4th October - 10th November 2007

Opening: 4th October 2007

Alan Gouk:
The Ulysses Series


paintings 1970 - 1993

paintings 1994 - present

new work


Alan Gouk: The Ulysses Series

An essay by Mel Gooding

Forethought, Fantasia, Afterthought

I   Preamble

To begin by attempting to consider these grandly expressive paintings as in any way illustrative of the text from which they depend would entail inevitable disappointment. In his written notes on the specific moments in the text which have provoked, or prompted, or stimulated, or inspired the individual paintings (and from which I shall freely quote in this essaying) Alan Gouk allows us a glimpse - no more - of that part of the creative process of which he may claim some awareness: he tells us something, but not much. How much could he? If Joyce’s great book has a clear thematic relation - of a very special, and very complex sort - to the epic that gave him a structural model - of a very special, and very complex sort - then it is discernible in its likeness in kind to the original: it is a mythic poem-novel of an heroic voyage; it is a verbal masterpiece of epic dimension. It is a complete and coherent, episodic, whole. A painting, however, is a painting, it is a unique object; a series of paintings is a group of discrete objects. What then, in the specific case of Gouk’s ‘Ulysses series’, is the connection of painting - image-object - to text?

I speak of ‘image-object’ in order to emphasise that we are considering a relationship that is more than of image to word.  Even an image which is abstract (in the sense of being strictly non-representational) may have discernible symbolic correspondences to aspects of a written text or to ideas that may find literary - even mythic - expression: think of Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five (1947) or Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51) or, more aptly for that matter, Newman’s Ulysses (1952). In the example of the Pollock, of course, the title is fanciful, suggested by the finished work, though conferring the title ineluctably establishes connection; with the Newman paintings, the titles are an expression of thematic and allusive intention (in the case of Ulysses, self-referential), and of heroic moral and spiritual ambitions for the paintings themselves. In each of these cases, image (what we see and register as the import of the work) and form (scale, shape, manner, colour, texture etc.) are one: the former is realised in the latter.

This much is also true of Gouk’s paintings; their physical objecthood as paintings is crucial to their meaning; image is form, form is image. They are also strictly abstract, staying closely within the bounds of what is exclusive to ‘modernist painting’. In this respect they conform to the orthodoxy of Greenberg’s retroactively prescriptive specification for ‘modernism’: ‘Each art had to determine, through operations peculiar to itself, the effects peculiar and exclusive to itself.’  Gouk himself quotes a phrase from Braque: ‘The “Ulysses” series, whilst taking inspiration from a literary source, is principally concerned with “the construction of pictorial fact”’. The difference between the ‘Ulysses paintings’ and earlier series with variations, according to Gouk, is that their inspirational source has prompted ‘a greater diversity of method, attack and image’ in the construction of pictorial facts.     

But in the case of these paintings there is a declared thematic intention that relates directly to the novel as novel and as a modern myth, there are titles that refer to specific episodes, narrative and stylistic, in the text, and an unfinished serial sequencing, with some episodes attracting several versions. We are witness to work in progress. A dynamic interaction with this open-ended series as such is invited, one which might involve our knowledge and activated memory of the literary masterwork and its diverse components, perhaps even re-reading.  The constraints of such an interaction are in no way de rigeur: it is perfectly possible to enjoy and admire these paintings, individually and on their own terms, without reference to anything in the original classical myth-poem or in Ulysses the novel, or to the city in which it is set (a city which, incidentally, has strong personal associations for the painter).   

Gouk understandably looks to the incomparable Braque as an exemplary mentor, for, as he indicates, Braque was deeply aware of the ways in which literary and mythic texts and ideas might find realisation in visual images, at levels beyond simple illustration, allusion or analogy. His late great Atelier paintings of 1949-55, especially, demonstrate that abstract forms and arbitrary colour will necessarily play their part in the poetics of such painting. There is a certain greater quality that such painting will aspire to, the quality that Braque calls ‘poetry’: ‘Poetry, in its widest sense, is the highest culmination of all art. It is the supreme end of art. Where it is not present, art is nothing, or virtually nothing.’ This ‘poetry’ is something beyond both verbal and visual realisations: it is a property of integrated reception; it is meaning intuited, thought and felt, at which critical utterance can do no more than hint. It is not metaphysical, it is, in its primary manifestation, material: ‘Sensation, revelation’, as Braque succinctly put it.  (What we go on to make of these intimations, in speech or writing, or in other works in the same or other media, is our business, and others are free take it or leave it.)

