Is Wright’s Work Secular?

Jason Whittaker writes of Richard Wright’s Turner Prize winning work, that it “brings with it none of the overt Christian morality attached to Blake’s subject; rather, formal motifs repeat and circulate, creating a vision of the secular sublime”.  However, Wright’s work has been likened to that of Blake, whose work is often steeped in religious reference, so could his work be considered truly secular?

There are difficulties in establishing the meaning of “secular” especially in terms of visual image, and there are monumental challenges around identifying “the sublime” – a notion that has been a preoccupation of many nineteenth century philosophers. As Carroll writes in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, “The sublime has had almost as many interpretations as it has appearances in philosophical literature” and argues that the concept of the sublime is resistant to a singular definition.  Perhaps the absence of religion makes the notion of sublime more problematic? For many, “sublime” has other worldly, pseudo-religious connotations.  Ultimately, despite Whittaker’s claim that Wright has created a vision, there may be other, more relevant artists, who could have been better regarded for creations of sublime secularity.

The Oxford Dictionary describes secular simply as “not connected with religious or spiritual matters”.  But describing something by what it is not can be problematic. An attempt to identify a visual representation of an absence of something is challenging, but an attempt to find its epitome or a sublime, awe-inspiring representation of a missing notion is near impossible.  The dictionary also says that “secular” is contrasted with “sacred” – again this is only a contrast, and is defining only as a negative.  Secularity is not unlike peacefulness – a state which is simply defined as being the absence of violence – what peace looks like has been reduced to signifiers (doves, candles and rainbows).  Secularity doesn’t appear to even have universally recognised symbols –everything that is without overt religious connotation could be judged as being secular.

Secular is also derivative of saeculum in Christian Latin meaning ‘the world” – as opposed to the Church.  If secular is taken as the absence of religion, it is hard to argue that a European artist influenced by Blake, living in a Scottish pseudo-Christian environment, could produce something truly secular in spirit. Wright’s work does not only echo Blake’s, but the pure gold shimmer and scale the piece put me in mind of great Islamic works of the art of the ornament found in mosques and even Catholic churches.

According to some philosophers (notably Nietzsche), other measures of secularity include worldliness, classical tragedy and meaninglessness. The worldliness of this piece is undeniable, not perhaps in its form, but in what happens to it afterwards – it is painted over. Art critic Charlotte Higgins writes, “Wright’s point is that all art is mortal” and quotes Wright as saying, “the fragility of the experience is the hinge for me.”  And although the content may lack a narrative of tragedy and may even be considered overtly biased towards the Apollonian aesthetic of beauty, there is tragedy is in its ultimate destruction – and therefore presents us with a Dionysian balance. In an interview after wining the Turner Prize Wright says, “I like the idea of there being nothing left when I am gone”.

Wright himself has not offered any deep meaning to the marks he makes – but could they be read as meaningless?  It would be strong to insist that Wright’s work is nihilistic – unless the artist stated so himself.  It might be dangerous to simply take Wright’s work as being secular ornament, when the associations with religious and cultural tradition remain strong, in particular the careful attention to pattern in Wright’s work, which echoes an Islamic trend. It is near impossible to read ornament and pattern as neutral – references to the multitude of traditions of pattern – both religious and secular –found in ‘The Grammar of the Ornament’ can be found in Wright’s work.

In a world acknowledged by a number of philosophers as being fraught with nihilism, we are forced to return to the option of filling this void with art and music, as Young indicates “[Art] enables us to enjoy a religious sentiment without the need to subscribe to any conceptual content”, providing a “catacomb where religious habit of mind can continue to exist”. Here perhaps lies the strongest argument for Richard Wright’s work being viewed a vision of secular sublime.

Many visual and non-visual creations by a wealth of artists across the ages are able to respond to the charge of being secular, but as a portrait artist I could not but wonder whether such a vision would contain some representation of the human being, or face.  The human form could be said to be a poignant illustration of the “artistic taming of the horrible” a human portrait may have evoked a true, worldly vision. When promoting earth, individuality and the absence of reason and morale, how can any vision of secular sublime fail to contain a human?

I have recently visited Auguste Rodin’s Monument to Balzac at Musée Rodin and also seen Gustav Klimt’s Three Ages of Woman which was inspired by a Rodin piece – Gates of Hell.  Two works of art containing the human, that could equally be explored as secular visions. Although Rodin may have tried to capture Balzac’s genius in this monument to him, is it a stretch to suggest it held qualities of the secular sublime?  Is the artists religious stance relevant? As a sculpture of a human it is of this world, (although the plinth may betray this) and perhaps speaks of the tragedy in genius – although it does not horrify or compel.  It is perhaps, knowing Rodin’s love of classics that permits him access to this discourse – although also a lover of reason (The Thinker) Rodin was far from nihilistic. There is some argument that science and reason, over religion could be taken as secular.

