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Speculations on self and mortality: thinking with three artists and a poet. (Part four)

In 1998 Agnes Martin, working with fine graphite lines and acrylic on a gesso ground,  made the painting that she would call Untitled no. 5. It’s hard to describe her paintings at the best of times. This one is, of course, square and made up of seven horizontal bands of colour – three are pale blue (top, middle and bottom) and two each a very pale yellow and a pale, slightly orange pink. So the sequence, from top to bottom, is blue, pink, yellow, blue, pink, yellow, blue. The overall sense of the painting seems to be of a quiet pulsing of pale-coloured light. I find it interesting to think about this highly “abstract” painting in relation to Eileen Lawrence’s Seven Voids (1991-92), which is made up of the seven separate horizontal bands (each 7.5 x 53 cms) painted in watercolour on paper with traces of gold leaf, principally in a block on the second band down from the top. While at first each band appears to be a red modulated by some degree of gestural marking, on closer inspection it becomes apparent that these marks are in fact more or less referential – to hair, to a leaf, to what might be a bone, and so on. The painting comes across as almost a distillation of what Lawrence undertook in two large oil paintings from the same period: Isis (1991) and Forms of Flight (1991-92), with which it shares certain iconographic elements. None of the three paintings is a literal representation. Rather they seem to me to evoke intuitions of certain senses of possibility. If Martin’s painting appears to be a statement of a unified, or perhaps more accurately barely qualified and transcendent sense of ‘happiness, joy and beauty’, as has been suggested, how are we to respond to Lawrence’s work?

I believe there is an important distinction that can be made between the vision of wholeness Agnes Martin seeks to articulate in Untitled no. 5 (1998), where articulation is reduced to subtle variations and repetitions of colour, and the highly particular and subtle alternative offered by Lawrence’s Seven Voids. Lawrence, like Pat Steir, is not prepared to strip her art down to what, in terms of mystical thinking, might be described as articulations of a sense of being only just on the human (differentiating) side of identifying with a luminous void. Unlike Steir, however, the faint “representational” references in Lawrence’s work to natural objects are less inflected by either Conceptualist concerns with the “language” of painting or with a play of Art Historical reference. While I see Steir as ultimately making art that, for all its use of references to such elements in the natural world as waterfalls, remains primarily concerned with intellectual questions about the nature of beauty and representation, I see both Martin and Lawrence, in their different ways, as ultimately concerned with what, very broadly speaking, can be called intuitions of ethical or spiritual concern. Exploring the difference between them is where, for me, John Burnside’s writing is so helpful.

For Martin as a painter, and as she famously said: “happiness is the goal, isn’t it”, so that she could describe her work as giving people the same feeling as “when you wake up in the morning”. But to frame my own response to Untitled no. 5 (1998) in that way would require me to acknowledge that, while there may have been brief moments on waking in the morning, at certain times in my life and in certain conditions, when that’s brought an unalloyed sense of happiness – a happiness very similar to that given at the end of a meditation session when my thoughts have dropped away and I am wholly in a state in which mind, body and feeling appear undifferentiated – this is a rare and highly exceptional state of being. One that depends on either a chance moment when, awakening, I find myself floating free from the flow of what John Burnside calls ‘the commonplaces of “the dailiness of life”, or else that I can try to reach through some form of deliberate psycho-spiritual practice. In either case what I am experiencing might be described as a brief detachment from the flow of time in which only an unqualified and somehow expanded present moment appears “real”. While I have no quarrel whatsoever with those who wish to pursue this moment as central to their life, as I believe Martin almost certainly did, my own circumstances lead me to be concerned with an alternative orientation grounded in the “thought of the heart”.

Eileen Lawrence’s Seven Voids, as I hope my description above makes clear, are not in fact voids at all, but neither do they simply provide “representations” of objects in the usual sense. Perhaps the simplest way to describe this work is to compare it to what differentiates a meditation session from my everyday state of attention. In that everyday state attention is constantly shifted in its focus – for longer or shorter lengths of time and both consciously and unconsciously – by thoughts, bodily sensations, or feelings. For example in working on this essay, while my conscious attention is primarily on the train of thought I am trying to follow, my attention as a whole fluctuates and flickers as it is taken by the draft from the window, the tension in my back that requires me to adjust my posture, or else is entirely broken when the postwoman knocks on the door.

In a good meditation session the draft, my back tension, even the postwoman’s knock, will all present themselves to my consciousness. However, while they are acknowledged for what they are and allowed to flow through, my attention remains focused on listening for, or attending to, the sense of undifferentiated wholeness, (which might also be called “emptiness” or a void) that lies beneath or behind that inevitable flow of thoughts, bodily sensations, and feelings. Agnes Martin’s Untitled no. 5, seeks to evoke a state where that flow is discounted or denied, or so it seems to me. In doing so it adopts an ideal position that I can respect but not identify with or aspire to. Eileen Lawrence’s Seven Voids appears, by contrast, to acknowledge the continuous shadowy flow of Burnside’s ‘commonplaces of “the dailiness of life”’, while simultaneously acknowledging a desire to listen for, try to be present to, what lies beneath or behind, what is co-present with, that flow.

