CRITICAL ESSAY BY STEVE RUSHTON, EDITOR "EVERYTHING" LONDON ARTS MAGAZINE.
"Before earth and sea and heavens were created, all things wore one aspect, to which we give the name chaos - a confused and shapeless mass, nothing but dead weight… the earth was not solid, the sea was not fluid, the air was not transparent".
Thomas Bulfinch, The Golden age of Myth and Legend.
It has always been a fear that we will be lost to nature. We might dissolve like and aspirin into the elements and might, before its chaotic face, be too insubstantial to cast any shadow. The production of works of art can be seen as one way of interrupting the natural decay and renewal of things, even in the knowledge that any sign which at the moment of creation might read "I am here" will inevitably transmute to read "I was there".
Our symbols for infinity themselves betray a desire to control nature's excesses: the Mobius strip and the Ouroborus (the serpent that eats its own tail) served, not to reveal an eternal truth about infinity, but rather to make a sign which makes our conception of it manageable. These symbols for infinity were interior; they had boundaries, repeating their actions in perpetuity, they represented visual closed circuits which fed back into themselves - casting a metaphorical blanket over the real, incomprehensible infinity. Art, to state the obvious, has never been a propagandist for absolute chaos.
Alongside the anxiety generated by the idea of chaos there has traditionally been a fascination with mutability. It appears almost as a break on the dark nemesis of chaos. Mutations are permissible because they are imaginary whereas chaos is not. They also, traditionally, inhabited a narrative world of nature which could not call on scientific explications. Mutability itself changed from the rich metaphorical world of superstition where mutability was part of reality, to a world where change occurred scientifically, where every effect had a cause. Things now change through the mediation of evolution. Mutation occurs within the auspices of science. Change is no longer mysterious but chaos still haunts us.
Graham High's recent work operates within this problematic area. He makes painting from materials which crack erode and oxidise. They create an unpredictable surface which continues to change over time. The artist invites change through the use of materials much less compliant than pigment mixed with oil, but this change is directed and channelled. In this sense the work is concerned with what has happened chemically to the pigmented material and what might happen to it over time, but the work also projects us in two directions along a line of time away from the present.
Embedded beneath the corrosive surface of the pictures are clues of a disrupted past, a scattered reliquary of objects, often symbols of an age characterised by a compulsion to excavate and categorise. High once worked at the Natural History Museum of London, reconstructing models from the bones of dinosaurs and evidence of this compulsion to collect, quantify, date and name is built, literally, into the fabric of that building. The façade of the Natural history Museum displays sculptures carved into the brickwork which chart and evolutionary line from fish to man. Alongside the traces of past life in High's paintings we see the detritus of the artist's studio, the brushes which have perished in the process of the picture's making.
The tensions between natural history, biographical history, and mythical history are repeatedly stated in High's work. The text in "Black Pages" is unreadable, as if it has been charred by some fire storm and the text in "Decrepit Book" has been washed away as if it has met a terrible fate in some mythical flood. The history in High's paintings is therefore a weighty, ambiguous, forgotten history. It is almost as if these dispersed objects have exaggerated gravity which causes them to become imbedded into the terrain of the pictures surface. This restates the recurring concern High has with natural history and epistemology. Nature and knowledge both leave traces of their existence, both leave maps of themselves.
This is most literally expressed in "Leaves and Fishes" in which the skeletons of fish swim through a rusty surface on which is superimposed a book, the outline of the book is repeated in the upper portion of the picture so we see the transition of a representation of an object to a map of that object's contours. Organisms restate the same patterns to succeeding generations and ideas and narratives have transmuted and adapted to serve the needs of different communities throughout history.
We are projected into vision of a possible future, and if we take this reading of the work we are presented with a completely different and more disquieting narrative. The future here is one of ecological disaster where the Ouroborus has let go of its tail and the balance of the world has been lost. Here the animal bones, rather than being an archaeological trace of the persistence of time, become victims of an ecological holocaust where both knowledge and the balance of nature have been all but expunged.
The ability to read significance into nature, the ability to allegorise its functions and agencies, to tangle it up with our own scientific and mythic stories, even our ability to care about it, paradoxically divided us from it. It is a particularly modern, one might even say post modern notion, to hols that we inscribe our desires on all aspects of reality, that our politics, science and art cannot be pure (in the purest sense). Our desires for utopia or ecological harmony, therefore, are themselves struck through with desire. Our history is not just one of what is true but, just as significantly, what we want to be true.
"Sensitive Chaos" (The work takes it's title from "Fragmente" by Novalis) makes reference to the eternal dialectic of man and nature: To a concern with Natural philosophy which has itself evolved through centuries of projected meanings, and which, despite the synthesising formulas of modern Physics, the Gaia theories and proposals for psychic energies within field mechanics, remains morally and epistemologically faceless and indefinable.
The ancient characters that pass like spectres through High's recent paintings: Thales the astronomer, Xenophanes the geologist, Anaximander the evolutionary theorist, are cited as carriers of knowledge which has been revealed and concealed and finally re-excavated. But who are they? What is their significance? Were they history's also-rans? Did they appear at an inauspicious moment in an environment which could give no credit to their observations and which naturally deselected them? Were they keepers of some eternal truth? Guardians of an ancient wisdom which has been lost to us? Were they the early detectives of nature?
High's work presents the idea that we carry our excavations with us, that we excavate our previous excavations, that we continue to look for clues and with every representation we present a new story. There is always the frightening possibility that scientific purity, ecological purity, philosophical purity do not occur naturally, they are the conceptions of a species which, finally, cannot tolerate the catastrophic indifference of nature.