Talk: “Riddled with Light”, given at St Mary Le Strand, London in November 2013
This is a version of a talk which I gave at The Edmund Centre for Arts and Theology in Bury St Edmunds. It was part of a series entitled ‘Nature, Art and God’ so I’ll be discussing this inexhaustible topic at the beginning.
My exhibition based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest at St Giles Cripplegate in 2011 seems like a good place to begin. It was a show to commemorate 400 years since The Tempest was staged and it seems like the right place to start thinking about Nature, Art and God as this was not just art in a church but was based on a play in which art transforms nature through spiritual means. Prospero’s “Art”, to which he is continually referring, alters nature through summoning heavenly music, creating supernatural visions and calling on Ariel and a team of other spirits. But then at the end the play Prospero questions the truth of this other, metaphysical world. “These our actors” he says “were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air”. Prospero and Shakespeare appear to bring us down to earth implying that Art is mere artifice. The visionary is merely illusion.
Or is it? What can the play that undoes its own spiritual enchantment in this way, say about the idea of God? Even if the visions and spirits and unearthly noises in The Tempest are all a matter of props and stage business, can we see in its transformation of nature into art something also of God?
It is here that the idea of beauty comes to my mind. While Prospero, alters nature through magic, Shakespeare transforms nature in poetry; he creates poetic beauty and beauty in art or nature is arguably both of this world and of another, a bridge between real and ideal: “The experience of the beautiful is the invocation of a potentially whole and holy order of things.” (writes philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer in The Relevance of the Beautiful). And because the idea of beauty seems essential when trying to think about the relationship between nature, art and God, I should like to say a few things about this and should also like to think about its dismissal in some branches of contemporary art.
Beauty in art has been seen by many artists and critics especially post Duchamp, as facile and irrelevant. Beauty, it is claimed, is not truth and actually avoids the truths of pain, horror, poverty and injustice. And yet this is puzzling to me since there is beauty in the art of Bacon, Warhol, Goya or Bosch. The formal elements that go into making a dynamic work of art apply to doing hell and war as well as doing pastoral landscapes.
But then it is the enjoyable nature of beauty that may be a problem. St Thomas Aquinas said that “the beautiful is that which pleases” and this delight is considered to be frivolous (especially perhaps if this pleasure is produced by painful subject matter). Duchamp, preferring thought to sensation, said that “aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided.” Then the Frankfurt school of Marxist theory dismissed beauty because it thought it inappropriate for art to offer pleasure until the inequalities of capitalism had been overcome.
Beauty then gives delight, including that of transforming pain into pleasure. But this delight is not produced by something twee, mindless or evasive but from sensing possibilities being opened out. Rowan Williams, responding to a question about the relation between beauty and truth, said that “beauty expands our hearts into joy….by breaking open our boring and prosaic habits of mind and broadening our horizons”. Beauty produces delight through an expansion of awareness not by stuffing us with infantile pap. Those are my words not the former Archbishop’s. However, beauty in his view reminds us that we are more, that there is more than previously believed and this “more” is, for him, connected to a sense of God. The 4th century theologian St Gregory of Nyssa wrote of this kind of endlessness in connection with beauty: “every desire for the beautiful which draws us on the ascent (to God) is intensified by the soul’s very progress towards it….. so no limit can be set to our progress towards God: first of all, because no limitation can be put upon the beautiful, and secondly because the increase in our desire for the beautiful cannot be stopped by any sense of satisfaction.”
So for spiritual thinkers like Williams or Gregory, beauty is not an escape into illusion or sentimentality but part of a quest for reality. This is an idea which goes back a long way, at least to Plato. Sonia Sikka writing on Plato says “the beautiful portrays in sensuous form an ideal that is more real than anything actual, and inspires longing for the half-remembered realm in which this ideal is real”. The one-time Neo-Platonist, St Augustine wrote “If creation is beautiful, how much more lovely its creator must be”. And St John of the Cross says of the Creator in The Spiritual Canticle, “A thousand graces diffusing/He passed through the groves in haste/ And merely regarding them/As He passed/Clothed them with His beauty.” In all these quotes beauty points beyond the beautiful object and carries a message of a divine source. And here perhaps is one reason for a queasiness about beauty in contemporary culture. If in its open-ended bliss it evokes the possibility of God, it is rejected. If the idea of God is dismissed, the beautiful may also be thought suspect.