Why does any of this matter? I suggest that a (very tentative) answer to that question might be that Lawrence’s approach is somehow closely bound up with Burnside’s balancing of commitment to the ecological need to practice, on a daily basis, ‘une vie commune’ – that is ‘a lived, deliberate conviviality in which all life is felt to be’ both ‘continuous’ and, in its flow, somehow present – with an acknowledgement that ‘each of us who is, or has been here on earth, is destined for inexistence’. That is, to acknowledge both the flow of life and the fact that our individual death is necessary to the continuity of that flow. To properly elaborate on this balancing act would require me to undertake a free and detailed paraphrase of Burnside’s highly personal yet deeply applicable essay ‘Blossom: Ruins’ in Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction, something I simply don’t feel competent to do. I would, however, recommend that book, and particularly its final chapter, to anyone who has followed me to this point.   

Speculations on self and mortality: thinking with three artists and a poet (Part 3). 

I find it odd, to say the least, that the last major exhibition of Eileen Lawrence’s work in the UK was back in 1992. It consisted of work she’d made between 1977 and 1992 and was shown at the Usher Gallery, Lincoln – where it was linked to her contribution to The Journey, a major visual arts project in Lincoln that raised questions about the relationship between contemporary art and religious and/or spiritual concerns – and then at the Fruit Market Gallery in Edinburgh. I found that exhibition so compelling that I made the long cross-country journey from the North Pennines to Lincoln twice to see both it and the installation of her Lincoln Prayer Sticks in the Cathedral. Some years later I visitedher studio in Edinburgh to see more of her work and to discuss the possibility of putting together a monograph on it, a project that sadly came to nothing. However, as a result I know there is a whole range of Lawrence’s work that would not only provide excellent material for an major exhibition but that, more importantly, would raise important questions in relation to attitudes to our sense of self, our mortality, the places in which we live, and so the whole question of our relationship to the natural world.  In short, the attitudes that concern me here.

In trying to think about those questions, I have drawn heavily on the work of the poet John Burnside who died shortly before I started work on this essay. I’ve been reading his Aurochs and Auks: Essays On Mortality And Extinction, I Put A Spell On You and The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century, but also the poems that make up Ruin, Blossom (2024), along with Afterlife and the notes he wrote in relation to it. Burnside’s writing is particularly helpful to me here because, as one of his editors notes, like a number of other Scottish writers of his generation he was quite willing to tackle: ‘the big spiritual questions’. (A phrase I’m not sure Burnside himself would have been entirely happy with, unless the term “spiritual” was suitably qualified as referring to a quality that’s not opposed to, or even distinct from, the mundane, the earthly, the everyday). In short, I find Burnside’s point relates to my sense of Eileen Lawrence’s work.     

Thinking about parallels between Burnside’s comments on the literary world and Rebecca Solnit’s reflections on beauty, in her As Eve Said To The Serpent, suggests one possible answer to the question of why Lawrence’s work has is not better known. I suspect this has to do with the unashamed beauty of so much of Lawrence’s work; a beauty exemplified by the extraordinary Nightsong from Images of Paradise (1989). This painting measures 170 by 255 cms (5’ 7” x 8’ 4”) and is constituted by luminous, flickering blues and greens, often set down with minute strokes, along with a wound-shaped slit described in gold leaf that runs the whole height of the work just in from its left-hand side. Part of what makes it so astonishingly luminous is that it’s painted in watercolour on paper. Apart from the two barely visible feathers on the left-hand side, it’s difficult to “name” the elements that make up this quietly unsettling work, somehow simultaneously somehow nocturnal and aquatic. Or so I wrote when I first drafted this. Then I read the passage in Burnside’s I Put A Spell On You where he summaries what the Chinese master Chu Hsi says about the working of the Tao in everything, what he calls li. Li seems to me to come closest to “naming” the real topic of Nightsong, Burnside’s passage is worth quoting in full:

li refers to the innumerable vein-like patterns included in the Tao … Li is like a piece of thread with its strands, or like this basket. One strip goes this way, and the other goes that way. It is also like the grain in bamboo … (p. 40).  

I also think an observation by Burnside about the “poetry Scene”, one that applies equally to the “art Scene”, is directly relevant to a work like this. In a short interview with Jesse Nathan, Burnside questions what he sees as the over-emphasis of ‘content’ by individuals anxious to prove their ‘socio-political credentials’, where ‘content’ is explicit and set apart from the creation and deployment of vivid metaphor. Here he evokes Hannah Arendt’s observation that: ‘Thinking creates its “concepts’ out of the visible, in order to designate the invisible’. I understand this as linked to Solnit’s argument that intellectual engagement with the arts by, broadly speaking, those committed to an unqualified and literal rationalism is haunted by a fear of beauty. Not only because it cannot be made to straightforwardly enhance what Burnside calls ‘socio-political credentials’ but, equally, because it bypasses reasoned intellectual argumentation by appealing directly to the senses. As such, it also sidesteps the authority of those whose status depends on their “mastery” of such argumentation. Beauty is, in short, the wild card that short-circuits the mechanisms on which the power of critical and academic authority depends. Add to this that beauty deployed in conjunction with a metaphorical title, as in Nightsong from Images of Paradise,speaks of ‘invisible’ qualities not subject to rational or theoretical explanation. In this context the reason why an institution like Tate Britain underrepresents Lawrence’s work becomes easier to understand.

