Thoughts on ‘Glitter and Ash’ with Ayla Lepine, Hampstead Church, 2020

Much of my painting is inspired by lyric, first-person poetry and therefore depicts individual, solitary figures. These figures are often in a wilderness and often exposed to glaring sunlight. For me glare and brightness can express either desolation and hard-edged limitation or alternatively, radiant, form-shattering bliss.

‘Shadows in the Desert’ is to do with the first kind of experience. It is of a static figure exposed to burning desert sun and is based on The Waste Land (ll.22-30). The figure is like a gnomon (the point on a sundial) casting its shadow and  recording time which points inexorably to dust, to ‘remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return’. The weary figure in the desert, in combination with the image of a handful of dust, also reminds me of the Cumean Sibyl (in the poem’s epigraph) whose years must number the innumerable particles of dust in her hand.

The title ‘Garden’ perhaps recalls several gardens in Eliot’s poetry (with their sources in Genesis, Song of Songs, Gospels/Gethsamane, Revelation) but this picture is based on the ‘hyacinth garden’ in The Waste Land (lls.35-41) and part I of Burnt Norton. The fluid use of acrylic corresponds to the presence of water in Eliot’s garden passages while the bright light (as in ‘Scorching Beams’) is different from light in ‘Shadows in the Desert’. Instead of creating harsh, stark contrasts and outlines, light drips down from a pool of white and merges and eclipses forms so that objects disappear into ‘the heart of light’.

The hyacinth garden passage in The Waste Land could go towards nihilism or  ecstasy. ‘Nothing’ may be desolate or mystical; ‘neither living nor dead’ may echo Dante’s Inferno when he sees Satan (‘I neither died nor wholly stayed alive’) or alternatively may recall Paradiso (‘such was the living light encircling me/leaving me so enveloped by its veil/of radiance that I could see no thing’). However, the same phrase in the religious context of Burnt Norton has a different effect: ‘heart of light’ seems to be an image of bliss like the light in the Paradiso. And combined with negatives like ‘invisible’, ‘unheard’, ‘unseen’ this light suggests a core of brilliance beyond images.

So I am thinking about 2 kinds of negation (as well as light) in Eliot’s work, that have influenced me. Firstly, I’m thinking of the cul-de-sac of dreary emptiness, boredom, sterility, dryness in a landscape where light lands on things with a deadening clarity. Secondly, I’m thinking of apophatic, religious experience where light purges, explodes, burns off the known, the tired, the familiar to the point of dazzling emptiness.

Glitter and ash are united in the Eliotic word ‘burning’— the burnt-up and burnt-out on the one hand and on the other, the purging and transforming fire which makes an appearance in The Waste Land (the St Augustine passage or Arnaud Daniel in purgatory) but really blazes in Four Quartets and especially in Little Gidding.