When is a cat more like a cactus?

I wish to state a need for change; we are living in a time of renamed ‘ecologies’ and drives for sustainability, even the ‘ecological self’ as Suzi Gablik wrote. But for this to fully come into being we need to change our thinking in a foundational way. What is the purpose of art and how may it play into this much needed change? As my friend Ana Albano would say, the purpose of art is to “uncover the unknown”.

Many artists, gallerists, curators and  image makers in general seem to want to induce us to accept only graphic representational images; photographic, photo-shopped, tag-like, clip-art built up in fashionable method and colour. This seems to be de rigueur, we are drowning in thousands upon thousands of images of things, in a sort of picture overkill for the soul. We loose our sense of beauty, our sense for diversity, for invention and for the integrity of individual vision, are we only to accept art works confirming what we already know?

The Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy said to be famous one has to do one’s thing badly, the more badly taken and abused the photograph, the more famous the photographer will become. Now this cynical statement came from an infamous, reclusive artist, but we need only consider one blurry grey painting, out of the hundreds, of Gerhard Richter to see the truth in this statement. If we can produce an oil painting like a hastily produced black and white snapshot, well, we’ll have it made. Richter is a very good painter, but even he, not wishing to be known as a one trick pony, began his colour explorations; I think to feel nurtured by colour and the accidental. But I find his approach too critical, to cynical with his claims to a democratic art; he finishes a piece according to his sensibilities, and all may follow him to see there is nothing more to be done. In conversation with his friend Benjamin Buchloh Richter arrives at the notion of truth, that to be finished a painting rises above notions of ‘good and ‘bad’, and must attain to the ‘Truth’. Whose ‘Truth’ validates a piece of art?

One hundred years ago young artists believed that Europe had arrived at an impasse; and that the way forward lay in revolution. They stood on the cusp of a cultural revolution, a new era for art and culture. Artists believed that they were entering a time when colour and consciousness would synch and give rise to new modes of expression. This new direction meant that artists would engage with their inner lives. This is exemplified by Paul Cezanne, whose extraordinary work mature in the last decade of his life, after many years of searching, he was able to say; “Colour is the place where our brain meets the universe.” And in the face of a landscape”…I’ll be the subjective of this landscape, just as my painting will be the objective conscience.”

The ‘New Art’ as defined by Sonia Delaunay “…will really begin when we understand that colour has an existence of its own, that it’s infinite combinations have a poetry and a poetic idiom far more expressive than anything else that has ever existed”. Delaunay and the Orphists championed the use of colour to express inner experiences and released it from outer phenomena; colour no longer tied to things became a language in its own right. Pablo Picasso stated “I saw that everything had been done. One had to break to make one’s revolution and start from zero. I made myself go towards the new movement.” There was a sense of the future calling, the undiscovered lay behind a numinous door one only needed to step through. But as we know events took a different track and many artists died before they could create this ‘New World’.

The contemporary artist Ian McKeever makes a convincing case for the need to look beyond mere representation. He describes a world where we are drowning in images, quoting an idea from a William S. Burroughs short story where photography is stealing and diminishing light from the world. Too many images leave us with an impoverished imagination, McKeever feels responsible for the images he creates, not wishing to burden us with more ‘deadening’ art, he strives to create paintings which have a presence, which have, what he calls, ‘countenance’. Not as in pictorial art which is at once imitative and revisits and confirms conventional territories. McKeever creates art which has a threshold character, where elements float free of the canvas in a forward projecting space, he calls this phenomena ‘frontality’. This, also demonstrated superbly in the works of Mark Rothko, allows the viewer to be met by the artwork. McKeever speaks further of this ‘countenance’, as a mysterious new presence in the world, at once arresting, uplifting and sublime. Contemplation of his work becomes a liminal experience, an experience requiring time and a flexible mind.

For the abstract artist Sean Scully painting is about “everything”. He is painting the human condition, no less, where feeling is imbricated and so can be glanced between the brush strokes. For Ian McKeever a painting is a thing of mystery, just as the human face is a thing of mystery. I am reminded of the words of Kandinsky, the ‘father of abstract art’, “…every serious work is tranquil…Every serious work resembles in poise the quiet phrase, “I am here.” Like or dislike for the work evaporates; but the sound of that phrase is eternal.” Can an art work rise in this way, becoming a timeless presence in the world?

What is contemporary painting? Does it exist as a banal stimulator of habitual conceptions and known apprehensions, enshrining art forms where instantly recognisable images, created in slick or off-hand ways, are bereft of mystery or any real meaning? Or, is it an art made merely as a cynical game of redactions, deviations and snubbed dialogues, a mad one-upmanship of fragmented references to dis-imbued and devalued icons – religious, artistic, cultural and sub-cultural? The French intellectuals post-modern drubbing of any meta dialogue which is not their own banal, cynical gruel, has led to the ransacking of cultural values and banished beauty to the darkened corners of artistic practise.

