Notes from the Zone: Towards a new barbarism of expression.
Some notes about prehistoric art objects, images and notions about shamanism/performance art.
I paint and draw not what I see, but what I am temporarily permitted to inhabit with my imagination. Taking a leaf from the book of Zen, I aim to create images that spontaneously capture the fleeting, cursory appearance of objects found imbued with character: painted bones, post medieval lead alloy toys, fragmentary pilgrim’s badges, Tudor iron nails, bent brass pins, doll’s heads, a piece of ossified fungus, a Roman cow bone arm and hand, prehistoric clay figurines and heads etc…. I am evoking a quality of the surface textures, patterns and magical properties, giving birth to the possibility of making a semblance, an apparition, or a metamorphosis in paint. Arriving at the moment of discovering this image is achieved through a combination of intuition and willed accident. It is only when I am semi -conscious of what I am doing that interesting images begin to materialize seemingly from nowhere, perhaps teased out of me by the movement of paint on paper. For quite some time, I have been working on red paper manufactured in Germany. It’s called ‘Ursus fotokarton’ and is very heavy duty with a smooth sheen to the touch. The sequence and cycle of works I have been creating are simply numbered as Ursus 1, 2 ad infinitum. The deep red dye of the paper serves as a violent background to juxtapose and manipulate my forms and morphic homunculi upon. I am tending towards a mottled palette that reflects something buried: browns, blacks, white, grey, pale blue, milky pink. These colours reflect the cityscape that occupies my urban life. The umbers and ochres could be reminiscent of a more ancient accent rendered in clay or a vagabond fecality. Always, there is the potential for one of my paintings to evoke a turd. Somewhere between the deliberate slip and spill of paint, there is an intense potency that pulses like a lamp from a time of great darkness, which filters through into our realm of human experience as a spectral reminder of the forms gob smacked into being by my clogged brushes. Perhaps the gestural slight of hand, thus ‘painting it out’ is the illumination of the encroaching dark, and a recapturing of psychic resonance particular to the many curios I employ as motifs? Painting then, is the lighting up process that dispels the swelling blackness. Switching on the senses, it makes us more alive to its magical allure. The figures and forms I am dealing with are nearly all totemic and nameless within my haptic, free association picture stories. They are evolving from paint as a physical substance, rather than from a premeditated scheme or sketch. I am literally sculpting them out of the mess and muck of paint as a stand in for clay. Their origins are far more mysterious and organic than I can explain, but they are definitely repeat performers in shifting scenes that migrate from picture to picture. By articulating the animal inside I am breathing life into a profusion of slithering shadows, the tints and hues of which are the meat and bones of a barbaric picture which starving eyes hungrily devour. Painting is a kind of disembowelment of the senses, in which raw emotive power is channeled through paint and gropes towards a new barbarism of expression in a homage to the prehistoric and primordial, wallowing in the steaming guts and shit of history. This in essence, is a rite of passage charged with the possibility for regenerative picture making. Such an operation is akin to the precognitive urge of creative expression through manna – the life force beyond humdrum reality – I am evolving images within the paint in a kind of blighted alchemy of sensual perception. The stunted, displaced forms that vie for my attention are boluses and turds eviscerated from a larger body of work, extracted during long time shifts during ritual actions. These half-digested images are given significance by the gesture of a living corporeality and through much disorientation. I am unconcerned with finish or finesse. There are mistakes and dribbles, splatters and unresolved movements left in the picture if they appear to work. When the paint is wet it glistens, giving the semblance of thick black-red blood heaving on a quivering membrane – literally, the great expanse sags under the weight of paint as it is applied in gobs, causing the surface to ‘breathe’. Similarly, steam arises from paint encrusted hands when working on huge interactive images. The steam emanates from the body in tendrils of motion journeying outwards. Certain types of dramatic lighting heighten the visual effect and tension redolent in the living picture tableaux. Thus, the painted facade of an image is a rippling skein of skin, a fluctuating organism, that expires as it dries and solidifies, becoming the ghost of a picture which inevitably turns to dust with the passing of time. During a ritual of many hours an image is recovered from paint, explored, abandoned, over-painted, finding summation not in immediately discernible imagery but in the presence of pattern and mark making that seems to chronicle the disjointed flow of events. These are punctuations (punctum) of annotated moments in an unfolding performance. I am thinking about the use of different sized dots and curved lines which overlap the animalistic, figurative components. Some people have observed that these are reminiscent of water elementals (serpentine forms) and the abstract linear motifs often seen in cave art (Lascaux, Cougnac, France). Incidentally, I use a type of black gouache manufactured in France, called Lascaux and bearing the motto, ‘the spirit of colours’. A quest for a new barbarism of expression stems from the dark grottoes of deep history. This is the site of articulation and dismemberment that preoccupies and propels me. Here, I perform an autopsy in paint on the bloated, tumescent bodies that shuffle into view and disintegrate within the profusion and manipulation of paint. In a typical Caton image one can determine a cast of characters that will become familiar to the viewer: bird head gods, a table top/shrine/altar loaded with deities, disembodied arms and hands, a large ‘sleeping head’ rattle heads, skulls, chariots and carts, twigs, hearts, bell jars, tubing, rusting nails and iron ware, fragments of pottery figurines, Roman glass phials and objects…The list is endless.
