Tuesday, November 22, 2011

In search of my Trickster

Study for The Trickster in charcoal on canvas, 60x50cm


My previous posting, Self portrait in bitumen, was a visual exploration of my Shadow - the dark, anti-Me lurking within. The work is a sombre heavy-brown monochrome.

Trickster Explorations 1, acrylic on paper
But there are other Me's milling round down there in my unconscious; colourful, chameleon, mercurial, edgy, playful, swaggering, gaudy.

So this is a posting of preparatory drawings for a self portrait which i shall call The Trickster. I am wrestling with the image just as i am wrestling to to understand the Jungian archetype of The Trickster within myself and to articulate him to myself.

We each have our own Trickster deep down inside somewhere and i suppose he/she looks different for each of us. Maybe i'm just kidding myself that a brief imaginative exercise is really accessing mine own. A psychoanalyst would no doubt scoff. But the exploration and reflection is fun trying.

So why am i now bothering with The Trickster? Well, Helen Lock, in her scholarly article Transformations of the Trickster, believes that:

"in understanding the trickster better, we better understand ourselves, and the perhaps subconscious aspects of ourselves that respond to the trickster’s unsettling and transformative behavior."

I wouldn't claim to actually be a trickster (I have a great distaste for practical jokes for a start - they are so often premised on cruel humiliation of others). But i do accept Jung's notion that we each have buried within us a Trickster tendency that often as not breaks out at our own expense. We become the butt of our own contrary impulses.

Once we are told, "on no account press the red button", how many of us can't resist, against our better judgement? And just who is it that can't resist? Our Trickster.

Trickster Explorations 2, acrylic on paper
Timothy Sexton describes him as follows:

"Jung's archetype of the Trickster is not simply a clown. The Trickster archetype is a rebel who refuses to conform to societal expectations. But he is not a rebel without a cause; the Trickster's resistance to conformity is based on challenging authority, not on simplistic adornments; he will not be seen sporting tattoos or piercings or corporate T-shirts flashing slogans. In fact, the Trickster may very well appear to be inconsequential on the outside. The most famous literary representation of the Trickster is the Fool in William Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear".

He goes on,

"Modern society has basically turned its back on the concept of trickster gods, but they still exist in the form of comics, satirists, and everyone who couches their wisdom behind the concept of the fool. At the same time, it is important to distinguish the Trickster from the actual Fool. Of course, there is no easy way to accomplish this other than by noticing if a fool is acting wise or idiotic.

The fool or clown is also about the ability to either laugh at the ridiculousness of life, or to cut through the social shams and reveal our hypocrisy in an acceptable way. This makes the fool or clown wise, because they can see through who we are and what people do. Their talent is to reveal such things to us".

Speaking of trickster gods, I remember  in my childhood reading stories of the Norse god Loki and his exploits. The character has always stayed with me. An ambiguous, ambivalent, trouble maker with a mean streak for sure, though as i recall, Loki was the one who stole fire from the gods. So he was also a bringer a light, comfort and cooking which also makes him a hero to us humans.

Trickster Explorations 3, acrylic on paper
But mostly i like Tony Crisp's description in Archetype of Trickster - Clown and the Fool.

"the clown has another aspect which is as a man, usually the clown is a male of sorrows. He leads us to tears as often as he leads us to laughter. This is because the clown shows us the wonderful and tragic human feelings underlying the masks we might wear in daily life. Love, life, loss, success and failure, all have their deeply human side and the clown reveals such things to us".

Stylistically these Explorations arguably may be seen as a return to my Fauvist painting Egon Schiele: Harlequin (left) from my Egon Schiele series of 2007 ... except now i am Harlequin!

Now, can i bring these Explorations to some fruition in a finished work? Dunno. What will that work look like? Dunno. When will it be finished? Dunno.

