Carel Weight, Laetitia Yhap, Dave G Martin, Sarah Pickstone, Paul Gopal-Chowdhury, Leigh Curtis
18th November - 10th December 2022
PV Thursday 17th November 6-9pm
I think we live between realities, in a kind of dream-space. The past, present and perhaps the future locked together in one image. This is the subject of my paintings.
Painting is a particularly haunted space. Each line is the result of a passing-over of the brush; each stain a manifestation within the canvas weave; each colour-space a conjuring from base oils and earthy particulates. Painting is an ancient means of transformation; making something from nothing. Each touch with the brush is an attempt to make an equivalent to perception, which, in being unable to truly achieve, instead produces something surrogate, something to be newly perceived. The new thing – the painting – is all that remains of a lost sensory encounter with the world. The world has by now shifted upon its axis, the light has dimmed, and the flower has dropped another dry petal. Pliny imagined the very first painting to be a tracing onto a wall of a lover’s profile by lamplight. Paintings have always been a record of someone that was once close but who is now absent – painter and subject both.
This exhibition of six paintings uses the medium’s relic-like qualities to speak of other, similarly ordinary hauntings. This is not an exhibition about the strangeness of confrontations from other times or other places, instead these paintings understand the ordinariness of such visitations. These are not the genius loci that occupy stone circles and holy wells, these are hauntings that occur in towns and cities, on farm lanes and on urban beaches. The sites of these returns are ordinary and everyday. This exhibition does not deny the otherworldly, it simply says ‘yes… of course we are haunted, daily’. As Paul Gopal-Chowdhury implies, we do not need to seek out the overlapping of times and places, mortals and deities, we live in [and in]between these confluent realities.
Don’t I know you from somewhere?
Carel Weight, synonymous with the strange and everyday hauntings of Paddington and Hammersmith and Battersea, knew that while sprites, pucks and nymphs linger and lurk in the countryside, it is cities, towns and villages which are the true playgrounds of ghosts. In A E Housmann’s A Shropshire Lad, the back lanes, football fields and bedrooms of demobbed soldiers are forever charged with the spectres of those who did not return from the war. I Cheer a Dead Man’s Sweetheart is taut with complicated and conflicting loyalties as new love is overshadowed by lost lovers. The hope of love re-appears in Cupid in the Streets as a young boy, toy bow and arrow at the ready, assumes the matchmaking powers of the lesser Roman god, himself already an interpretation of the Greek’s Eros.
The numerous gods of India go about their business unconcerned that the holy Ganges now flows over the great river city of London in Paul Gopal-Chowdhury’s The Past Watches Over the Present with Anxious Eyes. The modern metropolis is a site for endless thrills and disasters, but the seeds of these actions and events took root in the deep pasts of each and every one of us. The city is alive because of the confluence of these polytheistic, poly-dynamic energies.
Another river gives-up other surprises in Leigh Curtis’ Rubber Doll as an unsuspecting fisherman reels-in an unwanted catch. In the moment of disappointment as the cause of the line’s resistance is revealed, the angler is forced to confront his almost-doppelgänger. Hunter and quarry are, for an intense instant, cyclically bound to one another. As this moment of existential horror wanes, the encounter becomes one of bathetic failure.
In Dave G Martin’s Analogue Pleasure we are transported to the suburbs of shared memory. Held aloft, perhaps never to return to the earthly realm, a young trampolinist metamorphoses to become pure spirit. The canvas of the trampoline appears to be an LP record, analogously recalling every suburban teenager’s dream of escape and transformation through the magic and mercurial possibility of pop music.
Laetitia Yhap’s cluster of youths pause on their way to the beach. On the sea wall they notice a piece of graffito and unconsciously (or so it seems) they choreograph themselves into the same excited knot of bodies as Nicholas Poussin’s Arcadian Shepherds did on finding an engraved tomb. Poussin’s painting haunts Yhap’s, but the shadow of mortality that even tempered Arcadia, lingers to on the edge of this urban beach. Yhap’s Maritime Counterpoint (after Poussin) is doubly haunted. Firstly, by the ghost of the spirit the endlessly roams Arcadia, and secondly, by the dance of bodies that endlessly echo the earlier social gatherings in the contemplation of mortality.
Mary Magdalene appears in ghostly apparition, or in the colour reversal of a photographic negative, at the centre of Sarah Pickstone’s Mary, yes. She is in the cave of her exile and her hair is growing ever longer. It seems important that this ancient biographic incident isn’t included in the conventionally accepted biblical texts but lurks amid the apocryphal penumbra. The aperture of the cave, which for pilgrims is a kind of portal, begins to take the shape of an oak leaf, and perhaps it is this this that gives this place something of the feeling of a public park. Just as in Pliny’s cave, the first painting recorded a departing lover, so too here the painter attempts to snare an elusive figure on a cave wall.
