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.

What can you see in a cathedral of trees?

Narthex I - IVNarthex I – IV, 2011.
New work for exhibition at the Grant Bradley Gallery’s group show Walking Through the Veil.

Trees and forests have long been held as places of mystical encounter. For Britons, it’s in our psyche, and we defend woodland religiously. Even if only as a place of nominally unspoilt nature, it’s a demarcated zone for a different type of relationship with the world.
Here, I’m looking at the view through a cluster of lime trees during a Oxfordshire winter that ascribes something ‘otherworldly’ to the scene. The trunks and branches are silhouetted by an emanation of light which suggests some kind of presence, some ‘pentecostal fire’ to quote Eliot (below). It’s like being on the edge of a holy place, looking down an aisle towards an altar.

What do darkness and light say about concealment and revelation? Does one include you and the other exclude you? Is there a breeze where you’re standing? I’m interested in the perception of liminality – being on a threshold of transformation because a physical encounter becomes a metaphysical one. Feel free to post a comment about my work, and do visit the exhibition.

Midwinter spring is its own season

Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,

Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,

The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,

In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,

Reflecting in a watery mirror

A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.

And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,

Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire

In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing

The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell

Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time

But not in time’s covenant.

T.S. Eliot, from Part I of ‘Little Gidding’.