Joan M. Vastokas
Worlds Apart: The Symbolic Landscapes of Tony Urquhart
London Regional Art Gallery, April 29 - June 19, 1988
Art Gallery of Windsor, July 16 - August 28, 1988 (Organiser)
Art Gallery of Hamilton, September 11 - October 23, 1988
Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, December 8, 1988 - January 29, 1989
Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, February 19 - April 12, 1989
from the catalogue
[ 23,898 words ]
Introduction: The Critical Context
Three decades have passed since Tony Urquhart's first one-man show in 1956 at the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto. Regarded in those early years as something of a 'child prodigy' (Harper 1966: 399), he rose to early critical fame first as a painter and after 1965 as a sculptor. During the 1960's Urquhart was linked with some of the major developments in contemporary Canadian art: with the Toronto-based group of 'second generation' Abstract Expressionists centred on the Isaacs Gallery (Lord 1974:207) and with the noted London group which also included Jack Chambers and Greg Curnoe (Reid 1973:303).
In spite of his acknowledged role in the emergence of Canada's contemporary art scene, Urquhart has received less critical attention so far than many of his contemporaries, a fact which merits attention. A recent survey of contemporary art in Canada, which describes his sculpture as decidedly 'eccentric' in comparison with the mainstream of the 1960's and 1970's (Burnett and Schiff 1983:153), provides a clue to the reason for this critical neglect.
In contrast to the strictly formalist concerns of most Canadian sculptors of those decades, their preoccupation with simplified structural and monumental shapes, Urquhart's modestly scaled and articulated 'boxes' implied an entirely distinctive conception of form. Above all, it was the implication of meaning, of latent symbolic messages conveyed by his enigmatic forms that set Urquhart's work apart from the formalist mainstream of that period. His mysterious, evocative, and shape-shifting boxes, for example, did not fit easily the expectations of an era dominated by the pervasive critical theory of New York's Clement Greenberg. For Greenberg and his adherents, any kind of reference external to the physical work of art itself — whether representational, symbolic, or sociological — was entirely irrelevant to the object as an art form. The essence of visual art, the supreme expression of which to Greenberg was painting, lay in technique and pictorial surface qualities. What mattered was what went on within the frame - its internal relationships of colour, line, shape, lightness and darkness, depth and plane - to the exclusion of anything else. Those Canadians who worked in accord with or under the direct influence of Greenberg's aesthetic ideals, as in the case of Jack Bush, were viewed as part of the abstractionist 'mainstream' and therefore most worthy of formalist critical attention and acclaim. In formalist terms, Urquhart's work, with its intimations of significance beyond the limits of the frame, was decidedly inexplicable. Hints of critical change came in the 1970's. Urquhart's work was the subject of three studies. Significantly, the authors were not the 'mainstream' professional critics, but came from many fields assembled by artscanada magazine in the late 1960's and 1970's: philosophers, art historians, geographers, anthropologists, linguists, and even artists. To these writers the artistic process was not a hot-house phenomenon, but an expression of life and linked with the entire world of culture: art related to myth, literature, religion, philosophy, science, society, and politics. In a special artscanada issue on 'The Sacred in Art', Dorothy Cameron first perceived the significance of Urquhart's boxes, which she interpreted as 'little worlds' packed with visual metaphors of being and becoming, of organic as well as material growth, decay, and regeneration (Cameron 1971). A later interpretation (Vastokas 1973) expanded upon these metaphysical themes, drew cross-cultural parallels, and noted Urquhart's tendency to create archetypal images of a cosmological and metaphysical character. The last major attempt at understanding Urquhart's complex formal imagery was in 1978 by the philosopher Monika Langer. She cites Maurice Merleau-Ponty's observations on the sources of meaning as located 'on the hither side of discursive thought', in what many would more simply call the 'unconscious'. Langer sees this pre-reflective realm as the imaginative matrix from which Urquhart's creations are born. Langer's articulation of Urquhart's process of image-creation helps explain why he has sometimes been counted within the tradition of Surrealism.
In the late 1970's and 1980's the arts again took a new direction, and again placed Urquhart outside the 'mainstream'. Much of contemporary Canadian art has returned to representational subject matter and to referential meaning. In form, content, and function, much of today's art is in many ways a revival of the didactic social realism which characterized the 1930's: representations of 'ordinary' people at work or play, political and social messages, critiques of established power structures, whether bureaucratic, patriarchal, or militarist. Visual artists are clearly responding to the dilemmas of our age and a new 'school' of criticism, as influential today as Greenberg's was earlier, has emerged to support their work. It is a critical context in which Urquhart's place remains enigmatic.
Significant changes have occurred in the visual arts in the late 1970's and 1980's. The bland term Post-Modernism has been coined to designate the return to erstwhile aesthetic forms and values: to painting, to representation, to meaningful content. No single 'style' prevails and pluralism reigns. Formalism has been thrown out vehemently by many critics who have enshrined again the primacy of content. A variety of new critical directions have emerged. Most dominant perspectives are those of Marxism, the 'semiology' of Roland Barthes, and the 'critical theory' of the Frankfurt School of sociology, which includes such notables as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse. What emerges in the wake of these theorists might be described as a 'collectivist' view of the creative process in which neither the artist nor the work of art matters as much as the particular social or ethnic context in which the artist is set. It is from the communal group that creativity is seen to be derived; the artist works as a member of that community, for which he would 'labour' anonymously given an 'ideal' social state of affairs. Art is seen to have a social and political reformist function and the notions of 'quality', 'uniqueness', and 'individualism' are rejected as 'elitist', 'bourgeois', and 'capitalist'. Critics inclined to this view of the artistic process place their interpretive emphasis upon art in relation to political, economic, technological, and sociological factors. For many, 'all art is collectively produced' and the individual artist is 'dead' (Wolff 1984: 118). This essentially Marxist position of human creativity holds that 'freedom' of choice for the artist is severely constrained. From both Marxist and behaviourist perspectives, then, the artist is not a self-generating 'creator' but one who responds, almost passively, to psycho-biological, economic, political, and sociological influences. This critical perspective is itself, however, a product of its time, itself a reaction to the earlier dominance of formalism, and brought about to a very large extent by the impact of even earlier sociological and anthropological currents of the 1930's, 1940's, and 1950's. The 'times', however, are changing once again. And, even while mainstream socialist art and criticism are at their peak in the 1980's, there are indications from a variety of sources - cultural anthropology most particularly - of a countervailing interpretation of cultural process that would reassert the centrality of individual artists and their works and the priority of ideas within cultural systems. And it is in the context of these presently latent critical horizons that we can best approach and locate the work of Tony Urquhart.
An interpretive critique of Urquhart's work is clearly still required, so that his place in the spectrum of contemporary Canadian art and culture may be more clearly perceived and his work more deservedly appreciated. And, since criticism itself is in a state of flux, it is necessary that critics state clearly the premises upon which their interpretations are constructed and their evaluations made. Given the nature of current debate in critical theory, these should reveal the critic's concept of art and its role within cultural systems, the location of the individual artist in society, as well as any particular stance or bias that may condition the critic's perception of the artist and his work.
To that end, it should be noted that the present interpretation is as much an anthropological critique of Urquhart's work as it is an essay in the exploration of his iconography. It aims not only to examine the works themselves but to come to some understanding of the meaning of Urquhart's work in the context of contemporary life and cultural tradition. It is in the area of meaning as much as of form that Urquhart's contribution to contemporary Canadian art resides. It is an anthropological tenet not in the least threatening to an artist's autonomy that the artistic process is not divorced from life as it is actually lived in society and the world at large, or privately, in the individual mind. Urquhart's work is seen here to flow both from personal experience as well as from the cultural ambience, as it is sifted, highlighted, fused and transformed in the creative imagination where symbolic meaning is born and nourished.
The author's particular bias however may be described as 'radical humanism' a position that does not square with current preoccupation. It seems that every so often in art criticism, as in society as a whole, there is a need to reaffirm the identity and role of the individual against the anonymous and homogeneous collectivity. Art is both produced and experienced by individuals, not by groups or collectives. No one has stated this more emphatically or with greater authority - than Canadian musician Glenn Gould, who went so far as to reject public performance in concert halls in favour of private electronic recordings, because, for him, 'the line of productivity and creation' runs directly from individual to individual (Payzant 1984:56). And in this one-to-one encounter between an individual and a particular work, the work evokes in the observer a range of intellectual and emotional responses, which are triggered by both the content and the form of the work. Individual response to Urquhart's, as to any other artist's work, will vary according to personal and cultural background. It is the critic's task, however, to aim for a valid interpretation and assessment that rests upon the visual evidence of the works themselves, on what the artist says he is doing, and on the relationship of his works to others both contemporary and past.
To assert the importance of the individual artist and the centrality of the art work as mediator in the equation between artist and viewer need not be read as a 'bourgeois' stance, but as a cultural and biological given. Art and the artist in any society must be interpreted within the cultural context. Social, economic, and political factors do indeed condition the artistic process at all stages. Sociologists of the so-called Frankfurt School who inaugurated the concepts 'mass society' and 'culture industry' have shown most emphatically that the arts and individual artists have been negatively conditioned by mass market forces, by a kind of economic totalitarianism. Much work that is seen in galleries and the mass media today is in the form of commodities produced not out of aesthetic conviction but for their 'selling chances'. However, the Frankfurt group did not entirely negate the freedom and individuality of the artist. For Adorno especially, individuals may choose to reject the market and thus create authentic, 'autonomous' art: great artists are recognized as those who have 'the capacity to transform a particular, individual experience...into a universal statement' (Held 1980:77-109).
Economic forces, then, do not inevitably determine an artist's work, because there are other factors operative in aesthetic as well as cultural creation. 'Symbolic Anthropologists', as the philosopher Ernst Cassirer and Immanuel Kant before him, maintain that priority must be given to the realm of ideas - to philosophy, language, myth, literature, and art - because the essence of mankind derives not from politics, social structure, or the mode of subsistence, but in the capacity for symbolization. Therein lies our essential humanity. Culture is most fundamentally a system of shared symbols and meanings, which are objectified in language, myth, ritual, literature, and art. But neither does this realm of ideas determine artistic expression. Furthermore, culture itself is creative: its symbols are continually invented and reinvented with every single instance of usage by the individual (Wagner 1981:51).
It is in this context of art and culture as symbolic systems in process that we must place the work of Tony Urquhart. At the start, it is necessary to recognize two tenets of symbolic process and interpretation. First, that form and content are inseparable; meaning resides not only in recognizable images, as the Holy Spirit does in the white dove, but in the formal configurations and qualities of expression of the work as a visible, material object. Secondly, meaning is not always consciously intended by the artist and can arise, as Langer has suggested for Urquhart, from some 'pre-reflective' unconscious realm. The dichotomy between explicit and tacit meaning requires that we rely not only on what a people say they mean, but on what they actually do in any given situation. The recognition of individual 'intentional' meanings and 'implicational' meanings at the cultural level is vital to the interpretation of art in any culture. For it is often erroneously assumed that if an artist has said nothing specific about what he meant in his work, then its meaning is forever inaccessible.
For the most part, Urquhart communicates unconsciously, in visual symbols resistant to verbal translation. We cannot ask the artist for the hidden messages in his work. His self-conscious preoccupation in the creative process is primarily with technique, materials, and the physical properties of form, with the sheer pleasure of making things. For Urquhart, art is only secondarily a product of ideas. The primary process is the bringing into being of physical forms, the creation of unique objects that have a life and existence of their own. His view of art-making is akin to that proposed by philosopher Etienne Gilson who wrote that 'artistic activity consists in making things.' Painting for Gilson as it is for Urquhart is essentially a handicraft:
The meaning of Urquhart's works must be sought in the intrinsic qualities of the objects themselves as symbolic expressions.
Interpretation of visual forms without the aid of an artist's 'commentary' is not only possible but often desirable, since meaning resides in the reality of the work itself, not in words, not in texts. As a symbolic language unto itself, visual art is not dependent on the mediation of language. Line, contour, shape, mass, strucure, orientation, height depth void, and transparency are metaphors; they can stand for something else, specific meanings dependent upon the historical and cultural context of the beholder. In Mediaeval Europe, 'light' was equated with Divinity, visual beauty was linked with qualities of 'luminosity', 'brightness', and clarity. Whatever visual characteristic partook of these qualities was valued in aesthetic expression. Gleaming gold, shiny fabrics, and precious glittering stones were commonly employed in Mediaeval liturgical art. So too the principle of height throughout the history of mankind has stood for the visualization of 'higher' powers (Simson 1956:50-51; Gombrich 1963:165). Such metaphorical associations depend upon the principle of 'likeness' and analogy between form and idea. These meanings are not fixed; they are not intrinsic to the visual quality but relative to the value placed on it by a particular historical or cultural setting. At the same time, because of the physiological basis of many metaphorical associations such as cold, warmth, lightness, darkness, and so on, continuities can exist cross-culturally and through time, especially when the visual metaphors pertain to common human themes.
