BLOG: ENTERING RAY MEAD'S GARDEN OF OEDIPUS
When someone thinks of abstract art — and by someone, I mean someone probably from this continent, not very well acquainted with it — the first thing to come to mind is probably abstract expressionism, with visions of Jackson Pollack prowling around a canvas dripping slashes of paint at it. There's nothing wrong with that, unless, rather than opening a door of curiosity, it slams it shut dismissively — which I can understand.
Next, if a little more percipient, one may think of the abstract movement that originated in New York in the late forties/early fifties, America's greatest contribution to the world of fine art. (That this new art movement was promulgated by the CIA with Rockefeller's fortune backing it is something not so very well known, and a topic for a future blog post.)
When one thinks of Canadian Art — if anyone other than Canadians think of it at all, that is — one thinks of landscape painting, especially The Group of Seven.. And that's fine because, after all, Canadian landscape painting is second to none in the world. (Though the world has yet to agree with that... But it's getting there.) But Canada has also produced some excellent abstractionists, such as Jean-Paul Riopelle and Guido Molinari.
The Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ontario (40 minutes east of Toronto), is home to the world's largest collection of the work of Painter's 11, Canada's homegrown abstract art movement. Well, it wasn't so much a movement as a collective that adopted the various post-war schools of abstraction to encourage each other to investigate their own aesthetic approaches to finding their own authentic voices. The gallery recently devoted a show to one of its members, Ray Mead.
The show was arranged chronologically, showing Mead's artistic evolution. It reads almost as a synopsis of the various movements that developed from the 50s through to the 80s. As I considered his work in chronological order Mead comes across as an adherent rather than a trailblazer: Mead appears to adopt each modernist trend, from the blocky overlapping planes that prevailed in the 50s, loosening up through a phase reminiscent of Nicholas de Stael, with some obvious dalliances with Gottlieb and Miro, to an obviously Hans Hoffman inspired approach to abstract expressionism, followed by experiments with hard-edge geometric minimalism.
What's interesting about Mead's work is that though the works appear derivative, he wears each period as his own, producing beautiful and compelling paintings through a native and excellent aesthetic sense: his palette is really his own, no other painter employs ugly greens, sensuous oranges, and especially rich blacks the way he does, and his sense of composition is always spot-on.
No matter which style he adopted, his instincts were impeccable. For instance Mead knew how to apply, with remarkable subtlety, the tiniest hint of some strong color that would be just the right one to masterfully unite his sophisticated compositions to bring them to life.
Except for minimalism, which he doesn't wear well. These are his least successful paintings (except for a lovely and powerful homage to Albers). But as it turns out, this was an important transitional phase for him, because it led to his final period where his authentic voice finally found an outlet, and a very powerful voice it was.
Though obviously talented with a truly excellent aesthetic intuition, and though I largely enjoyed his works, I was fairly dismissive of his oevre which struck me as accomplished but derivative, like the work of so many talented postwar abstractionists. Until, that is, I saw one large canvas in a room dedicated to it: a piece entitled the Garden of Oedipus. This painting hit me as only a handful of other abstracts have. There was something going on here, something so deep and powerful that it compelled me to go back and review his works to try to fathom his evolution to see what led him to this.
This is one of the most moving, powerful abstract paintings I've ever experienced. (Obviously a small 72dpi representation of it cannot do it justice: you cannot get a sense of its scale, or of how rich and dense and seductively abysmal that enormous field of black is unless you see it in person.) (And to those who doubt that one can be moved by abstract paintings, that will be the subject of a future blog post; exploring that question now will take us too far afield.)
Ok, so what is it about this painting that I find so compelling.
Mead gives us a clue in the painting's title: Garden of Oedipus. From there we can project a more specific meaning onto the canvas. But even without this clue, we can discover some meanings strictly through a study of the composition.
The most immediate sense is of an enormous black field with scrawny bright yellow lines, like fingernail scratches, just above the middle; and at the bottom, a row of evenly-spaced blood red columns ooze off the canvas. Terror is in the air. But there's also a feeling of quiet, of equanimity even. The immense black field is not a space of dread, it is not funereal; rather, there's something comforting about the rich emptiness (again, it has to be seen in person to appreciate the richness of the black). The black is, paradoxically, tensely reposeful, like a waiting room, or, more accurately, a sensory deprivation tank. (No one does black like Ray Mead!)
