SEEING THROUGH ROGER HICKIN
First published in Art New Zealand 105 (Summer 2002-03)
Art criticism is an erudite form of unemployment. All too often the critic is a mongrel yapping outside the gallery door; rarely is he regarded as a pedigree pointer by the artist. When J.M.W. Turner rebuked his champion, John Ruskin, with criticism is useless (1) he was both ungrateful and insightful. In that it is necessarily partial (deriving from the work) any questions criticism poses should be directed towards audience understanding rather than the self-regard of the artist or, indeed, the critic - otherwise such questions are diversions which bore. As Coleridge noted: It is a dull and obtuse mind, that must divide in order to distinguish; but it is a still worse, that distinguishes in order to divide. (2)
We effect outcomes everyday in our search for certainty (which is the perennial dance between empirical truth and measureless faith). Roger Hickin’s attention to the emblematic potential of his material, where nail holes take on the status of the individuated rather than the generic, where scratches simultaneously mimic the stigmata and the lover’s fingernails, instructs us that to obliterate distinction is to extinguish understanding. So how can his works extend beyond the quotidian when they so closely depend upon borrowed materials from the workaday world?
As viewers we can’t find a truth beyond perception ( sensere est intelligere), so for us becoming is the intersection of desire (our private expectation and memory) and fact ( Hickin’s piece and its iconography). His art helps us to transcend the known: it begets. Looking, we find an ascetic with a sense of humour who gives us the minimum in order to summon the maximum. An apostate who constructs, scratches and paints from a moral sensibility, Hickin’s works belong in either a church or a barn – and perhaps at the back of the butcher’s shop – instead of in a gallery that sanitizes rather than sanctifies. His works are no more finished than finished with at one viewing; they demand that we come back to the particular even as they insist that we move on from the temporal.
Exhibitions can resemble the pre-Socratic universe: a confused mixture of particles to which their owners attribute the formation of a universe. An exhibition promises, well, the world – but delivers it in artificially numbered parts which the recipient must assemble at leisure until (s)he becomes an archaeologist: this shard next to that, this incisor alongside that... Like the Egyptian tomb-raider we want every item to be a surprise, but one that is earned by appropriateness. Some surprises are merely wilful, thus juvenile. The best surprises are inexorable, and so it is with those Hickin offers us.
In 'real' life our body and its gestures assist others (and our 'selves') to codify often conflicting impulses into a semi-coherent socialized identity. In the body of an artist’s work each piece is a discrete gesture. It is through the simultaneous 'play', in work and viewer alike, of representational function (I am 'about' this) and self-reflection (am I 'about' this?) that art brings meaning into being. Eschewing the shock tactics of pop artists, Hickin’s totemic works confirm that we cannot have what Antonio Gramsci called a personality on the cheap (3) . They are not constant; it is their job to change us and in order to do so they must steward us through that change. This is how such initially static works come to surprise us with their dynamism. We may feel we’ve become a Gorgon with every set of snake-eyes returning different information to our cerebral cortex.
The self that initially contracts to focus on his exhibition then finds each piece is an intermediary between the visible (temporal) and the invisible (spiritual); by virtue of the work viewed the self expands into an apprehension of the infinite. Viewing Door with Trajectory we believe that metamorphosis will occur and by transcending the known we will justify it.
Hovering before wood, wire and paint – the components of a pigeon cage as much as a work of art – we remember that Alfred North Whitehead warned us the true rationalism must always transcend itself by recurrence to the concrete in search for inspiration (4). When we use logic we do so 'knowing' that it lets us enter one world only – the world of cause and effect, action and reaction. If each logical proposition is a railway carriage, then rational argument is the coupling of carriages so they move 'along the same lines' to a conclusion. But however efficiently this train is moving we expect to have to disembark, to leap from the train of logic into faith, if we’re to reach our destination, that Grand Central Station: truth. And that’s where Roger Hickin is coming from when he presents us with the series A Bed in Ubeda, which lifts off from the life (and death) of St John of the Cross. Here the soul’s dark night seeps up from the joins in panels. A precursor for these works can be found in Juan de Flandes’ Ascension (c.1500 tempera on wood) at Museo del Prado in Madrid. Flandes honours the Holy Ghost by dismembering the corporeal; the upper border of his panel amputates the image of Christ, an effect which directs us to consider the transfigured nature of God’s son and therefore our own salvation.
Confirming that sanctification can be a consequence of making art, Hickin’s pieces are treated with minute immediacy. Such devotion to the particular grain, split, kink, is a blessed contrast to the ‘hands off’ product of many contemporaries (in this context Peter Robinson’s binary pieces are an object and objectionable lesson). Paul Valéry was pertinent when he observed, It is almost as if the decline of the idea of eternity coincided with the increasing aversion to sustained effort. (5) Hickin reminds us, like Flandes, that there is more than surface to be worked. As Roman Catholics have a confessor hear their weekly acts, accepting that this ritual will lift them clear of indiscretion, so we let the artist’s process of marking and abrading take us towards (good) faith.