The specific visual motifs and themes in Urquhart's iconographic system elude rigid classification and evade clear-cut categories of verbal description. In Urquhart's work, we are dealing with metaphors and symbols that rarely have a single specific reference but a range or cluster of related associations. Viewer response to each symbolic motif in a work by Urquhart takes the pattern, more accurately, of an unconscious 'network' of emotional and mental associations. This 'network' of meaning is built upon visual analogies experienced by the viewer himself in life, literature, or other forms of visual art. These associations are rarely realized consciously by viewer or critic in an initial encounter with the work, or even a series of works, by the artist. The associational complexities of Urquhart's visual imagery require reflection and contemplation before a 'translation' is possible into the linear logic of conscious verbalization.
Tony Urquhart cannot be narrowly defined as either a painter or a sculptor, an abstractionist or a representational artist. For him these categories are meaningless. They fail to describe adequately the 'life of forms' in Urquhart's visual imagination. He constructs his works in a variety of media and dimensions, not the least important of which are his innumerable sketches and drawings. Some works may be described as pictorial or sculptural in the customary sense, but other 'paintings' are executed in relief and the variously shaped and contoured surfaces of his sculpture are often painted with abstract or representational forms. The use of collage - photographs, newspapers, and various substances - adds an additional 'layer' of reality to the already multi-dimensional compositions. Form and substance are put in the service of a visual imagination and mode of expression that is more precisely described as 'poetic'.
The poetic imagination is distinct from self-conscious discursive thought, which proceeds sequentially along one plane at a time. Stemming from somewhere on the 'edge of consciousness' (Maritain 1955:67), the poetic mind is given to multivalent and simultaneous conceptions, to metaphoric and symbolic association, and to archetypal themes and patterns. When objectified in works of art, it is immediately distinguishable from technical virtuosity and can be easily recognized for its visionary distinctiveness of formal expression. Whether in poetry or the visual arts, both the form and content that flow from poetic thought have characteristics uncommon in more prosaic expressions. More than in narrative discourse or representational art, form and content are inextricably fused. They are, in fact, identical. Urquhart provides an exemplary illustration of this synthesis between object and idea. Meaning is constituted to a large extent in the form of his works, in line, contour, mass, shape, structure, solids, voids, surfaces, depths. All of these have symbolic value in the context of his compositions.
As in the poetry of Dante, Blake, and Coleridge, Urquhart's content centres upon universal themes of human and cosmic existence, life, death, the promise of renewal and transcendence; chaos, order, and transformation in the universe. The poetic imagination is akin in many ways to religious experience that invests reality — both biologic and cosmic as well as artifactual — with emotionally charged and sacred meanings. Particular landscapes, places, and objects are perceived as especially numinous and serve as the focal points for artistic expression.
Urquhart's works from 1956 to the present form a coherent iconographic and visual system in spite of their apparent formal variety. Whether oils or watercolours, sketches or finished works, static sculpture, floor pieces, or movable boxes, whether miniature or monumental in scale, they are all objectifications of an internally consistent, but unconscious 'pool' of structural and spatial as well as vegetal and artifactual images. This stock of imagery derives ultimately from Urquhart's experience of the external world - both as child and adult - and is fed continually by frequent pilgrimages to 'special' places in Western Europe. Most of these visits are to locales and structures hallowed in the tradition of Catholic Christianity: the ecclesiastical buildings of Mediaeval Ireland and of Baroque and Rococo Bavaria; reliquaries, icons, monstrances, and triptychs in the French Gothic cathedrals with their retables; and pilgrimage spots at Lourdes and Rocamadour in France. Of all such hallowed places, Urquhart is drawn most to graveyards of northern Spain and southernmost France, where he has photographed and sketched their endless variety of tomb-structures, sculptures, vegetation, and floral memorials in various stages of decay.
Other landscapes and objects singled out by Urquhart, however, are often mundane, without explicit religious significance: containers and enclosures, walled and caged gardens, fountains and gazebos, modest domestic façades, doorways, and fish-traps. Certain landscapes and geographical features bear a special fascination for the artist. The ambience of Rocamadour or a stream gushing from a hillside cliff at the source of the River Loue in France, a hole in the ground at a French cemetery or the rocky outcrop of the Shield along a highway in eastern Ontario, equally inspire a sustained fascination in the artist's imagination.
Once transformed in the unconscious realm of his poetic imagination, Urquhart's works objectify these personal experiences. In the works of art what the artist has individually perceived is made universally relevant and meaningful. The profound impact the works exert upon the receptive viewer is accomplished by the formal means used by the artist and by the associational magnetism of archetypal themes and motifs of universal human significance.
The formal methods employed by Urquhart recall those which literary critics have designated 'as the most centrally poetic of all stylistic devices': image, metaphor, symbol (Weliek and Warren 1942: 145); ambiguity (Empson 1957); and archetype (Bodkin 1958). These devices are compounded in Urquhart's compositions by visual, material, and structural techniques that signify transition, transformation and revelation. A key to Urquhart's interpretation, therefore, is an understanding of the dynamics of metaphor, perhaps the dominant process in visual communication, whereby specific meanings are associated in the viewer's intellectual and emotional responses to the visual qualities of the works themselves.
To look at Urquhart's works in a cross-cultural and comparative perspective, is to see their essentially metaphysical, cosmological, and eschatological meanings: the fundamental and eternal questions of being and becoming, cosmic order, and human destiny. Moreover, Urquhart's image constructions and the personal significance invested in them find their parallels in artistic traditions throughout the world, especially in sacred forms of art and architecture.
The catalogue and the exhibition it accompanies is intended, therefore, as a reassessment and interpretation of the work of Tony Urquhart, an artist whose unparalleled visual imagination requires somewhat unconventional critical methods. The tional forms of art and architecture in both Western and non-Western cultures. The recurrent visual motifs and themes in Urquhart's work, in the context of tradition, lead to directions unforeseen, demonstrated that his imagery links up with what critic Maud Bodkin has termed our 'collective heritage':
As observed often before, works of art having enduring value - whether painting, poetry, or music - transcend the limits of period 'style' by having condensed in themselves, archetypal themes and images from the full span of human history. In this perspective, the visual arts from prehistory to the present exist simultaneously in a kind of 'eternal present', a universal symbolic tradition and a continual source of inspiration. It has been said that 'good art can only be realized when a creative individual encounters a living tradition with deep tendrils in communal life' (Fuller 1983:36-37).
And it is at times of cultural stress and crisis that this pool of symbolic forms is tapped. A 'return' to the past and to traditional myth and religion is interpreted by social scientists as a reaction to 'dangerous times', whether the danger be war, famine, epidemic, or rapid technological and social change. The fourteenth century was such a time in Western Europe as was the late nineteenth century and the 1960's in the modern period. In each instance, contemporary values were questioned and, in the search for alternatives, inspiration was sought either in the immediate past or in alien cultural sources.
Thus, Italian artists of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries found cultural renewal in classical antiquity and Neo-platonic symbolism, and the Post-Impressionists, Cubists, and Expressionists at the turn of the twentieth century looked to Polynesian, African, Oriental, and European folk art for inspiration. In non-Western cultures the process of stress and response is the same: the 'return' to traditional art and shamanist religious iconography has been noted for Arctic prehistoric Dorset and seventeenth century Iroquoian art as well as contemporary native expression. The result - whether fifteenth century Italian or twentieth century native - is interpreted as a 'renewal', a 'renaissance' of culture.
Search for Meaning: The Cultural Context
Works of art in any culture or period are produced under the conditioning factors of three levels or 'domains': the personal life experiences of the artist; his cultural ambience, or 'context', as the anthropologist would say; and universally human concerns which transcend both personality and culture and speak to all of humankind through archetypal symbols and meanings. Consciously or unconsciously, and depending on circumstances, each artist either chooses or is impelled to express himself in terms of one or more of these various domains, Tony Urquhart appears to have been inspired at all three levels, the personal, the cultural, and the universal.
Acknowledged by culture historians as an era of revolutionary change in the West, the 1960's inaugurated a demand for new forms of aesthetic expression and experience. The apparent empty formalism of much post-war abstractionism and the sinister bureaucratic sterility of Bauhaus-inspired architecture and design yielded to a demand for art and architecture responsive to the new political, social, and cultural realities of the nuclear age. In a world that had lost its bearings and was afloat without direction in uncharted seas, artists could no longer remain aloof, isolated and preoccupied with 'pure' form and with art only for the sake of art. Especially after 1970, art had to say, do, or mean something relevant. A large number of contemporary artists took up the challenge of cultural relevance by immersion in social, political, and feminist issues.
Like their nineteenth century Realist and 1930's Social Realist forebears, many chose the critical route as their response to cultural stress and crisis. Others succumbed to the expediency of the present, to what critic Suzi Gablik terms the 'culture of consumerism', producing works to satisfy the 'market', a system controlled by a 'managerial elite of dealers and curators', one in which the artist has lost autonomy (Gablik 1984:57,63).
But Tony Urquhart must be counted among those who have resisted conformity to either the current phase of cultural criticism or to the pressures of the marketplace. From 1956 to 1986 he has produced a body of work with formal and iconographic coherence and integrity, all the while remaining politely independent and firmly individualistic. His works are equally a response to our 'dangerous times'. But the issues addressed in Urquhart's imagery are not immediately social or political in reference, but metaphysical, contemplative, and spiritual. In an era of 'fear and trembling' - to use Soren Kierkegaard's phrase - Urquhart deals with the mystery of existence itself, with death and life, and uses iconic motifs and themes that signify a 'return' to myth, to tradition, and to 'the sacred'.
In his return to myth and to intimations of the sacred, Urquhart has been in the vanguard since approximately 1960 of a scattered but growing number of artists who have responded to the spiritual crisis of industrialized society. The desacralization of the universe - through the dominance of the scientific perspective, the relative ease of subsistence for most members of Western consumer society for whom the Unknown is no longer deemed important, and the consequent disintegration of traditional Judaeo-Christian and other forms of orthodoxy - has resulted in the loss of any transcendent sense of purpose or meaning in human existence. Aesthetic response to this spiritual vacuum has taken various routes. In Italy since 1980, for example, several related groups of painters have returned to classical myth and to selections from past Renaissance, Neoclassical, and even Cubist styles to communicate their reaction 'to a darkening world situation' (Heartney 1986:91). The Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman (1905-1970), however, represents what is likely the earliest authentic and autonomous 'return' among post-war modernists to traditional Judaeo-Christian content. Even though he employed an extremely reductive mode of abstraction, the meaning of his works centred intentionally upon Old and New Testament themes, from Genesis to the Passion of Christ. The personal crisis of Newman's 'blackest years of neglect and despair, of his heart attack and confrontation with death' is cited as the basis for his eight year long preoccupation with themes of life, death, and resurrection in such works as his Stations of the Cross, 1958-1966, and Resurrection, 1961 (Hess 1978:202).
In some cases, however, may be noted a self-conscious and somewhat suspicious incorporation of obvious Christian religious themes. The immediate success in the 1980's of American painter Julian Schnabel, for example, is attributed to an inexplicable intrusion of religious subject matter' (Gablik 1984:89): St. Francis in Ecstasy, Christ on the Cross, and even a 'portrait' of God. So too the use of religious symbolism by German Neo-Expressionists. The sincerity and authenticity of these self-conscious references to orthodox Christianity is questioned because they are perceived as unfelt and possibly market-oriented: 'Not embedded in enduring beliefs or practices, locked out from any ultimate meaning, symbols can only float, gargantuan and occluded, through the spiritual vacuum created by our culture, emancipated from all conviction' (Gablik 1984:92). Unconvincing, too, is the unconnected and artificial incorporation by many contemporary artists of native North American shamanic themes and motifs. Their search for meaningful aesthetic alternatives in the adoption of materials, forms, and iconography from native culture is reminiscent of early twentieth century 'primitivism'. In fact, the fascination for shamanic art and religion by the art world of the 1970's signifies a resurgence of that primitivism, a response that is eminently characteristic of cultures in crisis.
Convincing or not, these developments are clearly symptomatic of the quest for a re-sanctification of the world and, through art, a renewal of meaning. The varied characteristics of this 'recovery of the sacred' in the 1970s and 1980s was anticipated by historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, whose written works were profoundly influential in effecting this resurgence among artists. 'In a period of religious crisis,' he wrote, 'one cannot anticipate the creative, and, as such, probably unrecognizable, answers to such a crisis...one cannot predict the expressions of a potentially new experience of the sacred.' He merely hoped 'that what may be called a 'new humanism' will be engendered by a confrontation of modern Western man with unknown or less familiar worlds of meaning' (Eliade 1969: Preface). In other words, an authentically created 'religious' art is unpredictable. It cannot be self-consciously summoned-up on demand but must emerge spontaneously from an imaginative unconscious which has absorbed meaningful personal experience, integrated, and adapted it to new cultural requirements, Urquhart's imagery answers this call, for it is not consciously imposed and derives from genuinely unconscious sources, initially grounded in personal experience. His work is dominated by motifs of numinous visual power, which he often describes as having 'just appeared', many of them from 'way out in left field'. The fact that these recurrent and haunting images imitate no others among his colleagues, nor any of the art objects that have directly inspired him, demonstrates the authenticity and profundity of Urquhart's visual imagination.
Landscape into Art: The Biographical Context
The biography of an artist has greatest critical value when the course of his production is traced in the context of those personal experiences that have played an aesthetically formative role. Relevant factors are not always easily determined and an important part of any critic's task is to single out those significant factors from incidental life history. In the case of Tony Urquhart, the dominant biographical factors appear to have been those of place, space, and objects of art more than those of persons and events.
