Sunday, September 18, 2016

Art on Sunday: JD on "Dysphoria" by Lizzie Rowe

"Dysphoria", by Lizzie Rowe

I first saw this painting two or three years ago. It is hanging in The Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle. The reproductions of it on the net are poor and do not reflect the subtlety of the colours nor the depth nor the mysterious shadowy details upper left. The paint is very thickly applied over most of the surface, especially the whites of the dress which seem to have been almost plastered onto the surface.

A very interesting picture, very visceral and with layers of unknown meanings within it. When I then walked forward to read the label, I was rather surprised to see the name Lizzie Rowe. Surprised because I had previously seen some of her paintings in The Biscuit Factory and they did not engage me at all. I was more impressed by other paintings by Paul Harvey (one of The Stuckists) on display in the same show.

I have not met Lizzie Rowe but I know several people who have and who know her extremely well. On her web page she and others make no secret of the artist's journey from married heterosexual man (and father) to transgendered woman. Knowing the story, or most of it from those who know her, it is obvious that the change was traumatic and very difficult psychologically and this is reflected in part in her paintings. One hundred years from now such biographical details will be but a footnote of little consequence, it is the paintings themselves which are, or should be, the focus of attention.

I went back this morning to have another look at the painting just to see if it still evoked the same response in me. It does. The thickness of the paint is a very striking feature of it. The white semi-circle looks as though it has been applied directly from the tube. The record player, the TV and the ironing board on the right are more vibrant than in the reproductions and the strange ambiguity of the top left is even more mysterious than I remember. Thickly applied paint may suggest a slapdash approach but, in fact, it is very carefully done and the various details are clearly defined.

Last night I was looking through a book called "What Painting Is" by James Elkins. This is one of the best books about painting that I have ever read.

Elkins says that painting is the act of 'smearing coloured mud onto paper or linen' and that is the cold analytical definition but '... it is also liquid thought.'

That is a very profound statement. He goes on to quote the painter Frank Auerbach who wrote, "As soon as I become consciously aware of what the paint is doing my involvement with the painting is weakened. Paint is at its most eloquent when it is a by-product of some corporeal, spatial, developing imaginative concept, a creative identification with the subject."

What he is trying to say there is that painting, or any creative activity, is not a product of the conscious mind but is an unconscious process. Just like walking - learning to walk requires great concentration and much effort but the more you do it the less you need to think about how you do it.

Elkins continues the theme of the difficulty of explaining the thought processes involved in creating a painting- "Things only get harder to articulate when the religious meanings come into focus, and it begins to appear that the studio work - the labour - really is about redemption."

That may sound grandiose but art and religion are inseparable. They have been intertwined since the dawn of time. There is no religion or belief system in history that does not have its artistic expression.

Elkins uses the word 'religious' but I would suggest that 'spiritual' would be a better word. As I said above, any creative activity is an unconscious process which is what Auerbach was suggesting. The artist or the craftsman, and to a lesser extent the artisan and the tradesman, is involved in a strange synthesis of hand/eye/brain with the thing being created. It involves a physical effort in the act of creation and often produces a spiritual elation. The mundane, secular world calls that 'job satisfaction' but that is to trivialise it with its hint of smug self-gratification. It is not that at all, it is the calm or 'inner peace' which is the result of deep concentration and, as Auerbach notes, identification with the subject.

In the painting, the figure at the centre is deep in concentration in the act of gathering together the pearls from the broken string and that gives a stillness to the picture; a moment of calm between the activity depicted on the right and the strange ethereal quality coming from the top left of the picture. Others may have a different interpretation but that is my own reading of it.

With the reference to religion made by Elkins, we reach a point where the modern secular world closes its mind. It is not the done thing to discuss religion. The case is closed - there is no ghost in the machine!

But art is a perfect link between science and religion, between the secular and the spiritual. As the painter, the late Iain Carstairs says-

'Art is that endeavour in which consciousness imposes an otherwise intangible element of itself onto matter in such a way that it can be decoded by others: it is an alchemy which maths can never analyse or create.'

And the physicist Richard Feynman had this to say-

"I wanted very much to learn to draw, for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world. It’s difficult to describe because it’s an emotion.

"It’s analogous to the feeling one has in religion that has to do with a god that controls everything in the universe: there’s a generality aspect that you feel when you think about how things that appear so different and behave so differently are all run ‘behind the scenes’ by the same organization, the same physical laws. It’s an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is.It’s a feeling of awe — of scientific awe — which I felt could be communicated through a drawing to someone who had also had that emotion. I could remind him, for a moment, of this feeling about the glories of the universe."

Art is the gateway to the world of spirit, to heaven. If you prefer a scientific explanation you could say it is the gateway to what the physicist David Bohm calls 'the implicate order' from which the material world flows and to which it returns.

"Vita brevis, ars longa."

Feynman quote from-

David Bohm (Wholeness & The Implicate Order)


CherryPie said...


As you know Mr C and I were in Newcastle recently ;-)

Mr C was keen to visit the Laing Art Gallery to revisit some of the things that had caught his eye on our last visit there.

One of the paintings he was keen to see was by John Martin:

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852, John Martin

It has a central position in the gallery and is has a moving light display to bring out the dramatic detail of the painting which is fabulous.

But I kept getting distracted by 'Dysphoria' which was in my line of vision. When we stepped out of the John Martin display Mr C said WOW! look at that as 'Dysphoria' immediately caught his eye.

I can confirm that the web images do not show the depth and feeling of this painting which when viewed is 3D and you feel you could just step into the scene.

Catherine said...

Absolutely fascinating! It seems to be a painting that draws you in deeper and deeper into it's hidden meanings, and very skillfully painted too! I really like how you discuss art and religion too, I wonder if you would like this quote from playwright Tom Stoppard - “Every work of art is the breath of a single eternal idea breathed by God into the inner life of the artist" - a very inspiring quote to me!

Sackerson said...

JD's piece has been reposted on another website:

- where there are a number of interesting comments. One aspect that puzzles people is the upper left corner, which at first sight could be seen as an archway into an adjoining room, or some such. I comment there:

"I looked again (again) at the top left corner. It's a dressing table, but the way it's painted it could also be an archway, just as the steam from the iron appears to have acquired some meaning. When I first glimpsed the painting it looked as though the person was playing some strange game, and the power lead (I didn't recognise that at first, either) looked like some kind of protective magic circle. Perhaps the genius of "Dysphoria" is that reality is both seen as it is, and yet also seen differently, since the flavour of mood permeates all perception. A friend told me that he asked his wife why her mood changed when the reality around her had not, and she replied that the reality inside her changed. And so back to Blake."