The Happenstance of Illumination Simon Schama Catalogue essay for Eykyn Maclean, New York
It's a crude generalisation but by and large, since images first appeared on the walls of pre-historic caves, the swell and hollows of the rock surface, used to model animal forms, there have been two types of artists. Many have been heroic interventionists (Michelangelo say) self- consciously embattled with their material, and bent on liberating the forms embedded in the inert stone as if freeing something sublime from captivity. But then there have also been the studious, restless, wonder-struck observer-explorers (Leonardo, say), for whom natural form is not the obdurately resisting adversary but rather the settling place of creation's pulsing motions. As a result their modus operandi is less combative than collaborative. Drama is already within the natural forms waiting to be shaped and framed. When he saw, drew, or painted a glacial erratic, Ruskin thought the rock's undulations were the frozen record of their original primordial upheaval.
Whitney McVeigh's exceptionally beautiful, allusive and profound work evidently belongs in the Leonardo camp: not just in its fathomless wonder at the uncontainable shape- shifting of nature, but also in the way she has human habit and its semi-fossilised memories (writing, rusting, staining, foxing) lie down with those natural forms to create a marriage between the organic and the manufactured. She is much interested in refreshed vision as a kind of repair or healing and much of her loveliest work is meant to move beyond the assumption that the made and the unmade are forever in mutually depleting opposition. Again like Leonardo she perceives the mechanical, the geological and the vegetal elements of the world as continuous and their separation into boxed-in universes of knowledge as arbitrary. For years she has been collecting manuals of technology and engineering, on which she superimposes biomorphic blots and images, making the differentiation between organic and inorganic forms moot.
Reticence can be eloquent. It's possible to mistake the poetic delicacy of McVeigh's marks, her willingness to allow ink washes to bleed and run, leach, clot and mottle, for visual modesty, a kind of self-effacing sonata form, given a hearing amidst the tinny pumped-up clangor of so much contemporary art. But this is altogether wrong. While deeply respectful of what the world has to offer to the eye - and the rest of the senses - her work is in fact ambitiously visionary: grand macro-micro metaphysical speculations about the inconstant universe, and for that matter, our own faces and bodies which inhabit it, and the glimpses that art can give us of all those unstable mutations and metamorphoses. Nothing in her imagery is truly stony. Faces and bodies which are marked with the creases and crumpling of ancient landscapes establish a sympathetic rhyme between the geological and the biological.
There is, of course, something paradoxical about fixing, however momentarily, visions meant to suggest the provisional, contingent, quality of forms - a ship, a face, a body, a landscape. But all the meltings and re-emergences are meant, I think, to resist the temptation to equate an arbitrarily observed single appearance of an object or a human with any sort of descriptive definition. McVeigh's sensibility is creatively unsettled and ever the itinerant pilgrim she believes in going forth to meet blessed apparitions. Her art is an act of faith in the happenstance of illumination, but it is never random. To have a chance of encountering such happenstance, she thinks, means finding somewhere free from the drone of life, a place where intense absorption can yield poetic truth.
Consciously or not, McVeigh's art is in the tradition of all those ambitious artists whose work has sought to reconcile our two cultural halves, Platonic and Aristotelian. Later this spring she will exhibit at the Getty villa along with Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley and others devoted to the Platonic echo in contemporary art. On the one hand, with Plato the metaphysician, McVeigh sees ostensible appearance as a veil or scrim, beneath which lies deeper, immaterial truth. So the ragged, melted and motile forms she draws presuppose the rending of that veil so that the true substance of life, dwelling beneath the integument of the world, a miracle of intricate design, can become visible. Unlike Plato, though (and less explicitly recognised) her omnivorous sensibility is also Aristotelian, rooted in the physical texture of the earth; the abundance and infinite variety of its progeny. Her instincts are those of an inexhaustible, urban and rural hunter-gatherer of seemingly unrelated phenomena, from which she establishes meaningful relationships. And her field of play is the exhilarating heterogeneity of creation. Rembrandt, who was likewise addicted to multifarious collecting - bones, instruments, costumes, weapons - would have immediately appreciated McVeigh's studio crammed as it is with the marks of every kind of human activity along with the piled up books of memory. Her whole life, like her art is an ongoing wunderkammer, prodigiously expansive: a willed overdose of epiphanies, local and remote. But the ecstatically hungry nature of her harvesting, her openness to the world's everything is not some sort of feverish rat-pack accumulation. Rather, it is driven, as it was for Durer or Rembrandt by the conviction that somehow amidst the array of matter there will be a moment of unanticipated fit between the countless parts, and from that fit will arise some sort of deep revelation. Put that way, her art sounds more grandiosely prophetic than she might wish. The ink washes, the lovely palimpsests and superimpositions of memories, she intends as invitational clues, a series of intimate directional nudges, like trail marks in a forest but which lead to something majestically serious: a sudden numinously lit clearing in the mind.
None of this means that Whitney McVeigh is a particularly cerebral artist. The category of "conceptual" art in its more eurekish mannerisms doesn’t fit her at all. In the end, the human predicament, embedded in our mortal nature and the burden of that knowledge, is what drives her and much of her work touches, with great poignancy and compassion on how heavily or lightly we tread the earth, the manner of our arrivals and departures. Her beautiful and moving film Birth. Origins at the End of Life has women, facing their death in a hospice, recalling memories of how it was to give birth. In any other hands such a scenario might have seemed instrumental. But McVeigh makes of those voices, faces, and bodies something incomparably tender and compassionate. That's how her work is and how she is, and it's not idly sentimental to realise that without this obstinate belief in the ultimate grace of the world she would not have been able to produce her revelatory art.Back to top