Although this enormous painting bears no words, because I am accustomed to this artist’s work uttering, spilling some-time sentences melted in window sun, or because I apprehend as I have been taught to, I am inclined to read Last Evenings on Earth left to right. And read this way (or its left and bottom edges as x and y axes – are all graphs male plots?) describes a fall.
A fall of what nature? From grace? Out of love? From favour? From a plane? Maybe – and indeed, to keep a painting content one must expend digressive wandering energy, set as they are on raising the average human sensitivity–mystery quotient – but I am attracted to the idea that it is akin to the fall intrinsic to the condition of thought. And there is something in the sloping lines of word-shaped touches of colour here that suggests, if not words, units of brain-talking.
I admire the idea that ‘a thought only rises by falling, it progresses only by regressing.’ 1 In this way thinking (and its grasping for words) is like a mosquito’s flight, rising and falling, succeeding and failing to achieve lucidity in some sort of positive balance, but ‘revolving around delirium as its axis’. And I don’t think it is out of place to bring Nietzsche into wondering about this uncharacteristically silent painting and the exploded sense of self it exhibits.
There is something in this artist’s work, especially in this quiet work given the word vacuum it has generated, that wryly suggests ‘going to the literature’ to meet its mystery. There are fleeting literary references in Reynolds’ paintings – collectively they might even be a veritable miscellany of parts of thoughts with the frayed ends of research hither and yon – but they laughingly know, it seems to me, that they will not yield clarity or coherence, but rather access to an expanding field of inhabitable cognitive squat-constructions.
Leopold Bloom, another expander, is one of the protagonists of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and there is something of this book, of this writer’s work, in Reynolds’ own. This character’s surname evokes to me algal flares in coastal seas, which in turn suggest the blooms of thought in frontal lobes of the rhapsodic, the humorous, the shambolic (but eminently productive because of it) Blarney Stone-kissing dreamer.
Further, the description of the meanderings of the main characters, their morning breakfast, walk, a funeral and so on, is peppered with fraying thoughts, Irish trills spinning off from their mono- and dialogues. Here, revealed in astounding detail, is the fall from sense to nonsense, the inviting chasms of not-knowing beside our articulated paths, at the edges of which are glorious drivel.
I think Avital Ronell was right when she said that stupidity is the necessary condition for poetry. 2 This painting makes me want to read Janet Frame’s unpublished poetry – she shrank from making it public because, as Bill Manhire recounted in her biography, ‘they didn’t end properly, they just fell away’. I think it is a shame that such a premium is placed on things that are resolved, self-assured, certain, that end nicely, authoratively, masterfully. I like things to be allowed to disintegrate, vapourise, explode, relax or peaceably dissolve.
This falling-away painting could be described as an inconclusion or an abandonment, but they are too loaded, these words. It is interesting, I think, how our language is geared towards making certainty sound like the natural order of thing- anything else is an un- or in- (unideal) negative condition. The impressionists too were accused of a lack of finish - and this is perhaps their most modern characteristic, this veneration of the mobile, the fugitive, the extra-rational…
Someone did say to me only this weekend that 2007 is, astrologically speaking, the year of unraveling; and the title of this painting, Last Evenings on Earth, does suggest some sort of letting go of threads formerly held together; the energy usually expended on their control released and dissipating into the atmosphere, or floating into a solution. Perhaps the fall here is the result of stopping a world’?
(‘Last Evenings on Earth’ was a story by Roberto Bolano the artist read in The New Yorker I am told. Sounds like science fiction, but maybe not of the Hugo and Nebula Award kind. Luckily the crappy aesthetics and silly nomenclature of this genre is only theatrical dressings for SF’s core business of escape (not here! not now!), the beautiful fertile trip minimised by therapists as the time-wasting of the alienated.)
Stopping the world is the first of a series of five actions suggested (a softer form of unwanted advice) by digressor-theorist Brian Massumi. 3 This, with the other operations, could be seen as a recipe for the unraveling of this painting and all of other situations; or instructions for a spell for happiness, born of resistance and becoming; that thing which for humans that is always at stake, always the prize. 4
I remember a friend, whiskey drunk, bellowing, in the depths of winter night, frost stars on the footpath, on a city hill, I AM THE OCEAN. I thought later that he might have got this from Joyce, from Buck Mulligan’s ode to the ‘snot-green’ sea, ‘she is our great, sweet mother,’ but it seems more likely that at the time he was way past conscious literary allusions; more likely that the elixir had dissolved his boundaries, plunging him ecstatically into a vast, liquid, supine condition.