Anthony Morse Urquhart was born on April 9, 1934, in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where he lived with parents and brother in his grandparents' house until 1959-1960. Urquhart acknowledges the strong influence of his grandmother Morse who had landscaped and maintained on the downtown property a large half-acre garden brimming with flowers and vegetables and complete with small wood and two ponds. He attributes his primary interest in landscape both to her early influence and to the fact that he did not attend the Ontario College of Art, where figure drawing ranked high in the curriculum. Instead, from 1954 to 1958 he commuted to Buffalo where he studied at the Albright School of Art and received a B.F.A. in 1958 from the University of Buffalo. There his earliest influences were derived largely from American Abstract Expressionism, which he adapted to landscape themes. From these beginnings to the present day, Urquhart has always considered himself a landscape painter, even though he works in both two and three dimensional formats and has produced the bulk of his work in forms uncharacteristic of conventional landscape. While landscape is often interpreted as a characteristically Canadian genre, it is a significant facet of Urquhart's expression that specifically Canadian locales are extremely rare as reference sources for works after 1960.
By the time Urquhart graduated in 1958, he had already had two one-man shows at the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto, the first in 1956 and the second in 1957. He attributes his early success to the fact that his Abstract Expressionist mode was new for Toronto and, as a Canadian, he was perceived in those days as being in the vanguard of modernism.
Urquhart's development as an artist divides into several distinct 'periods' one phase giving way to another largely as a consequence of encounters with remarkable landscapes, places, and traditional art objects rather than influences from fellow-artists or trends in the contemporary art scene. Living in Niagara Falls, and later in London and Kitchener-Waterloo, meant that he has been separated from sustained contact with a major art center. This may account in part for the independence of his work from the formative influences normally brought to bear upon artists by constant exposure to numerous peers as well as to the 'culture' of the metropolitan gallery scene. Although Urquhart's is not a case of solitude, his physical separation from Toronto has likely played an important role in his maintaining the kind of independence necessary to create genuinely autonomous art.
PHASE I: 1954-1959
From about 1954 to 1959, Urquhart painted landscapes in oil and watercolour in a quasi-representational mode, some more characteristically Abstract Expressionist than others. Rarely did these describe specific locations. Most often they dealt with the theme of seasonal transformations of nature, not as a peaceful cyclical yielding one to the next, but sometimes in terms denoting a life-death struggle in which no one season seems to win. The Battle of Autumn and Winter, 1957; Transition of the Seasons Autumn into Winter, 1958; Spring, 1958. Yet the theme of Spring as a 'return to life' is clearly given positive formal values through warmth and lightness of colour as well as delicate brushwork evocative of thriving vegetal growth: Primavera, 1957; The Earth Returns to Life, 1958.
Urquhart's first trip to Europe from the summer of 1959 to the spring of 1960 was instrumental in setting his work on a radically different course from that of classical Abstract Expressionism. In Europe he was exposed for the first time to the experience of an 'other' reality, not only to the cultural richness and depth of Europe but particularly also to the aesthetic culture of European Catholicism. For a young protestant Canadian from small town Ontario, this encounter with the forbidden and mysterious ritualism of alien 'papists' was effectively an encounter with the sacred and with transcendence as manifest in aesthetic form. 'I was knocked off my feet,' Urquhart has said, particularly of his visits to Gothic Cathedrals. These he saw in the dramatic context of the Mass, during which the space, light, sounds, and forms of the whole overwhelmed his imagination.
This aesthetic experience was simultaneously a visual and spiritual 'shock', which, in retrospect, can only be described as an 'aesthetic conversion' somewhat in the sense outlined by Rudolf Otto (1958) for religious experience. Urquhart's attitude to reality - to landscape and form - could never be the same again, for form and space were inextricably fused thereafter with powerful hidden meanings. As Otto has suggested, a 'sense of the sacred' and all it implies - qualities of the 'holy', numinous, awesomeness, mystery, sublimity, otherness, ineffability, power, dread, fascination - is especially communicable in architectural space and structure (Otto 1958:65). Above all the visual arts, architecture is best equipped formally to transmit qualities of spiritual power, since it creates a total symbolic and emotionally charged environment which involves the multivalent effects not only of structure and space but also those of lightness and darkness, sound and silence. The dominant aesthetic impulse for Urquhart after his European experience was essentially architectural rather than pictorial. Implications of mass, space, and structure rather than line, colour, and surface became the formal preoccupations of Urquhart's subsequent development.
But on this trip, Urquhart was also impressed by Goya's drawings in the Prado, the painted caves of the Upper Palaeolithic notably Altamira in Spain, and Stonehenge in England. The 'hiddenness' of Upper Paleolithic images within the innermost recesses of the cave struck Urquhart's imagination, as did the huge masses of stone protruding from the Salisbury Plain at Stonehenge. Interior painted surfaces and exterior spaces defined by solid mass were meaningful formal contraries experienced at these prehistoric sites that came to play an important role in Urquhart's visual imagination for years afterward.
PHASE II: 1960-1963
The works produced immediately after his first trip to Europe marked the beginning of a second, somewhat Surrealist phase, datable between 1960 and 1963, during which time he spent as artist-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario. This period is characterized by the appearance in many of his landscapes of an enigmatic 'lump' configuration, variously described as 'menacing', 'cancerous', and 'explosive'. Set in a landscape, indicated sometimes only by the suggestion of a horizon line, these 'lumps' often completely fill the frame, threatening to burst like an overripe puff-ball: Lump, 1961; Brown Allegory, 1961; In Hiding, 1961; Calm, 1962. To this day, Urquhart is unable to explain the source of this, to him, still surprising image.
During this period he continued to paint other generically representational 'landscapes', a large number executed in a tondo rather than a rectangular format: Near High Summer, 1963; Near Wyckerson Side Road, II, 1963; Beyond, 1963.
Although Urquhart has always considered himself a landscape painter and claims to be uninterested in the figure, the human image is not neglected. In fact, it plays a significant role in a number of works produced between 1961 and 1965. In each of a series of five small tondos entitled The Forgotten Man Series, 1961, for example, is included a photo collage of heads representing the Hero, Artist, Explorer, Statesman, and Politician. And, in another series of Icons with arch-shaped frames, figures cut from photographs are set in a variety of landscape and garden settings: The Kollwitz Icon, 1963 ; The Hallelujah Icon, 1963. The Urquhart Icon, 1963 is, in fact, a 'self-portrait' since it contains his own image cut from a black and white negative. An eerie effect is created as a consequence of the tone-reversal and transparent quality of the negative. In this work, Urquhart presents himself almost as a spirit or ghost, a 'shadow' in the immediate foreground of the composition, half-in and half-out of the picture-frame. Another dreamlike image of himself as a kind of shadowy 'soul-bird' is presented in Self-Portrait as a Large Bird, 1965. In this remarkably hypnotic little painting, Urquhart's head is highlighted against a somewhat menacing mass of semi-transparent wings. Additionally, a number of watercolours and ink drawings made during this period reveal an extensive preoccupation with the human image, not as a likeness, but as an evocative symbol of deeper meaning: The Oakdale's Reunion, 1961; Small Boy Saint, 1962.
PHASE III: 1964-1967
After his second European trip in 1963-64, Urquhart stopped painting on canvas entirely, not to begin again until early 1980. The summer of 1964 until the spring of 1967 was a period of intense creativity, when he experimented with a variety of three dimensional and relief constructions in mixed media. The 'lump' motif, for example, was transformed into three dimensions. In 1965-1966 these culminated in Nostalgia Toys (now destroyed), a series of rotating masses suspended on fish line and hung in three-foot diameter cages. These three dimensional lumps signified an ontological reversal of the painted versions. Small landscapes incorporating photographic collage were now painted on the lumps. The lumps were no longer located in an illusionistic landscape: they became the matrix for landscape; they became little worlds apart. This formal re-arrangement negated traditional Renaissance space even more radically than did the Cubists or Abstract Expressionists who continued to address the flat surface of the canvas. In Urquhart's Nostalgia Toys, surface was negated and landscape was removed from the physiological perspective of the human eye and transferred to the imaginative realm of mental experience. The works signified a switch from empirical to ideational visual knowledge.
Free play in the rendering of imaginative rather than perceived landscape is evident in yet another uniquely ambiguous image of this period, The Great Pillar Landscape, 1964. This watercolour is a reversal visually and conceptually of numerous pen and ink sketches of rocky landscapes that are cleft vertically, for example, in the Study for 'In Admiration of Courbet', 1979.
During this period, too, Urquhart constructed a number of free standing 'monuments' in various media and of considerable scale. The Two Hills, 1966; Tall Mountain Box, 1966; Sea-Like, 1966; and Broken, 1967, are particularly worthy of note. The first pair are rectangular and vertical in orientation and have irregular 'rocky' tops like mountains; they are suggestive simultaneously of mountains and gravestones. The second pair is shaped like 'donuts', to use Urquhart's own description. This 'donut' motif 'just came to me', says Urquhart, although he suggests it may have derived from the tondo landscapes of the early 1960s. While titled differently, the 'donuts' represent a circle and hole construction in which the pristine geometric form is interrupted at the top by an irregular break or gash, evocative of any or all of decay, fire-damage, or destructive impact.
The abstract, hard geometry of many forms in these years is occasionally contrasted by the amorphous 'spongy' organicism of such works as Germinating Head, 1964, which gives the impression of plant-like growth emanating from a body in decay, at the same time 'rotting and germinating' says Urquhart. The enigmatic, somewhat horrific forms of these years, suggestive of death, decay, and destruction, follow immediately upon his first visits in Europe to nineteenth century French cemeteries.
It was during this period also that Urquhart began keeping his 'Idea Books', which he has continued more or less uninterruptedly to the present day. Not precisely a diary, since dates are not regularly indicated, the notebooks include 'things to remember': quick sketches of things seen as well as ideas for new works, notes on materials and colour, addresses, recipes, notes and sketches of works by European masters seen in Museums, quotations, railway tickets, wine labels, fortune cookie messages, and schedules. This mélange of material provides considerable documentary evidence for the formulation of Urquhart's ideas as they develop over the years and insight into the workings of his visual imagination.
A significant development in this period was the construction of the Decadent Cube, (1965), a small 4 by 5 inch 'box' painted richly on all six sides. Urquhart refers to these paintings as landscapes, but they are as abstract as any Kandinsky or Delaunay of around 1912. On one face is a long slit, opening to the interior of the box. It has been aptly described by Dorothy Cameron as 'maddening' (1971:42), too dark for the eye and too narrow for the hand to probe its secret interior. This tiny cube marked the first appearance of what was to become a major genre in Urquhart's subsequent development, his now famous 'boxes'.
PHASE IV: 1968-1972
In 1967 Urquhart took up a teaching post in the Department of Fine Art at the University of Western Ontario in London where he remained until the spring of 1972. From May to August of 1967 he undertook his third European trip, this time to Ireland, southern Germany and Austria as well as France. In Ireland he visited Early Christian and Mediaeval sites, cemeteries, churches, and monasteries. Particular note was taken of Bavarian Baroque and Rococo churches, Irish high crosses, and French ecclesiastical art including diptychs, reliquaries, and retables.
The first movable boxes were constructed in 1967; inspired directly by the revelatory retables Urquhart had seen in France. From about 1968 to 1972, he concentrated largely on boxes, experimenting with the new dimensions of formal expression made available by breaking into the cube. Urquhart's visual imagination was liberated and found new possibilities for the concrete manifestation of his ideas.
The box took on myriad shapes and configurations. By cutting and moulding the cube into various two and three dimensional shapes and masses, and by use of hinges and knobs, the principle of transformation was introduced. The transforming box, with its revelation of secret interiors formerly concealed, came to serve as a visual mechanism for the denotation of meaning, obscure though it seemed. Boxes were sometimes built as solid masses, or they assumed the character of airy and transparent cages. New materials were also introduced, plexiglass, for example, which permitted endless visual permutations for the effect of, and metaphorical associations implied in, the visual quality of transparency (see Along the Road, 1975).
Among the most remarkable in form and evocative impact during these years were the boxes Rocamadour I, 1970; Temple I, 1970; Box With Six Landscape Shards, 1970; Fourteen Rings, 1971; Black Piece, 1971 and The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1972. These masterworks of visual creativity have the power to conjure up a wide range of metaphorical associations in the mind of the receptive viewer. Boxes of this period are particularly rich in symbolic messages. They have been described as 'self-contained cosmological systems' and compared in their structural characteristics and meaning with Pandora's mythical box and with miniature Chinese gardens (Vastokas 1973:44). The relatively small scale of the boxes, intended for viewing in private residences rather than public spaces, befits their symbolic and functional association with the tray landscape; designed originally for purposes of spiritual reflection. Described by Eliade as 'worlds apart', these little gardens with their mountains, caves, flowers, and houses, symbolized the cosmos in microcosm and were s. Their contemplation by viewers signifies, in part, a sharing with the artist in a vision of that separate and harmonious whole.
