Jon Schueler Centenary Symposium and Exhibition
Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Isle of Skye. 27-29 May.
1973, Jon Schueler in his studio in Mallaig, Scotland. Photo: Magda Salvesen
How refreshing it is to have Art spoken or written about as a living thing! It is a rare convergence when an artist’s work finds its way back to the land and seascape that gave birth to it, accompanied by a circle of intimate reflections from family, friends and colleagues. The An Linne: Echoes, Reflections and Transfigurations symposium held at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI, on the Isle of Skye was a unique event; the opportunity to focus exclusively upon the life, work and impact of an artist who turned his back on the New York art world, moving to Mallaig on the Northwest coast of Scotland from 1957-58 and 1970-75. Overlooking the Sound of Sleat Schueler immersed himself in the elusive, fluid spaces between land, sea and sky overlooking, grappling with the true North within. The confrontational Art of painting and the ultimate joy and terror of life expressed in his paintings, transcend their time and place. At the heart of Schueler’s work is “the search” and the struggle of acknowledging what we are as human beings and being authentically who we are as individuals.
Having spent way too many hours of my life listening to academics kill the meaning and joy of Art by drowning it in their own vocabulary, it was a real delight to see such a multi-faceted and heartfelt celebration of an artist’s work. Hearing the perspectives of those who knew, loved and worked with John Schueler, combined with those exploring “the deepening North” he was vitally drawn to was a real privilege. The core of his work was expressed and explored in many different ways; in words, music, through Gaelic language, painting, film, photography and at times, overwhelmingly, beyond them all in silence. The symposium offered a wide range of speakers from different backgrounds; Magda Salvesen, Jon Schueler’s widow and curator of his estate; Professor Meg Bateman, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig; Dr Lindsay Blair, UHI; Mary Ann Caws, Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature, City University of New York; Richard Demarco, CBE; Kenneth Dingwall, artist; Marian Leven RSA, artist; Will Maclean RSA; Dr Anne MacLeod; Professor Duncan Macmillan; Angus Martin, poet and historian; Dr John Purser, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig; Marissa Roth, photographer, writer and curator; Carl Schmitz, Visual Resources & Art Research Librarian, The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation; Dr Joanna Soden HRSA; Finlay Finlayson who chaired a discussion with members of the Mallaig fishing community; Rob Fairley, Hamish Smith and Will Maclean; Professor Jim Mooney, artist and writer; Helmut Lemke ,sound artist, Jon Schueler Scholarship Artist 2014 and Oliver Mezger ,film artist, Jon Schueler Scholarship Artist 2015.
This gathering and the exhibition of selected oils, water colours and drawings from Schueler’s Mallaig years, together with the work of Jon Schueler Scholarship recipients 2013 – 2015, Takeshi Shikama, Helmut Lemke & Oliver Mezger, are part of a wider programme of events in the US and the UK celebrating the centenary of the artist’s birth. Seeing Schueler’s work exhibited at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig provides a unique opportunity to view his paintings juxtaposed with the natural environment outside, looking directly across the Sound of Sleat to Mallaig. It was a pleasure to see his paintings inhabiting this space; of shifting light, time and weather and being able inhabit them in such an immediate way as a viewer. There are many painters inspired by the landscape of the Highlands and Islands, but what separates the good from the great is arguably the capacity not just to “paint Nature” in a pictorial sense, but to “paint about Nature”, interpreting and expressing what it is to be truly present in the face of it. As Schueler expressed it; “the mystery is Nature and we are part of Nature.” Confronted with Nature’s elements and raw pigment, there’s nowhere for the artist to hide.
There is nothing Romantic about the process of making Art. In reality creative genius is always tethered to flesh and blood, human vulnerability and frailty. Equally vision and aspiration; striving to know the unknowable, unceasingly desiring what is just beyond reach, grappling with what we sense and see in fleeting moments of recognition are essential qualities for artists whose work resoundingly survives them . It is in the act of making that human beings find their divinity, closest to the truth of what we are and what we’re capable of, poised somewhere between heaven and hell. The Art of painting is founded in a struggle with the medium and with oneself. It’s that essential creative drive to make sense of ourselves, the world within and without, coupled with our capacity for destruction and annihilation that defines us as a species. From his experiences during WWII to the confrontation of the studio, Schueler was intimately and intensely familiar with both tendencies. As a navigator, flying directly towards enemy fighters and gunfire, Schueler was confronted by imminent death and what he called the “failure” of his survival on a daily basis. This aerial vantage point, right on a psychic edge of consciousness, between the immediate possibilities of life or death, is relived over and over in his paintings.
