Traces of Silent Encounters with Infinity

By Ursula Panhans-Bühler, written for the catalogue accompanying the exhibition ‘Abandoned Field’, Ceiling Space, Chongqing, China, 2015.


Oliver Gosling, an artist trained in England, has lived for the past seven years in Chongqing, south-west China – a city well-known in China for its painters. In this current exhibition, we are treated to an overview of his work completed during this period.

Gosling adopts in his paintings no illustrative, realistic method; nor is he in the business of deploying strictly abstract concepts searching for pure form; and finally, he avoids also any idle plunge into traditional Chinese approaches to imagery that might seduce some foreigners, nurturing a hope of freeing themselves from the burden of the Western tradition. With no prejudice against these approaches, he is instead searching for a deeper sense of their particular endeavours. To get some insight into his work, we might examine three paintings in the hope that they will afford us some hints on the nature of his artistic quest.


“Shadow” from 2014 depicts a house in a landscape. There are four basic elements in its composition: the grey earth, the olive-yellow sky, the worn-out, reddish beams forming the outlines of the shelter, and, cast on the earth beside it, the shadow that gives the painting its title. The deep brilliance of the colours confers on the image a sense of the infinite, so that the solitary house seems settled in a kind of nowhere. Moreover, it borrows its inner space from the bright sky, melting into it. However, a certain physical depth is suggested by the shadow, which only stops at the border of infinity, the horizon, and which also has the effect of thrusting the house forwards.


Given the calmness and the milky light in the image, we might feel reminded of the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, two generations before Oliver Gosling’s time. But in Morandi’s paintings, the objects have a secluded existence among themselves, albeit one which shares the milky atmosphere of the objects’ surroundings. With Gosling’s paintings, we are confronted with a deep paradox: all existence is part of two worlds, the infinite and the finite, and the latter is in a kind of secret relation to the former, wherefore the shadow not only gives the substance, yet also the light’s vibration within the physicality.


A large canvas from a slightly earlier time, “Turn”, completed in 2010 and reworked in 2012, deploys a mild cerulean blue evoking the sky’s infinite gleam. Some pulsating darker blue lines seem to mark a delicate motion in the air and augment the depth of the space. Out from the lower edge of the canvas there loom into the painting the ghostly outlines of a chair, accompanied by a lightened shadow. Its flimsy blue outlines highlighted in white, the chair turns its back on the viewer and also on the wide field of sky and the shadow on its left. This shadow may be cast by the armchair, turned aside and altered by perspective, substituting for the doubtful physicality of its object. Yet the shadow could also be cast by an absent person, half cut away by the border of the picture. In the latter case, it recalls the earlier Gosling motif of a simple, bust-like depiction of a head and shoulders, absently absorbed in itself. 


A moving tension is generated between the tender consolation of the endless blue atmosphere and the subtle melancholy alluded to by the armchair and the shadow, a drama in which solitude and silence are the players. It seems as if the artist bids farewell to all the dramatic anger shown in former paintings, where single, broken items of human comfort are scattered about or where a human figure is absorbed in meditation and hence shown faceless. As is typical in Gosling’s work, the somewhat laconic title of the picture confers a double sense. It switches between an allusion to the particular narrative element of the painting and an allusion to a greater meaning, in this case to an emotional and formal passage in the work of the artist. In considering the idea of the “narrative”, we should be conscious of the great schism in Western art which broke out after the Second World War, between abstraction, as the leading new language of art, reaching from a non-figurative expressionism to meeting the challenge of an abstract sublime, and the figurative currents, most notably Pop Art and Photorealism. Gosling doesn’t search for a compromise position in the middle but questions the real ‘in-between’, a crux of the human condition.


 Considering that our bliss in front of infinity is intrinsically tied to our physical existence, we are confronted with a second paradox. We release ourselves from the bindings of our embodiment, but temporarily and only within these bindings. There is scope, perhaps, to further consider the conditions for an acceptance of this situation through an examination of the relationship between what exists and what is the sublime beyond.


The third work I wish to refer to, is called “Scar”, completed in 2014. On a marvellous, articulated surface of silver pigment, held fast by the resin which coats the pale canvas and still shimmers through the paint, there is a large arch shape, rent by the eponymous scar. This scar not only splits the arch in two parts. The arch itself energetically interrupts a kind of river with a delicately-moving flow. While this flow is articulated with fine black lines, transforming the deep and infinite space of the canvas into a part of this river, the arch seems magnified by the scar scratched into the paint and filled with red lines, ending precisely on the split peak.