Returning to my own work, I am not in this secular, anhedonic and puritanical camp. I am inspired by ecstatic images in painting or words that convey the beauty of the holy; images such as Ezekiel’s opening vision in the Old Testament or the Basque carol in which “The angel Gabriel from Heaven came, his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame” and I am drawn to attempting to suggest a sense of the numinous in my work. This does not mean that I just deal with gentle, positive subjects. Far from it. I can do menace, filth, threat (MUTILATE, MINNIE, BEACH). And I hardly ever use religious iconography. My paintings may sometimes be shadowed by biblical ideas, like that of the figure wandering in the wilderness (SNOW, MOUNTAIN) or figures awaiting some kind of apocalypse (BEACH). But generally I like to show creatures confronting something bigger than themselves and consequently feeling unease, fear or joy (MONKEY, SPACEMAN, STARS). And they may be overwhelmed not just by nature but by nature made strange. I like to transform the real into something odd, suggestive of another world, maybe some sort of paradise (MONKEY) maybe quite the reverse (RED BEACH), and I like to transform it with unusual colour, glittering light and startling contrasts between night and day. I like to generate a feeling of the unknown intruding into the ordinary (DINING ROOM).
This is why The Tempest appealed as a source, with its characters beset not just by nature but by supernatural apparitions. And because of this sense of enchanted artifice in the play, nature in my paintings is altered, exaggerated, with colour heightened and dramatic contrasts of light/dark.
I HAVE BEDIMMED THE NOONTIDE SUN is an uncanny combination of a black sky and white sands, reminiscent of that surreal line from Ps.139, “The night shineth as the day” and also of the paintings of Magritte in which night and day are fused in one scene.
The series of CALIBAN standing on a hill on his own island suggests a pristine, paradisal world and his primitive innocence before the arrival of Prospero. The colour of this sequence is unrealistic, sugary, with tones that are close together to set up a hum of hues.
FULL FATHOM FIVE paintings show an underwater paradise. The Tempest goes from depths to heights and back; from FULL FATHOM FIVE to I DRINK THE AIR in which Ariel is like a cosmic skateboarder as he skims around the world.
Staying with the theme of Paradise these next series, of monkeys and then horsemen, are driven by a sense of ecstasy in nature. Firstly these are 2006 works of a tropical, jungle inhabited by MONKEYS. The apes/monkeys are flying. As in my Tempest pictures, I associate the flying figure with elation and freedom–as in the work of Chagall (LEMURS and more recently BIRDS).
My series of RIDERS was done for a show on the work of the poet Andrew Marvell. It was at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull–Hull was Marvell’s birthplace–and is based on poems set in the English Civil War. My pictures are not to do with national conflict, however, more to do with a kind of jouissance. The rider is surrounded by light and energised as being part of a horse, almost fused with it like the Centaur. And, like the monkey and Ariel, he is powered upwards with floating, cloudy bits around and beneath him. I was thinking of the winged horse, Pegasus and Hopkins’s poem The Windhover where the hawk is compared to a horseman.
This later sequence from 2008 is called PONY EXPRESS, done for an exhibition in an old Hackney post office and curated by Julia Royse. The work had to have postal theme, which seemed a bit problematic, but my husband suggested doing pictures about Pony Express, the mail service in 19thc America, delivering letters on horseback from coast to coast. This was a neat way of bringing the mail and my work together through the image of the Rider.
