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I paint, make collages and mixed media work. I write poetry. I reflect on the Tao.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Muse on shock

As a child, I found the thrill seeking rides at the shows quite puzzling. The result was either terror (&puke) or boredom. Either way it seemed a waste of money to me.

I was reminded of this by reading Penny Thow’s excellently descriptive article of the current exhibition Altared by Rodney Pople (Despard Gallery, Hobart, Tasmania).

(I’d like to reference the article, but I just cannot find it on The Mercury’s website (

Pople is quite open about his intention to shock the viewer. In his view, there are two kinds of painting There is the banal, mediocre and boring and then there are those that are meant to be shocking”. I guess that makes the Mona Lisa banal, mediocre and boring?

He juxtaposes images of the Catholic church with contradictory images (a zebra, a shark, naked women and explicit sex acts). “The most powerful and confronting painting in the exhibition is Pope with Altar Boy. It shows a young boy with exposed genitals standing in front of a headless pope.” For Pople, this sums up the hypocrisy of the Church.

Of course, this is shocking if you are attached to the notion of the church as a moral bastion. If you view the church as a social institution, subject like all institutions to corruption and hypocrisy, and if you have been aware of churchmen’s 2,000 plus years history of socially and religiously prohibited sexual deviance, it’s really not shocking—tragic, appalling, inhumane, but not shocking.

Indeed the juxtaposition only works because religion is seen as separate from nature and sexuality. The juxtapositions start to teeter on the comical if you view religion as a debased institutionalised form of spirituality and see no division between the sacred and nature:

To see a world in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour

William Blake
Now, art has a respectable pedigree as social critique, for example, Francisco Goya’s The Shootings of May Third or Edouard Manet’s Execution of the Emperor Maximilian. or Picasso’s Guernica.

A visual image may be able to make a critical point more tellingly, more shockingly than words. However, I am not convinced that painting is as an effective visual medium of social critique as are photographs. I have yet to view a painting which has the same power to shock the viewer, as the photograph of a naked screaming nine year old girl, running down a road, after a napalm bomb was dropped on her village during the Vietnam war.ị_Kim_Phúc. This image haunts me still and retains its power to shock.

Part of the difference I suspect is that news photographs, while not an objective medium, nevertheless have an aura of authenticity about them. This moment actually happened. A painting, by contrast, no matter how realistic, is always and obviously a result of artifice. “All artists are liars” Picasso reportedly said. The lie is obvious, no matter how carefully concealed.
But even if a painting could strike home with shock and make the telling point, what then? If there is nothing else, then what we have is an illustration of a socio-political criticism that could just have easily been made in words.

What sets those works by Goya, Manet and Picasso apart is that something else. They transcend their context. They move from the particular to the universal human condition. My response is neither shock nor boredom, but rather one of empathetic engagement with the inhuman horror.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

But would is love

But would is love
or feeling loathe.

Essence spirals down in image.
Essence spirals up in substance.
Dissolved in the earth valley
the maiden passed
she to me, water to stone,
naked and unobserved,
but not unfelt.

Not in myself desire
but eyes knowing fire
blacken the unknown
and would is love
that might pierce
the darkened heart.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Some thoughts from an exhibition

…art objects are lures attracting certain kinds of spirits and they’re containers for that spirit. Thomas Moore The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life

When I first read these words, they resonated strongly with me as a description of what my art work is about. In the creation of an art work by letting go of the rational controlling mind and allowing the soul and heart to act through my hands, I am creating a temenos, an in-dwelling place for a specific spirit. I issue an invitation to the spirit, hoping that my poor work will find favour.
Thomas Moore again: Art can be merely aesthetically pleasing, philosophically meaningful, and personally expressive, or it can have the special power to evoke and transmit a particular spirit to those who come into contact with it.

I know when I come into contact with a work of art that has this special power. Firstly it has a compelling power. This is a subtle thing. Very few of the works of art that are like this rely on shock (in fact, I can’t think of one). But, there is something intriguing about the work that draws me in and holds me there. Next, there is some mystery about the work that requires me to look beyond the surface, to engage with the work imaginatively.

Dorothea Tanning: My work is about the enigmatic; it’s about leaving the door open to imagination. You see enigma is a very healthy thing, because it encourages the viewer to look beyond the obvious and the commonplace. (From The Artist Observed by John Gruen).
Lastly I leave the art work with my experience of life deepened and broadened by the encounter with the mysterious spirit who has taken up residence within the art work.
This is where I part company with a lot of contemporary art. To me, much of it seems to be without soul or spirit–sometimes clever, sometimes intellectually engaging, sometimes shocking and sometimes all three and just plain silly as well. Rarely do I find something that hints at a deeper mystery.
So it was with fairly low expectations that I went to visit the exhibition Contemporary Encounters at the National Gallery Victoria’s Ian Potter Centre (on until 9 Jan 2011).( what’s on> Exhibitions – current > Contemporary Encounters).
In spite of the spirited description of the exhibition:
Reflecting on the often confounding nature of human existence and the complex cultural, artistic, social and political mores of our times, contemporary artists are at the vanguard of current thought and inquiry. In challenging and compelling ways Contemporary encounters presents a broad spectrum of artists working in a diverse range of media including painting, sculpture, installation, photography, prints and drawings, video and multimedia. Works collide, repel, fuse and coalesce, revealing each artist’s unique engagement with the prevailing issues of contemporary life and artistic practice. Poetic, experimental, enigmatic, and sometimes ordinary, each work resonates in unexpected ways for contemporary audiences.

Given previous experience, I was expecting less poetic and enigmatic and more experimental and ordinary.
At first it looked like my expectations were going to be met, until I turned a corner, and there, whispering at my elbow was a work by John Wolseley ( ). I ignored the whisper and charged around another corner (perverse, I know, but you need to experience the layout of the exhibition space to understand that it is made up of alcoves and corners and recesses …not quite labyrinthine, but near enough). Further poking about, confirmed my initial expectations, so I sidled up to the Wolsley to make an acquaintance and became entranced with his meanderings and wanderings.

Rare and unexpected sightings of the Embroidered Merops and the Spinifex Grasswren

Others may find their spirit in other works in the Exhibition, for I may be blind and deaf to the spirirts that reside in other works. Perhaps, at the time I was too deep within my own darkness to be receptive to the works of Aida Tomescu:

and needed the more gentle approach of John Wolsley , in his words “an expression of the more meditative gentle areas of the subconscious” (quoted in John Wolseley Landmarks by Sasha Grishin).