Text by Slavka Sverakova

Cassie Howard

The Third Space, Belfast, 16.02 -10.03 2012-03-16

Acrylics from the three series, Group portrait, In Conversation and Swings and Roundabouts, offer exciting pleasure of silently viewing presences and absences, delivered with a careful disciplined craft, lovingly. Some on paper, some on gesso, in sizes from 11x 16 cm (Fig 8) up to 147 x 216 cm (Fig 1) on either white or dark grounds. Commentators associate painted objects with people in absentia. Sarah Hughes for example linked the forms of chairs to gender and age, position to a proposition and size to power (accessed on cassiehoward.net). Approaching the images as a genre several connections to 17th C Dutch interiors and still lives were noted.

Reflectivity of art includes revisiting significant memes. A group of people gazing at something the viewer cannot see appear frequently in the European religious art. Bodies, woven into a horizontal wave, wreath, bodies engaged in observing something invisible command exquisite pedigree in Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity (cca 1500) painted soon after Savonarola’s Bonfire of Vanities in 1497.  Howard shares with the old master lack of intensity, in making the secret intact and not accessible to all outside the group.  Consequently, the centre of interest is the physical presence of painted figures, the viewer is invited to look at and for the differences in their posture, gesture, attire, anatomy, gender, and age. There is always something new to see on repeated viewing, a change in modelling, tonality and even in the brushwork. The painter insists that the eye distinguishes the subtle differences committed to small details, and to light bleaching the hues in a rationally correct direction, while its source is elsewhere in the viewer’s space, on our right. Such a crisp cool light is another meme from renaissance, nearest to Botticelli’s San Zenobius, perhaps. During her studies in London Cassie Howard could have seen these paintings displayed at the National Gallery, experience that informed her attitude to figurative painting and to abstraction, co-existenting, even co-operating. In that she differs from the Modernism that aimed and a break with the older art.

Her composition, moreover, throws in another set of issues: There is no ground other than the empty space. The figures are crowded in a band placed lower in the rectangle, mapping the ground where their feet would touch it, leaving the rest empty. The empty area appears huge and appears to dwarf the figures, they look in turn more solid and Earth bound. Neither the group nor the empty space  are fully contained by the picture plane, each could  convincingly  continue up, left and right in seemingly deliberate application of the principle of indeterminacy. The individuals in the group are not types, like angels, instead, seen from the back, each individual possesses clearly recognised individual characteristics. They are of our time, our culture, in a queue for nothing more or less than waiting and looking. The absence of some useful practical purpose for them to be there liberates the viewer’s imagination, allowing substitution at random and at will. A strange freedom from purpose evolves into autonomy for the group, of each its member and, ultimately, of the painting. Give it any meaning you wish. Consequently, the group embodies J P Sartre’s thought about “the great human stream” which arises from nothingness as a state of mind. They are beings in themselves not just for themselves. ( J P Sartre, L’Etre et le Neant, 1943)

Moreover, all that empty space waits for your projection of whatever site you imagine, remember, or know. The figures/objects are being slowly nowhere, in the words of John Cage (The Lecture on nothing, 1951). He proposed that there is no such thing as an empty space… there is always something to see. Unless we discipline our sight to ignore the texture or smooth surface of the empty ground, his proposition cannot be tested. The way to do that is nevertheless dependent on a viewing distance, lighting, and angle. If all are adjusted to minimize the detail of the whole format, the empty area transforms into a veritable fountain of imagined energy. Effortlessly, I sense the presence of the universe with all its mysteries. Most of what is going on in the universe looks to us as nothing. We are surrounded by that universe; we have no idea what we do not see. We do not know what gravitational fields look like either.

Another type of an absent place occurs in the painting of a heterosexual middle-aged couple walking away from the viewing subject. The look of the figures plays on forging a belief that the painting is of real persons. The man and the woman seem to know where they are going, no anxiety expressed.

Red Shoes, 2011, 151x121cm

The painter positioned them inside the left half of the rectangle, the red shoes are in the vortex of Golden Section of both axes. Clearly our contemporary, carrying shopping in a blue plastic bag, they walk into the nothingness, which “covers” also the whole right hand side of the rectangle with an equivalent flatness. Easily, the imagination may suggest folding the rectangle along its middle vertical, reminiscent of a letter, of a book of hours, something to contemplate in silence and privacy. It is about privacy, private thoughts, as they occur alongside something banal. The two figures face the  empty space as if it were their own home street, calmly supporting each other. No pathos, just ordinary togetherness. A solution to the paradox of ordinary and highly abstract, present and absent, has been a part of philosophy since classical Greeks pronounced on it. Leucippus (early 5th century BC) proposes that things might be real without being a  body. This means that nothingness has reality attached to it. Aristotle (388 – 322 BC) distinguishes things that are matter and that are space. In his view space is not nothing but a receptacle in which objects can be placed. Although informed by Heidegger, Sartre  positions his  views quite near the ancient thinkers. He distinguishes to kind of being: being in itself – and being for itself as shown in the Group Portrait. Howard merges the two: the figures are greater than the knowledge we have of them, yet being human figures, or objects made for people by people (not nature) they stand for values the viewer has control over, only if controlling their freedom as freedom. This evokes state of mind the viewer experiences as new. The subjective feeling of being in the world,  on their own, Howard transfers to architecture and  to trees, thus setting a different framework for the encounter. The illusion of depth by receding size of the trees, on the right of the format is contradicted by the all over flat ground. This fierce abstraction insists on absences. Light models the green crowns, but fails to register on the ground. No wonder, if an association with J Lagan’s equating nothingness with being comes to mind, his renewal of meme known to Leucippus.

