…So said Henri Matisse when he was interviewed in 1925 (although he said it in French of course). This brings home to me that throughout the process of painting I’m often caught in a struggle between definition and ambiguity.
“Would not it be best to leave room for mystery?”…
…He says elsewhere. Yes, of course he’s right. The paintings I find most compelling have just enough definition to allow me to enter into the world of the image but then plenty of space, plenty of mystery to open up possibilities for me to revel in the ambiguity of the piece. This allows my own story and experience to come alive as I explore the piece of the artist’s soul that he or she has put on the canvas.
But this is not a comfortable process.
When I paint I always have an instinct to be definite, to paint a hand that looks like a hand, or a face in the right proportions. I fear this is my ego expressing itself, trying to prove to the world that I can do it. But then the sense of freedom, the extravagant spontaneity of ambiguity fights back and I need to find a way of bringing chaos and unpredictability into my carefully constructed image.
I love the work of Gerhard Richter, particularly the way in which he smears paint across the surface of the canvas. So, inspired by him, I take a rubber squeegee and drag it across my neatly constructed painting; the oil colours blurring together in a way that is organic and satisfying:
But soon the instinct to define returns and I attempt to corral the chaos of smeared paint back into a coherent image.
Back and forth between ambiguity and definition.
So, if “exactitude is not truth” then where does truth lie?
Last year I was fortunate enough to be able to take a trip into the Sinai desert to visit St Catherine’s monastery. This is a small cluster of buildings at the foot of Mount Sinai. To get there we had to travel for hours through endless tracts of desert. The wilderness was awe inspiring. Sand, stones and mountains seemed to stretch forever and without the road we would have been truly lost, with no sense of place or direction.
Experiencing this wild space without boundaries was a deep moment of the soul for me, I felt elated and free, as if anything were possible. I often find Orthodox Churches to be beautiful and affecting places so was excited as we arrived at St Catherine’s. But for some reason the building left me feeling empty and cold (metaphorically if not physically – this was the middle of the desert) and I found myself longing for the vast emptiness outside the walls.
The ambiguity and limitless possibilities of the wilderness versus the stone walls and long history of ancient tradition: whilst my instinct longs for the former, I sense something important too in the richness of the latter.
On reflection I think both are important. Just as in my painting the interaction between ambiguity and definition, at its best, is a creative one. So the tension between the wild spirit of the desert and the safe walls of the monastery can result in a fruitful and life giving dialogue. The desert may seem wild and exciting but I wouldn’t last long as I wandered without structure or boundary and the Monastery is so beautiful, its ancient rhythms offer a deep holding space for the soul but if all we have are the walls and structure then life is suffocated.
This is the season of Lent when the Jesus tradition remembers his time in the wilderness. In my painting during this time I’m aiming for more ambiguity and openness. But I’m trying not to forget that the walls are there for a reason, rather than being a prison they may well be just what is required for life to flourish.
Matisse is right, exactitude is not truth but sometimes we need it to point the way towards the Truth that is beyond anything we could ever imagine.