In these works and in my work in general, bright light is obviously crucial, hence the title of this talk, taken from Yeats’s poem, The Cold Heaven. And getting back to the topic of Nature/Art/God, the link between light and spirit is well-known in all religions. “Let there be light”, “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil”. But what is also there in many religious texts and comes across in the Hopkins quote is the idea of such light as alarming or destructive: “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12), “Filled with your terrible radiance Vishnu, the whole of creation bursts into flames” (Bhagavad Gita). And then Yeats’s poem talks about being “riddled with light” as if light were bullets. I chose this title because my representation of light is also of something which can threaten or destroy. This is true in a literal way, as when something is obliterated against the light, and it is also a metaphor for a possibly supernatural energy which threatens to overwhelm identity, blitzing the rider, eclipsing the monkey, the Imam or Caliban: SCORCHING BEAMS, MOROCCO, PONY, RIDDLED WITH LIGHT. Light in my pictures is an agent of metamorphosis and this is as important an element as light in these works.
I have made the obvious point that art transforms nature. But in some kinds of art, transformation is itself a subject of the work because objects in the painting seem to be on the move. It is a style identified by art historian Anita Brookner with Romanticism. While some paintings collaborate with their own stillness (for example in the still lives of Ewan Uglow or Poussin’s neo-classical work), others convey the energies of movement and even of the unfinished (Delacroix,Twombly, Bacon). Here I am indebted to Rowan Williams’s book Grace and Necessity in which he writes about an aesthetic of the unfinished in the work of Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. Williams says that “the mature Maritain, speaks of finite beauty or finishedness in the work being always incomplete at some level, limping like the biblical Jacob, from the encounter with what cannot be named; achieved art always has ‘that kind of imperfection through which infinity wounds the finite’. It reminds me of Islamic artworks in which there must be deliberate imperfection as only God is considered perfect.It also reminds me of 20c theorist Roland Barthes’ distinction (In Le Plaisir du Texte) between texts that offer “plaisir” or closure and those that offer “jouissance” or an “infinite opening out”.
These ideas have influenced my own painting in which I like to establish the solid and legible but then shift it towards the fluid and ambiguous. This occurs in this series of figures in wilderness (of forests, the arctic, space or the sea), figures going into the vastness of nature in which they are transformed. In RIDDLED WITH LIGHT the chunky man on the left contrasts with the right-hand wraith, evaporating in a burst of light. In EXPLORERS the figure on the right is recognisable while those on the left are fused into chaotic mess. SNOWYS, MISSION are processions which show a line of change; figures are coming out of or going into incoherence, fusing with trees or becoming blobs. In MISSION there is a progressive disappearance into luminous space as if, to quote Henry Vaughan, “They are all gone into the world of light.”
In paintings of single figures in water (PETER, SWIMMER) refraction of light causes the figure to appear to disintegrate, change into an odd, non-human shape. The upper part of the figure is human and the lower is ambiguous, abstract.
These “melting” figures (SCORCHING BEAMS, SILENT JUDGMENT, AS UNDER WATER) are all from the Marvell sequence. The show was inspired not just by his civil war poems but by pastoral lyrics in which he often represents a mutating world. So in SCORCHING BEAMS, SILENT JUDGMENT or AS UNDER WATER, light “melts” the figure and changes its shape. In DISSOLVE TO DEW landscape flows through figures as if all are part of one thing. In LIQUID SORROW veils of acrylic paint overlap each other, bursting boundaries to suggest forms disintegrating.
Continuing with this metamorphic/dissolving theme I want to turn to a group of my works in which the wilderness landscape is removed and the figure is marooned in a square of blackness.The pictures are made by painting a flat black background on a large canvas and then building up thin layers of acrylic to get a see-through effect of cells, veins and bones. They represent a figure changing or dissolving, an effect created by translucent layers of watery paint that are tipped, poured, blown with hairdryer and allowed to overflow edges. Consequently the figures seem to be lit from within like x-rays,“as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen”. I called these works MUTILATES because I wanted to convey both mutation and mutilation, both change and suffering as a result of change. They started with drawings made from a taxi and the speed of my drawing distorted things so that hands became flippers, arms looked like sticks and poses were stretched out. I liked this appearance of grotesque fragility and so developed it in the paintings that followed, in which the figures are also vulnerable because seen through and are exposed in a process of dissolving.
