notes for a credo, chronicle, mea culpa
Jesus loves me, this I know, 'cos the Bible tells me so.
I have a memory from when I was quite young, a mental picture of the physical presence of the bible. I imagined it to be a robed woman with the head of a lizard, standing in a waist-high crude coil pot with a green glaze. She held a heavy opened book in both hands, and intoned from it in words I couldn't understand.
Little ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong.
I have no idea where that image came from. I was sent every Sunday morning with my brother and sisters to a Presbyterian Sunday school. Our parents rarely if ever went to church, but my mother, out of some sort of duty or possibly for protective colouration in a small town, or companionship, for a while attended a women's society called the Fireside Club. All I recall of it is that they made a sort of mosaic of the burning bush out of coloured pebbles, and displayed it at the annual village flower show from which the scent of freesias flowed down the main street.
My parents were at least agnostic and probably atheist. My father told me later that they thought we should know about christianity, and the grudging tedium of presbyterianism made it the least likely denomination to seduce us into belief. Also they wanted us out of the house on a Sunday morning.
I remember the dissonance between the swept and laundered order and security of the church and the disturbing strangeness and frightening cruelty, the dust and sweat and blood, of the stories they told and the pictures they showed us. I couldn't see, didn't want to see, what this terrifying world had to do with ours. Samson tearing down the temple to crush everyone in it, David triumpantly lifting the dripping monstrous head of Goliath, a discreetly suggestive Salome with the equally bloody head of the Baptist on a plate, Abraham holding a knife to Isaac's throat, the grand guignol of the crucifixion itself, the stoning to death of my namesake Stephen, Sebastian transfixed by arrows. All in a painted landscape of sand and stone and vast skies, where it appeared to have rained only once.
These scenes of torture and murder were pervasive, yet their violence was never actually acknowledged. It didn't even seem to be noticed. I could almost smell the blood and feel the sharpness of the blades. It was impossible to reconcile these sensations with the quiet order of the church buildings and their rituals, the dull and lifeless bleating of repetitive hymns, the twitching boredom inflicted by sermons. I thought that either other people didn't experience this terror that postponed and disrupted sleep, or they thought it didn't matter, or at least they knew how not to be afraid of it. Life was full of mysteries.
What the child absorbed: that religion is boring and frightening, contradictory and incomprehensible. That Christianity, with its peace and love and forgiveness, is also sick with cruelty and pride and a love of death, and the humiliation and fear at its core. That pictures and stories have real and palpable power. That things that are made up have real effects in a real world. That there is right and wrong, and wrongness is to be despised and punished. So it is necessary to be right, and weak and dangerous to be wrong.
Fixing a title to a painting is both suggestive and limiting.
It provokes or imposes meaning, it invites particular ways of looking, it evokes narrative and history and location, it encourages some kinds of connections and associations and discourages others. Some titles are expansive, others reductive. A painting changes with its name. I find myself as reluctant to assign titles as to avoid them. I find them and their effects endlessly fascinating.
I recently contemplated an exhibition of many paintings with only a few titles. I was going to call the exhibition Panic, with a group of paintings all named Pan, a second sequence all called Panic, a third all named Sacrifice, ending with a group whose naming I hadn't decided, maybe Catharsis, or Deliverance, or Sanctuary or more realistically just Respite or Reprieve. Hope?
So I changed the name of an abstractish landscape from Revelation to Panic. The painting also changed.
Sacrifice - to make, sacred.
I was brought up to be a scientific materialist in a household which ostensibly prized rationality but was often driven, hardly unexpectedly, by over-flowing emotion.
I have been a slow learner in most possible ways, prone to anxiety and sometimes dangerous depression, often fractious and as unsure of my ground, my legitimacy, as I could be strident in defence of it.
I am old enough to have seen the recurring patterns, to be painfully aware of the consequences of error and fear and procrastination, willed blindness and simple foolishness.
I'd be a perfectionist if I was good enough.
Belief moves mountains. Belief invites massacres.
If joy is a disturbing compound of delight and terror, which is likely, then the balance of the elements matters. Happiness is not the same as joy.
People and the natural world are the necessary reservoirs and voices. Also music.
Paintings woven through with the idea of haunting.
Being haunted by past and future, memory and forgetting, roads not taken, roads taken, love given, love received, love rejected and withheld, love fulfilled and betrayed, remembered and grieved, honoured and traduced, by accident, by intention, by neglect, by decree. Cruelty and kindness, courage and fear, misapprehension and connection. Work.
So what does it look like? What does it feel like?
Faces and bodies and landscapes and abstractions all hold their possibilities and realities, wishes and accommodations, victories and defeats, understandings and misunderstandings. Gatherings and losings.
What lies underground, underwater. What has been buried and drowned. Where are the sunken slave-ships?
The visible that is hidden, the hidden made visible. Calypsis and apocalypse.
