At times it can be overwhelming to grasp, process and interact with the ever-expanding amount of visual imagery engulfing us. For this reason, it is refreshing to come across Jonathan Owen, an Edinburgh based artist, whose practice doesn’t involve creating new material, but revitalising existing imagery.
Owen’s artwork is about transformation; he rejuvenates sculptures that were once deemed finished by continuing to carve into them. ‘Untitled, 2013’, which is currently on display in Head to Head: Portrait Sculpture Ancient to Modern exhibition at the Portrait Gallery, started its life with a completely different identity. This life size bust of a powerful military figure was created first in 1875 in France, but is now a reduced and disjointed version of the original form. Owen has scraped away parts of the original sculpture, leaving only a ghostly trace of what was there before. Details of the medals on the bust remain, yet the head is barely distinguishable. The figure has become de-humanised; it has been transformed into an unsolvable yet innately intriguing puzzle.
The process Owen used to carve the sculpture, removing elements of the original to create a new piece, is a reverse of the mental process the viewer undergoes. He describes his approach to carving the figure as ‘systematic’ but also ‘spontaneous’.
Visually there is a disparity between the style of carvings of the original sculptor and that of Owen’s. Both artists used similar processes on the same piece of stone. The original sculpture used the best tools of the time to create intricate detail. Owen uses a mixture of modern sculptural tools and simple tools that haven’t changed for centuries, a hammer, chisel and file etc. Owen compares his type of carving to that which you do if you have ‘nothing’, to that of a ‘rustic’ process. What is important is that he employs the same process that was employed by the original sculptor.
This idea that human beings should actively reshape and revitalize their world is an idyllic thought. Some could say Owen is the ultimate recycler. You are left to wonder to what extent ‘value’ is added by reshaping existing imagery. With ‘Untitled, 2013’, he takes an object from the antique art market, manipulates it, then re-sells it in the contemporary art market for a considerably higher markup. During his artist talk, audience members questioned what it is that Owen had done to add creative value. Owen’s response suggested that value is added because it shifts the viewers’ curiosity from the identity of the depicted individual, to a more general concern about our ability to revitalise existing imagery.
Owen compares this transformation to “the illusion of permanence”. The original statue offered a form of immortality for the figure it depicted. Owen’s practice shows that however much we strive for immortality, nothing is ever certain.
Image Credit: Arseny Vesnin