The paintings have been shown in London churches, suggesting that they are religious pictures, but they point in two directions: they are like x-rays as well as being like ghosts. On the one hand they testify to the dissolving, material body and on the other hand, the idea of spirit. This is particularly obvious in ECCE HOMO, a Crucifixion in which the burst of white light and streaming veils of paint express either exuberance or disintegration. The figure can be seen ambivalently as rising or plummeting, transfigured or vaporised, suggesting the possibility of resurrection against the certainty of death.
So in all these examples my figures are mutating, fluid, transformed. At one level metamorphosis is simply destruction, being reduced to matter. Figures like the MUTILATES or ANNIHILATING ALL THAT’S MADE are dissolving into air or atoms. But you can also look at the destruction of matter as part of a religious vision of all things vanishing, as in Matthew 24 (“heaven and earth shall pass away”) or as in the Upanishads in which Brahma “was before creation and will be after dissolution” or as in the quote about creation bursting into flames through the radiance of Vishnu or as in Marvell’s poem On a Drop of Dew in which the dewdrop “does, dissolving, run Into the Glories of th’ Almighty Sun.” And in connection with this I see bursts of glaring light as images of ecstatic dissolution, a burst of bliss, as in RIDDLED WITH LIGHT or the Marvell figures or the Riders.
And then metamorphosis is not just destruction, but change into something else, something as yet unknown. St Paul says that we shall all be changed utterly or as Ophelia says in Hamlet (“Lord we know what we are but not what we may be.”). Then in everyday life we do not fully know what we are or what we may become–a psychoanalytic thought. These ideas lurk behind my mutations and are a source of many of my figures. Such figures as FLOWING SHAPE are made into strange appearances and silhouettes, changing from an explorer to a hooded form; from a man standing in a garden to a monstrous thing, or from a procession of riders to a composite of figures, trees and, significantly, abstract shapes.
Metamorphosis in my work tends to go from figuration to abstraction, as in SWIMMER, BEACH, DINING ROOM and the use of abstraction in my basically figurative art is important because it pulls the familiar towards uncertainty. Going back to the writing of Maritain, it emphasises what cannot be finished. It is a movement from what you know to what you do not know, with an insistence on not defining or on undoing definition. For me the representational overtaken or challenged by abstraction contrasts two ways of seeing—though names (the representational) or nameless shapes (the abstract). It gets behind the everyday world that we can name, to a sense of the unnameable and of mystery. Because of this I am drawn to the apophatic theology of Gregory of Nyssa or Nicolas of Cusa with their stress on God as the unspeakable and unnameable–even though of course I am painting about people and things becoming shapes without names.
So, plunging objects into abstraction is my kind of via negativa, it leads to a sense of something outside that which can be represented. It “marks the limits of reason and expression together with a sense of what might lie beyond those limits” to quote from Philip Shaw’s book, The Sublime. And my attraction to this negativity is connected to all the empty spaces in work like MOROCCO, BIRD, STARS, MARIGOT, YELLOW AISLE. An isolated figure is set against area of white light or deep blackness or both in contrast. These works, like my Mutilates, face 2-ways, either into nihilistic blankness or into a Zen-like void, quivering with possibility. I am thinking not just of Zen Buddhism but of the words of St John of the Cross in his poem, Todo y Nada (“In order to arrive at knowing everything , Desire to know nothing”) or of the 17c mystic Jakob Bohme who wrote that ”God is called the seeing and finding of the Nothing. And it is therefore called a Nothing because it is inconceivable and inexpressible.”
Finally, in connection with this possibly fertile bareness, I should like to turn to a group of works that is linked to my polar wastes and forests. This time it is the contemporary urban desert of petrol stations, casinos and hotel corridors and the lost souls of retail parks, superstores, beach resorts, luxury banqueting halls and shopping malls.
This series of SUPERMARKETS is from an exhibition of solitary old women in the aisles of Asda and Lidl. These stores may try to get rid of anything negative with sleek surfaces and cheery colours, but I put it back. I see the stores as “non-places” with their bland architecture, their processing of humanity through a wilderness of aisles and their brightness simply emphasises by contrast the dishevelled humans that go through them.
