Behind the Veil

The paper swims in front of me as I lean my body over it again, moving the water and paint in large sweeping gestures. I push off the paper and kneel on the edge as rivers of dark, watery paint run off me onto the floor. Then I continue, stretching my body over the paper, this time with a cloth in hand, wiping through merging washes of dark slate grey, mauve, and wine-coloured hues. The material in my hand changes again but the process stays the same as I employ my whole body in mark-making, the painterly traces of movement left as residue on the paper. Finally, I sit back and survey the gestures and paint pooling before me. The sheet of paper, large enough to cradle an extended body, is a dark tangle of colour, line, and mark. Muted shades of charcoal, mink, puce and plum bleed together into a murky cloud, enclosing a pale, layered nucleus. The entanglement of abstract gestures and lines is cacophonic, simultaneously harmonious and dissonant. Brushes, cloths, wads of paper, pots of paint and piles of chalk surround the paper; pots have been knocked over, splatters of paint cover the floor, my entire body is stained and spattered. The physical and mental wrestling in paint has exhausted me and I sit amongst the mess.

My artistic practice is rooted in the movement of the body through space, usually focused on the experience of place and landscape as known and expressed through the body. My practice is positioned within contemporary walking methodologies and place studies as I embark on walks in various places, documenting my experience through photography, sound recordings, and note-taking. These notes hold sensory and emotional details as well as documentation of the landscape around me. This primary research lays the foundation for work later developed in the studio as I activate my body in gestural mark-making as a means of exploring the body as the centre of experience, the movement of the body through the landscape remembered through the movement of the body in the studio. This now-ritualised process engages the body and mind as interconnected archives. My practice embraces a phenomenological approach, particularly influenced by philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Described as “attending to…the indelibly corporeal nature of human being,” Merleau-Ponty’s theory places the body as ‘the basis and conduit of knowledge’ and the ‘very basis of experience’.[1] For Merleau-Ponty, movement and perception form ‘a system that is modified as a whole’,[2] the body’s movement emerging as integral to a subject’s perception and inhabitation of the world. Thus, in my practice, I attend to the voice of my body through gesture and movement, corporeal knowledge and memory of place are conveyed through the intuitive and spontaneous activation of my body.

However, my painting for the Enfolding: A Study of Margin & Centres exhibition diverges from this standard practice. Instead of the painting being an expression of my body’s experience of place and landscape, it is an embodied communication of an internal landscape. The work is still richly resonant of natural landscape and elements; however, no specific place experience is conveyed. Instead, any whispers of stormy seas, beating rain, or howling wind emerge from the paper to express an atmosphere of the soul.

This shift to focus on internal landscape comes in response to the theme of the exhibition, which calls for an enfolding of centres and margins, a drawing in of those dwelling on the boundaries of communities and dialogues. My contribution to this has been to illuminate my individual experience of mental suffering in the hope that it might be a point of resonance for others and unveil something of what is a ravaging, isolating, and increasingly common experience for so many.

Despite the shift from external to internal landscape, the process of making has remained largely the same. Personal notes and sound recordings have still informed my work, but they are of a more introspective nature. My body remains my instrument of expression, yet I do not convey the experience of that which is around me but rather that which is already within. Subsequently, the process of creating this painting has been a turbulent one, at once cathartic and unsettling. It has been a journey of personal visual reckoning, an embodied grappling with emotional and mental spaces of isolation and distress. Occasionally an internal tide rises, and my body moves through water, paint, and chalk to express what words cannot. Most of the time the paper lies untouched, for how do you convey nothing? Yet, the process of expression mirrors that which is expressed. The process has been raw and visceral and uncomfortable. Throughout, I have resisted a strong desire to imbue the painting with more hope, with a greater sense of peace and comfort, with brighter colours and more light. I chose to paint this subject for two reasons: to illuminate the marginalising experience of invisible suffering, and to express the more ultimate reality that this experience of suffering might draw one deeper into the boundless heart of God, the God for whom there are no margins. However, I struggled to understand the misty gloom and tangle of marks that continued to emerge before me. When painting I always make marks first and analyse later, allowing the body to speak before the mind critiques. However, each painting session, each layer of paint, revealed a similar shadowy wrestling with materials, creating a luminous clouded form. I did not like what was emerging but then I wondered whether I should. The beauty in the painting for me is the reality that in this darkness, this grey nothingness, this tumult, there is the I AM. This is a painful and confusing mystery, to see and know God in the depths of despair and this painting reveals a glimpse of what that feels like, to know the Light but to still experience the dark. Thus, the painting exists as a painterly, embodied lament.

I conclude this reflection now with a brief excerpt from notes taken to inform the painting, a critical part of my process. These notes are written in flowing form without punctuation to reveal the entanglement of thought and experience.

cold  wind  stinging  face  crashing  waves  incessant  incessant  incessant  drowning  at  the  edge  breathe  the  edge  Your  heart  centre  of  the  universe  beating love  of  the  cosmos  communion  amidst  hidden  covered  storm-tossed  ravaged  by  darkness  slowly  sleeping  shadowy  night  breathe  fog  pressing  in  pulling  air from  lungs  curl  collapse  broken  slow  touch  embrace  held  deep  distant  knowing  isolation  draws  me  to  you  tide  of  nothing  gives  me  everything  at  the  howling  edge  of  the  wasteland  I  meet  the  shore  of  my  eternity

 

 

[1] John Wiley, ‘Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Perception and the Lived Body’, in Landscape (London; New York: Routledge, 2007).

[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2012), 113.

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