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Alchemy and Authenticity

By Gunn Meyerhoff Shay on October 4th, 2017

Visiting Venice is always a journey to a place full of art. This year we see her brimming with expression in La Biennalle and dozens of affiliated exhibitions for the best in contemporary art. It is everywhere!
We also got to visit with Venice’s leading  fine artist, Geoffrey Humphries, fresh off an opening exhibition in London, and the premier of his retrospective book. Janice helped Geoffrey and his wife Holly Snapp get the book published, so we are all very happy.
Geoffrey’s art springs from the classical traditions of line, color and composition while adding his unique way of seeing his subjects.  He also employs reflections–of Venice, of his studio, his models, and of himself–to share his vision in ways that challenge us to see closer. Unafraid of censorship, his models show us more than just a hint of eroticism, inviting us to come closer.
By taking carefully ground pigments to make his paint, and magically applying it to canvas or paper, Geoffrey transforms these simple materials into unforgettable works. He is an alchemist, creating enormous value.
We also got to see the newly created exhibitions of Geoffrey’s fellow Englishman Damien Hirst. Titled “The Wreck of the Unbelievable” it purposefully fills two of Venice’s greatest museums with the saga of an ancient collector whose giant ship full of relics mysteriously sinks almost 2000 years ago. These relics, raised from the ocean floor, are encrusted in corals, and their modern reproductions range in size from tiny coins to colossal statues. They are impressive achievements, and all part of an elaborate hoax!
Like a great novel, this narrative tells a lie to reveal and question a greater truth. Where is the line between artful reproduction and fraud? Are the demigods of our present any less compelling a mythology than the ancient ones?  Are art and commerce divisible?
Damien Hirst’s art is also a form of alchemy, but one that assails the idea of authenticity. Created at enormous cost to the artist, his work questions the ancient idea that beauty is truth.
Both of these artists’ creations are relevant to our work as architects in historic settings. The questions of authenticity raised by Damien Hirst must be answered in Savannah and Brunswick: how to make more of each?  Fortunately these magical places already have compelling narratives so we don’t have to fabricate.
The answer may be to be more like Geoffrey Humphries. We need to respect the traditions of classical art in form and composition, but push the limits to make reflections of our own time and expression. In this way our work can be both beautiful and truthful. We need to be both authentic and alchemists, making places that belong as if they have always been.

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