Philip Braham
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Still’.

‘Still’. The word carries meaning for our experience of both time and space. What is still in time is both what remains of the past and what is future, and yet to occur: ‘the event is still a part of me, I carry it with me’, ‘this is what I’ve been avoiding, that which I still have to face’. What is still in space is what rests and stays. To be still in this sense is to move barely or not at all; the way snow rests atop the branches of a tree, or, asked to ‘be still’, a child is readied for her photograph.

With this new series of works, Phil Braham invites us to reflect on the meaning of being still today. The invitation is patient and gentle, but, if taken up, salutary. Today, in a world characterised by its speed and movement, we seem increasingly less convinced that what is still remains. For all the gentleness of Braham’s invitation, then, there is much that is implacable in it. Through their very form, these works remind us that painting still has a role to play in art. Through their human figures, they tell us that the stories by which we make sense of our lives are still important. Through their attention to place, they remind us that there is still a world out there, beyond the limits of our horizons.

Concerns with how time and place are experienced are a consistent feature of Braham’s recent work. In the 2009 photographic series, ‘Suicide Notes’, the focus was on sites around Scotland where people had brought an end to their lives. Instead of offering a garish full stop upon the stories of those led to such places, however, Braham’s photographs carried a narrative charge of their own, developing a powerful tension between the beauty of place and the irrevocability of a tragic act. In the 2010 series, ‘Falling Shadows in Arcadia’ Braham again developed these concerns, this time using extended exposure photography to capture ghostly figures in sites of faded natural grandeur. The cumulative effect of both series was to expose and challenge the gap between perception and knowledge. How, Braham’s photographs provoked us to reflect, is perception of place altered by knowledge, however slight, of persons and acts absented from the frame?

In ‘Still’, Braham returns to paint, the medium through which he has been successfully making his name since the mid-1980s. Braham last exhibited a series of paintings on a comparable scale in 2006. Since then, there is much that has developed in his approach (the form of stillness he practises, you see, is not a form of inertia). These transitions converge in two factors in particular: the way in which ‘Still’ depicts its human figures, and the way in which it integrates the viewer into the landscape. In the first case, Braham puts us into contact with the child seers, torchbearers, and former and future selves that populate our memories and our dreams. In the second, he envelops us within atmosphere - showing us how nature can only ever truly function as a setting for human existence where it has its own say. In both cases alike, Braham is seeking and achieving closer proximity to the viewer than ever before, making this by far the most intimate series of paintings he has produced.

The child in ‘Antonine Hill’ inevitably draws us in. What is that look that crosses her face? Is she quizzical or anxious? Is she beckoning forward or, through the power of a gaze, turning the viewer to stone? In one sense, the scene could be mundane: a child, having surged ahead, now looks back to her companion and demands ‘why so slow?’ There is too much that is uncanny in the image, however, for that to stand. In Braham’s own mind, the painting marks boundary - the mist beyond the lip of the hill is where one cannot go, a limit on what was safe in childhood and in dreams. The girl stands out against this limit, and there is a strength in her that suggests the capacity to overcome it. By contrast, both the boy in ‘Windyhill Woods’ and the woman in ‘Bluebell Woods’ stand in a different relation. He is at a limit - he will not turn, but has nowhere to go. Will his obstinacy pierce through or falter? She, having turned her back, again invites questions that slide between the mundane and the uncanny. Why the dressing gown? Why the boots? Why draw your lapels so close? Human figures have featured in Braham’s paintings before, but never quite like this. In earlier works like ‘Burning Saint Andrews’ (1997), they were particles in the broader sweep of nature. Here, they are touchstones, fragments of sentences that invite the viewer to plot bigger stories.

