"Admitting the Strange Angels"
an article about Daniel Paulo's work by David Greenwood
Though I have no intention of claiming Daniel as a fellow-travelling Christian, I can see that he has found a golden thread of ancient and universal intuitive wisdom, otherwise known as the”Perennial Philosophy”, a tradition shared by most pre modern technological “Cultures”.
Long before painting The Twelve Luminaries and before the Ingleborough Series of paintings, Daniel painted some rather illustrative works based on Victorian Funerary Statues at Bradford’s Undercliffe Cemetery. Though seemingly ironic, or so I thought at the time, they have proved ‘premonitory’ of his more recent work shown in this exhibition.
Like the subject of the Lawrence poem, Daniel too, seems to be an artist who has come through some kind of rebirth. His declared objective after the body of work titled Amid Greenness for the Ingleborough Series was Ruskinian; to get a more direct experience of nature.
On painting the Amid Greenness images, Daniel had been ambitious enough (in 1997) to enlarge the scale of his paintings, at first to imperial size (76 x 56 cm), losing the horizon line and developing the image to a portrait shape. Though landscape was still the source, now the imagery seemed to derive from a close-in perspective – a human size fragment of earth and the forms were developed from vaguely figurative shapes discovered in the Yorkshire hills and from other sources such as the jagged windows in ruined Irish Churches and the bizarrely eroded wooden sea defences at Spurn Head, Humberside.
Amid Greenness suggests a burgeoning obsession by Daniel with the elemental and mythical. It is my contention that this, by a curious twist was no mere dead end as when, he had thought, in turning ‘back to nature’ he embarked on The Ingleborough Series for the Dean Clough / Cliffe Castle shows (2000-2001?)
These painting showed him struggling valiantly with his personal demons but finding resonances with (variously) ancient cave art, Egyptian, Japanese and Contemporary ethnology; rather as if he had been let loose in the British Museum on hallucinogens!
Despite the topographical subject of his apparent ‘return to nature’ he had stumbled on a metaphorical cave as well; freighted with the treasures of an imaginary museum. The parallel with Jung and his archaeological psychology is fruitful I think (see The Creative Imagination of ibn Arabi developed by Henry Corbin in ‘Alone with the alone’ ) and can be seen throughout his Golden Age series I and II, and in fact , with this exhibition could be said to be still in it. His work now looks like a kind of spiritual archaeology. He seems, in visual terms, to be following George Steiner ('Real Presences') admonition ….. ‘One of his tasks’ (the writer) is …..learning anew to be human.’ One of Daniel’s aims is to rediscover as well, the human image.
In a similar vein Daniel’s progress since Amid Greenness reminds me of a visual equivalent of Sir Thomas Browne's ‘Urn Burial’ where he meditates in sinewy 17 century prose ‘Sepulchre’ in pre historic British sites like a prototype Time Team presenter. However he takes us to an interesting interpretation of whom or what Lawrence’s Strange Angels might be. ‘We know that we are men and we know not how; there is something in us that can not be without us, nor cannot tell how it entered into us’. (2)
I call this ‘otherness’ as some would ‘God’ (Sir Thomas Browne certainly would have). I have suggested that Daniel’s objective for The Ingleborough Series was a fallacy in that he wasn’t really interested in depicting the local topography much as he enjoyed, as a caver and a walker being in it (and inside it!) rather, I think, he was asking in his painting the theological or transcendental question ‘for whom and for what?’ – a meaningless question to the orthodoxies of Serota-land.
Only the ‘Strange Angels’ of Lawrence's poem can answer this question because they embody what Leibnitz asked: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ (3)
It was at Ingleborough that Daniel in Camille Paglia’s sense made an encounter with ‘otherness’… ‘Nature’s alien, Dionysian and chthonic maw'(4). Daniel’s recoil from nature, its ‘gritty otherness’(5) in favour of an ‘elegant otherness’ leads him to espouse beauty as his constant aim.
This is refreshing and contrary to most prevailing art criticism. I am not sure what Daniel means by this brave claim but prefer to concentrate on how he uses painting as a means of repossessing - ‘otherness’ perhaps? Talk of beauty can be a little like pushing on a string though Daniel agrees that with the aim of repossession the process of painting is as important as the finished result (beauty?), and that as I have said his very painting process is a religious (or rather in his case) a cognitive quest. His searching for myth (again The Strange Angels) parallels George Steiner’s definition of music; ‘as a logic of sense other than that of reason’. What, I wonder are The Strange Angels singing?
Daniel always insists that one cannot exaggerate the importance to him of music.
A comparison with a recent interview (Gordon Burn 16.03 06 Guardian) with Elsworth Kelly, an established representative of an older modernist orthodoxy is instructive. In attacking the spiritual aims of the previous Abstract Expressionists Kelly’s colleague, Frank Stella had asserted that, in both their painting, there was no ‘Thing’ there beside the paint on the canvas. Kelly boasted that ‘My paintings are fragments of the world and I’m simply digging them up and presenting them’. No Strange Angels for them!
By contrast, Daniel would be proud to put himself in that peculiar English tradition including David Jones, William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Thomas Traherne who insisted that the things of this world are not sufficient unto themselves. They ached; they yearned for the Strange Angels!
Art itself, like the Strange Angels, takes us to a world that escapes our conceptualising and our control; it makes our world strange. I have shown how Daniel recoiled from naturalism, seeming to ask ‘Who’ and ‘not what’ a thing is. The Strange Angels need to be named. As well, a kind of innocence is required, Traherne’s ‘Celestial vision(6); that ‘Orient and immortal wheat’ so prophetic of Samuel Palmer and William Blake's recovered innocence.
