Hiding in Plain Sight
07 Oct – 19 Nov 2022
Hiding In Plain Sight, 2022
Hiding in plain sight
By Ian McKeever
On the staircase next to his studio, rows of books are marching up on the left-hand side of each tread. Like a hierarchy of stepped thoughts and references, they turn the corner towards the last step and go out of sight. Who knows which book sits uppermost at the top. Indeed, whether the books’ placement, their apparent ordering, in itself holds any meaning or if their arrangement is nothing more than the expediency of what came to hand at a given time.
The quote reads ‘the sound of running water heard through the chinks in a stone dike’. It is written somewhat haphazardly across the bottom of the painting in stencilled capital letters. It is taken from the Scottish concrete poet and sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay. Finlay spent many years forming and refining the conceptual sculpture garden of his work at ‘Little Sparta’ in the open moorland south of Edinburgh where he lived and worked. In his latter years he hardly ever left his plot. I wonder about this and the gravitation to a particular place which in essence becomes a state of being for the artist. A means of holding the fragility of the self true to the task in hand, to make the work. For the painter, perhaps it is the daily need to sense the proximity of the possibility of painting and to hold onto that brittle thread which ties him, no matter how obliquely, back to that act and all that it entails.
Painting is first and foremost about temperament. What we experience when we first stand in front of a painting is the feel of the artist who painted it. Not what he or she saw but rather how they felt their way into the world through the process of painting, mediating the distance between the act of living and the act of painting itself. For the painter this gap shrinks with the passage of time; over a lifetime slowly edging its way towards what can only be sensed as the possibility of the sublime. What is depicted on the surface of the painting, call it content, narrative or whatever, is for the painter simply a marker in the passage of lived experience. The role of such subject matter is that of a conduit back to the painting, to the painting’s corporeal presence in the world as a manifestation of felt experience, not the other way around. In that sense, meaning is held in the painting itself.
So, here he is, Monsieur Courbet, marching across the painting on his way to Montpellier meeting, as if by chance, his patron Alfred Bruyas, with his servant and dog; an overt reference to perhaps one of Gustav Courbet’s most celebrated paintings ‘Bonjour Monsieur Courbet’. Except this time, Courbet is alone and suspended in what to all intents and purposes looks like an abstract painting. And what about that horse to the right of the painting? This time it is a reference to Poussin’s white charger which stands almost in disbelief watching Erminia as she cuts off her hair to bind the
wounds of the fallen Tancred after slaying the giant Argantes. Kehnet Nielsen’s countryman Troels Wörsel also painted a horse in some of his works, as did the American artist Susan Rothenberg, spreading it right across the surface of the painting like an emblem on a flag. Going further back to the eighteenth century, the English painter George Stubbs placed the Marquess of Rockingham’s racehorse ‘Whistlejacket’ audaciously against a monochromic light brown background as if saying, even then, that what we are looking at is a painting, not a picture. So much of paintings’ reach in the last two hundred years has been about the thrust to take the ‘picture’ out of painting. To divest the painting of overt pictorial meaning and to place the image at the level of being another working tool in the painters’ toolkit.
Paintings are mute. They are made with the basic materials of liquid paint applied to a surface, a surface which is only skin deep. If one thinks about it, nothing could look less like a bowl of apples than blobs of paint applied to a canvas. Meaning, when it does reside in a painting, does not sit on the surface but under the skin. The challenge for the painter is not to declare overt meaning on the surface, television is much better in doing this, but to bury it deep within the painting. A good painting releases any meaning it may hold only slowly and reluctantly, wanting first and foremost to be what it is: a painting. A painting able to hide in plain sight.