In the course of being severed, the arch seems not only to undergo an exaggeration, or expansion, but also eschews any bodily form. In its ghostly lingering in the space, the arch is held in tension by the interruption of the flow. Within this drama, there is a subtle shift. The bases of the arch are symmetrically positioned on the canvas, yet the scar has been slightly shunted to the right, pushed in the same direction as the river’s dynamic, as are the broken brackets of the arch – as if nothing can resist the flow. 


 Narrative, illustrative, or expressive techniques are insufficient to depict what is not an occurrence in the realm of the tangible world, but a phenomenon based on an inner reality of the mind. The artist is therefore carefully operating within a language of signs. Of course, all art is a question of signs, yet this is often forgotten: either in the naivety of references to the tangible world, or in the congealing and drying out of the emotional power of signs, through abstraction. The bold metaphor Oliver Gosling constructs in his painting avoids both. 


In his telling allusion to a fragile and dangerous inner reality, he has not only exploited Western tradition but also traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy. For the Chinese, it has always been clear that images are based on a language of signs, realised with ink and brush: a world in-between, not an imitation of Nature. The only human way to imitate Nature is to follow its flow, as the legendary Zhuang Zi put it.  Signs offer a way towards a mindful reflection on Nature: not as an abstract substitute, but as a sensitive link between vision and memory.


Let’s continue with a few more general observations on Gosling’s art.


In respect of Gosling’s working methods, there have been some decisive changes over recent years. The artist has always been concerned with combining the surface of the paint with a luminous depth. Oil paint applied in thick layers was the means to achieve this, yet he would carefully avoid any lush reflectiveness. Giving a simultaneous impression of dullness and luminescence, the light is intended to emerge from the depth of the material. 


Since around 2012 he has further explored the possibilities of surface, continuing to combine oil paints with mixing dry pigments with alkyd resin, recently also adding concrete dust. The resin sucks in the material, and a dull brilliance coming from the depth of the paint is the result. Raw canvas, un-primed and treated only with transparent polymer size (PVA), is given luminosity where it is otherwise left unpainted. Oil paint is mostly only used for the sparse elements of the signs, signs he also draws by scratching in the still-wet paint. So for instance, it remains a marvel how in a painting like “Rail” from 2014, the artist can create the vision of a deep meadow with autumnal tall grasses, simply by a subtle scratching in the paint. This is not an act of naturalistic description. Instead, it creates a kind of contemporary calligraphic manner, as if Nature itself were the best action painter and there were no subjective need for expressionism. 


Moreover the colours’ interaction in this painting, with the deep grey-violet of the sky and the dusty blue on the brick-red barrier of the rail, gives a sensation of a luminous atmosphere, which transforms light into a distant epiphanyof the physical world. This is not an isolated incident, but a startling result in many of his newer paintings, even those that handle depth merely through the use of oil on canvas, yet maybe (I am not a painter) made possible by the artist’s new research, experimentation and understanding of the possibilities of his materials. 


In the same vein we can consider the painting “Reaching” from 2012/13, which uses some startling yellow paint for a cloud in the air at the top of the canvas, reflected on the horizon, and for a tuft of grass at the bottom, while a smooth dark line indicates a hill in the landscape. Otherwise, only concrete dust and pigment are used to model the landscape beneath the blank canvas (which constitutes the sky). The result is at once both abstract and non-abstract: it conjures up memories that are not to be grasped in any realistic or prosaic sense. Rather, that their dynamic, subconscious richness is animated.


Oliver Gosling’s processes of layering and striation could be described via the neologistic “mattering” of substance, to quote from artist Inga Svala Thorsdottir’s and Wu Shan Zhuan’s declaration of “The Rights of Things”. Today, fascinated as we are by immateriality, we often think to overrun our physical conditions of existence; at once a disgrace and a scandal.Compared with cosmic dark matter, which invisibly absorbs light, our physical world is dark matter that reflects back the absorbed light. The otherwise invisible light is given back as material illumination, a phenomenon of the tangible world of which we, as dark lumps, are a part. “Mi illumino dell’immenso”, I illuminate myself by the immensity, as Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti put it.


            Hence, a double sense of surface and depth comes into play. One aspect is the transfiguration of the mere materiality of the paint into a state of luminous reflection that creates a physical tension and a coincidence of surface  and depth. The other aspect is our resonance with this enchantment, wherein we are not only fascinated by the beauty of this physical apparition, but also by the fact that its inherent depth somehow surpasses its physical incarnation. Melancholically, this reminds us of our constricted existence and our longing for infinity. The scar that is the divide between the continuum of the infinite and our physical embodiment is not so easy to reconcile.


            Gosling creates moving, emotionally magical metaphors for this situation as he renders one of his reminders of embodied existence – the forlorn house – as germinating into a double apparition before and beyond the horizon. In his painting “Dance”, he toys in a subtly humorous way with gravity and its suspension. In his painting “Ghost”, the scene is as though pendant between surfacing and echoing. In both paintings, the hint of landscape avoids any overt earthly association, but instead gives the sensation of a dreamlike reality.


