Ways of Saying: Reflections on the recent paintings of Maria Cruz and Richard Grayson.

Eve Sullivan

Art in Australia, autumn 2003

In the headspace of the new millennium, painting is enjoying a healthy momentum as an art form. In the recent exhibition Painting at the Edge of the World, the curator and editor of its accompanying publication Douglas Fogle ponders the big question ‘Where does the edge of the canvas end and the edge of the world begin?’1. As Fogle states ‘What has become clear today is that the practice of painting is no longer based on the traditional categories of abstraction, figuration, portraiture or landscape, or even by the conventional definition of the medium of painting on canvas.’ Painting as ‘a mode of thought’, a philosophical proposition, is one that wistfully engages in the rhetorical clarification of its death and rebirth as a strategic exercise ripe for exploitation.

The recent paintings of Maria Cruz and Richard Grayson adopt something of this apocryphal exercise in the modestly circumscribed containment of the canvas, to nevertheless broach a form of global consciousness-raising. In practices that would yet hardly describe as sympathetic to each other and broadly canvas differences that are useful to assess, both Cruz and Grayson use the medium of painting as cosmological device through which to locate the subject in the space of representational possibility. These paintings talk as image and inscription through the apotheosis of the word, the colour chart in tandem with a range of image associations that extends the humanist notion of painting as ‘a window to the world’.

Richard Grayson in his exhibition Ways the World Ends at Yuill Crowley Gallery (Sydney) in September 2002, presents a series of colour cosmologies that function as an update on ‘the Doomsday Records’ and go some way to function as ‘the textual versions of the grand apocalyptic narratives of Hieronymous Bosch or John Martin’2. As a set of predictions about the ways the world will end, Grayson engages in his own brand of over-determined textual reference as literary device to reinstate the provocative role of narrative in referencing imaginary worlds. Grayson’s harbinger of reflection on the event space of so many extant narratives as conspiracy theories complements the curatorial concept he devised for the 2002 Biennale of Sydney, that ‘(The World May Be) Fantastic.’

In this, fore-fronting also in his practice as an artist, a focus on the uses of ‘fictions, narratives, invented hypotheses, subjective belief systems, modelling, fakes and experiments as a means to generate work.’3 For Ways the World Ends, Grayson engages in his rampant enthusiasm for tales of destruction as Endgame through a dense network of references of biblical and pseudo-scientific investigation, much of it seemingly driven by the machinations of the internet, the world wide web of information dissemination.

These references include the astronomical reflections of Laughlin & Adams, the apocalyptic refrain of The Bible Decoded and Scientologist Mary Baker Eddy, the alien worlds of ‘Zeta Talk’ and the visionary writings of ‘psychostropic astronaut’ Terence McKenna, alongside prophecies attributed to Rasputin. This worldview, fuelled by a cast of fakes and soothsayers, relies heavily on ‘the wacko Christianity’ of US Fundamentalists according to whom, as Grayson extrapolates in his catalogue essay, the UN is regarded as the antichrist. The catalogue statement goes some way to milk the broader connections of these references.

As streams of text encircling the apocalyptic abyss both beyond the edge of the canvas and into the vortex of the centre, the heady refrain is encrypted in the optical mix of complementary colours working up and down the scale of chromatic greys. Occupying the physical space of the viewer, it is hard not to feel giddy, turning one’s head to read the text as it blares forth or disappears through the gradation of colours in the depth of the ground. Wrought as block letters in full frontal symmetry or tilting into three-dimensional space as an arc to form an ellipse, we are caught up in the illusion of the painted schema.

Like the pyschedelia of acid rock posters, the visual effect going along with the transient world talk, evokes the experience of a hallucinogenic trip.

Capturing something too of the incandescent resonance of Bruce Nauman’s fluorescent wall sign (held in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia), we might go along with the suggestion that The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths. Without taking responsibility for the primary text as scripture, vested in the heroic myth of the artist, we are nevertheless swept up in its ironic transcendental equation. In these ‘horrorscope’ worlds of fantastic projection and impossible narratives as grand delusions of a culture in graphic decline, Grayson pokes fun at our capacity for belief and the latent fear that at least one of these predictions ‘might turn out to be "real"’.4

In the paintings of Maria Cruz, the colour chart as wheel of fortune and cosmological device is also a prevalent motif. Her version of the personal horoscope You Will Make New Friends is a colour wheel of striating circular rays unified by their cadmium base in yellow, red, green and brown. The cadmium colours as hues of singular strength and permanence, form a kind of trinity or Catholic cosmology as she has used them formerly to evoke the concepts of heaven, earth and hell. Cruz enjoys the somewhat irrational premise of colour as a system of belief.

