This is Not a Landscape: CHRISTOPHER BUCKLOW 2014

“ Technique is useless without divine fury “ said Peter Stiles.

We were talking about how the work was going, and Peter was quoting from one of his favourite authors, Iris Murdoch.

“ I like that phrase very much,” he explained,  “in my mind, the word fury is associated with The Furies.”

In Ancient Greece these entities were personifications of unconscious forces that pursue an individual. I remarked that this meant they were incarnations of our deepest motivations made flesh in half human, half animal form.

“Yes” he agreed, “certain kinds of experiences pursue you.”

At the time we were speaking, this patch of our conversation seemed to be about allowing one’s most central nature to power the work, to pursue its own goals. But on reflection, I see  beneath this, we were also talking about trying to make art that reflects our complete being.

This is the full passage from Murdoch’s book: ‘The artist’s worst enemy is his eternal companion, the cosy dreaming ego… the highest art is powered by the force of an individual unconscious mind, but then so is the highest philosophy; and in both cases technique is useless without divine fury.’

Obviously, Murdoch isn’t denigrating technique here, she is advocating is a partnership with divine fury. This marriage of technique and the divine reflects a complete form of human nature. It seems that ‘technique’ might stand for conscious, ego-controlled intention and ‘fury’ as the underlying unconscious emotional motivation. Such a marriage is espoused by another of Stiles’ favourite authors, the poet Ted Hughes. In his great academic study, ‘Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being’, Hughes explores the unity and completeness of being he finds in Shakespeare’s psyche.

But he does so from the position of one looking from a time where that unity has long been destroyed. This is Hughes’ fascination with Shakespeare, and he explores the divorce of these energies in modern culture. During his degree at Cambridge, when he had to write critical essays on other authors, Hughes dreamed he was a charred and burnt fox. Clearly, imbalance, getting unhitched, or returning to a single state, that of rational analyst, even for a short while, carries its perils. The overly ego-illuminated modern West has been single and charred now for several centuries.

* * *

Peter Stiles is, of course, a landscape painter. But what does this mean, ‘a landscape painter’? I would say that it doesn’t mean that he paints the landscape. This is not a paradox, for what it really means is this: that the things that he chooses to speak about human nature with are the things that he finds in the landscape. [1]

Here’s a story that will make this point clearer. The choreographer Christopher Bruce once came to my studio. We talked about minimal dance, and minimal music. I was saying I preferred a fuller style, with human narrative, the implication being that this human content was somehow emptied out of minimal work. However, Christopher said to me “Yes, but it’s all human”, and suddenly I was reminded that I also believe that everything is human. In art, nothing is there as itself, it is there because of what it means to a human being, even an empty stage, or a silent piece of music, these are both symbols of a human state of being. This is also central to Blake’s thought, and yet he too would often forget, which is the reason that he hated Wordsworth, whom he mistook for a poet of nature and the landscape. Wordsworth is a poet of human nature, and this too is what the landscape is to a painter. The objects of the world are the things the painter speaks through about the ideal state of the soul.

One might ask “Is the sky a thing, is the earth a thing?” A waterfall, is more comfortably a ‘thing’, and so is a spring, or a stream or a tree. But when they are painted, when they are chosen by an artist as ‘words’ in his language, all of them most certainly are things, and they are words in a human language. These paintings evince Peter Stiles’ chosen things, his chosen language.

The place becomes the person. Peter paints one place place, Welcombe in North Devon.  These are his holy wells, his springs. That rock in the sea? It’s him. The sea also. Welcombe is Peter.  Someone like Jung would have a lot to say about holy wells and springs and their interest for the psyche, and I don’t need to spell it out in detail. Suffice to say that although Peter Stiles will have many other personal meanings for these things, based on his memories of his childhood visits with his parents, and countless other experiences,  Welcombe has become his allegory of the phenomenon of creativity, an allegory of the mysterious resources that flow to make his work.

The imagery, the aspect of the work that is from the world comes from the fact that the mind reaches out for metaphors to symbolise its condition and direction of development, its ideals. So because these metaphors are from the outside world, the work may appear, superficially, to be about the world. It is fitting to mention here that in a recent interview, Stiles mentions that for some years he has stopped working in situ, in front of the scene that he paints. The objects and the place depicted in the painting, now come from his imagination [2] So Welcombe is Stiles, and yet it for us it is Welcombe too, for we are apt to forget our projecting nature. Perhaps it is too much of a burden to see too clearly the way that we see, the way that mind is in the world, colouring everything.  Moreover, something in us craves not being us, and there is a joy in the fields that comes from this voluntary, necessary, chosen blindness.

* * *

What else can we say about the nature of Peter Stiles’ language? What does he say in general? What strikes one immediately about the paintings is that they are beautifully composed. He achieves a kind of asymetrical balance, a ‘unity in variety’ as it was once called. [3] But composition is human too. Balance in art is never just balance, balance in art is symbolic of human balance, usually a kind of psychic balance, a state of poise.

