Myth, Mistaken Identity & Interpretation

The classical subject of Procris and Cephalus was a painting commissioned in the Renaissance era from the artist Piero di Cosimo, who painted the story with precision and sympathy for the age in which it was made. It tells the story of the jealous Procris, slain by the arrow shot by her husband who mistakes her for a wild animal, whilst she spied on him. In di Cosimo's rendering of the myth, the slain Procris lies at the feet of a mourning Satyr, under the passive gaze of the hunting dog (possibly Laelaps, the hunting dog who, as myth would have it, never missed his prey).


Two major points intrigued with this work; firstly the story of mistaken identity, and secondly, the position of today’s spectator, looking at this painting today ill-equipped to read the painting, being disengaged from its narrative, mostly preferring to spend more time reading the label than reading the painting itself. It also hangs opposite a well known painting by Botticelli, Venus and Mars, in the National Gallery of London, which seems to attract more attention compared to its lesser known neighbour. Never the less, the postcard is a popular one, as people cling to the figurative image, attempting to possess it through a scaled down printed version.


By deciding to use this as my starting point I plunge into a narrative of mistaken identities and also of the process of painting, its manufacture and removal from spectator experience, obsessively paintng and repainting the subject until I felt it could go no further. When the work was nearing this stage of completion, I prepared the project for an installation which would take on notions of the progression of a creative process and attempt to challenge the idea of value attached to the original and not to a copy. Sol Le Witt argued that the use of conceptual frameworks and self-imposed conditions ‘eliminates the arbitrary, the capricious and the subjective as much as possible’. I believe that in this case, the imposition of a tight conceptual framework becomes a celebration of the ‘arbitrary, capricious and the subjective,’ and I set myself tight rules for making of the paintings I, II and III of the Procris and Cephalus Project. The final installation comprised of these three paintings, an accompanying booklet printed on semi-transparent paper, and a small watercolour which is a copy of the postcard of the original painting.


During the obsessive painting process, I partially destroyed a number of my paintings from the series, only to ressucitate them as fragments. The fragments hold more resonance as diptychs, where not only the rejected version on paper contrasts with the copy painted on board, but the doubling of the gestural marks brings into question the nature of process and originality expressed in mark making, the image itself is finally dissolved, allowing mark and colour to become the work’s raison d’être. The viewer perceives the work as abstract, each copy becoming an icon to the original, not knowing that they owe their existence to that portrayal of an ancient myth. Within this process I acknowledge a debt to the past, whilst moving it on beyond a narrative based on legible figuration.


Sarah Knill-Jones 2011

Procris & Cephalus

P&C project myth&process text