Betwixt and Between

Catalogue essay 2019

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Betwixt and Between

The title for this exhibition is taken from anthropologist, Victor Turner’s 1967 essay, ‘Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage’ . Originating from the analysis of initiation rituals, liminal describes a zone that is transitional; existing between two states, a threshold at which normal structures are suspended and we enter into the unknown. In his essay, Turner considers the commonalities of experience in what are both ancient and living practices of initiation where subjects are removed from their normal social reality, both physically and psychologically—entering an ambiguous space described as ‘inter-structural’, where all that is known dissolves¬. Symbolism around the liminal state is suggestive of the connections between human experience and natural rhythms and cycles; the moon as it waxes and wanes, or the deep darkness of night–a place of hiding and seclusion. This imagery is reflective of embodied and conceptual processes, which through undoing and deconstruction generate transformation and growth. It is rich ground for articulating artistic practice as the liminal journey is both generative and one which facilitates critique, as Turner says, subjects are;

‘drawn from their structural positions and consequently from the values, norms, sentiments and techniques associated with those positions […] alternatively forced and encouraged to think about their society, their cosmos and the powers that generate and sustain them’

Returning to such ancient knowledge and ritual feels particularly resonant with the recent resurgence of interest in mystical practices and prehistory, evidenced in several institutional survey exhibitions, such as Alchemy. The Great Art at Berlin’s Kulturforum (2017), Spellbound at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum (2018), and most recently Prehistory, a Modern Enigma (2019) at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. There has long been an association between magic and prehistory, arguably subjects of renewed interest in light of the ‘neuroscience revolution’ which began at the end of the twentieth century. In his book, The Mind in The Cave neuro-archeologist, David Lewis-Williams puts forward the theory that it was in transition between states of consciousness that the impulse towards image making first came about. The dark chambers within which cave art was created were spaces away from the normal structures of society, ‘seclusion sites’ to use Turner’s phrase, environments devoid of sensory stimulus which could trigger internal experiences of altered consciousness. Lewis-Williams describes the lexicon of visual phenomena common to hallucination–beginning with geometric abstractions, which, in a state of synaesthetic flux, are caught by the mind on a path towards recognisable imagery. Looking at shamanistic practices across different cultures, he argues a universality to such neurologically derived phenomena which create a ‘cosmos in the brain’, during which the ‘vision seeker’ enters a liminal period where consciousness and world merge. It is in this active, flux state that meaning emerges, as he says, ‘meaning consists not in things themselves as in the relationship between things’ .

Thinking about this as a contemporary artist, what is interesting is what such liminal states reveal about the relationship between our perceptual structures and our environment, as well as our capacity for embodied awareness concurrent with critical remove. The works in this exhibition, in different ways, speak to these questions: depicting recognisable landscapes, which simultaneously convey psychological spaces. Each of the paintings suggest experiences that are beyond quantification–touching on felt qualities as well as conceptual processes of critique; of seeking distance and reflection. Painting itself is of course a means of enacting a bodily knowing, of tracing time and intention. Throughout the exhibition, the medium is employed in a way which triggers an ‘optical tactility’ , through physical fluency and sustained investment in the image.

In, ‘Doorway’ by Gareth Cadwallader, we see the figure of a young woman, turning the key of a door as she looks away from us into the darkness. We do not know if she is closing the door behind her, or anticipating her entry into the unknown behind it’s black panels¬–a moment of suspension that holds us in her looking, on the border of one place and another. Other works appear to hover between differing realities, in scenes which are both acutely real and quietly hallucinatory¬¬: distant trees rendered as if in a hypnotic dance. Cadwallader’s paintings evoke a sense of dense time, moments charged by their understatement and the attention to their making.

Hannah Brown has said of her work that she looks for ‘quiet, potentially unsettling places with a peculiar type of beauty’. The works shift in scale and proximity; small paintings of commonplace rural landscapes made ominous by their heavy tobacco skies, and large scale, human height canvases which magnify aspects of hedgerows with a tenebrous darkness. The latter works particularly reflect an internal, psychological space in their closeness, they are places of hiding… The hedgerow is synonymous with seclusion and the unknown, at the entry to the forest, originally the border zones between civilised land. All of Brown’s paintings are loaded with ambiguity, in her own words, ‘this ambiguity leaves space for the viewer to enter into a dialogue or begin imagining a fiction.’

The ancient monoliths and circles which appear in the paintings of Sam Douglas have a presence far beyond their scale. These tiny works draw the exhibition together, not only in their direct reference to prehistory but in how they connect the cosmic rhythms and meteorological recurrences tracked by the ancient stones, to the physical act of painting. In pouring layers of paint and varnish he builds up a surface that has its own history, which he suggests as ‘akin to the geological processes of sedimentation and erosion. Beneath many paintings is often the strata of previous images that sometimes emerge like archaeological remnants’. Neolithic circles have long held associations in folklore as magical passing places, between one world and another.

Similarly, Benjamin Deakin’s paintings take us directly into the realm of ‘in-betweenness’, collisions of real and dream like landscapes dissolving and reconstituting elements of both the man-made and remote nature. This is Turner’s interstructuralism made manifest, connecting an external landscape with echoes of our own perceptual structures in a synaesthetic fusion. The vivid colour palette suggests altered perception, which he describes as ‘an attempt to disrupt the spacial structure and perceived depth in the paintings’ further emphasised by compressions, layerings and unexpected visual twists. There are a multitude of references; from Romantic painting, to theatre and science fiction, which with active titles such as, ‘Connator’ all add to the tangible energy in the work. Deakin’s paintings lead us into liminality, bringing to mind anthropologist Michael Taussig’s suggestion that, ‘the dream image gives you a sense of how to enter the landscape; to imagine nature is a way of being in it’

The works in this exhibition articulate a sense of ‘betwixt and between’ through their making and subject matter. They depict places which are both literal and suggestive of psychological thresholds—which though uncertain, contain, in Turner’s words; ‘a fertile nothingness, a storehouse of possibilities’ .

Rebecca Partridge, 2019

i. Turner, V. (1967), ‘Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage’, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, New York: Cornell University.
ii. Ibid. P105
iii. Lewis-Williams, D. (2002). The Mind in the Cave, London: Thames and Hudson.
iv. Ibid. P52
v. Term used by Michael Taussig to describe the bodily impact of imaging, a theory of expanded perception between the haptic and visual. Taussig, M. (1993) Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, London: Routledge. P.57-58
vi. Ibid.
vii. Turner, V. (1990), ‘Are There Universals of Performance’ By Means of Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.