The Infinite is Transparent so that we May See the Present:
A Long Look at the Paintings of Mark Shields
To date, there have been a number of distinct periods to the career of Mark Shields. He has painted meticulous still-life and portrait subjects, mysterious, atmospheric landscapes and narrative scenes of some complexity. He then embarked upon a series of large-scale pastel drawings on canvas – the equivalent of paintings, but done in a minimal, linear style. These have led him on to the current group of mixed media pictures. Yet throughout this seeming diversity runs a consistency of belief. He quotes a statement he made almost 20 years ago as still encompassing his artistic credo. His aim is: ‘to present a tangible, living presence combined with an evocation of the inner life, the soul of things. Ascetic, contemplative and silent. A yearning for the spiritual yet with an emotional and physical tension.’ His latest body of work embodies these ambitions in a most remarkable way.
An artist who has lived and worked all his life in Northern Ireland, Shields grew up with Ulster Museum as his nearest public collection, a museum with at least a handful of paintings which became important to him. He instances an early Francis Bacon from 1949 and a Dubuffet Mother and Child from 1956, both of which struck him with their very real paint quality, their sense of the concrete – something at the same time visible and touchable. There was also a Turner called The Dawn of Christianity (Rest on the Flight into Egypt) and a series of Fuseli drawings he admired. If the art locally on offer was limited, he read widely and was acquainted with Puvis de Chavannes and the Symbolists, at least through reproductions. A student trip to Paris in 1984 was a revelation, as it was his first extended experience of real paintings. He moved deeper into the world of the Symbolists, being especially drawn to Gustave Moreau (on whom he wrote his degree thesis) and also to a later Belgian painter (often associated with the Surrealists), Paul Delvaux.
Here it should be emphasized that Shields is not so much influenced by individual paintings by an artist as inspired by their overall attitude. He was fortunate in his art teacher at school. In William Bogle (with whom he is still in touch) he found a guiding spirit who warned of the dangers of fashion and encouraged him to pursue what he most cared about. Shields has followed that excellent advice to good effect, building upon the firm foundation of great works Bogle introduced him to. One of these was the Avignon Pieta attributed to Enguerrand Quarton, a 15th century masterpiece of singular mystical beauty. When Shields saw it in the Louvre he was invaded by the feeling that the painting was more real than the visitors standing next to him. He absorbed this work at a deep level, recognizing at the same time that it was not preoccupied with accurate representation, with the tyranny of appearance, but more concerned with the essence of the subject. The resulting dialogue between the specific and the general statement has been a factor he has looked for since in all great art and which he has tried to engender in his own work.
Shields’ artistic temperament is naturally inclined towards a mode of painting closely allied to the Masters of the past, an idiom he has the technical accomplishment to deliver. Indeed he proved his abilities abundantly in earlier exhibitions of still-life, figure and landscape paintings. But such skilled paraphrase of a style did not ultimately satisfy him, for it could not communicate fully what he wanted to communicate. He felt the need to move his work on again, to engage more closely with invention, which he sought to do by taking the figures into a greater degree of narrative. He could perhaps have persuaded himself to carry on painting his delicious still-lifes, but he prefers to obey the inner promptings which alert him to the natural beginning and end of a particular phase of work.
Film was an important inspiration at this time, and in particular the sense of stillness in Tarkovsky, a stillness building to a crescendo of anticipation. The paintings of this period were interval pictures, all about big areas of semi-abstract water or smoke separating the figurative elements. Shortly after completing these works, his return to oil paint led to a further loosening of brushwork, a move away from a rather photographic image, and the gradual development of a more robust and somewhat stylised physical type, characteristic of his more recent pictures. Yet his aim to capture what he was able to achieve in his preparatory ink drawings, but on a larger scale, remained only half-realised. For eight months nothing worked. Then he turned, almost in despair, to drawing. So emerged the work for Colloquy, his last exhibition, in 2008. This comprised a group of drawings in their own right, not drawings made as studies for something else. Done in pastel and charcoal on canvas, they were intended to be seen as paintings, not as some form of under-drawing for oil paint.
