Seeing red with Paul Cummins

A Paul Cummins' poppy hits the dirt
A Paul Cummins’ poppy hits the dirt

It’s 2015. We’re thinking about the New Year. But this is my stake in the ground for the old year, for memory, for something inscribed in the winter ground of dirt and decay. Arriving in the post a couple of days ago, my poppy from Paul Cummins’ installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’.

Its simple singleness in my garden is somehow equivalent to my inadequate comprehension of 1st World War – I didn’t see the installation in the flesh, I don’t come anywhere close to understanding the trenches in the flesh, but I do know that, for me, this single poppy (a rose, in my daughter’s eyes) is both a point of connection to my great-Uncle’s death in the Second World War on the HMS Gloucester, and a symbol of the flourishing beauty embedded in the world.

In some ways, it’s only family that connects us to the past – through their heritage, their stories, their relationships. I’ve recently published my mother’s memoirs (Family: A Bridge For One World), and experienced the unexpected hostility from family for whom the memories did not reflect reality. I’ve felt at a loss over this. For my Mum, the truth and beauty embedded in the world as she has seen it and lived it is something to which she testifies. This is not the same as the facts and the sentimentality. In the same way, the 1st World War doesn’t connect through facts and sentimentality – though often that’s the ‘mediatized’ language – but through truth and beauty. This is the kind of art work I like, and remains the biggest challenge for the kind of photography I like. I’m so grateful to my Mum for being so full of integrity as to show me a glimpse of it. In many ways, the garden in which I’m planting my poppy, is hers.

Seeing ‘The Heart of Things’

Paul Hobbs' 'The Gate' and (background) 'Ten Words'
Paul Hobbs’ ‘The Gate’ and (background) ‘Ten Words’

Prompted by Trinity College’s Quiet Day, on Wednesday I visited an exhibition of Paul Hobbs’ work in St John’s Northgate, Gloucester (The Heart of Things is on until 21st November). Together, the exhibition and the pilgrimage afforded a stretching of perception into something more contemplative, even passive – which is actually a significant part of the Christian tradition, and part of the training of church leaders that goes on here.

The strongest of Paul’s pieces work along conceptual lines which play with different aspects of this passivity and activity. In a work such as Ten Words (2012), consisting of wooden blocks with various colours and printed news stories, the interaction encouraged from the viewer is of direct engagement and physical involvement. One can construct or deconstruct both shapes and language (including the words of the Ten Commandments), one is relationally complicit. However, the nature of a puzzle is also one that asks the viewer to remain if not physically distant, at least mentally distant, so as to frame the purpose of the activity. In this case, the puzzle frames the question of reconciliation between God’s words and the journalists’ words, while yet excluding the viewer’s words. I am both outside and inside this piece.

Similarly, The Gate (1995) as a sculpture of a slightly-too-small garden gate, has a conceptual outside and inside which relates not to the geographical space around it but to the invitation to a passive or an active response. There is literally no fence to sit on, and the point beautifully (if uncomfortably) captures the invitation from Jesus to “enter through the narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13), with all its sense of binary promise. Another striking piece, In Emergency Break Glass (1995), has a machete behind the glass frame we in the West associate with a cry for help or escape when in danger – our way out is here associated with the hand of violence and toxic fear (by way of reference to Rwandan and Kenyan conflict), which causes another uneasy relationship between passivity and activity.

Ultimately Paul’s work, as well as engaging mind and body in biblical or spiritual references (by way of allusive, creative suggestion in paintings, prints, collage and installation), has a deeper, more soulful engagement that’s something like grounding. It’s striking that the four central pieces in this exhibition (Ten Words, The Gate, Holy Ground and Attitudes) all bring attention to their place on the floor. It’s as if groundedness is the only possible starting point and ending point for the work – which turns out to be a great place for a quiet day.

