The Canadian Art Database

Joan M. Vastokas

Archetypal Imagery in the Work of Tony Urquhart

artscanada #178/ 179, May 1973.
[ 4,842 words ]

During the past few years the visual arts have provided cause for concern among artists, critics, and interpreters of socio-cultural trends. Art as such, some say, has disappeared and, to use Jacques Maquet's term, it has 'faded out.' (1)  In its stead, aesthetic experience has become the undifferentiated response of the individual to the multi-dimensional and fragmentary bombardment of the visual and auditory sensations of daily experience.

Arthur Lovejoy has traced the fluctuations in the history of ideas between, on the one hand, a nostalgic longing for a mythical, paradisial, and primitive Human condition with undifferentiated, uncultivated nature as the model of inspiration and, on the other hand, a will to shape the world and the human condition into new forms that have mind and reason as the guiding and governing force. (2)  These two fundamentally divergent views of reality and models for thought and behaviour have shaped cultural history since the rise of civilization in the Near East some 5000 years ago. At present we seem to be experiencing a resurgence of primitivistic consciousness in the arts as well as in other socio-cultural phenomena, a consciousness that rejects materialism and empirical values, and praises those of primitive social forms and direct sensate experience to a degree that has, in some instances, molded a mind without cultural values, without external standards, and without any desire to create 'things.' (3) 

But there appear also countervailing tendencies, more recent than those cited by Maquet, which are perhaps too obscure at the moment to be clearly detected and described. The interpretation that follows, therefore, may be partly amiss and the product of hopeful projection, but it attempts to instance and document a decided shift towards a conscious and a latent search for meaning, for myth, for a return to man's beginnings, and an urge for creation.

The countervailing trend is evident in a growing number of artists whose works reveal new concerns and a latent iconography centered upon metaphysical phenomena and upon imagery of worldwide, eternal, and archetypal significance. These are all anti-empirical, anti-naturalistic, tendencies and they parallel the ideology behind the growth of Symbolism in European art at the end of the nineteenth century; and then as now, they give evidence of a longing for some meaning behind the chaotic, sensate world of appearances, of a desire to comprehend and render visible the hidden order and meaning of the universe.

At this moment, therefore, we may be entering a new phase, a new state of awareness in which a positive desire for life is becoming evident, a will to create a new order, a new reality, a new cosmology. Like Cézanne, we are once again standing in the face of a new reality, and, like Gauguin, some of us once again ask the elemental questions, 'Whence do we come? What are we? Where are we Going?'

It is these questions which lie at the heart of the recent work of Tony Urquhart. An iconographic interpretation of his most recent work gives evidence for the acknowledgement of art, of order, and of the will to create. The intrinsic meaning of his work, as I hope to show, is metaphysical and is a manifestation of an emergent search for order and meaning.

Beginning as a painter of more or less representational landscapes such as Primavera, 1957, (4)  and Near Wyckerson Side Road II, 1963, (5)  Tony Urquhart has, for the past seven years, been concentrating upon the production of his spatially conceived 'boxes'. Urquhart's first box was exhibited in 1965, a tiny 4' x 5' construction called the Decadent Cube. As Dorothy Cameron has pointed out, its opening was just a mere 'maddening' slit, but it was, nevertheless, 'the first box to directly indicate an interior.' (6)  She interpreted his later Box with Six Landscape Shards, 1970, as a metaphor for the destruction of natural landscape and as 'the philosophic core of Urquhart's art.' (7)  For Urquhart, however, three-dimensional form permitted the outward projection of his inner vision, of his imaginary landscape constructs; he insisted that 'Every object I have ever made was just naturally meant to be painted' (8)  and continues to think of himself as a landscape painter. (9) 

Urquhart's image of himself as a landscapist clearly poses a riddle, an important one which might provide the key to an understanding of his enigmatic boxes. In this connection, it might be worthwhile to recall George Woodcock's recent observation that the landscape will always be a matrix for the creative consciousncss of Canadian artists, even if they deliberately turn away from the representation of visible nature. (10)  In fact, Urquhart's boxes should still be read as landscapes, but as landscapes of an entirely new and unprecedented sort. They are certainly not the familiar, pictorial views of a specific scene on a two-dimensional surface. Nor should they be interpreted as here, three-dimensional equivalents of some fantastic setting. These boxes are not geographical landscapes at all, neither real nor imagined. They are instead landscapes of the mind, of mental patterns and processes: they are constructions that render the more fundamental, enigmatic, and mysterious aspects of the human environment, an environment consisting of space and time, being and becoming, as well as the more readily perceived reality of material form. Urquhart's boxes, then, embody responses of the mind to metaphysical questions rather than responses of the eye to empirical nature.