For Shields the mind of the artist must penetrate beyond the tricks of likeness to a new depth of reality, where the thing seen may be created anew. But he is also concerned to avoid the sin of hubris, and his own temperament steers him to begin with a belief that all efforts are doomed to failure. Rather than discountenancing him, he seems to find this encouraging. Of course he also believes in the ultimate possibility of making something worthwhile, or he would not be able to proceed. It is just that his art appears to benefit from self-doubt, and the conviction that first (or even fifth) attempts are not good enough is what goads him on to produce his extraordinary paintings.
The images come out of the process of working, the long hours spent looking and changing what has been already achieved. It is almost as if Shields raises doubt to a method. His dread of formula, of slipping into habits of depiction, makes him question every little advance. He starts each day in despair at the impossibility of the task he has set himself, and then gradually builds up from there, only to start again at square one on the morrow. Of course, it’s never quite as bad or as simple as this, but the doubt that drives him is as relentless as the urge to perfection.
Knowing when to leave a painting, and when it is necessary continue, is of crucial importance to the painter. Shields repeatedly risks ruining an image because the sum of its parts don’t yet add up, though individual passages may express almost precisely what he wants to say. So he works on, revising and editing, trying different solutions that will bind the elements together into a new and startling harmony which will satisfy his own high standards and arrest the eye of the viewer. This kind of painting is not an obvious form of self-expression nor indulgent autobiography, but is primarily a working-out of pictorial problems, a process that results in the slow distillation of a resonant image which may move us or entrap us with its beauty. It may even puzzle us, but if it is fully resolved, it will be difficult to ignore.
Shields might begin a painting with a very general notion, around which a cluster of ideas and inchoate images will begin to form. The process of actually making the painting commences with sifting through charcoal drawings to find and explore poses which might encapsulate an idea, and then moving these ideas further on with swift pen and ink drawings, to discover how such crucial points as the shared knee in The Struggle might work. And some thought of composition must be there from the start, though not necessarily anything resembling the final configuration. Shields relishes the consolation of geometry, the structure behind his images, which may not be as rigorous or demanding as the Golden Section, but certainly accounts for the solidity and formal rightness of his compositions.
A favourite model has been sitting for Shields for the best part of ten years, and sometimes her features may be discerned in a painting. These days Shields draws sporadically from life, and it might be that he requires a model to assume a pose he has discovered in a photograph in an old book, or in some source of ancient or more modern art. Inspiration can arise in a thousand places and in as many different ways. Stories, images, formal ideas – these are the usual starting points, but they may manifest themselves very variously. Once the process of drawing is underway, the original pose (derived from whatever source) may be modified and developed beyond immediate recognition. Sometimes in his search for actual three-dimensional verification of a pose found elsewhere, he will take up the pose himself and draw what he sees, or photograph himself digitally for more information.
Titles are a perennial problem. Shields notes: ‘They tend to be thought about and added when the work is finished but have been emerging during the preparation and painting. I suppose like novels and films one has a working title in mind during the making. I expect that if pictures weren’t publicly exhibited they would remain untitled.’ His work runs the gamut of titles from the pithy single word to the line of poetry or the evocative phrase.
The painting called Eclipse began as a night dance, a strange primitive shuffle that seems to tread the borders of magic and invocation. It raises all sorts of questions. Why is the girl on the right hooded so thoroughly as to appear headless? Is there in fact a central figure – carved out of the blue, as it were – which seems to have a bird’s head and long trailing gown? Or is this only cunningly shaped shadow? The importance of blue, not least in the skirt shooting out from the dancing girl at left, is central to the meaning of this picture. Shields refers to his painting The Poet as ‘a kind of acknowledgment of the work of Austrian poet Georg Trakl for whom blue was much more than a mere colour.’ Blue is an important participant in the drama of a number of these paintings, but especially Eclipse. This is by far the most strange and unfathomable of Shields’ paintings, and will not, I think, easily give up its secrets.
She’ll Never Know What She Saw is a line from an Octavio Paz poem which Shields read after completing the painting. Paz wrote: ‘Does she see her end or her beginning? / She’ll say she sees nothing. / The infinite is transparent.’ The line that Shields chose is the last line of the poem and seemed to him to convey much of the mood he was trying to evoke. As he remarks, the picture has its origins in Joan of Arc’s account of her early life given at her trial (he was particularly moved by her sheer simplicity of expression), and in two films made about Joan’s life. The first and most important was a silent movie directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, La Passion de Jean d’Arc (1928), widely considered to be one of the most intense films ever made, and a great source of inspiration for Shields; the second is Proces de Jeanne d’Arc by Robert Bresson (1962). The clarity and tragedy of the Joan story seem to permeate a number of the paintings in this exhibition, and echo on in the way Shields portrays girls and women.
