The Spiritual Landscapes of David Andrew

by Frederick Turner

Bridges with Smoking Chimneys, 2007 Courtesy of the artistI have sometimes used the term “visionary realism” to describe in these pages an aspect of the new representational or figurative movement in the serious visual arts. Unlike Photorealism or hyper-realism, visionary realism has no tedious neo-Marxist axe to grind about simulacra, consumerism, authenticity or reproduction. (Isn’t it strange how reproduction, the way loving fathers and mothers generate babies, has become a bad word in our deathly and elitist contemporary artspeak? And the term representation, which literally means “making present again,” and in other senses denotes the process of meaning and the way we govern ourselves in a decent society, is similarly stigmatized.) But there is nothing snide or dismissive or cheaply apocalyptic about visionary realism. Visionary realists are not afraid of being upstaged by photography, the technology of reproduction. They know that the human eye is the best possible camera already, because it can see what is really there, not just what things look like. If there are spirits in the woods, the human eye, when trained in the shamanic techniques of classical craft and backed by a mind seething with creative energy, can see them and reveal them to others.

There are unexpected visionary qualities among even seemingly straightforward contemporary American realists. Jacob Collins’s most recent still lifes glow around their edges with all the energy of their electromagnetic assertion of being. David Ligare’s tranquil and classical landscapes belie their calm exterior with their more-than-Californian brilliance of light, as if the hills had been remade out of some supernatural luminous material that blazes with a wild but rational joy of its own. As the Gospels say, the fields are white with harvest, the earth groans in labor with the birth of the kingdom of heaven. Steven Assael’s subway commuters and transvestites likewise gleam with the dark light of their tragic human embodied spirituality.

For many years I have known the work of the remarkable British/Canadian artist David Andrew, and a consideration of his work as (in my opinion) a paradigmatic “visionary realist” may help clarify the meaning of the term as I use it. Andrew began his life as a serious painter under the influence of Ben Nicholson and Piet Mondrian. He used their techniques for fully inhabiting the entire picture space to create abstracts that are also landscapes, mostly highly simplified allusions to the rock cliffs of his native Cornwall. Andrew sometimes calls himself an “abstract realist,” a term that nicely catches some of the creative tensions in his paintings. But it only hints at their mystical content. His early work always has a powerful spiritual quality, seen as (often nocturnal) landscapes; his paintings express a grandeur of form lit by a mysterious lunar radiance. But science was almost as important a theme in his development. He cites especially Arthur Eddington and David Bohm as influences. After teaching at Portsmouth College of Art in England, he spent some years in Canada at Queen’s University, where he became known as a very innovative printmaker while continuing to explore the mysteries of painting.

His most recent work is his most interesting as well as his most beautiful. He returned to Cornwall and fell in love all over again with that unforgettable ancient igneous landscape. Always blessed with an astonishing virtuosity as a painter of recognizable subjects, he was now able to use the full range of his natural talent. He had taken the opposite path from Mondrian, who began as a landscapist in the tradition of van Gogh and Cézanne and became an abstractionist. Andrew has now fully integrated all we learned during the great abstract detour and poured it into a mastery of the landscape genre.

In using the phrase “spiritual landscapes” in my title, I am alluding to the popular name of El Greco’s magnificent View of Toledo. I would include in the genre some of the dreamscapes one finds in ancient Roman wall painting, Bellini’s Sacred Allegory, Giorgione’s La Tempesta, Cézanne’s Mont-Sainte-Victoire series, works by Ruisdael, Friedrich, Monet, van Gogh and Palmer, as well as many of the paintings of the Hudson River School. The “spiritual landscape” is a genre to itself. It is not an objective copy of a natural scene but a vision, often highly rearranged and from multiple viewpoints, that expresses the immanent energy, intentionality and expressive meaning of a piece of the world. Nor is this attribution of sentience and even intelligence to the world of physical nature an anachronism.

In the more playful reaches of computer science, it has long been a pastime to devise unlikely hardware platforms for computation. After all, all you need, basically, is a set of openable and closable gates or switches that in combination can represent such logical functions as and, or, not, both, etc., and some pushable or pullable medium that can flow through the gates. Scientists now tell us that virtually any concatenation of objects can act as a logic processor. Babbage’s brass gears, railroad marshalling yards, Conway’s Game of Life, lineages of reproductive mating, tinker-toys, the landforms of river watersheds, photoelectric crystals, nonzero-sum game situations among social animals, molecules of a gas in a chamber, anthropological kinship systems, mythological symbol-clusters, DNA snippets, the quantum states of atoms, nanotech switches, hydraulic plumbing systems, the set of an animal’s proteins, mycorrhizal rootwebs and raindrops running down a window are a few examples.