Since the world of appearance is no longer the most immediate source of inspiration for Urquhart's creations, the boxes have broken the bonds of unilinear time and space and of directly perceived form. They embody, instead, a conception of the world in which the dimensions of form, space, and time are fused, mixed, and blended into a new order, a new reality.

For Urquhart, the boxes provide a mechanism for self-realization. He enjoys making them, he says, because in doing so he creates a world of his own, a new order over which he has total and absolute control. Viewers of the boxes might be encouraged to open, close, and play with the variable positions of the hinged doors, but these variations are not infinite and are subject to predetermined limitations established by Urquhart. He would refuse, he says, (11)  to consider wiring his boxes for light and sound because then his creations would no longer be self-sufficient. They would, in effect, lose their integrity and become exposed to unpredictable external forces: somebody might pull out the plug. The boxes, then, are self-contained cosmological systems, 'little worlds', (12)  to use the artist's own phrase, over which he exercises absolute authority.

Urquhart's conception of himself as the creator of miniature worlds is in essence archetypal. The construction of any architectonic form, it has been shown, is analogous in meaning to the creation of the universe itself. It is not without relevance, for example, that in Medieval iconography God is sometimes represented in Genesis scenes as an architect with compass in hand, sketching out his plan of the world. So also in the case of Urquhart's boxes: they are creations out of chaos that define a sacred place, a sanctuary. 'Every creation has a paradigmatic model — the creation of the universe by the gods,' (13)  says Eliade, and the construction of a temple, in particular, establishes order at the center of the world.

Urquhart's interest in the ecclesiastical architecture of Medieval Ireland, of Baroque and Rococo Bavaria, and his obsession with such architectonic paraphernalia of Christian ritual as icons, reliquaries, triptychs, coffins, and mortuary monuments has already been noted. (14)  The fact that sacred architecture, cemeteries, and mortuary structures serve as major sources of inspiration is most significant and serves to reinforce the interpretation of his recent boxes as interdimensional, cosmological landscapes replete with specific archetypal imagery. Urquhart continues in these preoccupations, visiting, sketching, and taking innumerable photographs of French and Spanish graveyards.

The single, most recurrent motif of his recent works, one that serves as the opening key to his imagery, is the ubiquitous hole or aperture. It appears in Urquhart's boxes under several guises, as a simple, two-dimensional circle, as a doughnut-shaped ring in low-relief or in the round, as a decorative rosette, and, most importantly, as an actual opening into an enclosed and secret interior. The last instance is seen most clearly as a circular opening in the 'floor' of Temple III, 1972-73, an orifice leading into a dark, enclosed space, an opening surrounded by a porcelain-white ring at the base of a sacred structure. It also appears on the side wall of the vertically-conceived and folding French Doors, 1973. In both examples, a pendant at the end of a long wire swings tentatively above or in front of the opening. In Urquhart's most recent box entitled Arcachon Flat, 1973, the plastic surface is pierced by seven variously sized orifices. None of these have a bottom, for the irresistible urge to explore these openings is frustrated by the discovery that they continue still further into the secret depths of the box.

Temple III relates most directly to the ink drawing, Annecy #3, 1971, which portrays the gable overhang of a French grave. The motif of a pendant swinging precariously over a perfectly geometrical, round opening into the earth derives from two sources, sources that at first may seem incongruous. The first is an actual small hole in a cemetery plot; the second is a toilet bowl beneath a tall window and a pendant handle at the end of a long chain. Both of these have been sketched and photographed by Urquhart. It is clear that these images have been fused into a single synchronic whole in Temple III.

