Life as a Clay Rembrandt

There are days I don’t feel like much. I’ve never been much possessed of a sense of my own strength or ability or beauty. I have days of introspection and self doubt. But it was in such a period recently that I stumbled upon Paul’s words in his second letter to the church of Corinth, ‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay…’ (2 Corinthians 4:7) They’re words I’ve kept on returning to.

There’s a painting of Paul I love; a Rembrandt. It’s a beautiful piece. It might be my favourite painting. Paul the Apostle sits at his writing desk penning part of the New Testament. Pen arm slung over the back of his chair, he seems to be contemplating what to write down next.

De apostel Paulus aan zijn schrijftafel

Saint Paul at his Writing-Desk Wikipedia

The composition is perfect, the play of soft light and shadow is masterful as is, above all, Rembrandt’s sensitivity to capture the heart and soul of someone in their face and posture. Rembrandt’s love affair with brown doesn’t always pull off but here it’s just right. But a confession: although I always thought of it as a lovely picture itself I didn’t, until recently, really think it quite worked as a picture of Paul. Paul the intrepid traveler, crossing dangerous terrain and seas to spread the message of Jesus, shipwrecked, attacked, jailed is, in my mind,  a fiery, steely eyed bull dog of a man who fought hard. Here though he looks, to be honest, like he’s just about had it. Maybe Rembrandt foisted his own particular glumness onto him.

But as I’ve chewed over those words of his I’ve wondered if it hasn’t actually been me who’s brought my own assumptions and laid them over Paul. There would’ve been plenty of days Paul would’ve felt just like this. He doesn’t describe himself as a bull dog but as a clay jar.

Clay is wonderful stuff. I remember at uni discovering the joy of working with it. It’s a warm and intimate material. It can be shaped into whatever you want. I have a friend who makes really lovely and meaningful objects with clay. I like it.


But clay isn’t fancy. Part of the joy of working with clay is its messy tactility – for the childlike part of you that never quite got over playing in the mud. Clay isn’t that far removed from soil, really. Maybe Paul had in mind God’s creation of humanity from dirt in Genesis 2:7, ‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground…’ It certainly isn’t gold or diamonds. It’s easy to come by and cheap. As I pondered all this and thought of buying a little clay jar to sit on my desk as a reminder of it all it struck me that my house and garden are full of clay vessels. A shelf in a kitchen cupboard is packed with mugs. All sorts. There’s a few lovely hand made gifts but most are mass produced $2 gear. On the other side of the kitchen are a couple of shelves of multiple sets of plates. Outside, my little cactus sits in a tiny black pot and a stack of dead plants sit in bigger ones. They’re all used for ordinary, every day tasks.

And it breaks. My goodness, just last night I pulled another mug out of the dishwasher to discover a crack up the inside. Why?! What’s next, my beloved Picasso mug? Is there no hope? As I get older that brittle fragility begins to resonate more.


Beloved Picasso Mug

Mainly, what’s really important about most clay vessels isn’t they themselves but what they hold. As Paul looks at himself; pretty ordinary, not impressive by the standards of the church he’s writing to, starting to crack with age and normal mortality and just tired, he isn’t despondent. In fact he’s alarmingly confident. I’m trying to learn what Paul knew. Within a culture that finds the value of a person in what they’re able to achieve, a humanist worldview proclaiming ‘Yes you can! And you need to…’ and worst, a proud heart that wants all this to be true, what I am learning to hold onto is the truth that the clay pot isn’t the treasure itself… but there’s treasure within.

 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

The message of Jesus – that God is known in Jesus Christ as he hung and died on a cross – that’s treasure. The message of forgiveness and new life for everyone who trusts in Jesus’ death in their place. It’s that message which is light shining in darkness. That message which brings life to the dead and hope to the hopeless. Not my skills and ability. Not my health or strength. Not my personality.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

That, and that alone, drove Paul on when he no doubt felt like a Rembrandt painting. Not his abilities, skills or traits. But that he had a message in his heart through which God gave him life that can’t be crushed and through which God gives life to others. And so he spoke it. And so must I.


a story ancient and contemporary

photo (3)

Personally I often (not always!) find that a trip to see contemporary art becomes an exercise in the banal, cranial and pretentious. In the midst of grainy repetitive videos of nothing happening and piles of junk, some of the most disheartening works come under the title ‘political art’. Combining raw visceral rage at some soulless institution of power with a soullessness that rivals or perhaps concedes defeat to said powerful, unjust institution, political art can leave me feeling empty most of all, as if there’s simply nothing more to hold onto than being ticked off.

