Essay by Robert Newell

OLION / TRACES

 

 

By Robert A. Newell

 


Tracks and Perspective

Tracks leading into hidden distances, to the unknown, exercise a universal fascination. The view along a track naturally integrates perspective with time in its evocation of journeying. A single track receding to infinity exercises a fatalistic power; divergent tracks, divergent perspectives, introduce alternative realms of possibility and mystery. In the painting Wayland’s Smithy, pools of water along a track flanked by dark woods reflect the sky. Stranger than simply reflections however, they seem like fragments of sky embedded in the earth. Such heightened contrasts give the work a Surrealistic quality. Fragmented remnants of tyre tracks in melting snow develop the theme of transience in Thaw, one of Davies’ latest paintings of forestry trails.
The expression of stillness, characteristic of Davies’ paintings, is achieved by sustaining a tension with potential movement. This arrested state is given all the more clarity by the unnaturally dark, intense masses of trees that tend to become silhouettes, integrating expression with compositional function.

Over recent years, Davies has been making a transition from narrative, figurative works to an involvement with landscapes in which absent humanity is manifested by traces of forest tracks, artificial lights, aircraft vapour trails and other interventions. All of this sustains a reflective observation of transience, fleeting clues to presences that flicker in the midst of an overwhelming void, inducing an anxiety over the disappearance of things. The series of cloudscapes extends this meditation into the mutability of nature.Light and Dark
Locations centred around Davies’ home in Carmarthenshire, as well as subjects from further afield, have provided the initial stimuli for themes that come to transcend both place and person. Sun Days is based on the artist’s garden. Two vacant seats face each other on either side of a table with a parasol that is testament to the absent sun. Electric light and the first glow of dawn contest the space during a critical interval of time. Looking out of Davies’ studio in the evening, you see dark masses and traceries of trees and shrubs against the western sky. This particular experience brings the uniqueness of home into relation with universal themes.

The melancholy of estrangement pervades Davies’ contemplation of humanity’s transience. Constellations of electric lights at night will eventually be extinguished, vaguely visible houses will disappear altogether, car headlights and sodium streetlights partially illuminate roads that lead into infinite darkness.
Davies feels a strong affinity with René Magritte’s (1898-1967) painting L’empire des lumières. Magritte described in a letter to a friend how the painting produced the idea of the coexistence of night and day:
After I had painted L’empire des lumieres I got the idea that night and day exist together, that they are one. This is reasonable, or at the very least it’s in keeping with our knowledge: in the world, night always exists at the same time as day. (Just as sadness always exists in some people at the same time as happiness in others.) But such ideas are not poetic. What is poetic is the visible image of the picture 
(Magritte in Whitfield 1992: n.p.).
Magritte stresses that ideas can be generated by paintings rather than simply illustrated by them. Davies’ paintings create ambiguous double interpretations, appearing to get darker or alternatively lighter while they are being viewed. This constructs a contemplative drama of light and dark reminiscent of Martin Johnson Head’s (1819-1904) Approaching Thunder Storm. Davies’ are transcendental landscapes pervaded by a suggested symbolism in all aspects of their composition and subject matter. The duality of light and dark is reinforced by warm and cool, sky and earth. All of this is redolent of escape and longing, of refuge and threat. The darkness is both inviting and disturbing. An earlier painting: Front, depicts a diminutive sailing boat, another transient spark of life, confronting an overwhelming space with cloud masses darkening towards the horizon. Wilhelm Worringer (1881-1965) described an:
… immense spiritual dread of space“ compensated for in art forms that, “taking the individual thing of the external world out of its arbitrariness and seeming fortuitousness, of eternalising it by approximation to abstract forms and, in this manner, of finding a point of tranquillity and refuge from appearances (Worringer 1963: 15-16).Every medium has its particular forms of abstraction inherent in materials and techniques, and such abstraction affords scope for the interpretation of subject matter. Without such cross-fertilisation, specific media would tend to become stale and repetitive. For Davies, photography introduces specific qualities of tonality and ambiguity into the language of painting. Recently, Davies has started to explore the personal potentialities of video. Aderyn/Birdsong Trail makes observations of fading light and extended incidents such as an intimate sequence of a bird singing in a tree. This sustains the same sensibility for dark trees against subdued light as do the paintings. Gentle movements of the branches manifest the volume of air. Time itself seems to verge on stasis. Suddenly the bird flies away. The sequence of a vapour trail accompanied by birdsong focuses on a human trace that is particularly ethereal and transient. The random motion of midges emphasises the stillness of the air. Evening light on the vapour trail gives it a warm glow. The connotations of flight and human aspirations become absorbed in the vast sweep of the sky, like a fading comet, the vapour trail disappears over the horizon of trees.

