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Shadows, Spectres, and Transparencies

By Laurence Davies

Viewed from a distance in a spacious gallery, or in miniature on a page of thumbnails, Mary Modeen’s prints look like the work of an artist enraptured by tonality and tint – as indeed she is. Sometimes deeply saturated and richly various like the later paintings and drawings of Samuel Palmer, sometimes intensely concentrated on a delicate and narrow range of shades like a bolder version of Gwen John’s, her palette is generous and inventive. ‘Twilit Road’ gives us a whole array of violets and mauves with the evening stars as points of white and a sun low on the horizon turning from pale orange to red as it goes down. ‘Untitled (Dutch Farm)’, a hand-rolled etching with relief printing, has the texture of a gum bichromate print and the look of a sepia-toned photograph whose high-contrast immediacy plays off against a yellowish ground as if to register both a visionary moment and the ravages of mutability. In ‘Danger’, one of Modeen’s most unsettling images, the livid funnel of a twister (or tornado), all sombre greys and purples, descends upon a landscape of bleached earth and frosted spruce. In certain prints, highlit passages glow furnace-bright while others spread their hues across a broader, gentler spectrum.

Spirit of Goodman’s Land’ makes a vivid example. In Scotland, a Goodman’s Land is an untilled portion of a field, often rising to a tump, usually well wooded, and guarding perhaps an ancient burial site. Not only is it a living reproach to the belief that every penny must be wrung from every acre: it is an uncanny place protected by reputation, memory, and euphemism – not to mention being the Devil’s own job to plough. As you draw closer to the image, it multiplies, and what it presents is legion. A young girl looks intently back at the viewer, a curious, snakelike piece of basket work glides across the foreground, candles shine through the eyes, and teeth, and absent snouts of jack o’lanterns, a shadowy woodland not only rises up beside the pines caught in the first or last bright light of day but seems about to drift across them. Turning to another image that changes shape as you approach, there’s nothing crepuscular about ‘Untitled (Mailboxes)’; the sunlight’s good and strong, the colouration resembling those of countless early nineteenth century oils and watercolours by northerners in love with Greece or southern Italy. Yet no artfully placed locals go about their work and play. Towards the back, you see an area as strangely empty as a piazza by de Chirico, while front and centre stand two converging lines of mail boxes, each one close to anthropomorphic, yet expressing the quirks and quiddities of the rural Australians who nailed or screwed them together. It’s a scene bristling with strong verticals – the posts of the mailboxes, anchored by one with a corrugated roof and vermilion sides, the cypresses so dark they’re virtually black, the windmills, the birdboxes on poles, the trunks of gum trees, the human shadow pointing towards the composition’s centre. Yet those gums are not as material as they first appear. Notoriously, the first European painters in Australia found it nigh impossible to render eucalypts. The gum trees here are, so to speak, the real thing, their feathery extremities making the cypresses (transplants from the Mediterranean) stylised by comparison, but nonetheless these gum trees are literally transparent. Metaphorically speaking this print speaks in more than one artistic dialect.

Modeen’s is an art of layering. Series by series over a score of years she has assayed a remarkable variety of means towards the end of plural vision. Her recent laser prints combine as many as twenty-five or thirty primary images -- lithographs, monoprints, pastels, paintings, photographs. In whole or part, these images are not pentimenti, obliterated and then restored by accident or scholarship, nor do they multiply like coats of lacquer or enamel each superseding what came before, nor are they best thought of in a hierarchy, with the best and most important at the top, and the least assertive at the bottom. As I’ve suggested earlier, the first impression, the vision at a distance, is of a powerful statement on a single plane. Stepping away again after a closer encounter might bring us back to that vision, not diminished by seeing through it or beyond it but enhanced by the experience in time as well as place of opening up both in itself and in our apprehension of it. What a pity that seeing through should so often be associated with disillusion and disapproval, for an open-hearted, open-minded willingness to see through is exactly what these works request, that and a refusal to value upper over lower, bottom over top, last over first, or any other way of ranking the components.

