I’ve been looking at Raoul De Keyser’s paintings again this week and was casting my mind back to the exhibition of his work at Inverleith House in the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens last year. In particular, there were a number of the last paintings he made that are currently on show at David Zwirner in New York; small and intensely understated, these pictures are collectively known as “The Last Wall”, for their arrangement on a wall in De Keyser’s studio after he had died in 2012. It is these paintings, along with part of a film that was being screened at Inverleith House called “Raoul De Keyser: Returning Is Also A Journey” that have been called to mind whilst recently thinking about contemplation.
The clip that has been flashing back records De Keyser sat at a table by a window making simple abstract watercolour sketches. There is something about the way he goes about mixing colour, holding the brush, in his age all effort of concentration yet lightness of touch and humour. There’s a pause and a tension while the brush hovers over the paper. Then he makes several simple marks of colour in a visible demonstration of subconciousness, a positive flurry of activity in comparison to the tension beforehand. And then he catches himself. There’s a moment where he almost wakes up, looking at the marks he just made, studies them for a moment. Then he looks up at whoever is filming him with a look of sheer suprise on his face. And then a cheeky smile breaks out, a look of pure humour and joy in an old and experienced face.
When I watched that I couldn’t help but laugh with him. Because it’s really as simple as that, a few bare strokes on paper.
I have personally become increasingly disillusioned with what I can only describe as heavy art. The kind that is meant to be so serious and so overwhelmingly present. The kind that almost shouts at you in both its medium and its message. It can’t conceive of a world in which it doesn’t exist.
Instead I find myself drawn to art that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Not in a way that tries to make you laugh (that would also be heavy art) but in which it has a quality that means you surprise yourself by finding it funny. Like De Keyser and his watercolours, you surface sort of lighter in weight and look at the world with slightly brighter eyes.
I mentioned at the beginning I’ve been thinking about contemplation. In particular I’ve been reading and listening to Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk who has made it his life’s work to help people explore “non-dual” thinking in the same vein as the mystics. He advocates a form of contemplation that allows the mind to sit with contradiction and paradox and to rest in the mystery of not knowing the whole truth, to emerge as a person less inclined to judge and more inclined to love. Someone able to embrace The Other, recognising the Otherness in themselves, to sit well with the darkness of life.
I was just simply struck with the contemplative act of painting as demonstrated by De Keyser. One might be quick to think I’m being sentimental and hopelessly romantic about this. Or else think I’m into a pure sub-concious approach to painting like Surrealism with a bit of spicy Zen just to flavour it because that kind of vague spiritualism is so hip right now. No, what I’m actually interested in is a lightness, a contemplative practice that is actually completely OK with the ordinary things around us and recognises the eternal significance they already inhabit. A practice like this counters the rife dualism that has taken place particularly through 20th century art that leads to heavy art and a heavy heart: not images, abstraction! Not depth, flatness! Not murky representation, mechanical reproduction! Not emotions, only material! Not material, ideas!
Where does it end? Occasionally you must simply come up for air and look at artists like De Keyser to really understand it and get on with life. That is, for me, one of the joys of painting. Precisely its non-dual nature that always surprises. We can have both flatness and depth, representation and abstraction, emotion, material and ideas — what!? All in the same single painting!
De Keyser left a contemplative signpost for us in “The Last Wall”, a mark as invisible and visible as a mark, surprising and humourous and full of life.