On the first evening of the conference Richard Demarco highlighted the profound and lasting effect of WWII on an entire generation; an observance normally referenced as a generationally distanced footnote in the discussion of an artist’s work. He spoke passionately about the physical and psychological effects of the war and about his own experience during a bombing raid at Portobello Beach, Edinburgh, as a child; waving to the fighter crews and picking up still warm shell casings from the sand, innocently taking them home. Much later in the early 1980’s at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, Demarco brought together lived wartime experience from opposite sides of the conflict in a meeting between Joseph Beuys and Jon Schueler. Within this gesture is the ethical imperative of Art and Art practice as the most powerful means of understanding and transformation that we possess; an ancient, Celtic idea which Beuys identified strongly with. Demarco’s perspective on Schueler’s work, like his reference to Martel’s “Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice” was very much about individual “ego dissolved into something bigger”. It is in the cosmic scale and unfathomable presence of Nature, that Schueler came face to face with his own. All of life’s questions were projected into the concept and physicality of his Northern skies; all of his joy, passion and rage, the unknowable Mother lost to him soon after birth and the Goddess Nature, mirrored in his own soul, cloaked by male desire. As Jim Mooney described, the “primacy of touch”, the innate sensitivity in Schueler’s Art, makes us aware of the duality of light within and without, which obscures as much as it illuminates. In Schueler’s own words; “rending veils of self-deception in the sky”, part of an eternal process of human creation and longing.
1970, Jon Schueler in his studio, Romasaig, Mallaig. Photo: Magda Salvesen.
Schueler’s painting is immediate and gestural, grounded in loneliness, the guilt of survival and his parallel journeys into the psychological, interior worlds of Abstract Expressionism and his own true North. As Mary Ann Caw eloquently described; “The North is wanting”. In a painting such as Grey Sky Shadow, III (1974, oil on canvas) there is a palpable sense of a warm blush of orange, elusively hovering and emerging through the opaque subtlety of mauve-greys. The colour drawing the eye is pushed to the edge of the composition as if in another passing second it will vanish beyond reach again. Broad brush marks rendered with a delicate touch reveal the artist’s sensibility in that moment. Seeking a connection with something greater and more enduring than ourselves is not a matter of cerebral indulgence but a holistic act of survival.
There is a long artistic tradition of Romantic engagement with Nature – or to be more accurate, the human eye and mind perceiving it and this is certainly one of many pathways into Schueler’s Art. Jim Moodie made the connection between the artist’s work and one of my favourite texts as an undergraduate; Rosenblum’s Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko. The pure inspiration and the great void of Friederich’s Monk by the Sea (painted between 1808 and 1810) has much in common with the human presence, emotional gravitas and intellectual trajectory of a Rothko or a Schueler painting.
Carl Smitz’s wonderful discussion of American Abstract Expressionism revealed another ethical dimension to Schueler’s practice; in Robert Motherwell’s insistence on sheer presence, invention and resolution through painting and in Ad Reinhardt’s witty cartoon; asserting that painting “is alive if you are!”Reinhardt challenges the viewer, like the artist, to define the ground upon which they stand. As Mary Ann Caw commented, Schueler’s “presentness” in his painting, his “creative anger” and “refusal of passivity” can be felt in the “residue” of his paintings. The confrontation of what we stand for collectively and culturally was also explored in Meg Bateman’s paper; “A Gaelic Way of Seeing?” on language determinism, part of a much wider ongoing debate and reappraisal of the Visual in Gaelic Culture.
The question mark within the title originates from the evolution of modern Gaelic; becoming progressively more aligned with English translation and therefore describing rather than attributing values and meanings to the naming of colour as part of an indigenous world view. Scales of colour were once understood “as part of a process” and in more holistic terms; in “varying scales of saturation, shininess and hue”, rather than being narrowly defined, or labelled. Connected with the natural world and its cycles, the historical Gaelic colour terms “appear to have been based on several different axes- on the degree of saturation, ranging between rich and pale, on the degree of reflectivity, between matt and shiny, on temperature and on the degree of patterning, between multi-coloured and plain. Domain further defined hue.” In older Gaelic word usage, shininess and saturation of colour reflect cultural aspiration; attributing “praiseworthy” qualities or conversely, “contemptible” dullness. This sophisticated, multi-layered understanding of colour goes beyond simple translations of “green” or “brown” in English, revealing a different mindscape within the land and seascape of the Gaidhealtachd.
This innate connectivity of old Gaelic as a visual language arguably finds its closest translation today in the work of visual artists (regardless of their native tongue), whose chosen mode of expression is far less susceptible to language determinism. Drawing on an ancient vocabulary of understanding that existed in previous centuries highlights another level of loss and appropriation of language. What we see in Schueler’s nuanced palette/ paint handling or in that of contemporary Scottish Artist Marian Leven is a close affinity with subtle scales of colour found in Nature and uniquely in the North of Scotland, defining ways of seeing and cultural values that fundamentally differ from dominant Western consumer culture. Leven’s observation about the “remoteness” of sky/ eye line of Manhattan compared to the North of Scotland, where the eye is level with the coastal horizon, a line “that embraces you like a mother” and the sense of continuity this imbues is extremely insightful in this respect. Bateman’s paper caused me to reflect a great deal upon what it means to be an artist and what our use of language; verbal, written or visual, says about collective cultural values and aspirations, our propensity for creative renewal and our capacity for survival.
The Highlands and Islands are often defined in terms of parochial remoteness, occupying a place in the global imagination right on “the edge of Europe” , however as Marian Leven rightly pointed out, this depends entirely on where your starting point is. Although Schueler chose to live and work in relative geographical isolation in the Northwest of Scotland, the scope of his work is a potent reminder that “the whole point of looking into is looking beyond”.
December 1970, Jon Schueler at the door of Romasaig. Photo: Magda Salvesen.