Urquhart himself interprets the boxes as landscapes, but they are now landscapes generated by mental experience rather than observation. In his 'Idea Book' of 1967, Urquhart recorded a statement by Goya, which he no doubt found relevant to his own attitude to landscape:
Urquhart's boxes, then, are landscapes created in the imagination of the artist. In Goya's terms, they are 'inventions' which incorporate elements of particular landscape features but in combination with other remembered images of church and mortuary art and architecture. It is with the opening box format, Dorothy Cameron suggests, that Urquhart 'has taken up a position to be reckoned with in world art' (Cameron 1971:47).
As well as free standing boxes, Urquhart experimented, during this period with works in relief for the wall. Tondo and rectangular shapes with surfaces that 'erupt' or 'germinate', as in White Tondo Germinating, 1968 and Germinating Objects, 1968 continue the theme of mysterious growth from inanimate objects. The traditionally uniform surface of the painted rectangle is also broken up, by cutting it in two and by constructing the separate shapes in low relief. His Large Diptych, 1968 and Two-Panel Painting About Filling, 1968, for example, reveal further growth and development of the earlier mountain motif. In these instances, a V-shape pattern suggesting a mountain valley appears and becomes yet another recurrent image in Urquhart's iconography.
From 1970 onwards, Urquhart has travelled to Europe at least once a year, even though most visits are only two to three weeks in duration. He has described these sojourns as vital, giving him 'more access to subject matter'. Clearly he has not found meaning and inspiration in everyday, immediate surroundings and, like a pilgrim in search of salvation or 'perhaps a vision of ultimate truth', has sought contact with the sanctified objects and numinous places of traditional Europe.
Part of the meaning of Urquhart's work surely resides in the fact that it is not the contemporary North American cultural ambience, but European tradition, which provides his chief inspiration. This attraction to the sacred arts and architecture of pre-industrial and pre-colonial Europe signifies not only flight from contemporary chaos, but as well a major reversal in Canadian consciousness. Landscape painting in Canada had evolved between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries away from imported European perceptions towards an increasingly internalized Canadian viewpoint. And now, in the case of Urquhart, we find a Canadian rejecting untamed wilderness and seeking aesthetic and spiritual nourishment in the mythologized landscapes and places of pre-colonial Europe.
PHASE V: 1973-1976
In 1972, Urquhart moved from London to the University of Waterloo in Kitchener-Waterloo, after which he constructed fewer boxes. Watercolours and drawings had been produced consistently from the beginning, primarily as preparatory sketches for three dimensional and relief works: Idea Drawing for Fourteen Rings, 1971; Log Drawing for Fourteen Rings, 1971; Working Drawing for White Floor Piece, 1978; Seven Studies for Doors, 1977. But around 1971, drawing became a dominant feature of expression. Not only were more numerous drawings executed in this period, as in the case of his innumerable 'fantasy boxes' - Butterfly Pallet, 1971; In Admiration of Bosch, 1983; U.S. 94 Series, I and V, 1975; Box Fantasy: Trun, 1975; Box Fantasy: Prairie I, 1973 - but drawings also became ends in themselves. Finished works appeared sometimes singly but more often in series of up to ten drawings: La Chute I-V, 1972; Les Nasses I-IV, 1974; The Seventh Landscape I-X, 1974. In the drawings of this and later periods, it is fair to say that Urquhart is unsurpassed among contemporary artists for quality of execution and imaginativeness of form and meaning. In this writer's opinion, Urquhart's drawings find their match only among the Old Masters in quality, exclusive of none. More than this, few are a match for Urquhart's visual creativity. The drawings of William Blake, which come closest to those of Urquhart in scope and power of imagery, are executed more naively and without the varied nuances of technique of which Urquhart is capable.
The finished drawings produced in these and later years were generated in the same manner as the boxes, based upon visits, photographs, and sketches of nineteenth century French tombs. They are not straightforward representations of the outward appearance of those remarkably varied constructions with their protective walls and enclosing surrounds, their sculpture, urns, and wreaths. Like the boxes, the drawings are 'inventions' composed to communicate hidden patterns and meanings. Within the compositions appear surprising and recurrent motifs and structural patterns, some of which are seen in earlier works. Their persistence is a further indication that certain motifs have a haunting grip upon Urquhart's imagination and tend to erupt repeatedly from the depths of his unconscious. The production of drawings in extended series, in which a visual idea is played out with variations as in musical composition (such as The Seventh Landscape, I-X) reveals Urquhart's ready access to the stirrings of his pre-conscious faculties. They suggest non-discursive mental functioning wherein pulsations of visual imagery recur in endless variation over time. Urquhart himself describes this process at work when he states that his drawings grow over an irregular temporal period of 'gestation', during which the drawings in progress 'feed from' and 'modify each other'.
PHASE VI: 1977-1979
From 1977 to about 1979, Urquhart stopped producing boxes almost completely for a time and concentrated instead on pieces in low-relief for the wall and for horizontal placement on floors and tables: Black Floor Piece, 1978; White Floor Piece, 1978; Fosse, 1980. The floor-pieces are another instance of spontaneous 'appearance', which Urquhart describes as coming 'out of left field'. In terms of his development, the floor-pieces are significant: they introduce a meaningful new space-orientation. Their spatial reference is clearly distinguishable from both boxes and earlier free standing sculpture. The boxes exist within three dimensional space as literally isolated 'worlds apart', as independent and self-referring microcosmic entities complete in themselves. In contrast, the floor-pieces extend the dimensionality of the boxes to incorporate actual space. In other words, they function as visual and symbolic statements relevant to the flat horizontal plane of the actual floor, to the very space occupied by the observer. Also in these works, the observer must look down and into the floor - and table - pieces.
So also in the case of Urquhart's wall pieces in relief, which are no longer intended as self-enclosed paintings, no longer 'imitations' of either mental or seen landscapes. The wall pieces pertain to the wall as a vertical plane in the real world. These distinctions are not trivial or meaningless, but involve the metaphysical relationship of Urquhart's works as physical entities within the larger macrocosm. From the beginning to about 1977-1978, Urquhart's explorations of space were carried out within the format of the art object itself. Now the work no longer points strictly to itself, but acknowledges the physical dimensions, planes, and boundaries of lived space, which in turn is rendered as symbolic of the larger cosmic scheme. Walls, floor, and space of gallery or dwelling in Urquhart's imaginative cosmology become implicit participants in the form and meaning of his art objects. For what is implied as a result are the 'hidden' or 'otherworldly' spaces 'beyond the wall' and 'beneath the floor'. As we shall discover subsequently in the detailed analysis of some of Urquhart's recurrent motifs, the motif-images in the works themselves signify the possibility of 'penetrating' or 'breaking through' the planes that divide upper and lower, inside and outside, known and unknown. The space, walls, and floor of gallery or room are simultaneously that of the cosmos itself.
Imagery in the wall-pieces of this period is based upon a trip to Corsica taken in 1972 during which Urquhart photographed façades and doorways of old village houses (Doorway Bonfaccio, Corsica). It was not unti1 1977 though that the door motif appeared in his work. Between 1977 and 1978 a large series of some 25 'Doors' was produced as wall-pieces with variously shaped 'frames' and in mixed media. Surface treatment with the aid of Pollyfilla is detailed, rich, and highly textured, suggestive of stonework and stucco in a state of neglect and deterioration. A single arched door or similar 'opening' - a slit or window - is the focal point of each composition and occupies a small fraction of the surface. The door itself seems often impassable, as though long sealed-in with stones and boards. In each, there is always the suggestion of forbiddenness, of darkness beyond and of secrets unattainable. The doors are clearly not intended as mere representations of those actually seen. In the artist's imagination, they become visual symbols of all neglected openings into forgotten, forbidden or secret places, doors for which the keys have long been lost. The notion of the door as a closed barrier to lost or hidden knowledge is implied, particularly in the Fifth Door, 1977. Within the vertical format of this work, two doors superimpose the main door at the bottom of the composition. The middle door is boarded up and the uppermost opening is sealed permanently with stones.
PHASE VII - 1980-1984
In the early months of 1980, Urquhart returned to painting after a hiatus of seventeen years and on a scale much larger than before 1963. Paintings now measured some 4 by 8 feet for single panel works (The First Threshold, 1980; Threshold III, 1980), 8 by 8 feet for double panel paintings (Great Circle, 1983) and up to 8 by 10 feet for the largest (King and Queen, 1984). A number of images in this period continue from earlier phases, but dominant now is yet another archetypal motif, that of a vertical rectangle which 'opens' to a tunnel leading into unknown depths. In most instances, this 'passageway' is interrupted tentatively by floating horizontals, verticals, and diagonals vaguely suggestive of scaffolding. Urquhart has titled the majority of the paintings as Thresholds and says that the motif derives directly from open graves seen in the cemetery at Nevers, France (Open Graves, Nevers, France). In fact, it was his visit to Nevers that 'started the idea of painting again': Study from Nevers I, 1980.
Some of Urquhart's most impressive paintings were produced in this period, notably his monumental masterpiece, The King and Queen, 1984, a work of structural simplicity but powerfully evocative in form and meaning. Composed of four shaped sections, the two large panels each contain a 'threshold' image. In the smaller panels above these are positioned two circular motifs based on funeral wreaths. In its greater complexity, the left-hand 'threshold' contrasts with the more simply composed version on the right, which is also shallower in illusionistic depth. As well, the geometric elements in the left-hand panel are offset by the right, which contains a concentrated airy mass of curved and spotted strokes. Evocative of wind-blown vegetation, the mass seems to be wafted between the darkness beyond the threshold and the space occupied by the observer. The perspective and size of the threshold images are such that viewers facing the works are inescapably involved and tend to imagine themselves 'walking through the door', which is also a grave, or 'falling into the tunnel'. The threshold motif is readily suggestive, simultaneously, of doors, graves, and all openings, generally, to unknown and fearsome spaces beyond the plane of the wall, beyond the edge of the world. It has absorbed within itself, the image and the idea of the doors in Urquhart's earlier relief panels, a process of condensation of a range of referential meanings within a single image.
In this same period, Urquhart produced a number of other works which incorporated the motif of the open-grave or 'threshold'. His Stations of the Cross, 1984, a set of fourteen small square panels in mixed media, for example, is directly inspired by an open grave seen and photographed at San Sebastian. Urquhart's photograph shows a green ladder leaning against the side of the pit, the bottom of which is filled with water reflecting the sky above (Open Grave with Green Ladder, San Sebastian).
PHASE VIII: 1985-1987
Since 1984, Urquhart has been in a period of transition, one of reflection and, no doubt, renewed creative generation. As in 'a similar transitional phase from 1973-1976, he has turned to drawing and watercolour as an essential means of visual exploration. Now, however, Urquhart is showing greater interest in colour: The Magic Circle, 1985; World Cage II, 1985; Magic Circle I-IV, 1987; House I and III, 1987; V is for Vimy I and III, 1987. The Magic Circle (1985) is a particularly noteworthy example, in which a blossoming pink tree re-introduces the theme of Spring in positive, life enhancing terms. At the same time, he continues to produce paintings: Four Floral Tributes I-IV, 1985; Black King and Queen, 1987; boxes: Tic, Tac, Toe, 1985; In Admiration of Constable, 1987; Dark Green, 1987; and a number of prints: Project for an Opening Box Sculpture, 1985; and drawings: Drawing for 'In Admiration of Constable', 1987.
Themes already existing in his iconographic repertoire are developed further, although round arches and half arches are now often emphasized as structural patterns in various compositions: The Secret, 1980; Fall of the Flowers III, 1985; as well as vertical 'tower' shapes that suggest continuing expansion from a core of key visual ideas: The Monument Series II, 1985.
Most noteworthy in these past two years is Urquhart's Magic Wood, 1987, an environmental piece set amidst a groove of tall cedar trees in the 'sculpture park' at the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre in Guelph, Ontario. The work is designed as two sequences of tunnel-like archways. These intersect each other over a 'crossing', to suggest the space and ground plan of a Mediaeval church or abbey. At the same time, the siting of this openwork steel construction along an old, tree lined pathway, is evocative of garden architecture, of trellises and gazebos whose characteristics change in accord with the seasons. A steel 'box' is situated at the 'crossing', providing a stable focal point for this atmospherically evocative fusion of vegetation and structure.
Themes, Motifs, and Variations: The Universal Context
Urquhart's work is permeated with recurrent visual motifs that appear in various combinations and transformations. The motifs are not always a representational image or even an easily recognized pattern. Because a number are imbedded in the form and composition of the work itself, they can be easily overlooked if the work is examined in isolation from Urquhart's total production. The same motif can occur in a drawing, wall-piece, box, or sculpture, each instance of its occurrence adding to the range of its significance. Neither disparate nor random, the motifs comprise a consistent ideological and conceptual system, within which single motifs build upon and amplify the total iconographic scheme.
Whether representational or abstract, two or three dimensional, overt or covert, the recurrent visual motifs within Urquhart's symbol system tend to focus upon four fundamental themes of cosmological, metaphysical, and spiritual significance: chaos, order, transformation or transition, and transcendence. Those of transition and transformation, however, are dominant and most richly developed. Within these broad thematic categories, may be distinguished a larger number of loosely defined 'clusters' or 'sets', each motif participating in a kind of symbolic 'network'. In this sense, grave motifs are associated with doors and thresholds, all the while remaining distinctive in both form and shade of meaning. Experienced within the total context of Urquhart's production, the motifs are cumulative in effect and tend to arouse in the viewer's eye and mind an interrelated and overlapping sequence of emotional and referential associations often difficult to separate. But these associations are by no means automatic nor do they impact equally upon all viewers. The viewer will absorb only as much as he is willing or able to bring to his experience of the visionary world projected by the artist.
