RIANN COULTER - Mark Shields: The Inaccessible Land

In his 1942 essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, Albert Camus set out his philosophy of the absurd. Examining man’s futile search for meaning in the face of an unintelligible world devoid of God, Camus compared the absurdity of man’s life with the situation of Sisyphus, the figure from Greek mythology, who was condemned to repeat for eternity the task of pushing a boulder up a mountain only for it to roll down again. Camus concludes ‘The struggle itself (…) is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy’.1  Although neither an absurdist nor an atheist, Mark Shields shares Camus’ belief that it is the struggle that counts. It is through the effort to wrestle meaning from life that art is made.

Shields has continually pushed himself to embrace new challenges and to avoid formula. His dread of slipping into habit has led him to adopt an experimental approach to subject matter and materials. The Inaccessible Land consists of work created over the last four years and presents a number of distinct series that explore the tension between representation and abstraction. This shift towards abstraction is a bold and potentially startling move, particularly for those familiar with Shields’ work. The rationale lies in his conviction that as an artist one must ‘divest yourself of what you know’ and that meaningful art can only be produced through the struggle between the known and the unknown.2

Andrew Lambirth has written of Shields: "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."3

Often working in series, in recent years the artist has produced atmospheric landscapes, minimal charcoal drawings and Host, a series of ninety-nine large, figurative works painted on thin muslin. These paintings, each 155cm x 60cm, suggest the magnitude of Shields’ ambition, the strength of his will and his ability to endure. Exhibited in London between the Grosvenor Gallery and Browse and Darby, they are less contemporary paintings than ancient objects: the relics of a forgotten civilisation rather than the product of a twenty-first-century mind. Affinities with ancient Egyptian shrouds, Medieval wall paintings, prayer banners and rubbings from monumental brass memorials, contribute to this sense of timelessness and highlight the spiritual dimension to Host and Shields’ artistic process as a whole. Host has been described as ‘quite remarkable, in our materialist age, in the insistence of its enquiry into the nature of spirituality’.4  This statement is apposite to all Shields’ art.

The Inaccessible Land is both a presentation of Shields’ art since Host and a record of his struggle to move beyond narrative and representation. The title evokes ideas of exploration and humanity’s ultimately futile efforts to command nature. For Shields, other less tangible references are also relevant and it is in the search, the effort and the ultimate failure to reach the desired destination that he finds meaning.

Shields writes about the destabilising effect of his recent work. Citing Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain where Calthorp forces himself out into the ‘white darkness’ of a snowstorm ‘secretly and more or less on purpose, trying to lose his bearings’ so that he is forced to ask the ultimate questions, Shields makes the connection with his move towards abstraction.'5  "The erosion of the ‘fixed points’ of representation, perspective, subject and so on, in these works is I think directed at the same objective, the ultimate questions".6

In Principio, the most extensive series in the exhibition, consists of forty-nine charcoal drawings, which originated with the motif of a perfect arch formed by the lower branches of two trees in Shields’ garden. The branches echoed the arched stained glass window that he had recently designed for his local church. This arch became the focus for all forty-nine drawings produced over a period of seven days. Seven drawings were completed on the first day and on each day afterwards. This satisfyingly biblical pattern relates to the title In Principio – in the beginning – the opening words of The Book of Genesis. Throughout the series, the arch is alternatively a horizon, a gateway, a cave, a mouth, something cosmic or explicitly terrestrial. On the seventh day, the tree form is restored and with it comes a myriad of mythic, religious and artistic associations – the tree of life, a tree from a fresco in Assisi and back to the reality of his garden.

Throughout the history of modernism, abstract art has been associated with attempts to express spirituality and to create a visual equivalent of music. Shields acknowledges both his religious faith and classical music as important sources of inspiration.  He cites contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu in relation to the In Principio series. Twelve small abstracted oil and wax panels, also in the exhibition, are titled Hunting and Forms after German composer Wolfgang Rihm’s Jagden und Formen, (1995-2001).

