Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Peter Rodulfo's 'Night Sea Voyage' triptych.

The British artist Peter Rodulfo's Testing the Water conjures a numinous moment. In a lugubrious twilight at a sea-side pier, a solitary saxophonist plays whilst a close encounter occurs. An ethereal, crab-faced creature raises a glass to the viewer whilst dipping its toe into water.

Testing the Water (oil on canvas) is one of a sequence of three paintings, technically known as a triptych, which Rodulfo completed during the late autumn/early winter of 2015. They are each connected in their imagery with the ‘Night Sea Voyage’ of ancient mythology and alchemy. Rodulfo’s Testing the Water may be interpreted as representing the embarkation point of a 'Night Sea Voyage’.

Testing the Water is set at a sea-side pier and fun-fair in twilight. The silhouetted figure of a solitary saxophonist stands high upon the pier. A sea-horse surfaces from the lapping waves, perhaps attracted by its sound. The pier's fore-shortened perspective draws the eye towards two fairground booths, both with brightly-lit interiors which intrigue upon the entertainment within. The pier terminates in a sloped ramp suitable for embarkation. In the background the architectural structure of a roller-coaster girder decorated in candy coloured peppermint and pink, along with a golden neon crab illumination, while in the foreground seaweed, a pair of menacing pincers and a herring can be seen. Centre-field, a convivial, but also slightly scary crab-faced creature stares with a penetrating gaze towards the viewer, while dipping a toe into water. Raising a wine glass, bubbles escape from its cavernous, rosy-red mouth.

Contrasting areas of colour tonality can be seen in each quarter of Rodulfo’s painting. Its top right features decorative peppermint green, light raspberry and golden hues. In its bottom right, primary colours are dominant. Its sea is mostly turquoise, while its sky consists of broad washes of very dark and muted tones. There are also some intriguing objects to view including a large rattle-like cog, horned tubing and a long strip in blue which unravels in a swirl from background into foreground.

With its square dimensions Testing the Water (90 x 90 cm) holds favourable comparison to well-designed 60's and 70's pop and rock album art-work which introduced artists of the calibre of Sir Peter Blake, Mati Klarwen and Storm Thorgerson, among others, to a wide and discerning audience. Music itself plays a big part in Rodulfo’s leisure-hours. After a long day spent in the studio he enjoys listening to music from a wide-variety of genres and performers, including Lou Reed, Dr John and the Argentinian composer Oswald Golijov, to name but a few.

The music instrument the saxophone is featured in Testing the Water. One of Belgium’s greatest gifts to music, Adolphe Sax’s 1846 invention of a hybrid woodwind and brass instrument is effectively a brass-instrument played with a wood-wind reed, producing a new aural tonality, powerful, sometimes slinky and velvety timbre, capable of great agility. The saxophone is commonly associated with, but not restricted to the genre of jazz. Notable recent works for saxophone include the American composer Philip Glass’s Concerto for Saxophone Quartet (1995) in which all four members of the saxophone family (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) can be heard weaving away in polyphonic minimalist delight with each other in music which is highly evocative in feelings associated with embarkation. [1] There's also a lively Concerto for Saxophone (1993) by the composer Michael Torke b. 1961 which is worth hearing as well.

Remembering all interpretations to be subjective, Testing the Water may be heard as an expressive aural soundscape to the receptive viewer’s inner ear. The sounds of a lapping tide, perhaps with a ship's fog-horn in the distance, a saxophone softly playing, the whirr and cries from fairground rides, even the menacing click of lobster claws and air-bubbles escaping from a vocal larynx can all be heard with an imaginative inner ear.

Another fitting musical back-drop to Rodulfo's canvas can be heard in the ambient electronic music of the composer Edgar Froese’s aptly entitled Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares. [2]

Because crustacean imagery occurs no less than three times in Testing the Water its worthwhile exploring symbolism relating to the crab in depth. There’s a certain frisson between the idealized fair-ground image of a golden neon crab and the stark reality of encountering a hard-gazing crab-faced creature, for example in Rodulfo’s painting, as well as a hint of a momento mori in the form of a  'Death's Head'  in its crab-face symbolism. Indeed the word 'cancer' has long been used to describe a malignant tumour affecting the body. But before embarking upon any analysis of cancerian symbolism in Testing the Water, its imperative to be mindful of what Rodulfo himself states of the crab-figure in his painting-

".... of course when the crab appeared I was aware someone would interpret it astrologically, that was not my intent; I have no interest in astrology. As with most of my imagery I simply arrived at a point in the painting when something crab shaped was required to balance the structure. For me when working on imaginative pieces, the paintings are abstract and I only consider the formal structure, tonal relationships, colour and so on.... The imagery is a bi product of that process. I am interested to see what imagery comes out of the process, but I do not whilst working attach any meaning to it. [3]

