On 17th November 2017, I was, like a moth, instantly attracted to the bright lights of the Bruce Nauman exhibition (Tate Modern). His work demanded the viewer to (literally) take a step back and consider the purpose and context of his work. Nauman's extensive and imaginative use of media transmits a multitude of different ideas simultaneously. It is clear that his previous studies in Mathematics and Physics informed his practice and are a domineering influence on his work. One piece which caught my attention was 'Violins, Violence, Silence' (1981).
Violins, Violence, Silence
The artwork itself was made of coloured neon tubing with a clear glass suspension frame. As the letters overlap, it is hard to initially distinguish what the piece is actually conveying, proving rather disorientating. Additionally, the buzzing noise which accompanies the piece (originating from the neon tubing) is somewhat distracting. However, it is ironic that while reading 'violins' evokes a pure and unpolluted noise, in reality you are faced with a low, droning buzz. I enjoy the irony of Nauman's work and the complex ideas which lie behind the lights. There is much more to this piece than is initially apparent and I hope that other visitors to the gallery take the time to consider its complexity.
Another piece in the exhibition which caught my attention was 'Raw Material Washing Hands'(1996). The video, which documents one individual washing their hands constantly for 55 minutes is difficult viewing. It is reminiscent of a person suffering from obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) in which the individual is performing a routine repeatedly, as though it were a ritual. The video becomes painful to watch as we see the individuals skin being overworked by the soap and water and I must admit that although the video runs for just under an hour, I watched it for no longer than 10 minutes.
Raw Material Washing Hands,
After seeing Nauman's work, it is clear that he questions and stretches the boundaries of what it is to make art. He has purposefully left behind traditional notions of 'fine art' and has distanced himself from paint as a medium.
I also experimented with less decayed images (e.g. Figs. 19-21), which led to a series of further drawings based on my latex skin.
Fig 22 Fig. 23
Fig. 24 Fig. 25
Once I had eventually managed to squeeze into the skin, I had photographs taken under my direction. Figures 22, 24 and 26, show me appearing around a curtain. Let me explain the inspiration behind these compositions.
I have visited a large number of Norfolk churches, as is evident from my five-part, In Search of Medieval Inspiration, on this website. Especially in the round tower churches, there is often a curtain drawn across the narrow, arched entrance to the tower at the west end of the nave. When I enter such an ancient building, normally through the south porch, my eyes are invariably drawn immediately to the left, to that curtain, for I always have a strong sense that someone or something may be lurking behind it with evil intent. I can get an intense sense of malevolence and I don’t like it at all. My heart is in my mouth each time I peep around the old, drab, moth-eaten, torn fabric to check nothing is hiding. It is a powerful dread, but without inspection I cannot comfortably explore the church. It is this suspicion that gave me the idea for two paintings which follow shortly. I thought the notion of partial concealment worked well, both as the concealment of evil and also as a metaphor for someone still unsure about ‘coming out’. Figures 23 and 25 show tonal works of Figures 22 and 24, respectively.
Fig. 27 Fig. 28
Figures 27 and 28 show further experimentation of me wearing the latex head alone, and with partial facial exposure, respectively
I wanted to avoid a link, as best I could, with the 1955 classic Don Siegel film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and the 1978 and 1993 remakes), and so I pictured myself upright in the skin, not laying down like the alien cocoons – and, of course, I wasn’t in a cocoon in any case. I also wanted to keep true to my medieval connections to ambiguous beings, fairies, demons, devils and the like, which I think I have, especially in Figure 24, where there is a genuine sense of menace in the eyes.
I also explored some further compositions with an unfilled latex skin. These, too, I felt, have an evil look about them (e.g. Fig. 29)
My idea is to keep the decomposition element of momento mori and use it as a metaphor for the corruptibility of principles and values, especially within the Church, whilst at the same time exploring gender uncertainty in some priests who outwardly profess one thing, such as heterosexuality or sexual neutrality, whilst privately struggling with who they truly are, or giving way to their own inclinations – in other words, in the latter case openly preaching one thing, in line with Church teaching, whilst practising the opposite. Of course, in recent years, elements within the Church of England have changed their policy with regard to gay priests and now openly ordain them. The ordination of women priests is another such change, as the established Church, or, at least, part of it, comes into line with current public and political thinking. God’s principles must have changed then, or for two thousand years the Church has been preaching incorrectly! However, the legacy of some priests and, indeed, nuns, has rocked the Catholic Church in recent years, as we read revelation after revelation about the abuse inflicted on children at very senior levels. For centuries, and, indeed, until recently, all this was pushed under the carpet, but now some of it has been exposed. As reported on the BBC Teletext News on the 26th August 2018, ‘Pope Francis has begged forgiveness for members of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy who ‘kept quiet’ about clerical child sex abuse … the Argentine Pope asked forgiveness for the ‘abuses in Ireland, abuses of power, conscience and sexual abuses perpetrated by Church leaders’. Attendance at venues was, apparently, down eight-fold from that expected. The Irish have long memories. My work focuses on such perpetrators.
