Catalogue Introduction for Anyone Here? By Sue Hubbard
And the only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
T.S. Eliot. East Coker
The myth of Echo and Narcissus as told in Ovid’s Metamorphosis might be
considered to be a tussle between word and image. Echo, forever doomed by her mirroring speech is unable to express her longing and desire for the young Narcissus whom she first saw herding deer. While vain Narcissus can neither see nor love anything or anyone beyond his own image. Each is trapped in a solipsistic dance of seduction in which neither protagonist can communicate with the other. Neither the gift of language nor that of sight is sufficient alone to make sense of their feelings or decode the world; for real communication, the myth implies, involves not only empathy but a fusion of all the senses. As a painter Matthew Burrows starts with language, with a narrative, and through its imagined twists and turns arrives at his idiosyncratic imagery. It is an unusual course for a contemporary painter when the mantra of high modernism has been to avoid narrative. But for Burrows the language of myth and legend provides a landscape in which he can wander freely, a place that he can people at will through his obsessions and desires. It is as if, to start painting, he has to open that door in the back of the cupboard, beyond the rowed winter coats, the moth eaten furs, and step out into the landscape of his own particular Narnia.
He begins with an idea, a drawing. Something will start brewing at the back
of his mind, worry him, keep on nagging. It is the impulse to begin a new
journey, one on which he feels himself to be a pilgrim and, like a pilgrim, he is
uncertain what he will encounter along the way. There may be many false paths and byways but it is the journey as much as the arrival that counts. He will draw, then paint and then return to drawing. In a large work such as This Way – the title comes from Echo’s mirroring call to Narcissus – the implicit narrative does not, like the nymph, reveal itself but has to be unpicked. What Burrows offers is never linear. The layers and veils of paint both reveal and simultaneously obscure alternative interpretations both dramatic and visual. The language of the narrative melds with that of the paint in an organic fusion.
Marks become coded utterances; illusionistic spaces are created, spatial arenas in which the viewer may become momentarily disoriented or lost. The double enigmatic gaze of the androgynous figure of Echo and the deer defy a single reading but stand in the centre of the canvas like a twinned sphinx challenging the viewer to unmask their riddle. Burrows describes his paintings as “fly-papers that attract alternative ideas and meanings”. But they might also be understood as maps – the charting of the unknown geography of imagined terrains and psychological spaces; for to penetrate the veils of paint is both for the viewer and the painter, alike, a journey into the centre of the self.
In Echo we are forced to wonder what matter she is made of: flesh, foliage or
paint, for the face of the young girl seems to be both emerging and dissolving into the flowers that surround her. It is as if she, like her lover, is staring into a silvery pool yet through her persistent gaze, is learning truly to look not just to chatter, as though, for the first time, she is beginning to “see” who she really is. Sight and sound begin to come together, to find an equivalence in her growing self-knowledge. Perhaps as Echo mourns the body of her lovely young boy among his corporeal remains – a circle of white narcissi – she is slowly starting to understand that she can be autonomous, not simply a presence mirrored back to her by another’s call.
In one of the most curious smaller paintings, The Object of your Desire –
strongly influenced by Titian’s Death of Acteon – a stag appears to be draped in a young girl’s dress, though the delineation between what is beast and girl
is blurred implying a fusion of genders whilst also suggesting something of the
transmogrification that occurs in both Greek drama and the mummer’s play when an actor dons a mask.
Burrows psychological and painterly pilgrimage is particularly apparent in
his smallest works; intense, iconic paintings. Here the frenzied gestural marks
have mellowed into canvases stained with deep jewel-like colour, which, when
hung together, conjure the stained glass windows of a mediaeval cathedral. The figures may be drawn from pagan myth but the doubled silhouettes in Pool Party, surrounded by halos of pink light, might equally be read as Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden or a pair of descending archangels. In these small works the figurative elements seem to dissolve in the flooded canvases, so that what remains are traces of a lost physical presence -just as in Echo’s reverberating song or the ring of white flowers left by the young Narcissus.
Metamorphosis and transmogrification are at the heart of Matthew Burrows’
paintings; the metamorphosis of narrative and myth into a coherent visual
language that can be translated and understood in a demythologised culture, and the merger of two elements of the self -represented as sight and sound – from their infantile solipsistic states into a more complete fusion. Burrows searches for painterly equivalents to the multi-layered meanings revealed in the ancient story of Echo and Narcissus and yet leaves room for both the viewers’ and his own imagination to explore and discern truths that may at first seem as opaque as those offered by the Delphic oracle. What he dares to do, unlike so many painters of his generation, is to search in the work of others to find “wisdom of understanding”.
By embarking on his painterly journey, by becoming caught up in the metaphorical thickets, the lost bridle paths of mythology, by failing, then experiencing the triumph of a small success, he finally reaches his uncertain destination. It is only through this experience of failure that renewal can come, by searching, by following the way of the pilgrim -whether as a Christian on the road to Canterbury or as a modern painter trying to make sense of a fragmented post religious world. For as Eliot says:
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
For only then might we “cease from exploration….and know the place for the
Catalogue introduction for the solo exhibition Anyone Here?, Midlands
Art Centre, Birmingham, November 2003