Leafing through a haphazard compendium of miniature books, assembled over years, I am drawn to the gouged ‘cuts’ (woodcut illustrations) that beckon for our curiosity. Here we are unnerved by the blackened scales and talons of grimacing demons, and lured sheepishly into an arcane world of bubbling, unimaginable superstition, jiggery-pokery and moribund meditations, thumbed in the blackened margins. All manner of spooks, monstrosities, and ghouls appear on the yellowed, creased pages, tickling us with menace, like a flea cavorting in a sow’s ear. The impression of the block in reverse is the solitary domain of the unbidden like the mythical world beyond the looking glass. We pass through the frightful hell mouth to the other side of a pictorial reality. This world is shrunk down to a microcosm of demented characters that amble and veer off the crumbling pages in a writhing fury of muttered spells and incantations, clawing at contemporary interpretations with ribald contempt. It is astonishing how poignantly these imps and familiars remind us of our own smug pet-demons – the politicians and celebrities of a collapsing media obsessed culture. As a savant of the outré, I am able to transplant these horrific beings onto the manicured, airbrushed, mug shots of our very own contemporary, self-serving, scapegoats of excess and banality. Yet, aside from the crude comparisons and juxtapositions, which have existed throughout the history of caricature,I am drawn to the quirky Lilliputian landscapes scratched and scored into printing blocks. This is the domain of Widdershins, where everything goes against the grain and revolves counter clockwise. Here there is no concept of time, there is just the image to cope with. Within these pages we are tourists in the country of the ignoble, misshapen pygmy stumbling through a blasted and oversized hinterland – the product of the 18th century engraver’s gin sodden reveries. Clogged with the dried furrows and runnels of evaporated ink, grease and the foulness that is fluff, these blocks reveal a history of anatomical improbabilities, alchemical hybrids, and chimeras. These are the pictures of the post-medieval mind, feverishly cooked up to warn sinners and radical thinkers from straying too far from the controlling doctrines, systems and authority of the ruling elite. To scrutinize such a block is to travel unsteadily along its uneven, topsy-turvy dimensions in a stupor suffused with the clamor of the long dead, yawning then yammering inside our heads, screaming of the apocalypse to come. These printed impressions often bled through to the other side of the paper divulging the tracery of their spirit within the book, spreading rank secretions to form silhouettes on the other side of knowing. These are pictures that can only been glimpsed momentarily in mirrors, pictures for the enucleated eyes of heretics. The intensity of the ink highlights their gruesome attraction with its simulacrum: gore. With their gross imperfections and ugliness to our modern minds, they represent everything we are brainwashed not to be in our age of instant information and cosmetic surgery. We are temporarily catapulted into their world; a brooding, off-limits zone accessed only via the guttural sputtering of the inked in borders or the trap door in the side of the fairy ring. We are exiles in a rectangular enclave, amongst the spatially distorted, sloping townscapes in which buildings appear smaller than their gnome-like occupants. We eavesdrop on the quirky playmates of a pestilential yesteryear, making merry around gnarled totems and the gangrenous fetishes of the day, their suppurating buboes excreting vanishing ink into the dislodged vertebrae of the book. Wobbling speech balloons (bladders of invective, prototypes of ufo’s) announce in a demoniacal tongue, the phonetic expressions of the day, resounding with ‘halloo’ and ‘harken’ amongst the shrubbery that sprouts along the borderlines with promiscuous fervour. We have arrived in the province of the reigning ogre, searching for clues in horror vacui. Here is the domain of the grotesque! Like children’s chalk drawings on playground walls, their meaning disperses with the arrival of rain and erasure. In this event the storm is in the eye of the beholder and these images can only be banished through a hail of tears. Without superstition and sympathetic magic such images have no sense or usefulness to modern eyes and are blithely dismissed as obtuse or ‘creepy’. However, the territory is fecund with possibility and ignites the cautious observer with the compulsion to speculate on the new substrata of a pictographic story. We travel through the block and the tattered remnants of these books to the image outside of history, probing us with its mandibles and appendages until we utter a long, resounding scream. Such stuff nightmares are made of, and the occupation of absorbing this imagery is a lifelong stigma.
