'Night Prayers’ Solo Exhibitions: Chiasa di Santa Caterina : May 16th - June 5th 2004; Star Gallery, Lewes: 13th March - 15th April 2006. Other Venues showing work from this output: ‘Space & Spirit: Artistic Impressions of Sacred Place’, Center Art Gallery at Calvin College, USA 1st- 29th January 2005 - juried exhibition featuring the work of over 50 different artists from across the United States, Canada, and Europe drawn from approx 350 entries. The exhibition ran concurrently with a symposium on Worship and the Arts; ‘Hortulus Animae’, Chiasa di S. Caterina : 17 May – 11 June 2003. Curated by Hans Georg Berger, Director of the Eremo di Santa Caterina; ‘Blank Canvas’ Foster Art : 15th August -5th September 2004 - group show of international artists curated by LeAnn Barber, Gallery Director.
In 1992 having just completed a scholarship at the British School at Rome, I was invited to spend a period of time at the Eremo di Santa Caterina. The Eremo built in the 16th century as a small Christian monastery, has since 1978 established an international reputation where artists, writers and scientists carry out research. Archaeologists from the British School at Rome and the University of Siena have undertaken archaeological surveys of the area and a botanical garden has been developed by research staff from the University of Pisa. The site has hosted conferences, theatre and film performances, concerts of modern and classical music, as well as exhibitions of contemporary painting, sculpture and photography. The Eremo has documented much of this activity in the Quaderni di S. Caterina a series of publications published between 1991–96. A publication, exhibition and related activities are currently being negotiated for a thirty-year anniversary celebration.
Twelve years after my initial visit I was invited by Hans Georg Berger, the Director of the Eremo to make a new series of work that would investigate how a sustained engagement with a particular location may impact upon my practice. The project was supported by a Small Grants Award from AHRC, the Associazione degli Amici dell’Eremo di Santa Caterina and the University of Brighton.
The research involved making drawings, and an artist book that explores the possibility of abstraction to communicate an attachment to a localised experience of place, yet reach toward experiences that are both aesthetic and contemplative. The research took three distinct phases – making drawings in situ, making an artist book, prints and paintings in recollection and staging an exhibition on the site of the works conception. Strategies were developed which enabled me to start with structures determined by place, then, through the application of tonal gradation and chromatic density, the specific constructions were breached resulting in an unlimited kind of space, one in which the aesthetic encounter takes precedent.
The artist book formed the centre piece of the exhibition held in the adjacent church. The placement of the work was quite specific, so the imaginative space - the open ended geometric forms within the work maintained a relationship to the proportion of the architectural detail of the building. For example the artist book contains a diagram illustrating that the proportions of the building are derived from Pythagorean notions of harmonious divisions in which the building is inscribed in an imaginary sphere. As the project unfolded I was commissioned to make two paintings that are now permanently installed in the ambulatory either side of the altar in the church.
The book and related works were first exhibited in the Chiasa di Santa Caterina during May – June 2004. The work was further exhibited in the exhibition ‘Night Prayers’ at the Star Gallery, Lewes during March - April 2006. The artist book formed part of the exhibition ‘Space and Spirit: artistic interpretations of sacred space’ which ran concurrently with a symposium on Worship and the Arts held at Centre Art Gallery, Calvin College, MI, USA in January 2005.
"Duncan Bullen’s Night Prayers, published in 2004, was conceived as one element of a residency and exhibition at the Eeremo di Santa Caterina on the Italian island of Elba. Working in the sacristy, with no electric light, Bullen made a series of abstract paintings and densely shaded small works on paper. The book reproduces seven of these in relation to fragments of text by the 13th century Dominican monk – Meister Eckhart. Bullen uses simple forms that explore the metaphorical potential for abstraction. The under-surface of the drawings is worked with intense colours over which he places veils of black, through which squares and grids emerge like light. The fine litho printing by Andrew Purches of Senefelder Press, conveys Bullen’s barely perceptible tonal gradations. Meister Eckhart’s texts are lifted from their Christian context to become meditations upon processes of thought, or in this case, the attempt of the artist visually to express immanence and transcendence."
(Emma Hill, Printmaking Today – International Magazine of Contemporary Art, Vol 15 No. 2, Summer 2006)
"The tiny surface manipulations and visual archaeology in Bullen’s work may record the passing of time, but as our eyes become trapped in the search for such intimate details time seems to stand still. Signs of activity become symbols for silence, stillness, and timelessness; a visual analogy for the sacred space of the Eremo do Santa Caterina… One of Bullen’s principal concerns in his work, however, is with capturing something of the elusive, fugitive effects of light. The natural vehicle for this is colour. He uses colours for their transparency and opacity, he plays with their relationships, manipulating and using the different effects that they have on each other, and he explores the intense energy that is released at the point where they meet each other. The result is a series of works that seem to have an iridescent, almost metallic sheen to them that both contains and reflects light…These are works of stillness and light. They are human and intimate. There are no grand gestures or bold narratives. They are not monumental and overwhelming. Instead they offer an analogy for that still small voice in which God can be found, or that initial burst of light that He brought into being. What they are not is abstract."
(Richard Davey: 'For the record, not abstract', Church Times 7 April 2005)