In contrast to the conceptual and theory-heavy preoccupations of the London-based “art Scene”, a number of Scottish artists of Lawrence’s generation adopted what the art historian Duncan Macmillan refers to as ‘a careful attention to spacing and symmetry which is … ultimately Japanese in origin’. A strategy specifically designed to enhance ‘the sense of the metaphysical presence in the objects that are described’ (Scottish Art in the 20th Century 1994, p. 135). I see this as having a partial parallel with Agnes Martin’s concern to focus attention on nothing other than spacing and symmetry. Macmillan also notes, writing of Lawrence’s partner Glen Onwin, that both artists engage in ‘an analysis of the physical detail of nature that, by its very closeness, while it emulated the scientific approach, could also capture something of our sense of the presence of the transcendental in the mundane’ [italics mine].(ibid. p. 137). In the context of the three painters referenced here, it is this ‘capture’ that distinguishes Lawrence’s work from that of Pat Steir, which, for all its renditions of flowers or birds,  lacks a detailed analysis of the physical detail of nature that could capture ‘something of our sense of the presence of the transcendental in themundane’ precisely because her primary concern is with problematising issues of representation within a conceptual framework.  

It’s in the context of what may be seen as a variation on what Macmillan suggests is a tension between the scientific and the transcendental, perhaps, that Fiona McLeod begins her catalogue essay on Lawrence for New North by quoting the American professor and writer on art, Donald Kuspit  as follows:

‘A truly vital Modern art would not only collect details of the experience of aliveness but would integrate them into a new kind of living whole: not a kind of god, or a surrogate for one, as much traditional art implicitly was, but an analogue of the Truth Self’. (“The Only Immortal” article in Artforum, from February 1990, which can be accessed online).

Kuspit derives his notion of the True Self from psychoanalysis, in particular from Freud and D. W. Winnicott. Fiona McLeod, following his argument, uses it to position Lawrence’s work psychoanalytically, namely in terms of “the struggle between life and death instincts”. However, while McLeod’s take on Kuspit is perfectly plausible, I find it unconvincing in terms of Eileen Lawrence’s interests and concerns. As McLeod herself notes, Lawrence has a deep and long-standing interest in eastern art and philosophy and, as Macmillan notes, her approach is closer in orientation to Jung and Buddhism than Freud. Sarah Kent, in a perceptive essay for Lawrence’s 1992 exhibition, supports this view when she likens Lawrence’s titles for earlier works to Japanese haiku poems, as with the two titles quoted earlier. It’s also worth keeping in mind that Lawrence absorbed the twin influences of Joseph Beuys, a cofounder of the German Green Party, and Agnes Martin. Martin’s greatest spiritual inspiration was Lao Tzu’s teachings on Taoism, with its emphasis on the transcendence of nature and integration of body and mind.

Add to these affinities Kent’s suggestion that Lawrence’s work has a playful affection for mindsets that the modern world has no time for; mindsets for which “temples housed oracles… branches were dead ancestors and geese the companions of goddesses”, and a sense of what underpins what appear to be, in terms of their literal content, apparently simple images, starts to emerge. Kent also suggests that there’s a certain curiosity, mingled with admiration, about belief systems that still haunt the peripheral spaces of a world reduced by consumerist culture to a mere resource, to a standing reserve to be either extracted for profit or – whether human or more-than-human – disposed of if it interferes with making profit. Here Lawrence’s orientation is paralleled by John Burnside’s, thus aiding my speculations about the relevance of Lawrence’s work to Burnside’s musings on questions of self and mortality.      

John Burnside         

All in all, I think of Eileen Lawrence’s work as appearing at the convergence of these types of alternative orientation. Sarah Kent is obviously right to reference the trace sense of ancient goddesses, the pre-Christian antecedents of the Virgin Mary, in her discussion of Isis (1991). But even so I don’t see the work as wearing a “pagan” or “animist” approach on its sleeve. Perhaps because there is also present in it, as Duncan Macmillan observes,  something of the near-scientific exactitude of a work like John Ruskin’s Study of a Peacock Feather, c. 1880. In her working methods Lawrence has also shared Ruskin’s observational practice based on walking. As already mentioned, she has often visited remote places to study. Early on, in the Highlands, this was to collect feathers, heather twigs, egg shells and the materials with which to make her own paper. Later, in the US and Europe, these trips seem to have been more observational in intent. If she can’t be said to be concerned, like Ruskin, with revealing the glory of the Divine in the order of the universe, I think she’s certainly concerned with the importance of being open to the sense of mystery in the more-than-human world, to something that exceeds what can be grasped through scientific understanding yet, paradoxically, becomes apparent through qualities of observation that require an exactitude also valued by science.