When I met Verity

Damien Hirst's 'Verity' at Ifracombe
Damien Hirst’s ‘Verity’ at Ifracombe

I’ve seen quite a few Hirst pieces in my young art journey: at the landmark Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, and up to recent appearances in Gloucester Cathedral and Bath Abbey – see Artsy about him. I’m always conscious that it’s impossible to ignore him on the British art scene, but the levels on which I have been interested in his work have nevertheless remained at something of intellectual distance. I’m not shocked by his work, and I don’t dislike it, but there is a sense that I take them on as a kind of conceptual exercise, toys to play with in terms of imagery that gets me thinking – whether the references to disciples and saints, to visual religion, to butterflies. I’ve been recently excited by the techniques of digital foil printing and lenticular printing that he’s employed – glad that he’s doing it, and finding the results quite beautiful at times (‘For the Love of God’ as a 3D lenticular) – but the explosion of his self-marketing has a slightly hollow inflation which I haven’t quite settled in my head.

So it was something of a surprise to find that when I met Verity, on holiday in Devon last week, I was deeply moved by her. Verity is a 20-metre bronze-clad sculpture sited on the harbourside of Ilfracombe, a recent loan to the town where Hirst lives nearby. She is certainly a talking-point, and since installation last year in October, has received much negative and positive press about the connections and benefits she brings to the area – largely negative on the aesthetic response. She stands facing out to sea, in a pose that deliberately recalls Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer (c.1881), one side of her showing unmarked smooth skin and countenance, the other revealing a stripped level of skull, muscle and foetus. She holds a sword aloft in one hand, and scales in the other, while standing on a pile of law books – she represents Justice and truth.

For me, her monumentality had everything to do with being pregnant and exposed. She seems to exude both triumph and indifference in her state, without being locked into any male gaze of suitable womanhood, desirability, appropriateness etc. She doesn’t have a certain confined self-consciousness – or rather it’s more like a self-possession that means she can stand with her back to the town and the glances of others without seeming to hide. The exposed baby is key – the pregnancy is internally felt by her more than it is externally assumed by others. I love that. I felt an affinity with not just her, but Hirst who has in some way recognized a particularly visceral, interior burden and not simply a rounded glorified symbol of fertility (and/or nudity). This woman’s corporeality is the same as that of Virgin Mother – Hirst’s 2005 version of this sculpture without the objects in hand or under foot. She is not demure, she is feminine, she is humanity doubled – as receptacle of new life she is not just a passive recipient of something external, but rather the configuration and conjunction of internally-borne life, wrestled life, bloody life.

Chasuble design for Adam B’s ordination

A year on from husband Adam’s deaconing service at the start of his curacy, I found myself sitting down again to play with textiles, symbols and deadlines. The brief: to produce a design for a white chasuble, to be worn at his first service leading communion and with the stole I produced last year – see the blog post.

The visual impact of this vestment is completely different to a stole – so the language of pattern and motif is more about emphatic statement than personal code. The wearing of it involves having your back to the congregation at times, as well having your arms crossing in front of you. So there is a common range of panel areas which are usually decorated: a chest-height symbol, and/or a central orphrey (stripe) stretching the length of the cloth, sometimes with a Y-shaped branch at the top to go over the shoulders. There are the usual designs – crosses, letters, a chalice. I’m more interested in the less typical ideas, ones which are more representative of the person and the multi-cultural world.

So the theme here is Ghana – the place where it all started for Adam’s journey to ordination, and a Ghana alive with Christian symbols that draw on tribal patterns and custom. On the front, the central dark purple symbol is an Adinkra symbol of worship called ‘Nyame Dua’, meaning altar of God (more on Adinkra symbols here). Literally translated, it means ‘God’s tree’, which in Christian symbolism can be another way of talking about the cross and Jesus’ death. More than just a remembrance of what Jesus went through, communion is about a living encounter, through place and purpose. The where and when of Adam leading communion is an important part of what worship is, and how the worship is (including his own) – where symbol becomes sacrament, that outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. Beyond this main focus, the red fleurettes are extensions of the tree metaphor (life through blood), and the gold details embellish and link the lines of pattern. Colour and texture come from the tie-dye Ghanaian fabric itself, large parts of which were already embroidered – this is the main feature on the back panel.