'Chaos' in Urquhart's work is not manifest as a clear cut single motif or set of motifs, but is an overriding theme implicit in the forms themselves and as a metaphysical 'condition' to which the works are a response. As 'the confused unorganized state of primordial matter before the creation of distinct and orderly forms - contrasted with cosmos' (Webster's), however, Urquhart's lump motif is exemplary and archetypal.
The lump which dominated Urquhart's two dimensional imagery between 1960 and 1968 - Lump, 1961; Calm, 1962 - becomes a three dimensional mass in Nostalgia Toys (1965-1966), and appears sporadically with other motifs in boxes of the period 1968-1972: Black Piece, 1971; Garden of Earthly Delights, 1972. The single, undifferentiated, swelling mass tends to be restricted to these earlier periods and has not appeared as a dominant compositional motif in Urquhart's imagery since 1972. From time to time, it appears unpredictably in wall-pieces (Seventeenth Door, 1978) and drawings: Box Fantasy: Lump, 1973-74.
Viewer response to the image has been varied in particulars, but all reactions converge upon a unified core or 'range' of meanings. Children have called the painted lumps 'atom bombs'. Urquhart himself considers them 'menacing' and 'cancerous'; he suggests an association with Goya's etching of a powerful giant sitting on the edge of the world, with Francis Bacon's amorphous and horrifying shapes, with William Ronald's 'central image' paintings of the early 1960's, and a 'little "lump" sculpture' he once saw by Butler (Cameron 1971:41). In Urquhart's Garden of Earthly Delights, 1972, the lump is rendered in two dimensions on the outside walls of the box, and in Black Piece, 1971 it rises upward as a swelling white mass. Whether executed in two or three dimensions, the lump is all potentiality and power. It has an organic quality and seems capable of growth in some unknown direction, be it an expansion, explosion, or differentiation into new and unpredictable forms. The lump is a 'brooding latent mass...simultaneously a bud, an embryo, a tumour, a bomb' (Vastokas 1973:41-42), strongly reminiscent of William Blake's poetic vision of ominous power in his Book of Urizen:
The poet Blake was profoundly influenced by the traditions of both alchemy and Neo-Platonism (Raine 1968), influences one cannot document for Urquhart. By some unknown and likely unconscious means, however, Urquhart seems also to have tapped into the symbolic imagery of alchemical and Neo-Platonic traditions in this as well as other themes and motifs.
As in alchemy, the lump compares with the concept of prima materia, or 'first matter', a formless undifferentiated mass, the state of chaos from which new substances and forms can emerge. For alchemists, chaos is one of the names for prima materia (Jung 1968:318). It is a massa confusa, or 'confused mass', which is nevertheless eminently capable of generation and creation: 'there is nothing more wonderful in the world, for it begets itself, conceives itself and gives birth to itself' (Jung 1968:320).
According to Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, the task of alchemy itself is, 'in essence, the bringing forth out of the matrix of earth the divine riches latent in her' (1968,1:123). In the literature of alchemy, land and landscape are equally 'first matter':
In this perspective, the landscape is formless and dead, requiring the impregnation of the sun to bring about life.
Urquhart's lump first emerged from the landscape, in works completed after his first European trip. After 1960, representational landscapes largely disappear from his work, replaced eventually by new 'cosmologies', his boxes of 1968-1972. The unstructured wilderness that is the mythical Canadian landscape in art and literature may have unconsciously signified chaos for Urquhart, who turned instead to the ordered, mythological, and therefore meaningful landscapes of Western Europe as source material for the creation of his own 'little worlds'. The lump motif appeared at a critical transition point in the artist's career and serves, perhaps, as a visual metaphor of Urquhart's latent creativity.
THE DARK VOID
In alchemical thought and imagery, prima materia as chaos is also the Unknown, the Abyss, Hades, the Darkness Beyond, the Black Earth, and the Dark World of the Unconscious (Jung 1968:329). The darkness beyond the surface plane of ordinary experience is a recognized archetype in myth, ritual and art throughout human history as a metaphorical objectification of the mysterious Unknown.
Prevalent in Urquhart's imagery after 1963 is an ubiquitous range of related motifs, all of which describe a 'dark void' beneath, beside, inside, or beyond the immediate space of the beholder. It appears first as a narrow slit to the dark interior of The Decadent Cube 1965, the box itself a likely world-symbol, for the 'cube' is 'the traditional alchemical symbol of earth' (Raine 1968,11:116). In the drawing, Annecy Series III, 1971 and the later watercolour, Fall of the Flowers III, 1985, the 'dark void' is a circular opening into the depths of the earth, a motif that 'just appeared', according to Urquhart, but which was likely inspired by a small hole in the cemetery ground seen and photographed in 1963-64 (Vastokas 1973:39-41). The hole in the ground is clearly an archetype. It compares with the sipapu, a small round opening on the floor of the Pueblo Indian Kiva, an underground ceremonial structure from which the spirits emerge during ritual. So, too, the Greek oracles at Delphi and Labadeia, where, from a narrow opening into the earth, the prophetic voices come from the ghosts of ancestors in the Underworld. It is through a hole in the earth, too, that evil spirits from the lower world were let loose upon mankind. Pandora's box, or Pithos, is originally a symbol for chaos and the Underworld. In ancient Greece, the Pithos was a storage jar in which the dead were placed and buried in a ritual pit. In Greek tradition, these pits came to signify 'both the underworld and the hole of death-rebirth' (Lindsay 1965:220). It compares, too, with Blake's concept of the punctum, an eternally 'open center' which serves as an ever-present door into eternity' (Raine 1968, II:151ff). The 'dark void' manifests itself as innumerable 'black holes' that appear frequently in Urquhart's drawings and sketches: La Chute Series V, 1972; Black Floor Piece, 1978.
In the box entitled Fourteen Rings, 1971, hinged doors open to reveal an inky black interior with suspended thread-like filaments. Funereal, haunting and forbidding in its impression on the beholder, the box manifests all those innermost places where 'ultimate tears lurk', a phrase coined by Maud Bodkin to describe an experience of desolation by poet William Morris in a barren Icelandic landscape (Bodkin 1958:117). The murky interior blackness of Fourteen Rings is expressed as well in the drawing, Great Time Machine Series II, 1979-80 (Catalogue No. 82). Here, a cave like darkness opens to an undefined interior space, which recedes beyond the perspective demands of the two dimensional surface.
The 'dark void' also appears in Urquhart's later work as a rectangular opening to 'darkness beneath', as in The First Threshold, 1980, and at the bottom of the rectangle in the King and Queen, 1984 (Catalogue No. 99). Here, too, the void 'beneath the bottoms of the graves' (Raine 1968,1:249) is the underworld, the darkness beyond the grave, a place of dread, the ultimate abyss.
In the naturalistic landscape drawing, Le Puy Notre Dame Number 6, 1975, the black opening to the beyond assumes the representational form of a cave. In this combination of cave with the 'dark unknown', we touch on an immensely rich mythic tradition in which the cave is simultaneously the grave and the womb. Among the Indians of ancient Mexico, the cave is a symbol of creative generation, where Sun and Moon, humans, and plants originated. As a place of burial, the cave in Mexico was both an underworld tomb Greeks, Hades may be reached by a cave 'sacred to Pluto', located at Eleusis (Garland 1985-53). For the Algonkian Indians of eastern Canada, too, access to the underworld is associated in art and myth with crevices in natural rock formations. The Peterborough Petroglyph site in southeastern Ontario, for example is a sanctified place, the physical form of the natural rock outcrop a visual metaphor of the Algonkian cosmos. Deep crevices in the surface of the limestone lead to the symbolic underworld directly beneath the site (Vastokas and Vastokas 1973:100). But in Neo-Platonism our present world is the underworld. It is the cave-grave of life-experience and human suffering that must be transcended if humanity is to restore itself to perfection (Raine 1968,1:82).
Philosophers of art have often interpreted the artistic impulse as a quest for order and the art work a metaphor of cosmic creation. In the mythic traditions of many cultures.
In the work of Tony Urquhart, order and chaos are in perpetual altercation. The boxes, especially, are symbols of cosmic order and mechanisms 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, 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 forces; somebody might pull out the plug. The boxes, then, are self-contained cosmological systems...over which he exercises absolute authority (Vastokas 1973:33).
The box Geography, 1975 is exemplary. As a cube with four circles on its sides and with a semi spherical base, it has a classical quality in its geometric simplicity of form and strong dark and light contrasts. Geography is an orderly conceptual form, eminently expressive as a model of the universe. Urquhart's boxes in all their variety are essentially creations out of chaos, new 'orders' conceived in the eye and mind of the artist, somehow in tune with universal symbolic tradition.
Urquhart's essentially 'architectonic' impulse, his quest for hidden structural patterns in the chaotic world of appearance is evident in a number of themes and motifs of archetypally cosmic character. Containers and enclosures of various sorts permeate the artist's visual imagery. Gardens and imaginary landscapes are 'enclosed' within little 'houses', cages, walls, fences, iron bridges, gazebos, and arbours. Most noteworthy among these are his boxes, Rocamadour I (1970), Rocamadour IV, 1978. Intended as 'landscapes', foliage and rock elements are contained by a structural framework based on a caged herb garden seen in Rocamadour, France. The landscape reference is spatially ambiguous: foreground garden elements are fused with more distant landscape features seen originally in a distant valley. 'Making the box', says Urquhart, 'I deliberately tried to duplicate this effect of ambiguity...these Plexiglass wings dabbled with coloured glaze...attempt to duplicate the effect of the faraway rocks' (quoted in Cameron 1971:48).
Enclosed landscapes are particularly evident in Urquhart's 'Box Fantasies', imaginative sketches for boxes that would be impossible to construct. Box Fantasy: Enclosure, 1975, for example, shows a pair of trees overarching a boulder outcrop that is contained by a rectangular fence. More ambiguous is the Box Fantasy: Summer Place, 1973-74, a sketch in which the rocky landscape is framed by fragments of a cottage wall and perched upon a wobbly base of boulders. The Hudson River Landscape III, 1977 shows an iron bridge balanced on a stand above a tree lined horizon, the bridge framing a treed landscape complete with a central 'lump' motif.
Among finished drawings, containment of landscapes and gardens is also a dominant theme. In the series Les Nasses, 1974, the container is based on a pair of domical fish traps seen on a beach in Corsica (Bodolai 1976:38). Landscape in The Dublin Zoological Garden, 1974 series is enclosed by a more or less rectangular cage, through the top of which emerge the branches of trees. Fantasy landscapes with hills, trees, and foliage, circles, and dark voids in the Najac drawings, 1975 are confined within a cage based on grave structures seen in French cemeteries. And, Project for an Outdoor Monument Series IV, 1976 (Catalogue No. 67), like Rocamadour I and IV, represents a treed garden framed by a garden cage with round arches. Recent watercolours, such as World Cage II, 1985, reveal the continuing hold of the concept of gardens, landscapes, and even worlds contained within structured enclosures. In a sense, the landscapes and gardens are 'boxed'.
Carl Jung describes a dream in which the subject dives through a narrow dark opening in the sea to discover 'a beautiful garden in the depths, symmetrically laid out, with a fountain in the centre' (Jung 1968:117). Enclosed with vegetation, springs, and fountains, the Garden is one of the most richly developed archetypes, in all of human history, for world order, peace, and cosmic harmony and is a motif which plays a clearly dominant role in Urquhart's visual system. The painting My Garden III, 1964 (Catalogue No 16) is particularly noteworthy as a garden archetype. It shows Urquhart himself as the subject of the painting, in the shape of a sculptured white figure set in a circular fountain at the symmetrical centre of an enclosed round garden. From the right hand margin of the icon shaped frame a mysterious yellow 'break' threatens to erupt into the picture from somewhere outside. An otherwise unified stable and harmonious world is thus in danger of disintegration or pollution.
The Garden as an orderly 'cosmos' is archetypally enclosed. It is walled and separate from external chaos from the Unknown, from Wilderness. As an archetype, it synthesizes a vast range of meanings, each distinctive, yet converging always upon a common conceptual significance in art, architecture, ritual, myth, and poetry. In ancient Sumer, the Garden was equated with the Cosmos. The temple where the priest-king officiated was the 'Garden of God' on a mythical sacred mountain, the Ziggurat, and centred over the dark Abyss (Perry 1966:69) In Judaeo-Christian tradition, it is the Garden of Eden, the Earthly Paradise with its Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil located at the centre of the world, and from which flow the rivers of life. For pre-Christian Celts, the place of worship was a sanctuary in the woods, an enclosed clearing where small timber shrines were erected and which contained human burials and cremations. These rectangular and circular Sacred Groves of the ancient Celts were not unlike those of the Greeks, the sacred precinct or temenos, an area of landscape enclosed and consecrated to the deity for purposes of worship (Piggott 1975:62-72). Enclosed landscapes in every culture served to separate sacred space from profane, culture from chaos, garden from wilderness. They signify sanctuary, peace, and order, the values of humanity versus those of barbarity.