As I hope my speculations so far suggest, Eileen Lawrence’s work might help us better face our current socio-environmental crisis. Kuspit’s “The Only Immortal”, with its Freudian underpinning, was published in 1990, yet between 1985 and 1989 the psychologist Edward Sampson published three papers that challenge the assumptions about the Self that Kuspit takes for granted. Sampson’s argument was later utilised by the archetypal psychologist James Hillman in a 1994 paper in which he argues that we need to understand that Self is “the interiorization of community”, that it’s ”constituted of communal contingences”, and that this requires us to take in, to notice, to attend to our environment in all its complexity because the environment is now the mirror in which Self as community appears. (See ‘“Man is by nature a political animal” or: patient as citizen’ in Sonu Shamdasani, S & Munchow, M (eds) Speculations after Freud: Psychoanalysis, philosophy and culture Routledge, 1994, pp. 35 -36).

This relates directly to Kuspit’s observations about the struggle between life and death instincts. If, as Hillman writes (quoting Sampson): “There are no subjects who can be defined apart from the world; persons are constituted in and through their attachments, connections, and relationships” then, as Hillman himself goes on to write: “understanding the individual as individual is no longer relevant to understanding human life”. (ibid. pp. 32-33). Provoking as many people (perhaps particularly artists) may find that claim, it makes clear that, ecologically speaking, the Freudian view of personhood is anachronistic, along with its conceptualisation of a struggle between life and death instincts to which Kuspit refers. If the expression of a life instinct lies in engagement with all the many and various attachments, connections, and relationships within which that life is enmeshed, then our literal, physical, death will not be the immediate end of those attachments, connections, and relationships. Why is implied by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur in his Critique and Conviction (!998) where, in response to a question about the Christian afterlife, he says: ”…I demand no ‘after’. I cast upon others, my survivors, the task of taking up again my desire to be, my effort to exist, in the time of the living”. (p. 158). I would also suggest that we might now understand the life instinct, in the light of Sampson’s observations, in terms that reflect the spirit of Bruno Latour’s injunction that we try: “to register, to maintain, to cherish a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world”. (Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime 2018, p. 15-16).   

All of which may seem to take me a long way from Lawrence’s work. However, I will try to reconnect these speculations to that work in the next part of this essay.

For those of us living in the UK …

For those of us living in the UK, today is our chance to vote for those who will represent us in the UK government over the next few years. Whichever party that is will have a very steep hill to climb, given the consequences of Brexit and the way in which the Tories have created what one commentator has called a “chumocracy” and have effectively asset-stripped the country, presumably on the basis of Margaret Thatcher’s belief that there is “no such thing as society”. (Only, it would appear from the policies of the last 14 years, rule by wealthy individuals and their friends animated by a sense of self-entitlement and greed).

Our democracy is very far from perfect. However, you only have to look at the USA, where a former president who attempted to deny his defeat by force has just effectively been given the power to make himself an absolute dictator (that is, to be placed above the law) should he win the elections there, to see that it could be a lot worse here. I wouldn’t presume to suggest how, as a UK citizen, you should vote. That is absolutely your choice on the basis of your convictions, circumstances, and what you feel is best for the country. Like a great many people, I find myself torn between voting from personal conviction – which would be to vote for the Green candidate (who, I know, has no chance of winning in the constituency where we live) – and voting for the hard-working and very decent Labour candidate who has served our constituency well for many years. In the end I will take the pragmatic option and vote Labour. If he is re-elected I will, however, continue to press him on Green and other issues.

The point of all this is, however, to ask any of you who think voting is a waste of time to please do so regardless. If we want a better, more representational, democracy – one in which, for example, we have proportional representation and greater devolved powers to regional and local communities – then we have to accept that it’s the duty of citizens to vote. If nothing else, it puts us in the position to be able to say: “I voted for you, now I expect you to listen to my concerns”.

A (short?) hiatus.

I had intended to spend my spare time during our family’s annual summer stay in the North Pennines thinking through, and then writing up, material for this blog. This was to include both a number of reviews of books that have caught my attention and putting together the concluding sections of Speculations on self and mortality: thinking with three artists and a poet. A number of events have interrupted that intention. Some are personal and relate to family issues that have no relevance here, but two relate to ongoing work that must, inevitably, take me away from my original intention to focus on material to post here. 

The first relates to my interest in the work of the Welsh sculptor Lois Williams. About a month ago I finished writing a lengthy essay that uses the insights of the poet Tim Cresswell, who is also a professor of geography at Edinburgh University, to explore what I understand to be the topopoetic resonances of Williams work. When I finished this it seemed to me, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here, that I had an obligation to try to get this translated into Welsh and published in Wales. Through the generosity of the Welsh poet and environmentalist Elinor Gwynn, who I know through our shared involvement in Utopias Bach, there is now a possibility of doing just that. However, this will require me to rework a six and a half thousand word essay into something no longer than three thousand words, a task I’m determined to carry through but am finding as demanding as it is time-consuming. However, by doing so I also hope to clarify my thinking in the original English version of the essay which, all things being equal, I will revise and put up here. When (and if) that will happen will depend, however, on the fate of the shorter version. 

The second reason for my not carrying on with my original plan are unexpected requests to involve myself in collaborative work. Either in the academic context of doctoral study, as some form of supervisor or mentor, or as a contributor to artist-led projects promoting better appreciation of publicly-accessible ecologies or in rethinking attitudes to agriculture and land use. These are opportunities I need to take up but which, inevitably, take my attention away from my engagement here.  