We may link this insight of a painter to that of the critic who, with Kant in mind, demanded self-definition as the supreme quality of modernist painting. Taking scientific consistency as his model - ‘a problem in physiology is solved in terms of physiology, not those of psychology’ - Greenberg is able to clarify the matter with great economy: ‘… Modernist painting asks that a literary theme be translated into strictly optical, two-dimensional terms before becoming the subject of pictorial art - which means its being translated in such a way that it entirely loses its literary character.’ Such a ‘translation’ is possible, according to Greenberg, only through the intuitive and spontaneous exercise of a self-discipline (analogous to ‘scientific consistency’) by which the painting confines itself to ‘what is given in visual experience, and make no reference to anything given in other orders of experience…’

The ‘poetry’ which is Braque’s ‘highest culmination of all art’ - i.e. ‘revelation’ -  is essentially an abstract property most purely recognised in relations of forms and colours freed of mimetic burden or precise referential device. ‘Let us forget things’, said Braque again, ‘and consider only the relationships between them’  It is an injunction we might apply to all great painting, including that which is fully representational. That abstract quality is (to use the term exactly) an aspect of the work whose expressive relation to anterior experience is no longer directly perceptible, but whose correspondance to the sensuous and intellectual realities of other experiences are most purely, if speechlessly, felt. It occurs in an awareness of colour as sound, word as colour or as sound, temperature as colour or as sound, sound as texture, line as dynamism or rhythm, etc. etc. It occurs as a pre-linguistic response to ‘relationships’ that is necessarily and inviolably personal; it is by no means necessarily immediate, though it must begin in immediacy.

Material form must play its part in this inner intuitive exchange of sense-experience: there can be no music without sound structures, no colour without shapes, no texture without surfaces. Matisse, whose importance to Gouk it would be hard to overestimate, understood the inner significance of abstract relationships as profoundly as did Braque: ‘I had to get away from imitation, even of light. One can provoke light by the invention of flats, as with the harmonies of music. I used colour as a means of expressing my emotion and not as a transcription of nature. I use the simplest colours. I don’t transform them myself, it is the relationships which take charge of them… Nothing prevents composition with a few colours, like music which is built on only seven notes. It is enough to invent signs. When you have a  real feeling for nature, you can create signs which are equivalents to both the artist and the spectator.’  In an alert encounter with painting we are listening, so to speak, for the music, for the poetry immanent to those multifarious ‘relationships between things’: sight and sound; signs.

So what of the question I left, hanging in the air, so to speak, at the end of my opening paragraph? What in the specific case of Gouk’s ‘Ulysses series’, is the connection of painting to text?  The briefest answer is true: it is arbitrary. Gouk has determined for his own reasons to make his complex experiences of Ulysses and its attendant memories, remembrances, associations, its connections to mythic matter of his own life, the stimulus to an imaginative adventure that as freely and loosely parallels that of Telemachus and Ulysses as do the peregrinations Stephen and Bloom as they traverse Dublin on their day-long pedestrian odyssey. To declare himself to have done so is to provoke possibilities of complex response, the associative play of the receiving imagination.

The novel’s own histories and exegeses, and the aesthetics informing its making, interact with those of the paintings even as the paintings conform to the strictures of modernist abstraction. We find poetry, but at no point should we look for illustration: ‘no literalism please’ is Gouk’s own injunction. But a complex response that takes account of the paintings’ titles, and of the announcement of serial episodic correspondences, will involve imaginative construction.  ‘Appearances reach us through the eye’, wrote Leo Steinberg, ‘and the eye - whether we speak with the psychologist or the embryologist - is part of the brain and therefore hopelessly involved in mysterious cerebral operations.’ A response to these paintings that is freely associative may be as valid and revelatory as the reductive illumination of formalistic description.    

II    Perambulations

1 Proteus

Walking on the wilder shores, near to the infinite ocean - essaying forth through time and space. The paintings are no discursus: a series is not time-linear. In the here and now, rather; in the Ineluctable Modality of the Visual. Immediate. Discrete. One thing next another thing: connected but separate. Order not determined. Begin in front of this object-image; move on as and when; go back as and when. Each a pause on the walk. On this tide-line no time-line. ‘Thought through my eyes’: meaning, perhaps, caught; apprehended.  ‘My eyes do not see it: they think it rather than see. These signs I am read and reader: furrows of seawrack, the tide coming in, that rusty boot. Bottlegreen, bluesilver, rust’: simultaneous, discrete, immediate.  Eyes closed: sea sounds, sand sounds: ‘crush crackling wrack and shells’: the ineluctable modus of the audible: time enters into mind, but an audible music here is in the mind, just as the sounds of walking on the tide-wrack of Sandymount Strand find form in words heard within (these heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here). Signatures of all things I am here to read says Stephen: signs! It is enough to invent them.  In the paintings so many: changing shapes picture shape-changing; changing moments (ah! time again!) of vision within and without. Counting the moments like bells. Hard to hold on to before the thing next (in space) provokes sensation, revelation, to illuminate the thing next (in time) to provoke reflection. Each picture in its wholeness also a sign. Signature. Colours twang in diphthong: sea lightgold, bluesilver, sandlemon, orangeyellow: bells. Wind of wild air of seeds of brightness. Wavespeech. Winedark, the sea, the sea. Not green. Full fathom five. I saw a ship a sailing. Silent. For the rest let look who will.    