It is but a short step from this common insight to the realization that, if pretty much anything can compute, pretty much everything probably does compute. Basically, to stop natural systems from computing something or other, you would have to stop time. Energy flows through the abundant natural transistors of the world, opening and closing their gates, establishing relatively bounded networks with preferred patterns of flow, patterns that constitute an internal natural map or representation within a given system of its external inputs. And the results of the computation are announced in the form of changes to the networks’ structure and behavior.

If everything computes, we have around us not the dead passive material world of the Enlightenment but the Enlightenment’s worst nightmare, a world that is full of local systems that are thinking in their own peculiar ways, aware of and making pictures of their surroundings, actively promoting their own survival—in other words, a world of natural spirits and magical beings. Of course, this would not come as news to the animists of traditional religions or to the sages of Taoism, Shinto, Vodun or alchemy. Western artists and poets have persistently resisted the Western philosophical and scientistic tradition of mechanistic materialism, because they could feel the nymphs and dryads in the streams and trees. They knew that, if you could see that grove of trees around the ruined temple with the right kind of eyes, then there before you would be that happy picnic of the lesser gods crowned with flowers, flirting shamelessly and drinking Bromios’ wine. Titian’s naked nymph really is there with the Renaissance gents on their picnic. Those Edwardian fairies really were at the bottom of the garden. The world is once more “reenchanted”—full of chant again.

The Mount from Marazion I, 2007 Courtesy of the artistDavid Andrew is willing to be described as a mystic, in the sense of one who is in conversation with spiritual beings. But he is not a supernaturalist—the life he sees in the natural and human world is not supernatural, except in the important sense that the universe transcends itself every moment in generating a new moment of time. He uses the stillness of paint to catch, as it were, the very instant of that transcendence, something that cannot, paradoxically, be caught by film or video. Especially in his most recent work, that inner life of landscape explodes out of the canvas—usually, as in his Brunel’s Bridges 3,Bridge in Smoke or St. Ives, Cornwall, Summer, from some obscured, out-of-focus or vague space near the center of the picture space. (All paintings referred to in the article 2006-07.)

In using the word explode, I am not just indulging in the usual artspeak hyperbole. Andrew has for decades been exploring a peculiar set of deeply technical and formal issues related to the organization of space. He realized that almost all artists throughout history concentrate focally on the center of the rectangle, setting up a hierarchical relationship in which the corners are peons, so to speak, the edges are vassals, and the center is lord. The subject of the painting is highly detailed and often brighter in light value than the rest, the “background.” The human eye itself partly determines this tendency. It must focus on something, and tends to turn its gaze to center what it focuses on. The human neurovisual system likes to tunnel its attention, hunterlike, as it vectors onto its particular prey.

Artists have, of course, resisted this natural tendency in various ways—by using circular or other non-rectangular formats, by balanced compositions that expand the interest of the viewer beyond the center (but still leave the spaces behind the backs of the Virgin and the Angel dark and vague), and so on. Persian and Indian miniatures (which Andrew collects) often partition their spaces into separate rooms, each of which contains its own center, and thus create more space, like the “rooms” of a well-planned walled garden. Modern artists such as Mondrian and Pollock have more radically spread the subject to the edges and corners by forcing the frame to act as part of a rectilinear composition or by uniformity of texture.

What Andrew does is more radical still. Essentially, all the detail and fine observation and painterly play migrate toward the edges and corners, increasing in intensity as they go, leaving the center to do what it will. Often there will be a representational excuse for this odd blankness. A flowering shrub or Cornwall palm tree has got in the way—(Flowering Tree, Mousehole, Love Lane with Car, The Mount from Marazion, 1)—and the eye is focusing through it to the detail beyond, so that the palm is accurately depicted in just a dozen slashes of paint. Or there is smoke from a chimney obscuring the view (Bridges with Smoking Chimneys ), or the eye is dazzled in the center by the light slamming off the sea (St. Ives, Studio, Large St. Ives, Cornwall ).

