Since the beginning of the pandemic I have been groping my way towards a body of work that now has the collective title Quiet Conversations. There are currently seventeen A3-sized works in this series, either provisionally finished or still under way. As is often the case, this body of work is in part a response to my reading over the same period, in particular to my reading of work by Irish and Scottish poets. However, there is another aspect to the project that has to do with my sense of what art can attempt more generally. It’s something of this aspect of the project that I want to touch on here.
I am not sure when I first read the papers published in Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion, an anthology edited by Philippa Berry and Andrew Wernick published by Routledge in 1992. Probably towards the end of that decade. What I do know is that I marked seven of those papers as having made an impression on me, two of which I remember in particular. Of those two the most significant was Geraldine Finn’s ‘The politics of spirituality: the spirituality of politics’, which led me to her Why Althusser Killed His Wife. Essays on Discourse and Violence, which includes a version of ‘The politics of spirituality: the spirituality of politics’, and so to my extending the invitation to Finn to speak at a LAND2 event. That in turn resulted in her performance paper ‘One Time Alone – Improvisation Takes Place’, which LAND2 published on its web site in the winter of 2006. The second paper was Mark C. Taylor’s ‘Reframing postmodernisms’. This considers “three examples of the painter/critic relationship: Barnett Newman and Clement Greenberg, Andy Warhol and Jean Baudrillard and, finally, Anselm Kiefer and Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrrida” and proposes that:
“the contrasting aesthetic positions established by these painters and critics suggest alternative theological and religious perspectives. I am convinced that recent developments in the visual arts create new possibilities for the religious imagination”.
It was this linking of “aesthetic positions” and “the religious imagination” that caught and held my interest. It served as a powerful reminder that art can provide the means by which we reflect on issues that touch us all and that are concerned with cultural and experiential questions at large, aspects of our lives that fall far beyond the narrow domain of professional art production and commentary. However, as fascinating and, to a degree, compelling as I continue to find Taylor’s argument (the theological niceties of which are, I must admit, pretty much beyond me) is not my concern here. Not least because I can’t finally accept what I take to be the reduction of these artists’ work to a single programatic position.
However, what Taylor’s piece so forcibly reminds me is that it is both possible and productive to “read” the reception of visual works of art in terms that have little to do with the exclusive preoccupations of the art world and it critical commentators. This reinforces a train of thought that’s been with me since reading the essays by Lynne Cooke, Darby English and Suzanne Hudson in the catalogue for Cooke’s Outliers and American Vanguard Art (2018). One that circles around my need, in relation to my own visual image making, to struggle against what Cooke describes, in her ‘Boundary Trouble: Navigating Margin and Mainstream’ as the “categorical distinctions and formalist teleological art histories” that continue to colour my sense of what is and is not proper to the activity of making visual art.
What has prompted these thoughts is firstly my reading the catalogue essays in the Tate’s catalogue for its current Paula Rego exhibition (7th July- 24th Oct., 2021). Of these, only Laura Stamps essay ‘Transforming the Myth’ seemed to me to avoid the reductive tendency I’ve attributed to Taylor. That is to say, she does not follow the general tendency to read Rego’s work as articulating this or that feminist position. Instead she focuses on her relationship to the less ‘woke’ concerns of reworking stories and myth and, in the process, her ability to engage with what is other. Secondly, an article on John Craxton by Rosemary Hill in the London Review of Books (21sth Oct. 2021) that reminded me just how much I dislike the work of Lucian Freud, and why.
My initial thought had been that, in the spirit of Taylor, it might be possible to take three artists – Lucian Freud, Paula Rego, and Ken Kiff – and view their work as a way to triangulate three positions or tendencies in contemporary life: respectively ‘possessive individualism’ and those associated with what are collectively known as ‘feminism’ and ‘environmentalism’. In starting to think through how that might be attempted, I quickly came to realise the futility of any such attempt.
All conversation is ultimately open, unfinished, inconclusive. And perhaps all works of art worthy of that title are conversations in just that sense ….