Place and Space in the Paintings of Louise Cattrell
Catalogue essay for the Exhibition LOUISE CATTRELL
1995 ORIEL 31, Newtown, Powys
Can we imagine them? Can we know these paintings as landscapes? Our initial reaction is that they are abstract paintings of great beauty, distinguished by sensitive brushwork, which are vaguely reminiscent of Chinese ink paintings. But their titles suggest landscape: Gaze, Forest, Ben An, Winter. We look again, and some memories are evoked: in Gaze the water sliding back over the beach, a certain quality of light on the East Anglian coast where we lose our sense of distance, where we are no longer looking at its atmospheric condition, but are immersed in it; in Craig mountains appearing as the morning mist drifts and disperses. It is like a scene from one of Leni Rienfenstahl's mountain films or like the passage in Wordsworth's Prelude where he talks of walking on a Summer's night towards the top of Snowdon when all around was a 'dripping mist/low hung and thick'. Oppressed by the claustrophobia this gave him, he and his companions did not talk but sank into private thoughts as they trudged upwards. He talks of the exertion, of the silence, of the mountain's desolation. He is leading the group…
When at my feet the ground appear'd to brighten
And with a step or two seem'd brighter still:
Nor had I time to ask the course of this,
For instantly a Light upon the turf
Fell like a flash; I look'd about, and lo !
The Moon stood naked in the Heavens, at height
Immense above my head, and on the shore
I found myself on a huge sea of mist
Which, meek and silent, rested at my feet:
A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
All over this still Ocean, and beyond,
Far, far beyond, the vapours shot themselves,
In headlands, tongues, and promontory shapes
Into the sea, the real Sea, that seem'd
To dwindle, and give up its majesty
Usurp'd upon as far as sight could reach. 1
After this classic epiphany of the romantic sublime Wordsworth meditates on it as a revelation of the imagination and of the unity of all things. It is one of those moments
when nature and the individual consciousness merge. It is, as I shall argue below, one of those moments when place and space become temporarily one.
What gender is this moon?
Traditionally in English poetry she is female, but here one is not so sure. Potentially, if we follow the metaphor, it is, either way, traumatic: a person [mother, father?] naked and immense hangs above one. The whole passage [and I have only quoted one sentence] is surprisingly full of metaphors which serve to strengthen, but confuse, the experience.
The key metaphor is the way the landscape is seen in terms of the human body: 'naked', 'back', 'tongue', and later, 'breathtaking-place', 'homeless', 'voice', and so on. The landscape becomes a mirror image of the body at the same time as the body is absorbed into the landscape. As the human body is, with very rare exceptions, always either male or female, it is not irrelevant to ask what gender the land is here. Unless, that is, we are prepared to say that the sublime is beyond gender. But if the sublime is beyond gender, we may ask, why is there such a paucity of female artists interested in it - or certainly until recently? What makes the sublime so curious is that in it the urge to master, the urge to control - which is normally a key drive in landscape art - goes into abeyance. Wordsworth willingly, triumphantly allows the moon [male or female] to master him. But perhaps master is not the correct word. This is a scene beyond mastery; although in that Wordsworth might feel powerless, his very sense of identity uncertain, he is subsequently more certain, empowered.
Is this an equivalent to the experience we have in seeing the recent paintings of Louise Cattrell? Her earlier paintings had very clear references to the Scottish landscape, although they were always transmuted in a very romantic way, emphasising tone above colour, more concerned with stimmung, or atmosphere, than topographic exactitude. They were obviously, like the current paintings, landscape experiences recollected in tranquillity. Or, perhaps, more properly, we should say, experiences of being in the landscape recreated in the activity of painting. The paintings do not represent a landscape, or illustrate a narrative of being in the landscape, but make a new experience that is to some extent equivalent. The gaze is made flesh. The wind, the cold, the memories, the fell of boot on mulch… all these things are somehow implied, but never stated, in the colour and substance of paint.