Any house is a metaphor for the individual. In Gosling’s paintings this holds true, yet the metaphor never totally annihilates the house as a building in itself. We might try to pin down this relationship via a discussion of the artist’s reference to actual humans. They are less dominant than in his earlier paintings, but as a subject, the artist confronts them with a new clarity and directness.


            The sad, bust-like forms, lost in deep longing or desperate compassion, have completely disappeared from the work. But out of them has come an astonishing meditation on the relationship between plenitude and blankness, a paradox in any speculation on the wholeness of the cosmos, and its role in the delimited existence of any being.“Pressure”, a kind of ‘self-confrontation’ from 2014, acts as the result of all earlier attempts to formulate this question. Rendered in profile, the bust is held together by the opposing pressures of eternity, and how the hopeful mind might conceive of it. Conjuring up an encounter under pressure, the blank canvas and the form giving shadow are highlighted by a milky cloud, marked by traces of suffering from gravity that are rendered in the same crimson colour as the horizontal bordering of the bust. For comic relief, we might compare this essential metaphor with a slightly earlier encounter, the catastrophic meeting of the dull lump with a dynamic cloud, entitled “Collision”. 


            In the series of “Heads” on the other hand, we have the earthly counterparts of the imaginary self of “Pressure” – both realised in the same year. The “heads” are not portraits in a descriptive way: they are a more overt questioning of the self, and thus less restricted. Executed in black pigment mixed with resin, on blank canvas coated only with transparent polymer size (PVA), they are like raw drawings in crude, dry charcoal. They appear as though modelled over time by the hardship of existence, and seem still to be involved in the work of balancing against the seductive drag of infinity’s undertow, luring in all formed beings in a dynamic tension. But the heads might also offer a deep understanding of the mask, not as a device at hand for deception, be it playful or shocking, but as that essential physical veil which masks infinity, and marks the ambiguity in the task of upholding the paradox of life: the embodiment of infinity.


So what of the relationship between references to human existence and those to mere objects, which I alluded to when discussing the house as house and the house as metaphor?


            Let us consider one of the most abstract paintings in Gosling’s work, named “Barn”. A viewer concerned with geometric abstraction or colour-field painting might be disturbed by the fact that the two broad, straight lines recall wooden beams. Instantly, the memory of a simple house might come to mind; the shadowy colour-field on the left would recall a landscape under a beautiful, rose-tinted sky with a smooth red horizon. No sooner trapped in imagination, baffling any boring pretention to “what you see is what you see”, he would also be trapped by a sensation of depth. That depth is not only caused by perspective: it is essentially based on memory. “Every current image recalls another image in the memory”, argue several actors in Godard’s film “Éloge de l’amour”, The Eulogy of Love. Thus memory opens up a shaft into the depth of our minds, in sensory contact with all things and situations we have come into contact with, and the infinite richness of their associations.


Sometimes in history, abstraction has been necessary to remind us of an absolute schism between the real and the abstract. Yet it provoked the memory of what was concealed: it was the decisive tension in Russian Suprematism (e.g. in Malevitch). Though the exhaustive exploration of such tensions in art over the last one hundred and twenty years and more may have lured us into apathy towards the crucial and ever present questions they address, we should note the significance of Oliver Gosling’s searches in his mostly fairly abstract paintings for a new tension between the abstract sublime and its historically-driven emotional needs. To quote from a wonderful poem by the artist, “If mind is all illusion / where then is Nature’s trace?”


            The motifs of the two wooden beams do not close the lodge they allude to. Instead, the lodge seems permeated by the broad rose sky, which we can see as either separate or as formal continuation behind, switching as we can between a superficial and a deeper view. We thus become aware of our ties to both worlds, the material world and what lies beyond. The house, in its calmness, is also a part of this conception, but is not forced to question its in-between existence. Perhaps this wonderful painting, with its calm and serenity, can share some of that with us.


            All form is a remnant of infinity, carrying, in the human case, a memory of a wound, our separation from infinity, the conditions of our coming into existence yet enclosing infinity as its own secret.




 But let me finish on a lighter note and quote a long-forgotten tale, related some decades ago by the German philosopher Hans Dieter Bahr. A small child was sitting on his stool on the floor, eating soup. A snake slithered up to the child, lifted up its head and started to suck up the soup with its tongue. Thereupon the child rapped head of the snake with his spoon, and said: “Thing, you should not only drink the liquid but also eat the chunks!”




 Hamburg, February 2015




 Ursula Panhans-Bühler