Ulysses opens in Buck Mulligan’s rickety tower on the Irish coast. Beauty is not there in being descended from bishops and earls, judges and generals, he rabbits on, ‘Houses of decay, mine, his, all’. ‘There is nothing in the house except back-ache pills.’ And it is the potential of rickety, all-but-abandoned spaces that is at the heart of Massumi’s second pointer: ‘cherish dilapidated spaces’.
This affection is suggested by Reynolds’ painting in its employment (or unemployment?) of spray-paint. It is as though the painting harbours a secret wish to inhabit a grubby draughty place with an open fire and stone walls. This is not first time he has painted in this defacing way, but in Last Evenings on Earth, spray-painting’s gentle, soothing, lulling, word-less sssshhhhh is most evident. I started to think of graffiti as a counter to rising anxiety, a drop-out’s peaceful-blissful fall into unsafety, economic and otherwise.
What are Massumi’s other pointers? Three: ‘Study camouflage’. A friend and I were looking at this painting hung slightly above Sue Crockford’s parquet floor and its absent dancers, and I said I thought it looked like a wrong sky on a planet sort of similar to earth, but atmospherically, with its coloured cirrus-y clouds, a little different. But my friend said that it reminded her of the way she would try eyeshadow out on her hand in department stores as a teenager.
What might at first seem like a superficial, even frivolous reading of the work is only so if one considers that make up is just about looking pretty. It is abundantly more than this: decorous on the body, an auto-intimate touch on the skin, it is a necessary form of social masking for young women, a way of dropping below customary social presence into autonomous zones; to places beneath radar, beneath the contest, where things happen in private. It is no mistake it called warpaint.
A resemblance too has been noted between Last Evenings on Earth and Colin McCahon’s French Bay works. In this light, this painting could be seen as an art-historical tale, one of derelict Titirangi accommodations in the engulfing subtropical bush; of dissolving encounters with the seas and skies of the Manukau. These works’ cubism strikes me as being alone in their ‘authenticity’ for our country in the sense that they suggest the method’s genesis in Great War-time France.
Cubism was, it is alleged, invented by artists conscripted to develop decoy sculptures and confusing coverage to protect anti-aircraft artillery installations and other compounds from enemy bombers. It was discovered that object-volume could be made to disappear by painting surfaces with series of faceted planes, or moments. But it came to have a deeper significance for its traumatised inventors, hiding the war as much as its military equipment; as Jean Paulhan wrote, ‘War camouflage was the work of the cubists: it was also, if you like, their revenge.’ 5
The tale could go on to describe an element of escape present in McCahon’s disintegrations of the horizontal (landscape then, language later) in Titirangi, from what it is not clear, but they were painted before his encounter in the United States with oceanic thought (in contrast to the certainties of provincial thinking?). Seeing work such as Barnett Newman’s, I am told, lead McCahon to abandon his beloved kauris to flee north for the bigger seas of Ahipara.
The tensions and experiences of this art historical story are not strange, I feel, to the work of Reynolds’ at hand. The pile-up of various resemblances – cubism, clouds, makeup, the ocean’s liquid mystery – suggest camouflage and its obfuscating ‘clouding’ operation. Reynolds, once, went on record to express an interest in clouds as a figure, responding to newspaper questions about his 2006 CLOUD work (a fog of 7000-odd small canvas text works) pointed out that Da Vinci felt clouds as celestial, or at least flight-space, bodies.
It is an odd effect to be quoted, as if the artist’s one thought that might usually stay in a sea of others stands out prone, at odds with an understanding of language, of art, as obfuscating, liquid. Or as Massumi puts it, in an idea articulated like a passing cloud shaped like a wizard: ‘Language is not a transparent medium of communication. If it is a medium, it is in the occult sense. What language conveys are fundamentally redundant order-words, not clear and distinct messages ( … ) change, not petrification, is the essence of language.’ 6
Three more clouds pass: first, a monk-shaped one, advice from the 14th Century Christian tome The Cloud of Unknowledge:
Our intense need to understand will always be a powerful stumbling block to our attempts to reach God in simple love [ … ] and must always be overcome. For if you do not overcome this need to understand, it will undermine your quest. It will replace the darkness which you have pierced to reach God with clear images of something which, however good, however beautiful, however Godlike.
