Talk: “Ecce Homo”, All-Hallows-on-the-Wall, London in July 2010.
My painting, “Ecce Homo” comes from a series of much bigger works done about ten years ago in 2001. They are all of single white figures against black backgrounds and I called them Mutilates. This is because my paintings generally focus on hostile and extreme situations in which figures morph into shapes of fragility or grotesqueness. They are both mutating and mutilated.
I draw much of the time, mainly from life, and this “mutilate” aspect simply came out of doing many quick drawings of people in the street, sometimes seen from a bus or car. The inevitable speed of drawing moving figures abbreviated and condensed the forms (they mutated) and in so doing they appeared vulnerable or distorted, with angular joints, arms like sticks and hands like claws (they appeared mutilated). This was a quality that I liked and wanted to preserve in the paintings.
My line drawings transformed the figure into something misshapen and the paintings which came out of them, using the fluid medium of acrylic, continued this process in a different way. They were about the figure dissolving and liquefying. The figure was mutating and mutilated through a different process.
I enjoy reading The Psalms and recently I have been haunted by the surreal, Magritte-like reversal in “the night shineth as the day” (Psalm 139). But in 2000 I was keen on the brutal Psalm 22: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.” This sense of things being out of control, of boundaries melting, of emotions and body being interrelated and breaking down appealed to me. It was something I wanted to convey in these paintings made of many thin, watery layers. I would leave one layer to dry and then I would add another and another. When layers were half-dry I would rub bits away to leave scars and blisters. I would pour thicker paint into thin so that it would curdle, bloom and blur. I would tilt the canvas to one side and blow paint with a hairdryer to make trails and filaments of white. Building up white veils of acrylic against pure black in this way created a see-through effect reminiscent of X-rays, or in the words of T S Eliot, “as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen”. The result was a translucent body you could peer into to see veins, tissues and flesh in a process of mutation. As in Psalm 22 the figure is a spectacle, a laughing stock whose anguish is there for all to see.
There is a religious undertow to these Mutilate pictures not just in the influence of The Psalms but through the inspiration of Northern Renaissance art (I drew on the isolated saints and visionaries in the prints of Cranach and the thin, twisted figures in Grunewald or Van der Weyden). But most of them are not of specifically religious subjects. However, my Ecce Homo series is of the Crucifixion. The title may seem a bit odd since it refers to the scene before the Crucifixion when Pilate says “Behold the Man”. I suppose that I chose the title because I wanted to refer to the human nature of Jesus in a painting of an odd, non-human figure. I was thinking about the dual nature of Christ and of humanity according to Christian theology.
This series and all the other Mutilate paintings point in two directions in the sense that they are like x-rays but also like ghosts.The semi-transparent, photo-negative effect indicates conflicting or complementary ideas about humanity. On the one hand there exists the morphing, decaying body and on the other, the idea of spirit or soul. The paintings set up a tension between material reality and the idea of the immaterial. And in Ecce Homo, streaming veils or flicked specks of paint can express bursts of exuberance or mere disintegration. The figure can be seen as rising or plummeting, with the notion of Resurrection set against the certainty of death.
The figures in the Ecce Homo paintings (and in my Mutilate paintings in general) are transformed into something not just fragile but non-human. As I said at the beginning I am drawn to the subject of metamorphosis possibly because it speaks of the open-endedness of human identity. And such mutation does not just mean change within the human: it can go beyond it. In Ovid or Bosch or Kafka humans are grotesquely or uncannily changed into insects or plants or beasts. But this “being changed” also has a religious dimension, as in St Paul (“we shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.”) or Hamlet (“Lord we know what we are but not what we may be.”) or the events in The New Testament. In my Ecce Homo series I was influenced by Rowan Williams’s book Resurrection and particularly his chapter “Talking to a Stranger” where he discusses ideas about the metamorphosis of Jesus and writes about the turning of the familiar into the utterly unfamiliar. He writes of a “risen stranger” and quotes Iris Murdoch (in The Red and the Green): “The Christ who travels towards Jerusalem and suffers there can be made into a familiar. The risen Christ is something unknown.”
This unknown quality, giving rise to a sense of fear and mystery, is something that I like to bring into my painting, whether I am painting Mutilates or silhouettes of cowboys in a forest or arctic explorers blitzed by light or shoppers walking away from the viewer down the aisle of a supermarket or mall. The known and familiar are turned into something hidden, obscured and also abstract. For me the turning of the representational towards the abstract in a painting is the turning of a known and named object towards something that has no name and can therefore produce this effect of strangeness.