In my choice of work to represent the colour blue, I’m for the first time selecting a piece by an artist who is still very actively working and whom I very much admire; indeed, I’ve followed his blog for some time and his recent myths work blows me away. He began his career as an actor, choreographer and theatre director, and that sense of ordered scenography, versatility of expression and considered movement still lies at the seam of every art work.
The piece I’ve selected is, ‘Christ writes in the dust - the woman taken in adultery’, an acrylic on panel by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, painted in 2011. The artist has made the conscious decision that the woman should be older, her body not the stick thin image of a young flirt, but heavier, more worldly-wise and defiantly aware that she was flaunting her sexuality; the head of Christ bent down to her level, His stance echoing her own in almost balletic precision, identifying totally with her and slightly in front, so that He would bear the brunt of any stones aimed at her. The setting is based on sketches the artist had made of Montclar in Catalonia - a picturesque village with a brooding darkness of bitterness and unforgiveness relating to events that happened in the Spanish Civil War of 70 years ago.
Blue is apparently the most calming of colours. For a subject that is horribly cruel, the hues of this beautiful piece imbue it with a disarming gentleness. The viewer sees the stones drop from the hands as we gaze.
Whenever this piece is shown, you will see visitors contorting themselves to try and see the expression on Jesus’ face; they seem not to be able to resist it. And perhaps there is something metaphorical in that for those who bend any which way to discover the face of Jesus.
I love this quote from Hicks-Jekins’ blog –
‘In dance terms we talk about ‘muscle memory’. This is the process by which a gruelling schedule of training and rehearsal become so much a part of the dancer’s body that the technique and the steps barely require conscious thought, freeing the mind to fully give itself up to the performance. Painting, I’ve found, is exactly like that. At this distance from my first career I can see now that I gave up one form of rehearsal only to adopt another. I simply relinquished the performance as the mode of expression to replace it with the exhibition. Some things in life really don’t change. I even have ‘Opening Nights’!’
Sheffield based John Brokenshire’s painting is my choice for the colour ‘indigo’. Although it breaks my own brief in that it is widely used, it is an incredibly powerful image and every viewing of it brings out more.
Brokenshire left the work untitled. I’ve seen it given the titles of both ‘Pentecost’ and ‘Dove’ by others, but neither seem to me to convey the full expanse of the piece - although I can fully understand why they are there. Brokenshire said that he ‘“was keen to get a very loosely represented image of a bird in space into my painting. But I wanted a sense of a bird hovering, not on a trajectory. At the same time, I hoped to refer in some way to angels: even if very obliquely by colour alone or by suggestion. Darkness had to be the counterpoint to this.…’
I, personally, see the outline of what appears to be a cross beam and a head bowed directly underneath and the shadowy, lost figures in the top right hand corner, and it speaks to me very powerfully and poignantly of that point where darkness came and the spirit of Jesus left this earthly body, finding it beautifully reminiscent of those times when I have sat with the dying.
But each viewer will bring their own gaze… it is enough to say that it increases in beauty with each look, and ‘Untitled’ is the most perfect of titles in my opinion; to try to give it one is to clip the bird’s wings and limit its flight.
I struggled to find a ‘violet’ selection. There are two in the collection that have strong purplish ranges, both by the same artist, but neither resonate with me and I would feel inadequate to comment upon them, so, as this is my personal curation and I can be as controversial with it as I wish, I’ve opted instead to draw attention to something that I find very delicately done and that has hints of violet blue that on the surface brings a delightful texture to the piece, but that I cannot look at now without feeling revulsion and that I feel strongly should no longer be a part of the collection.
Eric Gill’s ‘The Annunciation’ shows a colourful angel Gabriel (whilst angels are generally believed to be non gender specific, the three named in Scripture are referred to and named in the masculine) appearing in the bedroom of the young girl Mary to announce that she is going to have a child, the ‘Ave Maria’ (‘Hail Mary’) and ‘Fiat mihi’ (‘Let it be unto to me’) written in reversed text on the wall behind – the picture was originally done to be viewed through a mirrorscope – and the placement of a lily in a vase to indicate her purity. The girl is obviously in adoration of the figure in front of her.
Yet, we have known for over three decades now that Eric Gill, a very famous, prolific and renowned artist, repeatedly raped and sexually abused his two daughters from their pre-teenage years onwards and even kept notes of the measurements of their maturing body parts alongside measurements of his penis size, both flaccid and erect.
In 2017, Ditchling Art Gallery, where connections to Gill’s family still run deep, addressed the problem of Eric Gill honestly and openly and after huge deliberation, Nathaniel Hepburn drew the conclusion,
“At one end, there are those who believe biography to be irrelevant; and at the other, there are those who believe he was a disgusting man, and wonder why he should be shown at all. Most are in the middle. Even within the team at Ditchling, different people feel different things. But in the end, the only reason for doing the show is because he is an extraordinary artist.”
Hepburn did it responsibly, taking advice from those trained in dealing with abuse, and whether or not we individually agree with that decision, especially in the light of high profile sex abuse cases in recent years, Ditchling is, at the end of the day, a commercial gallery operating as a business for whom local man Gill’s work provides a good stream of income. In such context, the very real argument of separating the art from the artist has a place for some.
However, I would contest that touring Gill’s work in times when the appalling revelations of abuse by Ministers and Clergy in religious organisations, including the Methodist Church, are being continually investigated, is neither wise nor appropriate, and is deeply insensitive. There are so many other worthwhile artists doing incredible work on spiritual themes that to quietly retire the work of an artist who does nothing to enhance the church’s desire to honestly confront its past and move on with integrity and grace, would be no loss whatsoever and would be deemed a responsible act.
The Methodist Modern Art Collection can be viewed online here.
* Since writing this post, I am pleased to report that the Methodist Modern Art Collection is going to be relaunched in September 2021 as part of the Coventry City of Culture events, and it is my understanding that Eric Gill's work has been 'retired'. Some exciting contemporary artists working around spiritual themes now have a place within the collection.
This part of my site isn't about me at all.
It is about watching, observing and reading the work of others. Those who know what they are about, who have honed their crafts over many years and for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration.
I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from each show watched, each book read, each art work discovered and each person encountered, and I am humbled by their generosity of spirit in giving so much.