A petulant and provisional account of why witches and wicca aren’t the only ways that art is haunted.
I’m so tired of exhibition after exhibition of witch-y works. Bent twigs tied in ribbons; sheaths of corn woven into crowns; spent sage smudging sticks; whittled wood and artfully arranged shells and stones. Charms, robes, goblets... All so pleasant, all so polite. These artists… they can’t all be witches, can they? Or are these artists merely wearing their clothes, vicariously performing their rites? It’s not just this particular strain of arcane esoterica either… gallery notes are full of lazy references to alchemy, rituals, goddesses (until this moment in my diatribe-of-discontent the stylisations and motifs I have used were genderless, after all, within those other exhibitions nobody ever conjures any male gods – for obvious reasons, the shows aim to channel the anti-rational in order to challenge dominant systems of power)… standing stones, Tarot cards, incantations… enough already!
It’s not that this stuff isn’t vital and necessary and powerful, it’s just that Art has done its usual job of neutering any agency through a bland ubiquity of tasteful affectation. And it isn’t the first time that the bubbling-up of this alternative order of values has quickly become bloated, and thus tamed. The objects and language of arcane spirituality surface periodically in British culture, often at moments of cultural anxiety, when a rejection of the failing dominant order suddenly opens-up the possibility of new hope. The end of the First World War and the birth of radical modernism saw artists fleeing the city in search of ‘this ancient Albion’ titillated by Sir James Gordon Frazer (Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, Ithell Colquhoun, etc etc); TS Eliot and Rosamond Lehmann indulgently conjured seances, Ouija and visitations into their narratives, and so too did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, E Nesbit and the whole merry band of novel writers camped in (what we used to call) ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ modes. Just as modernism doesn’t really map concretely onto a specific window of time (it doesn’t actually start with a big bang), neither is/was it a definitive system of principals or ideologies (obviously…). So, the early 20th century modernists could easily and equally be rational imposers of order (tidy-uppers), playful dismantlers of convention (experimenters) or pursuers of the anachronistic and radically illogical (spirit seekers). The Victorians had entertained themselves with ghost stories, end-of-the-pier mystics and drawing room table-rattlers. And this didn’t really go away, but the extraordinary loss of young lives from all communities and families, twinned with a realisation that the sum total of the Progress of Man was the trenches (and later the gas chambers), primed a desire to reject a pursuit of rational explanations in favour of a far older means of connecting and communing with the passed-over.
As the second half of the 20th century gathered pace, a tweaked return to these ideas and obsessions meshed with the waning of faith in democratic politics, the crumbling of the architecture of the nuclear family, and with a groundswell challenge to the authority of the Christian church as moral arbiter (disseminated through law courts, schools and the BBC). The landscape of post-war austerity had mutated into a playground for an affluent and leisured society. TV-dinners were masticated in living rooms over episodes of Gormenghast while Colonel William Hawley hastily arranged for the re-erecting of Stonehenge. Derek Jarman’s performers became the cloaked celebrants of mysterious ancient rites in his flickering 8mm projections and Led Zeppelin wittered-on about Lord of the Rings and Aleister Crowley.
The anxieties of the first decades of the 21st century remain coloured by the spreading, disorienting impact of 1989 – ie the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the co-incident birth of the internet with its implicit atomising of identity and its provision of a brand new global platform for limitless consumption and for the casting of moral inditements over absolutely anybody and everybody. No wonder today’s TV-streaming menu is bulging with fantastical worlds populated by wizards, dæmons and stranger things. We stand shellshocked in the wake of the pandemic. We profess our faith in democracy and in science even though those systems have been found wanting, and we pacify ourselves with the same end-of-the-pier ghost-magic that was the ubiquitous counterpoint to the vile moralising of our Victorian forebears.
This exhibition is at once complicit in the soft occultist ubiquity, but it also hopes to exploit this ordinariness to make a case for an everyday haunting. Not here are the glens and moors, the fogous and the holy wells inhabited (as Roger Fry said of Claude…) by ‘some mild local deity’. Not here is the whiff of hippie ideologs or retro-stoned festival goers. Not here the tourist-friendly Green Man or ‘Obby ‘Oss with their implicit nationalism and barely concealed racism (‘but we’ve always done it this way…’). These six painters are drawn to the edges of towns and villages, to the places where people live and where people have died. It is after all more likely that this is where the most ghosts are. But this exhibition understands too what it means to be haunted by history, specifically by those writers and painters that came before. This is an exhibition of painting because painting acknowledges its perfect inability to be definitive. Every painting therefore is only ever an attempt to snare a spectre, an idea, a likeness. These attempts are joyous, they foster in us new questions about who? how? why? and they open to other questioning painters an invitation to become haunted by complex arrangements of figures (and the stories they tell). 8-year-old William Blake saw angels on Peckham Rye when Peckham was all fields, how many more gods and ghosts dwell there now?
DHB, Nov 2022