Second, another monkish cloud passes: Herman Hesse, in The Glass Bead Game, had one of his characters, a man who had reached the highest levels of a select society of arcane researchers, urge a student to study the landscape of clouds and sky to aid balancing thought with meditation:
At first glance you might think that the depths are there where it is darkest; but then you realize that the darkness and softness are only the clouds and that the depths of the universe begin only at the fringes and fjords of this mountain range of clouds - solemn and supreme symbols of clarity and orderliness. The depths and mysteries of the world lie not where the clouds and blackness are… 7
Then, another cloud forms, a poking stick opposing the two it chases, the end of a letter of complaint to October, explaining that there are ‘those that believe that a sequence of veils and meanderings might be necessary to combat the chaotic ebb and flow of capitalism ( … ) It is notable that those who were skeptical about the notion of transparency and a straightforward relationship between intentions and results tended to be from backgrounds where a belief in transparency was historically one imposed by the dominant culture.’ 8
Is research the scales that would fall from our eyes, or does it make mists or cloud-cover beneath which we can hide from god, or the exercise of power? This apparent contradiction in the value of obfuscation brings us to Massumi’s points 4 and 5: ‘Sidle and straddle’. This suggests an and/ or bothness, such as the tension between words and silence – there is, in the same manner that snow muffles, an arctic dumbness to the painting’s white ground just as there was with the impressionists’, the reputed progenitors of the white cube, something Reynolds has been known to deface, but without contempt. 9
Come to think of it, there is something else this painting reminds me of. There are vans of people that drive about painting over graffiti in underpasses and the like. They paint with rollers in rectangular shapes, landscape-format with a set range of colours that are kind of like the colour of the ‘defaced’ surface, but way-off really. What is left are covered up words, sure, but they are somehow marvelous as schematic assertions; like the pre-linguistic force of a bird or a baby. To the writers, this is called ghosting.
It is clear that the point of Reynolds’ camouflage is not to disappear into ineffectuality, but to resolutely fall back, and then reemerge in the world with the gleeful intent to cause leaps from one condition to another. There is a Joycean purpose to this work, if you will excuse a return to this book, and its playful ‘when I drinks tea I drinks tea / when I makes water, I makes water’. We may never escape the world, but within it we may experience the death of days and of states that make the earth, as we know it, disappear.
In theory language, this 5-point recipe might be for something called ‘trans-versality’ or ‘revolutionary sidestepping’; or in physics ‘potential’. In practice, in this painting, there is something here of the end of the film 2001, not aesthetically but in a sense, in its desire for the future, to escape difficulty, or more importantly to the psyche, sameness. What is at stake here could be the practising of a radical, even feminine (gestating) commitment to life; death being where nothing changes.
Last Evenings on Earth presents us with a reminder that if we want to we can exist in state of becoming where each day is our last in that life, because each day we must become reacquainted with ourselves. This way we keep dying a little, more alive than ever, in the sense that deaths are akin to all deviations from habit. Here is pictured a fall from thought, a marvelous place outside of the cohered in pure event where there is the peace, the everything, that some might call God, religious feeling, or at least semantic bliss.
To speculate - that is all one can do really – the action described in the painting’s field of coloured strata may well give us a window to the curious gap between what someone thinks they have positioned and what they are, in turn, perceived to have achieved. Often, it is said, when one thinks one is heading towards clarification, one is instead drifting, gliding to the amorphous opposite: an abandoned conversation, a metaphoric ungearing, a suspension in space.
- Pierre Klossowski, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1997, p.xv.
- See Avital Ronell, Stupidity, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
- Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1992, pp.103-106.
- Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p.4.
- Dan Franck, The Bohemians: The Birth of Modern Art: Paris 1900-1930, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2001, p. 231.
- Massumi, op. cit., pp. 103-106.
- Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game. New York: Owl Books, p. 314.
- Liam Gillick, ‘Contingent Factors: A Response to Claire Bishop’s ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October 115 (Winter 2006): p. 107.
- See Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: the ideology of the gallery space, Santa Monica: Lapis Press, 1986.