If the garden’s familiar landscape was the starting point for the drawings In Principio, other series, including the oils on paper which bear the exhibition's title, reference the inaccessible white expanses of the Antarctic, in particular Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition (1914-1917) the first attempted land crossing of the Antarctic Continent. In each of these bodies of work the original suggestions of landscape have been repeatedly reworked until they are erased. Shields writes: 

It’s not by chance that the notion of the explorer’s stance before the desolate icy polar wastelands has penetrated many of these recent works - The Inaccessible Land. When a path, ‘a lead’, appears to have opened up in the ice, it just as quickly closes over again.7

This analogy is particularly pertinent for the seven large canvases that are the crescendo of the exhibition. Shields’ refers to five of these abstract works as Relicta – literally that which is left behind, a remnant of something, or that which is laid aside in order for something to press forward unburdened. The other two, The Tables of the Law I and II, reference the Ten Commandments, particularly the second Commandment that forbids the worship of graven images. In scale, ambition and sheer materiality, these works are arresting.

Each of the five Relicta  –  Miserere, Seeds, The Last Thing I Saw, The First Thing I Saw and When We Dead Awaken – have developed through many phases. Some began as interiors, or architectural features. All have had representational elements and each has been erased, repainted, scratched and repaired over and over again. Many of the sources of inspiration – Japanese scrolls, art history, literature, landscapes and architecture as well as personal loss and faith – are familiar from Shields’ earlier work. Some have multiple sources, for instance the The Tables of the Law are both biblical and originate in a line from a story by Giorgio Pressburger, ‘Everything is written in the white spaces between one letter and the next. The rest doesn’t count.’8 Texts, numbers and emblems have been layered within these works and ‘whitewashed’ out again. Shields recalls that during the Protestant Reformation, zealous interpretations of the second commandment led to the whitewashing of paintings.

For Shields the medium itself plays an important part in the final work. Using wax and oil for instance, inevitably results in areas of resistance. The inclusion of found metal elements in the series of plaster relief Plaques, produces rust that stains the white plaster in unpredictable ways. In his catalogue text for the exhibition, John Hutchinson makes connections between Shields’ recent work and August Strindberg’s 1894 essay ‘Chance in Artistic Creation’.9  Aiming to ‘imitate nature’s way of creating’, Strindberg worked more or less at random, trusting that what he called ‘matter’s drive towards representation’ would eventually impel a picture to develop out of the paint, almost of its own accord’.10

The Way, a series of rough woodcut prints, made using discarded pieces of furniture and fence posts, also feature. These low art materials and methods add to Shields’ ambition to destabilise the familiar and to sweep away the ‘previously secure footing’.  The Danish artist Per Kirkeby has commented on the ‘indescribable pain of giving up the motif’.11 Much of the power of Shields’ recent works, particularly the seven large abstracts, comes from the sense that the motif is buried within, and if you look long enough, all will be revealed. Inevitably, this expectation is frustrated but it is in the process of looking, the search for meaning, the contemplation of materiality and process, that satisfaction is found.

1 Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays, 1942, Penguin, 2000.
2 Philip Guston, ‘Doubt itself becomes a form. You work to divest yourself of what you know’,
Philip Guston — Collected Writings, Lectures and Conversations, ed. Clark Coolidge, University
of California Press, 2011, p. 37.
3 Andrew Lambirth, 'The Infinite is Transparent so that we May See the Present: A Long
Look at the Paintings of Mark Shields’, Here and Elsewhere, Grosvenor Gallery, 21 April –
14 May 2010, p. 6.
4 Nicholas Usherwood, ‘Review of Host’, Galleries Magazine, February 2014.
5 Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, 1924, Vintage Books, 1999.
6 Mark Shields, ‘Some Notes on Recent Work’, December 2017.
7 Mark Shields, ‘Some Notes on Recent Work’.
8 Giorgio Pressburger, The Law of White Spaces, Granta Books, 1993.
9 Douglas Feuk, The Celestographs of August Strindberg, Cabinet, Summer, 2001.
10 John Hutchinson, ‘On Dust, Dancers and Transcendence’, Mark Shields, The Inaccessible
Land, exhib. cat. F.E. McWilliam Gallery, 2018.
11 Per Kirkeby, Writings on Art — Per Kirkeby, Spring Publications, 2012, p. 56.