I would like to talk first about how the exhibition Land of Cockaigne came into being. My initial impulse was a vision of the sea in turmoil. I wanted to do several paintings of the sea close up, without a horizon, to create the experience of being engulfed. I remembered the children’s bible I was given at the age of five, which contained a painted image spread across a double page of Moses parting the waters. Two huge masses of water reared up on either side of a tiny group of people toiling through a narrow passage that ended in darkness. I was so scared of this picture, which depicted the threat of total annihilation, that I glued the pages together so that I would never accidentally see it.
Although in the end I only did one painting of the sea, I dreamed of the Land of Cockaigne, that medieval idea of paradise where hams fly into your mouth and your every sensual wish is granted. Although I was afraid of the sea image, I longed nonetheless for places where one can drown in oblivion. Every painting I do comes from the same need to inhabit this land, to create a sense of engulfment, of complete enclosure, to blind and deafen and numb myself through the senses in order to find some peace. I persist with the image until no uncertainty remains within it, and I am thus provided daily with the illusion of certainty.
Michael [Stevenson] said to me that I ‘unpaint’ them, and this is true. The expressive, free, loose brushstroke that characterizes my underpainting could be seen as being more full of life and idiosyncracy than the finished work. There is relief for the onlooker in the looseness of paint because we can retain our illusions about what painting is, about the genius of the mark, about the specialness of the creator, indeed about each of our uniqueness and specialness as differentiated from the mass around us. But I don’t find relief in that kind of self-expression. Rather it makes me anxious because I would seem to be claiming so much and substantiating so little. I would feel fraudulent.
Instead, as I slowly approach realism, with layer upon layer of smaller and smaller marks, which only service that realism, I efface myself from the painting. The finished surface is an annihilation of the self. It is full submersion; the tiny brushmarks gently stroke the surface, sealing it like a skin so that each image is its own universe, an entity with its innards hidden.
I seek out subjects that do not interfere too much with this sense of a sealed world. These subjects do not batter us with the noise of significance, they are not political or conceptual. I long for peace, to be able to look at these paintings and be at rest from the painfulness of life, from the expectant fabrications of meaning. To be clear: this does not mean I long for images depicting peacefulness, or shy away from ones which may reflect emotion. What I mean is that when I look at a painting or at any art I do not want to be given an intellectual lesson. That would make the artwork a kind of visual text, and text is not peaceful, it is a noise in the head.
The more peaceful I feel the more I can play with the language of painting, throwing red herrings out of the looming water to get those of us “in the know” following paths in mazes of dead end symbolism, chasing our own tails because we think they belong to a mythical beast, until we are exhausted and faced with only our own behinds, or just our shadows.
I am a slave to painting. It is a Faustian pact. Faust made a deal with the devil, driven by hopelessness, disgust and despair with material pleasures. Faust promised to give up his soul if he could find an ultimate moment of happiness in the pleasures of the world, and he spent years pursuing his wildest fantasies. And what are the pleasures of the world but escapes, opportunities to be consumed and engulfed, by consuming and engulfing things, food, people?
My Faustian pact offers me containment. In painting illusions of containment, I feel contained. Of course I am not, because it is simply not possible to be contained. It is the illusion of an illusion. My prize, my ultimate moment of fulfillment, stands ever propped up before me and I reach towards it, I am in love with it and addicted to it and dream of falling into it.
But in exchange I must give up not my soul but time and my bodily presence, my physical striving. Day after day, I creep over the surface, applying paint to the backdrop before which I stand, giving up countless hours of life for hours of spellbound stasis before the canvas. As Faust consumed and was consumed by worldy pleasure, I am consumed by this act of painting. As I am in a holding pattern, my paintings are embodiments of holding patterns.
There is something difficult to swallow in looking at these paintings. I think it’s because lifetime and the body are used up in the making of these suspended animations, these vain embodiments of desire, these beautiful nothings, and that raises questions about the nature of value. What is the value of any labour, in a world where something for nothing is highly prized, and labour as value sounds like fascist idealism, or an anachronistic harking back to good old days when rules still applied and if you did the right thing you got your just desserts? How can labour still have value in a world where the looser the brushstrokes, the more genius can be projected into the spaces between them?
The Land of Cockaigne is the land of contraries, where everything is topsy-turvy and against the rules and received wisdoms of society. It is the land where everything is allowed. The irony is that we believe we live in this land in our supposedly postmodern universe, especially in the realm of art where it is claimed anything goes and people go to great pains to demonstrate this without seeming to go to great pains.
Everything is supposedly allowed, but I would argue to the contrary that there is still a right and wrong thing, and that we are still rewarded in the realm of art for good behaviour. And it is precisely these paintings are not allowed. They do not conform to our current ideas of good behaviour. They are more taboo than anything anyone can dream up in a time when nothing can be new. They smack of effort, of believing in something in the naïve way that Sunday painters, echoing the academicians of the past, believe in the progress of their craft. The very labour of them is spitting into the eye of the beholder, denying him fantasy while offering him the world. We are left with the question ‘But what do we take seriously, what is left over?’ and my answer is, ‘Nothing – and everything’.
I would say that these paintings are paradoxical apparitions from the Land of Cockaigne. They seem real, but only show up the illusion. They are sublime, and therefore ridiculous. They flaunt beauty and skill and but these attributes float like detached retinas, they form a screen blinding the onlooker to the painting’s artificial truth, its true lie.