This enthralled seriousness, suggesting at once a separateness from the world and an intense belonging, extends to such a painting as Daydreamers. Shields notes that this painting began life as a kind of formal equation of poses that interested him, but soon evolved an existence of its own. (There will always be endless configurations of the formal equation.) The trio of figures here may have derived from attitudes suggested by the rhythmic and symbolic dance exercises advocated by such teachers as Steiner and Gurdjieff, but this source was swiftly transformed not only by its new formal context but by the layers of meaning and association which haunt the partially-stated narratives of Shields’ imagery.
For instance, consider the kind of content in a painting such as The Past Stretches Out Before Us. The title is not a quote, nor is it a direct allusion to any particular source, rather it is Shields’ own form of words to evoke his sense of what he calls ‘the irretrievable nature of our own personal past, the feeling of loss that can weigh so heavily at times’. Is it possible to redeem the past? If you accept that the past animates and informs the present, and is therefore not so much of a moribund state as part of the condition of living, then the situation becomes more optimistic. If this painting is about the past, then can either of the figures be interpreted as representing Past Time? The big grey figure looming over the composition who makes the wide gesture of dismissal or appeal (or is perhaps simply pointing to the past as present, or even as future) is the obvious candidate. But in fact neither figure is an embodiment of time past, for there are no simple symbolic presences here such as Old Father Time or Death with his scythe.
The deliberate awkwardness with which the grey figure is put together is striking. In fact he’s a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster, or golem, a man-made being who falls far short of divine perfection. One leg is stitched on higher than the other and there’s something around the shoulders that suggests the disfigurement of a hump, in addition to the ape-like arms. But his companion, the faded pink girl, is not exactly svelte, being a solid damsel with an interesting v form below her belly button which echoes the seam of the golem’s right leg. Perhaps they were made for each other, different versions of different pasts. Certainly the paint surface, with its colour divisions and overlaps, seems to suggest that they are one substance. Note the vivid paint application, the vehement brushing and trickling, the general air of control within freedom. It’s brilliantly executed – Shields has made himself a master of this approach.
Captives and To the Healer are both paintings which make reference to the influence of Aharon Appelfeld’s books, a recent Shields enthusiasm. (He has an abiding interest in Jewish culture, its imagery and writing.) Captives relates specifically to a book called For Every Sin, while To the Healer refers (logically) to the volume titled The Healer. The questing reader will not find an explanation of the paintings in these books, nor discover a text that has been illustrated by Shields. Rather, the intellectual and emotional context of his paintings will have broadened and opened out for interested parties; yet, it is by no means necessary to turn to Appelfeld’s books in order to “understand” or enjoy Shields’ images. Like all good art, they work on a number of levels and continue to feed the mind and eye of the viewer long after the initial encounter.
The three figures in Captives express the different responses of different temperaments to the state of captivity. The pale central figure, who has adopted the martyr’s sacrificial pose, hands clasped in quiet resignation, is the idealist and intellectual who hopes that the powers that be will quickly come to their senses and realize their mistake. He is unlikely to survive. By contrast, the figure on the left whose pose recalls Rodin’s Thinker, has adopted a compact survivor’s stance, inward-looking and enduring. Meanwhile the figure on the right is the active survivor, ready for anything, flight or fight, any trickery or shift for self-preservation.
Quite often these images depict movement, though stylized (and possibly ritualized) into a still moment. The Struggle has its origins in the great biblical story of Jacob and the Angel, yet it also makes passing reference to Gauguin’s early masterpiece The Vision after the Sermon (1888), as well as to Moreau and Redon. (It should be remembered that Shields spent his 21st birthday in the Moreau Museum in Paris, literally and symbolically, Moreau’s drawings in particular inspiring him.) Shields is drawn to the theme of the individual’s struggle with Divine will, though this can also be interpreted as an inner struggle personified. In the story of Jacob and the Angel, Jacob won’t let the angel go until he receives his blessing, even though the angel dislocates his hip. For Shields, this story has a personal implication in that a painting can give you a blessing before you let it go, but it can also damage you.