Arcachon Flat is also mortuary in inspiration, deriving from a fusion of this recurrent image of a hole into the earth with a French graveyard construction. The intermediary between the latter and the final box is the pen and ink drawing Arcachon Flat #2. Other drawings, such as the La Chute series, 1972, repeat the artist's preoccupations with holes, circles, wreaths, and openings.

The subconscious, archetypal significance of the hole for Urquhart is illustrated by his explanation of it in Annecy #3 as having 'just appeared,' (15)  an appearance doubtless preconditioned by the mysterious depression in the graveyard. This is in keeping with the archetypal pattern, for the holy place, the spot, the centre, is never 'chosen' by man; instead, the sacred place reveals itself to him as something special and unique. (16)  That this hole in the ground has had a significant impact on Urquhart is evident in the numerous ramifications it has had in his work since its first 'discovery'.

The multiplicity of ideas and images brought into association in Temple III — that is, between sacred structure, a mortuary monument, a toilet bowl with a pendant flushing device, and a perforation leading into the bowels of the earth — are not arbitrary nor without coherence and meaning. In fact, they form a complex, archetypal whole, a world-view that occurs again and again in the symbolism of sacred architecture.

In many societies architecture and mortuary monuments serve not only in a functional capacity to house, shelter, and contain, but also as highly charged symbolic structures, as microcosmic pictures of the world, as landscapes of the universe. The ziggurats of the ancient Near East signified the Cosmic Mountain, the many-layered Mayan temples embodied the various levels of the Mayan universe, the Javanese temple of Borobudur is equivalent in design to the Buddhist tantric image of the 'mandala', an abstract pattern of concentric forms portraying the stages taken by the soul on its journey to ultimate enlightenment at the Centre.

In these symbolic systems, the separate dimensions of space and time could be transcended by specially trained and initiated religious practitioners, seers, or diviners. Barriers could be crossed magically, either through the religious ecstasy of the shamanic experience or by the performance of stringently prescribed ritual rules. In architectural contexts, transcendence was often mysteriously attained by the practitioner's communication with the underworld through an aperture in the roof, in the floor, or, sometimes, through the walls. Among the natives of the Northwest Coast of America, the dead had to be removed from their dwellings through a spirit-hole knocked into the side-wall of a house. Among these same groups, initiated performers of secret dancing societies sometimes climbed a pole through a hole in the roof to achieve communion with the spirits of the upper world, and sometimes they disappeared through a concealed hole in the floor to visit with the ghosts of the dead living in the underworld. (17)  Among the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest, the first humans, as well as the Kachina spirits, emerged from the underworld through the 'sipapu', a mysterious hole in the floor of the sacred, underground 'kiva'. (18) 

The motif of the circle or the hole appears in several forms in Urquhart's Fourteen Rings, 1971, a black, funereal container, at the apex of which eight bone-like rings are suspended to define a horizontal passageway or a skeletal tunnel. Two circles are repeated at both ends of the box in low relief, continuing the horizontal passage outward, beyond the confines of the container, with four additional circles painted at the front of the 'box' on each side of two opaque, white plastic flanges. In the dark, secret interior of this haunting construction numerous woolen and thread-like fibres are suspended, evocative filaments suggestive of a private, secret, and most delicate interior. But the manner in which this tomb-like vessel opens is equally meaningful, in the pattern of movement the opening creates and the shapes into which the box is thereby transformed. It literally unfolds into a wing-shaped configuration like the Nike of Samothrace, its white flanges spreading and developing outward into surrounding space. The outward-spreading form of this box, this 'little world', is like the unfolding of the universe in the process of creation and becoming. As in so many mythologies, the cosmos is born from a creative center and spreads out from that central point. (19) 

The interiors of several other Urquhart boxes are suggestive of the interior of the womb and, if we maintain the analogy of the boxes as sacred architecture, we are reminded of the Pueblo Indian myth of creation. The Zuni Pueblo, for instance, conceive the creation of man as an emergence from the deepest of the four subterranean wombs of the Earth. There men had lived 'like larvae...a grumbling throng, moaning and reviling each other in the dark.' Their progression toward earth and toward light through the 'sipapu' of the Kiva is homologous, according to Eliade, with the emergence of mind and of consciousness, (20)  and parallels, in that respect, the Navaho Genesis myth which describes the laborious emergence of man from the bowels of the earth toward the surface of the soil and thence into the light. (21) 

