James Gardner

3rd Year, Painting & Drawing


For the last couple years I have been working with images from the Warburg Institute’s Iconographic Database to consider the ways in which imagery was historically linked with cognitive processes. I’ve been really interested in how monastic cultures or other “Western esoteric traditions” such as alchemy and hermeticism used certain astrological images to help along small cognitive tasks like memorization, or symbol building. Looking closer, it gets quite strange as these astrological images get tied into subjects like astral magic, Neoplatonist philosophy, and liturgical practice. The function of image here becomes one with agency and heuristic use. In a lot of ways my paintings are ways to explore these historical image functions to see if I can still find ways to make use of these techniques on a cognitive level and within contemporary contexts. Images from my research are used in the studio as sites for experimental processes using methodology from my research. Favoring duration, images are repeatedly deconstructed and recombined making nods to the legacy of collage while also referencing medieval mnemonic and alchemical procedures. Finished works are often multiple image fragments fused to form completely new images to be used in my developing heuristic schemes.


The submitted painting Tell Me What You Saw, was built by invoking multiple iconographic depictions of the so-called “first decan of Leo.” Specifically this work used a photographic transfer of a figure from the astrological manuscript Sloane 3983 (the hand of the figure in the painting), a repainted image from a fresco cycles at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrera Italy (the tree and lion), and the textual description of the decan image from the Agrippa’s 3 Books of Occult Philosophy (the colour scheme follows Agrippa symbolism). This work also includes an admixture of invented forms and structural changes that reflect other sources of decan imagery, such as contemporary tarot decks. This “image tradition” of astrological decans is important to me due to its wide usage across cultural and historical boundaries. Like in much of my work, I was curious to see how this symbolism and iconography could be traced through multiple versions of the same astrological “image” in order to look closer at iconographic migrations and alterations while also producing a new image. The final work is heavily laden with paint and other household construction materials, and although more resolved image has been made, it is actually an aggregate of multiple pictures and features accretions of symbolism and meaning. A part of a larger series, the project is an effort to build a memory system that uses all 36 decan images as basic cognitive units in accordance with a developing mnemonic scheme to inventory and understand a range of astrological symbolism.

Tell Me What You Saw (2019)
oil on canvas and burlap mounted on wood armature, 58 x 61 inches