In contrast however, the work ‘Rustam-e-Pardar’ (Rustam With Wings) by Khadim Ali at the Queensland Art Gallery is a work that shimmers and resonates, moving me at a number of levels yet (or perhaps by) always just eluding my grasp, as if constantly fluttering just out of reach like the winged figure at the centre of the work. A series of five small images of water-colour, ink and gold leaf on wasli paper, and part of a larger series of ‘Rustam’ images, it draws from the 10th century Persian epic the ‘Shahnama’, the hero of whom is apparently the demon Rustam who defends his people from, well, other demons. I haven’t read the Shahnama (or even heard of it before) but this work has created the desire in me to get a hold of a translation. Bless you, Kindle. Rustam-e-Pardar is a sensitive work dealing with the plight of the Hazara people, to whom Khadim Ali belongs.

Unfortunately copyright laws means you're stuck with my blurry iphone flashless photos.

Unfortunately copyright law means you’re stuck with my blurry, flashless iphone photos. Ugh.

The Hazara are a people group from Afghanistan and Pakistan who have been horribly persecuted. As both an ethnic and religious (Shia muslim) minority in Afghanistan the Hazara have borne the brunt of Taliban (and now other extremist Sunni groups) violence. For many Hazara who fled Afghanistan in the face of the rise of the Taliban, finding a new home in Pakistan has proven no refuge from the deadly violence against them. The stance of the Taliban and other groups is nothing less than genocidal, despite my Hazara friends being the most gentle and peaceful people you’ll ever meet. In an earlier post I link to an article spelling out the plight of Hazara seeking refuge in other neighbouring countries. Fortunately some have managed, against incredible odds, to make their way to Australia where they’ve found… no, don’t get me started.

It’s to the Taliban’s war against the Hazara that Rustam-e-Pardar refers. I’ve come to this work as a cultural outsider and so most of what I know of it has had to be explained to me: that in 1998 the Taliban began calling themselves the ‘Rustam of Islam’ to give their jihad broader Persian cultural appeal; that the shades black and white with which Rustam is depicted represent not good and evil in the Shahnama but hypocrisy and deceit; that the script overlaying the images is Arabic, perhaps indicating the overlaying of Persian/Afghan culture with that of Arabised Islam.

Nevertheless there’s so much more to this work than a blunt, angry political shout. The work communicates in a way that words on their own simply can’t, subtly and delicately drawing from the rich and ancient Persian culture to comment on the hypocrisy of those who’ve claimed to defend that culture even as they’ve systematically set out to destroy it, the hypocrisy of a demon fighting against a people they’ve demonised. There is a deeply felt pain here and yet it’s so heartfelt and soulful, resonating with Ali’s obvious love for his cultural roots and his own people. That’s obvious even to me as an outsider, with so many details hinting at ideas or emotions that lay beyond me. But even as the work slips from my grasp, leaving me wondering about this detail, or that figure, or what this scene represents, I find myself with the rare desire to just pluck them off the wall and take them home with me. More than that it creates in me a yearning I can’t quite put my finger on, a desire to connect more deeply with the stories and culture of these Peoples, ancient and contemporary.

sculpture by the sea

For 2 weeks each year in Sydney the 2km coastal walk from Bondi beach to Tamarama beach is transformed during the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition. This afternoon I checked it out, though so far I haven’t been able to see all the works – a return visit may be in order. I love this exhibition. So too does the rest of Sydney, judging by the crowds even in the late afternoon. Each year at this time the coastal walk becomes jammed with people enjoying the elegant, the quirky and sometimes the downright weird, all with a beautiful seaside view. I love the crowds for this reason: instead of festering in some whitewashed gallery art is out in the public space and people are getting out there and enjoying it. The only drawback of so many people being there at once is the effect on the relationship between the sculptures, the space they’re placed in and the viewer – where I feel sculpture’s power really lies. Finding a quiet time for a viewing has its benefits.

