This is a painting by Jonathan Wateridge called Petrol Blue. I saw it hanging in Hannah Watson’s Gallery, TJBoulting, as Lockdown 2.0 loomed. The small but perfectly proportioned white-walled space was buzzing with desperadoes like me, keen for one final fix of oil-pigment-porn. I got what I came for.
Back home, I rang my friend Winnie to find out what she thought of Wateridge’s latest foray into an abstract figurative series. The conversation spluttered into life with the usual connectivity frustrations. We cascaded through facetime, whatsapp and zoom finding a temporary equilibrium with Microsoft Teams, I waited for Winnie’s verdict.
‘They Are Scary’.
They are scary? Yes, Winnie says, the figures look like corpses strewn in a tropical, luxury garden. The whole scene plays out through the lens of anxiety.
I look again. And as I do a strange shift occurs in what I see. The tropical heat now seems to have a biting edge. There’s a vacancy to these hitherto languid figures. I still find the scenes beautiful, but now the dozing dog looks stiff. The woman standing at the edge of the pool avoids my gaze.
How did Winnie see the suffering and how did I mistake it for indulgent boredom? We consult the Gallery notes and it turns out that this series is inspired by a massacre. Winnie suggests that maybe she’s particularly sensitive to these concerns. She’s fascinated by the kind of malaise that can strike the economically privileged. The kind of depression that tracks prosperity which, perhaps, suggests levels of anxiety are over-exercised in response to a world in which there is always too much to worry and think about. The painting encapsulates, dramatises and exaggerates this peculiarly and recent phenomenon.
Impressed by Winnie’s insight I replay the moment that I saw the painting differently. Initially I’d apprehended an ethereal youth, gently laid out on warm evening stone. At some point what I saw, or the content of what I saw in the painting, altered. This was beyond simple atmospherics. Where there appeared to be tranquility there was now a quiet torment. An invisible change generating a palpably charged shift in experience.
Like the infamous and ambiguous Necker Cube illusion, pictorial spaces can often be experienced in two or more distinct and diverging ways. This is somewhat puzzling. And it calls to mind an area of controversy in regard to how we see. Specifically, whether this kind of switch involves replacing the conceptual content of what I was seeing (languid boredom) with a different concept (penetrating anxiety), while holding all other aspects of my seeing steady. This is not the same as, but it is related to, debates concerning the famous Duck-Rabbit Jastrow figure that is so often mentioned in philosophical talks. As Wittgenstein evocatively remarks, ‘what is incomprehensible is that nothing, and yet everything has changed, after all. That is the only way to put it’. This can generate controversy over what paintings mean. Especially if meaning is tied up with the concepts that penetrate our seeing.
But before we even get to that, we might be struck by the power we have in the first place to ‘see’ things differently. To change how the world opens itself to us by our efforts to broaden the way we accept new voices, different ideas or strange concepts.
Many people have been living for many weeks in quiet torment – patiently putting up with anxiety and suffering in the hope they can once again return to the streets in jubilation and safety. Through all this they have kept their ears open, paying attention to a stream of voices, ideas and concepts. Many of the significant challenges of recent times require us to make sense of what we can see with the naked eye by inflecting what can be perceived with novel concepts. This means that actual signs of progress might be overlooked. But, we should be wary of thinking that just because the scene is static, nothing has changed. Because this week, everything has changed, after all.
Vanessa Brassey (Writing on Tuesday 10th November 2020)