The Third Degree

19 March to 22 April 2009


Sesame is pleased to present ‘The Third Degree’, a solo show of new paintings by the Latvian artist Henrijs Preiss in the run up to his exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery later this year as part of the East End Academy.

Henrijs Preiss’ paintings are an exploration into the unknown quite unlike anything else in contemporary art. They start by drawing on symbolic systems that have been used over the centuries to encode esoteric and forbidden knowledge: Judaic Kabala, Hindu Mandala, alchemic astrolabes, medieval starcharts, and Masonic symbols and architecture.

These he brings together within compositional frameworks often borrowed from Orthodox Icon painting to create works that are both viscerally exotic and strangely familiar – somehow spiritual, but decidedly unreligious.

In this exhibition, Henrijs Preiss presents recent works that expand even further the breadth and depth of his sources, and the ambitious complexity of his compositions. “The Third Degree” refers to the highest order of the freemason, the necessary qualification to become a grandmaster of the society, and many paintings directly reference familiar sources that are nevertheless rich in esoteric symbolism.

‘No. 230’, for example, is a direct articulation of the reverse of a dollar bill which, adapted to Preiss’ unique arrangement of symbols and geometry, becomes a maelstrom of mystical signs and shapes. Other paintings borrow straight from the formal architectural structures of classical buildings such as the Pantheon in Rome or Brunnelleschi’s churches, shot through with mandalas, sun rays, cabbalistic grids and celestial calculations.

The paintings themselves are physical, tactile objects, much like the icons they draw inspiration from. Like these icons, the surfaces are aged, cracked and scarred, but in place of figurative scenes, Preiss’ paintings present unusually well-structured abstracts, with seemingly time-worn marks revealing a multitude of motifs and surfaces layered over each other. Many have the feel of an old book, lost on the distant shelf of an unvisited library, only to be discovered in a blaze of revelation.

It is this process of discovery that characterises Henrijs’ paintings – the experience of being presented with an open door into mysterious visual systems that have been used in different cultures over the years to articulate some kind of basic truths. And the result is curious: while they are exotic to all, regardless of their cultural background, the paintings are yet somehow very familiar – a form of archetypal painting that speaks to our most basic visual instincts.

Installation Images