It starts with a glance, a touch, an inner recognition. The eye is engaged. The senses alerted. The inner ears prick up. Something ripples between viewer and artwork. There's no substitute for seeing art live and face-to-face. I wrote the introduction for the Illumination catalogue, but seeing the work again in the exhibition space meant that this review pretty much typed itself. And there's still time to catch the show until 2nd December 2017 at Quay Arts, Newport, Isle of Wight.
And time is one of the themes addressed in paintings, drawings, prints and videos by Marius von Brasch and Howard Hardiman. The two artists' work differs markedly. But both bodies of work are informed by long-standing interest in mythology, and the symbols of metamorphosis and outward/interior transformation. The resulting work bridges ancient experiences of inner illumination and contemporary understandings of identities and relationships.
Hardiman’s drawings reach resolution via thousands of digital stylus marks, hand-rendered straight into code for printing. Many prints show the trans-species metamorphoses that mark crises in identity: new physical forms reveal aspects of interior character. The densities of marks describe tactile surfaces of skin, hair, fur, horn, scale and membrane. If ‘touching yields presence’ , these textural cutaneous forms provide the interface for bodily touch, facilitating the violent or tender relationships in Hardiman’s images.
And these textures are extraordinarily rendered. In Artemis (above) we sense the dangerously touchable fur of the goddess in the form of mother bear and the loose-woven tunic of the girl-child yielding to her kiss.
And we can feel the textures of Harmonia’s loosening hair and robe brushing the scales of her husband’s skin, newly metamorphosed as a snake (Harmonia and Cadmus, above). Crucially, the image shows the moment of her embracing and enacting her divinity, deciding to join Cadmus by metamorphosing herself into a snake as well.
Hardiman's drawings don't only set forth the textures of relationships. They give visual form to chronological time. Like a sophisticated version of the cinematic stock scene of the prisoner recording each day with a mark on the wall, Hardiman’s notations coalesce into whole swathes of time, encasing, rippling and folding around the characters. The marks make linear time visible, touchable and, indeed, wearable.
By contrast, von Brasch’s works contain private and subjective perceptions of non-linear time, more about interior becoming than exterior space and time. Von Brasch separates and re-combines alchemical motifs from a sixteenth century illuminated manuscript, Splendor Solis. Boats, stairways, doors, rivers, mountains, cities, architectural forms and frames presage stages of the inner journey. And sentient beings, animal and human - male, female and hermaphrodite - violent and peaceful, dead and alive, represent transitions in consciousness and life force.
Gaze at any von Brasch painting and some visual elements are identified immediately. In The Gift, for example (above), the roaring energy of the lion, breathing new life into the waning figure, is the dominant element of the composition. But then less prominent motifs, unnoticed at first or second glance, gradually come into focus. Suddenly another form is there - a snake, a bound child, a bridge, a body - hitherto unseen but hiding in plain sight.
Similarly in the Other Echoes series (no. 4, left), detail after detail reveal themselves, appearing, disappearing, and reappearing; threading in and out of visual awareness but without linear, narrative order. Looking at these paintings is like watching pixels flickering brighter and darker, too close to a digital screen to be able to take in the full picture.
In these works, time is more map than road. Without a forward-scrolling narrative, past, present and future times are laid out as if on a screen: a palette of possibilities rather than a chronological unfurling of timed seconds.
Inclusion and exclusion
Alchemy was never purely a chemistry project. Turning base metal into gold was a serious metaphor for transfiguration outside the theology and structures of the medieval church. Initiates were in danger of their lives for heresy, and in a secretive, ambiguous relationship with the wider community. The issue of who is in and who is out of the dominant social group, and how the excluded relate to the perceived mainstream, is an important undercurrent in von Brasch’s work, as it was in the original alchemical texts.
