Thursday, 3 May 2012

Dipping Toes in the Acheron

Vestibule, 2004, oil on acrylic on treated rag, 76.4 x 56.0 cm

If prison is hell then this is the painting. It was a response to Dante's Inferno, and in particular, early on in the poem when Dante and Virgil arrive in the Vestibule of Hell, on the shores of the Acheron. In saying that it is a response to, I mean that this painting generates, for me, an atmosphere/emotion that is almost identical to that generated by that section of the poem; and also, and at times, generated by working in various panopticonic, Victorian era prisons where an apt descriptor would be 'elemental and base'.  In the late 1980's they were still using "piss buckets" in Beechworth Prison.  A plastic nappy bucket was all that the prisoner had if he needed the toilet after being locked up early in the evening.
These prisons were constructed of massive blocks of granite or bluestone that were mined locally. They were cold and awful places where unspeakable things happened, the worse of it being, apart from the occasional serial killer, the corrupt, psychotic screws, who dominated the ranks of prison officers.  Harsh criticism you think - no, I lived it.
These prisons had a duality about them.  On one side they were evil, as if the granite walls had absorbed the evil that was inherent in some of the worst prisoners and screws; and on the other side, the dark and gothic beauty of this type of architecture.  These prisons were built in the 1850's 1860's.  The level of craftsmanship that was used to construct these buildings was astonishing when one considers the era in which they were built.
This painting also has this duality about it. I love it and loathe it at the same time. I love the paint handling, and composition, the mystery and atmosphere it evokes, its conceptual base. It has, for me, that dark beauty. But it is essentially a "nasty" painting. It represents a period in my life that was, at times, horrific.  The colour combination is ugly. The 'scabs' of dried paint. Its primitiveness. It also takes me to Peter Fuller's concept of "redemption through form".