A painting that is indicative of her shift from the earlier paintings, where there is still some vestige of topography, to the later, is the 1991 painting Burnmouth, in the lower foreground of which is established a shore with perhaps a muddy spit and a dark hill with a sea wall or road on it, and just beyond is a line that seems to indicate the horizon. Above that, and occupying at least four fifths of the canvas, is the sky, and then…it becomes cloud, like a piece of baroque drapery, takes us up into the sky, and then…it becomes hard to maintain this description of the painting as a landscape; they are sky colours, but the forms, or the hints of form do not seem right. There seems to be a vertical line, a little like a horizon upended, running down the sky. We are becoming very aware that we are looking at brushings and scrapings and blotchings of paint. We look back at the foreground and we become uncertain about that. Could not that hill be, in fact, a humble pile of mud and seaweed? We are unsure of scale in the foreground as we are of orientation in the background. We are a little disorientated, unsure of how we stand in relation to this painting. Although the painting and our seeing in it is pleasurable, that pleasure is distinctly bitter-sweet.
Let us retrace again the way we experience one of these new paintings; at first glance [as we walk towards it] we are aware of the painting as a painting; a rectangle of canvas against the wall; then we see it as a colour sensation, then [we are probably by now standing in front of the painting] we start to read the painting [a place] as a space: the variations in tone and hue, the suggestions of a foreground and a background. We have, via the eyes, entered the space of the painting. We feel, perhaps, a little uncertain, a little vertiginous, although - and this is crucial - we are being seduced by the subtle changes in tone and density. Our eyes want to penetrate the veil or film of mist, is that a rock face, or a mountain we see in Craig - it is reminiscent of how when we fly above the Alps we look down and see the mountains breaking through the shifting clouds.
It is a signal characteristic of the larger paintings that we always seem to be above, looking down. Jay Appleton has suggested in his book The Experience of Landscape that landscape art, or representation of landscape generally, is witness to two drives: that for prospects and that for refuges. He suggests that this relates to our genetic memories of pre-urban life when we instinctively sought prospects or viewpoints [such as the top of a hill or ridge] to locate game, and refuges [such as groves or caves} in which to hide from predators or inclement weather. Insofar as the viewer, like Cattrell, is set upon a prospect, these would be about control, mastery, mapping that which is laid out before one whereas all this is nebulous, so misty, so partial. The nebulous cannot be mastered, cannot be mapped.
Is this then an attempt, as the American artist Roni Horn says, to go where the pronouns no longer detain her, where things are no longer determined by gender differences? Horn writes at the end of an essay about her personal experience of looking at the Icelandic landscape and watching a person row a kayak to shore:
' I look back on the grassy shore, grinning. I peer up at the clouds and squint, first the
right eye, then the left, the sun darts back and froth in the sky. As the sun jumps my
anger returns; pronouns detain me. They make me small and eventless. I want to get
rid of them.
I've been built into a sixties suburban style ranch home like a dishwasher and it's been mistaken for my life. I want a language without pronouns. I want to come, direct and complete, without pronoun. Yes I do. I want to come before gender. Yes, yes I do.'
Landscape art is not an art form associated with women; in the traditional stereotype the boys paint the landscape and the girls paint the still life, just as in the myth of the Wild West the boys tame the wild landscape and the girls stay at home, bake apple pie and maintain an inner space - a place for the boys to return to.
A landscape art made by women is a new thing.
Cattrell's work is about place and space and the problem of their relationship. I am in a space [this room, this forest, this valley], but I am at a place, [ the ground I stand on, my chair, my body, my house]. But a place is also a space; my body encloses a space. Is it a fiction, and a maleficent one, to define place and space as opposites? It seems to me that her paintings are about allowing us to experience space and place together. A painting, traditionally is a place that creates the illusion of a space. It is normally to be construed as a fictive window that we look through.
Cattrell's earlier paintings had recognisable geographic or topographic features or even something that acted clearly as an understudy for the figure: a bit of drapery or a post.
Such placebo figures specify a place. They establish the foreground and hence the place from where we look. If we know the place we stand on then we can begin to know and map the landscape before us. Or, as Archimedes said, "Give me a fulcrum and I can move the world." All these certain things have been withdrawn now and the place is therefore, by default, the space we inhabit as we look at or into the painting. Or is it the place she inhabited as she moved back and forth to the unfinished painting?
In Plato's Timaeus place is catagorised as being that which is experienced by the body, space as that apprehended intellectually. Aristotle, who was not much interested in space, defines place as the inner surface of that which contains the body. This, I suppose is normally the atmosphere; in the landscape we are especially aware of this for the wind feels us, it demarcates the place we are. Place in everyday usage is contiguous with identity: I am of a place, you are at a place, but 'we' are in a space.
Since Descartes however, the concepts of Space and Time have tended to take precedence over a consideration of Place. Consciousness is seen as an experience of space and time. Descartes conflates space and matter, hence putting the void out of court, and in a rather cavalier manner he designates place as being, effectively, a mere misapprehension of space.
