SLAVKA SVERAKOVA - Some Reflections on Paintings by Mark Shields 2012


You, as an artist focus on known/familiar story of, for example, Cain and Abel, in Brothers. The colour you chose is similar to ancient frescoes, bleached by light and time, a sort of mummification, a process that signals emotional value capable of surviving over long time. This, in turn, liberates the figures from specific time and culture. The composition stresses the direct view from a near, alternating attention from the standing perpetrator to the fallen victim. The scale and clear split of the format prevents seeing both at the same time, in a focus. It is as if you issued a demand to identify with one or the other, but not both. This call makes it not a stammered fragment, nor a dialogue; it is a direct confrontation with the morality of the viewer. In this sense then, the sign cannot be read otherwise, and the actual biblical story does not control it. In this case, the ability to read the sign depends on ordinary visual perception. I applaud it, because it can work across different cultures, it is not dependent on religion or politics.

The question now is, does it work as art. You mention shallow space, distortions, play of light, absence of shadows, ambiguity. A work of art creates its value, its meaning not only in relation to human behaviour, but also to other works of art. In relation to the paintings with a single figure, you evoke Giacometti and Egypt. The proportions and weight of the standing man reminds me of Picasso’s figures, the mood reaches back to Adam and Eve by Masaccio. Recognisable African accent adds a life giving factor, form, colour, surface collaborate in eliminating superfluous details. The painting is animated by broken light and by high horizon, while its tonality squeezes space out and forward. The opposites stay calm.


Questions evoked by Brothers  include  the types of engagement,  the meaning beyond the bare information, the means of shifting the nature of aesthetic experience.

When people say, engage your audience, what does that mean? Answers, more often than not, rely on numerical statistics; number of visitors, number of paintings sold, and even worse, claims about art having educational function. Researchers over the last two decades proved that there is no evidence for the latter, and no provable correlations between the former and the quality of art.

Instead, art is good at offering (emotionally) transformative experience. How this painting makes an experience meaningful and memorable? A simple answer depends on its power to invite a conversation based on passion, not on promotion. My thinking about Brothers  is such a conversation. I hazard to assume, that other viewers made their own, different ones. Nevertheless, it is the painting’s form that engaged me to start with. J. Derrida(1979) has a sensitive word on this, claiming that a form is the invisible limits to the interiority of meaning. The impact of the hues, of the scale,  the edge of the canvas “limiting” the space  for the  two male figures  inspires curiosity, to focus on composition and gestures. The floppy fingers of the hand that let a stick to fall is in the centre of the format, equidistant from the top and the bottom frame.  Together with the torso, head and left man’s leg  it grows into a strong vertical anchored in the right angle of the foot, all the only static, stable motifs. The rest is swirling anticlockwise  into a squashed loop, starting with the man’s right leg, catching the two feet and the body that is still falling down. The collision with the ground  dislocates the head and forces into an acute, sharp,  angle. The dark field behind  the figures forges incomplete calm and gravitas enveloping the lightweight higher key of one, and the heavier earth tone of the other.

There is a strong contrast between gestures: the falling man’s hands curl gently, melodically, protectively. The standing figure’s hands still remember the brutal act, one is deformed as if its hand been smashed, the other hangs uncertainly as if pondering what now.

Does it say what is well known? Is it what the contemporary visitors wish to hear, read, see? What does it mean to kill a brother? To live with that crime? Is it about family issues?


Any geopolitical delimitation is avoided, as is any euphoria. So increased subjectivity of the meaning cannot be repressed. Each face expresses subjective feeling, thus protecting the authenticity of it. Anger is not useful anymore, it is about to take away the inner resolve of the standing man. Realization of the brutal act not solving much twists the face, empties his eyes. The fallen man’s face radiates inner peace, intelligence and even beauty, suggestive thus of the classical link between good and beautiful. He is not to repair the world in which the other man will rule. I read somewhere (Yves Alain Bois,1990) that “ when the norms of painting are put to the test, what is arbitrary will have the last word.” In applying it to the artist’s responsibility for a meaning, I would paraphrase it as “the spontaneous will have the last word” in forcing us to focus on an element that might not be present. A thought invited by the incompleteness as means to avoid illusion. Consequently, what is clearly visible alludes also to something unreachable. The distance from the original story. The historical distance mediates our relationship to the past. There is a range of mediations as well as the variety of distances available, and that may be one of the reasons that it does not matter how distanced we are from the intended emotional experience.  Art, this painting, engages simultaneously with making the feeling to forge understanding, not the other way round.

