Grosvenor Gallery and Browse & Darby, London - 2014
Host is an outpouring of memory and a gathering of ideas that have preoccupied the artist since childhood. It is also a corralling of thirty years of diverse artistic method.
Images tumble out of the subconscious or are the result of a relentless grappling with recurring themes. At other times they are simply set before us as a kind of reconciliation, a coming to terms with things. Banner-like paintings recording an ongoing spiritual and artistic exploration.
The paintings are conceived in pairs. A second voice suggests an idealised or spiritualised vision of the first, as in the Novalis/ Sophia pictures or the Saints with Stone and Bird. We see the vulnerability of life with a realisation of our weaknesses, but also the inviolable, unquenchable world of the spirit.
“Until we have experienced the weight and resistance of the body, there is no spiritual life possible.” - Eckhart
Culled from the artist’s childhood memories of the mysterious engravings in his father’s theological reference books, many of the figures and ideas of Host are biblical in origin. The significance of 99 is found in the story of the lost sheep, and the shadow of the lost or prodigal son also looms over the sequence. A boyhood fascination with the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelation, at once thrilling and threatening, occasionally breaks through. As does the question of predestination, with many of the figures appearing burdened with an appointed task, something pre-ordained from which they may not draw back. Also influential are the biblical references to God’s messengers taking the ‘form’, ‘appearance’, or ‘image’ of a man. “The form that our imagination creates expresses our formless essence.”
The representations themselves owe much to our ‘primitive’ past. The ancient clay figures of Ur; the shamanistic carvings of the Tharu peoples; Egyptian shroud paintings, Coptic textiles, and Byzantine epitaphios cloths; Meissen figurines, marionettes, catchpenny prints, found photographs, naive folk drawings and so on. These all are interlaced with memory, imagination, past and present encounters, ancient and contemporary sorrows and joys, transposed in paint and then united in a wounded hopefulness.
Some images seem like manifestations of troubling psychic states. An almost unbearably heightened anxiety attends some of the figures, as with the Job pictures, the Anxious Women, and the Victims. When the world of the doll or puppet is evoked as in 'The Sickness unto Death', the spiritual vacancy of the figure is emphasised. An absence that makes the tangible shell disturbingly present.
As the series develops, one senses a marking of the days. A flavour of the Book of Hours or the winter count drawings of the American Indians that have influenced the artist in recent years. One notes a change as we progress chronologically. The early images are more muted in tone with softer almost ghostly outlines. They seem more elemental with the earth element to the fore. Later, as the colours become brighter and the outlines bolder, the more volatile and unstable elements emerge, water, fire and perhaps toward the end, air. A less sombre mood emerges. At times the images are brash and playful, sometimes they stray into the grotesque and unhinged.
Recurring images from the artist’s earlier works can be recognised. An echo of the Expulsion from Paradise, the Angel of History, The Heroic Face of Innocence, Visionaries and ‘Fools’, Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’ and the peculiarities of folk customs. The images reference and evoke the emblematic engravings of old almanacs, votive plaques and archaic religious observances.
Along the way favourite authors are acknowledged, perhaps most notably Rilke with his Orpheus Sonnets and the Angelic beings of his Elegies.
In spite of the singular attention to the figure in its manifold guises, the importance of the act of painting itself remains paramount for the artist. The business or perhaps more appropriately the ritual of making. The raw edges of the material itself and the creased, stained surfaces. Signs, symbols, forms, colours and encoded marks hunting for the underlying cipher in the fabric of things. The awkwardness in the drawing, likened by the artist to irreverent student marginalia in textbooks, acts as a living counterpart, as it were, to the dry ‘text’ of so-called objective depiction.
The overt image, the so-called subject, is merely the way in. An entry point to the indefinable mystery that embraces and illumines all things and that is the real substance of art.