EVERYTHING WATER EVERYWHERE GODS
BY GREGOR SLOSS
Paul Martin and Idris Murphy first met in London at the age of 22. After a lifetime spent making and painting, teaching and learning, they met again in Perth, Western Australia, a meeting that sowed the seed of this exhibition. In conversation they discovered much common ground: both had developed a deep concern for the environment and in their landscape painting both had been drawn to fragile and imperilled ecosystems, the ‘edgelands’ which give this exhibition its title, all the while seeking an understanding of what Martin has called ‘the gritty sacredness of places and things’. In addition they had been proposing to themselves similar questions about the nature and purpose of landscape painting itself. Edgelands is in part a response to those questions; it also invites viewers to pose questions of their own – what is it to look at a landscape painting, or indeed a landscape?
Part of what links Martin and Murphy as landscape painters is their insistence that art involves an engagement with nature, with that which is not art. Murphy has written elsewhere of his painting expeditions to the Australian bush and desert, which, he says, offer him enough to last him a lifetime; Martin’s works meanwhile frequently incorporate natural materials obtained from the very landscapes he paints. Both men would reject an art that is self-reflexive, an art that refers only to art, an art reduced to a facile, if admittedly sometimes dazzling, po-mo play of surfaces. Which is not to say that surfaces aren’t important of course: as Jean Dubuffet wrote, ‘the purpose of painting is to decorate surfaces, and it therefore effects only two dimensions and excludes depth’, a comment that seems particularly relevant to the work of Idris Murphy. However Dubuffet also said, ‘I want painting to be full of life – decoration, swatches of colour, signs and placards, scratches on the ground’, and the relation of art to life is a primary concern of both Murphy and Martin.
While an engagement with nature is important, it is doubtful whether we can ever view a landscape with an entirely innocent eye: the landscape is always imaginatively transformed. In a celebrated passage in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, the central character, Duncan Thaw, is asked why no one ever notices the beauty of Glasgow. He replies, ‘because nobody imagines living here…if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live imaginatively.’ As with a city, so with a landscape: travellers to Italy in the early 18th century, we are told, would close the curtains in their carriage on crossing the Alps to shield their eyes from the abhorrent and frightful scenes of desolation all around. Less than a century later, after art had discovered the sublime, these same scenes would draw tourists from all across Europe. When the first convict transports arrived in Australia in 1788, that country had undergone no such imaginative transformation and an examination of the diary entries of the officers of the first fleet reveal a mixture of bafflement, and responses that baffle us today. One compares the landscapes of what would become Sydney to ‘a deer park, as if intended for the purpose’, while another talks of ‘terass’s, lawns and grottos, with distinct plantations of the tallest and most stately trees I ever saw in any nobleman’s ground in England’. Of course, this was not in fact an unimagined country, merely one alien to the European imagination. The indigenous peoples of Australia had been imagining – or dreaming – that harsh yet beautiful landscape for 40,000 years or more. While Idris Murphy is an artist steeped in the European tradition, he also acknowledges that the awakening of interest in and the encounter with Aboriginal art in the 20th century has utterly transformed and re-invigorated Australian art and that no Australian artist can fail to have been affected by Aboriginal art and the ideas about the landscape it embodies. These ideas are perhaps best summed up by Peter Sutton in his book Dreamings: at one point he describes travelling downriver in northern Australia with a group of Aborigines when one young man indicates the landscape all around and tells him, ‘epama epam’, ‘nothing is nothing’. The world was created by, and is still sustained by, the Dreamings, and all that we see are the marks that they have made: everything is intentional and imbued with meaning. As Sutton puts it, ‘there is no wilderness’. An Aboriginal landscape painting is a representation of a representation. Sutton quotes the words of an artist from a coastal community in Cape York: ‘the land is a map’.
In Aboriginal thought the distinction or dichotomy between the physical existence of the landscape and its internal story, its meaning, does not exist, but a post-Enlightenment European sensibility finds it difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate such ideas. Nature is there to be named, measured, quantified, used, it is food and fuel for our own paramount desires: beyond this it has nothing to tell us. Where it has meaning at all, as in art, as in poetry, it is meaning as metaphor, the meaning we bestow upon it: we claim, like Humpty-Dumpty, that it means what we say it means, neither more or less. Outside of us nature is a mere blind, booming, buzzing confusion. To get beyond this we must adopt a quite different cast of thought.
