Oil on mdf
151 x 204 cm
Oil on board
57 x 54 cm
Oil on board
57 x 54 cm
Oil on unstretched canvas
210 x 460 cm
Oil on board
12 x 18 cm
Painting the Perfect Cannibal
In my paintings I work with a poetic construct which I call the Perfect Cannibal and a notion of the ‘dissemblant’ image - one which is concealed, deferred or virtual. Working with paint and surface from almost nothing to something, and trying to mediate a point where paint appears to be simultaneously a formation and a turning away; a collapse.
The dissemblant image can be traced back to the middle ages and the Neo-Platonist use of the ‘deformed’ image, the grotesque or monstrous as a poetic and symbolic tool with which to probe substance, existence and form. Central to this was the pre-Christian tradition of philosophical negation and the related theory of dissimilitude (absence of likeness) although the art historian Georges Didi-Huberman notes the roots of the notion of dissemblance are not originally biblical or Christian but Platonic[i]. These ideas became central to medieval neo-platonist Christian theologians who developed a discourse, which had at its centre the belief that “form does not contain being” and that logical and lingual analysis and rational thought was partial and restrictive, only going so far in coming closer to the ‘truth’ (which for them was God). Therefore conventional signs were deformed in ways against logic, producing monstrous absurd images which paradoxically became the sign of ‘that which is not’, the transcendent God or ‘truth’ as paradox. Central to the discourse of the monstrous is the opposition of logical analysis with the non-rational monstrous as lying in the margins of language and therefore not fully comprehensible, the idea being that the interplay of the two contraries produces a fuller understanding of that which is being examined.
In ‘Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature’[ii] David Williams comments that this is a tradition which does not conceive of art as mimetic, producing accurate representations of what can be seen and touched, but heuristic, enabling a person to discover and learn things for themselves, attempting to communicate representations “not of the particulars of the material world, but rather of an absent world of Forms”. Therefore the monstrous does not represent but presents, shows-forth. Monstrare is the Latin word to show, point out or reveal and comes from the word monstrum meaning monster, portent or unnatural thing. The monstrous is described within this discourse as parasitic, depending on conventional language but feeding at the margins and pointing beyond logic to paradox, poetics and non-sense, deriving its power, not from language, but from its depiction. It expresses the gap, the silence and “accommodates the things left over when the categories of language are exhausted; it is a defence against silence when other words have failed.”[iii] The impossible form of the monstrous provides the copula, the mediation point, or bridge, which can bring together those things “doomed by logic and language, never to be joined”. Williams goes on to say that although such unions remain illogical even absurd “it is an absurdity that raises paradox out of its purely logical function and places it at the centre of ontology”[iv].
Paradox is situated right at the heart of the 9th centaury philosopher John Scottus Eriugena’s book Periphyseon in which he lays out four divisions of nature and five modes of being and non-being. The third mode (I.444c-45b) contrasts the being of actual things with the ‘non-being’ of potential or possible things still contained, ‘in the most secret folds of nature’ (in secretissimis naturae sinibus). This mode contrasts things which have come into effect with those things which are still contained in their causes. According to this mode, actual things, which are the effects of the causes, have being, whereas those things which are still virtual in the Primary Causes are said not to be. He brings together the perceivable and non-perceivable, the actual and the virtual within one single principle leading to a theorisation of the as yet virtual, or of the unseen; the unknown and the hidden, as an extension of the known and perceivable rather than non-existent.
The strange mixing of the virtual and the actual in the monstrous extended beyond the boundary of the image to the world it was said to inhabit. A ‘layer’ or ‘film’ of ‘virtuality’ extending across the geography of the world, with particular geographical locations identified with particular ‘races’ of monsters. These monsters were said to be actual in that they were given a geographical location but always in a far away exotic place, a deferred virtual location. They had been seen, but always somewhere else.
The neo-platonists believed that in order to probe something you couldn’t purely come at it through rational analysis, as some things existed outside language, you could only come at the truth by the paradox of what it was not. The deformed grotesque image was one in which natural order was dislocated, time was dislocated; it lay outside logical analysis, a being in which time was collapsed.
One particular monster discussed by Williams became the driving force behind a series of paintings. The Perfect Cannibal. Williams describes a taxonomy of medieval monsters - the paradoxical morphology of non-forms. The human body, its structure and the functions of the different parts, were used as a source of symbols, in relation to aspects of monstrous deformity in which the natural order was dislocated. The mouth was understood as constituting a principal threshold of the body and, “thus of the self, a border between the inside and the outside, a portal giving access to the recesses of the living organism or, in the other direction, to the phenomenal, physical world.” The deforming and contortions of the mouth produced a variety of monsters implying dysfunctions of speech, abnormal ingestion and a denial of the separation established by the buccal threshold between inside and out. This is the “hell-mouth”, a “virtually disembodied, devouring maw”[v] which although representing death, also alludes to passage from one realm to another.
Cannibalism is a characteristic common to many monsters, representing a “breakdown” of the normal categories of what is available as food by the eating of the equal, the same species and therefore constituted “by degrees of similarity of the eaten to the eater. Therefore “perfect” cannibalism is the devouring of the very self.”[vi], the collapse of subject and object and the “abandoning” of similarity and difference. Situated at the very margins of language a single “embodied mouth endlessly trying to swallow itself” in a space characterised by absurd configurations, deformation and dislocation, where elements logically apart in time exist in the same space, one of paradox and multiplicity, not binary opposition, but a space of proliferation and of transformation.
It seemed to me that this, not so much a ‘place’ but a particular motion, shared common ground with painting. But a particular view of a painting as a virtually ‘extended’ or ‘stretched’ material which is not fully autonomous, rather a surface of exchange through gesture, inscription and the mark; forces which are sensible and non-sensible, actual and virtual, and is in contrast to a view of a painting as a static and self-contained object.
From David Williams writing I have developed the Perfect Cannibal as a poetic entity, which has become a way of working and the thing I try to work with or make work through. It is not so much a construction more an assemblage or conglomerate of qualities, actions, motions, concepts that oscillate and skim round each other hinging in and out of each other. Initially it was simply the thing in the painting which felt like an other, or maybe a sense of miscellaneous forms building to form a ‘presence’… later it became the painting itself.
The thing that strikes me about the Perfect Cannibal is that it is not human, it is un-human, it is material and motion and if it does appear to look back at me, maybe an eye develops through the process of moving paint around, then it is not a human eye though it may have the appearance of one. It is closer to the feint of decoy spots on the back of a caterpillar and the illusion of a much larger and far more dangerous animal. It is what it is not.
[i] Didi-Huberman, G., 1995, ‘Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration’, translated by Jane Marie Todd, The University of Chicago Press. P.45 D-H notes that the concept of the region of dissemblance is found in the myth that appears in Plato’s Politics.
[ii] Williams, D., 1999: Deformed Discourse – the function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thoughts and Literature, McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal & Kingston.
[iii] Ibid. Williams quotes from Galt Harpham, G., 1982: ‘On the Grotesque: strategies of contradiction in art and literature’, Princeton University Press, p. 3.
[iv] Ibid. Once again Williams quoting Galt Harpham.
[v] Ibid p. 145
[vi] Ibid p. 147