Containers that open to reveal some hidden meaning, a secret, or a new side of reality, serve as mechanical metaphors in the art of many different cultures. Among the Haidas of British Columbia, for instance, manipulation of the hinged and moveable parts of certain masks permits the transformation of an outwardly obvious image into an ambiguous form replete with multi-dimensional, mythological significance. A hawk mask splits open and miraculously unfolds to reveal a human face. This transformation mask in particular signifies and narrates the creation of men from animals, a genesis myth most fully documented among the Bella Coola.

The hole or the crevice in the earth is almost universally the dwelling-place for the spirits of the dead, as well as the birth-canal for the emergence of the first men. The graveyard, then, is not only the place where the ancestors lie, but also a sacred enclosure where they may be contacted. Members of a Bolivian Indian tribe, for example, go back to the cradle of their ancestors when they feel the need to renew their energy and vitality. (22)  Urquhart's continued fascination for the cemeteries of Mediterranean Europe might be related to this widespread primal urge, to what the mythographer Eliade has called a kind of 'cosmobiological experience' which roots mankind in mystical solidarity with his place of origin. (23) 

Nor is it without significance that Urquhart whimsically suggested 'Oracle' as an alternate title for the French Doors, (24)  a suggestion that would verify and reveal the archetypal depths of his inspiration. The sacred center of Greek civilization had been the Delphic Oracle located in the adytum, the innermost room and 'Holy of Holies' in the Temple of Apollo. The adytum also housed a statue of Apollo and the stone regarded as the navel or the centre of the earth. Beneath this inner sanctum was a cave in which flowed a sacred spring and the prophetess of Apollo would sit on her tripod over a cleft, listening for messages from the ghosts of ancestors in the underworld. (25)  The Oracle of Trophonios at Labadeia also contained a narrow opening or slit in the earth into which the message-seeker descended, apparently at the risk of his life. (26)  Urquhart's boxes, however, even more directly call to mind another Grecian construct, one that has a long history in European iconography — the notorious Pandora's Box. This Grecian box, however, was originally an earthenware jar, used in the storage of wine and oil, but large enough to contain and bury the dead. (27)  Like Urquhart's boxes, then, Pandora's box had its source in mortuary symbolism. In fact, in its most ancient form, the mythological jar or box served as a symbol for the underworld, (28)  a container of evil spirits and the souls of the dead. In Pandora's box, then, we find an archetypal significance related to the concerns of Urquhart's imagery — his landscapes, boxes, holes, enclosures, cemeteries, mortuary monuments, and sacred architecture. When opening an Urquhart box, are we revealing the underworld? Is Urquhart, in his preoccupation with the dead, their graves, with pictures of ancestors incorporated into his works, seeking an oracle, a message from the ancestors, and, like a seer, probing for answers to the enigma of reality, for models of inspiration for his new worlds? Or is the artist returning to the roots of man, to the earth, in order to seek rebirth for himself, for civilization, for art? In an ancient Greek ritual of the dead, the Anthesteria, the storage jars were opened and the ghosts of the dead were symbolically let loose in the world to feast and to visit with descendants. But the dead also served as a source of counsel:

...from time to time new emergencies arise, the like of which we have never seen, and they frighten us. If the Old Men [of the Tribe] fail us, we must go to those older still, go to our great ancestors...the Chthonian people, lying in their sacred tombs, and ask them to give an oracle. (29) 

Gilbert Murray's description of the meaning of the Greek oracle enlarges our perspective of Urquhart's obsession with graveyards, with the paraphernalia of funerary ritual, with wreaths, and with revelatory, opening and closing containers. It also provides insight into his concern for decay, death, destruction, and rot as part of the cycle of death and rebirth, so common in mythological systems, where death gives way to life, where graves are also the source of growth and regeneration, both an ending and a beginning. Insofar as the grave is the passage to the ancestors, is it not also the temple and the oracle?

