They are masterpieces of deception, a collaboration between painters, sculptors and many other experts. The hidden lighting corresponds exactly with those illuminated forms which seem to lead naturally to the curving painted background via forms which gradually become flatter and flatter. There is no visible join between the two levels of dimensionality! 


         I explored the contrast between the hard heavy presence of a cube with the soft amorphous ambiguity of clouds, suspending cubes in a background of  clouds, a bit like Magritte but in 3D. Then, after fixing the cubes in a relief box I took the cubes and clouds out onto a flat irregularly-shaped panel  where the illusion still operates, more or less. Now the cubes have become molecular structures and we move into the world of chemistry taking up the threads from previous works abandoned many years ago called Levels of Microscopy. From those microscopic molecules with their formulae, it is a short step into the world of biology.


         While still a student in London I worked on another project that has influenced my concept of painting ever since. We considered forms in Nature and art dividing them into two categories: organic forms and geometric forms. Looking at the classical art of the past, especially Botticelli and Poussin, one sees a perfect balance and integration between these two elements in their compositions. The figures create dancing rhythms interlaced with the background geometry of architectural forms. In my recent work the geometrical element has become the cube, the organic is composed of gelatinous amoebic-like cells.


         Other elements have crept in to surround the cubes. If there were well-behaved cubes in religious art they would probably have halos! If they were in outer space they could be surrounded by concentric rings of colour like the planet Saturn! The possibilities are unending. One idea, one drawing, leads to another.


               The cube is normally abstract or man-made, but it can become a sample of nature. Like the drilling samples of the geologists it can contain a precise record of history. This cube section can contain various strata of rocks and fossils. Each slender layer may recount thousands of years of geological history. It may be archaeological, recording the civilizations of man, each stratum a different époque, stones shaped by man, mosaics, frescoes or fragments of pottery. This cube can explore the autobiography of a single individual, the archaeology or anthropology of a life stratified by time. This vision of stratification in the form of a cube originates from a school visit when I was ten to Wigan Mining and Technical College where I saw models of coalmines.


            Cubes of stone have been around for thousands of years. The study of large time scales in contrast to that small point in time called the present has fascinated painters and poets alike. One of my favourite poems is Burnt Norton from T.S.Eliot's Four Quartets. The first part starts:

                        Time present and time past

                                  Are both perhaps present in time future,

                                  And time future contained in time past.

and ends:

                        Time past and time future

                                  What might have been and what has been

                                  Point to one end, which is always present.


           Strangely enough there is consolation here for a painter. That point in time, the present, is central to our existence. But think of my cubes, not made of stone but of wood, canvas and paint, when those meagre efforts created at the present time worsen becoming decrepit and decayed! They could become material for future archaeologists! That thought has led me to give my cubes a bit of Henry Ford's built-in obsolescence! Why not build the cubes as they are in the future?

             Nature can be devastating in a more rapid way. Living in Sicily for many years has meant being struck by the immense power and savageness of earthquakes. More than once my studio has shaken violently but withstood the onslaught. It has a frame of reinforced concrete that helps. Nevertheless it is a frightening experience and it is not easy to suppress feelings of panic. In 1975 I made my first visit to the Val Belice in South-West Sicily where many towns and villages were raised to the ground by the violent tremors of 1968. Cracked walls and roofless houses were everywhere. In a few minutes man's settlements on the face of the earth are reduced to debris. This debris has contaminated many of my paintings in the past and there is the risk that it will spill over into these recent ones with their clean sharp-edged geometry.


             If I go up to the top of the chain of mountains above the studio I get an impressive view of Etna. On a clear day wisps of smoke can be seen rising to the sky. Quite often this smoke gives way to a real eruption sending sparks and ashes into the sky. Sometimes these ashes fall on my studio roof. This presence of the volcano gives me the idea that unexpectedly nature can explode and that it could include my cubes!


            Apart from volcanic eruptions memories from the past erupt into the present often with devastating results. Images assail the mind and I sometimes envy the possibility of wiping clean the hard disc of a computer! Like Michelangelo's figures hiding in his blocks of marble just waiting to be uncovered by the chisel, I am afraid my cubes are full of all kinds of chaos. Imposing those clean sides on Nature and imprisoning all those images is dangerous! Pressure may build up and the images explode into view!

               So there is poetry in the cube but for me that poetry should be expressed more than anything else by the works themselves. Art critics often attempt to create a literary parallel very distant from the content of the work. This is natural for them. They are artists in the use of words. They want to recreate in their language the emotions they feel when they look at art. However this is inevitably a shadow of the real thing. A sculptor friend of mine, when he received a copy of one of my monographs  complained that there was too much text. He told me he never read such things and that he would have preferred more illustrations in place of it. In many cases I agree with him. When I visit a museum or gallery I hate to see those audio guides that interfere with a natural itinerary of discovery. Documentation can wait till I arrive home and read about the background to the works.


          Good documentation is not the same thing as art criticism. It is nearer to being art history. This introduction is an attempt to give the background story to the works without encroaching too much  on the personal interpretation of the viewer. I prefer to leave the poetry, if there is any, for him to discover.


           A single painting is a small window onto a world the painter attempts to create. Several paintings on the same theme give a much better idea of his intentions. I prefer to work on a whole group at a time taking them forward together. Like a team of researchers, a discovery from one helps solve problems in the others. Having an exhibition with a catalogue, like the scientist who publishes a paper in a specialist journal, helps the painter to step back, take stock of the present state of his work and then move on to new developments, new fields of research.

          Future projects are necessary for me. Most evenings I sit drawing and ideas start to flow. They are born in the drawings, not in my head. What next then? I have discovered the four-dimensional cube. Sometimes the fourth dimension is considered to be time, but here we are dealing with a hypothetical geometrical solid. Being in four dimensions this cube is impossible to see. Its creation is a theoretical, logical development from a three-dimensional one. A 3D cube is constructed from six two-dimensional faces. therefore a four-dimensional cube is constructed from six three-dimensional faces. That is a logical progression, so the argument goes. I have seen the hypercube represented by two concentric cubes with line joining the apexes, but this is a simplification. For the creator of images it is not important whether we are in a real or imaginary world. In an imaginary world the impossible and the invisible become a reality. Logical, isn't it?


          Physicists, in their research excursions into string theory, resolve their problems by inventing ever more dimensions, but, as some dissidents say, it is all without concrete proof. The painter is forced into using a maximum of three dimensions at a time, so the fourth can only be an unseen mysterious presence.


             I am not the first painter to investigate this image. The tesseract or hypercube was used by Salvador Dalì in a crucifixion, but my explorations will be very different.

John Picking

Studio at Corte Franca 3rd November 2011





Study for Clouds in a Four-Dimensional Sky 2011 pencil 16 x 16cm PG90135