A few weeks ago I visited Welcombe for the first time and walked with Peter around the scenes that had seeded the work. I came in the full knowledge that his vision would have transformed the sites very radically and that paintings such as these would be very different from the actual places. But even with this in mind I was surprised to see how huge the difference was. Clearly, almost non of the colour would be close, but almost non of the lines were observed also. Particularly thrilling was to see the tiny, channeled, field-edge stream that inspired the superb waterfall images in this exhibition.  This series have become a set of variations on a theme, leading to each other and capable of vast extension. We find a palette not unlike the colour employed by Gauguin in Tahiti, here in a North Devon landscape. It is the palette of highly charged emotion. Peter Stiles is fond of saying that a painting is woven from strands much like a carpet is. I asked him to send me some of the strands of feeling from Sand Lane site in Welcombe where the little stream falls all of a foot into a small pool. All I knew was that he associated it with the vitality of the lives of his mother and father. This is what he sent me:

“The fountain at the centre of the walled garden – always flowing always springing – early days of Welcombe discovering this source.

Water bursting forth from the rock… hemmed in, the underground river of feeling is suddenly visible – when depression had come and in the struggle to overcome it something suddenly happened – first time I painted that particular waterfall (1990?) Painting it in a very different way to anything I’d painted before.

Scattering my mother’s ashes there and in the knowledge that someday my father’s ashes would lie there too.

Associated forms/feelings – generator, in the circular movements – antlers and skull in the trees – vulva/mouth/cleft – waters breaking – a slit through which the light of the universe can be glimpsed (memory of a moment when I was about seventeen).

Memories – an adder falling from the sky in front of me (it must have been moving along a branch) into the water, which it hated, and moving to the shallows where it opened its mouth and made a threatening guttural hissing noise.

The fountain in the heart always generating, constant.

The slit through which something else comes in.

Reciting poetry at the ceremony when we scattered my mothers ashes, my daughter reading a poem she’d written about her Granny about late nights and trains which she associated with  visits to see her when she was ill.

In certain lights – the (Shakespeare) phrase “gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy” which brings to mind all the rivers I have seen in that light.

I can go on and on until I bring to mind practically everything because it is associated with everything else.”

* * *

There is an interview with Peter Stiles in the current issue of Frome Life. Here he mentions that he has an interest in Christian Neo-Platonism. Mindful that the last great Platonists were Renaissance Christian figures such as Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, whose Christianity is frequently minimized today, I asked him if the Christian part was actually a necessary one for him. His reply was interesting:  “I recognise that my Christian upbringing has to a certain extent, structured the way that I think. In my early teens I went through an ecstatic religious phase, then made an intellectual decision not to believe in God because although I knew that he existed, any naming, concept or knowledge of God created a false image.

This was all very early on, before I left home and went onto art school. There’s a tendency when discussing the history of Western art and thought to treat  Christianity as if it’s an outmoded superstition which can, with careful surgery, be cut out of the body leaving only the metaphors behind. Yes, those metaphors are part of my tool kit when I think or make art, but nowadays I’m interested in the truth of images. The garden of Eden can be a metaphor for a primal state of consciousness and given that I’m not arguing for Eden’s historical existence, I can still state that the image is more true than the metaphors which rise like mist from it’s waters.  Plato’s republic was no place for a painter.  Christianity is incarnation and therefore, despite the best efforts of Puritans with their buckets of whitewash (and my own youthful theology) – image.”

 

‘Image’ has in interesting history within Platonism. In a way it is the central theme of the whole movement, for the physical world is considered to be an image – a mere image, one must add, to be true to its values  – of the generating Forms beyond the physical, incarnated universe. But one has to be very careful with painters and this kind of thing, for the experience that is looked for in the act of painting is very much of the concrete and embodied type. Still answering my questions about his interest in Neo-Platonic thought, there is this, for instance:

“I don’t want to make objects that either illustrate or generate generalisations, abstractions or ideas. I think of myself as rather like those pioneering scientists who used their bodies as measuring devices; testing new drugs by injecting themselves or comparing  the  intensity of jellyfish stings  by  plunging their arms into tanks containing different species.  If the effect of the picture I’m making is to wake me up into the world, fine – if I remain inside the purblind dream of my day to day concerns its not working.”

I couched my next question in a way that asked what it was about the truth of images that energized him. His reply was energizing in itself:

“In my 20’s I used to carry around small reproductions of paintings by Frans Hals. I had a tendency to a particular  kind of introspection back then which closed me down – whenever I felt such a mood coming on, I would glance at the Hals and receive a belt of energy that would stimulate me to do something, talk to someone, make something. Nowadays I’m captivated by Rembrandt, but back then  if I looked at one of his pictures I would feel sucked into his world and belittled by it.  If you tried to enter a Frans Hals painting in the same way that you enter a Rembrandt painting, certain energies are accepted, others rejected, reflected back at you. And I could use that reflected energy to get things done.

