Flatness is all
By Rupert Roopnaraine
“The line has magnitude in one way, the plane in two ways, and the solid in three ways, and beyond these there is no other magnitude because the three are all.”
— Aristotle, On Heaven
Stanley Greaves’s new series of paintings, Shadows Move Among Them, takes its name from the title of a 1951 novel by fellow Guyanese Edgar Mittelholzer, one of the forgotten ancestors of Caribbean literature. Greaves pays tribute to him for his stubborn and ultimately fatal devotion to his art, and for gifting us the fruits of his luxuriant and epic imagination. His interest in Mittelholzer is of long standing. I heard him lecture at the University of Guyana over twenty-five years ago on the figure of the artist in Mittelholzer’s work. (As a matter of interest, 1951 saw not only the publication of Shadows Move Among Them; it was also the year of Martin Carter’s The Hill of Fire Glows Red and E.R. Burrowes’s painting Guyana, Land of the Dolorous Guard, works that scored deep furrows in Greaves’s mind when he first encountered them as a young aspiring artist, and that have remained fertile beds of nourishment ever since.)
In his visual as well as his written explorations over the years, it is not unusual to find Greaves taking as his starting point a mathematical proposition, most memorably in the Hearts and Diamonds sequence of paintings he executed in the 1980s, where his researches into the principle of symmetry (“an aspect of harmony”) took him on a journey into a world of “reflection, refraction, inversion, progression, chance, and inferences of infinity.” The mini-paintings of his Caribbean Metaphysic series, painted between 1989 and 1994, are as much essays on the conventions of scale and proportion as propositions on a Caribbean metaphysic. The paintings from his new series, centred around shadows of stylised figures and objects, take as their point of departure an aspect of the concept of dimensionality, a zone of increasingly intense and complex mathematical inquiry since its earliest treatment by Pythagoras of Samos (569–500 BC), when, through the famous equation that bears his name, he provided the proof that relates the three sides of a right-angled triangle. Aristotle’s proposition a century later on the concept of dimensions, limiting them to the three exemplified in the line, the plane, and the solid, persists in the work of Euclid (325–265 BC), the most outstanding mathematician of ancient Greece, whose great treatise, The Elements, laid down the foundation of geometry that would remain at the centre of mathematical teaching for two thousand years. Euclid inherits the Aristotelian limits and does not even consider the possibility of higher dimensions. The issue of higher dimensions had to await the path-breaking work of Bernhard Riemann in the mid-nineteenth century, and the revolutionary overthrow of the Newtonian concepts of absolute time and space by Einstein in 1905.
“It’s the whole question of two-dimensionality,” Greaves explains. “My readings in the history of mathematics provided a lot of very curious things about two-dimensionality, the third dimension, and all these other dimensions. But I thought the two-dimensional was particularly curious. Because, in the first instance, the only truly two-dimensional thing that we are aware of, that we can actually see, is a shadow. Most things that we treat as two-dimensional, like a sheet of paper, are not really two-dimensional because they have thickness. But a shadow is the really living two-dimensionality within our lives.” In the Shadows paintings, Greaves sets out to deepen this exploration of the relationship between two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality that he had begun to examine in his notebooks. His researches are ongoing. The paintings in the present exhibition are part of a work in progress, the first stage of a new line of investigation.
Passing By (2006), 82 x 72.6 cm
The paintings of his Caribbean Metaphysic and There is a Meeting Here Tonight series also enunciated a feeling critique of what Greaves has come to sense as the Caribbean void and futility. The Shadows series extends the earlier critique. “Over a period of time,” he told me, “thinking about the particular situation in which we find ourselves in the Caribbean, with all kinds of pronouncements being made about Caribbean civilisation and Caribbean culture, the image that came to my mind was the Sargasso Sea, the image of the Caribbean as a Sargasso Sea: a lot of stuff moving around and around as though going some place, but not going anywhere. We have become like shadows of clouds that come and go.” As desolate and frail as Shelley’s “cloud that had outwept its rain.” Yet, for all the analogy to the dispirited Caribbean condition, these paintings are not overtly Caribbean. There is not a blackbird in sight; the only working man is a cleaner, who could be anywhere, not a Caribbean-specific cane-cutter or fisherman or vendor or roadside politician or obeah-man. This emptying the space of the canvas of objects, of mass and identities, contributes to the abstract and at times enigmatic nature of the presentation. These rooms and walls and roads and skies are nowhere and everywhere: not only the Caribbean, but the human condition. The paintings invite us, with the minimum of distraction, to examine the two-dimensional in our lives, what shadows do, our perceptions of shadows and their symbolic import.
Underlining the abstract intent of these paintings, there is at work a phenomenology that relegates objects of nature to the viscous and contingent, as opposed to the crystalline hardness and necessity of the walls and roadways of the surrounding landscape. The interplay of the organic and the inorganic creates a certain tension. In the otherwise entirely mineral environment of the paintings there are three natural objects: a mango suspended on a string in Reaching; the breadfruit head of St Sebastian, his shadow pinned down with large nails; and a defiant branch sprouting improbably out of the arch in The Portal, the painting that takes the spiritual world as its subject. The Portal is a tale of two spaces, connected by a rope that curls in the foreground of one space and whose end is in the grip of the figure in the other. At both ends of the rope, the familiar infinity loop, a recurrent Greavesian motif. The spaces are differentiated by the gradation of tonality, dark to light, from the floor through the arch and up to the horizon. The shadow of a ladder leaning against the solid wall rhymes ironically with the journey upward through the arch, and casts its own shadow.
The Shadows series consists of large- and small-format paintings, the former executed in acrylics, the latter in oils. Notwithstanding their unity of theme and presentation, the two formats present different and particular challenges. Since his experience of his Caribbean Metaphysic mini-paintings, Greaves has shown a marked predilection for the small format. Its unique compositional imperatives aside, its small spaces do not lend themselves to the acrylics he uses for the large format surfaces. Greaves admits to finding it “virtually impossible” to achieve the gradations of tonality with rapidly drying acrylics on a small surface. Working in oils in the small-format paintings releases him from the premeditated, methodical technique clarity demands in the large format canvases: “Working in oils allows me to move around in my mind. It is more meditative.”
Alley Game (2006), 78 x 73 cm
I was surprised when Greaves told me these pictures had taken him back to the earliest paintings he had done as a young painter in Burrowes’s Working People’s Art Class in Guyana in the 1950s. He found it “curious.” He spoke of the similarities — the sharp lines, the strongly stylised figuration, the restricted palette. There is, of course, one vast and obvious difference: only a technique mastered over half a century of painting could have produced the walls of Alley Game and the roadway of Road Cones #1, or articulated the planes and surfaces and spaces of Passing By and Up the Steps. Could it be that the young painter, like all representational painters, was forced right at the outset to confront the issue of dimensionality in a practical way? How else to create a two-dimensional equivalent of a three-dimensional experience? In the beginning and at the end, flatness is all.
A longer version of this essay appeared in the catalogue of the exhibition of Shadows Move Among Them, Zemicon Gallery, Barbados, July 2006
Rupert Roopnaraine is a Guyanese writer and filmmaker, and co-leader of the Working People’s Alliance. He has published a collection of poems and a book-length study of Martin Carter, and Primacy of the Eye: The Art of Stanley Greaves (2005).