Edward Pile Terra
Waterfront Gallery, Ipswich
1-25 November 2015
Perhaps in some historical periods objects like paintings and pieces of sculpture did not need to be discussed. Looking at them, in the case of sculpture even perhaps also touching or handling them, was enough. Provided the objects were attentively viewed and intimately lived with, no one felt that anything was missing. In the modern age, though, as Hegel emphasised, speaking about art is something that comes so naturally to us—we live in a world in which everything is discussed – that complete absence of speech would indicate some kind of failure. This, of course, is a paradoxical situation because many of us are also perfectly aware that the whole complex apparatus of forms of controlled speech, formal words, well-defined concepts, discursive links is in some sense inappropriate as a mode of access to painting, and it is natural to draw from this the conclusion that analysis is misguided or even counter-productive. We need to look for meaning, but have no way of formulating in words a non-verbal meaning. The Concept doesn’t reach far enough, but it might seem to be all we have, unless we simply stare with our mouths open.
So, if this line of thought is correct, all discursive commentary would be a necessary failure: we can’t help ourselves even though we know it won’t lead anywhere useful. Put that way, of course, the similarity to one strand of modernist art, that which culminates in Beckett and sees art itself as a necessary failure, becomes apparent, so perhaps the failure itself can be something productive. Adorno described this situation as one in which modern art at the same time both demanded and resisted philosophical interpretation.
One might think that the difficulty is greater with abstract painting which does not in general even have a recognisable object, but that would probably be wrong. Figurative painting may give one more opportunities to wander off the topic and discuss matters merely associated with the work, but that is a separate issue. Both the mere production of images and the mere production of patterns are degenerate forms of painting. Formal visual patterns can give body and structure to a work, but, contra Kant, by themselves they don’t seem to have the power of rising very far about the level of pleasant or entertaining decorations. On the other hand, merely to produce images can be a way of inciting and over-privileging our recognitional capacities and thus subordinating art to the conceptual in a way that betrays its vocation. Good abstract art may make use of complex patterns, but obstinate singularity is at least as important as regular repetition. It may play with forms that in one way or another ambiguously resemble, recall or evoke images, that might be seen as being on the way to becoming images or in the process of dissolving after having been images; in addition the failure of the given shape to be a representation (of anything in particular) and our experience of our own failure in trying to make it out to be something visually determinate is often an important part of what is going on. The salience of these possibilities in abstract art is one of the reasons it is often so much more interesting and more satisfying than figuration.
To some extent the use of titles for abstract paintings that are even minimally descriptive, such as ‘Plain’, can seem slightly problematic to the extent to which it directs the viewer’s attention at seeing the painting as (potentially) depicting something, pulling it back toward the representational. Or is the use of such titles itself a further form of irony or part of the play of ambiguities: this painting is called ‘Plain’ but perhaps the point is that (in what way?) it is not. Perhaps it is not a plain, because it is something else, say a mountain, but rather because it is not anything conceptually or visually determinate.
The dissolving of an image is the dissipation of what we (or, at any rate entity with visual apparatus similar to ours) can see-as an image (of something or of anything). How are we to tolerate this? Well, many people can’t; whence perhaps arises the intense hostility that used to be directed at abstract art and atonal music (and that would have been directed at various modernist forms of literature, had literature not been an inherently more discrete medium and one easier for many people to ignore). The question is partly how to understand ‘tolerate’. Adorno tends to regard it as a quasi-moral, and that is, a political category: people ‘ought’ to be able to open themselves to new visual experience and engage constructively with it, and the fact that they are not able reflects partly on them, but to a larger degree on the structure of society which creates positions of such degradation for most individuals that it is not surprising that they rigidify internally. Nietzsche, on the other hand, following, as usual, his deeply anti-political impulses, tries (in his early period of Geburt der Tragödie) to re-construe the question not as a ‘question’ at all, but as a kind of religious and metaphysical fact, a bit like Kant’s ‘Faktum der Vernunft’. Just as for Kant, there is no ‘explanation’ of why or how ‘Reason’ becomes practical—it just happens to be the case that it does—so for brief moment in antiquity the Greeks were able, inexplicably —by ‘divine gift/fate/dispensation’ [ϑείαι μοιραι] as Plato would say [Ion] — to transform the disgust and giddiness caused by watching the mere senseless and pointless flux of coming into existence and passing away which is our world and turn it into intense pleasure. Since there is no possible explanation of how this was possible—‘(the) god(s) did it’ is a refusal to give an explanation, not an answer to the question ‘why?’ or the question ‘how?’, the questions themselves stop being even potentially relevant parts of our ethical and political life. Nietzsche’s later attempts at the end of his life to give ‘physiological’ (i.e. biologistic) ‘explanations’ of the origin of art and of our reactions to it simply indicates a lapsing of his own powers.