In the Golden Age 1 and 2 series of paintings we see Daniel by a kind of visual alchemy experimenting with crayon and acrylic to make a kind of resistant medium or roux for his collage type paintings eg. Father and Son shows a subtle modulation of black (the darks are actually dark green), that royal colour with a Japanese type two dimensional emphasis on costume and the strange armature like use of non anatomical vectors and grids cutting across the notional picture plane like the calibrations of some future alien archaeologist.
Interestingly, Hill Figure works like those found by Chinese archaeologists, that is, the ones covered in jade plaques. This painting foreshadows the neo-primitive and monumental paintings of the late Joseph Herman or, superficially, the post industrial maquettes of Anthony Gormley.
He seems, for all his cultural eclecticism, to recreate objects, not to copy them but in addition to nature. Could this be why he seems suspicious of oils, so useful for rendering the illusions of mass and depth, a window on the wall?
His eclecticism is selective; he doesn’t wish to escape from two dimensions eg. in Quiesce, even more so than in Father and Son, with its numinous, shaman like figure and mysterious ritual staff. Its clothes have that two dimensional Japanese cut to them in subtle blues and greys with contrasting lemon and gold iridescent highlights.
Fracture in red and green colour harmonies, not the most aesthetic of choices, has the now familiar ritualised clothing with armature like non anatomical structural marks suggesting something archaic yet at the same time post human. The ambient colouring of the background is beginning to breathe suggesting a membrane like virtual space but not illusional, a kind of alchemical soup and rather like the Russian Orthodox Icons of Andrei Rublev.
Rust Elegy with its rich tapestry like colouring and Merovignian style clothing hints at the increasingly ecclesiastical subject matter of The Twelve Luminaries. These along with The Heads are the apotheosis of Daniel’s work. Despite his professed atheism, I think that as a painter he is a sacramental maker and like David Jones, whose work Rowan Williams(7) describes so well, he has so much in common with the Russian icon painters. Daniel has learnt from Cubism’s rediscovery of foreshortened perspective where the entire depth of the notional picture space projects forward to the picture surface re-emphasising itself. Visual depth gives way to the time taken to read a surface.
There is no single illusion of depth or view point or as Camille Paglia would have had it; ‘That domineering Apollonian western eye’. There is no monologue and no harangue in Daniel’s encounter with ‘otherness’ – the domain of the Strange Angels. Letting go is another way of loving. Daniel, by admitting the Strange Angels and by this kind of loving, has found that beauty will look after itself. In Jacques Maritains’(8) sense ‘The work pleases when it has this independence; it is beautiful when it is released from the artist’. In a similar vein, Simone Weil(9) thought that ‘The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible’ – Daniel as alchemist and researcher; his palette his petri dish!
The Angel of Lava with its red and black covering and its dominatrix subject seems out of place, however, there is a dark side to spirituality and I have suggested that Daniel is well aware of his alchemical colour symbolism. Black is dominant, as I have already hinted at and red as passion, almost violent. The Virgins and Magdalenas of medieval sacred art were the pinups of the age after all. I mention this painting to show how he treads a dangerous line between kitsch and his project to redeem the human image without cliché. This is just the most conspicuous example of this.
In Devotion he paints a typical Madonna and Child figure in exquisite burnt brown tonality ranging from gold ochre to Indian red. A lovely hatched background pulses with accents of rose pink and cool green contrasts.
With Coming Through the figure is more of a cipher but the background is even more than In Devotion taking on an abstract music of its own; purple grey glazed over a beige background with yellow gold and cool green highlights. This is like the ‘sublime space’ that Simone Weil (10) describes in Giotto’s frescoes.
Perhaps as fragments of a moribund culture (so typically post modern this) Daniel can only breathe life into his spaces by reversing the figure and ground relationship, one way of avoiding the over familiarity of our devalued symbols eg. In Annunciation 1 and 2. in effect one painting on two canvasses shows all the contra posturo and elegance of the Italian Quattrocento, what helps him avoid cliché is his painterly process, the now more obvious drips of pigment and the increasingly lively negative space or ground.
As in Byzantine mosaics and Russian icons, his figures seem to throw out an iridescent light, pointers towards, though in material means what might be a sacred space – in other words to an unfamiliar place and a mythic way of looking. Perhaps his illogical highlights can now be seen to invite, with the Strange Angels, the eye to search for something in that luminous warp and woof of the surface I have previously described.
Daniels paintings now have a quality, like icons ‘of something I am seen by’ (11). ’Eye’ is an ‘other’. The Strange Angels are observing us – I am become an object of whatever is at work in my perception. He seems to be struggling to depict the Invisible.
Daniel’s 13 Heads series are, I think, his supreme triumph. The Twelve Luminaries I have left to speak for themselves as all the foregoing is pertinent to themselves. I haven't mentioned the courage and commitment that he has shown working at this scale after The Ingleborough Series, but even the 13 Heads do not require further analysis from me. Here I think he has put all the discoveries of the past eight years to use along with the major task of avoiding visual cliché and at the same time restoring some of the freshness of form and revival of the worn out symbols of an ageing culture. I claim that he has done so triumphantly and in this writers opinion is set fair to be a 21st century Giotto or Duccio.
By discovering a fount of universal “Signs” Daniel has found that golden thread that has released him from the impasse of fashion and into a cleaner, more objective and less sentimental way of working. By yielding himself to the ancient law of love, his painting is now like “ a fine and exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted…a needle driven by invisible blows.”
I think that he has found the Hesperides!
revised March 2008
1. Brenda Crowther, a Jungian Psychotherapist, reviewed ‘Alone with the Alone’ by Henry Corbin in the house journal of The Guild of Pastoral Psychology, expressing how Corbin’s combination of scholarship and mystical feeling in Sufism is an inspiration to the creative and spiritual process of the human being.