Although Rodulfo himself has no interest in astrology, nevertheless, poets, artists and composers when engaged in their exploration of the unconscious psyche invariably encounter archetypal imagery which can be elaborated upon; as the psychologist C.G. Jung recognised, succinctly noting of Cancer’s symbolism -

In astrology, Cancer is a feminine and watery sign, and the summer solstice takes place in it. In Propertius it makes a sinister appearance. ‘Fear thou the ill-omened back of the eight-footed crab'. De Grubernatis says, 'the crab... causes now the death of the solar hero and now that of the monster'. As De Grubernatis thinks, the crab stands now for the sun and now for the moon, according to whether it goes backwards or forwards. [4]

In ancient mythology the Greek  historian Callisthenes in his Alexander Romance relates how crabs dragged Alexander's ships down into the sea. In the folk-tales of the Indian Sanskrit known as the Panchatantra, written circa 300 BCE  there is a tale (Bk.V, 2) of how a mother in order to protect her son from evil and bad luck, gives him a crab which saves his life through killing a black snake. It was a giant crab which bit Heracles in his fight with the many-headed hydra monster. Hercules crushed the crab underfoot and continued with his labour. The goddess Hera placed the crab in the night-sky for its efforts.

Herakles and the Hydra. Etruscan Water Jar circa 525 BCE

Hubble Space Telescope mosaic image of the Crab Nebula

In astronomy the Crab nebula is the remnant of a super-nova star and pulsar wind nebula, first observed and recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054 CE.

In essence Testing the Water captures the numinous or transcendent moment, those not easily defined moments in the spiritual dimension of life in which an awareness of one's existence in space and time, the mystery of being, and the secret, internal workings within the psyche happen.

Just as avian imagery occurs in Rodulfo's As the Elephant Laughed, (one of the most beautiful and cheerful of all his paintings) in which a blackbird intrudes into the frame, allusive to the cyclical return of darkness, and the nigredo stage of alchemy, so too in the sombre atmosphere of Testing the Water, avian imagery is utilized to modulate the mood-music of the canvas. The head of a smiling duck appears apparition-like in its sunset cloudscape; and in completely polarised symbolism to the avian imagery of Laughing Elephant, it hints of an eventual return of  day, light and the albedo stage of alchemy.

Testing the Water is a painting capable of challenging its viewer as to how they personally respond whenever meeting an unfamiliar face in daily life, or in the momentary awareness of being in the presence of unknown psychic phenomenon; with its intense stare it provokes and challenges the dark mistrust, fear and even hatred of 'the other'  lurking asleep, deep within us all. Its a painting which can even stimulate thought in a receptive viewer as to how they personally would react if ever experiencing a close encounter with an alien or extra-terrestrial life-form.

Collectively, Rodulfo’s ‘Night Sea Voyage’ triptych corresponds on a mundane level to the nautical terminology of embarkation, passage and docking in a sea-voyage. Not only is each painting in the triptych artistically realised with seemingly casual, yet in fact consummate brushwork and draughtsmanship but also highlights different facets of Rodulfo’s artistic persona; in his Testing the Water  its the artist's well-disciplined mystical and esoteric inclinations which are given full expression. The persona of the imaginative inventor of bizarre contraptions and hybrid organic and inorganic forms is prominent in Night Passage, while the persona of the witty and jesting commentator is at large in Dry Dock, both of which are discussed in the following commentary. But first, its useful to elaborate upon the symbolic meaning of the 'Night Sea Voyage' itself.

In many accounts of the 'Night Sea Voyage' in world mythology, comparative religion and esoteric literature, the hero travels, often in the belly of a beast or in a vessel (a boat, an ark or casket) across a dark, primordial sea, following the unseen course of the sun after it sets in the west, and later magically reappears in the east.

The night-sea is a boundary which adventurers and heroes are usually reluctant to cross because it is dark and populated with all the monsters that the unconscious can conjure. Night sea voyages of mythology often involve a dragon or a giant fish, such as the Biblical story of Jonah and whale. In any case, those who embark upon the journey undergo a temporary death in anticipation of a rebirth or renewal. The night sea journey is said to take the individual back to their original self, into a sea of possibility and one’s greater and deeper being.

The 'Night Sea Voyage' involves the combination of two dynamic symbols of the unknown, namely, night and the sea. The sea remains a sometimes hostile, not totally explored and wild aspect of nature; its also one of the few expanses of total darkness left in urban lives. To go into the night is to return to a state of indeterminacy and to intermingle with nightmares, monsters and ‘black thoughts’. Night is a potent image of the unconscious and in the darkness of sleep the unconscious psyche is set free. Night is associated with danger and with the fear of the unknown, not least because darkness obstructs sight, a major sensory organ. Night-time is also associated with vulnerability and human physical survival, as well as dreams and the unexpected. Like all symbols, night contains near inexhaustible meanings.

