05 May – 25 Jun 2022
Body forth: The Henge Paintings
by Paul Moorhouse
Herbert Read described it as the moment of liberation. ‘Once it is accepted’, he wrote, ‘that the plastic imagination has at its command, not the fixities of a perspectival point of view…but the free association of any visual elements (whether derived from nature or constructed apriori), then the way is open to an activity which has little correspondence with the plastic arts of the past.’ Writing in 1959, Read defined the trajectory in modern painting which sprang from the experiments in ‘pure art’ conducted by Robert Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky and others at the end of the first decade in the twentieth century. Their innovations would lead to the flowering of abstract painting, a means of expression unburdened by ‘an irrelevant representational function’. Freed from imitating the observed world, henceforward artists could construct non-representational structures that would, it was assumed, ‘appeal directly to human sensibility1. As Read’s words suggest, such ideas had a heady significance but also posed profound questions, not least concerning the capacity of abstract painting to transcend its own formal means. Can non-figurative art – a visual language of marks, shapes and colours – truly serve as a vehicle for meaning, and, if so, what exactly is being conveyed? Over a hundred years later, such questions still provoke debate. In that context, the work of Ian McKeever constitutes a compelling affirmation of abstract painting’s continuing relevance in the twenty-first century.
McKeever’s Henge paintings form the latest developments in a career that spans more than five decades, and, sustaining the approach that he first adopted in 1976, the artist worked in series. Begun in 2017, and completed over a four-year period, thirty paintings were realised on three different scales ranging from the intimate to the expansive. The series is his most ambitious to date, and not only in terms of number. Surveyed as a whole, this unfolding, thematically-related body of work conveys the impression of a painter restlessly probing and interrogating issues at the heart of his own practice. Foremost among these is the matter of his work’s place in the world. Having long since renounced figuration, which he regards as ‘picture-making’, in the Henge paintings he renewed his exploration of the long-standing question of how to invest his paintings with a convincing physical presence. For McKeever, this was clearly an early preoccupation. As a student, in 1965 he completed a dissertation on the work of Anthony Caro, whose sculpture addressed the very same question. For Caro, depicting figures was, as he put it, ‘getting in the way’2: creating images of people was a form of pretence that detracted from the expressive immediacy he desired. Caro’s solution was, as McKeever noted, to make abstract sculptures that possessed an independent three-dimensional reality.
For the painter, however, working in two-dimensions has an entirely different character, and, as McKeever is well-aware, the painter confronts challenges that are unique to the medium. The flat picture plane creates a virtual domain of apparent depth, separate from real space, into which colours and shapes recede, creating a pictorial image. The Henge paintings reveal McKeever grappling with this problem, seeking to imbue his work with the sense of assertive weight and personality that are attributes of real things. The question that he addressed was complex and pressing. As McKeever put it: ‘How to body forth into the world?’3. In other words, how to create paintings that possess the cogency of objects, while not relinquishing their unique character as sites for contemplation and aesthetic appreciation?
In this respect, the series is something of a departure. From 1992, not least in the Temple (2005-6) and Assembly (2006-7) series, he had made paintings incorporating transparent veils. Such works have a diaphanous quality; the shapes appear insubstantial and nebulous – ghostly apparitions floating within an indeterminate void. By contrast, the Henge paintings show McKeever embracing black, a colour that he associates with solidity and mass. Built up in superimposed planes, the shapes acquire an arresting sensuality, warmth, and – most surprising of all – a beguiling luminosity. Moreover, being configured as vertical forms that incline, bulge and extend, in some intangible way they possess an anthropomorphic character. Each monolithic shape has an expressive bearing, projecting an inexplicable nervous quality.
The paintings transcend formal concerns, and inert structures attain a deeper, metaphorical implication, being invested with an enigmatic presence. In this way, McKeever’s concern with his work’s physicality has a significant undertow. By admitting references beyond the merely apparent, the paintings’ allusive character may be glimpsed.
The genesis of the Henge paintings, as implied by their title, may be traced to a visit that the artist made to Avebury in 2017. While walking around the Neolithic site, McKeever took numerous black and white photographs of the massive stones that form the three circles. He framed each megalith in close-up, their edges visible at the extremity of the resulting images. Individually, the photographs depicted, in his words, ‘a body in space’4. Having developed the film rolls and processed the contact sheets, he then put this visual record aside. However, the experience of moving around Avebury and responding to the huge stones’ monumental presence made an abiding impression that resonated with deep- seated preoccupations. ‘The physicality of something standing in the world intrigues me’5, McKeever has commented. The large black shapes that inhabit the Henge paintings owe their existence, at least in part, to the mysterious, timeless objects he had observed. In common with the stones, the painted shapes are patinated – the megaliths weathered by their exposure to nature, the paintings bearing the traces of the artist’s activity. Both are impressed with the passage of time, albeit on vastly different scales. The way form is shaped by external events evidently fascinates the artist, and is a dominant characteristic of the Henge paintings.
McKeever’s comment is telling in other ways, however, for it not only alludes to the mysterious physical otherness of the external world. Behind his words, there is a profound sense of personal relation to his surroundings, and an acknowledgement of the gap between the perceiver and the thing perceived. An awareness of that separation was no less keenly felt at Avebury: ‘Tight up against the full body of the stones’, McKeever wrote, ‘my body against the body of the stone’.6 The difference between the two was powerfully tangible. On one side, an immaterial mind occupies a living body and apprehends something outside itself: on the other, there lies a physical reality whose essential nature remains unknowable. The dialogue between these two – a thinking, feeling observer and mute matter – also finds metaphorical expression in the Henge paintings.
