I never intended this blog to be about my work, but things change and the opportunity to exhibit presented itself, so why not? My latest exhibition has been some time in the making. I haven’t exhibited in this way for some years; recent exhibitions have been group, stock shows or competitions, not a considered, solo show of an integrated body of work. That raised a question; how do I get back into this with purpose? Set some goals, I thought. So, the works for Nobody looks at the moon in the afternoon were made with three goals in mind. The first, was to develop and refine my skills through the discipline of observation – really looking at something. Looking so hard that that you start to break down what you usually take for granted into geometry, into abstract, separated form. The second, dealing with the technical problems of watercolour painting.
All good there then, but what to paint? A recent question I keep asking myself found its way to the front of my mind. How do we present ourselves? What face do we put on each morning to face the world and what mask do we show in our various guises - parent, professional, friend or just plain person in the street? How is it (or perhaps more accurately, are they) interpreted, perceived, accepted (or not) by the rest of the world? Sometimes of course, the mask slips. When we are tired, overtaken by emotion, delighted by happy outcome, angered by the opposite, piqued by criticism, vexed or uncertain, different countenances appear – perhaps three or five in quick, split-second sequence before the acceptable, reasonable mask returns. To catch those other, raw, unfettered faces isn’t easy – you have to really look – and often they are so fleeting you feel you have missed them somehow – that they weren’t real, it didn’t happen, that such emotion couldn’t possibly be expressed. And that gave the third goal – what happens when the expression we make when the subtler emotions we experience are recorded (or at least, attempt to be recorded) in the form a painting?
So, with all that on board, what do you see on the gallery walls? The 15 or so works in this exhibition are all comparatively small works on paper. They are not intended to impress through huge scale. The likes of It might be too, doubtless it was so, is roughly snapshot sized; even the largest, The mystic shadow of suspicion possesses modest dimensions; the scale asks the viewer to approach and investigate. This is intentional – and reflects my first goal of observation; the works ask the same concentration of observation of the viewer that I felt I needed to make in creating these works. The idea is to create a sequence of experience; engagement, discourse/exchange and finally, reflection and resolution.
This idea of observation is shamelessly taken from one of my favourite authors, Italo Calvino. In the 1980s, he published Mr Palomar, a book where the main character, Palomar, seeks to find universal truths through careful observation and consideration of the world around him. Moon in the afternoon is one of the earlier chapters in the book and in it, Calvino describes Mr Palomar taking the time really to look at the moon, starting when conditions are probably the least suitable – in the middle of a bright afternoon – and progressing until early evening. In the course of doing so, Palomar realises that, even as he observes, …it (the moon) has already changed its pose, a little or a lot. In any case, following it steadily, you do not realize that it is imperceptibly eluding you.
This group of work then, is my Mr Palomar. By creating a fixed image of something that is fleeting, transient, all too easy to miss – the split second that the subjects (humans in my case, not the moon) might not want to consciously show the world – that instant where emotion, response to stimulus or dismay at their current condition is briefly visible before the mask returns and the public face is fixed firmly back for the world to peruse, is where the conversation between creator, image and viewer begins and gives us all the opportunity to slow down the action, take time to absorb and for the viewer to decide on what he or she sees and to gauge their responses to the visage in the painting.
It does beg a question though – if it’s so hard, why not just take a photo and be done with it? Surely, that will solve the problem. It is true, the camera would help – and many of these images are not solely the result of ‘live’ observation; photos, drawings, found images all contribute. In the end though, I wanted my hand to co-ordinate and make the record; not the pixels of a camera, not someone else’s vision or interpretation. In addition, I wonder at the skill of those photographers that do manage to capture what I seek, using a machine, that if spotted by the subject, can change and hide exactly what I wished to see.
So, to the second goal, dealing with watercolour. All (with a couple of exceptions, notably Hid the secret from herself) are completed in watercolour on paper. These paintings attempt to use the advantages of the medium – its immediacy, fluidity and luminousness to portray a transient moment. It was chosen because, at first pass, it appears to compliment what I am trying to capture – fleeting pigment for fleeting appearances. In reality watercolour presents a number of technical difficulties; you need a plan – while improvisation in construction and exploiting ‘accidents’ is always a goal for me (and I am a firm believer in letting the image take its own course – well, up to a point), watercolour is often unforgiving and not easily corrected once a decision is made. In addition, watercolour is notorious for not staying where it was put, for blending and merging with itself when delineation and line were intended and for turning to mud if overly layered or laboured. In order to even the odds, I’ve deliberately restricted myself to a fairly limited palette of colours, earthy siennas and umbers, cobalt blue or ultramarine, alizarin and, sparingly, cadmium red and Naples yellow. In addition, by limiting the size, it meant I had less real estate to manage – and less chance of losing the plot, compositionally. Happily, enough works turned out much as I intended, however, it wasn’t all success – more lie in the bottom of the recycle bin than made the walls of the gallery.
Which brings me to the third goal, what happens if I achieve some success with objectives one and two? I have created these characters (again perhaps more accurately, they have arrived, with a little management and guidance from me), to show their response to what the world flings at them. I don’t think their journey has been easy; these individuals carry marks from their experiences.
Damage is a recurring theme in this body of works. While the overarching objective revolves around individual, physical responses to occurrences at the edge of pleasant normality, the cumulative effect of multiple such experiences mount up. And collectively, these faces still hold back from the viewer; while they may show something that was not intended, there’s still the nagging thought that the real feeling is not fully revealed; there’s still more to know. For example, there’s something of the thousand-mile stare in some of these works; the gaze of And she is, exactly as she appears is direct, penetrating, confident – a gaze that could pierce concrete, traverse continents. Under a familiar sky records similar strength – learnt strength – and the strength of these faces are in counter point to the floating washes and delicate rendering of the subject.
Others show less of a record. What lens is this? and the title work, Nobody looks at the moon in the afternoon present something else and are modulated with comparative youth, unlike for example, It is only after you know the surface of things that ventures underneath are possible. Perhaps there’s the point – we all deal with our challenges differently – and in that difference there’s no better or perfect way, only the way that enables individual progression and understanding.
John Rabling It is only after you know the surface of things that ventures underneath are possible. Watercolour on paper, 2018
Of course, this (and they) are a manifestation of my truth, not, the truth. Collectively, I hope my truth illuminates for others the difficulties of everyday existence, which sounds like waving a faltering torch on the all-pervading gloom, but I hope it also reminds those who care to look that, in the end, we usually succeed in dealing with the challenges we face – we find the best of sometimes daunting and difficult times and move forward – and that is what really matters.