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The Palimpsest of Butrint

The Palimpsest of Butrint was Fleur’s March 2018 London show at pop-up gallery Gary’s Place. The inspiration for the show came following a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site at Butrint, Albania, a promontory of land overlooking the island of Corfu. Butrint was continually occupied by man and woman kind from the Mesolithic period until the 16th century.

Codex
Codex by Fleur Cowgill – an entry point to the Palimpsest of Butrint – 100 cms x 100 cms mixed media on canvas

Civilisation after civilisation, including the Golden Age of Greece, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Venetians came and conquered overwriting their history in the fabric of the site. For some Butrint was an important religious site, for others a valuable port and trading crossroads.

At the same time this significant cultural centre suffered earthquake, fire and the innumerable vicissitudes of ancient and medieval life. However towards the end of the middle ages the seaward approaches started to silt up and become marshy. The city dwindled, died and became deserted.

But with each civilisation, with each disaster, Butrint re-invented itself layer-by-layer. Like sheets of parchment or vellum that were cleaned off and re-used, the site is the classic example of a ‘palimpsest’ – a documentation in stone and artefacts, layered one upon the other to give a deep perspective of culture and personality.

Fire
Fire by Fleur Cowgill 100 cms x 100 cms mixed media on canvas

The masonry of Butrint is quite the conundrum. Roman baths and an amphitheatre. A Byzant church, pillars soaring into a hot azure sky. A wall with the clear signs of an earthquake, patched up to once more stand strong. A Lion Gate on the shoreline, with stone steps climbing high above into the centre of the city. And everywhere, as civilisations have waxed and waned, the stones from previous ruins have been redeployed from one piece of the site to another. This is a place where the eye is deceived as verticals and horizontals go slightly off the straight and narrow. With the odd classical arch thrown in for good measure.

Butrint Jar by Fleur Cowgill 100 cms x 100 cms mixed media on canvas

As you would expect artefacts abound. Some amazing Roman mosaic floors covered in sand to protect them from the elements – and the increasing number of visitors who come now that the communists are gone and no longer ply a singularly austere type of hospitality. Amazingly, for all its awesome beauty and history, the site still attracts less than 100,000 visitors each year. They end their guided tours at the very top of the old Citadel where, downstairs in a modern building, there is a museum and the obligatory shop, though to find a drink you have to go back down the track.

Air
Atmos by Fleur Cowgill 100 cms x 100 cms mixed media on canvas

Fleur believes that Butrint is a place where it pays to look between the lines and half-close your eyes to experience the mists of time. She very much felt that the spirituality of previous inhabitants, men and women, soldiers and shopkeepers, artisans and artists lingered strong in the interstitial gaps between the stones, their ghosts looking out from the Eucalyptus groves that today adorn the heights. For all its latter-day dereliction Butrint is being extremely well cared for. It has atmosphere. It is coming back to life.

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A FAIRY-TALE OF NEW YORK (or: it’s a 3,500 mile journey from Chelsea to Chelsea!)

Not many people know this but Fleur started her artistic career in Chelsea, London, doing her foundation course at the art school there. Some years later (not saying how many, but a fair few) her mark-making experiences recently continued 3,500 miles away in Chelsea, New York, where she had 3 paintings in an exhibition at the Agora Gallery.

Just like there is a symmetry to Fleur’s current square format work, there is a certain symmetry to the journey. The fact Fleur also celebrated a significant birthday ending in zero rounded things off nicely. It’s 3,500 miles from Chelsea to Chelsea and it’s taken about 30 years for Fleur to get there.

The artist looking rather pleased with her birthday present of a Chelsea Gallery show!

Representation Stateside has been something of a fascinating and insightful experiment. Any artist will tell you it’s virtually impossible to get ‘representation’ by a UK gallery, but outside the UK they work on a different model. Essentially the artist contracts to a gallery on a fixed fee basis in return for representation, wall space at one mixed exhibition per year, promotion and space on the gallery’s website.

Fleur’s work at the end of one of the galleries – really nice hang to get a perspective.

Many British artists are somewhat cynical. The truth is it’s extremely professional. The gallery team (all women in this case) are hugely supportive and very accomplished. The exhibition space itself has a great street-front location in the middle of the ‘Gallery Quarter’. It’s a wonderful ambience, the exhibition was brilliantly curated and Fleur has a really good early position. Best of all the gallery director, out of all the work of 11 exhibiting artists, chose one of Fleur’s paintings for the event poster that went in the front window.

It being Fleur’s birthday we made some family time, including some of us meeting up with 11-week old Griffin Downey, a new grandson and nephew. New York was its normal brash, loud, pot-holed-pavement, horn-honking, grimy, expensive self – so all-in-all magnificent! We had a particularly good Michelin-rated Spanish birthday lunch and if you are ever in New York do try and visit Casa Mono – we’ve eaten well all around the world but I can’t think we’ve ever eaten better.

There is just so much art in New York that it’s like a fairy-tale. We caught the end of the Warhol at the new Whitney, which is a fantastic place. Then we went to the Guggenheim for a stunning exhibition of work by female Swedish expressionist and mystic Hilma af Klint. As a sideshow (!) at the gallery was a selection of Maplethorpe photography and another side-gallery of fabulous impressionists and modernists from the Guggenheim’s permanent collection.

Back in Chelsea the evening Private View of the show attracted around 200-250 people. The gallery laid-on birthday cakes. Some artists showing were asking $70,000. Fleur’s work was more modestly priced at $1,450! Nobody sold anything on the night – although that may be a consequence of the gallery not allowing more than one drink!

It was a great experience and, amongst other things, we’ve learned not to be daunted by the prospect of getting three big square canvases safely across ‘the pond’ and hung on a wall. The adventure continues – Agora recommended we submit some entries to the annual Chelsea Art Competition ad this week we’ll find out if Fleur has been noticed by the judges.