The motif of the enclosed garden appears in abstract formal terms in Urquhart's Garden of Earthly Delights, 1972. This hinged, rectangular box is painted thickly on all four sides with a 'lump' motif and opens to reveal a surprising interior. A transparent wire 'tunnel' is arched inside and connects a white ring on the green vertical wall with a black circle on the white plastic 'floor'. This construction suggests some kind of obscure mystical connection between lower horizontal and vertical upper realms. Exterior imagery contrasts meaningfully with that of the interior: the swelling and dividing 'lumps', signifying chaos, give way to 'cosmos', to a differentiated and three dimensional structure within. The unfolding of the box serves as a visual metaphor of transformation out of chaos to order, as the lumps give way to an abstract analogical garden. The box compares visually, structurally, and iconographically with a folding tryptich of the same title painted at the turn of the sixteenth century by Hieronymous Bosch.
The two exterior Bosch panels represent the Creation of the World, a globe dividing as the lumps do in Urquhart's version. Opened, the Bosch triptych shows the Earthly Paradise on the left panel, Hell on the right, and the Garden of Earthly Delights in the centre. At the focal point of the entire composition, a spherical Fountain of Adultery hovers above the Fountain of Youth rendered as a circular opening. As a visual configuration, these motifs compare strikingly with Annecy Series III, 1971 and other works, which show a lump suspended over a circular orifice (see Vastokas 1973:34-36, 41-44 for a fuller discussion).
As in all archetypes, however, while the general pattern is shared universally, specific shades of meaning in each instance of an archetype's appearance depend on biographical, historical, or cultural context.
For Urquhart, the Garden archetype originates in personal experience. Of all the places he has known, one stands out as the most influential, since it likely instigated the structural, spatial, and imaginal framework with which Urquhart came to associate unconsciously the relevant features of all special places and spaces seen afterwards. This was his grandmother's house and garden on Main Street in the business section of Niagara Falls, Ontario, where he lived until 25 years of age.
His grandmother's home was no ordinary place. House and very large garden were fenced all around and its several vegetable plots and flower beds divided and sub-divided by walls and fences of various textures and materials. Fronting Main Street was an expansive lawn, separated by a thick cedar hedge from an equally extensive vegetable garden. To the rear of the house was attached not only a sunroom, but also an arbour. And behind these, as well as smaller kitchen and flower gardens, were located a separate garden house, fish pond, and barn. At the back of the property grew a small woods beside yet another fish pond with feeder stream and waterfall. All this was designed and maintained by Urquhart's grandmother. Most noteworthy is the fact that the house adjoined the family business. Urquhart's maternal grandparents operated a funeral home. Caskets were stored in the barn beside the Urquhart children's playroom and funeral processions filed past Tony's second-floor bedroom window.
Urquhart's predilection for contained and structured spaces, whether church interiors, gardens, cages, and containers of all sorts, and with the transitions between them in the form of doors, windows, archways, and other openings, constitutes the predominant conceptual scheme of his work. It was no doubt initially imprinted in childhood by a decidedly unique environmental context. The sense of magic with which children so often perceive the world was surely responsible in Urquhart's case for some unconscious investment of powerful but nebulous meanings to the contrasting structured spaces of his surroundings, the space of the flourishing garden with that of the funeral parlour. Retained in adulthood as fragmented memory-images, these spatial and structural contrasts and configurations of his grandmother's enclosed garden in conjunction with the contained and different spaces of the funeral home, formed the foundational matrix for all subsequent experiences of place and space.
The flourishing garden - as an exterior yet enclosed environment with flowers, brightness, orderliness, and pleasure - was surely endowed, for Urquhart, with positive life enhancing values. In contrast, the interior spaces of the funeral parlour, with cut and artificial flowers, containers within containers, were forbidden, secret, and no doubt ominous. These spatial, formal, and emotional contrasts between garden and funeral home in themselves have archetypal character, oppositions which came to play a significant role in Urquhart's later investment of similar symbolic values to form, space, and structure. For Urquhart, then, the Garden of Life was linked ambiguously with the ritual and paraphernalia of Death. While seemingly a unique experience, the association between Death and the Garden is in fact eminently archetypal.
In ritual and symbolic tradition, cemeteries are simultaneously gardens, sanctuaries, places of meditation, and of communication with the ancestors and with the world beyond the grave. They are finally a place of regeneration, where Death gives way to new Life. In Neo-Platonic tradition, the cemetery is a garden 'where the souls await generation' (Raine 1968,1:100). The Mediaeval French cemetery was a sacred enclosure, a place not only for burial of the dead, but a centre for social life. In the late eighteenth century, the idea of the cemetery as a garden developed and they were planted with trees, flowers, and shrubbery (Etlin 1984:199-228). By the nineteenth century, the French cemetery had become a place for regular visits with the dead, a refuge for the living beside the church, and a place to pray and meditate (Aries 1982:62-63).
TRANSITION AND TRANSFORMATION
Themes of transition and transformation are the most dominant in Urquhart's system of iconography. Motifs that signify passage from one spatial dimension to another - holes, doors, thresholds, tunnels - are linked metaphorically with those denoting transformation from one state of being to another, with death and resurrection - graves, coffins, tombs, and urns. Less familiar motifs of transition and transformation are integral with the form of the works themselves, in what are most aptly termed 'visual metaphors'. The box format itself, serves as an illustration. The device of unfolding, hinged panels signifies metamorphosis and revelation of contrasting interiors, of another kind of visual reality. The box Temple I, 1970, for example, is eminently expressive of visual contrast between a majestic, gleaming, and somewhat classical exterior and a coal black, scorched interior, a contrast metaphorically between the appearance of civilized order without and the 'reality' of chaotic darkness within. In connection with this visual opposition, it is noteworthy that the philosophic core of Urquhart's art has been interpreted as a concern for the conflict between the harmonious order of nature and the destructive, sinister forces of industrial technology (Cameron 1971:47).
In function and general meaning, Urquhart's boxes compare with a wide range of 'revelatory' and 'transforming' objects in the history of world art, for example, with Mediaeval images of the Vierge Ouvrante, a type of sculptured Madonna and Child, which splits open vertically to reveal the Crucifixion within (Campbell 1974); with Mediaeval and Renaissance triptychs such as Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights; with West Coast Indian transformation masks which show birds or other crest animals splitting open to reveal a human face inside (Vastokas 1973: 35); and with ceremonial men's houses in the form of crocodiles in New Guinea, into which initiates creep through narrow doors to be shown the secrets of ancestors and tribal traditions carved and painted on the walls within (Gardi 1960).
The most common and persistent motif in Urquhart's imagery after 1963 is an ubiquitous circle, which appears in several forms: as a two dimensional circle as a 'donut' shaped ring in low relief or in the round, and as an opening in a plane to an unknown interior space or to a dimension beyond that of the observer. These various circles, holes, and 'donuts' have a haunting significance for Urquhart since they appear both as minor details and as major compositional structures in numerous works. The circle is yet another archetypal motif, an image of great fascination for the artist, which, he says, 'appeared' from nowhere. Nevertheless it is grounded in personal experience In 1963-64, and in addition to numerous circular wreaths, Urquhart photographed an inexplicable round depression in a French cemetery, the kind of hole often produced by the settling of earth over a recent burial. His 'discovery' of this hole in the earth, which he had 'forgotten' until 1973, was immediately absorbed by the unconscious imagination where it fused with a store of innumerable other remembered circles.
In the box Fourteen Rings, 1971, the circle appears in several forms. First, it comprises a tunnel-like sequence of eight bone-like rings which is 'continued' on the outside of the box by two circles in relief. Four additional circles are painted on each side of two opaque, white plastic flanges. Small circular openings, leading from one ambiguous space to another, appear in numerous other works. In the series Les Nasses, 1974 circles in various forms and dimensions serve as elements within imaginary contained landscapes and appear as glowing orbs in the background. As a possible clue to latent meaning, most notable are the circles at the apex of the containers. Although derived from the structure of Corsican fish traps, the circles compare visually and conceptually with oculi of domed architectural structures. Fantasy perhaps, but the domed fish traps are readable visually as transformed 'sky-domes' containing microcosmic landscapes. As such we can identify yet another structural archetype, that of the 'spirit-hole'. Art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy has compared the opening in roofs of Hindu temples, not only with the oculus in the Roman Pantheon, but with the smoke-hole of subterranean pit houses of sub-arctic peoples. In every case, such openings to the sky served in ritual and myth as a point of access to the upper world, for shamans to ascend by means of poles, trees, or ladders; for souls after death; or for the living during ritual communication with gods and spirits. The oculus, however, is at the same time a 'hole-in-the sky'. Among the Ostyak of Siberia, for instance, the opening in a ritual structure is identified with the Pole Star: 'it is a hole through which it is possible to pass from one world to another...There is a corresponding hole in the earth, which leads down into the nether world' (Coomaraswamy 1977:477). Urquhart's floor piece Unfilled - White, 1969, is a horizontal 'tub' or 'drum' requiring the downward glance of observers. It provides a visual correlative of this latter conception. Similarly typical of all such traditions is the Hindu concept, in which the circular opening has cosmic significance as a means of vertical passage to the sky. It is the 'gateway of liberation', the means 'by which to break out of the dimensional universe', and so 'escape altogether' (Coomaraswamy 1977:6-7). This hole-in-the-sky of Hindu tradition is at the same time a door, a means of 'crossing over from mortality to immortality', which Coomaraswamy compares with the 'Entrance to the Celestial Paradise' by Bosch, a work which visualizes heaven as a region of brilliant sunlight at the end of a long, circular tunnel (Coomaraswamy 1977:470,481; see also Harner 1982).
Circles and central voids also compare visually and iconographically with ancient Chinese perforated cubes representing Earth and discs representing Heaven (Laufer 1974), with Tantric mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism, with painted drums and rattles of Canadian subarctic peoples, with Sun-Disc 'wands' of eighteenth century Iroquoians (Ober-holzer 1986), and with Catholic liturgical monstrances for display of the Host. The void or object at the centre in each of these instances is the point of spiritual transition, transformation, or transubstantiation.
Urquhart's series of 'donut' constructions - Sea-Like, 1966 and Broken I, 1967 - are particularly impressive as metaphors of transition to other spaces and worlds. Like many of his motifs, however, these circles perched on vertical bases communicate a range of associated meaning. These constructions have specifically mortuary connotations in both structure and detail and signify transition by death rather than by meditation or shamanic ecstasy.
Although Urquhart sees these works as three dimensional extensions of painted tondos, which they may be developmentally, the 'donuts' are nevertheless remarkably similar in form and latent meaning to a type of grave marker erected in Europe as long ago as the Bronze Age. Circles as wheels or concentric rings mounted on short pillars served as tombstones in prehistoric Scandinavia, Germany, Spain and France (Gimbutas 1958: 22-23). These survived in their prehistoric form into the Christian period among the Basques (Boissel 1929; Cuisemer 1977:107) and among the Celts in their adaptation as Irish 'high crosses'. A virtually similar monument was recently erected in 1983 as a memorial to the dead by the Ukrainian community in Edmonton, Alberta, demonstrating further the persistence and consistency of archetypal images.
The 'break' in Urquhart's Sea-Like and Broken is likewise archetypally mortuary in significance. The breaking of objects for burial with the dead is customary among many cultures (Grinsell 1961), but most notably among native North Americans. Typical are bowls and vases in the American Southwest, which were perforated, or 'killed', before burial with the dead.
Urquhart's boxes have already been interpreted as symbolic landscapes, the cube itself an archetypal earth. At the same time, however, the boxes are metaphorical coffins, reliquaries, and grave houses. In form and concept, the box calls forth an amazingly wide network of associations with ritual, myth, and sacred art objects of many periods and cultures, in each case having to do with death, re-birth, and spiritual release. As explained by Raine (1968, 1:231):
In Neo-Platonic tradition, for example, the earth itself is a 'container'. It is also a cave, grave, and womb into which souls descend from eternity for generation and to which they return for ascent back to eternity. For alchemists, the grave and the earth are places of transmutation and regeneration. The earth is 'a grave from which life springs...the place of the soul's sleep and waking, death and resurrection' (Raine 1968, 1:161-163). Even Urquhart's earliest landscape paintings centre upon these general themes of death and renewal of the landscape.
In rites of passage, which signify everywhere the transition from one state of being or place to another, 'the symbolism of birth is almost always found side by side with that of death'. In funeral rites especially, those of transition of the deceased to a new existential state and to new worlds are emphasized over and above those of 'separation' from life (Van Gennep 1960:146). Where puberty rites are practised, the novice is sometimes symbolically 'buried', shut up in an initiation hut. His emergence from the grave-container-dwelling-tomb signifies rebirth to a new status in life (Eliade 1959: 191,195). The novice is symbolically 'born again'.
Fourteen Rings, 1971, in shape is particularly suggestive of a casket, the tunnel of bone rings and suspended fibres evocative of bodily decay. Like the casket, the box resembles a gabled grave house, inspired by tombs in French cemeteries. During the nineteenth century, a 'cult of the dead' emerged in France. Chapel tombs in the form of little houses were constructed over the family grave and these acquired a social as well as a mortuary significance. Family members visited the tombs regularly, brought flowers, and took their meals at the graveside (Aries 1982:535-545).
