Tuesday, 26 February 2013

colour synchronicity

It's really quite weird how the colours I was using just before I went to India are basically the colours of the Mattancherri paintings. Ochre, deep red, and indigo (they made the green by layering indigo on top of ochre, apparently.....)

Of course, it's not that weird, because perhaps that's what attracted me to them in the first place (these photos have been enhanced, the originals are not so red/orange). But still. I would have been just as interested if they'd been blue and purple.

Monday, 25 February 2013

fragments of desire

Trying to process my recent trip to India I am very struck by this idea from David Whyte:

Ambition takes us towards a horizon but not over it - the line will always recede before our reaching hands. But desire is a conversation between our physical bodies, our work, our imaginations and the territory we seek. Ambition takes willpower and constant applications of energy to stay on a perceived bearing; desire demands only a constant attention to the unknown gravitational field which surrounds us and from which we can recharge ourselves every moment, as if breathing from the atmosphere of possibility itself. A life's work is not a series of stepping-stones onto which we calmly place our feet, but more like an ocean crossing where there is no path, only a heading, a direction, which, of itself, is in conversation with the elements. Looking back for a sense of reference, we see the wake we have left as only a brief, glimmering trace on the waters.

David Whyte, from 'Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity' 2001, Riverhead Books

Here, indeed, I am, with no stepping stones ahead of me, swimming in a warm bath of impressions and half-remembered sensations. But in the world that is my consciousness - the visible, and not so visible, processing of the wild and colourful world that was a month in Kerala - I seem to be feeling my way back to some kind of a home.

What is that sense of home, for me, wanting to make art, to find my own terms of reference? It seems to be an emotional, perceptual, visual, experiential sense of belonging. I have accidentally rediscovered that I belong to Indian ideas, to Indian colour, to smells and music and rocks and people and history and stone, as these things take their form in India. In asking myself how I'm going to respond to the paintings in the Mattancheri Palace, a life's history walks quietly onto the stage.

It started when I first heard about a particular kind of folk painting in North India - storytelling murals that were unrolled by travelling musicians and storytellers. I've never been able to trace the details precisely, but there was something about the storytellers painting in the eyes of the figures in the painting at the last moment, and a kind of magical enlivening taking place through the placing of this eye.

Many years later, this story had turned into a degree dissertation project in South India, investigating the process of enlivening carved statues of God within Indian temples (in the sense of persuading God to literally and actually descend into the image). I interviewed temple builders, stone carvers and professors of Vaishnavism, learning how matter becomes ritually transformed.

When I lost the courage to pursue this fascination, all of it went underground. Until it began to reappear last year. I couldn't say then what was coming together, just put it onto the page and waited. 'The body adorned' was a crucial moment.  I tried just to follow the path that was opening up but it started to get complicated. For a while I tried to tease out some kind of feeling for connections between the body, the earth, and metaphysics. But in the end something revolted, and all of that conceptual difficulty was seen off by the return of my natural forms/fractals. I tried to follow. Then I tried a looser touch. Nothing seemed to be coming together, but the ghosts kept moving towards me. Haunting me, with their outlines of sensation. And then they were gone.

Except, actually, they weren't. They had just taken on a different form; the form that the images and statues were always trying to point at anyway. I still couldn't see it, of course. Still wondering where the Indian gods had gone. In the end, I just started to accept their curious expansion.

In January, 2013, I went to India, after being away for 18 years. In the last place we stayed in Kerala, the old spice capital of Kochi (formerly Cochin), and with no particular intention, I found Mattancheri Palace (16th to 18th Century). Which was internally adorned with the most astonishing murals I had ever seen. You're not allowed to photograph them, or even draw them, without permission. Vast areas of shining plaster wall seething with shapes and forms, mesmerising in their intensity; an endless repetition of ochre and deep red, with occasional flashes of green, spots of black and white.

The body adorned. The palace adorned, as an enlargement of the king. Not in the sense that we use 'adorned' or 'ornament' in English - in the ancient Indian traditions ornament, beautification, strengthens and protects - increases the perfection and power of the king, but also attracts larger powers from elsewhere. Reproductions on the internet of the Mattancheri paintings mostly focus in on details - 'here is Vishnu lying on the serpent', 'here is the battle of ....'. But what fascinates me is not so much the nature of the extraordinary details, but the feeling of standing in front of the entire wall.

Which takes me right back to my long-standing fascination with the (1st-5th century) cave paintings of Ajanta, which were apparently designed to be multi-sensory ritual experiences, possibly involving hallucinogens (or so Richard Lannoy believes...). The paintings there, now faded, would apparently have been intense, brightly coloured, but eerie; dancing out of a half-visible, flat space packed with overlapping forms, viewed only by flickering oil lamp, as part of total ritual experiences involving eyes, body, and voice, with music and drums echoing around the dark stone walls.

So here I am, right back in the centre of the body adorned. And this time, seeing not only that the mural is the architectural adornment (and therefore magical empowerment) of the body of the king, but that the sensation of facing these adorned walls is somehow not dissimilar to the sensation of all the patterns and repetitions and novelty that I have been painting for three years and thinking of as 'natural forms'. In the end, some kind of meaning comes despite your best efforts to sabotage yourself. It's the human way.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

a new year

I've just got back from a month in South India. It was wonderful to restore my relationship with all that I love there after a break of 18 years. I didn't do a lot of work. I did these two paintings early on, inspired by poppadums...

And one about a bitter gourd..

After that I just soaked everything in.

Right at the end of the trip, I visited Mattancheri Palace in Kochi, where I found these astonishing mural paintings. They've returned me to some ideas I've been thinking about for a long time in relation to mural paintings at Ajanta, which were done some centuries earlier. I have to do something now in response to this. Let's see....