Painting as a Tool, Art as a Means to an End

It is the Blakean belief that we live in the ‘prison of the five senses’, that if the ‘doors of perception’ could be cleansed, we would experience reality as it truly is: Infinite. Clearly my painting practice carries strong religious overtones, and theology, particularly Christian and Hindu scripture, is the source of much inspiration. To quote the novelist Charles Morgan however, I do not feel especially ‘blessed with the gift of holiness’ in the manner of a specific religious calling, so painting has become my preferred route to attempt at union with the ‘higher form of reality’. This is what I mean by describing painting as a tool and art as a means to an end; Buddha speaks of a man using a raft to cross a river, but comments that only a fool would then carry the raft on his back to walk across dry land. Here, I feel, he suggests that religious practice is a means to an end and not an end in itself. We find this notion mirrored in art, throughout, for example, Morgan’s masterpiece ‘The Fountain’, and Henry Miller’s mystical classic, ‘The Colossus of Maroussi':

…the life of the artist, his devotion to art, is the highest and the last phase of egotism in man. There aere friends who tell me that Iwill never stop writing, that I can’t. But I did stop…and I know that I can in the future, any time I wish, and for good…I feel…a growing liberation, supplemented more and more by a desire to serve the world in the highest possible way…it seems clear to me that I shall pass from art to life, to exemplify whatever I have mastered through art by my living. I said I felt chasened. It is true that I also felt exalted.

Painting, for me, offers a rich arena in which to both attempt to build a raft and to examine the possibilities of constructing such a raft outside the confines of an established religious discipline. This emphasis on subjective experience immediately suggests a link with Soren Kierkegaard, and certainly I would consider my line of thought and practice as existentialist.

My reasons for painting are primarily intuitive; image making is my natural form of self expression and I see my painting method as an amalgam of expressionism, symbolism and allegory. The key quality for any artform, I believe, is the degree to which it allows one to explore, develop and express one’s ideas. Art must always be a vehicle and it has always been visual art that has resonated most with my own creative impulse. The physical process of painting is also of integral importance, a painting is created through a combination of physical, intellectual and intuitive activity, and a painting as an object in the corporeal world is also transcendent through texture, colour, proportion and subject matter to the more spiritual regions, furthermore, for me, the physical stuff of oil paint itself possesses a living, transcendent, mystical quality which can be worked with rather like a baker works with the living yeast while making bread – technique becomes a by-product of an oil painter developing an affinity with the medium. I consider myself a painter in the European tradition of oil painting on canvas, although much of the influence on my painting comes from outside of this tradition; in particular Hindu painting and sculpture, Byzantine mosaics ans Coptic Christian wall painting (in a parallel universe the monastery of St Anthony at the Red Sea is considered more important than the Sistine Chapel and Charles Morgan is more widely read than Dickens!): their areas of flat colour, inverted and distorted perpective and wide-eyed mysticism continue to leave their mark on my work.

Paul Gauguin, described by Iris Murdoch as a ‘demi-god of existentialism’, remarks:

Truth is in front of our eyes, nature vouches for it. Would nature be deceiving you, by any chance? Is truth really naked or disguised? Though your eyes cannot reason, have they the necessary perfection to discover truth?

Here, Gauguin echoes the sentiment of mystics throughout history and it is this lineage, as a European oil painter, that I allign myself with. It is early days as of yet, but I hope that the paintings included here document the beginnings of an attempt at spiritual development which may be of some interest and a basis for future discourse.

Any description of human engagement with absolute or higher reality, from Lao Tzu to Wittgenstein, even in the vaguest of terms, has been notoriously problematic. However, unsatisfactory as it is, I did want to try and produce some kind of written accompaniment to my most recent work and to emphasize my conception of mysticism as an experience extra-sensory but not beyond the realms of human capability. The mystic experience is of the ‘connectedness’ of all matter and levels of consciousness. The following quote from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s essay ‘Immortality’ would seem as good an attempt as any to sum up this notion, although I might just have easily selected a passage from Blake or the Indian saint Ramakrishna:

The misconception which has haunted philosophic literature throughout the centuries is the notion of “independent existence”. There is no such mode of existence; every entity is only to be understood in terms of the way in which it is interwoven with the rest of the Universe.

So why paint? The solitary, existential process of making paintings would seem, at some level at least, at odds with the all-encompassing mystic vision. The compulsion to paint, for me is overridingly intuitive, along with the compulsion to attempt to find some answers to these universal, yet also existential questions: Seen in terms of the Hindu concept of Brahman and Atman, working towards some kind of self-realisation through subjective experience seems to become a more legitimate method of approaching the problem; in fact, almost all mystical practice proceeds along these lines. Charles Morgan talks about achieving an ‘inner stillness'; Platonic ‘essence before being’. Colin Wilson in describing his ‘type’ of existential hero ‘The Outsider’, states that for him it must be the other way around; the individual must be capable of evolving, of developing and changing his essence, he cites Sartre’s ‘Le Diable et le Bon Dieu’ as an evocation of how human beings through effort and application of the will can achieve this. Currenly, my feeling lies somewhere between the two; I feel that, as human beings, we do have vast resources of potential will-power and that we are able to change our ‘direction’, but by our ‘direction’, I mean our journey towards or away from our Atman or what Goethe refers to as our ‘essential part’. In Hinduism, the Brahman and the Atman are one, and this, I feel, is unchanging; it remains a mystery, of course, why we should have become disconnected or ‘fallen’ away from our ‘essential part’, but to realise (or re-connect to) our Atman is surely to achieve inner stillness. My painting practice is an attempt to assert my will-power in an effort to begin to move in the right direction, whether the practice of painting can constitute an effective raft on which to travel remains a central question to be answered.

Rob Floyd

Chorlton, Manchester.

Summer 2008