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An Ape's Limbs Compared to Man's

oil on linen, 24 x 93 inches, 2011
private collection

This painting is based on an illustration in an old book on primates comparing the proportions of a human and a gibbon. The illustration intrigued me because it was based on the image of Vitruvian Man made famous by Leonardo, in which man's beauty and perfection of form are demonstrated by him fitting, arms outstretched, within a perfect square. The poor gibbon is obviously deficient within this scheme of values, and with his legs dangling, resembles a crucified martyr. The illustration seemed to express unintentionally something strange and dysfunctional in our relationship with nature. I decided to try and fulfil the iconographic potential of the image by translating it into a dramatically lit three-dimensional space, a sort of Last-Judgement scene in which, instead of human souls, animals are weighed and measured and man appears god-like, glorified. In the background the evolution of ape to man progresses toward an unknown future. By overlaying the iconography of science and progress upon older traditions of Christian and classical humanistic iconography, the picture condenses many of the central themes of western civilisation. The resulting picture is like a super-history-painting which parodies Christianity, Humanism, and Scientism without, I think, endorsing any of them. I think this reflects my own ambivalence about much of our cultural heritage and likely destiny.

The people in the painting are not really free agents: they enact roles not of their choosing but dictated by my iconographic scheme. However, as realistic, sensitive portraits - mostly of friends and family - I think they help to counterbalance the abstractness of the 'big picture' themes (Man, Nature, Science, Destiny) with more immediate human values.

In its composition, rich colours and dramatic light, the picture recalls High-Renaissance religious and narrative painting. I also looked to Last Judgement scenes or 'Dooms' often found over the western doorway in Gothic cathedrals, where Christ 'in glory' is depicted centrally while below him angels weigh the souls of the dead, separating the righteous from the damned. The imaginary space was inspired by Courbet's Atelier in the Musée D'Orsay in which he depicted himself at his easel in a vast urban studio, surrounded by friends and enemies. I was also thinking of Gauguin's great painting, What Are We, Where Do We Come From, Where Are We Going? and wanted to paint a picture that might live up to the ambition of his title.

                         Some pages from my 'ideas' notebook containing source images


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