Likewise, Modeen’s fascination with philosophers and cultural theorists, among them Bachelard, Ricoeur, Marina Warner, Rancière, Lippard, and Kristeva might encourage a casual observer or somebody sworn to maintain rigid distinctions among the arts and academic disciplines to suspect that the philosophy piggybacks upon the art, or the art upon the philosophy. But that simply isn’t so. The one mode of seeing and the other work together antiphonally and in a spirit of mutual experiment.

In his Essays, written towards the end of the sixteenth century, Michel de Montaigne asked himself ‘que sçais-je?’ – ‘what do I know?’ Eight or so years later, in her poem ‘Of Many Worlds in This World’, Margaret Cavendish acknowledged that ‘Nature is curious, and such works may shape, / Which our dull senses easily escape’.  Both of them lived through civil wars and wars between states made all the uglier by religious dogmatism; both of them were stirred by the unfamiliar, the unorthodox, the hitherto unperceived. They were – and still are – advocates of recognition, of acknowledging the universe’s untameable variety. In another dogmatic age, a time when even as theorists decry the power of master narratives, such narratives flourish – insisting on the superiority over all others of one people, or culture, or economic doctrine, or religion, or scientism – Modeen thinks in the same spirit as her broad-minded predecessors. For her, the manifold powers of acknowledgement, of perception, memory, and cultural endurance are paramount. These powers shape her art. She has worked with Maori and Ojibwe artists, studied alchemy, immersed herself in the landscapes of central Scotland, rethought the classical traditions of Graces, Fates, and Furies, and made herself at home with a vast repertoire of materials and techniques – with Photoshop and Ulster basketry, the etching needle and the video camera, neon tubes and lithographic stones, the microscopic and the macroscopic or, as she puts it, ‘Love at a distance’ and ‘love up close’.

Clement Greenberg argued that Modernist art aspired towards the never fully achievable condition of flatness. With her layerings and her visual secrets emerging gradually but startingly from the paper or the screen, Modeen appears to be doing quite the opposite. Yet just as Greenberg could claim that it was of the nature of paint and canvas to be framed and two-dimensional, we might say that it’s of the nature of the  computer-mediated image and the laser-print to thrive in a four-dimensional continuum. Modeen’s prints invite the eye to be always on the move through time and space: contemplation without stasis. Although a great deal of art in the last century or so has thrived on cultural juxtaposition, its shock-effects require visual encounters on one or a very limited number of planes. Hanna Höch, Remedios Varo, and Leonora Carrington all exemplify this tendency. This is not in the least to disparage those astonishing artists – it would go entirely against the spirit of Modeen’s work to do so – but to emphasise that she has been doing something very different.

There are analogies aplenty to be made with contemporary writers who conjure up metamorphoses, hauntings, and multiple states of existence – for instance Toni Morison, Lesley Marmon Silko, Ben Okri, or China Miéville. Modeen herself belongs to an international research network called Mapping Spectral Traces; eerie shadows, epiphanic lights, and mysterious visual transformations are ubiquitous in her graphic work. See for instance ‘Spirit of the Mountain’, ‘Sea Fret and Shadows’, and ‘Te Mautaranga’. All the same, there comes a point of divergence when it’s necessary for a while to think of authors as existing on one ground and visual artists on another. So much of Modeen’s work asks us about the nature of perception and urges us to step out of our own quotidian place and time to look afresh. In the kitchen of ‘The Kitchen Table’ we peer into overlapping domestic spaces blended together in shades of red and terra cotta, one of them a little old fashioned (with a hint, no more, of historic preservation), another busy, very much in use, another some kind of living room. Outside a casually dressed group of adults and children in present-day clothes walk into the frame, while closer in, a woman with  a creel on her back and wearing a long apron, her grey tones standing out against that profusion of reds, appears to be gazing into the kitchen – and, beyond that, at us. Who looks at whom, and when, and how, and what is it that they see? Not only what do we know, but how do we know it?