In The Struggle, instead of being joined at the hip, these two figures are joined at the knee, and seem to have only three legs between them. The reddish flesh tones of the left-hand figure contrast with the muddy ochre flesh of his opponent. This figure could have been formed of the clay on which he or she stands. The distortion of the left foot where it delves into the ground almost signifies an umbilical attachment to the earth, while the over-extended arms suggest bars to block the Jacob figure from reaching the sky and freedom. This is an immensely powerful image, perfectly pitched in colour and tone, inventive in its figuration but locked into an inevitability of mood and gesture that seem absolutely right. The drift of paint-runs and splashes down the luminous surface remind us that each picture for Shields is a balancing act between authorial control and the painting going its own way.
Brothers is a take on the Cain and Abel theme, an extension of Shields’ interest in dualism, and a darker painting than its predecessor. The crunched position of the paler figure (eyes closed in death, perhaps) is strangely elegant yet deeply disturbing as well. The Assyrian-looking victor stalks off, dropping his cudgel or sword, heedless of his victim’s plight. At least, that’s one construction that could be put upon the scene. Equally it could depict a couple of totally self-contained figures who bear no relation to each other, and just happen to inhabit the same confined area of pictorial space. Whatever the case, it is an immensely powerful and slightly daunting image to add to the roster of Shields’ achievements.
The rigidity of his poses is not casually assumed, it’s as if his figures have fought their way to this point against a towering head-wind, and can move not a pace further. His distortions are intended to express an otherness which is essential for his meaning. Likewise, the awkwardnesses, the occasional turn towards primitive simplification, are strategies to sharpen the eye and defuse sentimentality.
The Desert derives, as is typical of Shields’ paintings, from a number of sources, including Goethe’s poem about a winter trek in the Harz Mountains which was set to music by Brahms in the Alto Rhapsody. This painting is divided in two, split down the middle, allowing for the articulation of two separate and self-contained figures. They perhaps symbolize dearth and plenty, though there is a similarity in treatment which militates against a reading of opposites. The water-bringer, vast hand like a paddle clasping the jug, approaches the kneeling loin-clothed youth, but both seem unaware of the other, looking out of the picture but sightlessly, deliberately not engaging with the viewer, looking out but actually looking within themselves.
Night Song features a reclining male figure, naked and possibly asleep, with a half-naked seated woman playing a flute nearby. Again there is no connection or contact between the figures apart from the formal one of their masses touching on the picture plane. They are compact in their self-absorption. How appropriate the title of this exhibition seems when we gaze at this painting: here and elsewhere could describe the two figures. Yet it is also an uneasy cohabitation of opposites that can readily occur within a single person, with no obvious reconciliation in sight. This is the kind of metaphysical disquiet with which Shields imbues his pictures. Thus there is often a surface stillness to his poses which cannot entirely mask the agitation beneath.
There is in Night Song a slight echo of Chagall’s Poet Reclining (1915). The picture contains large flat slightly boxy areas of blue which are most effective at establishing a mood and remind the viewer familiar with Shields’ work that he also makes abstract collages. Against these abstracted forms the figures too could seem like mere shapes, but Shields has endowed them with a convincing living quality. He does this even with the restricted palette he has chosen to adopt: three colours and a white. This self-imposed limitation is partly because he finds inventing colour difficult – for these figure paintings are essentially composed from the imagination, however much preliminary work he does from the model – and partly because he is intent on moving away from too literal a representation.
Caress is the most recent painting of the series and a version of the Annunciation, the angel bringing news so good that the recipient swoons into his arms. It is a deeply sensuous image built about the idea of one set of shapes enclosing another. Once again Shields’ sculptural awareness (no doubt enhanced by his wife’s recent career shift to carving stone) is evident here, and it is easy to imagine the two entwined figures, one dark and one pale, carved out of the one block. As before, the ostensible subject is only a starting point, a situation or event to be translated. Just as icons are important to Shields, as an extreme example of how art must always transcend what it represents, so must his own paintings have a similar abstract strength. Icons inspire devotion, but not through their realism. Ideally, Shields wants to do everything in one picture – narrative, symbolism, essence, transcendence – though in reality this is not so easily achieved.