This exhibition of thirty or so paintings and sculptures plays on the multiple ambiguities of the word ‘Terra’: one planet among other in our solar system; the dry land as opposed to the wet; matter as yet unformed (ὕλη); fertile ground considered as source of vitality; this world as opposed to some possible ‘world-beyond’ (sicut in caelo et in terra; the civitas terranea as opposed to the civitas caelestis); the world-as-a-whole (orbis terrae); my/our ‘terroir’ as opposed to that of others , etc. This ‘Terra’ is definitely not an astronomical object among others, nor is it a space of burgeoning, ‘natural’ vegetative fruitfulness. One or two of the paintings move in this direction (e.g. no. 8 ‘Cabbage’; [also ‘Clearing’, but ‘terra’ here doesn’t mean ‘the glebe’ and in general this body of work avoids the nausea-inducing properties of ‘English pastoral’. This Terra is certainly not The Blue (or The Green) Planet: there are no more than odd tiny (or even microscopic) swatches of either colour in most of the paintings, and what other colour there is tends to appear in small patches around the edges of the surface; the overwhelming impression is of strokes of black of varying breadth, some of them very broad indeed, further wide patches of black and various shades of white; the treatment is geometrical rather than bucolic.
This world of Terra is executed in a technically minimalist way. The painting seems often to be applied with great, not just economy, but parsimony in very thin layers, so thin that the underlying quadrature of the canvass often is visible through the paint. This gives a sometimes disconcerting effect of a hidden Cartesian grid behind shapes that definitely do not have anything like a regularisable outline or orientation. This is not a world in which one thing shades almost imperceptibly into another or gradually morphs into something else or even a world in which there is much simple indeterminacy; it is one of hard outlines and boundaries, sharp-edged blocks and slabs of paint that stop dead at the border with other slabs or blocks. It is not a world of the soft focus or of indeterminate flow but rather of sometimes harsh juxtaposition of shapes that are neither regular nor clearly ‘images’ of anything.
The overall austerity of most of the paintings does not mean that they coyly shy away the incipiently disgusting. There are some particularly horrible metallic blues and pinks [‘Quarry’] and some of the paintings have an almost tactile visual ‘Schlüpferigkeit’ [‘Net’] but presumably these, too, fall into the category of that which some can tolerate and some cannot—that being at the very least a significant discrimen of who one is. Oddly enough, on this ‘terra’ it is precisely ‘Mist’ that rather than blanketing everything with a thick and monochrome layer of white seems to release colours.
In the irregularly geometric landscapes of this Terra, it comes as a surprise very occasionally to encounter an animal head. This surprise is thematised in ‘Introduction’ where a an orange-coloured face, perhaps of a tiger, an ourang-outan, or a human half emerges from behind a web of black and grey threads. The diptych entitled ‘Two Heads’ doesn’t, on the other hand, so much seem to be two paintings of living human heads, even of distorted, deformed, deconstructed or geometrised living heads, but of weathered stone statues of heads, as if Easter Island statues could rot and pustulate, then be covered in soot and viewed through the lens of a non-human eye.