The performance on the cover
The cover of a much worn 1969 paperback of short stories, ‘More Tales of Unease’(edited by John Burke) owned as a teenager, depicted a little girl, wearing long white socks and a frilly dress, mounting a crooked staircase clasping her toy bear, en route to the kingdom of unknown horror at the top of the Freudian steps. Her head has been transplanted with that of a disfigured, ravaged face ( strongly resembles the ‘The Mule Woman’ aka Grace McDaniels 1888-1958 a sideshow performer). With its frightening juxtaposition of youth and mortality, and its psychadelic typography this must be one of the most unsettling book covers of all time. What malingering obsession brought me to the point where I avidly sought identical copies on the internet, in frantic searches of secondhand book shops? Each book is slightly different in condition and appearance, some with scored, chipped covers, faded ballpoint inscriptions, dates, doodles, price stamps in shillings, dog-eared corners, here and there the remnants of a dried up food stain, the grey pages rubbed by extinct greasy hands, the Rorschach test of an incautious insect that crept between the pages and was summarily flattened to a loathsome liquid pulp – each copy intensifies a moment of expressionistic voyeurism which is perhaps akin to the feeling aroused in the study of grotesque imagery and horror films. Is this book another version of the much earlier, diabolical block book printed for a pre-literate age, describing similar escapades of mental imbalance in the form of ‘entertaining histories’? The model on the cover photograph was carefully made up, staged, and lit as if in a tableaux vivant or a promotional still for a supernatural movie. Moreover, it’s also a kind of performance in which we – the readers – are the spectators of this frozen, horrible spectacle. The book cover persists with its power to shock 45 years after its original publication.
Images of anthropomorphism pervade my recollections of childhood games in which collected stones or bits of tree roots were transformed into animal heads with smears of paint or crayon – others were made in supervised juvenile art classes, from terracotta clay, treacle glazed and fired, only to be lost in the erratic geographical movements of time and place, from one habitat to another. Another book, glimpsed in the school library, depicted a gargantuan moth emerging from a boy’s cranium – years later I began to experiment with objects and poppets attached or taped to my head in performances. I have since learned, that this is hypothetically an unconscious re-working of the myth of Zeus giving birth to Athena from his cleft brain-pan. However, I seldom work with such literal concepts in mind and the process is far more abstract or arbitrary than I, or other people might think. This odd engagement with the head/masks and small dolls has persisted for nearly 30 years and would form the basis of an entirely different discussion yet to be written, but probably best forgotten.
With the study of miniature images comes the arresting experience of the weird figurine from prehistory. It is generally understood that many prehistoric terracotta figurines (heads, body trunk, limbs) were intentionally broken in ritual acts involving the deliberate dismemberment and scattering of an idol (eye doll?). Modern interpretations posited by credible archaeologists assume prehistoric figurines to be idols or representations of goddesses, although few can venture any further than this with an explanation, and most shy away from making an imaginative conjecture in case they offend some other ‘expert’ who will publically chide them for the originality of their concept. Despite these enervating limitations, I would like to propose that we view these items as fetishes that may also have been occult talismans or highly stylised caricatures of deceased members in a community. The bits and pieces of these small sculptural objects may also have been funerary totems, planted in the earth as companions for the dead on their journey into the afterlife, or offerings to unknown deities that presided as sentinels over the grave and their decomposing occupants. The fragment in essence, becomes a fetishistic figment, the surviving aspect of the dislocated whole, the only part of a story remaining that is told without the use of words. We, the contemporary viewers, imbue the remnant fragment with spurious significance perhaps bordering on the brinkmanship suggestion of deification, to elevate its rarity and desirability for unforthcoming secret knowledge. Its language is thus transformed by a destructive gesture (it is physically snapped in two by the hands) possibly to release an animus or spirit from what we might conceive of as a psychic power battery, that in supernatural belief structures might gift a clan with beneficial, wish-fulfillment agencies.
Certainly, anthropomorphism plays an intriguing role in the many mesmerising examples that have been dug up. The heads of these figurines have an animalistic quality of metamorphosis that merges and morphs into bird-like features, often suggestive of elongated noses or beaks. I call them ‘shnozzles’. This is especially notable in the heads of the Neolithic Vinca culture (now modern day Serbia) and in these surviving decapitations we are treated to a private audience with the red beak goddess. Intricate patterning and indentations with ragged fingernails suggest that these figurines may also have imitated body decoration, adornment, tattoo and scarification. Perhaps these markings also emulate the motion of garments during a dance that accompanied rituals? On a purely aesthetic level many Neolithic figurines have the possibility of evoking the work of some 20th century artists and even seem to evince something of the urbane angularity of cubism prevalent in the work of Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi and Ossip Zadkine. Moreover, the work of Henry Moore springs to mind – particularly the sculptural heads he was making around 1950. I am entranced by the oversize conical/phallic heads with their ‘goggle eyes’ (visors?) that abound within the Dogu (Jomon Period) figurines from prehistoric Japan – are we looking at the watchers of the dead through their own ancient occluded lenses? These insect-like, sightless eyes, stare back into the face of our unquenchable thirst for literal interpretation yet we have few answers to offer. Some contemporary theories propose that these goggle headed figures are representations of an earlier alien visitation of Earth. A whole culture of iconography and commerce has grown around this science fiction story line which may in fact not be so far from the truth as we might imagine. Talk to any alien abductee (and there are thousands of them) for another perspective on these figurines! Perhaps though, it is we who are the real aliens that now view these effigies with an impenetrable scrutiny through the lens of our third eyes – our smart phones? If the figurines were the talismans of shamans unwittingly made to travel through millennia and appear in our time as some sort of mystical power totem, then we must also be the initiators of the magic that accompanied their entombment, activating their slumbering intentionality with a living, pullulating animism. We must give succor to the seed to germinate a living corporeality.
