A day after I wrote 'How did it come to this', I went back and added this line near the end:
'This is ironic, if it's true - that working from life, for me, kills the life force in my images'
How can this be? Isn't it the wonder and beauty (or horror and tragedy) of life that makes someone want to produce an image? How can 'working from life' - which many people working in the Euro/American tradition would probably agree is essential to make convincing, vibrant images - how can it be that working from life produce its opposite?
This all revolves, in my view, around how you see the purpose of your own art-making. For me, the purpose of having 'a precious human life' is to use yourself as a transformer. I wonder if not using yourself as a transformer is when 'dead' images appear.
One way of working that can allow you to bypass your own transformative capabilities is making paintings from photographs. Not paintings from your own photographs, which can act like notes to remind you of your own experience of actually being there... but finding a landscape, say, already neatly made into a 2 D image, and basically copying it. It can be technically instructive to do that, but on the whole the process doesn't lead to images that are alive, at least for me.
If you only focus on accuracy, say, drawing what's in front of you as 'true to life' as possible, you will become very good at accurate drawing. But there's also a chance that your drawing will be dead.
A drawing 'from' life, if it's only technical, lacks the life in the original object. The real object now is a piece of paper or a canvas. Which is not alive. So something has to happen to make the illusion on the paper live again.
I didn't understand how this worked for a long time. The beauty and mystery of a real world object would attract me, and I would want to respond. I had been taught that the appropriate response to something I liked visually was to try to reproduce it on paper. I'm not knocking this urge, or the delight the act can bring. I'm not saying that people can't produce wonderful things in response to this urge.
I did it for years, and I learnt many things about the private satisfactions of improving technique, of being able to 'capture' what was in front of me. But after a while I thought, yes, it feels lovely. But, so what? There are cameras now. I can do it for my own satisfaction in the feeling of doing, but, still, so what? Something was lacking.
I wasn't interested in the contemporary traditions of my own culture - their purposes somehow left me cold. I had no idea. I had a feeling, an instinct, towards wanting to make images that entered into some kind of darkness, some other layer. I remember a moment one day trying to paint tree trunks in Italy. I was staring at the darkness of the black trunks and I could feel it. I knew I had to try to express it but I had no idea how that could come about. I wanted to make paintings that would excite me on this level, even just for myself, so that I could look at a painting and actually feel something, feel moved. I wanted an image to have power, I wanted it to shift me around and spit me out in a different form.
I remember, very early on, reading something about Pat painters in India. Pat painters are itinerant storytellers who travel around singing stories as they roll out a long painted frieze that illustrates the story.
Contemporary Pat Painting about Aids
I think I probably got this mixed up with something else I read about images being 'enlivened'. Something about the eye being painted in last (it can't have been the Pat painters, because they don't paint the image live, as far as I know...). Anyway, a seed was planted. A seed about images having power. Not being accurate, not even having to be skillfully (for which often read, 'realistically'...) rendered. It didn't matter if the eye that was enlivened had eyelashes. Nobody cared if the face looked like it was attached to a body in the actual world, with the sun shining on it from the left. The point was the eye, looking at you.
This idea stuck with me through all the years of English teaching, through all my personal disasters, through all the scrabbling to make a living in various parts of the world.
Fast forward to the spring of 1994. I'm sitting in the office of a lecturer in Vaishnavism at Madras University in South India, staring at the painted stripes that run from his hairline to the point between his eyes; taking in the fact that a university lecturer is sitting behind his large oak desk with a bare torso, a sacred thread, wearing a dhoti; and noticing that in his right ear there's a square earring that these days I know (because now I'm doing a degree in Indian art and philosophy) contains 9 gems, each one of which has a particular significance.
I'm here to interview him about how a piece of regular rock, the kind of stuff that anyone can sit on at the side of the road, goes about the process of being transformed into an actual, living embodiment, of actual, only-on-of-them, God with a capital G (which, of course, no-one can touch). I don't know how I've blagged my way into his office, but everyone in South India is assuming because of my age that I'm at the very least a PhD student, and a lot of doors are strangely and very generously opening to me.
He tells me, in a very academic way, how the process of 'enlivening' through painting in the eye of a temple image takes place and is understood in the texts. Then, to my amazement, he slips seamlessly from his academic, analytical mind into his experiential body, and starts to tell me what it feels like to stand in front of an image of God and receive darshan. Darshan is the moment when the worshipper, standing in the dark womb heart of the temple, in front of the image, looks up, and his eyes meet the eyes of God.
It's like an electric shock, he said.
There it was. The image as transformer, a live conduit, and through it, the viewer of the image is enlivened and transported into a different sense of themselves.
In some traditions, there's only a mirror in the sacred centre of the temple, no image at all. And at the end of the Teyyam ritual in North Kerala, as the possessed dancer is coming out of their trance, they're shown a mirror, to receive darshan of themselves, transformed.