The space here is in general highly and complexly subdivided by the thick black lines that generally cut it on an angle, as in ‘Lagoon 2’ and in general the diagonals in these works are very strongly marked. In a world like this instability is the normal state—it seems a miracle that the sculpture ‘Cliff’ can manage to stand up at all. In ‘Plain 5’ a kind of liquid disorder cascades down from the top of the frame almost to smudge out the vaguely visible proto-structures (or the remaining wreckages of structures) at the bottom. In ‘Lagoon 2’, however, the instability is transformed into fugue-like forward motion, movement from left bottom corner to the depths of the right top corner. This is one of the most successful paintings in the exhibition.
In ‘Fold’ the thick black coils at the bottom are sinuously powerful and the rounded shapes dominate the centre, generating a strong sense of circular motion. There is also something very heavy and byzantine about the texture of this space. Whatever is opening up here needs significant force to emerge, or to be forced to emerge, from the Cimmerian blackness that covers the canvas, and it visibly retains the traces of that origin. In ‘The Moon’, in contrast, the eye is immediately drawn to the plethora of long, slender white patches; they look a bit like long timber joists or two-by-fours. They are not joined up to form any kind of structure, but they do impinge from both sides to form a kind of constriction in the middle of the painting about two-thirds of the way to the top. The Moon, of course, is not the Earth; Luna is not Terra, but part of what it means to be on earth is to be able (sometimes) to see the Moon, which then, because it is visible but inaccessible, becomes a special repository of fears, hopes, projections and aspirations. One of those aspirations, of course, is that of escaping from Earth. If this exhibition is about emerging and dissolving structure, it is also about projects of defining space- for instance by installing a series of timber joists that distribute the weight of a roof, or two-by-fours to funnel a moving crowd in a particular direction. All such structuration is ambiguous: do the white lines constrain and constrict? Do they compress so as to generate new energy? Do they guide? Do we organise them more tightly and rationally, or try to break them down and escape them? Do we/can we, draw down the Moon like a Thessalian witch, binding its power to our purposes, or does it/will it addle what brains we have? Is the harmony of ‘Lagoon 2’ nothing but an irregular cosmic accident, bound quickly to fall apart or is there some sense in which a painting can, at least in an ethereal way, hold it fast, at least for the short time during which paint and canvass will survive?
There are some moments of seeming calm in Terra, as in the rather discrete, decorous, and subdued ‘Plain 7’, and even some moments of half-hidden humour, as in ‘Fog’, which is like a Brueghel painting filtered through the eyes of a Taoist artist— squiggly, half-glimpsed figures, not even clearly human, swilling around in pursuit of what must be for them serious and important projects, but which to a disinterested observer just seems to be random motion, risible and pointless hyperactivity. Is the fact that the blood from the wound created by the crown of thorns on the forehead of ‘Man of Sorrows’, flows upward merely bizarre, a sign that the world has turned upside-down, ludic or horrifying? More horrifying than being crucified?
The exhibition is, overall, appropriately bleak, as befits the year 2015, as we wait for the climatic catastrophe that will soon overwhelm us, but the paintings often evince a kind of detachment in the face of cosmic events. The world is, as it were, endogenously going about its own business here, certainly not concerned with presenting us with a spectacle to watch.
If we look on, that is our concern, not its. We need to deal with this (or not; what is the difference?) Death and life, black and white, appear as Escher-like interlocking mirror-images of each other in ‘Plane 3’. The confident striding out of the penultimate painting, ‘Lagoon 5’, is a momentary illusion. The last painting ‘Vista’ is another deeply perspectival abstract landscape which reminded me very strongly of a Tarkovsky set. It is centred around what looks like a black square portal far in the distance, surrounded by a white square aureole or a set of timbers. Or is the black square just the shadow of the (white) portal? More important, is this a way out—a way out of what to what?– or the way in, and if so, the way in to what? Or is it just a peculiarly shaped tache of paint?
(Raymond Geuss 11/11/2015)