There are ancient uses and applications for art which even the super-speedy passage of technological so-called advancement has not eroded or subsumed. Art deals with the things that can’t be explained, the things of the spirit, which is one reason why people behave in museums as if they were in church. In a largely God-less age, art reasserts its place as a repository of the spiritual. It also maintains its traditional force-field of magic. For Shields, art helps us to discern eternity in the heart of all things. For him, as for the icon painters, the making of the image is an act of devotion and worship. Painting should always aspire to this.
As with many of the innovators of the previous century, Shields has gone back to similar sources for inspiration: Fayum portraits, Etruscan or Tanagra figures, Byzantine frescoes and icons, Romanesque wall paintings, the great masters of the past. The painters to whom Shields goes for help and inspiration, but whose presence does not always show directly in his work, range from Giotto, Duccio and Piero, to Giacometti, Cezanne, Balthus, Bonnard, Klee and Munch. Shields adds to this list an interest in artists whose stylistic kinship is perhaps easier to discern: Dubuffet, Carra, Sironi and Permeke. A particular love is Paula Modersohn-Becker. He made a pilgrimage on the 100th anniversary of her death to her home town of Bremen to see two exhibitions – one on the influence of Paris on her work, the other examining her link with the Fayum mummy portraits.
Shields likes to create instant-looking pictures which have taken time and thought to develop. The seeming spontaneity is a superficial effect, but an important one. The imagery in a painting may take a long time to reveal itself fully, but if this time-lag were apparent it could be off-putting to the viewer. The picture should make an immediate appeal which then continues to resonate and deepen, unfolding more layers of subtle and complex reference over time.
His current practice is to paint in acrylic medium with pigment and an admixture of plaster powder. It is a dry dusty earthy medium eminently suited to the primitive nature of the imagery. Here is a stripping down that isn’t a romantic simplification, but a more essential one, a path towards the universal. Change is not only possible but easy to instrument: Shields is constantly revising his images, painting out (often the passages he has grown fondest of but which unbalance the composition) and trying new solutions. The space in which these figures exist is always shallow, as if they were carved in monumental low relief, rather than set in traditional Renaissance perspective.
Shields, with his bias towards European masters will probably not agree, but I see in his paintings various echoes of the work of British painters of the 20th century. He does, I think, like Mark Gertler, whose figure compositions – along with others of the Slade School Symbolists working before the First World War – do bear some relationship to Shields’ work (see The Fruit Sorters of 1914). Then again Shields’ painting Brothers seems to recall the layout of Ceri Richards’ extraordinary image of a figure dropped by an owl from a winding sheet in his oil Do not go gentle into that good night (1956). Quite possibly, these are coincidental similarities that say more about my interests than they do about Shields’, but they make a point that is eternally relevant to the issue of influence. That is, simply stated, that things remind us of other things, whether they are connected or not, and it is not always possible to remember what has been seen, registered and absorbed, and what has been absorbed subliminally.
Nature, the Masters and personal experience are however the artistic trinity of this painter. He is a man of religious convictions, and speaks of his painting as being a form of incarnation. This notion of giving form to a vision is, of course, essential to the artist, but Shields approaches the problem with an unusual armoury of belief, skills and knowledge. He is a literary man, but not a literary artist, able to drink deeply at the wells of poetry, from whence he draws much inspiration, without compromising the formal impetus of his painting. As Ronald Blythe has observed: ‘Artists and writers swiftly recognize a shared vision. It is not that they think or see things the same way, but that they find themselves capturing in their work certain minutiae and essentials which do not appear elsewhere.’ The basic essential of Shields’ art remains the relations between parts, and building an ordered relationship of forms. But painting for him is not just about the abstract qualities of a work, or solving pictorial problems, it is also intimately concerned with representing some kind of reality.
The dusty, marked surfaces of these paintings suggest the passage of time and even disintegration. Or else these runic gestures, this fertile scrabble of possibilities, could indicate the beginning of things – a coming into being. It is that pivot between creation and destruction that Shields finds so fruitful. He tries to avoid a gimmicky presentation but admits that he has always liked a certain oddness in a painting. This perhaps manifests itself in these pictures by a sacramental quality to the images. He includes lineaments of folk tale, myth, fable and parable, as more or less indirect ways in which to broach archetypal themes and make them accessible to us today. His paintings help to elucidate the human condition. To quote Ronald Blythe once again, in these new paintings by Mark Shields we can hear ‘the mere whisper of a piece of history falling into place’.