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Phelan Black – For the Rimini exhibition

Or va, ch’un sol volere e d’ambedue
Tu duca, tu signore e tu maestro
Cosi gli disse; e poi che mosso fue
Intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro

A woman loses herself in water, loses herself in sleep, dreaming adrift, in fantasy, yet in a particular place and time that are most deliberately evoked. The human and the mythical, rub up against each other back to back, overlapped, displacing one another; a sort of undercurrent charge. Meanwhile a dog barks, frightened by a looming presence, three rocky sisters conspiring in the sea. Thus Perseus; thus our painter, Phelan Black. Yet here Perseus assumes the form of a dog, and of a mistaken dog at that, barking at a deceptive rock that the three old women with only one good eye between them have stupidly become. Thus a specific moment in a precise place is illuminated by the mythical, the conjuring of something timeless and ideal. Mythical figures are brought to life through the estranging effects of nature deeply lived. Thus our present-day protagonist is both part of an unchanging mythical world and side-stepped from it with a sort of tragic irony.

Phelan Black shows us a world where human emotion is both enhanced and brought into being by exchange with nature; and nature itself is only truly perceptible through the illumination of intensity of feeling. A world where humans are dumb witnesses to their feelings writ out in a storm at sea, which magnifies their senses and puts them in their place. Or lets them take their place, a very specific place that is through feeling brought to being. The place becomes as the feelings wash ashore, the lightning cracks, the volcano explodes. Thus place itself is brought into being through exchange between nature and emotion, past and present, travelling like lightening down the conductors of sensation to set the landscape ablaze.

No blissful Arcadia here of bucolic shepherds and peasants. The tear of jealousy is never far away. The tug of the tide and the depth of the cave are sweeping what is realized within them down under and away. Copulation (though not quite TS Eliot’s ‘birth copulation and death’) and love; landscape and nature and human emotion. Lovers, at once palely ethereal and all too human, seen by the seering owl, its eyes glaring in a sort of unseeing possessive burst outrage.

Again and again the paintings present recumbent figures in the forefront at the bottom of the canvas, parallel to the picture plane, on the brink of the canvas itself – man and woman, lovers, witnesses, apparently shared and sharing. But while the woman is vividly evoked, the male slips away evasively, is not pinned down, takes jealous flight with the owl or seers the sky in a storm; his ego spattered across the seething world.

Nature allows feelings to take place, the figures feel what they see; a dialogic exchange occurs. Sometimes, as in Primavera at Montecastello, nature is both blessing and blessed, as the figure of a river beflowered, with Etna, and the most benign of owls. And here a cloudy head; a head that becomes a cloud; a head in the clouds; here the union of nature and human experience is total and quite literally inscribed.

And then there are the animals and birds. Animals, often present watching, witnesses, silent judges or recorders, aloof, indifferent and yet coinvolved in the dramas that they too shape, those human dramas that are all too human. Recurrently the paintings show one precisely drawn figure – a bird in flight, a seagull sharp observant – against an inchoate human drama The animals at once bear witness dumbly and yet are more prescient than the human forms to which they are obscurely bound.

A seagull cocks its beady eye forefront stage centre against the coupling lovers, a love turned to stone like a beached Henry Moore (as lifeless as only art can be); and while the mountains seem like a glimpse of a north African coast, the landscape between mountains and figures rushes past like an express train: nature’s effects make people and place both strange and each to inhabit the other; but to this almost mystical exchange the seagull merely cocks its beady eye.

Sometimes, intriguingly, the relation between human experience and nature is less sharply drawn; and we see the painter’s work. In Ravenna to Catania it is all at sea. Etna erupts; lovers kiss; a sea of cloth of gold. A gauze of mist both finely separates and draws into relation the two worlds of passion and of nature; but here they do not see each other; the lovers do not reflect, or reflect upon the scene. The surface of the sea, that billowing embroidered brocade, produces golden fish surfacing for air. The explosion of Etna is veiled from the lovers -- not conjured by them. The human drama and the natural one no longer need each other, and do not produce each other, but are bound together by the lightest, the most insubstantial, of mists or veils. Here the painter is at work: this is the painter’s work: the gorgeous abstract insect-ridden sea.

A landscape with flowers – not quite just dancing on the surface playfully superficial, but rapt in the depth charge of the cave, the deathly molten rock itself. Nothing but that will decay. These are the pearls that were his eyes. Hark now we hear them ding dong bell.