Who has agency, and who does not.
Because now feels like an endtime, a time to pull in the threads of history and tie a noose. The land burns, the impatient sea overflows and engulfs, and everywhere there is waste and poison. Time has been looted and squandered and we are close to exhausting our species allotment of it, just as we have wasted the allotments of so many other species.
So it goes, and so it will go, until we are gone. The universe will go on after us as it did before us, and the echoes of our brutish vanities and our loving glories will soon have died away.
So much for the empty glass. If depression is a consequence of dysfunctional denial, as a dying friend of mine emphatically asserted, and denial is failing, then the anguish of knowing what is going on somewhere all the time and everywhere a lot of the time undermines cheerful resilience, sometimes terminally. It doesn't make cheerful resilience any less necessary or any less magnificent.
A despairing artist hanged himself in his thirties. The reasons are complicated and only he knew exactly how they unfolded, but one of them was want of money. Later, the resale value of a single one of his canvases would have enabled transformation of his discarded life. This is hardly a unique story. There is pattern to it.
After 25 years of painting I still have not lived within a community of painters. I used to live within communities that made music and theatre, films and television. Now you could fairly say I am too much a recluse, and my painting is the folly of a recluse, only made possible by turning away from a busy world it's not very good at thriving in. I do not assume that what I do is essential, or even legitimate or valid. I can see that it is out of time in most available ways. I lack a cause or a mission, my politics are wistful and of my life and time, that is, also out of time, and not all that well connected to living. The bloody necessities and inevitable outcomes of revolution will have to go on without me, unless I am thrown under it and required to pay my long-standing debt to the skeletal piper. I don't seem to have much to contribute to the forces that might make the world humanity lives in more humane. That might even keep it alive. I don't even have a plausible theory to hang my painting from.
For me it seems that painting has been a record and memory and speculation. On what I have experienced, felt and believed, imagined. I have bugger all certainty or conviction to proselytise. I can only speak in a language that I belong to, not try (pretend?) to speak in languages that belong to others. I can never learn as fast or as much as that would need.
Of course I am consumed by regrets. Centrally, failures of kindness, of understanding, of care. That for so long I failed to discover and nurture a humanely reliable centre, that for so many years I lived the ungrounded life of an alcoholic depressive, divisive, evasive.
There is no rounding off, no summing up. A mucky legacy. At times the paintings have seemed to matter, to be something worthwhile. I do think some of them are beautiful. A lot of the work probably isn't helpful. It's the work of a person whose character and condition are well represented in the pages of the DSM, whose mental health and grasp of reality and connection have often been tenuous and unreliable. There is an excess of sadness and probably of anger, directed inward as much as outward. It is not reasonable.
Three years before the painter hanged himself I cut my throat. I survived not by intention but by serendipity and surgery, love and care. I thought I learnt more and better and more reliably from it than it turned out I did.
I was born in the same year as the painter and we went to university in the same city. I never knew him though my brother did. The brother of the mother of my children wrote a book about him. The painter and I were both drawn to and studied the work of Germans in the early part of the twentieth century, painters in his case and composers in mine. Beckman, Dix, Kokoshka, Grosz. Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Weill. Also, of course, Goya, Beethoven, Turner, Mahler, van Gogh, Munch. European men familiar with ecstasy and terror and the aspects of the world they could see and know. Miles Davis and the Beatles.
In later life I became a friend of the woman who was the painter's widow and mother of his son. I had turned from music to painting in my late forties. It felt like, and continues to feel like, a kind of coming home.
That painter burnt early and fiercely. He painted with a vivid and visceral and passionate energy, purposefully using a mind-altering pharmacopeia to stretch his imagination. He was undoubtedly immensely talented. I associate his work with risk and intensity, a brightly coloured Dionysian world of paradox and darkness. The mysteries of ordinary things painted to be extraordinary. He painted an ancient sofa teeming with life, not all of it benign. He seems to have found his purpose quickly, and made a substantial body of work in a relatively short time. Who knows the painter, the person, he might have become? Little point in speculating. His loss was brutal, and the waves from the stone it hurled into the lives around him are still surging, decades later.
I didn't know him and can't know him, but I find myself thinking about him increasingly often. To many, maybe most, of the people I am close to, suicide has been a terrifying and aching presence. Children, siblings, partners, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, close friends, have died by their own hand and purpose. All the bodies have been found by someone. Sometimes the intent has been known, and rehearsed, and fiercely and lovingly resisted till it no longer could be. In other cases separation was close to complete by the time of the act. There might be a coming to terms in the survivors, of a kind, but there seems to be no end. We all live with ghosts. Including our own.
The time in front is less than that behind. Things have been made and done. There is no going back. The love made might be more fraying strings than seamless fabric. Mending connections with the dead is a losing game for a single player.
Leave all fair, said Katherine Mansfield. That would be good.