With the added dimension of being a personal challenge, this chasuble is again my sticking up for new and fresh takes on traditional craft in church design. This post has a ‘practice’ category because I take it seriously alongside my other, culturally more palatable work. Vestment design is, to quote a friend, ‘theatrical costume with beyondness and meaning’, it does more than you think it does. And, to add to the overall value-raising intention, I quote Nora Jones’ Church Needlework Guide to Vestments (1961), ‘it ought to be pointed out that while we usually expect to pay the electrician for his work in church, we sometimes forget that artists have to live too.’

Jutta Koether ‘Seasons and Sacraments’

Koether at the Arnolfini, Bristol
Koether at the Arnolfini, Bristol

Confused, obtuse, tangled, vacuous, fruitless and one of the most frustrating shows I have ever been to. Jutta Koether exhibits recent work in a display hosted by Arnolfini, Bristol (until 7th July), having toured from Dundee Contemporary Arts earlier in the year. Called Seasons and Sacraments, the work draws inspiration from paintings of the same names produced, serially, by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). The punchy title is the only thing that carries its weight in the entire exhibition.

Typical of discussions around postmodern painting, this is a display of work that refuses to land anywhere concrete. Display is an integral part of this commentary, as the labels accumulate in corners of the rooms with half-hearted directions to match title with physical piece. Hanging canvasses in such a way as to reveal their reverse is, indeed, to promote painting-as-object rather than as window, and a floor sculpture called Extreme Unction serves to interrupt a doorway into the gallery space. Context – yes, that attention to placement is indicative of painting’s unavoidable self-consciousness ever since Clement Greenberg corralled its reflexivity into/onto itself with Pollock et al.

Koether, according to the critic David Joselit (writing in October, 2009), takes this to another level because instead of bringing to light a visualisation of the networks to which painting belongs, she ‘actualizes the behaviour of objects within networks‘. In an interview this year (and through her performance pieces) she confirms this, as she explains that her work contains inbuilt frustration, where comparative readings win out, perpetually thwarting the viewer who would look to settle the issues at stake. So the feel of the paintings seen in the image above, which show 3 of her 4 Seasons, is one of intensity, but also incompleteness. They yield to a behavioural pattern, which Koether calls ‘propositions about painting, not just surface.’

The trouble is, this exhibition also has an inbuilt referentiality – to Poussin, to his kind of painting, to his titles. We may not know the references, we certainly don’t see the original pictures (only fleetingly in Eucharist, a screening of looped photographs of his pieces), but even if the ostensible priority is painting about painting, referentiality gains the upper hand. I find myself angered by a response to Poussin that is demonstrative of a complete ignorance of their content. Or that somehow such content is irrelevant when ‘quoting’ the work in a new context. Painting ceased to wallow in its preoccupation with form a long time ago, we are visually savvy about the potency of content (since Bacon, surely?) – and that is not to say that the old game of traditional, often biblical, meaning and symbolism such as Poussin brilliantly plays is back, but that we form its new context, and so replay it, regurgitate it, subvert it.

In the absence of such involvement in the work, I sought it in the accompanying leaflet provided by Arnolfini for the show. Disappointingly, this too, clearly struggled with Poussin’s place – on Eucharist (showing on the screen above):

The representation of images ‘as they are’ can be seen in the tradition of receiving the Eucharist ‘as’ the body of Christ (and not a symbol), a blurring between representation and presence.

As much as I would love to jump into photography’s discourse about the really real and its appearance, I am insulted by the trite comparison to sacrament. It is not that the meaning of the exhibition-wide references to church symbols and doctrine cannot be enlivened and enriched by contemporary appropriation, it is rather that they are taken here as insincere ‘profound’ labels for a meaning that is decidedly unexplored and unengaged with. Hence:

‘Baptism’, represented by an image of the German racing car driver Sebastian Vettel is a contemporary depiction of idolatry.

A deeper thread of the legitimacy of content in contemporary painting is the twenty-first century context of awakened religion and faith. In the media, post-9/11, the Western secular world has had to face and reckon with an insistence that representation of religion is to be taken seriously, and while the Christian heritage of this country is often a less forthright part of this dialogue, it cannot be ignored. Painting needs to catch up.