After reading Johannes Itten’s The Art of Colour: The subjective experience and objective rationale of colour, her response was to paint a version of the grey scale as Standards of Good and Bad. As she put it in a recent artist’s statement ‘What I saw in colour theory were moral qualities of colour. What does it mean to read good and bad in colour exercises? Not much, except that it screwed up certain theological premises. Artist always find ways of using colour to attract meaning.’5 Cruz plays with colour as a constructive device, enjoying the connection also in the transcendental viewpoint of Pythagorean origin, in the relationship between geometry and human centred values. It is in this sense that the fields and contained patterns are fluid and porous, expressive in their palpable chemistry of oil paint as a medium.

Just so, in another work that stands in for That Occult Metaphysical Quality of Gravity, as Bishop Berkeley so phrased it in his critique of Newtonian physics, the phenomenon is conveyed through the abstract play of red and green drips running vertically down the surface of the canvas. Expressions of the supernatural are par for the course in attempts to represent both as word association and image, those strange places of imagination and belief. Her painting Levitation is ‘based on a story I heard as a child that some cars float or levitate and crash when gravity returns.6’.

Being ‘spooked’ by supernatural phenomena, as a lifting of the barrier between ‘life and death’ is something Cruz entertains in reflection on the occasion of first seeing The Exorcist ‘I saw it on the first day of release in the Philippines and on the following day a very important fortune teller said everyone who saw the film would die in 1980. I was very impressed by that. The collective psyche of the Philippines was very affected’.7

Cruz enjoys the possibility of ‘finding poetry in disasters and accidents’ and in the means by which landmark public events become fused with more private recollections as they enter the public record. In this sense, her ready source material is the ‘found’ photograph. Cruz, following the notable example of painters Gerhard Richter and Luc Tymans, attempts to capture a personal and introspective reaction to the tangential images that function as the trace of significant world events and realities. Thus in an earlier series of seemingly inconsequential images of a blanket, a mask and the bare tracings of an image, she attempts to capture the inexpressible grief and horror of the Oklahoma bombing.

Poetic intuition as psychic excavation, prompts the desire to represent the symptomatic expression of what is seemingly unrepresentable. ‘Each photo [reworked as paintings] is a whole universe of hypothetical events and a home for memories’.8 And in answer to the proposition ‘How does one represent the breeze or an earthquake’? Cruz continues to explore her fascination for the charismatic gesture of painting’s referential capacity. In her recent series exhibited in September 2002 at Sarah Cottier Gallery (Sydney), Cruz presents a series of Palette and landscape paintings, representing this passage between the surface of the mix and the image of landscape as an idea. These painted landscapes, all entitled Homesick, function like the collective memories of an essential vision of the landscape through what Cruz calls the ‘budgeted gestures’ of painting worked over and over again as an abstraction. The Palettes, as the primal scene of colour composition in the mix, are studded with silver coins that are the prismatic complement of photographic grey and also refer to the ‘value system’ in painting.

Cruz’ mission is the desire to catch this ‘bubble in painting’ that is not realised in an image but as a space of pilgrimage into the memories of time past as ‘a system of putting out something and taking it back’. As such, her practice partakes in the abyssal edge of the ‘Informe’ or in english, ‘the formless’. As Georges Bataille wrote: ‘formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world’, including in this idealist notions of ‘good form’ and ‘good gestalt. ‘All of philosophy has no other goal. It is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat on the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit!’.9 And, as Michel Leiris expands, Bataille made spittle into ‘scandal itself, since it lowers the mouth - the visible sign of intelligence — to the level of the most shameful organs…given the identical source of language and spittle, any philosophical discourse can legitimately be figured by the incongruous image of the spluttering orator.’ 10

Both Cruz and Grayson go some way to adopt this role of the ‘spluttering orator’. Grayson, as the master or rhetorical effusion and encyclopaedic miasma, retrieves the fascination for the text as transportive ‘liquid words’. In this sense also, along with their sadistic agency, painting goes some way to present the word as resident evil. Cruz, for whom the narrative association is more a jumping off point, similarly engages in what is essential to the task of representation through the transgression of traditional formal values. Hers is an attempt to configure what can and cannot be spoken as shy reflection on the ontology of painting as mystic cipher and resonant field of communication.