For this latest autumnal episode, I revert to type by offering some level of scrutiny to an exhibition by an emerging artist and PhD researcher, Paul Vousden on the theme of The contemporary sublime. The title I admit had me both slightly curious and bemused at the same time, cryptic to say the least, still enough to intrigue me to go and visit, mask, hand wash and all.
I suppose my normal approach to art and exhibitions is to trust my 5 senses before inspecting any written or spoken narrative, that is to see if I think I ‘get’ the work, deduce its potential content/signifiers and establish whether or not it sets the bristles on the back of my neck tingling (in a good way I mean!). So there I was, in the rather splendid shop window that is East Gallery in Norfolk UK presented with a quite extensive set of, what I would describe as ‘paintings’ – though as I will explain later, I use this term advisedly.
The exhibition’s unavoidably large print introduction states with some modicum of accuracy that:
The central tenet of Burke’s treatise1 is that emotional reactions to objects, landscapes, and ideas can be explained by rational examination. Burke also analyses the links between perception, terror, power, passion, ethics, and morality in the eighteenth century.
I have to confess that the idea of using Burke’s Enquiry as a manual for creating visual art is as compelling as it is mind-bending, but let’s start with an analysis of Vousden’s work before we start on any interrogative.
The show presents the viewer with a quite extensive body of figurative and non-figurative work at scale, a somewhat savage sense of colour and graphic delineation. A number of the works have a slightly trippy, hallucinogenic feel, as if we are looking into a portion of kaleidoscopic symmetry and asymmetry. I declare that a couple of the works made me feel slightly queasy, the combination of unfathomable visual complicatedness and red/white/black colourways being viscerally disquieting, though I’m not sure if this was the desired effect.
Turning the corner in the space my senses were somewhat relieved to find some much gentler pastel palettes and images that were more civilised in scale and tenor. The work is tricky to pigeonhole, this despite a degree of consistent signature style and repeated motifs and markings. There is little doubt in my mind that show is certainly impressive in its labour, dedication and execution, but I personally found myself floundering in my search for intent and significance either in individual works or in the collective whole of the show. Having inspected many shows over the years, I felt it fell into the trap of probably having an intense, but largely hermetically sealed internal dialogue and rationale within the work.
What I mean by this is that I had the feeling that the debate between the artwork, the artist and the premise was very much alive and kicking, but without a sense that this needed to be revealed to an audience. In short, what I would unkindly refer to as body of work with a closed and dialogue that largely excludes, and thus eludes the audience. Sadly this is a common characteristic of much, often very ‘serious’, worthy artwork that fails to escape its internal logic/exchange.
So I guess at this point we seek clarification in the statement and announced goals of the artist/researcher:
My research reconsiders Burke’s text from my perspective as a practicing artist, and asks the question, to what extent can Burke’s aesthetic philosophy be usefully employed in the production of paintings, and drawings, which reflect on the physicality and character of contemporary British spaces, places, and landscapes?
(Paul Vousden, 2021)
Whilst I really admire the artist’s announced intent to discharge the hefty responsibility of honouring Burke’s treatise, I cannot help but feel a little left out of the resulting show as a member of the viewing public. Sure, the work is plausible, technically accomplished and obviously driven in its intensity, but the feel of the overall install seemed both oppressive and, rather narcissistic. Forgive the wordplay, but Burke’s terror of the sea, for example, translated into a type of very intense visual navel gazing.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many things about this work and the show overall which I really admired, I just didn’t like it, for the reasons outlined above.
The works are undoubtedly the result of the artist’s incredible diligence, devotion to process and desire to faithfully deliver to the confines of Burke’s Enquiry. Some of the smaller works salve the rawness of the larger, more strident triptychs. The real odd-one out is the figurative/sci-fi image of a visual representation of the Covid-19 virus occupying a chapel as a symbol of the establishment. Very English, very political, but also very literal.
Ultimately a show to admire for the degree of difficulty of the announced project, and to be applauded for its tenacity and diligence. But, try as I might and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t love it, and it reciprocated I am sure.
1 Vousden characterises this quite well in his statement: “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, (1757) I intend to explore this hypothesis. Burke is credited with creating a psychology of fear which had a profound effect upon British landscape depiction and the aesthetic of the Sublime. Burke also contributed to the wider British eighteenth-century zeitgeist via his successful aesthetic correlation of the need to make social stratification natural and meritorious…” (P. Vousden, 2021).