The notion of the tomb as dwelling, shrine, or chapel, however, is not limited to nineteenth century France. Although directly inspired by French graveyards, Urquhart's incorporation of these tombs into his symbolic network of box associations has archetypal character. In ancient Egypt, too, the tomb was regarded as a house, with trees and garden planted just outside, and the coffin, like the house, a microcosm of the universe. The lid of the coffin was the sky, painted with images of the sun god and sky goddess; the bottom of the coffin with appropriate symbols of the underworld (Spencer 1982:72,165-172). So also in Israel at 3000 B.C. (Perrot 1960) and in ancient China, funerary urns containing remains of the dead were modeled in the shape of a house. In China these have an opening to allow the dead man's soul to enter and leave (Eliade 1959:179). Portable cinerary urns with similar spirit-holes for the soul's entry and exit were common in prehistoric Europe during the seventh and eighth centuries B.C., found among the Villanovan predecessors of the Etruscans in Italy (Hamblin 1975:19), in Danish, German, Baltic, and Scandinavian regions (Gimbutas 1963:74). These prehistoric and pre-Christian house urns survived into the Early Christian and Romanesque periods in especially Ireland, the result of Norse influence. As well as house shaped tombs, reliquaries for the preservation of saintly remains were also frequently house shaped (de Paor 1960:60, 250). Gable motifs were also incorporated into the richly developed iconography of Irish high crosses. Among native peoples of Siberia and subarctic North America, too, a common form of burial was beneath a miniature gabled house, complete with spirit-hole for the soul of the deceased.
Urquhart was self-consciously influenced by Mediaeval reliquaries, mainly for their formal characteristics as 'containers', as 'boxes' that open on their hinges to reveal their secrets hidden within. At the same time, these structural characteristics are 'objective correlatives' of latent meaning, absorbed unconsciously by the artist and associated with the wider range of meanings already invested in the idea of the box as a symbolic landscape. The box Tic, Tac, Toe, 1985, with its gleaming white bones, however, is particularly relevant to the meaning of the box as a reliquary, as a 'sacred shrine'. As such, the box format is associated with an even more elaborate network of meanings in the 'collective heritage' of Western Christianity.
In Catholic liturgy, the sacred shrine or reliquary was the holiest of ecclesiastical art objects. A1958:28). The linkage extends to the church building itself, for in the Early Christian and Romanesque periods, many churches originated as chapels over burial places, the altar positioned directly over the graves, often with openings from the floor of the apse to the burial crypt beneath. The contained relics, however, had to be seen in order to have any miracle working benefit in the Christian community; and, so, smaller portable reliquaries were developed. Urquhart's False Shelliquary, 1984, for instance, is based on the monstrance, a circular protective container, developed in the Renaissance for the carrying and display, in public processions, of the Host, the Holiest of Holies in Catholic liturgy. As sacred objects of the highest order, reliquaries 'were the most beautifully formed and most expensively decorated of all the objects met with in ritualistic art' (Hirn 1958:23). Above all, the altar-box-shrine is at the centre of the ritual of the Mass, an enactment of death and resurrection of Christ, the place where the material substance of bread and wine are transformed into pure spirit: 'The altar is, by turns, the scene of one or the other of the great events; it is a cradle, a place of execution, and a grave' (Hirn 1958:69).
And so we come full circle, to the idea of the box as the earth, as a place of transformation akin to alchemical process, a symbolic form si are an important feature in the artist's work, denoting 'revelation' and 'transformation' in the case of unfolding boxes, or 'passage' through circles and round voids, from one space to another and back. The specific visual imagery and ideology of 'doors'; however, point to yet another archetype, to a range of images and ideas that add still further to the richness and coherence of the transition theme in Urquhart's symbol system.
The doors in each work are not inviting. They are neglected, forgotten, and usually impassable. Some are boarded up or filled in with boulders: Fifth Door, 1977; Fourth Door, 1977. Others are blocked by a 'lump' - Seventeenth Door, 1978 - while still other doors are too narrow for human passage: Sixteenth Door, 1978.
Urquhart's doors will induce in each observer a distinctive response, based upon the individual's unique experiences. But as an archetype, the different responses will tend to fall within a consistent range or 'network' of meanings. Thus, they may be interpreted as doors to another world, to the Beyond, or to hidden knowledge or insight, which are neglected and sealed. The dominant impression of the image in the door series, for anyone, is that access to the 'other side' is obstructed. Either the barriers must be torn down or the lost keys must be found. On this last point, it is significant metaphorically, that Urquhart has entertained the idea of keys for many years. He has sketched a number of projects for a 'box of keys': A Box of Keys, 1972 and Studies for a Box of Keys (1977). He has collected old keys for the project, but has not yet produced a finished work.
A number of the 'doors', however, are forever impassable. The Sixteenth Door, 1978, for instance, is a mere slit in the façade, too narrow for the passage of any ordinary human form. In the traditions of many cultures in both the Old and New Worlds, the 'Narrow Gate' suggests the idea of impossible and dangerous passage, especially in initiation and funeral rites. For Christians: 'Strait is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it' (Matthew VII, 14). Many of Urquhart's doors, in fact, are 'false doors', since entry is not normally possible. Some are too high above the ground, as in The Fifteenth Door, 1978. Even if opened, access is possible only by means of a ladder, or by beings capable of flight, such as birds and disembodied spirits.
Doors that won't open, as well as those boarded up and too narrow, are archetypally 'spirit doors', passageways primarily for the souls of the dead. In ancient Egypt, stelae fronting tombs
Even in Egyptian coffins, identified as the dwelling house of the deceased, a paneled recess represented a doorway for the passage of the soul. Similar 'false doors' for the entry and exit of souls are known in tombs, as well as peasant dwellings, throughout traditional Europe:
Indeed they must be, for the description of false doors in prehistoric European tombs serves equally for Urquhart's Fourth Door (1977), which is almost completely blocked in with stone slabs. While the artist is clearly drawing upon doors seen in Corsica, the works incorporating these as visual motifs have clearly merged with universal tradition.
In The Tenth Door, 1977, we see two door frames. That on the left is entirely impassable; it is a 'false door', defined merely by an enclosing frame. But the right hand door opens to a 'dark void'. It is a black 'door to nothingness', reminiscent of Antonio Canova's tomb of Maria Christina in Vienna (1805) (Novotny 1960), as described especially by Philippe Aries (1982: 346): 'Her death is a solemn descent under the ground. The door, a symbol borrowed from Roman funerary iconography, is open, not to heaven but to a world of darkness.' As such, the door on the right of the monumental King and Queen, 1984 is similarly a 'door to nothingness', bringing the motif of the door into association with yet another archetype, that of the 'threshold'.
Urquhart's return to fullscale painting in the early months of 1980 was paralleled by the appearance of the 'threshold'; another image signifying transition and transformation: The First Threshold, 1980; Threshold III, 1980; Threshold IV, 1980-81; Study for Threshold VII, 1980; Double Threshold, 1982; King and Queen, 1984. Thresholds are the symbolic epitome of the concept of transition, long acknowledged by social scientists as signifying the neutral, or 'liminal', state on the frontier between modes of existence (Van Gennep 1960: 15-25; Turner 1967).
For Urquhart, the 'threshold' is a grave. The transformation of the open grave into a threshold illustrates Urquhart's poetic technique of image building, which relies extensively upon visual ambiguity. That is, the original motif is invested with more than one meaning by its context of usage. By positioning the grave image vertically and painting it on a scale approximating that of an open doorway, the rectangle is also read as an open door. Grave and threshold are fused. Even as a grave, however, its significance as a symbol of transition is not negated, but complemented. For, in rites of passage as well as in the symbolic traditions of Neo-Platonism and alchemy, the grave is not an end. It is not a permanent condition. The grave is a temporary container, or vessel, for the transmutation of the body to new life. Both grave and threshold - and this association is often extended to the womb - are places of transition between one state of being and another.
The First Threshold, 1980, is particularly rich in visual ambiguities and symbolic associations. The rectangle of the grave, positioned as a doorway, opens to a paradoxical space beyond, a space that is in both the depths of the earth as well as the sky. The eye passes a rocky protuberance on the right of the threshold, moves backward and downward into an enclosed space readable above as a 'dark void', sealed with impenetrable boulders, and below, as the light blue-green of the open sky. The possibility of both death and liberation of the soul are suggested by these visual contraries, a theme reinforced by the presence of both desiccated and flourishing vegetation atop the threshold motif. The leafless dead vines, criss-crossing the darkness of the tomb, are contrasted by the abundant growth rising upward and beyond the top of the frame.
The presence of the sky at the bottom of the grave is another instance when Urquhart's personal experience merges with immemorial symbolic tradition. In the water at the bottom of a grave photographed by the artist in the cemetery at San Sebastian is reflected the sky. This is clearly the direct source for the sky fragment in The First Threshold and for the recurrent blue rectangles 'beyond' the thresholds and at the 'bottom' of the graves in a number of other paintings in the series, including Double Threshold, 1982.
The motif of the sky reflected from the depths is also the central theme in Fosse, 1980, a table piece in mixed media. A rectangular opening invites the viewer to look down and into the work, at the bottom of which is a mirror. As well as the 'sky' in this instance, the viewer sees his own face, adding considerably to the impact and involvement of the observer with the latent symbolism of the work. In a sense, then, what one sees 'below' is also 'above', a paradoxical phenomenon which plays a central imaginal role in alchemical tradition. In The Mirror of Alchemy (1597), for example, Roger Bacon cites a fundamental principle: 'That which is beneath is like that which is above; and that which is above, is like that which is beneath...' In his Magia Adamica (1650), alchemist Thomas Vaughan provides a poetic version of this tenet:
These lines are seen as the likely source for Blake's poetic conception in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Raine 1968, 1:118). At the same time, they are astonishingly evocative of the visual imagery in Urquhart's thresholds, in Fosse, and exceptionally so in the drawing, Winter Cage Series III, 1978 (Catalogue No. 73). This latter work, produced even before the thresholds of 1980-84, shows a caged garden, with suspended wreaths and vegetation, rising above a rectangular stone structure. At the base of this construction and in the foreground, a round arch opens to a starlit sky. The arch motif is at the same time suggestive of the 'dark void', reminiscent of the cave as entrance to the underworld. But, because it is speckled with stars, it is also a route to the sky and to transcendence.
Images that denote transcendence are not always explicit in Urquhart's iconography. They occur mainly by implication and only occasionally in recognized symbols of passage between upper and lower worlds. The idea of transcendence as 'liberation' or 'release' from an uncertain and dangerous liminal state to a new mode of existence is expressed in visual metaphors that signify the crossing of obstructed or forbidden spatial boundaries or by an upward movement from depth to height. These spatial metaphors may also double, or 'stand for', spiritual transcendence. In Urquhart's multivalent and ambiguous imagery, in which a single motif can signify a range of related meanings, many motifs of transcendence are inseparable from those which denote transition. Transcendence is implied as a 'possibility' or a 'promise', rather than an accomplished actuality in the barricaded doors and open thresholds. The 'way' of transcendence to other worlds is also suggested by the presence of tunnel and ladder motifs, both of which function as explicit images of passage from the ordinary world in the art, myth, and ritual of many cultures.
Clearly apparent in a number of threshold paintings is a long rectangular passageway connecting the surface plane of the work with the illusionistic 'bottom' of the grave. Whether leading to a 'dark void', as in Study for Threshold VII, 1980-81, or to the open blue sky in Double Threshold, 1982, the passageway is deeper in perspective than the requisite six feet and thus acquires the character of a tunnel. 'Tunnels', in fact, are common as visual images for spiritual travel between worlds. Shamans, for example, often entered the underworld by means of tunnels or tubes leading into the depths of the earth (Harner 1982:37). In addition to the rectangular tunnels in Urquhart's threshold series, we have already encountered tube-like passageways in a number of his boxes, notably Fourteen Rings and The Garden of Earthly Delights. Circular openings into the horizontal plane of the earth, as in Annecy Series III, are also readable as entrances to tubular pathways to the underworld, reminiscent of those traveled by the Iglulik Inuit shaman:
In one of Urquhart's most recent works, the outdoor 'environmental piece' for the sculpture garden at the MacDonald Stewart Centre in Guelph, the observer participates fully in the experience of a tunnel-like space created by an arbour of trees (Magic Wood). The spatial context is a natural 'cathedral' in which the viewer is led along the tunnel of trees towards an altar-box-grave-world at the 'crossing'. In traditional Christian liturgy this pattern of movement in church architecture signifies the soul's ascent toward the Absolute.
Crawling through a tunnel or hole is also practised as a ritual remedy against epidemic and 'maladies of all sorts' in the peasant societies of traditional Europe (Fraser 1914, X:283-284). Sir James Fraser describes a Slavonian ceremony to avert an epidemic, in which all the villagers crawled through a tunnel dug through a mound beside an oak tree. In comparative perspective, then, tunnels have a magical, efficacious function and meaning in the social and ritual context. But all such mythic and magical passageways are often obstructed, in danger of closing up, and always perilous for those who are spiritually unprepared or unworthy. Dangerous passage is particularly characteristic of another archetypal motif in the ambiguous transcendental imagery of Tony Urquhart, that of the 'clashing rocks' or 'clapping mountains'.
