Stephen Bungay 2008
An Essay in Ambiguity
By Stephen Bungay
The paintings in this exhibition are a testament to a remarkable visual imagination. They are born out of loss, grief and mourning; out of recovery, joy and affirmation. They do not directly express these emotions, but arise from an exploration of the visual world. They challenge the way we see, which is always connected to the emotions we feel. They are subtle, ambivalent images that invite us to entertain a different view every time we look at them. They are products of art rooted in life.
The development of most artists begins with work that clearly shows the influence of others, and with some artists this continues throughout their career. A few, however, absorb and integrate what influenced them to develop a mature style uniquely theirs. The paintings in this exhibition are mature in that they have their own distinct visual language. We may be reminded at times of the exuberant vigour of Kokoschka, the taut lines of Schiele or the visual patterns of his mentor Klimt. But these are just echoes emanating from a body of work which is utterly different in its atmosphere and in the emotions it evokes.
The visual language is spare and intense. The ambiguity of the images it uses play on the viewer’s imagination. Many philosophers have long argued that the real world is also an imagined one, and we now know from psychology that in the act of seeing the brain is interpreting visual stimuli to make sense of them. Seeing is not passive absorption but active sense-making. The mind fills in gaps, turns flat space into depth and creates backgrounds and foregrounds. As it does so, it is bound by the image but has freedom to read it in more than one way
Red lips can also be seen in this collection, often caught at a point of instability, having just metamorphosed out of another image or being about to turn into something else. Throughout, images form, are transmuted, and re-form.
A tree sheds its leaves. Is it autumn? The leaves are silver or red. They fall in abundance, but without loss, for the tree remains full of leaves despite the number cast on the ground. It is part of the tree’s natural process of regeneration, seeming to die in order to be re-born. It appears to weep, but the tears will lead to rebirth. Yet as we look we see that the leaves are also lips. The tree sheds kisses, infinitely, recurrently. The silver ones are beautiful but cold, the red ones invite thoughts of passion and of pain. The tree sheds leaf-lips of tears. It has a quiet message for us – it is whispering. What is it saying?
The motif most fully explored is that of two men clasping in an embrace. They are brothers. The gnarled hands, the rough, dynamic outlines of the brush strokes speak of masculinity and of men who have been beaten up by life, but come through. One imagines they are meeting after a long separation, their shared early experience broken by time and distance but found again. The emotion is intense but not at all romantic. The eyes of the figure facing us are cast down, the other is looking away, cradling his head in his brother’s neck, almost as if they cannot look at each other, for the emotion is too strong. But perhaps they have not just met, but are about to leave each other. Is the emotion due to recovery after separation or the prospect of imminent loss?
There is a whole series of these robust images painted like woodcuts against a melancholically blue background. They are intense, rough-hewn outlines, each variation like a still taken from a few seconds of film. In their intensity, the two figures seem to merge. In one, a head is cast upwards – in exultation or despair? In another, the head is buried so deeply in his brother’s shoulder that the eyes are hidden. In another, the pared down head is staring with the eyes wide open – in joy or fear? In another, both heads are revealed, almost as if they are about to kiss. Are they coming together or drawing away?
But then there is another painting of this motif quite unlike the woodcuts, with semi-naturalistic colours, yellow jackets, a blue background, and pink skin. Yet it is not natural. The vibrant yellow invades the calm blue, forming a glowing halo around the two figures, uniting them with each other, and simultaneously uniting them both with their background just as it separates them from it. The flatness of the yellow and blue highlight the harsh vigour of their hands and faces, to which the eye is immediately drawn. They are reddish and raw, their veins are bulging, the bone structure tightly delineated. The eyes of the figure facing us are closed. He withdraws from us into an inner world of grief or relief. As we look, they seem to move. The figure with his back to us can seem passive, perhaps even held up and supported by the other, whose fingers twist, almost trying to claw their way into his brother’s back. But then, perhaps the figure with his back to us is the one comforting the other. Perhaps his passivity is just calm, his lack of movement a sign of emotional strength, the other’s physical support betraying emotional need. Who is giving and who is taking?
Male emotion is again revealed in two solos, both in the woodcut style, but of a figure alone with his head in his hands. The feeling is of despair, induced in part by the icy blue background. But then, is he burying his head in his hands to escape something or just wiping down his face before looking up with a smile? In the second version, it is the background that drives the viewer. The icy blue is spotted with violent white flecks, as if from a snowstorm, with small hints of red. But is that just our view? Are the flecks appearing on a window through which we are looking?
The effect of the background is felt in the extraordinary collage of the clasping brothers overlaid by a pattern of leaf-lips. The background is of the pages of a book, or a window, through which they are emerging or receding. The pattern of lips is at one and the same time harsh and gentle, starkly geometric and unattainable, and sensuously seductive and inviting. It is the hint of woman in this world of male feeling, an alluring but alien feminine power, with its redness bursting out against the cool pale colours of the rest. Are the lips mocking or comforting?
The eternal feminine takes on fuller form elsewhere in this exhibition. It is the completion of man, his dream and his nemesis. The yellow Dream Girl merges into her background, her neck exposed, her genitals almost revealed. Is she surrendering or refusing, exulting in her own self or inviting? Her feelings are her own, her face hidden. In Burning Up, she is in red, breasts exposed, sliding into view or slipping out of it, emerging up out of her background or sinking down into it.
In the end, we cannot discern the feelings of the Old Man. He has returned to nature, without clear expression, withdrawn. The face is of a toad; the eyes cast down, but shut, the features merging into each other. Is he mourning the future or rejoicing in the past? Or both?
This is an exhibition of passionate experience recollected and captured in tranquillity. Like life, it poses us questions. Like life, it offers no answers.
Stephen Bungay is a writer, historian and businessman
Artists have always been aware of this. All artists work in the interplay between the mind and the world outside it, creating a visual language that is sometimes personal, sometimes of a school, sometimes a dialect of a major artistic language. We call it a style. Even with an artist of scant public renown such as the C13th Byzantine painter Guido of Siena, the style has a freedom that allows lines to become something else.
The paint creates patterns that can detach themselves from the image of which they more obviously form part. The lines forming part of a sleeve look like a set of fish bones. The wounds on the body of a flagellated Christ look like blood red kisses. It is as if sets of bleeding lips emerge from his body.