The  starry night-sky has been described as the world’s oldest picture-book. An understanding of  the constellations of the night sky until relatively recent times, was essential to navigate seas and oceans in order to arrive at one's chosen destination. The reason why the night-sky is a picture-book crowded with stories representing the myths of gods and animals in its constellations is explained by C.G.Jung thus-

As we all know, science began with the stars, and mankind discovered in the dominants of the unconscious, the "gods", as well as the curious psychological qualities of the zodiac: a complete projected theory of human character. Astrology is a primordial experience similar to alchemy. Such projections repeat themselves whenever man tries to explore an empty darkness and involuntary fills it with living form.  [5]

According to the psychologist C.G. Jung the hero returns from the night sea-journey in better shape for the tasks of life. The night sea journey is a kind of descensus ad inferos -a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond this world, beyond consciousness, hence an immersion in the unconscious. [6] The importance of the moon as the ruling luminary of night and the significance of night is defined by C.G. Jung this-

Luna is really the mother of the sun, which means, psychologically, that the unconscious is pregnant with consciousness and gives birth to it. It is night, which is older than day.  [7]

Because it occurs during the night, its not so much the seeing and sighting of exotic lands or the viewing of weird creatures as much as hearing disturbing sounds such as the squeak and gibber of departed souls, or the cries and calls of luring sirens and unknown monsters on islands sailed past when on the Night Sea voyage. Strange sounds blown on the wind, sometimes heard across vast distances upon the open sea as mere whispers, at other times in deafening volume; in particular, when freak acoustics occur, heard sailing past cliff and rock formations, caves, eddies and whirl-pools, inducing fear, trembling and wonder in the sailor’s imagination.

Rodulfo’s Night Passage (80 x 100 cm) was begun in 2012 and completed in late 2015. In a silvery-blue moonlight, a Night Sea voyage is in full motion. The viewer is taken aboard an extraordinary form of transport, a hybrid combination of ferry, air-bus and taxi which abounds with organic and bizarre mechanical forms with some very curious travelling passengers, including an octopus and a giant shrimp. On its pod-like floor there's frozen, protozoan fossils. Large, grinning skates hover upon its ceiling vault. A pair of  late-night lovers can be seen in a wing-mirror. Night Passage exudes an unusual atmosphere, one which paradoxically floats somewhere between every-day commuting and a futuristic fantasy.

In  the third in sequence of Rodulfo’s 'Night Sea Voyage’ triptych, the night sea voyage  is high and dry, quite literally. In a humorous variation upon the ‘Ship of Fools’ allegory which originates from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato's The Republic (Book 6) where the allegory of a ship with a dysfunctional crew is discussed in relationship to government, Rodulfo's Dry Dock (51 x 76 cm) is a scene based upon the nautical dilemma of going aground.  A tattered and rusty ship is beached on dry land. An unconcerned atmosphere of 'Crisis, what crisis?’ pervades its crew members who carry on with their various preoccupations irregardless. But whether they're waiting for a rare, exceptional high tide in order to float and set sail once more, or simply carrying on with life, irregardless of setting sail once more, is not known. In the background a ship can be spotted which clearly is afloat, the wind billows its sails. Dry Dock is a painting best enjoyed for its typical Rodulphian humour, without intensely scrutinizing the canvas for any hidden, philosophical 'meanings'.

In conclusion, the night sea journey may be interpreted as none other than the fragile vessel of the psyche successfully navigating the uncharted waters of the unconscious imagination, and, if surviving the perils of the deep, returning to port with new insights and treasures. Rodulfo’s art is one such treasure. With their sophisticated technique, numinous subject-matter,  display of extraordinary imagination and humour, Peter Rodulfo’s Testing the Water and Night Passage are exemplary of the aesthetics of North Sea magical realism and significant navigational buoys which confirm the art-movement as well-worthy of continued admiration and study.

[1] Link to Philip Glass - Saxophone Quartet
[2] Link to Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares
[3] Email correspondence from the artist.
[4] Carl Jung Collected Works Vol. 9 Part 1 Para. 605:
Another translation of the Elegies of Propertius reads - 'Your dread must be the ominous sign of the eight-legged crab'.  Book 4:1: line 150
[5]  Carl Jung C. W. vol 14 para. 346
[6] CW 16 par. 455
[7] CW 14 : 219

 In Memorium of a Hawthorn and Redwood tree, long seen and enjoyed from my flat's window and now no more.