Instead, i am sailing on what John Keats called negative capability. More on that in my next post - if i get to complete The Trickster.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Self-portrait in bitumen

Self portrait, bitumen, styrene and mesh on particle board, 73 x 91.5 cm


"He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul." 
     (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray Ch. 8)

"Look out on a summer's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul"

      (from the song Vincent, lyrics by Josh Groban)

"Beneath the social mask we wear every day, we have a hidden shadow side: an impulsive, wounded, sad, or isolated part that we generally try to ignore."
     (from Romancing the Shadow by Connie Zwieg and Steve Wolf)

"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious."
     (Carl Jung, "The Philosophical Tree” (1945). In CW 13: Alchemical Studies. P.335)  

".. this thing of darkness I
Acknowledge mine".
    (Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Act 5, scene 1, 275-276)

Initially i deliberately didn't add my voice with explanations but just wanted the image and quotes to resonate (or not) with each viewer and each viewing. But Gary's questions and conjectures had me thinking, and before long, writing.

The painting is not a whimsy but born of a troubled few years  and chronically disturbed dreams since my mother's death. Anyway, i take myself far too seriously to be able to enjoy a mere whimsy, haha.

Made from stuff lying around my studio? For sure! This work belongs to my research into expressive mark-making. I see two prime routes to expressive mark-making.

One is to leave a trace of your handling of materials so that your character or emotions register and are preserved in the paint. This usually requires some kind of impasto. Vigor or lethargy, doodling or purposefulness, rage or melancholy are as trapped in the paint surface as a bug in amber.

The second route however, is to set up media to do their work, giving agency to the paint and solvents, enlisting gravity and capillary action, oozings and drippings, mixings and repellings. As i mentioned in an earlier discussion, Heidegger's concept of "at hand" materials is very salient to working in this way. Happen-chance, synchronicity, my material environment and the history of that environment, remnants of my past endeavours, under-workings and palimpsests, all come to the aid of my semi-sighted questing for an expressive image that tells a truth.

And i have been much concerned with truth - emotional truth - in my work.

Albert Tucker, Apocalyptic Horse, 1956 
Which brings to mind an Australian Expressionism pioneer, Albert Tucker, who spent his life exploring the darker side of the soul. (My thanks to the Gallery of NSW who gave me permission to photograph Tucker's amazing horse).

Tucker's art dealer said of one series of his works, that he dealt not in prettiness, but unsettling truths. The same could be applied to most of his life's work. "Often difficult and abrasive, the work reflects the artist's struggle to come to terms with a society he was at odds with".

Albert Tucker, Apocalyptic Horse, 1956, (detail).

In my case, i guess it is a Self i am at odds with. 

Because the painting is so dark and 'blotchy', it may seem formless at first glance. It may look nothing like a portrait at all and viewers might imagine i have simply entitled a black blob of asphalt a self portrait in a metaphorical way. Not so. If you look with a squint you might see the left side of my face lit in the painting rather like in this recent photo.

Just a word about the media, especially the bitumen. It has long been used by artists but not without criticism. Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa suffers areas that were once bitumen's velvety brown now having become an indiscernible black mass with age (Wikipedia). The Pre-Raphelite's emphasis on brilliance of colour was in reaction to the excessive use of bitumen by earlier British artists, such as Reynolds, David Wilkie and Benjamin Robert Haydon. Bitumen produces unstable areas of muddy darkness, an effect that the Pre-Raphaelites despised. On top of that, there are OH&S issues - bitumen is carcinogenic.

So why have i used it? Well, in archival terms it is a durable medium, even if its brown is fugitive and turns to black. It is cheap. Very cheap compared to oil paints. It has interesting tactile properties in use, ranging from treacle-viscous to free-running stained-turps wash. Like with charcoal, images can be created by building up by applying, or created carving out by removing from a previously applied layer with a turps-dampened rag.

And i like the idea that it is a reject material from passé art movements. I like the idea that is unvalued, undervalued, devalued, even shunned. I like that is not to be found in art supply shops but on the bottom shelf in hardware departments. It is a humble material.

In other words,  mostly i like its poetic qualities. By that i mean its direct appeal to the senses and its metaphoric associations.

It stinks of Hell. It has oozed from the hidden bowels of the earth. It is the very substance of our unconscious.

Qualities all apt, i believe, for the subject of this work.

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