Perhaps not entirely a detour.

I am easily distracted by the appearance to what seem to be unexpected connections. Sometimes these take me somewhere interesting, sometimes not.

As part of ongoing work I’ve been rereading Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought, a book it took him thirty years to write. It’s an act of scholarship that undercuts some of the most fundamental presuppositions that still haunt both “Western” and “Eastern” culture and politics. Put very reductively, it demonstrates that the development of Greek and Indian thought, along with many religious practices, are in reality deeply interrelated; either because derived from common, more ancient, sources or from cross-pollination between them.

The book is, in short, an exemplary piece of post-colonial scholarship. It is, among other things, a tacit deconstruction of the separatist mentality implicit in the exaltation of “the classics” – Latin and Greek – by a British elite education for which these serve as a badge of cultural superiority. An article on Boris Johnson’s infatuation with “the classics” ( by Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian Sunday 16th Oct. 2019) makes this point very neatly. His use of Latin and Greek was a show-off’s projection of superiority; something indulged in not least because ‘”the classics” carry disproportionate cultural capital’ among the Public School and Oxbridge educated political elite and those for whom such an education is supposedly a mark of “higher” intelligence.            

It’s not only in Britain, where the sense of superiority on which the neo-colonialist  mentality depends is linked to the acquisition of “classical” languages, that the lessons of The Shape of Ancient Thought are badly needed. The version of Indian history on which Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism is based is equally in need of such deconstruction if the BJP’s attempts to dismantle India’s secular constitution are to be resisted.

The sooner we all start to recognise and act on the reality of a fundamental human and more-than-human relationality that has very deep historical roots indeed – as McEvilley’s discussion of shamanism shows – the better chance we have of surviving our current socio-environment meltdown.      

Update 21/06/2024

Since I wrote the comments above about Modi’s BJP The Conversation has reported on is latest attempt to intimidate his critics.

Speculations on self and mortality: thinking with three artists and a poet. (Part 2).

On June 26th, 2020, I put up a post on this site about the work of Eileen Lawrence and Will Maclean, artists whose work I’d included in an exhibition called Imagined Landscapes that I’d co-curated at the RWA, Bristol, in 2016. (To belatedly put the record straight on that post, Will Maclean later contacted me to say he’d not been in any way influenced by the work of Agnes Martin although his wife, the artist Marian Leven, had been). I had first come across Eileen Lawrence’s work in the Liverpool Tate’s New North exhibition in 1990 and had been astonished both by its quality and by the fact that it seem to represent the outcome of highly original visual thinking, that of a dedicated outlier as far as mainstream British art of the time was concerned. But then, as now, the perception of “British” art by an art world dominated by London money is predicated on what appeals to the London art world’s “cosmopolitan” tastes and fashion. (While it’s true that both Maclean and Lawrence have been represented by a London gallery – Art First – it’s wholly indicative of their status in England that Tate “Britain” has just one work by Lawrence and none by MacLean).    

Looking back today, Lawrence’s work as a whole now suggests to me a shifting but consistent and sustained exploration of the question of how she should response to the domain of the more-than-human. (I still remember seeing in her Edinburgh studio three astonishing and very large, predominantly earthy red, works that were a response to her visit to one of the deserts in the USA and, if I remember rightly, reflected an interest in Native American beliefs). Many of her early works, however, involved her travelling to remote Scottish locations and, despite their very different approach, seemed to me to share something of the orientation that’s implicit in Agnes Martin’s response to the viewer who complained that there were no geese in Grey Geese Descending (1985). What is implied is a reverence for what cannot be literally represented. But if there is no guillemot in Lawrence’s 1980 work called:

                                 If the guillemot can identify

                            the marking on its egg

                                                so I must read these marks of charcoal

              on my hands

and, similarly, no geese in:

Mica reflecting

 the light

                 of a quarter moon

            Damp night air

                   softens the sound 

          of geese      

        flying over

            Loch Sunart

we are nonetheless provided with very concrete, if oblique, indications of the type of experience that helped to generate these works. Unlike the multifaceted conceptual juxtapositions in the 1970s work of Pat Steir, these consists of a variety of detailed renderings of natural objects. These beautifully observed tokens or traces of the natural world are assembled as isolated images and painted on handmade papers made from material collected on site. These images insist on the distance between  what we experience looking at the work and reading it’s title and the nature of the experience out of which Lawrence has constructs an immaculately sparse combination of painting and textured hand-made papers. And yet, in their very carefully located and meticulously detailed reference to the world and in their sparseness, they suggest a sense of an experience of wonder implicit in two titles quoted above.