Still, there’s something I love about going with the rest of the world too. It raises a question for me: What is it with art and the public? Why do I have this perception of most people scorning art and yet when something like this is put on it seems half the city – young, old, families and singles – turns up? Is it just that people ‘just like to go to things’, as someone put it to me this week? That is, do they not really care about the art at all, but just go along to whatever’s ‘happening’ this weekend for something to do?

No doubt there are some. But I love the sort of thing I saw today. When a big name gets a show, like a Picasso or Rothko retrospective, I have a tendency, justified or not, to think a lot of people might be drawn just by the name, especially in Australia where the big names are displayed so rarely. But there are no big names in Bondi, yet people are really interested in the works. They take photographs, they laugh, they pick their favourites. They aren’t generally interested in the way we’re told interest in art is supposed to manifest itself: dispassionately deconstructing everything to find the deeper ‘meaning’ in the work. Sadly there is still a strong sense for people that that’s exactly the way art has to be appreciated and the completely obtuse and indecipherable works that follow this artistic philosophy themselves only serve to continue enforcing this sense by alienating the very people they’re supposed to be communicating with. The great legacy of modern art has been to drive a wedge in people’s thinking between their life and visual creativity. But after people have stood mutely and impassively in front of them for a few moments (myself included) they move on to the stuff that’s actually cool and connects with them and their experience in some way, and often quite simply. It’s obvious in the comparison between works which always have a crowd of snap happy and grinning people around them (again myself included) and those which are left sadly alone. The works people love explore and re-imagine the beauty of this world or the human experience of living itself. The works I’ve snapped here were some of my favourites which I felt did just that.

The incessantly elitist and deconstructing nature of so much modern and post modern art (and talk about it) in the west has cultural and philosophical roots reaching back a couple of centuries , but the creative impulse has spanned human existence across cultures and centuries and has elsewhere always been much more closely tied to the lived experience of a culture’s people and their relationship with the wider world around them. I’ve said this before here.  ‘Art’ wasn’t the intellectual domain of a specific subculture who were in the ‘know’. You didn’t need an ‘art appreciation course’ (spare me) to engage with it. It reflected and still reflects life. In future posts I’d like to explore further how contemporary art is trying to reflect and speak to how we in the west tend to view the world and our lives, for I think there’s much to be said. But I wouldn’t hold your breath if I was you.

For now though, let me say that I think there is a real desire in people’s hearts for beauty and truth in the world, and for people to engage with and express it through acts of creativity. And there is a joy when it’s done.

What do you think? Do people love good art or am I mistaken? Do you enjoy art, and if so, what do you love about it? 

this is suburbia

A sham. A disgrace. A poor excuse for art, a soulless example of surface without substance. When I first saw a reproduction of Howard Arkley’s Stucco Home 1991 like the one above, years ago, that’s what I thought of it. Flat and without depth, it may serve the architectural profession well, but not the art gallery.

Oh the folly, the arrogance, of youth. Tsk tsk, angry young man. What would have made this worthy of being ‘art’? If he applied the paint with wild, angry brushstrokes? If he depicted the light in softer and subtler shades of light? If the forms and colours were all distorted? Would it then be worth of the prodigious title ‘art’? And why? What makes something art?

Arkley’s work is art, and very good art at that, in my opinion. I didn’t realise this fact until I wandered through the Queensland Art Gallery some time later and saw this very work in all its airbrushed glory hanging on the wall. Any protest at its presence which might have leapt out of my heart and lungs evaporated even before it could take shape in my mind as I stood mesmerised before the stucco home’s pulsing luminescence. The reproduction can’t convey the physical presence of the thing ‘in the paint’ – the larger size, glowing phosphorescence and airbrushed fuzziness combining to create an hallucinatory quality to the suburban home which captivated me. This was no architectural plan. This was… beautiful. Something happened that fateful day in 1999. I would never see suburbia, art, or my life in quite the same way again.