I aim to create paintings and forms which glow with beauty and mystery. This is what my painting practise is about – a passionate, personal journey of the rediscovery of beauty, a movement to “uncover the unknown”. My concern is that non-pictorial art is not sidelined. Some artists work out of a necessity and a will to represent the world and their experience of living in it, in a way which is not reliant on pictorial realism. In my title to this piece I allude to this, in that my experience of an angry cat is much more like picking up a cactus than a pretty ball of fluff. How one may express this experience may well lead to the question ‘Why does that cat look more like a cactus?’

The activity of painting is hard to articulate, as any statement cannot be definitive. It describes a creative process, and unless one is bound to conventions and overly formed techniques, this is ever evolving. As the Rumanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi so sagely stated “The world of art expresses precisely those things which do not die. It must do so, however, in the form that bears witness to the artist’s own era.” Brancusi’s great abstracted works only arrived once he had left the shadow of Rodin and his overtly figurative art. So, we must be in our time but not of it to arrive at something new. Dots and the skull motif must have their day, but fashions are short lived.

There is more, much more to the work of a non-representational artist. When I work at my best I am not bound by the girth of my limited and finite reason. To borrow an analogy from William Blake, who depicted Isaac Newton , with dividers in hand, imprisoned in matter and locked into his materialistic thinking; Blake saw much more than a clockwork universe. He believed that imagination is the key to human experience; Blake understood that art comes from that part of consciousness that leaps beyond the bounded. For William Blake only the freed imagination gives us art. The creative fire leads us to the unknown. As that other great Romantic poet Novalis said “Fire is that thing which leaps perpetually beyond itself.”

So, what is it that I do? I explore my experience of living and the limits of materials whilst  engaged in creative action. This action is a reflexive one, as I build relationships, of colour, texture, tone, transparency and opacity, light and darkness, gravity and levity and, most importantly, chance. Reminiscent, sometimes in despair of making an original thing, of Virginia Woolf’s thought; “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.” When I am in the ‘flow’ of a work I reach new answers to the questions of painting, deeply involved in the process, passionately focused in the present moment and in the ‘life’ of the work, where one colour demands another, for balance, or to vivify, and one movement and intervention suggests another to deepen the piece and resolve an unsatisfactory passage.

The painting shows me what it needs by which area is calling my attention back from the whole. There needs to be a balance between these centres and the whole, like a taught wire which will resonate and sing at different pitches depending on the tightening or slackening of the whole. Kandinsky called the world a ‘Sounding Cosmos’; – “The whole world sounds. It is a cosmos of spiritually active beings. Even dead matter is living spirit.” A statement showing such a lively, musical appreciation of life and the creative energies all around us, so that when one considers paint and splashes it down – what music is being played then?

There are many answers to the question of painting, it is a constantly changing conversation, both an inductive and intuitively evolving process; and one that is not dependent upon anything that exists in the outer world but, paradoxically, is intimately connected to that outer world. as McKeever puts it; – “Is painting the meeting point of the world out there and in here, and if so, what is the edge that separates me from the world out there? What is the kernel of oneself? What is that edge? What is me?”

Adolf Gottlieb once asked his fellow abstractionist, Jackson Pollock, why he never painted from nature, Pollock simply replied “I am nature”, meaning that there is no separation between oneself and the world – one needs to explore one to know the other, if you damage one you will damage the other, as his untimely death testifies. Pollock’s large obsessive drip heads, arrived at through Jungian therapy, were rejected by Greenberg, his long term critical support, who threatened to drop him, to stop championing his art. A short time later Pollock dropped the world, violently driving his car into a tree killing himself and a young passenger.

Personally speaking it is in the actual making of the art-piece where art becomes more than the sum of its known parts. If one is fired with the implications of this thought; through creative activity one can fashion a piece of art which will resonate with things beyond the self. One may work to create a piece which will grow in depth as it is lived with, over time gathering more and deeper implications. A true piece of art will meet each onlooker and maintain its own uniquely resonant life, and in offering this evolving mirror, will call up ever new and relevant questions to enquiring minds and so bring a greater appreciation of beauty and seed a wider appreciation of our shared humanity. Only art carries this multivalent potential, to connect deeply on so many levels; internally and externally, in terms of memories and imagination, and on a more intimate feeling level, on the level of soul art creates a sustaining conversation with each of us.


Dore Ashton – Picasso On Art: A selection of views

Suzi Gablik – The Re-enchantment of Art

Wassily Kandinsky – Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Roger Lipsey – The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art

Ian McKeever – On Painting

Richard Shiff – Conversations with Cezanne

Sixten Ringbom – The Sounding Cosmos

D. Elger & H. U. Obrist – Gerhard Richter Text