Significantly, each work comprises a pair of elements on two panels. On one side, a black shape evokes the immutable substance of the observed world: the textured surface appears illuminated from within, its form immanent. On the other, a contrasting coloured shape – frequently white – conveys an entirely different impression. Unlike the dark solidity of their counterparts, these panels are insubstantial and weightless, suffused by light which seems momentarily solidified. Henge VII is an arresting example of this dichotomy: the two shapes incline towards each other but, as signalled by their separate panels, remain apart. The relation of a mind to its external surroundings, which has always intrigued philosophers, here finds eloquent symbolic expression: the two domains are almost touching – yet not. McKeever expressed this preoccupation memorably: ‘I paint out of the gap between myself and the world I live in.’7 Throughout the series, that tension and balance is maintained, forming a poignant meditation not only on the artist’s experience in an ancient landscape, but on a universal human condition.
The bipartite nature of the Henge paintings is an essential aspect of their distinctive character, but it would be an error to regard them as diptychs. Although realised on separate panels, each painting is an indivisible whole. This apparent paradox may be understood in relation to the mind-world separation, just discussed, which is evoked by the division of each painting into two parts. The same seeming contradiction suggests a further layer of implication, which refers to the nature of each individual’s being. As Descartes showed, the relation of the mind to an extended world is only part of the philosophical problem. The unfathomable connection between consciousness and the body that contains it is no less perplexing – and equally a fact of existence. his question, too, is for McKeever an abiding preoccupation. ‘How to get close’, he has speculated, ‘to something which is “of me”?’.8 In this respect, the duality of the Henge paintings is an essential aspect of their meaning, the division between contrasted parts evoking two planes of existence: the mental and the physical. Viewing each painting as one entity, we may observe – if not account for – the correspondence of thinking and feeling. According to McKeever’s distinctive metaphorical iconography, immaterial light and solidified dark convey the relation of twin experiences that make us what we are: sentient physical beings.
As this suggests, McKeever’s Henge paintings plot a course between apparent opposites. Irreducibly abstract, and comprising purely pictorial elements of colour, shape and mark, their presence – on whatever scale – is assertive and physical. At the same time, it is impossible to be unaware that the character of each work is both expressive and suggestive. Never simply formal exercises, each image has an individual personality, which is shaped by the artist’s experiences, and this confronts the viewer, calling for an imaginative engagement. The paintings’ potential for meaning, no less than their physical make-up, makes them what they are. In this respect, they deliver a resounding riposte to detractors who would dismiss abstract painting as without significance: among his peers, McKeever is the most metaphysical of painters. Indeed, it is clear that his aim to ‘body forth’ is only partly connected with investing his paintings with a physical presence. It applies equally to giving substance to thought.
What, however, is the nature of those experiences which the Henge paintings represent? To that question, McKeever is equivocal – and necessarily so. ‘In painting a painting’, he observed, ‘one does not set out to paint what one knows, but rather tries to touch those things which one does not know and which cannot be known.’9 As this implies, he draws upon material hidden from view in deeper mental recesses that we all carry within us. When pressed, the artist avers that he never begins a painting without something, however indeterminate, on which to draw: a ‘felt sensation’10 may be the seed at the outset. Thereafter, everything that goes into the formation of an image is visible. Nothing is corrected, cancelled or taken away, and maintaining the freshness of each decision and mark is a prime consideration. In that way, the paintings are a complete record of the process that made them. In accounting for what is actually bodied forth, however, other authorities are perhaps needed, and in this respect the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is illuminating.
In his masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer described the way that, beneath the surface of consciousness, there lies a mysterious mental space, which he described as follows:
Let us compare our consciousness to a sheet of water of some depth. Then the distincly conscious ideas are merely the surface; on the other hand, the mass of the water is the indistinct, the feelings, the after-sensations of perceptions and intuitions and what is experienced in general, mingled with the disposition of our own will that is the kernel of our inner nature… the rumination of material from outside, by which it is recast into ideas, takes place in the obsucre depths of the mind.
Such material is said to be in constant motion, and, by association and analogy, there rises to the surface what the philosopher called ‘the clear pictures of the imagination’.11 McKeever’s Henge paintings are vivid testimony to this process in action, revealing something of the unfathomable connection between the individual and the world, and the riches that lie beneath the surface of consciousness. In this respect, abstract painting begins where figuration ends, for, as Shakespeare knew, ‘imagination bodies forth/The forms of things unknown’.12 There could be no better evocation of McKeever’s endeavour.
1 Herbert Read, A Concise History of Modern Painting, Thames and Hudson, London, 1959, reprinted 1969, pp.96-97. 2 Anthony Caro, lecture given at the symposium ‘Caro, Olitski, Noland’, Hartford Art School, University of Hartford, April 1994, unpublished transcript held in Anthony Caro Centre Archive, p.1.
3 Ian McKeever in an interview with Paul Moorhouse, the artist’s studio, 7 March 2022.
4 Ian McKeever, email to Paul Moorhouse, 8 March 2022.
5 McKeever interview, op.cit.
6 McKeever email, op.cit.
7 McKeever interview, op.cit.
9 Ian McKeever, ‘Painting is not Flat Art’ in In Praise of Painting – Three Essays, University of Brighton, Brighton, 2005, p.61.
10 McKeever interview, op.cit.
11 Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol.II, trans. EFJ Payne, New York Dover Publications, 1966, pp.135-136.
12 William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, act 5, sc.1, l.58.