Too much? Well I was young. But for a period afterwards Arkley (who died tragically of heroin overdose in 1999)  held the status of Ryan’s favourite artist, (much cherished in the Australian art world), and to this day Stucco Home 1991 remains one of my favourites and retains a special place in my heart.

Look again. Look at what he’s doing here. Arkley painted life. Not ‘life’ in any abstract sense, but the life of so many of us. Whether or not as we want it to be, he painted it as it is. You know the standard icons of Australiana: gum trees, koalas and kangaroos, wide-brimmed hats with corks dangling from strings. But such icons are myth. Sure they belong to Australia, but not to the daily experience of most Australians. Arkley once said, ‘Something like 89% of Australians live in this environment . . . it’s something that’s denied so often’. When I see the stucco home, transformed by the airbrush into Australian icon, it represents my suburban experience growing up. It symbolises so much of my childhood. And that’s no generic suburban home. It’s just so…Aussie. The Aussie of the 80’s and early 90’s. You know, it’s not just memories but the identity that it represents, my national identity, which fills me with affection. Arkley once shared a favourite story of his, of him standing behind two elderly women viewing one of his paintings. One of the women turned to the other and exclaimed ‘Ooh! That looks just like Dot’s house!’. Exactly, little old lady. Exactly.

The obsessive precision of the airbrush comes from Arkley’s detestation of the messiness of creating with brush and paint tin. It forms a quality that reflects the same obsession with neatness and perfection shared by so much of suburbia itself. It’s not a sentiment I share myself, but it expresses his subject matter better than any ‘expressive’ wild brush strokes or whatever that I would’ve assumed necessary for any generic personal expression. I may have spent so much of my time when younger aching to burst free of my neat, safe, constrained suburban environment… but hey, that doesn’t mean I should deny its major place in my life, personally and culturally, nor Arkley’s brilliance in capturing it so simply and colourfully, exuberantly  bringing it to life.

Like it or hate it, this is Australia. This is suburbia.

yayoi kusama: obsession, alienation and polka dots

Never underestimate the emotive power of the polka dot. No really. I wouldn’t have believed it either. But it’s true.

Today I visited the work of Yayoi Kusama at the Goma, an artist I’ve never really heard of before (although I think I’ve seen photos of her work around). It was pretty cool stuff, pretty trippy. And it had polka dots. Two works in particular stuck in mind, Dots Obsession 2011 and Flowers that Bloom at Midnight.

Dots Obsession 2011

It’s amazing what you can do to a place with just a few mirrors, some oversized bulbous objects, lots of red, and polka dots. Those 4 elements make up Dots Obsession and with them Kusama transforms a small room into an hallucinatory sensory explosion. She uses the mirrors to infinitise the repetition of organic forms and dots, and this illusion contrasted by the in fact claustrophobic dimensions of the room, heightened by the inflatable blobs, clash to create an overwhelming intrusion of space. The red helps, of course. Kusama uses colour and form well to bring the reality of the space you’re in to bear powerfully on your senses. It’s fun and loud but also oppressive and dislocating. You’re in the space but not of it. This bringing together of contrasting dichotomies seems to be a favourite theme of hers. It appears in her other works as well. I couldn’t stay long in that room. In fact I need a bit of a lie down now.

Flowers that Bloom at Midnight

This work was cool. Trippy, but cool. 4 of these big, pudgy looking flowers are arranged around the room, apparently to form a kind of grove. More were needed for that effect to really work, but I still got into this work. Again Kusama manages to get a bunch of dichotomies together in these things – they’re at once familiar (reminiscent of pop culture sci-fi and fantasy images) and for that reason also alien, organic and artificial, childlike and aggressive, playful and menacing. Again i felt like an outsider – I felt like I was on an alien planet, like I didn’t belong. Although my immediate impression was one of fun, almost girly, cartoony oversized flowers, there was a real sinister and unsettling sense about them. Those eyes – cold, baleful, emotionless – I was very much other. There was a subtle complexity to these monsters or whatever you think of them which it took me a while to grasp.

After viewing these sculptures I read that both flowers and polka dots are common motifs in Kusama’s work because they belonged to a series of hallucinations she suffered as a child. It helps to explain the room to know she saw her environment covered in dots. And if, as she said, these hallucinations occurred due to tense family dynamics or circumstances, perhaps I wasn’t simply reading that sense of being overwhelmed by the space, feeling dislocated and an outsider into the works.