There are yet two other major themes in Urquhart's iconographic system: the creation of the world and the motif of the enclosed garden. In one of his most impressive 'boxes', the Garden of Earthly Delights, 1972, Urquhart attains a compendium of multiple layers of significance. Moreover, this work represents a synthesis of the artist's stylistic and iconographic development during the past ten years.

The Garden of Earthly Delights stands some three feet in height, inclusive of its rectangular base. Closed, the 'box' itself is perfectly rectangular, with rocklike formations rendered in heavy impasto at each corner, suggestive of a mortuary chapel. The exterior surfaces of the box are luxurious in effect, particularly in the treatment of the side-walls. On one of the panels, the surface is rendered as an isolated, two-dimensional painting. The swelling shape of the dominant motif evokes a living turgid mass, an organism replete with variegated and multi-coloured veins. This shape is no inert mass, but a living organism capable of growth, development, expansion, and explosion. It is simultaneously a bud, an embryo, a tumour, and a bomb. In form and meaning, therefore, these side panels on the Garden of Earthly Delights recall some of Urquhart's earlier, two-dimensional landscapes. Both Brown Allegory, 1961, and In Hiding, 1961 anticipate this portion of Urquhart's recent masterpiece.

In pursuing the significance of the image of a swelling, embryonic mass, we are first of all reminded of the latent symbolism of creation, birth, death, and rebirth already discussed in the artist's iconography. Urquhart himself has commented upon the dangerous and cancerous quality of his earlier landscapes. (30)  In examining this motif in the Brown Allegory, In Hiding, and the side panels of the Garden of Earthly Delights, we realize that we are once again face to face with an archetype. Urquhart credits the source of his inspiration to Goya's etching of a giant sitting on the edge of the world. But the evocative quality of this image — the brooding, latent mass — is most powerfully expressed by William Blake in the first lines of his Book of Urizen:

Lo, a shadow of horror is risen
In Eternity! Unknown, unprolific,
Self-clos'd, all-repelling: what demon
Hath form'd this abominable void,
This soul-shudd'ring vacuum? Some said
'It is Urizen.' But unknown, abstracted,
Brooding, secret, the dark power hid.

The archetype involved is the genesis of the cosmos out of chaos. In Hebrew tradition, for example, the creation of the world begins with an embryo and 'as the embryo proceeds from its navel onwards, so God began to create the world from its navel onwards and from there it was spread out in different directions.' (31)  The original 'Lump' (32)  grows outward and, like a cell dividing, the creation of the world and of Urquhart's boxes is a differentiation of form from an original, primordial, and uniform mass.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is opened by unhooking a tiny brass latch on the front panel and then by pulling the white porcelain knobs on the segmented sections. The box gradually unfolds to reveal a most unexpected and contrasting interior. The stable, centre-rear wall as well as the inside walls of the moving 'doors' are uniformly covered in a matte, olive-green fabric, while the floor of the box is laid with an opaque white plastic. The ubiquitous circle appears again, this time as a greenish-black ring on the floor and as a white ring at the center of the rear panel. An undulating and diaphanous tunnel constructed of wire and fragments of cloth connects these two rings to form the dominant motif.

The striking contrast between the imagery on the exterior surfaces of the box and that within is essentially between a flat, undifferentiated, organic form and a three-dimensional, variegated, and architectonic structure. Opening the box signifies breaking the veil of surface appearance, going beyond empirical reality, and seeing the hidden order of the universe and its promise of transcendence and rebirth, witnessing the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. (33)  The swelling, formless and potent masses on the exterior panels give way to structured archetypal imagination and to a most specific order. The Garden of Earthly Delights, therefore, incorporates two stages of creation and betokens, through its central motif, the deep structure of reality. For the hole in the floor, as seen earlier, is our opening to the underworld and to our ancestors, the hole on the rear wall is our path to the sky and ultimate transcendence. This is the secret of the box, the hidden promise of the Garden.

