Pippa Blake

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Inside/Out: The Projected Mind

An appreciation by Dr Edward Winters

Thinking about Pippa Blake’s work takes time. I have had the good fortune to observe its development over a number of years. Every time I come to it, I have the feeling that it fits into a vision of what painting is and what it ought to be; painting at its best, that is. During my studentship at the Slade School I had the opportunity to meet and discuss art with Richard Wollheim, then Grote Professor of Mind and Logic at University College London. Wollheim nurtured in me the view that painting is a serious business – and that the obigations a painter had to undertake were exacting and arduous. Some measure of that depth spills over onto the spectator, who must also observe the gravity of the humanity of art. The piece I have written is meant to sit quietly beside the paintings – not as to explain them; but rather to provide a filter through which they might be seen. In this first part I look at various strands of modernist espousals of the human condition. In the second part I look at painting and its contribution to modernity; and I call upon the teaching of Richard Wollheim in order to better apprehend painting’s peculiar aesthetic.

A cliché: There is light at the end of the tunnel. Being a cliché, we pay little attention to its character. However, if we can pull it into focus, it is a rather good visual image. Taken literally, our experience of travelling through tunnels is usually entertained during train journeys. On overground journeys the dark passages becoming faintly illuminated from the side before we burst into daylight. In cities the underground cables and other signalling paraphernalia become faintly discernible against the grimed tube wall before we clatter into the fluorescent light of the next station. But in each case, the darkness in the tunnel outside the train is compensated by the internal illumination of the carriage in which we sit. Whilst in the black tunnel, looking out of the window we see the interior of the carriage reflected; our fellow passengers reading newspapers; or wiping the faces of their snivelling children; or chattering away on their cellular telephones. The abrupt inversion of the balance of light is a charming cinematographic experience as the exterior world floods in upon us, releasing us from claustrophobic space and the imposed intimacy we reluctantly share with our fellow travellers. ‘Light at the end of the tunnel’ also reminds us of scripture. In St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he writes, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

In a defining scene in Wim Wenders’ beautiful film, Paris, Texas, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) has tracked down his son’s mother to a peep-show where she works. The scene has Travis in a curtained private booth with a telephone communicating with the girl on the other side of a two way mirror. The customer can see the girls but the girls cannot see the customer. Travis unfolds a story, ‘I knew these people…’ which is the story of their relationship before she left the trailer-park where they lived. Eventually Jane (Natassja Kinski) recognises the story and then Travis asks her to turn off the light her side, whilst he turns the table light his side to illuminate his face, thus defeating the mirror. The two then peer at each other through a glass, darkly. It is a wonderfully contrived metaphor describing the struggle of two human beings to see each other properly.

Pippa Blake’s paintings provide the spectator with an experience of searching for something intangible, unreachable – at the edge of our experience. Rather like the Wenders’ sequence, we feel that we are just about on the edge of seeing some place in the light that will illuminate the dark edges that presently confound us. And landscape, of course, has often whispered of such inner searching; and of the longing that creeps into the soul.

Whilst thinking about Pippa’s paintings I have been reading Samuel Beckett’s poetry and was browsing through Charles Juliet’s Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde. And so the pictures I had seen in her studio alerted me to the following, where Charles Juliet describes a conversation with Beckett:
He speaks of a tunnel, mental twilight … Then he says:
“I have always felt as if, inside me, someone had been murdered. Murdered before my birth. I had to find this murdered being. Try to give him life …”
And Beckett speaks to Juliet about a night in Dublin at the end of a jetty, when Beckett had an epiphany. It appears in Krapp’s Last Tape in the fragmentary narrative given to Krapp’s ‘conversation’ with the recordings he (Krapp) has made years earlier. I think of this passage as continuous with the imagery in Pippa Blakes’s sea paintings.

Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indigence until that memorable night in March, at the end of a jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision at last. This I fancy is what I have chiefly to record this evening, against the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle that… [hesitates]… for the fire that set it alight. What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely – [KRAPP switches off impatiently, winds tape forward, switches on again] – great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propeller, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most – [KRAPP curses, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again] – unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire – [KRAPP curses louder, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again]

The images with which Blake works hold up well against such an interpretation. In particular, I find the struggle expressed in Beckett’s play tangibly expressed in Blake’s paintings. It is a great claim of the postmodernists that the project of modernism has failed. If so, however, it is unclear what prevents our return to pre-modernist notions of the divine providence of light. We seem to subsist in a time that, having broken loose from the shackles of religious dogma and illuminated in our passage by the light of reason, is suddenly returned to darkness. We cannot undo the thinking that has brought us here. But neither can we proceed in confident adherence to the proclamations of the over optimistic enlightenment. Indigence. That yearning is given beautiful embodiment in the pictures of Pippa Blake.

In his Painting As An Art, Wollheim puts forward the following myth regarding what he calls ‘Ur-painting’. We are to think of a pre-civilised agent who marks a surface. He fills up the gaps between the marks by adding others, but nothing other than this guides his action. Then, he develops a sense that the ground upon which he puts the marks influences the way that he marks up the surface. At a later stage he begins to see in the marks patterns which can form the basis of figurative seeing. (He can see landscapes in the marks he has made.) Now he begins to mark up the surface in order to bring it about that definite landscapes can be seen in the surface. And now we have representation in its infant form. The myth is not meant to be taken as an historical fact. It is a myth meant to show us how it is that the logical development of depiction comes about from the fact of making marks. The sense that we see in this story is given greater import if we now see that when the agent marks up the surface, he is intentionally making a surface which heretofore he had casually played the game of ‘seeing’ content in the surface. The projection of content was ungoverned. But once he takes the step of marking the surface in order that others too can project the same content we have the beginnings of depictive intention.

It is a feature of Wollheim’s account of representation, that the artist intentionally marks a surface in order that the spectator can see the content contrived by him. And now there is a traffic between surface and content that the artist can exploit in providing the spectator with enjoyable experiences, delighting in the work of the artist. We appreciate the work of great artists just because of their developed ability to capture representational content in unexpected and creative ways.

In his essay, ‘Expression’ in On Art and the Mind, Wollheim adopts a similar strategy. We have the ability, he tells us, to appropriate bits of our environment and to see them as standing outwardly to our inner states. As an example he says that we look at a broken tree and feel thrown down by the sense of power laid waste. Of course it isn’t the case that the broken tree expresses any such feeling. For trees, broken or proud, neither express nor suppress emotions. Nevertheless, just as we have the ability to project faces onto the patterns formed in the gathering clouds, so too we can project emotional character onto the landscape around us. Now the artist can make surfaces whose configurations can be recruited to the task of accommodating emotional projections. And this can be done in one of two ways. The first way is to work up the surface so that a landscape can be seen in it. And that landscape can be seen in such a way that we project emotional content onto it. Now that can amount to the illustration of emotional content. (I am inclined to think this of Casper David Friedrich.) But the second way is to make a surface that is entirely artificial, in that no pictorial content is there for us to project onto. The Abstract Expressionists worked in this way.

Now there are painters who conjoin representation with expression where it is not merely illustrative that the pictorial content calls upon a determinate expressive content. The German expressionists worked at this and we might think of Nolde, de Kooning or Munch in such terms. In these paintings the grave nature of our lives as humans is painted into the picture rather than contained in the depictive content itself.

And now I return to my thoughts at the start of this short piece. The opportunity to look at Pippa’s work over a period of time has deposited in me the sense that these are serious paintings that call upon us to recognise in the worked surface a commitment to depiction and expression that lines up alongside artists from other disciplines; such as Beckett and Wenders. Blake’s pictures are decidedly modernist but not in that intellectual formalist way that drove out the emotional world in order to secure a scientistic aesthetic purity. Rather they are modernist in the manner of expressive work that arises from the skills of her draughtsmanship; the manipulation of surface such as to show us a darkening space in a crevice beneath a flash of light. In this representational and expressive fact resides their beauty. The work celebrates even as it regrets the fact of our humanity.

Dr Edward Winters
History and Philosophy of Art
University of Kent

granada wrote this on October 20, 2011

Category: Pippa Blake