It helped me to appreciate something about contemporary art a lot of us can miss when we stare blankly at some absolutely bizarre concoction and think ‘I don’t get it’. The ability to bypass a ‘message’ and instead create something that touches and draws out the sometimes complex, sometimes unsettling experience of living. In this case touching on the subtle dichotomies and clashing emotive associations residing in so much of our everyday experience.

And I’ll never see the harmless polka dot the same way again.

matisse, me and the delicious joy of drawing

I simply drew a line, and then another. They didn’t materialise as the strong, rich sensual shock of black on white that I’d envisaged but as shaky, wobbly and uncertain. The garden chair supporting pot plant didn’t transpose from reality into lighthearted whimsical representation as planned but in disproportionate and wonky deformation. But it existed. It existed.

Back up a bit.

I hadn’t properly attempted to draw in years. I’d doodle, but my little cartoon faces had never been pushed to excel, had remained immature and undeveloped, as if I hadn’t fed them a decent meal in a long time. I never had a love for representative drawing – sketching if you will. Foolishly I think the mantra I protest in others – I don’t draw because I can’t draw. For me it’s a matter of patience. I’ve been a perfectionist in art for a long time. I want to be good but can lack patience with getting good –  developing technique. It’s quite embarrassing to admit. I’m a messy, immediate artist, perhaps having potential but never properly trained or instilled with discipline enough to realise it. Like Brett Whitely, but not as seedy. Turns out that my love for immediacy which makes drawing my favourite art form in its intimacy also hinders me from working at it.

It was Matisse who has changed my mind.

Matisse, whose influence I can’t understand because it was so expansive I take it for granted. Matisse, about whose his painting style Fauvism I knew, and still know, little beyond its depiction of happy scenes in solid, flat blocks of colour which made Picasso jealous. Apparently. The other day Nick and I went to visit Matisse: Drawing Life at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane.  I wasn’t sure if I’d be disappointed – in Australia a lot of the ‘big’ exhibitions we get featuring old masters aren’t their good paintings or whatever, but the preliminary sketches etc. Would it be worth it?

It was. As I was looking at some of Matisse’s very simple line drawings, I got it. Who cares about being good? Guys like Matisse and Picasso loved to draw, to play with line and form. Not only so, but they were interested not in capturing the look of a subject but the emotion and subjective experience of/with it. I could see in Matisse’s charcoal, ink, etching a simple delight in the line and form of what he was looking at. I loved his simple representation of scenes, of swimmers, dancers, self portraits and yes, his nudes. He had a playfulness which I want, which I once had. It should be a joy. It was for Matisse. It once was for me. Just draw, Ryan and good things will come of it.

The next day I bought 3 sticks of charcoal. Charcoal, my love. It’s a messy, loud medium. And I haven’t used it for so long. I particularly love the thick, pitch black stuff that’s impossible to use unless your drawing is expansive – not good for little details. But the line, that glorious, rich, deliciously thick textured line of inky blackness you can wallow in – the stuff they make happiness from. I said earlier that drawing is an intimate art form. In my opinion it’s the most intimate, there’s this closeness, this immediate connection between my self and the line appearing on the page. No fiddling, no disconnection or distance between myself and the image which, personally I find with painting that makes it unbearable to me.

So yesterday I drew. Technically awful, never to be seen by other eyes, but the beginning of something joyful. When I turned from trying to sketch from life to the imaginary figures straight from my imagination the lines flowed easier, and yet I want to return to sketching. To grapple with representing the world before me – and yet not get caught up in worrying about technique but to enjoy representing, if not a lifelike transposition of my subject, then the emotion of it. Despite the art world boldly pushing on and relinquishing the past I have always been and think I always will be an expressionist.

It’s not that technique isn’t important. Judging by my first awkward attempts yesterday that simple looking nude of Matisse’s I’ve pictured requires more technique, more steadiness of eye and hand and developed appreciation of form, than you might first think. What i mean is that if you approach it in joy and just get into it, technique will come.

If you ever wanted to draw but won’t because you can’t, just do it. Trust me.