But the Garden is not all promise; it is also the enigmatic and dubious Garden of Earthly Delights, an enclosed and an enchanted landscape. The Garden, too, is the earthly counterpart of the heavenly Paradise, located, as the biblical Garden of Eden, at the center of the world. (34)  It is essentially a garden of innocence, an untouched landscape which is, nevertheless, susceptible to corruption and can transform into a garden of love. (35)  It is within this latter tradition that Urquhart's Garden of Earthly Delights must also be viewed.

The title of the box reveals its most obvious connection with the famous triptych of the same name by Hieronymus Bosch. The parallels between Urquhart's box and Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, painted at the turn of the sixteenth century, are impressive both in format and in iconography. The two exterior panels of Bosch's triptych represent, when closed, the Creation of the World, a meaning also attributed to the exterior of Urquhart's box. In Bosch too we are shown the primeval landscape of the earth in the process of differentiation on the third day of creation, a landscape that is enclosed within a transparent, crystalline sphere. Opened, however, the triptych reveals the Earthly Paradise on the left panel, Hell on the right, and the Garden of Earthly and Sensual Delights in the centre. In the middle ground of this central panel, teeming with figures and packed with symbolic detail, is depicted the Fountain of Youth rendered as a perfectly round, geometrical orifice above which hovers a spherical 'Fountain of Adultery.' (36)  The combination here of a spheroid form suspended over a hole in the earth is too specifically reminiscent of the archetypal motif in Urquhart's Temple III, French Doors and Annecy #3 to be easily overlooked. It is evident that Bosch, like Goya, Blake, and Urquhart, 'does not rest content with pictorial and literary tradition, or with his own imagination, but, anticipating psychoanalysis, uses the whole acuity of his penetrating mind to draw from his memory and experience dream symbols that are valid for all mankind.' (37) 

Two other recent boxes by Urquhart should not be overlooked. Temple I, 1970, is Urquhart's most elegant and sophisticated creation thus far. The integration between the box and its base is now complete, and the two become a visual unit; the box itself, polished and brilliant of surface, stands majestically enthroned. The doors of Temple I open to reveal a surprisingly rich but dark and crystalline interior. Although variegated in texture, the exterior of this box and the striking contrast with its interior recalls an earlier Urquhart box entitled Promise, 1970. Both boxes achieve the same magical effect; their pale, brilliant exteriors disclose an inky blackness that appears to hide the secret of the universe, a void that is an oracle. By opening the doors we become the oracle-seekers, straining our minds and ears for a message from another world.

The most powerful and most unique box constructed to date, however, is Black Piece, 1971. The box itself has become minimal, however, reduced to a pair of doors that, opening, reveal very little 'enclosed' space. The work is dominated instead by a swelling white mass rising vertically from the container that appears to have burst open. In effect, the process of differentiation has advanced yet another stage, from painting (In Hiding and Calm), to space that is enclosed (Temple I, Temple III), to an interior that contains (Garden of Earthly Delights), to a force that has exploded beyond the confines of its boundaries (Black Piece). This work may signal another direction in Urquhart's development: the potent, pulsating mass of his earlier landscapes has grown so large, so powerful, that it has broken its confining planes to seek a new equilibrium.

The foregoing overview of Urquhart's development and the interpretation of his boxes as microcosmic oracles leads to some final comments on his role as an artist and the function and meaning of his boxes as works of art. As an artist Urquhart has reinstated, for himself at least, the role of the artist as a visionary seer, one who transcends the limits of perceptual knowledge. What Northrop Frye has said of William Blake has present applicability: 'Visionaries, artists, prophets and martyrs all live as though an apocalypse were around the corner, and without this sense of a potentially imminent crisis, imagination loses most of its driving power.' (38) 

As works of art, Urquhart's boxes operate like the miniature Chinese gardens. The little landscapes are 'a world apart, a world in miniature, which the scholar set up in his house in order to partake in its concentrated mystical forces, in order, through meditation, to re-establish harmony with the world.' (39)  His boxes also contain the archetypal symbols of universal order and process and share in common the themes of creation, transformation, and transcendence. And, finally, they reveal the interchangeability between the various dimensions of reality — between past and present, between inside and outside, between here and beyond, between upper and lower, between seen and unseen, between being and becoming.

artscanada #178/ 179, May 1973.

Text: © Joan M. Vastokas. All rights reserved.

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