 

Empathy and Estrangement

The pine trees in Thaw exude a dark stillness that resonates with the forests of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) and Max Ernst (1891-1976), similarly in Davies’ painting of a tree in Gelli Aur, an insistent personality is projected by the spreading branches. The dark vegetative life of trees becomes an equivalent of human consciousness and its irrational origins. Davies’ paintings express the tense interplay between empathy and estrangement that is fundamental to our experience of nature.
Davies mentioned Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1905-80) Nausea when we were discussing trees and forest tracks. A particular passage is suggestive of a sensibility emergent in the paintings. The central character, Antoine Roquentin describes his experience of a chestnut tree in a park, an encounter that induces an intense feeling of the absurdity of existence itself:
I was the root of the chestnut tree. Or rather I was entirely conscious of its existence. Still detached from it-since I was conscious of it-yet lost in it, nothing but it. … Time had stopped … All was fullness and all was active, there was no weakness in time, all, even the least perceptible stirring, was made of existence. And all these existents which bustled about this tree came from nowhere and were going nowhere. Suddenly they existed, then suddenly they existed no longer: existence is without memory …(Sartre 1962: 177-9).
This narration of a lived concept of the profoundly contingent nature of existence is a variation on the complex psychological dynamic of subjectivity in its interplay with otherness that was a central preoccupation of Romanticism. The poet Novalis (Georg Friedrich von Hardenberg,1772-1801) affirmed an aspiration to self-transcendence that was often associated with this dialectical relationship:
The true philosophical act is the slaying of the self; this is the real beginning of all philosophy, therein lies the requirement for all philosophic youths, and only this act answers all criteria and conditions for the transcendental deed (Novalis 1989: 16).
Friedrich Daniel Schleiermacher (1768-1834) described this condition in ways suggestive of Friedrich’s paintings that include figures contemplating spacious landscapes:
Each human soul … is merely a product of two opposing drives. The one strives to draw into itself everything that surrounds it, ensnaring it in its own life and, wherever possible, wholly absorbing it into its innermost being. The other longs to extend its own inner self ever further, thereby permeating and imparting everything from within …(Schleiermacher 1988:80).
Ambiguities abound concerning self-transcendence and self-destruction within such intense engagement with the hard rind of resistant externality. While the Romantics typically sought an inner spiritual essence, a disturbing uncertainty pervades Davies’ exploration of estranged subjectivity and the objective world, leading him to a darkly transfigured realism.

Robert A. Newell

References

Sartre, J-P. [1938] 1962 Nausea, (Alexander, L. trans.), London: Hamish Hamilton
Schleiermacher, F. [1799] 1988 On Religion, (Crouter, R. trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Novalis (Hardenberg, G. F. von), 1989 (Versluis, A. trans.) Pollen and Fragments : Selected Poetry and Prose of Novalis, Grand Rapids: Phanes Press
Whitfield, S 1992 Magritte, London: The South Bank Centre
Worringer, W. [1908] 1963 Abstraction and Empathy: A Contributuion to the Psychology of Style, (Bullock, M. trans), London: Routledge and Kegan Paul