Klimt’s paintings and drawings were packed full of eroticism, humour and dominant female figures.  Drawing inspiration from Greek classics, Klimt was said to employ a sublime sensitivity and a “decadent aesthetism”.  At the time of his painting he was breaking all religious taboos and his portrayal of the mortal human was both tragic and beautiful.  His work is both compelling and horrifying.

Although my conclusions may feel as ambiguous as the many attempts to define the secular (and the sublime), on balance the assessment is that yes, Wright’s work at least references such a vision.  It has a worldliness to it and a tragedy in it’s unmaking – one could even suggest that it was the painting over of the work, its destruction, which ultimately defined it as sublime.  However, as Wright is able to tell us what his art is about – I conclude that it is far from nihilistic.  I have juxtaposed Wright’s work with that of Rodin and Klimt, which may be unfair and even irrelevant, but demonstrates that Wright’s work may not be the best example of the secular sublime. However Wright’s work and Whittaker’s views certainly offer a useful starting point that allows us to ask – what does a vision of the secular sublime look like?

Chris Ofili and Richard Wright

Two recent exhibitions at Tate Britain have demonstrated the continuing importance of Blake as an influence on contemporary art. The Chris Ofili retrospective opened on January 27 and runs until May 16, 2010, while the winner of the 2009 Turner Prize, Richard Wright, attracted a great deal of admiration with his impressive contribution, a beautiful gold-leaf fresco.

Ofili, also a Turner Prize winner in 1998, has long been interested in Blake, most clearly in two paintings from 1995, Satan (inspired by Blake’s Satan in his Original Glory, c.1805) and Seven Bitches Tossing their Pussies before the Divine Dung (after Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne). Neither of these works are present in the current exhibition, which brings together more than 45 paintings as well as pencil drawings and watercolours, but, as a number of critics have noted, Blake’s influence continues to play a role in the development of Ofili’s art.

The most obvious example of this is a print, Siesta of the Soul, produced by Ofili as a limited edition for Tate Britain. With branching tendrils and vines surrounding elegant, handwritten text, this particular work is especially evocative of a page from one of Blake’s illuminated books, comprising a song of innocence or of experience that ends with the lines “shaded but not shrouded, summoning his dancing demons”. As a marriage of image and text, heavenly but with a hint of Blake’s playful diabolism, Ofili’s print is also reminiscent of the Romantic artist in terms of the spray-painted colours that remind me of the colour washes in Blake’s illuminated prophecies. Tom Lubbock has spoken of the works in this retrospective as “an art of luminous colour… of wild imagination”, and this is certainly true of the best of Ofili’s paintings.

To concentrate on Blake is, of course, to do a disservice to Ofili. His new surroundings in Trinidad and Tobago (the artist left London in 2005) inspire the latest paintings with a rich and luscious beauty, but Charlotte Higgins is certainly correct to see something of Blake in another of his recent works, The Healer, in which an uncanny figure devours vivid, yellow blooms. Personally, the highlight of the show for me was an opportunity to see The Upper Room, a recreation of his deservedly famous exhibition which ran at Tate throughout 2006, thirteen rhesus macaque monkeys depicted in gloriously competing colours.

Richard Wright has been creating site-specific art works for many years, often intricate paintings that are then erased. Sometimes those installations are discreet and delicate, such as the alcove shown as part of an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in 2008, but his major untitled piece for the 2009 Turner Prize was spectacular, an exquisite gold-leaf fresco that dominated the room in which it was displayed at Tate Britain.

The painstaking methods used by Wright to transfer the fresco to the wall, as well as the subtlety of effects achieved, has won him acclaim from usually sceptical commentators who regard the Turner Prize as little more than a freak show. Similarly, the transience of the work, now whitewashed over (so that, ironically, it remains as an archeological layer somewhere beneath the current Ofili exhibits), draws attention to what Wright has identified as the fragility of experience in his paintings.

Wright has frequently mentioned his admiration for Blake, telling interviewers that he often travelled down from his home in Glasgow to see the Blakes and Turners housed at Tate Britain, an experience that often left him both exhausted and elated. The influence of Blake, as well as Turner’s voluminous light and colour, is evident in the fresco (which, even though it no longer exists, I cannot help but think of in the present tense). The initial experience is overwhelming, a balanced chaos, but the painting it brought to mind most for me was Blake’s 1808 A Vision of the Last Judgement, that imposing mandala of the end of days in which damned and saved fall and rise around a central pillar of heavenly and infernal judgement, eternally circulating between paradise and earth. Wright’s work brings with it none of the overt Christian morality attached to Blake’s subject; rather, formal motifs repeat and circulate, creating a vision of the secular sublime.

The Chris Ofili exhibition runs from 27 January to 16 May, 2010. Entry: £10, concessions £8.50. More details at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/chrisofili/default.shtm.