Fig. 30 Fig. 31
Using Figure 24 as a source of inspiration, Figure 25 as my subject, and Figure 30 (from Thornham church, Norfolk) as a background (see Fig. 17 from Part 1(i) of, In Search of Medieval Inspiration on this website), to provide depth, I painted Figure 31, oil on canvas. This is the first oil in the series I have entitled, Devout Sinners. I wanted to show the priest, identified by a distorted, off-coloured dog-collar, with a slightly effeminate tilting of the head. As noted in my film review of Sapphire, as the character Learoyd points out: ‘That’s the black under the white all right.’ You just cannot hide the difference. I also wanted to give a sense of awkwardness, something slightly out of kilter, and, to achieve this effect, I turned the hand up on the curtain. I painted the background with a bluish hue, not the warm, aged sandstone of my photograph, as I needed to bring the composition into the 21st century, and this blueish hue gave the pillar a colder, sharper, more clinical feel, reminiscent of quality cartoon animation. I also kept the folding in the curtaining to a minimum, as I did not wish to detract from the figure. I wanted the theme to be deliberately abstruse, so the viewer has to contemplate the painting to find its meaning, a luxury not granted to parishioners of the past, who were instructed what to think and how to live, by the Church.
Fig. 32 Fig. 33
I wanted to experiment by integrating pencil into my paintings. Figure 32 shows one of my trial sketches combining pencil and both oil and water-based oil paint on oil paper. I also wanted to overcome the uneven primed canvas surface, and produced a sketch using a 2B pencil and oil paint pencils, along with both oil and water-based oil paint, on gessobord (Fig. 33). I chose a titanium white background to enhance clarity of colour.
Fig. 34 Fig. 35
Using Figure 22 as a source of inspiration, Figure 23 as my subject, and combining them with part of the Early English window and the light patterning on the wall from a photograph I took in the chancel at Little Snoring church, Norfolk (Fig. 34), I produced an oil paint pencil, oil and water-based oil paint on gessobord painting (Fig. 35), which I entitled, Devout Sinners 2. This priest hugs the curtaining for comfort and security. There is a bright blue sky outside, in the wider world where God shines, but the priest is content to sulk away within the shadows, reflections and folds of the church. The pure gold cross, still partly concealed, lays just below the larynx (the vehicle of his false preaching) of his distorted and decomposing body.
With change and decomposition in the forefront of my mind – I started to draw real-life, sex-changing fish (e.g. Fig. 36). I experimented with blemmyes, who, as Conrad of Megenberg noted in his mid 14th century work, Buch der Natur, were afflicted with a striking physical deformity (no neck or head) due to the sins of their ancestors. Blemmyes were, therefore, a perfect subject for my work, as the Church had oppressed the populace for centuries and the clergy’s greed and hypocrisy had similarly been passed down.
Fig. 37 Fig. 38
Using the setting of Decorated period windows and door at St. Andrew’s church, Ringstead (which were contemporaneous with Conrad of Megenberg’s writings), as my backdrop (see Fig. 45, In Search of Medieval Inspiration, Part 1(ii), on this website), I placed one of my watercolours sketches of a blemmy (Fig. 37) leaning casually on a priest’s door arch (Fig. 38), much as I imagined an arrogant priest might when caught off-guard.
Fig. 39 Fig. 40
I tried warping architectural features (like Soutine, but as a visual metaphor) but the distortions didn’t work at all in the mock-ups and, indeed, detracted from the blemmy (e.g. Figs. 39 & 40).
Fig. 41 Fig. 42
I extended this warping to the whole latex skin too, shown above in two mock-ups (e.g. Figs. 41 & 42), using the ruins at Creake Abbey as a background (see Inspirational Excursions). I thought these were better, but still not what I wanted.
I settled on my original composition, but before painting, as usual, I produced a drawing (Fig. 43), on gessobord on this occasion, of a detail of the final composition, in order to gain greater intimacy with the subject. I entitled this drawing, Devout Sinners 3.
Whilst I felt the composition worked really well as a drawing, I was concerned it may appear a little ‘flat’ in a larger painting, and the bottom of the picture left me feeling uncomfortable for it was a little too abrupt so, taking another photograph (Fig. 44) which showed the grass, the immediate gravestones and the unnatural rise to the left of the door (caused as a result of continual use of the land for burials, one on top of the other, throughout the centuries, on the south facing side of the church), I decided to paint them in to give depth. I had come across a similar foreground problem before (see, In Search of Medieval Inspiration, Part 1(ii), Fig. 23), when painting a church’s perimeter wall and resolved it in the same way. As a matter of interest, in the case of the Ringstead church overfill, using a spirit level and a bean stick, I measured the overfill to be 37 cm at its highest point, from the base of the priest’s door step, which is, actually, a lot (Fig. 45, looking North). The overfill then falls away on all sides. I also changed the angle of the gravestones from Figure 38 to Figure 45 (and thereby included two others – a consequence of the ‘pull-out’). As in my painting, An Early Bird Catches … (see, Another Form of Control, on this website), the late 18th century gravestones act as a bridge between the medieval and modern periods.
This translated into an oil on gessobord work, Devout Sinners 4 (Fig. 46). The blemmy forms the central figure and thus characterises, through his inherited physical deformity, the sins of the Church, through centuries of hypocrisy and abuses of power, are revealed. The notion that deformity is a sign of evil, malpractice, or offence to the gods, is an ancient belief. The darkness within, through the priest’s door says it all – this really is not a nice place. The blemmy looks out over a full graveyard, with that conceited, disdainful look in his chest, exemplifying the theme of my current practice. But the Church’s days are numbered, for the ivy is growing up the wall …