In 2013 I visited a Breughel exhibition in Rome, which was tucked away in a 16th century palazzo. Amongst the many lopsided Baroque paintings I noticed two that depicted a grotto in which the artist depicted fountain decorations comprising of shells. In both paintings the shells formed eccentric heads with bulbous noses, protuberant eyes and malformed ears or horns. I quickly made some sketches of these heads and upon my return to London sourced a lot of different types of shells and began to play. After some weeks I had created about a dozen ‘grotesque’ heads and familiarized myself with the work of Guisseppe Arcimboldo (1527-93) a 16th century painter famous for his disquieting bust portraits of people ingeniously composed of fruit, flowers, fowl, fish and fungi). I had also started searching for the somewhat kitsch and barbaric shell ornaments of owls and animal faces made by self-taught artists which can usually be found in charity shops (thrift stores) that always seem to reek of urine, located in the poorer regions of the city. The heads I made were all painted brown and streaked with cream in imitation of treacle glazed ceramics such as the Whieldon Toby Jug’s of the 1790’s. I began to incorporate bones, twigs and stones found in the muddy foreshore of the river Thames during various foraging expeditions. Subsequently, these heads were used in a performance, ‘Sticks, Stones and Bones’ in Norwich’s Undercroft, beneath the City Hall. In this vast subterranean space that resembled an underground nuclear bunker, I illuminated the heads with small hand held torches creating fantastic distortions and shadows which seemed to momentarily animate their features, giving the impression that they were living, totemic beings. Cue: portable prehistoric cave art at this point.
One aspect seldom explored is the potential use of speech or noises made during ancient burial rituals. Were the figurines given a particular voice by a shaman? Did each one have its own reedy accent and intonation enacted by other participants? Were dialogues formed of carefully practiced and protracted grunts and belches or other guttural utterances in keeping with the squat physiognomy of the figurines? Certainly, in what is generally understood to be a performance with modern day puppets, the object of fetish is personalized and has its own distinctive dialect and personality as enacted by the puppet master. Some figurines were obviously designed to hold/pour substances (blood, milk, urine, water, foodstuffs) into the grave and one another, and can be seen as transformative vessels that were used for decanting liquids either into the orifices of dead/living bodies or the open soil, perhaps with the intention of promoting a collective desire for regeneration/rebirth? The sound of liquid pouring from vessels (gurgling, sputtering, trickling) may have been accompanied with the ululation and whistling of the shaman and mourners, the grimacing and inverted eyes forming a hideous mien (a primordial form of gurning or face pulling?) In this sense, the figurine may have been switched on as a sort of spout delivering a life giving substance to inert idols and somewhat greenish rotting cadavers.
In creating a new barbarism of expression the artist/shaman commingles with the past/ present and projections of the future in a multidimensional portal that seethes with apocalyptic energy. Here the painted tableaux are physically made visible, then destroyed with large decorator’s brushes before our eyes. It seems that a painting is born from a bloody interlude and sacrificed on an altar to invoke the gods -serving both as a backdrop to events and a clandestine location for the incubation of forbidden dream prophecies. Masked and robed, the performer manipulates objects, probing them with trembling sticks covered in a glowing pigment, transforming the divination of poppets to form other worldly connotations, arcane nuances, that slowly reveal bloodlines of a disturbing reality. All the while there are baleful sounds from a repertoire of garbled extracts, the cacophonous vibrations which form an aural collage superimposed over ritual actions. Whilst making/deconstructing the performance there are other factors such as fluctuating body temperatures, profuse sweating, pungent earthy smells, the desire to urinate, a general heating up of the head, optical, spatial hallucinations known as entoptics, fatigue, ravenous hunger and thirst, the body/mind breaking through blundering exhaustion to a different realm of consciousness. These are some of the components in a game without rules, a conduit into another dimension, that practitioners commonly term the ‘zone’ (yet few can give any credence to what this zone might be). This is in essence the endgame of inching towards a new barbarism of expression.
October 2013 – February 2014.