Row of Trees, 2012, 25x32cm

The asymmetry of full and empty in each composition governs majority of Howard’s paintings. The detail rich objects are placed in the nothingness so that the asymmetry of representation forges a harmony. The figures and objects are nowhere,   and that nowhere,  places them into the format’s Golden Section. Not always, but often.

Walzer, 2009, 122x136cm

Dodgem, 2009, 107×122 cm

The empty space becomes a force, which keeps the carefully articulated objects both grounded and as if flying, like Magritte’s stones in the sky. When displayed on a wall these paintings pretend to be leaves of an elaborate compendium of reality. They recall their distant cousins, 18th C drawings of flowers or birds, sharing the love of meticulous observation. By limiting the expectation to themselves, the objects gain special significance, even charm. I also sense the calm, known to me from ancient Chinese ink drawings.

The abstract all over space hides another immensely exciting reflection on art, in addition to autonomy. The asymmetrical position has been a means of locking in a contradiction, a paradox, a secret. The following two paintings develop the asymmetry between the observed and the empty  into a spiritual aspiration, contemplating the profound.

Man with a bag, 2009, 25x32cm

The solitude of the man, being alone in the world is painted with disregard for any drama or pathos. He is a normal human being, carrying a bag, walking. There is a confident purpose in his step and swing of his arm. He knows his world, his direction and how to get where he wants to be. Or does he?  Like Sisyphus he walks and walks, the end of the journey not in sight, for eternity.  Albert Camus pointed out the paradox between the fate and moment of happiness in the myth of Sysiphus as depending on the moment of consciousness. The skyless space our man walks in allows for the consciousness of the relentless task without an end in sight. Then his fate becomes tragic. Yet, he enjoys the walk. Camus thinks that when the call of happiness becomes too insistent …a boundless grief  too heavy to bear rises in man’s heart. He is an absurd man in saying yes to an unceasing effort, presenting the viewer with a proposition that it is legitimate to wonder if life has a meaning. In a work of art, it becomes an invitation to live and to create, while asking those questions about meaning.

The series of Conversations appear to me as a logical step in examining the existence of humans in the universe. The fluctuation between fate and happiness defines the spiritual dimension of, what looks like, a still life.

There is a tradition in the Vanity and memento Mori types of still life paintings, here, Howard foregrounds  life and language. Still surrounded by nothingness two objects, chairs, one green, the other red, clearly from two different historical periods, create a complex proposition described in another context by Camus thus: The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. This must not be forgotten. This must be clung to because the whole consequence of a life depends on it”. Note the indefinite article. A life. He thinks of an individual. Of a person not unlike Oedipus, whom  Sophocles has saying  …the nobility of my soul makes me conclude that all is well. Camus claims that this remark is sacred in its echoing the wild and limited universe of man.

The painting evolves the sensual joy with the two primary colours that associate strongly with energy and joy of living, of a renewal. The composition sends the two chairs up, where habitually is sky, often a place of vision, dream, natural force, a place of the sublime. The supernatural of the deeply held beliefs is up there gazed upon by the mere mortals positioned at the lower level. Here, that level is the viewer’s space, outside the painting. The abstract space shares the sacred existence of the chairs no one can sit on. The absurd touch is pleasant as a triumph of imagination, of a creative gift. The two objects are following one another on a diagonal, reminiscent of rays symbolising spiritual secrets. Merode altarpiece is my favourite example, the rays of the belief are so substantial that they carry the body of fate. The two chairs are in the space, where Bellini’s St Francis imagines the Cross. The two objects are silent about what has happened or will happen. By being available, the possibility of conversation becomes that invitation to create and to live.

In Conversation IX, 2004, 66x76cm

The  mute exchange of thoughts becomes explicit, almost illustrative when the chairs face each other.

In Conversation III, 2006, 11x16cm

Nothing is a by-product of much information, as repertoire of wisdom. Alain de Botton (Religion for Atheists) singles out a pertinent condition of some parts of contemporary culture: While exposing us to objects of genuine importance, they nevertheless seem incapable of adequately linking these to the needs of our souls. Cassie Howard gloriously escapes such limitations, delivers spiritual aspiration through her skills, and invites contemplation of the profound by intelligently giving our imagination the freedom to create – feelings and questions.

What do you fear? Whom can you not forgive? Whom do you trust? What are your plans? How do you feel about now? Etc.

Howard’s paintings offer values that make us reflect on whatever is important to us at a given viewing. I have used the word spiritual several times. I am conscious that in English it sounds a little over the top – however, to me it means aspiration to be deep, reflective, serious. I am supportive of maintaining spiritual impulse in visual art. Ananda Coomaraswamy warned that the values in art, those that create our likes and dislikes are not inherent in an art object, rather, as John Cage said they are born by our awareness of how the work of art is becoming a part of us. A belief that the viewer controls the process is widespread, rarely the controls issued by the work of art are given their due. John Cage baptised the dual process interpenetration. Cassie Howard mastered a kind of finish that includes resurrection.

Slavka Sverakova,  White Cottage, March 21, 2012

Pages 1-6

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