In this series of BEACH pictures I have painted figures who have reached the edge of the land, threatened by darkness at noon. They came out of reading the Book of Isaiah where people are threatened with destruction. Light is altered as in The Tempest paintings and out of the darkness come odd, cellular forms. I blow up the microscopic to make it a biological threat. But the cells can seem supernatural as well as biological. I’m reminded of R S Thomas’ lines in Adjustments: “There is an unseen/ Power, whose sphere is the cell/And the electron”. The cells represent an unseen power, my figures are unaware. The figures are based on drawings of single figures made from life on Berck-plage in Northern France (where Sylvia Plath went, hence her poem with the same name) and then the drawings are made into paintings on paper which are fused into the swarming multitude of bathers: DRAWINGS. PAINTINGS ON PAPER.
The BEACHES were done for a show at Paul Stolper called Leisure Paintings (2006) and were accompanied by a series of DINING ROOM paintings. These Dining Rooms present a social occasion as a place of alienation as in TS Eliot’s early poems where he feels like an ape approaching a drawing room and does not know what to say. In later DINING ROOMS I added the dark background full of cells (VIOLET DINING ROOM) and glaring lights (JABBERWOCKY) both suggestive of another reality hovering over the figures. These circles of light are taken up elsewhere in the composition. A haloed figure with a circle head shines out of ORANGE DINING ROOM and BLUE DINING ROOM. Indeed these circles and their repetition across the canvas led to a religious explanation of these paintings by art critic Richard Davey. He sees the circles as being either like distant planets or close-up microbes and, since they thus unite big and small, far and near, they suggest unity behind chaos and isolation. He sees disparate things–tables, cells, lights, figures–as part of one whole, not just as a painting but as a spiritual unity.
Like the superstores, dining rooms and beaches these recent MALL PAINTINGS are of contemporary urban life. This series brings together a number of elements from earlier works: candy colours, fantastical settings, glaring light and crowded public space. The figures are generally on banks of elevators, being processed in processions going up and down. They are images of people in time, in transit even while appearing motionless. They are “still and still moving” to quote Eliot again. And they are processing in a round of shopping while moving through time towards death.Yet, as with the DINING ROOMS, these MALL pictures are not just full of bile. They are also an attempt to communicate an inclusive vision of energy. This may sound crazy but I felt what I call a vision of Brahma going through the Westfield Shopping Mall. Brahma is the Hindu God of creation. My experience was to do with the the teeming life, the odd decorations, the dizzying spaces and it reminded me of the Hindu festival in Forster’s Passage to India, where everything and everyone is caught up in messy, riotous unity, or as an introduction to the Bhagavad Gita says, “the Upanishadic discovery is that all things are interconnected because at its deepest level creation is indivisible.” Even in a mall, or especially in a mall with its seething life, the unity (of Brahma, God) can be sensed behind multiplicity and chaos.
So the Mall and Dining Room need not just be seen as dystopian deserts of consumption. They can be shot through with something Other. And for me the presence of this Otherness is important in art and can be connected to a sense of God. Without wanting to claim that Baudelaire was particularly religious, at least not in any conventional sense, he said something helpful about this other dimension of art in The Painting of Modern Life. He thought that a true painting of modern life has to capture something both transient and special to its own time and something indeterminate in time and space. And he related it to beauty, he wrote that “Beauty is always and inevitably compounded of two elements….on the one hand, of an element that is eternal, and on the other of a circumstantial element, which we may like to call contemporaneity or fashion.
Returning to this difficult question of beauty with which I began, I should like to conclude that for me the beautiful is not merely dependent on charming or delightful subject matter but can accompany the gruesome and the mundane. However, I agree with Baudelaire that beauty needs an added dimension, it is not simply found in the representation of the actual and everyday (whether sordid or lovely) but depends also on the indeterminate in time and space and on the intimation of the presence of the eternal. Once again I am reminded of Maritain and Rowan Williams in their challenges to limited vision and in their appreciation of the concept of the unfinished. I end with this quote from Rowan Williams in Grace and Necessity, “What is the world that art takes for granted? It is one in which perception is always incomplete.”