Still Life “Dreckley,”, 2007 Courtesy of the artistThe effect, though, is not just a solution to an interesting technical problem. What happens is that the canvases seem to explode around us. The fragments of detail—by which we identify the scene—fly past us and can be briefly grasped, but at the center there is a huge outpouring of light or numinous darkness. It is as if the mouth of some cosmological wormhole had opened in the center of the painting, a black hole or a white hole, and either we are drawn into it or we are irradiated by the outpouring of energy from it. Viewers used to the centeredness of the pictorial subject are often disoriented by Andrew’s paintings, despite the visual cues and excuses, and one must overcome a certain vertigo when experiencing his strangely violent canvases for the first time. Andrew paints in the studio from multiple plein-air sketches, and deliberately uses them to introduce oddities of perspective and contradictory light sources/shadows that do with time and point of view what the Cubists did with space.

Another way of putting this is in terms of the optics of attention and the evolution of human vision. Our ancestors’ foraging activity fell naturally into two categories, hunting and gathering. The hunter must be able to concentrate attention, to wait patiently until a tiny movement or visual anomaly or configuration of details reveals itself, in a sudden gestalt insight, to be the prey, however well concealed by camouflage, uncertain range, stillness and natural cover. The gaze centers in a tunnel vision, and the mind, with a certain fortitude and resolution, refuses to be distracted or fatigued in its puzzle-solving activity.

The gatherer, on the other hand, must stretch the vision out to encompass the environment, for any leafshape or color or flower or texture or berry may be the sign of a valuable source of food or medicine or handicraft material. The human gestalt ability must be used for a different purpose than the hunter’s, to recognize the kind of local ecosystem one is in, to sense, as it were, the spirit of the forest or the shore and thus the likely useful plants or minerals to be expected. The most sensitive spot in the eye, the fovea, is actually a little removed from the point of centered focus—we can, for instance, count more stars in the Pleiades if we focus a little to one side of them. A whole archive of folk taxonomy must be kept in mind, rather than the single shape of the known prey. A meditative state of receptivity replaces the hunter’s patient hair-trigger focus.

Both hunting and gathering possess their own special kind of spirituality: the hunter uses and recognizes the spiritual powers of the mind to capture the inner truth of its intended goal: the gatherer senses and intuits the living distributed intelligence of nature all around. Only when these two modes are working together can the very highest human achievements be possible. It could well be argued that the development of the specialized artist from the generalized ritual-performing and ritual-preparing hominid favored the hunter mind and, thus, the centered and focused attention. The artist-as-hunter must recover the artist-as-gatherer’s sensitivity to the living umwelt or environment. Euripides warns us in The Bacchae that the king, devoted to the focused Apolline reason of the hunter, can disastrously neglect the value of the wild women in the forest. Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream says much the same thing.

Thus, for me, Andrew’s recent work is an entirely satisfying reconciliation—and even rebalancing—of these two kinds of spiritual vision. His eye, like the gatherer’s, can see all the peripheral details, and thus they can begin in the viewer’s mind to create around him an entire context, an atmospheric and evocative local ecosystem. But the hunter is still there, for though there is not much in the central blankness to focus the eye’s attention, the mind, or rather perhaps its barely conscious spiritual discernment, balked of its mundane prey, begins to recognize there the emergence of the immanent divine.

Significantly, Andrew’s always effortless virtuosity as a colorist is even more pronounced in these recent pieces. Looking at works such as Remains of a Still Life, Still Life “Dreckley,”, St. Ives, Cornwall, Summer and Cape Cornwall with Melon Slice, one thinks of Ingres’s voluptuous details of dress and ornament and toilette accessories in his great portraits, or Matisse’s astonishing audacity with color contrast, texture and register. But Andrew doesn’t make much of his prowess in color, saying simply that he uses color to paint with. This is a deceptively obvious statement, because it means that his paintings are, in a sense, all color, not just forms or drawings filled in with color, or exercises or demonstrations or experiments in color. But in dismissing, or at least managing his virtuosity in this way, letting his eye and brain do it for him, he allows the great powers of the spirit to emerge. And what they say is a shout of delight—a strange, almost gauche, thing to say in this jaded age of ours. Are we even worthy of the joy of life? One is reminded, perhaps, of the shocking purity of the Virgin in some Flemish altar paintings—we drop our soiled and adulterated eyes before her clarity and simplicity of gaze.

The reemergence of painting with this kind of bold and unguarded feeling and unashamed gratitude at the gift of living experience seems to me to be a sign that perhaps the world is on its way to reenchantment again. Perhaps we are learning again, in Wordsworth’s phrase, to “Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea, / And hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.”

An exhibition of David Andrew’s work opens on February 13, 2008 at Messums Fine Art, 8 Cork Street, London.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2007, Volume 24, Number 4