2  Nestor

Wise words in New York, London and Zennor, and helpful to all who make and who will look. Teachers teach. To learn one must be humble.  Where the old masters in whatever school created an illusion of space into which one could imagine oneself walking, the illusion created by a modernist is one into which one can only look, can travel through only with the eye. These signs I am read and reader. Ineluctable. The eye enters and travels. Scarlet against manyblues, nightblues, dayblues, and winedarkmagenta; not diphthong, discord (not word but music). Push and pull, pure light through a window, blue space beyond! project and recede. The eye travels. Following a path, feet on ground, marking words (Stephen’s word-thoughts rhythm sprung from underfoot: trod again on damp crackling mast, razorshells, squeaking pebbles, that on the unnumbered pebbles beats. Scanned, nature the source of all inspiration. Creation is not a reproduction of observed fact. More than meets the eye. In nature light creates colour. In painting colour creates light.    ‘… the almost tangible illusion of forms in space - out there! before your very eyes!’ Ineluctable. Walking out, following a path, the path of colour, ‘one will bump into others, if only to shake hands with them. I have been shaking hands with Hans Hofmann and Patrick Heron for a good many years now, and have even gotten them to shake hands with one another.’ Changing forms in changing space. Affinities, hommages, friendly meetings. You can change one thing into another with the help of the relations of things: disc, rectangle, window. The eye travels, across, through, beyond; the eye is stopped in its tracks. How many blues? How many magentas? How many yellows? Colour is paint, light is created. Brushwork is spatial: space is created.  Light, colour, space: for the eye. For the mind. For the eye is a part of the mind.

3   Nausicäa

Such blues for luck or love, O so many blues. So strange conjunctions at the moment of making. A Modernist Olympia. Space indeed for the eye to travel in!  Look. I take my hat off to it, this paraphrase. And think - the mind is part of the eye, even (no, especially) the roving eye that alights upon beauty unadorned - of Manet and the declarative stroke that set things off, to much consternation - too much consternation. (Bloom’s stroke similarly shocked.)  Come to mind: AG’s capacious cranium encompassing so many memories of Joyce’s town and mythic sea, of the heaventree of stars, of poet-stars in the firmament of the capital of the nineteenth century, M. Baudelaire, flaneur and voyeur, young master Rimbaud, present at the hatching of his own thought, voyelleur , ‘O bleu’, of the ‘colour sensations’ of the young Master, P. Cézanne, painting one man and his dog,  and a burst of blooms, proxy and analogy perhaps, heady-scented flowers being what they are (and metaphor here, cf. Manet’s more famous beauty and bouquet) but mindful always of P.Heron’s ‘I hate all symbols and love all images’, mind full of so many things (cf. Sa tête est vide’ or, caught in the gaze, full of sweet nothings.) The image, as loved, is here, shares this space, not in the head: in the real world; seen in the eye, the mind’s eye, the mind the eye’s a part of. Even so, Mallarmé, symbolist (also much in mind) knew something: words fail. ‘I say: a flower! … an idea itself and fragrant, the one absent from all bouquets.’ Tingle of the neck hairs, rising to the occasion simultaneous, immediate, the real thing: tableau! Look! Revelation, sensation! anna bloom, blue is the colour of your yellow hair. I love your. I saw your. They feel all that. Open like flowers. Not to be gainsaid nor even said. Look!

4  Ithaca

What parallel courses? Arbitrary! No programme; promptings, suggestions, sparkings off, a kind of conversation, no discursus, a walk and talk, a travelling of eye and mind. Ithaka gave you a marvellous journey. Without her you wouldn’t have set out. Homeric homing. Who speaks? Cavafy speaks for writer, artist and for the rest who will look and listen: ‘I’ve brought to Art desires and sensations, things half-glimpsed faces or lines, certain indistinct memories of unfulfilled love affairs.’ (Mallarméan indeed.) And who knows what, who else encountered, bumped into, on the way? Manner from masters learnt - ‘wealthy from all you’ve gained on the way’. And matter? from eye, ear, memory, heart, mind, soul in wordless concert; in short by exercise of that sympathetic and magical esemplastic power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of  imagination. A whole chapter for a line, a night line, fished for, found. What suggestive phrase? ‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.’ The whole book exists to end in a painting. Poetry! the highest culmination, the supreme end, where it is not, virtually nothing; poetry! - l’expression du sens mystériux de l’existence. What of the aesthetic value of the night time spectacle? Something distilled from the constellations, issu stellaire. Sensation, revelation. Definitely a night-picture. Such nightblues.