The catalogue entry for the second of these works, a long horizontal, scroll-like piece measuring 47 x 240 cms (1’ 4” x 7’ 10.5”), describes it as made up of “watercolour and mica on/and handmade papers”. It consists of four horizontal bands on which appear meticulously-painted images of twelve feathers and sixteen linear organic forms, fragments of more or less twisted twigs of heather, gorse, or other low-growing moorland plants. A thinner band between the uppermost and second of the three taller bands is covered with minutely painted columns of ‘script’. This, Sarah Kent tells us in  her catalogue essay, harks back to Lawrence’s invention, in her childhood, of written codes that have some resemblance to the calligraphy of a Sinhalese palm leaf manuscript Lawrence later bought in an Edinburgh book market. While the papers that make up the three main bands are a variety of off-white and pale fawns and provide their dominant colouration, the thinner band is predominantly a pale, washed blue; a colour picked up in thin vertical blocks of the same blue at either end of the main bands. The overall effect of the work is to suggest an possibly endless play of the visible possibilities of near similarity and subtle difference within the humble natural objects depicted, a process of variation shading off, at each end, “into the blue”.

If the forms of feathers, eggs, and portions of plants are taken as equivalent to the forms of animals in the quotation below, then they call to mind Adolf Portmann’s observation in Animal Forms and Patterns: a study of the appearance of animals. He writes:

“What more than anything else urges and indeed compels us to take an interest in these animal forms is the impression, conveyed by their appearance, that their life is related to our own and possesses an inwardness revealed through the animal’s form and it’s independent behaviour” (p. 57).

I will return later to how I understand Portman’s notion of ‘inwardness’.

The elements from which Lawrence built her work in 1980 would form the basis, in many subtle variations, of her Prayer Sticks, a long series of very narrow vertical works made over the next ten or so years. By the time Lawrence made Prayer Sticks 106, 107 &108 (1992), however, the materially-referential textures and low-key, near monochrome colouration of pieces that took their cue from her hand-made paper had to a certain degree given way to works employing a rich sense of colour. To the earlier range of natural forms were added, however, organic forms such as leaves, seed pods and enlarged, isolated elements of her early calligraphy. 

(Added 17.06.24) With Lawrence’s “minutely painted columns of ‘script’” in mind, is it possible that these might carry for both the artist and ourselves something touched on in Melville’s description, in Moby Dick, of Queequeg’s elaborate tattoos. These, he tells us, were “the work of a departed prophet and seer”, “hieroglyphic marks” writing out on the body “a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of obtaining truth”. Mysteries that, however, even Queequeg himself was not able to read.

(To be continued).

Speculations on self and mortality: thinking with three artists and a poet (part 1).


I’m speculating here about different values and senses of self in relation to the Terrestrial world (in Bruno Latour’s sense). The way I’ll do this is through thinking with the work of three artists, Agnes Martin, Pat Steir and Eileen Lawrence and with John Burnside’s Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction (2021). I’ve chosen the three painters’ work in part because Martin influenced both Steir and Lawrence but, more importantly, because the work of all three women has stayed with me for a long time, and still prompts me to think feelingly about the role of painting in the broader culture.

The Scottish poet John Burnside died on the 29th of May this year at the age of 69. I have long valued a particular poem of his, Out of Exile, and shortly after I’d begun thinking about writing this essay, his last collection of his essays caught my eye while my wife was buying summer reading in a second-hand bookshop. As my friend Lindsey Colbourne has suggested, maybe there is no such thing as a coincidence. Whatever the case, finding Burnside’s text felt like a gift.

To speculate is, according to the dictionary, to “attempt to form a theory or to conjecture without firm evidence”. Any speculation by an individual on what works of art suggest – whether they’re visual or otherwise – can never deal with “firm evidence”. It can only deal with traces, however oblique, of the paradoxes, ambiguities and imponderables of life as culturally articulated. In what follows I will try to track a particular line of thought of my own, one that’s inevitably entangled in the thoughts of others who have written about the work of these three artists.

If I were still teaching art students, I’d encourage them to read and discuss Rebecca Solnit’s As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender and Art (2001) because of what she writes there about beauty, Isabelle Stengers’ short essay Reclaiming Animism (e-flux 36, July 2012) because of her positioning of herself in relation to animism as a scientist and, for reasons that will become clear, Thomas McEvilley’s The Exile’s Return: Towards a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-Modern Era (1993). Not, in the last case, because I’d expect the students to be making paintings, but because it enacts an attitude of mind I’d hope they’d take to heart.

McEvilley’s chapter on Agnes Martin in The Exile’s Return is contextualised by two proceeding chapters: Seeking the Primal through Paint: The Monochrome Icon and The Opposite of Emptiness. Put very simply, these argue that abstract art, both in its early European forms and later in the USA, doesn’t really carry the ‘progressive’ aesthetic significance that influential Formalist critics, particularly in America, attributed to it. He demonstrates that the development of abstract art is more accurately understood as a series of diverse attempts to capture, in visual form, something of the aura of a wide variety of philosophical, esoteric or mystical spiritual positions. Positions that, put very generally, involve notions of ‘purity’, ‘transcendence’, and ‘the absolute’ that require a rejection of the mundane everyday world in order to evoke a ‘higher’, more universal, state. An aspiration that was flipped over and replayed in terms of the material Realism of the “what you see is what you get” of Minimalism.