On this infinite darkness are screams of color: bright yellow scratches above the equator, and stumpy thick blood red lines below. But are those blood red lines rising, or falling off the canvas? The difference in scale and temperament (ie: the quality of the lines) between the two sets of lines, and the placement of the red ones below the yellow scratches, suggest a subtle perspective that pushes from the red ones up and in towards the yellow, just as the yellow points painfully down towards the red. The tension is palpable between these stiff red lines and the yellow scratches. We can't help but make a causal connection between them: knife stabbings and blood, perhaps? And yet against that eternal, infinite black, it's somehow all ok, like an eternal tension held in an uneasy equilibrium. To borrow a musical analogy, it's a perfect authentic cadence held in a frozen, eternal and simultaneous suspense-and-release, as only painting can convey. (As I said above, Mead is an intuitive master of composition.)
And then one notices, almost as an afterthought, the narrow blocks of dark purple, like bookends, containing the black. The purple bars don't extend the longitude of the canvas, they halt a bit above the bottom. So they're not stripes forming a frame, but take on more of the character of doors, or the sides of a stage containing a space, suggesting perhaps something theatrical, like a proscenium. Absolutely brilliant. And it's this that makes the red rise towards the yellow, since the hint of the proscenium pushes the black at the bottom towards us, suggesting a subtle perspective that pulls us back into the canvas. (There are also brushstrokes in the red lines that aid in this illusion which are completely absent in the reproduction).
But these elements by themselves wouldn't work without the slivers of tentative, stuttering lines of deep electric orange that separate the purple from the black. This is where Mead's genius really shines, because, as with so much of his other work, it's just this kind of incredibly subtle detail of strong color (as I mentioned above) that ties the disparate elements together and brings the entire composition to life.
It's a large piece that pulls you into it. But into what, exactly? What does it mean? Does it mean anything? Why did Mead entitle it Garden of Oedipus? What does the artist intend?
As I said, the title shouldn't have to tell you what it is for you to understand it; rather, the title should serve as the creator's annotation to help give us a vantage point by which to approach a piece. So let's see where it takes us.
Oedipus claws his eyes out when he discovers the truth because it is too painful for him to see. Ten yellow scratches, one for each finger. (Yes, I know: depending on the author, he used a pin from Jocasta's brooch to blind himself, or he was blinded by Laius' attendants. But we'll allow Mead his more visually apposite artistic license.) A proscenium: all of life a stage: Oedipus's life was a role he was fated to play. The truth: painful, devastating, blinding. Darkness. A garden: respite, repose.
Oedipus blinds himself. Is this what he sees in his blindness? He gained wisdom from learning the truth. Is this what truth looks like? If beauty is truth, and truth beauty, then yes, maybe it does look like this — at least for Mead, or Mead's Oedipus. This painting is unquestionably profoundly existentialist. Is this Mead's way of suggesting (through poetic associations via Oedipus) that life is a role we just act out, the painfully blinding truth of which is played out against an eternity of reposeful emptiness?
Though this is a common theme in art, abstraction permits us to experience this theme very differently than a more reaslitic depiction. (Géricault's Raft of the Medusa and Munch's The Scream are two obvious examples.) A figurative depiction (even if expressionistic) implies a narrative frame in which we are asked to experience such existential questions by projecting our experience vicariously through identification with the painting's subjects. Abstraction, whether visual or musical, provides us a way to commune with such existential themes by igniting our own internal constellations of meaning without a clear anchor to the world "out there". Both get us to look within, but one does so through identification with others, the other by having us look within ourselves for the answer. One is not better than the other, of course, they are just different venues for experiencing questions of fundamental importance to what it means to exist.
The exhibit only had two works from this last phase of his life, so perhaps it's premature to call this is a phase (especially since this was my first and only introduction to Mead's work), but I suspect it is. The incipient promise of his natural aesthetic brilliance finally blossomed in these late works. Ray Mead was a great talent who, when he finally found his own authentic voice, produced a truly original and powerful work: the Garden of Oedipus is a genuine abstract masterpiece.
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