Post scriptum

Encountering, in the studio or in the gallery, a series of pictures that have ostensibly, inter-related themes, how do we behave? Opening a catalogue, or a book of reproductions, how do we look? Regardless of the intentions of artist, curator or editor, the impulses, critical or otherwise, of the viewer will be unpredictable. We just will not behave; we will not walk the line. We move from one painting to another often without regard to thematic and curatorial ordering. We go forward and backwards; we spend longer in front of one painting than another. We look from one to another, and back. We ignore some altogether. The same is true of reading a text: every reading will be different, to one degree or another perverse; anticipating, perusing pages forward and back, recapping passages, pausing for thoughts relevant and irrelevant to the matter, being interrupted, losing the place. If this true even where the matter is avowedly linear and logical, how then do we read Ulysses? We do these things as we walk and think, walk and talk: we are mindful of our own concerns and those of our interlocutors. Each turning provokes new thoughts. Conversations follow paths that are unpredictable and revelatory. (See Ulysses, passim.)

 This arbitrary and aleatory pattern of behaviour occurs also when we stop to consider, or contemplate, or meditate on, a single painting. Patrick Heron, a strong presence in this conjunction of book, painter, paintings, writer, writings, liked to think otherwise: ‘I’ve often said that, if we had an electronic device, for measuring the precise movement of the eyeball of any spectator, as he stands before a canvas, we should discover how unarbitrary the movements of the eyes are when confronted by the same painting; we should discover… a remarkable repetitiveness, in statistical terms, between the movements across and across again which the separate colourshapes compel a swivelling retina into making.’ Heron was extraordinarily perceptive about painting, but I don’t believe a word of this. The mind at work is too free to be constrained by this fancied (and I suspect, wished-for) power of colour and design to determine response. It is not mechanical, and the imagination, creative and critical, has its own rules, beyond our knowing.

Mel Gooding        May  2007    

Part I  In this preamble, and throughout, I have used clues and quotations from a brief conversation with Alan Gouk and from the informal notes that the artist supplied as ‘background’ to the Ulysses series. These included quotations and references to (among others) Braque, Heron, Hofmann, Mallarmé and symbolisme, Cézanne, Baudelaire, and various academic commentators. Braque is quoted from his Cahiers (translated by John Richardson and excerpted in the catalogue to the exhibition G.Braque at the Edinburgh Festival, 1956.) Gouk himself cites Braque’s words on the birds in his late paintings from a conversation recorded in Andre Verdet  Braque (Geneva 1956): ‘I saw great birds passing over the lagoons, and from that vision I took aerial forms… Yet I must bury their natural function as birds deep in my memory… so that I can draw closer to my essential preoccupation: the construction of pictorial fact.’ I have quoted from Clement Greenberg’s seminal ‘Modernist Painting’ in Art and Literature 4 (Spring 1965), Matisse’s ‘The Path of Colour’ (1947) (in Jack D. Flam: Matiise on Art (London 1973) and Leo Steinberg’s ‘The Eye is a Part of the Mind’ (in Reflections on Art ed. Susanne K. Langer (New York 1961).
Part II  ‘fantasia n. a musical or other composition not governed by the ordinary rules of form.’ (Chambers Dictionary) Quotes and half-quotes from, references to, among much else: 1 Ulysses by James Joyce, chapter 3; an early draft of the Proteus chapter. 2 Ulysses, chapter 2; Patrick Heron, The Colour of Colour (E. William Doty Lectures, University of Texas at Austin, 1978)  Hans Hofmann, Search for the Real and Other Essays (1948) excerpted in Chipp Theories of Modern Art A Source Book (California 1968); Clement Greenberg op.cit; AG’s notes; Steinberg op. cit. 3 Ulysses chapter chapter 13; AG’s reference (re. the painting Nausicäa) to Cézanne’s early A Modernist Olympia (illustrated in black and white in John Rewald’s The Ordeal of Paul Cézanne, London,1950); Manet’s Olympia; Paul Valery’s poem ‘Olympia’; Rimbaud’s ‘Voyelles’ Mallarmé’s notes on the ‘Book’ (viz: ‘everything in the world exists to end in a book.’); Breton; Braque; Kurt Schwitters’s ‘Anna Blume’. 4 Ulysses chapter 17; C.P. Cavafy’s poems ‘Ithaka’ and ‘I’ve Brought to Art’, from Collected Poems trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (London1998); Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, chapter 14; AG’s notes, inter alia, on Picasso’s ‘Night-fishers at Antibes’ as night-picture; Mallarmé’s ‘Un Coup de Dés’. Etc. etc.
Part III  Heron quoted from ‘Brushwork is Spatial’ (second Doty lecture, 1978)