Twelve Seconds ’Twixt Cup and Lip


Early on in the Renaissance, artists began the ascent to the lofty status they now assume. In Europe until that time their fees were the same as any artisan — materials plus labour. A magical quality came to be invested in artists, who gradually took the heroic place of the courtly warriors of mediaeval romance. Egos swelled in accordance: just look at Michelangelo’s candid estimation of his own talents. Of course, he was right — he was one of the most gifted individuals ever to strut the earth — and egocentric work belongs in an egocentric culture. And that we certainly have.

Europe has contributed the advantages and disadvantages of individualism to the world. Sociologists say that to the present day the Asian emphasis on family is much greater than our own. Non-european art also lacks the focus on painting and sculpture, or even the notion of high art. Marvellous Islamic calligraphy and architectural decoration, for instance, is underrated as a consequence. We have been taught to exalt the individual talent, the individual expression, in the plastic arts. At the extreme this means that once the Rembrandt Committee have ruled that a painting is no longer a Rembrandt, but the work of a pupil, it plummets in price. Same painting, as fine as it ever was, but the value belongs to the creator, not the work.

During the twentieth century, many high-minded individuals challenged this individualism. Among artists, Mondrian is perhaps the best known. Following the strange spiritual discipline of a Theosophical offshoot, he created neo-plasticist art: painting should be reduced to the three primary colours and white, set out as rectangles divided off by black lines. In the next generation, several Op artists followed a similar idea — painting should no longer be a refined skill, available to the few, nor an expression of individuality. No Theosophist, but gifted with a socialist conscience, Victor Vasarely determinedly created surfaces that might have been painted by anyone able to apply masking tape. Bridget Riley’s work is designed and signed by her, but painted by apprentices.

I applaud the noble aims of such art, of any art, and at times enjoy its productions (not so much the Mondrian, I must admit), but theory has tended to lead art by the nose these last hundred years. I am all for a decent chat about the virtues of this or that approach, but agree with both Cézanne and Picasso that talking about art has little to do with making art. It didn’t stop either of them from jabbering endlessly at every opportunity, but an art where apprentices simply fill in the masked portions left by theory becomes pretty dull (did I mention Warhol’s Factory?).

Art is usually caught up in the theology or philosophy of its times. Surrealism was a homage to Freud (who detested it). Darwin and Marx had a tremendous impact not only on thought but also upon culture. Relativity, quantum theory and the hunting of the quark have taken longer to trickle into the arts, perhaps because they demand deep mathematical knowledge for true comprehension. But, even taking the implications of a simple understanding, there is much to be learned from these disciplines, and their impact upon individualism. Advances in psychology and neurology have also opened new realms for exploration.

Rather than reducing art to the level of everyman, perhaps it is possible to make an art that celebrates the indiviuality not only of the artist but also of the audience? Maybe this can be achieved through audience participation — interactivity — but another way of shifting the ego-centre comes with the realization that art exists at the interface between the artist and the viewer. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder: the mind’s eye.

At college, I painted a little oil called Strings in the Earth and Air and put it on my living room wall. Given my exultation in pure colour, it seems rather dull now, but it strives upwardly in a pleasant enough way. One fellow student assured me that it was a vision of hell. A week later, and with no prompting, another smiled and said it was paradise. So what would each see in a Rembrandt?

Painting abstractly does allow the onlooker more leeway. Seeing Samson having his eye poked out by Rembrandt rather limits the response (except of course in sadists). But with Rembrandt the mind readily separates from the subject matter into the mystical realm of aesthetic appreciation. I enjoy providing a surface that will continue to be worked upon by the viewer. It began accidentally. I was playing with painting. I had given up trying to fathom Titian, and was just smearing the oils onto a board. I realized that no dull intermixtures resulted if I restricted myself to greens and yellows (I was very young, barely 22). To my surprise, I could see a face in the finished picture, and then a figure. I sold the painting by asking a friend to look at it for ten minutes. He too saw images, and paid my eminently reasonable asking price.

Da Vinci advised painters to stare at a moss-covered wall to find figures and scenes. Remember how before multichannel TV, we had fires and used to stare into them? In the Peanuts strip, Schroeder gives a dramatic description of the visions he sees in the clouds. Asked what she sees, Lucy replies ‘A ducky and a horsey’. So began my ‘ducky and horsey’ period. I gradually learned how to put all of the colours onto the canvas without muddiness. I put aside the single layer (alla prima or wet-into-wet) method used by most twentieth century painters, and learned what I could of the methods of Titian and Rembrandt — building layers of paint. I acquired what I could of the craft of painting, so the paint would not crack and fall off (owners of a Picasso may have problems in this regard).

I also read about the Gestalt psychologists of the thirties, who studied responses to shape. I began to be fascinated by the processing of images that takes place in the mind.

I lost all interest in copying or expressing images seen around me, and tried to understand the elements of painting minus such images. What was composition? What colours, hues and tones worked best together? While I read about the emotional or even spiritual values attributed by some to colour (red for danger, blue for masculinity, for example), I could never quite connect with such ideas. I came to think that each of us has a set of preferences, and that the task in art is to find your own colour key or scale, so to speak. The same is true for forms, and for composition. There will be colour relationships, and shape relationships that satisfy you. I was not impressed by Ittens’ attempts to classify colours and hues into groups — resulting in the Seasons palettes that raged through the fashion world in the ’80s (Ittens himself shaved his head, and wore a grey blanket, while teaching at the Bauhaus — a dedicator formulator of fashion).