In von Brasch's video, Fugitive Frames (left), as with the paintings, the eye fastens on to the constantly changing digital surface, gathering diffuse visual and metaphorical clues that resist narrative. Richly layered images and sounds, male and female voices speaking and singing, shimmering and billowing surfaces, gates and journeys, offer an assemblage of contemporary allusions to alchemical symbols. Rather than standing back to focus and identify, ‘the eyes themselves function like organs of touch . . . more inclined to move than to focus . . . to graze rather than gaze.’ . The viewer may reach a tacit, provisional understanding, enjoying the parts without, perhaps, being able to grasp the whole. If von Brasch’s work leaves the viewer with a lingering sense that some kernel remains hidden, this may be an echo of the alchemists’ enforced secrecy and necessary exclusion of non-initiates.
The gods’ judgements and metamorphoses in Hardiman’s sources can be understood as dramatic forms of exclusion, as they re-draw the boundaries between divine, animal and human - for example, in the Callisto series of prints, Callisto becomes the Great Bear constellation. But in Hardiman's videos, the themes of inclusion and exclusion become strikingly explicit, as Deaf actors translate his scripts that re-imagine Harmonia’s and Callisto’s (below) experience.
For sign language users the syntax is clear. But non sign language users find themselves excluded. Those without the language cannot access the narratives, let alone the nuances. Even with knowledge of the stories, the silence is profound. This salutary dynamic, which positions hearing culture on the outside looking in, mirrors experiences of exclusion for the deaf community in particular. But it embraces anyone made to feel they do not belong by a dominant majority, because of disability, gender, sexual orientation or race.
Identities and relationships
In Hardiman’s Into the Woods (left), his self-portrait is caught in metamorphosis. Antlers erupt so suddenly from the forehead that they leave vapour trails behind. Something animal pushes through outward appearance and societal behavioural norms, offering one dimension of masculine experience, while questioning definitions of maleness.
Hardiman associates the image with the wild hunt of Norse/Germanic mythology: ghostly huntsmen in full cry pursue terrified prey though the forest. The threat of attack positions the subject as hunted rather than hunter, and poses questions without easy answers. Does he meet violence with violence, answering a mainstream definition of masculine identity? A definition, incidentally, that exerts a form of tyranny. Or does he hide, camouflage himself, or run? If he chooses self-preservation, can he satisfactorily define this as an alternative version of masculinity?
The male relationship with self and identity is addressed further in von Brasch’s Listening (below). The imagery derives loosely from the Brothers Grimm Jorinde and Joringel. The diptych presents a boy with a dilemma: his beloved is turned into the bird by a witch. A certain flower holds a dew drop like a pearl that can break the spell, but - how to find it?
The boy’s face appears to be emerging towards the viewer, coming into focus from within the pale blue paint. In his pronounced stillness and silence, we may imagine his interior dialogue. Meeting the observer’s gaze, he watches and waits: listening, considering, not knowing. Is he listening to the bird pleading for help? Or is the bird offering the perspective of the female part of his self?
By not-acting, by waiting rather than rushing to act, he learns to contain hope, fear and longing. An alternative version of what it is to be male is coming into focus as he listens within himself. Despite his introspection and vulnerability, or perhaps because of them, he consolidates his own version of emerging manhood, strengthening a sense of self and a different kind of potency in the world.
Shedding light on the subjective nature of time, on love, on relationship breakdown, on resistance to conformity and societal norms, on inclusion and exclusion, and on the personal construction of identity, the exhibition speaks to our shared humanity. Illumination offers not only new perceptions of ancient narratives, but also diverse narratives of perception: of how we may choose to interpret our relationships and define our selves.
1. Jacques Derrida (2005) On Touching - Jean-Luc Nancy. Stamford University Press, p.121.
2. Laura Marks (2000) The Skin of the Film. Duke University Press, p. 162. This type of looking is better described as haptic perception, from haptein, to fasten. It means a sensory engagement with the art object without necessarily or immediately defining what is being looked at. It is similar to enjoying a hard-to-identify microscopic image for what it is, even without being able to identify and name it.