Although Cattrell's paintings seem to show a placeless space, they are in fact a reintegration of space as place. They are a practical refutation of Descartes' privileging of space over place. The quiddity of the painting, the metaphor of paint as skin, as body which is implicit to her work, the way the forms seem to move towards us into the space between that place [the painting} and this place [the viewer - all these intimate the presence and knowability of place- internal and external.
There is a seduction here, but it is not, except by analogy, a sexual one. In a recent conversation with the New York painter and critic Mathew Weinstein he said to me that a painting is unique among art forms for its ability to give the sense of a human presence. Think of how we may call this painting, like the actual person, a ' Weinstein' , a 'Cattrell'. We can be seduced by a painting, just as we can by a person. However when I commented that I thought one of his paintings was beautiful he disagreed. 'No', he said, 'you can call a person beautiful, but not a painting'.
I disagree with him. The problem is, of course, with the way in idealist philosophy The Beautiful and The Good have been transformed into ideal forms. We cannot sustain a belief in such ideal forms anymore, and hence feel uncomfortable with the words as concepts. However in the patois of everyday language 'beautiful' still exists and it is an act of repression not to use it.
Artists other than Weinstein have been edging back however towards using the word. The Swiss - American painter Michael Biberstein remarks that, 'Art is concerned with ideal states. The beautiful was a word that was taboo in the last thirty or forty years…and I agree, it's time to re-establish the term. It's one of the terms, or a mode of thinking, which was lost during those eighty years of iconoclasm but which is of crucial importance. The sublime has to do with beauty, but with overwhelming proportions and with an unspoken danger- the fear of death'.
The American writer David Hickey in the closing moments of a conference was asked in the closing moments of a conference what he thought would be the key term for the nineties. On the spur of the moment he responded 'Beauty'. His book The Invisible Dragon was an attempt to explore that possibility. Beauty for Hickey is the signature of the contract between the image and the beholder. Interestingly, in the terms of our preceding discussion, he points out that subsequent to the late Renaissance the work of art has increasingly been praised in masculine terms regarded now as implicitly effeminate, it is perhaps easier for a female artist like Cattrell to break this repression and make paintings which contain both presence and beauty. Beauty for Hickey is not an idealist end in itself, but that which makes things possible for us to be ourselves.
We have wandered into rather abstract or theoretical areas: however it all seems pertinent to our understanding of Cattrell's paintings and our use of them. That the paintings can support a discourse explains why they are not just pleasant, lyrical, abstracted landscapes.
I would like to conclude by reiterating Biberstein's point that these paintings are to do with a sense of mortality, but only within a wider sense of the human consciousness, where space is, however momentarily, understood as place. This is an inner geography as much as an outer one. Most importantly this sense of human consciousness and place is conveyed with beauty and delight.
Tony Godfrey 1995
Translated into Welsh by Eirwyn Pierce Jones
1. William Wordsworth, The Prelude, 1805 version Book XIII, 1, 36-51
2. Jay Appleton, The Experience of Landscape, London and New York, 1975
3. Roni Horn, To Place: Pooling Waters. Verlag der buchandling Walther Konig 1994 Volume 2. P.61
4 Of course we can see houses and rooms both as spaces and places, It depends on one's viewpoint. The problem in philosophy seems to be conceptualising an external place outside of the body and its particular and self-evident place.
5 See Timaeus 52-53. This is part of Plato's anaylsis of the physical world into three parts. The true forms that underlie everything; the copies of those forms which we believe we experience and which are in constant flux, that which 'comes into existence in and vanishes from a particular place'; space which we know exists but only by reason, furthermore we can only experience it as though in a dream. A good discussion of the varied history of place and space in Western philosophy is to be found in 'Retrieving the Difference between Place and Space’ by Edward S. Casey, in Architecture, Space, Painting, Journal of Philosophy and the Visual Arts, 1992, p.54-57.
6 In this they are a little like Mark Rothko's paintings where, if the viewer is patient, the central monolithic forms will begin to hover in front of the painting. In so doing they reverse the traditional landscape picture where we are invited into a perspectivally constructed space.
7 Michael Biberstein interviewed by Jiri Svetska in Exhibition catalogue Michael Biberstein: Paintings. Dusseldorf Kunstverein. 1990.
8 Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, Art Issues Press, Los Angeles. 1993.