ESCAPE FROM EDEN
“The question is not what you look at – but how you look and whether you see” David Henry Thoreau
This body of work began for Sue Williams A’Court with an encounter with John Martin’s early 19 th Century mezzotint illustrations of Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Gazing at the dramatic landscape of Paradise – Adam and Eve – the Morning Hymn, she ‘saw’ a silhouette of a Victorian woman in a large hat within a grove of trees on a hill. This instance of pareidolia – the brain’s tendency to impose meaningful patterns where none exists, be it a
face in the surface of the moon or shapes in the contours of clouds – was her inspiration. Using collage to reassemble the grove into her desired figure, which she reinterpreted in graphite for the final painting, Eve became the start of the series. The pieces play with the idea of perception questioning reality. By conflating genres of landscape and portrait painting, they hover ambiguously on the boundary between our inner and outer worlds, to present a ‘landscape of the imagination’ – a state of mind, rather than a specific location. The monochromatic, muted palate of the portraits sets a reflective, contemplative tone, whilst the incredible detail of their miniature scale encourages observers to lose themselves in a private, intimate space where we no longer feel separate from what we observe.
“In a world of selfies – constructed images of self-promotion – I wanted to enlist the spectator to question the idea of identity. In each ‘portrait’, there are no clues of facial expression from which the viewer can recognize another interior life, so it is open to be identified by the observer. The image is deliberately self-effacing, non- confrontational, not “looking back” – inviting the viewer’s gaze inwards to inhabit the space without it being occupied by another ego.”
Sue Williams A’Court
Sue Williams A’Court is not only intrigued by the way our minds want to impose meaning onto what we see, but also how culture gives context to our interpretations. Each of the twenty pieces appropriate references from historical
works, be it 18 th Century British landscape paintings or Dutch master etchings, scoured magpie-like from a variety of sources ranging from Christies catalogues to the travel books of the Religious Tract Society. The resulting paintings,
with their foxed, seemingly mildew-stained backgrounds resembling delicately aged paper, evoke Victorian albumen print photographs.
“A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees” William Blake
Such conscious appropriation from and celebration of the past directs us to consider Sue Williams A’Court’s paintings within the historical tradition. Until the Renaissance, landscape was not considered something to be appreciated for its own sake, but was confined to the background of paintings of religious, mythical or historical figures. Scenery was seen as nothing without a human narrative. In the transition towards landscape becoming an artistic genre in its own right, the two forms briefly coalesced in anthropomorphic landscapes, in which scenery was arranged to depict giant faces – for example Athanasius Kircher’s extraordinary etching of a bearded man in Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (1645/6), which was much copied by other artists over the following decades. It was Albrecht Altdorfer, working in southern Germany in the 16 th Century, who pioneered the emergence of landscape as an independent genre. But rather than working directly from nature, Altdorfer himself borrowed background landscapes from existing paintings,
removing their human or cultural content to make the landscape the focal point, so that now the subject of a painting might be a tree, rather than a saint. The hierarchy of subject and setting, background and foreground was inverted.
Sue Williams A’Court’s work explores this idea of bringing the background forwards, perhaps most playfully in her reinterpretation of Gainsborough’s Mr & Mrs Andrews (1750) which forms part of the installation to this exhibition. In its own time Gainsborough’s painting was remarkable for the broad sweep of the Sudbury rural estate it included; with the married couple pushed to the left of the canvas, rather than in the middle as was more conventional, Gainsborough’s real love – the landscape – commands equal attention. Here the artist reproduces the iconic painting without its eponymous couple – so the landscape becomes the chief subject, whilst the whole piece forms a digital background on one wall of the gallery space, a witty counter to the display of ‘portraits’.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to see the place as if for the first time” – T.S. Eliot
The quiet, exquisite beauty of each piece in Escape from Eden evokes the Arcadian tradition: landscape composed to create an idealized, harmonious and timeless space – an unattainable idyll that represents the mind-state of bliss. Drawing on her interest in Eastern philosophy and meditation, Sue Williams A’Court explores how visual pleasure is connected to the numinous experience. “When making the work,” she writes, “I feel it’s like singing a hymn. I want to convey a state of mind that holds a fragile synthesis of duality delicately and subtly in place, without conclusion, opening up a door to something bigger.” But the title of the series draws us to consider that Paradise is lost – were we cast out from Eden, or did we escape? For Sue Williams A’Court, we might retain a longing desire to return home to Arcadia, but that’s unattainable precisely because of the human intellect’s unique ability to ‘stand outside’ its own thoughts; our capacity for self-reflection enables us to recognize shifts in our field of awareness. The portraits encourage a special kind of looking – a reverie poised between the mesmerising detail of the landscapes and our own recognition of the faces we imagine within them.