In so far as Formalist critics tied the development of abstract art into notions of ‘historical progress’, it became caught up in a broader cultural rhetoric that we now see as deeply problematic because it’s underwritten by assumptions of Western exclusivity, justifications of colonialism, and so forth. I value McEvilley’s writing in part because, in addition to being an art historian and art critic, he had a deep knowledge of the cultures of ancient Greece and India, and of the histories of their religious and philosophical traditions. As a result what he writes about art is informed by an understanding of the distinct values, held over time, by two of the world’s major cultures. That understanding offers a powerful antidote to the cultural exclusivity of Modernist Western art history and to the art world’s exaltation of novelty.

McEvilley discusses Agnes Martin’s work in a chapter called Grey Geese Descending. As might be expected, given his interests, he’s particularly sensitive to her involvement with Eastern thought. He recognises Martin’s engagement with “classical Taoist texts”, and describes her use of grids as analogous to Lao Tzu’s account of the purpose of the “Uncarved Block”. Martin claimed that she always painted the same theme and, when a viewer complained that there were no geese in Grey Geese Descending (1985), she responded by saying that she “painted the emotions we have when we feel gray geese descending”. As a serious student of Taoist and Buddhist teachings, Martin understood her own work as a path to the sublime  and McEvilley sees her mature work, produced in an isolated studio in Taos on the edge of the desert in New Mexico, in that light. How we respond to it will depend, in part at least, on whether we are sympathetic to such a reading or simply view it as perhaps the ultimate example of a Minimalist aesthetic.  

I had read McEvilley’s chapter on Agnes Martin long before I visited the Tate Gallery’s major exhibition of her work in 2015. Visiting it, I could respect her achievement as an artist committed to a particular view of art and, reading her text, Beauty is the Mystery of Life, I felt I understood and could appreciate what she argues for. However, I couldn’t really enter into the spirit of the work as she understood it. In retrospect I think my family history, particularly my childhood contact with the legacy of Calvinism in the Scottish Highlands and Isles, along with my having walked away from a spiritual practice with much in common with Martin’s, prevented that. At the time I didn’t know that Martin’s family originally came from the Isle of Skye or that her devout Presbyterian grandfather was a major influence in shaping her attitudes to life and work. I was aware, however, that certain contemporary Scottish artists had made a similar connection between a cultural background formed by a strict Protestantism and the visual language of Zen Buddhism. All of which finally brings me to what I see as a significant ambiguity inherent in artistic claims to access ‘the sublime’ or a ‘higher consciousness’ in some form or another. So all this is a preamble to exploring that ambiguity and, more importantly, to pondering what the psychic, social and environmental implications of such claims might be today.

Agnes Martin, Pat Steir and Eileen Lawrence.

I was aware of the importance of Agnes Martin’s work to Pat Steir well before I know that Eileen Lawrence shared that interest. I had been intrigued by Steir’s combination of painterly and conceptual elements when I came across her Looking for the Mountain (1971), which is based on one of a number of memorable visits she made to see Martin. It seemed to me then to share something of the eclectic approach to image-making I found in the early work of R.B. Kitaj, a touchstone for my work as a student, but with the important distinction, as I see it now, of dealing primarily with place.

My interest in Steir was confirmed by works like The Four Directions of Time: 1. Standard Time (1972), Cellar Door (1972), Line Lima (1973), Blue (1974) and Between the Lines (1974) but began to fade as, in my view, the work made later increasingly became more self-consciously “about” processes of making art, as with The Brueghel Series: A Vanitas of Styles (18982-84). McEvilley may well be correct when he writes that Steir was working out implications within Agnes Martin’s painting that Martin herself did not choose to address but, if so, they are implications that didn’t particularly interest me. What did interest me, when I first came to understand the influences on Eileen Lawrence’s early work, was the way in which she and Pat Steir briefly appeared to adopt a similar trajectory, only for the work to then diverge. In Lawrence’s case because, rather than an increasing preoccupation with art-making processes and art history, she set about absorbed two apparently irreconcilable orientations: that of Agnes Martin on one hand and of Joseph Beuys on the other.      

(to be continued)     

The Piano

The second series of Channel Four’s The Piano, in which amateur pianists play a piece in a railway station, ended last night. Less an amateur talent show than a celebration of extraordinary dedication and, importantly, joy in playing the piano. I’ve avidly watched both series and find myself wondering just why I find the programme so compelling. I’m not a particular fan of solo piano music, although I’ll happily listen to Holly Bowling, Thelonious Monk, Robin Holcomb, Rachel Grimes, Keith Jarrett, and a few others.

It’s not simply that many of the various performers on The Piano have disadvantaged or difficult backgrounds, or that they are so deeply involved in the music they play, that draws me. Perhaps most importantly it’s the rapt look on faces of some of the people who, having stopped to listen in a busy railway station. Faces that appear momentarily transformed by their unexpected encounter with music played for free and for its own sake. That’s what really speaks to me.

So, thinking back it should have been good news that, in January 2023, the UK’s Department for Education published  a policy paper called: The power of music to change lives: a national plan for music education? After all, it promotes the idea of providing: “opportunity to progress”, a “great music education”, the notion that making “music together is a vital part of a rich and rounded education”, and claims that “music plays a key role in brain development” because it “helps to develop language, motor skills, emotional intelligence and collaboration skills”, and so on. It’s a wonderful set of ideas until you remember the social context in which it appears.