While in the (Judaic) Old Testament and also in post- Constantinian Christianity the temple was a sacred space, in the pre- Constantinian epoch the place of Christian worship was not considered as holy. God is, by definition, everywhere. This is what Hickin’s works confirm. However humorous, they serve as a rebuke to artists who imagine that art is primarily about entertainment, and would (through the wilful play of cleverness as distinct from intelligence) reduce the work to the status of an after-dinner mint.
Looking at these works we could hum under our breath The Who’s I feel good and I can't explain (6), however in trying to explain we necessarily draw on Augustine’s model of the world. In this model there are degrees of goodness and the better something is the higher it stands: God is the pinnacle of being and therefore of reality (in this Augustine is indebted to Plato's 'form of the good'). Augustine teased out the ontological implications of hierarchy: the highest being is the most real of all. This has application in a gallery of Hickin’s works because the logical consequence of Augustinian hierarchy is that one can have existence without being completely real – hence the importance of becoming. If only God is immutable then Hickin’s pieces are continually becoming, and they help us to do so as we view them. Paradoxically it is precisely in their insistence on materiality (the treated/untreated wood, the abraded paint) that they warn us against sacrificing process (becoming) for finished artefact (stasis).
The artist remains fervently detached, and his obsessive use of, say, the cross is an attempt to punctuate the fleeting rather than to articulate a conclusion. He reminds us of those contemplative mystics who delight in the world as an aspect of God's love, yet fear that they will be seduced by temporal detail and thereby lose eternal Love. His works are mystical; they don’t want us to define our selves by external goods (this painting or that relief) but by internal Good (the feeling we have when we attend to each piece) . So, like Protestant churches, they are bare; their contemplative character protects Hickin from the temptation of careerism. If excessive humility is the ascetic incarnation of pride, the physical beauty of these works – they are rugged seducers – saves him from that end.
As to the role of signs in all this, the act of learning to interpret is the act of inheriting our history. Signs, which have centuries of import, are a protection and an obligation. Even as they are harnessed by the toddler's inchoate 'self' they cause him to totter forward into both the egoless natural world and the social world of opposing egos. Both these worlds are received rather than created by the child's desire. As Francesco Clemente says:
Ego enlarges itself ad infinitum in the freshly emptied shell of our new world: faceless powers have deprived us not only of a sense of history but of memory itself. Free from responsibility, unable to acknowledge one another, living icons of impotence and fragmentation, in our comfort, we lack nothing and share nothing except the solitude of the dead and, above all, their silence. (7)
Looking hard, like a child regarding his face in the mirror, we find Hickin’s works remove themselves from the particular to become universal. They inhabit and are inhabited by silence. In his series Visible Support, which culminates in the funereal yet triumphant Lathwood Reredos I,each piece is a cross-section of its rich cousin, architecture – serene in the surface that weathers under our judgmental but forgiving eye. Monumental yet intimate: it is this combination which distinguishes his works; their success is one the dead might respect – the dead who have seen too much to be moved by the mediocre, the flashy, but understand timber stained and ripped by time.
Like John Ruskin, Hickin wants his works to bring their subjects to a root in human passion or human hope (8). In New Zealand he’s not the first artist to nurture this desire. Colin McCahon transformed private contradictions into public metaphors that graced the age for both his peers and those who came after: Ralph Hotere and Roger Hickin. Hickin’s early work Here I Give Thanks to McCahon(which echoes McCahon’s acknowledgement of Mondrian) makes his lineage explicit. It is a mistake to view Hickin as a poor relation to Hotere; they have both learnt from McCahon and the Spaniard Antoni Tapies. Hickin’s cross is no more colonising than Hotere’s black is Maori; both are approaches to the eternal and as such have dispensed with distinguishing characteristics such as exclusive doctrine and ethnic origin.
And yet in both Hickin’s Ubeda series and Hotere’s Sangro pieces we find the paradigm for human endeavour that underpins Western (therefore quasi-Christian) art: the innocent in the garden lapses into doubt and estrangement, but then – through labour – affirms (in either animist or agnostic terms) a marriage between inner and outer, man and nature, that is a qualified return to the garden. The danger with this model is nostalgia, where grief at the fall enervates redemptive labour in favour of the child’s magical thinking (wish-fulfilment through repeated phrases); despite his obsessive iconography Hickin is never sentimental. His reserve prevents this. Here is a lapsarian alchemist who, seeking to return to his creator, walks through a gold-dark archway of kauri.
Unfashionable? Perhaps, yet self-respect that is dependent on the intellectual judgement of others is a wax mask in the noonday sun. Hickin’s integrity, which is the artistic corollary of self-respect, is unquestionable. His work says to us that time volunteered is time invested in learning empathy with the eternal.