The broader story of Braham’s own career as an artist concerns nature. As a landscape painter, he is presented with a weighty heritage: Claude Lorrain, Friedrich, Turner, Constable, Shishkin. How to pay homage to this past without simply repeating it? How, in the face of it, not to be still before the canvas, stuck? And why persist in this most ostensibly ‘painterly’ of disciplines in an age where the role of painting per se can sometimes feel threatened? Such questions could have inhibited Braham. It is testament to the strength of ‘Still’, however, that one feels them to be spurious. Classically, the role of landscape painting has been to unfold grand vistas along fixed lines of perspective. These works do something else: they implicate the viewer in more intimate environments, and make room for perspective to wander between the members of the series. In ‘The Hermitage’, a stone formation, metallic and elemental, is cradled by the forest. It is as though nature were offering a lesson in how to cope with a wound: co-exist and be still with whatever has rent the surface, grow around it. The challenge for the viewer is to let their focus be drawn into this process, to allow it to become concentrated, almost geological. By contrast, works like ‘The Black Woods of Rannoch’ and ‘Love Letter’ dilate focus – toward the beyond of the slope in the former, toward the beyond of the trees in the latter. There is a starkness to what both works depict - an ‘ends of the earth’ quality; yet what might be more important in them is what they invite vision to do: to float, to diffuse itself, to become gaseous and atmospheric, as if the mists that languorously drift in both were to act as channels for bearing vision from one to the other.

An earlier work, ‘The Churchyard’, provided Braham with the catalyst for this new series, and, in its tension between the figurative and the abstract, one certainly absorbs portents of the new paintings: there is the sense of being framed by the trees that carries through into ‘The Hermitage’; there is the attention to how light behaves between background and foreground that, albeit in a more understated way, inflects ‘The Window’; then there is the spectral quality of the painting, as Braham pushes nature toward the abstract. In a much starker sense, this tendency is present in ‘Colinton Dell’, a work that masterfully synthesises two difficult tensions: first, a tendency towards the abstract that sees the painting break more completely with the figurative than any other member of the series; second, a tendency towards darkness that runs counter to the understated presence of light pervading the other works, and which seems to be on the cusp of engulfing the foreground of the painting entirely. Remarkably, Braham weaves together these two tensions yet still leaves room for the painting to emerge figuratively, should you wish: wake from the reverie that sees them as inky shapes bleeding upwards, and the forms in the foreground become trees strangling towards the stars once more. The story they then have to tell is one on the grandest of scales: a cosmology of nature’s place within the vaulted heavens, the story of outward growth from this, our ‘soily star’, as Dylan Thomas evocatively dubbed it.

Be still long enough with these works and one enters into the series of subtle leaps of faith at work in their production. Braham’s incorporation of human figures, his move toward intimate natural settings, and the tendency toward the abstract in ‘Colinton Dell’ are all such leaps. Another is his decision to include ‘Still’ – a touchingly rendered portrait of his daughter as a young girl, and the work that gives its name to the series, despite being the smallest on show. The danger, one feels, is that the image could seem too sentimental or hermetic, as if there only for the artist; it overcomes this by doing what a great deal of good art does – by holding fast an emotion that could otherwise be written off as an affair too personal, and by seeking out the more universal significances that make it possible. From this tiny work, a host of questions therefore blossom: What is it to meditate on a loved one? What is it to meditate on change in a loved one? What distinguishes the instantaneity of a photograph from the process of a painting? And, in the broader context of this series, what is the secret lineage that links this girl to the one appearing in ‘Antonine Hill’?

A leap of faith that marks the series in a more general sense is Braham’s decision to dispense with the epic skies that so mark the history of landscape painting, and which in fact stand out as a strength in much his own previous work. Away from skyscape, these paintings set out for the pallid stillness of dawn. This isn’t a violent gesture of artistic reinvention, more the sense of possibility inherent to a morning walk that doesn’t take the usual route. What it and the other leaps involved in the series do mark, however, is a willingness on Braham’s part to involve shifting registers – to push his repertoire for this series, and to exercise different ways of seeing in the viewer.

With his accounts of the beautiful and the sublime, Kant defined the ways of seeing that became fundamental to Romanticism’s vision of nature. An unintended consequence, however, was that much subsequent landscape painting sought to see nature in these terms, or not at all. In many of Friedrich’s later works, we sense a will to tear right through nature, toward the metaphysical; in paintings by Schinkel, we sense a desire to rediscover classical conceptions of beauty in nature at any cost, even at the expense of importing fantastical architectural form there; and, in a later artist like Bierstadt, we sense a will to catalogue each new awesome sight revealing itself during the course of America’s westward expansion – less a pioneering form of art than an art form keeping pace with pioneering, the artist become a form of gold prospector, beauty and sublimity in nature his quarry.