A major part of that context is indicated by a report by the anti-poverty charity the Trussell Trust, which ran food banks that distributed parcels from 1,699 locations across the UK in 2023/24 and noted that there are at least 1,172 other independent food banks in Britain. I’m sure it’s hard to learn to play music if you or your family don’t have enough money to eat properly or can’t pay your energy bills. Particularly if there is no access to a piano at your school. Of course we know what the present Government thinks about this situation. When challenged about the increased dependence on food banks, the senior Tory politician Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed that they give people the chance to provide “charitable support” to their fellow citizens. Something his party clearly feels under no obligation to do, despite rising levels of poverty. Indeed, he says he finds food banks: “rather uplifting” because they show “what a good, compassionate country we are”! He goes on to claim that the real reason for the rise in numbers of people having to use food banks is that: “people know that they are there and Labour deliberately didn’t tell them”. Something only a man so steeped in his own ideology that he could accuse UNICEF of “playing politics” after it launched its campaign to help feed British children living below the poverty line could pretend to believe.

It would be easy to see the astonishing dedication of many of those appearing onThe Piano as supporting the belief that anyone who really wants to can take the “opportunity to progress” in any walk of life, not simply in music. That any child, no matter their background and with talent, hard work, and the right attitude can benefit from a “great music education”. And part of me still wants to believe that there’s some degree of truth in that. Only, for many of the young people appearing on the programme, music very clearly hasn’t been “a vital part of a rich and rounded education”. Instead I get the distinct impression it’s been something that they, with the help of biological or foster parents, have found and worked at as something quite outside their formal education. It’s certainly true that music can play “a key role in brain development” and help the development of “language, motor skills, emotional intelligence and collaboration skills”. However, for all but a tiny minority putting that into practice will still be dependent on first creating an education system based on social justice and equality if it is to have any real meaning.

At present the UK education system serves to ensure the continuation of a status quo that, in 2024, in which the lower 50% of the population own less than 5% of wealth, while the top 10% own a staggering 57%. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out, wealth inequality as an issue is inseparable from those of social and economic justice, the key principles on which an education system should be based. Glimpsing those momentarily transformed faces on The Piano was somehow a very powerful reminder of what is lost when an education system is ultimately required to serve the aims of the global consumer culture. When musical skill and creativity is treated as inseparable from economic gain. I suppose those faces speak to me of another form of education, one in which making and listening to music are experienced primarily as a transformative gift and as a celebration of the mystery of our shared humanity.

Remembering my mother on the 80th anniversary of the D-day landing

The photograph, taken some 40 years ago, is of my mother when she was living in West London.

My mother, who spoke both French and German fluently and had worked for both the BBC and SOE, went into Europe just after D-day to liaise between the Allied forces and the Red Cross. She followed the Allied advance across France and Germany and, finally, into Berlin. She was also involved in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of a notorious concentration camp and had some very unsettling stories to tell about that experience and about the war more generally.

She was by upbringing a Conservative and asked her friend the Conservative MP for Tyneside, Irene Ward – later Baroness Ward of North Tyneside and the longest serving female Conservative MP in history- to be my godmother. That Irene Ward’s Conservatism was light-years away from that of the Tory Party today is made very clear by her Wikipedia entry. It’s enough here to say that she was regularly re-elected by a largely working-class constituency because she genuinely cared about representing the needs of her constituents.

I think that both she and my mother would be horrified by what the Conservative party has become, in particular by the calculated and self-serving xenophobia of its Brexit grandees, its callously inept handling of the covid epidemic, and its undisguised contempt for the poor and the chronically ill. My mother, who was sent by her grandmother to stay with a family in Paris at the age of fifteen, understood herself to be both British and a European. She also believed that her privileged background came with real obligations to others. Both led her to work with Polish refugees and other stateless individuals after the war and then, for many years, with the RWVS.

I write this today to remember her and her contribution to society both during and after the war, but also because I wonder why, when the last surviving veterans of the 1939-1945 war are being interviewed, nobody seems willing to ask them what they make of the state of their country today. The country that many of their follow soldiers, sailors and airmen died for. Maybe it’s a sense of shame?

Irene Ward lost her seat in the House of Commons when Labour won a landslide victory in the 1945 election. A Labour victory that very clearly reflected what the majority of those who had fought in the war wanted for the future of their country. A future that would come to include, among other things, the world-class National Health Service that is now on the verge of collapse. Although they were both Conservatives, if they were alive today I know both my mother and Irene Ward would be horrified by the state of Britain, but particularly of an England dominated by London and the south-east. I also like to think they would wonder why the hard questions that this Anniversary should raise about a Britain so many died for are being avoided.

“Narrating the Many Autisms: Identity, Agency Mattering” by Dr Anna Stenning

The ebook version of this book, written by my friend Anna, was published on March 5th 2024 by Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis Group.

I’ve just downloaded a free copy from the publisher’s website and look forward to reading it, not least because it looks as if its insights will converge with work I’m involved in on a project called “Re-wilding the Artist”. When I’ve read it I’ll review it here but I thought I’d give advance notice of its existence to any readers who may be interested for personal reasons, or who work in education or in the community.