I’m not in that state anymore and things are more complicated nowadays  but its still the experiential effect of paintings, colour, line, form, that ‘energises’. “

* * *

There is one more general thing that I would like to say about the choice of landscape as a language, which I hope will be relevant here. As a sufficient and legitimate subject for art, landscape arose in the late Eighteenth Century, at the time when the Great Western Divorce was final (temporarily final, one hopes). As a subject for painting, landscape existed in a polar pair with images of the human world. This polarity is how the two genres generate their meaning. In fact the role landscape had was as a symbol of the ‘not human’ and was part of the cult of virgin nature.  But as I have already said in reality this was all deeply, fundamentally human. The human part of virgin nature is that it is a symbol for the inner, uncultivated part of the psyche. Ego consciousness on the other hand, defined itself as all human, indeed, all that there was of the human, as if the unconscious does not exist at all. So the landscape movement arose as a result of the Romantic disparagement of the Rational, and indeed, the rise of the cult of landscape was accompanied by the cult of the child and the cult of drugs and the cult of the mad, all of which are cut from the same anti-rational cloth. In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, the child is symbolic of a privileged state being before acculturation and before the psyche is colonized by education. Drugs are simply the means of quietening down that acculturated part and letting the virgin aboriginal part have some say (and we get instances of Wordsworth and Coleridge smoking opium in Grasmere). The cult of the mad, interest in artists such as Richard Dadd, are all part of this Romantic Period phenomenon too. But if we look where all this led we can see that we are still within Romanticism in important respects (despite all the propaganda of so-called Postmodernism). We still prize the art of the mad,  Outsider art is still of great interest today. In the twentieth century, Picasso took the interest in the nature of the child a step further and began painting like a child, and the use of drugs and booze lived on in the life of people like Pollock and Burroughs to name but two. Postmodern interest in the ‘de-centred self’ sounds like a decidedly Romantic concern to me.

All of this is of interest in thinking about Peter Stiles’ subject matter and the affinity he has for landscape. I was going to say his ‘choice’ of landscape, but that is not the way it works, there is no choice in these things. Peter Stiles’ attraction to landscape favours one side of the marriage. But within his imagery there is an emphasis of completeness of being and there are masculine and feminine aspects unified in the subject matter: wells and tunnels of light, squirting waterfalls and enclosing pools. His very name, Peter, suggests this line of interpretation; Peter from the Latin petra, from Greek petros – rock – bleak masculine energy rising from a field of ocean.

* * *

Finally, to return to our opening conversation, I followed up on Peter’s sense of being pursued in the work, his earlier statement that certain kinds of experience pursue one, and I asked him to enlarge on the topic:

“If you catch yourself in a dream being pursued by some terrifying entity you should turn and face it – and if necessary be annihilated.

One dream – I was living in a dusty twilit projection room. My job was to look after the gigantic cinema projectors – I lived and slept in this room never going out.  I realised the sun must be shining very brightly outside as the screens covering the windows had begun to glow orange.  I heard the sound of a ladder being extended and then the bump of the ladder against my window sill and someone began to climb up. This was utterly terrifying. I saw the silhouette of a man against the orange glow, he lifted the window and clambered in to murder me, I woke up screaming. But I remembered that the silhouette of the man was my own silhouette, hair sprouting wildly.

The two different kinds of imagination I was talking about – one involves keeping the projectors running, the other is the sun outside.

The kind of imagination that Murdoch describes as the enemy of art is dangerous because it can replace art, you can pick up your paintbrush and your job is to maintain the projectors – to keep sustaining the illusions – and this activity can become obsessive. But what you’re really waiting for is the sunshine “outside”.

Painting can feel like you are tethering a goat in order to catch a tiger.

You have to be able to stand still and let the thing catch you.”

 

 

 

Notes:

1. For me, this is the condition of all work.

2. Though as a scholar of Coleridge he has a special understanding of imagination:

“I find the use of the word “imagination” frustrating.  It is too general a term.  The effort made by Coleridge to distinguish between imagination and fancy is crucial.

When Plato uses the word eikasia it means imagination but it is the kind of imagination that stops us being able to distinguish between reflections in a mirror/ dreams/ fantasy and reality. When Simone Weil refers to imagination as filling up the cracks through which grace enters – she is talking about the kind of personal fantasy that Murdoch is referring to.  The difference between imagination as the primal generating force of reality and the habitual use of the word imagination to describe the creation of unreality  is so great, the two uses are so opposed, that people often denote the former by referencing the divine.”

3. Uvedale Price