It is to the credit of ‘Still’ that it does not set out to hunt down or catalogue nature in this way. This is not to say that we cannot find beauty or sublimity in it (witness the poise of the snow in ‘Corstorphine Hill’, or that slope in ‘The Black Woods of Rannoch’ again). It is simply to say that there is something less acquisitive in the way these paintings approach the environments they depict, and that they invite us to exercise different ways of seeing - powers of memory, uncanny reverie, intimate feeling and presence of mind, the capacity to invent stories, and the capacity to tell them.

Today, we live in an age replete with images. In some ways, this has freed up the role of the painter: landscape painting no longer has to catalogue nature in quite the way that Bierstadt did, and an artist like Braham is free to weave together different media, registers and influences. In ‘Still’, this sees photographic ways of seeing meet oil paint, narrative art meet tendencies toward the abstract, and the enduring influence of canonical figures like Friedrich and Shishkin meet more contemporary inspirations like the films of Andrei Tarkovsky (witness the hue of the human figures populating the series) and the drawings of Vija Celmins (witness the meticulous elegance and simplicity of ‘The Window’). For all this, the contemporary ubiquity of the image can also drag darker questions in its wake: Aren’t we saturated with images to the point of becoming inured? Why bother with older media like painting in the age of Photoshop? And why, when there is so much else that presses in, allow your attention to linger with a series of works like ‘Still’?

A key sign of good art today may well be the capacity to dispel ruminations like this – to shake us from their grip and to reveal them as fatuous and moribund. Art can do this in many ways: by reminding us that every age has had similar questions to work through, by reminding us that art is something to be made and experienced in spite of them (by ‘being still’ in the sense of persevering or enduring), and by incorporating the new artistic tools, practices and perspectives that each age makes possible. Art succeeds most fully in breaking their spell, however, where it is the work itself that stands up and exacts deserved attention. In doing so, it doesn’t so much refute doubt and distraction as put us somewhere where they have never existed.

It is to Braham’s profound credit that the works comprising this series, reflecting on what it is to be attentive today, have this capacity to stand up for themselves. Commenting on some of his previous work, Braham wrote that ‘throughout the ninet
ies my work [became] progressively more silent and the themes more private; I [took] stock and [began] to explore the ground beneath my own feet.’ With this series, he is achieving more - inviting us to reflect on the roles that art, stories, places and people have in shaping our lives. In doing so, he is breaking some of the doubt that might otherwise inflect our experience of art today, breaking some of the presentism that might otherwise cause us to live out fractured narratives, and breaking some of the solipsism that might otherwise cause us to forget the world beyond present perception (‘Yes’, those tangled roots on the forest floor of ‘Antonine Hill’ say, ‘trees do make a sound when there is no one there to hear them’).

Thoreau wrote that ‘there can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has his senses still’. In doing so, he played on two different senses of what it means to ‘be still’. To still have one’s senses is, in the first instance, to still have one’s wits about one, in the sense of remaining sane. To have one’s senses still, in a second sense, is to have the capacity to pause, to slow down the outside pouring in, and to reflect upon what is experienced – to still one’s senses. Today, it may well be the second sense of which we are more needful. This is because the pace of contemporary life can often be frenetic, impulsive, and exhausting, yet, in spite of ourselves, it is often by trying to keep up with it that we strive to ‘remain sane’. One can therefore very well have one’s senses about one today, yet not have the capacity to keep them still. What we require to awaken us to the second sense is the intervention of something capable of fixing attention and enriching it. This can take many forms – an inspiration, an atmosphere, a place, a conversation, a friend, a thought, an art work; it is what Thoreau found in nature – an antidote to melancholies felt within his culture, and the highest compliment I can pay to the works comprising ‘Still’ is that, should one accept their invitation, one can find it in them too.

Dom Smith,
Department of Philosophy,
University of Dundee.

 
   
     

   
 
All images and content ©2011 Philip Braham