Is it OK to disagree with the Artist?

Looking out of the window at the chilly rain this Monday morning, the weekend’s sunshine seems to belong to another season rather than being just a day ago. On those days when the sun does shine, I’m increasingly spending time down at Plymouth’s Royal William Yard enjoying the coffee, freshly made pastries, local cheeses from the deli, the passage to the beach and the art.

On most of our visits we pop in to see what’s new in the gallery of local abstract artist Martin Bush. That might be because my son insists on going in and peeking tentatively around the labyrinth of paintings until he finds an impressive three metre high sculpture of the minataur. But on the wall facing the minataur is what I’m going in to see, a 1.5 metre wide abstract painting called “In the Element”.

In the Element - Martin Bush 2011

In the Element – Martin Bush 2011

This picture is part of a series of works inspired by the America’s Cup sailing competition, which came to Plymouth last summer. Almost effortlessly, Martin manages to capture the movement and the energy of that competition, the constant action and attention needed to harness the elements and keep ahead of the competition. Discussing the picture, Martin wants the viewer to imagine themselves looking back from the bow of a racing yacht, the folds of the sails forming an expectant concertina of canvas on the deck as they are hauled down out of the wind.

When I first saw this picture, there was something disturbing about it, which didn’t sit easily with the adrenaline rush of having the sun on your back, the wind in your hair (and sails) and the spray of salt water in your face. For me the picture seemed more foreboding, and the title conveyed a sense of menace. For me this was not a picture of elements being harnessed for sport, but a darker vision of elements being fought back as they threaten to engulf the onlooker and dislodge them from their precarious perch above the waves.

Eventually I realised why I saw such a hostile scene. It was because there was another image lurking in the back of my mind, which Martin’s work evokes in its composition and in the positioning of the flashes and swirls. The scene which I now see when I look at “In the Element” is this one, Théodore Géricault’s 1819 paining of the Raft of the Medusa.

The Raft of the Medusa - Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)

The Raft of the Medusa – Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)

At over seven metres wide, the Raft of the Medusa towers over the viewer from its permanent home on the walls of the Louvre. In contrast to the Mona Lisa, which always appears smaller than expected, this massive work of art overpowers rather than charms those who stand before it. It tells the horrific story of the survivors of the Shipwreck of the Medusa, who clung to this hastily constructed vessel as they awaited rescue. A rescue which eventually came to just fifteen of the 147 passengers in the form of the French ship the Argus. This ship can just be seen as a hopeful speck on the horizon in the top right of the picture.

Once you’ve seen the similarity, the composition of “In the Element” makes it impossible to disassociate it (for me at least) from the Raft of the Medusa. In the top left corner the dark patch of the towering waves and the brooding clouds sit beside the flash of light of a hopeful dawn. The only bright colour in Géricault’s vision are the red flashes of garments, one of which is being waved in hope of being sighted. These are mirrored by the bursts of red in the abstract work which infuse the canvas with hope. The diagonal ropes holding the mast are evident in both works and, most powerfully, where the Argus sits on the horizon as a beacon of hope to the stricken souls on the raft, in the corresponding spot there is a blue cross – a symbol of salvation above the tumultuous waves.

In my dark vision of In the Element, instead of folds of canvas, lifeless as they wait to be hoisted into the wind, the swirls become the wasted and inert forms of those for whom the deliverance of the Argus would not come in time.

But which of us is right?

As I look at In the Element, I can see both the sporting scene Martin describes, and also the despair and hope of the dying passengers of the Medusa. But should it be possible to see both? Should the artist be able to dictate what we see, or is it OK to disagree with the artist?

As I reflect on this question, it seems that the answer to this question is bound up with the level of abstraction in the work itself. If this was a photo-realistic image of the bow of a modern racing yacht then we wouldn’t be discussing the similarities with the two hundred year old representation of a maritime tragedy. But because the work is abstract, because it leaves room for interpretation by the viewer, we are free to see more in here than what the artist intended. And once we’ve seen a bigger picture, the abstract often becomes clearer.

Now I’m no expert when it comes to art, so let’s move this discussion into a field with which I’m more familiar – making sense of the Bible.

I often hear people accuse the Bible of being incomprehensible and unconnected, but the Bible too has different levels of abstraction. Some parts of the Bible are meant to be photo-realistic: Histories, Letters, Gospels and all those parts which have the voice of a narrator showing us clearly what God wants us to think. We can’t read these bits and argue with the author about what they meant.  But there are some parts of the Bible which are more abstracted: Poems, dialogues, visions and proverbs all leave room for us to see layers of meaning, and are often the bits that leave us confused. But there is a bigger picture, an overarching story which once we’ve seen it will shape our understanding of even the most abstract sections.

Like the Raft of the Medusa, the big picture of the Bible has at its centre a scene of despair and hope where at first glance we cannot see whether the darkness of the clouds or the light of the dawn will triumph.  But like the Argus, like the cross on the horizon, the Cross of Jesus is the beacon of hope which makes sense of the whole picture. And once we’ve seen that the Bible is about one man, we can’t help but see Him across the whole canvas of scripture.

So what do you see?

If you want to make up your own mind about In the Element, then its on show at Martin’s Gallery in the Brewhouse in Plymouth’s Royal William Yard. Martin’s current show includes his current projects and older works. You can also book the gallery for private events and functions.  

VIsit Martin Bush's Website