Distances may be formal, affective, ideological, conceptual, but all will fail, if they do not allow flexible entry. Some philosophers submit that there is no way to close the distance between visual fact and a narrative a viewer constructs silently in mind. On the other hand, this also applies to the gap between the visual fact and artist’s intention. Is it possible to recover it? No – we can only encapsulate in our perception what the work of art let us do. There is no reliable one meaning, artist’s or viewer’s . Attention to the painting explodes choices.

Slavka Sverakova
February 2012

THE POET (2009) by Mark Shields

Called, by the famous Spaniard Quintilian (1st C AD), the most learned of the Romans, Marcus Terrentino Varro (116 BC – 27 BC) relates that there are only three Muses: Melete (Practice), Mneme(Memory) and Aoide(Song), while both  Homer(8th C BC) and Hesiod(7th C BC) favoured nine of them. Muses were considered a source of knowledge, inspiration for creative acts.

I propose it is Varro’s reduction that may provide a key to The Poet, a composition presenting  a seated man and a standing woman. She placed her left arm across her torso as if in preparation for singing or reciting. Her bodice’s colour appears behind the poet as a comforting support of shared memories. The white colour travels from her dress to the empty sheet on the table, to the book the poet is holding, and as a horizontal slab, behind both figures, binding them. A visual metaphor for the path an inspiration might take. Yet, the image is not an illustration of practice, memory and song/poetry. All three become embodied in the female figure, in her silence and resolve, if she is seen as a Muse for the passive poet.

She is a visual haiku, a gnomic verse, lyrical reduction, maxim of concentration like mineral crystals that forge an innovative molecule. She stands for the poetic penetration of things, of silence, of something, which is not yet and only may be in the future. As a source of inspiration, she is a Muse. A modern muse, in country women clothes, barefoot and strong. A shift away from the older undernourished romantic model,  a shift  as significant as Grunewald’s painting Virgin Mary as a “handmaiden” in the Annunciation.(Isenheim Altarpiece, cca1517).  Mark Shields shares with the older artist command of rhetorical expressive gestures. When contemporary painting marginalises classical themes, inspiration, and poetry, preferring instead to elaborate shame and ugliness of some socio-political themes, a painting  on creativity  stands out.

While the female stands there full of energy and strength,  the poet sits calmly at the desk, turning away from the paper he should work on, as if not knowing what to do,  waiting for the inspiration. Is he listening to the silence, to the Muse? The hesitant similarity of the position of his legs to those of Picasso’s  The Old Guitarist(1903)  evokes a salient difference:  Picasso paints the creative action, this poet has not composed a poem yet. The sheet is empty. Any inspiration from his Muse has not resulted in a creation of art. He is in the “incubation” period, doing nothing perceivable. He appears searching his imagination,  dreaming, insecure, as if recalling Chang Tzu’s perceptual puzzle: I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky. Then I awoke Now I wonder. Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man. Deep in thoughts his face is not tragic, and joy is not allowed to enter.

The Muse-Poet idea has been popularised also by Robert Graves (The White Goddess, 1st published 1948) who drew on myths and poetry of Wales and Ireland. The painting appears to echo it both in the composition and in the distribution of white colour. Having mentioned the composition, I note two salient points: as in some of Shields’s other  figure compositions, there is an emphasis on a border between the figures forged by sharp hard edge of an arm, and in this case, continuing on the woman’s garment. The ensuing vertical line does not delineate division, instead it increases the certainty where each figure is in relation to the other. She is slightly ahead of him, as inspiration must be, yet, she is not leaving him behind. The tonality of the hues, blue and white, supports the positions of the poet and the Muse in the painted space, allowing them to cooperate quite convincingly and smoothly. The two figures do not interact, they are not in a conflict, they look ahead, not at one another. They just know the other is there. In the world of conflicts, greed, envy and anger, this soft co-operative mode is not a norm. The image thus insists of being at the opposite end of the herd’s  mentality. The blue hue evokes meditative careful reflection, which is also not a norm, it is not how people normally behave.

Importantly, the poet is not to be pitied for his isolation from the masses, or from the material riches. Nor is he set above the ordinary life. He sits at his working surface, notes in hand, waiting to be opened and used. The centre of the composition has been left empty. Both figures look ahead – at us. It may be that what they see stopped their creativity. The work is not yet done, the poet is in the state of becoming. The time stands still in this painting.

Slavka Sverakova
February 2012