I studied perspective in its several guises — including colour or atmospheric perspective, which is used by interior designers to make spaces look larger or smaller. Stripping away some of the mystique: orange advances and pale blues recede and everything else fits between.

I learned about materials, supports and tools, eventually settling on specific papers, a broad weave canvas (recommended to me by Bill Gear), Winsor and Newton’s alkyd oil paints, Lascaux primers and acrylics, W&N or Rowney artists’ quality watercolours and certain brushes and knives. I read books on craft and technique, and the writings of artists, historians and critics. I filled out my diet with psychology, history, literature, metaphysics and popular science texts. And I painted and painted and painted. I arrived at my simple watercolour style after about five years. It took about ten years from my first term at college to find a confident personal style in oils — after some 600 studies and paintings.

So, through those years, I pursued my own preferences, and refined them through a series of experiments in paint. My interest became absolutely abstract, but pierced a dogma that has largely restricted abstraction from its early days before the First World War: abstract painting must not look like anything. So we have either the flat school of Mondrian or the splash it about expressionism of the Tachists and their more famous followers, the Abstract Expressionists. I could see no reason to restrict myself, and as the years passed, my paintings often burst with images. These images are summoned by the mind’s eye, however, never deliberately placed.

At first, the viewer will see colours and lines, but given patience (and a chair), caricatures often begin to appear. After only a few minutes, photographically real images float up, usually faces, often objects. With real patience and an hour to spare, parts of the painting will change dimension: you may suddenly feel that the surface is suspended above you, or you above it. Parts of the painting may begin to move. Eventually — and perhaps this intimates instant-mix Buddhist enlightenment — there will be colours and lines (as Donovan had it from the Zen master: ‘first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is’).

Now, the truth is that anyone who has meditated (or stared) for long enough knows that hallucinations are naturally generated when the eye is at rest on a still surface. There are a variety of explanations for this, but essential to them all is the deep need to make sense: survival may depend on it. Driving at night you may see a pile of leaves at the side of the road and vividly imagine it to be a sleeping or injured person. The mind interprets reality. Given a complex surface that actually is unresolvable, the mind will fill in its own reality (make sense, indeed). This is fundamental to our perception. The Buddhist notion that the world is an illusion comes close to the modern psychological view: each individual constructs the world while seeing it.

It amazed me that different people would see some of the same things — and could point out to others exactly what they saw, and so share the image — but also had personal interpretations that they would see in every painting. One friend saw high-heel shoes and dragonflies; another always saw cyclists and skiers. It is hard to say what archetype-forming part of the mind is being addressed, but it may be a route into the dream-machine that each of us houses in the unconscious (or in which each of us is housed).

Aesthetically, I am unsatisfied that people may use my paintings simply as explorations of the images of their own psyches. I want them to go further, but that only happens with a longer relationship (I am tempted to stretch my metaphor to the ridiculous and mention nirvana, but that would be silly. I’ll stick with Donovan).

I believe that the art only begins with the painting, because the painting is the servant of the onlooker. Art comes into being in the mind of the onlooker. The meditative necessity of painting — more than the twelve seconds required by advertisers and post-modernists to make a mark — leads to a state similar to that achieved by artists when drawing: by looking harder we learn to look deeper, and the trained eye sees more quickly. This would be true of any aesthetically interesting piece, painting or otherwise, that compelled fascination, but my work is deliberately made to be looked at deeply and to incite insight through non-verbal means. This again relates to the objective of Buddhist artists. Portrayals of the Buddha are not of the historical Gautama Siddhartha but of the Buddha indwelling in everything (I know I said I was going to stick to Donovan, sorry). I am interested in tranquillity, exuberance, a glimpse into the joyful feelings so often simply locked away. Releasing these feelings, and giving some cease to the hurly-burly, is my intent. Strange that so few pursue this rather obvious objective.

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce reduced the labyrinthine complexity of aesthetic philosophy into a simple formula. He distinguished what he termed ‘proper’ and ‘improper’ art. The latter he termed pornographic or didactic. Being James Joyce, he had his own novel explanation of these terms: pornographic art arouses the desire to own the object; didactic art arouses anxiety, fear or loathing. Advertising tends to be pornographic in these terms, and most tv soaps are didactic. In fact, most art fits into one or other of these categories. It leads to movement toward or away from the object. ‘Proper art’ leads to aesthetic arrest. You are stopped in your tracks, dumbfounded and brought into the present by the beauty or insight that pours forth from the object.

In the post-post-modern period, theology and philosophy are in collapse. But while the explanations of past generations may seem groundless, the same experiences are still available. The intercession of priests becomes unnecessary, whether the robed Church sort, know-it-all psychotherapists or those arbiters of taste who wish to explain the world to us, and keep us in our place. The age of the guru is over. Art can become the religious experience, but without the necessity of religion. Paste in your own images, and paste in your own theology: Art can be a means of looking inside yourself, not just a way of exalting the clever ego of the artist.

As Einstein said: ‘The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma ... In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.’

Further and deeper; it may be, as Joseph Campbell said, that true art is achieved when the artist touches the unity behind the tearing paradoxes of our world, and opens a window on that radiance. So, the artist experiences art and shares that experience, rather than showing off his or her own big ego.

August 2004