‘Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot’: this is Stephen Dedalus walking into eternity along Sandymount strand. Dedalus, of course, is one who has gone beyond Enlightenment paradigms, or rather gone before, for his head is full of Aristotle and Aquinas, and even that phrase ‘signatures of all things’ comes from an alchemical treatise by Jakob Böhme. This passage, from Joyce’s Ulysses, is one that springs immediately to mind as we contemplate the works by Paul Martin in this exhibition, works inspired by other, Scottish shores, works which depict, or indeed contain, a similar assemblage of disparate objects ranging from seashells and seaweed and sand to banal shoreline detritus – Joyce has a rusty boot, Martin a discarded set of false teeth. Martin, too, seems to invite us to view what he has to show as at one and the same time physical objects, as being that which they are, and as being something else, a story, a signature, a sign. ‘The god whose oracle is in Delphi,’ writes Heraclitus in one of his fragments, ‘neither tells nor conceals, but gives a sign.’ In a gallery we can see, though not perhaps read, these signs because we approach the work with an aesthetic gaze, in what Stephen Dedalus, discussing Aquinas, calls the ‘luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure’ – luminous, and perhaps also numinous. We are arrested by beauty, by the refulgent glow of Martin’s triptych Remembering Lot’s Wife, the vibrant emerald freshness of Murphy’s Shadows and Pines, Turkey or his jewelled yet brooding Sliding Trees, Dam Reflections; we are drawn in, we look deeper, we see more. Perhaps, though stasis is not enough. In one of his letters, the poet Rilke points this up. ‘In order for a Thing to speak to you’ he writes, ‘you must regard it for a certain time as the only one that exists, as the one and only phenomenon, which through your laborious and exclusive love is now placed at the centre of the universe’. What is interesting about this letter is Rilke’s conception of things which ‘speak to you’ – ‘are you prepared to devote all your love to me,’ he imagines them asking, ‘to lie with me as St Julian the Hospitaller lay beside the leper…because [his] motive was love, the whole of love, all the love there is on earth.’ Such is our relationship to objects in the gallery: perhaps, this exhibition suggests, we could when we exit the gallery door take that reflective, maybe even reverential, sensibility back into the outside world.
As the first of the pre-Socratics, the Greek Thales stands at the headwaters of all Western philosophy; he lived at Miletus, at the mouth of that great flâneur among rivers, the Meander. We know him only by reputation, through Herodotus and Aristotle, and none of his writings survive, except – if the words are in fact his – for one curious phrase: ‘everything is made of water and there are gods everywhere’. Perhaps this was merely mistaken observation: perhaps Thales, standing on the Milesian shore and watching the river debouch the alluvial silt that would eventually choke the city’s port, did indeed think that the very earth he stood on was made of water. We might remember, though, that for Heraclitus, who flourished fifty years later in nearby Ephesus, water was the embodiment of flux and constant change: perhaps that gnomic utterance of Thales is saying that while life is indeed all flux, all booming, buzzing, confusion, there exists everywhere in nature that which, if gazed at steadily, if listened to intently, can offer us spots of time, epiphanies, can reveal some deeper truth, some order, can offer what Heraclitus would term ‘logos’. If we are to understand Thales thus then that sentence might provide a motto for this whole exhibition. Cosmos out of chaos, chaos containing cosmos: our minds shift between the two levels of being just as, John Berger says in his essay Painting a Landscape, the painter’s ‘glance constantly moves between the scene itself and the marks on the canvas’, just as we constantly negotiate between the object itself and the story it has to tell. ‘Objects no longer confront us,’ Berger writes. ‘Rather relationships surround us.’ This is certainly true of the work of Murphy and Martin, whose encounters with landscape are, to quote Berger again, ‘a ferocious and inarticulate dialogue…[a] burrowing under the apparent.’
On another shoreline, Sir Isaac Newton once imagined himself as a boy ‘diverting myself in…finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me’. Perhaps, with a different gaze, that pebble would have had more to tell than he imagined: perhaps, with a different gaze, we could see the world in a grain of sand.
Gregor Sloss, Warburton Gallery, Edinburgh
PAUL MARTIN Photo by Warburton Gallery