During the late 1960's, Urquhart produced two large and archetypally significant wall pieces, Large Diptych, 1968 and Two Panel Painting About Flying, 1968. These paintings in relief were constructed as two separate panels, each meant to abut the other closely when hung. In composition, the works describe a V shape, suggestive of a mountain valley split in the centre so that the mountains on each side can move closely together or come apart. This V shape motif is also found in numerous small sketches in pen and ink, produced at intervals over the years: Box Fantasy: Ravine IV, 1973-74; Box Fantasy: Rainbow Pool, 1975; Ravine and Tree, 1983; and Ottawa Series V, 1983. In mythic traditions throughout the world, the motif of 'clapping mountains' or passage through a rocky or mountainous cleft signifies 'dangerous passage' for shamans, heroes, and initiates on a quest for Eternal Life, knowledge, or spiritual flight beyond the edge of the world.
The motif is known best in Homer's Odyssey, in which the ship Argo flies through the air like a bird to pass through the Clashing Rocks at the edge of the world in search of the Golden Fleece. The Odyssey is interpreted as a shamanic voyage and the rocks are mythical rather than historical: 'The movement through them represents the initiation - experience of the passage rite with its great dangers; the space into which they open is the 'spirit-world' (Lindsay 1965:1). In Greek tradition, they are Wandering Rocks, 'behind which lies Oceanus, the Isle of the Blessed, the Realm of the Dead,' and they divide 'the familiar Here from the Unknown Beyond.' They are a 'doorway to the Otherworld formed by clashing mountain walls.' The passageway between them is normally closed and can only be opened 'by more than normally human wisdom' (Coomaraswamy 1977: 521-522).
Dangerous and difficult passage between ''two razor edged restless mountains' at the World's End are also known in Hindu tradition. Here liberation of the soul is possible only at dawn or dusk, in the liminal phase between the polarities of day and night. So too among the Inuit, for whom the Clapping Mountains can crush migrating soul-birds as they fly from North to South. Similar rocks or mountains that come together are known throughout the New World. In Mexico, for example, dead souls 'had to pass clashing mountains', a mythic motif illustrated in Mexican codices as a passageway between two 'cloven mountains'. As interpreted by Coomaraswamy, the universal significance of this imaginal motif is that:
As early as 1963, Urquhart had painted a tondo with a V shaped 'opening' at its apex, a passageway over a rainbow to a vivid blue sky. Significantly entitled Beyond, the 'way' to the sky is threatened on both sides by red rocky formations angled towards the opening. Urquhart's persistent imaginal preoccupation with the motif is evidenced as well in his 'Idea Book' of 1966-70, which contains sketches of similar tondos and by the fantasy box sketches mentioned above. He has stated no direct source for the motif in any experience of the landscape. One can only assume that the V shape motif of clapping mountains arises as an archetypal structure from some unknown source in Urquhart's visual imagination.
Ladders appear prominently in Urquhart's Stations of the Cross, 1984. This series of fourteen small panels is intended, as its title indicates, to evoke Christian liturgical associations. The reference is clearly to the Way of the Cross, visualized in images around the walls of naves and followed by worshippers with appropriate prayers. Yet, like Barnett Newman's earlier version, The Stations of the Cross - Lema Sabachthani (1958-66), the series does not have its immediate visual source in Christian iconography. Both Urquhart's and Newman's Stations are non-representational and, as Newman says, 'were not commissioned by any Church' (Hess 1978: 210).
Urquhart's use of a ladder motif in his series, along with rectangular threshold motifs, as the sole representational imagery, is yet another instance of the convergence in his work of personal, cultural, and universal meanings. While the ladder and threshold are grounded in personal experience, the ladder is at the same time universally recognized as an archetype of transcendence, everywhere symbolizing the soul's ascent to the sky. Even among the Ostyak of Siberia, 'the other world is in the sky...reached by ascending ladders each three hundred to one thousand feet long' (Van Gennep 1909:150). For westerners, the archetypal ladder to Heaven is most familiar in the Old Testament book of Genesis (Chapter 29, Verse 11), where Jacob rests his head upon a 'pillow' of stones and dreams of a ladder, the top of which reaches heaven. In Byzantine and Catholic Christian iconography, Jacob's Ladder is a 'ladder of salvation', whereby the soul ascends to the sky after death. In visual representations, the ladder sometimes leans against the Tree of Life: 'The soul having escaped from the grave...climbs the ladder, which is so firmly planted against the tree of life that the efforts of the Devil to drag him down are all in vain' (Didron 1965). In Urquhart's Stations of the Cross, it is noteworthy that the ladder motif is often angled against a strong vertical element, in a manner reminiscent of the Mediaeval Christian formula. In fact, Urquhart's watercolour, The Magic Circle, 1985, shows a tree in bloom, clearly a Tree of Life, rising from the depths of an open grave.
The ladder is most often associated in the series with narrow rectangles placed at various angles within the compositions. More than likely, these signify the open grave and in Stations II and XIV, the threshold motif. While one would tend to assume that the last station signifies resurrection and liberation, there is instead a degree of ambiguity in Urquhart's imagery. The ladder in Station XIV links the top edge of one threshold motif in the 'foreground' plane with a smaller threshold in the 'distance', to suggest another kind of tunnel. But the ladder seems to 'lead' from one opening to another. In a kind of double bind, the 'upper' is just a mirror of the 'lower', without any clear cut sign of transcendence. We are reminded of Barnett Newman's statement, when asked about the subtitle of his own Stations, 'Lema Sabachthani', which is Hebrew for 'Why hast thou forsaken me?':
The ladder in Urquhart's imagery is therefore also an ambiguous symbol of liberation from earth to heaven, from suffering to peace. It offers transcendence, but without guarantees, for, as in a seventeenth century symbolic ladder of alchemy, the scala lapidis, the ladder only 'points to' the process of transformation, 'with all its ups and downs' (Jung 1968).
Perhaps the least obvious archetypal theme in all of Urquhart's work is that of vegetation. It appears in various guises and more or less consistently throughout his career as a recurrent leitmotif. Flowers, vines, foliage, and trees dominate the imagery of his earliest Abstract Expressionist phase. In oils and watercolours - Primavera, 1957; The Earth Returns to Life, 1958; and the series, Transition of the Seasons, 1958 - Urquhart addresses the cyclical transformations of nature. This early preoccupation with plant growth in the landscape was initially inspired by the vegetation in his grandmother's garden. He has tended to dismiss many of his earliest works as façile, as 'straight landscapes without metaphor' (Cameron 1971: 41). Yet his early interest in botanical themes - the life, death, and renewal of earth's vegetation - sets the stage for continued development of the theme in the context of his later symbolic works, including his most recent, Magic Wood, 1987 (Figure No. VI).
The theme of 'germination', for example, prevails from about 1964 to 1968. In works such as Germinating Head, 1964 and Germinating Objects, 1968, Urquhart deals with the idea of unnatural growth. In the former, plastic flowers erupt from a body in decay and in the latter, inanimate objects grow as if they were generated by an organic life force. Continued preoccupation with artificial plant life is manifest as well in innumerable images of surrogate funeral wreaths and make believe flowers in drawings and paintings, paradoxical symbols of death and life renewal left at graveside by mourners. The 'lump' motif is, of course, another visual metaphor of unnatural growth. Like an intrusive, runaway tumour or nuclear powered bomb, the lump signifies dangerous, life negating growth.
At the same time, Urquhart's germinating human forms recall Blake's concept of 'vegetating bodies'. The image for Blake was inspired by Erasmus Darwin, the poet grandfather of Charles Darwin, against which Blake reacted in horror for its equation of organic human life with that of plants. For Blake, Darwin's vision of man as a soulless body akin to vegetables, left no room for the spirit and signified spiritual death: 'No human Form but only Fibrous Vegetation, A Polypus of Soft affections without Thought or Vision' (Raine 1968, 1:241). It is unlikely that Urquhart's conception is grounded in the same concerns as the nineteenth century poet. Nevertheless, the image linking human with plant life is archetypal and is similar iarted by human interference, and the trees as images are evocative of contorted human figures struggling towards growth and regeneration against all odds. In contrast, the later Magic Circle, 1985, with its blossoming, rose coloured tree emerging miraculously from the bottom of the grave, signifies life renewal and abundant growth. These two works typify the frequent contrasts in Urquhart's two dimensional works between desiccated and flourishing plant life.
For the context of mid-twentieth century culture, it is noteworthy that vegetation symbolism in Urquhart's imagery finds a parallel in the Italian Renaissance. Both literature and the visual arts of that period provide evidence in abundance for an entire ideology of spiritual and cultural renewal as expressed in vegetative symbols. In fact, the Latin root renasci means not only 'rebirth', but 'renewed vegetation', especially that which grows after traumatic pruning and cutting of trees, vines, and plants. The 'reflowering' of dry trees is a central image, cited as particularly symbolic in the Renaissance of the resuscitation of life, culture, and the human soul (Ladner 1972).
Urquhart's King and Queen, 1984, with its structured images of grave-thresholds interrupted by the suggestion of foliage wafted from the grave, may also be interpreted in this context of vegetation symbolism. In traditional Europe, the motif of a King and Queen is richly developed in folklore, myth, and ritual as a metaphor for the re-awakening of nature in Spring and with the renewal of cultural life. The 'spirit of vegetation', for example, is often identified with a royal couple. In pre-industrial France, a King and Queen were chosen from among the populace to sit enthroned on the first of May dbolism of innumerable cultures. Folklore throughout the world tells of humans who transform into specific plants or trees after death or of fading leaves and flowers, which portend the demise of persons or whole cultures. In myths, a common theme is the appearance of flowers and plants from the blood of gods and heroes. And in rituals, various kinds of plants serve as life metaphors, the continuity and renewal of life signified by blooming branches and evergreen boughs in the seasonal rites of European tradition. Blossoming branches, in particular, are symbols of 'deliverance from death' (Bodkin 1958: 126).
Urquhart's vegetation imagery, especially as it is the most enduring of all his themes and motifs, is particularly appropriate to an interpretation of his work as a response to cultural crisis. Perhaps more than any other theme, the cyclical re-flowering of plants and trees is a life metaphor signifying the quest in our time for the renewal of nature, culture, and the human spirit.
Conclusion: The Artist in Perspective
Contrary to widespread opinion, transcendence permeates the very core of abstraction in its specific historical development in the modern West and cross culturally in the history of world art. The very roots of Western abstractionism lie in the conception of art itself as an essentially spiritual activity, most particularly in the work and writing of Wassily Kandinsky (Vastokas 1979:68; Tuchman and Freeman 1987). Art historian Robert Rosenblum has uncovered the previously obscured spiritual basis of modernism. He sees an underlying common thread linking Abstract Expressionism with northern Romantic landscape painting. Both Caspar David Friedrich in the nineteenth century and Mark Rothko in the twentieth, sought to express a mystic and transcendental experience of nature and human existence. Like so many abstract painters of the twentieth century - Kandinsky, Georgia O'Keefe, Barnett Newman, Lawren Harris, to name just a few - 'Rothko's paintings seek the sacred in a modern world of the secular' (Rosenblum 1975:34).
Abstract expressionism, as an instance, has been shown to have originated in profoundly spiritual and humanistic concerns. The work of such artists as Arshile Gorky, Barnett Newman, and Rothko has been mistakenly interpreted in the past by critics and public alike as expressions of form for 'art's sake' alone (see Carmean, Rathbone, Hess 1978). Critic Clement Greenberg, in particular, has championed the Abstract Expressionists, but praised and promoted their works as purely formal expressions to the total neglect of their intended content.
Indeed, it would appear now that strictly formalist art is more an invention of certain critics - and the list should include the influence of critics Maurice Denis in France and Roger Fry in England - than a creation of the artists themselves. Wherever explicit statements by artists are available, even the most non-objective forms, as in Malevich's Suprematist squares or Hans Hoffman's swaths of dripping colour, are intended to communicate at the very least feeling states and emotional responses to colour. In the case of minimalists following upon Malevich and the later Josef Albers - such as American painters Ellsworth Kelley, Frank Stella, and Kenneth Noland - their works unintentionally communicate a perception of the world that is in accord with the sterility and vacuity of much contemporary existence.
The idea of strictly formalist art as fostered in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, even if it ever existed in reality, must be interpreted less as a 'mainstream' phenomenon than an intellectual aberration in the history of world art, a momentary phase in that of the West. Art with content, meaning, and purpose has been the norm throughout human history and will likely remain so to the end of allotted time. Where artists have adhered self-consciously to the notion of art as pure form, it is held as a theoretical position rather than a practical reality. Aesthetic response is to a large extent rooted in human physiology and psychology and visual forms, as a consequence, have a way of conjuring up associational meanings in the eye and mind of the beholder whether intended or unintended by the artist. As studies in the psychology of perception have begun to show, 'vision is the primary medium of thought' and 'perceptual and pictorial shapes are not only translations of thought processes but the very flesh and blood of thinking itself' (Arnheim 1969:18,134).
As a consequence of the critical re-assessment of the past seventy five years of modernism, it can only be concluded that mainstream abstractionism from Kandinsky to Rothko was centred upon meaningful content and sought to express primarily intellectual and spiritual concerns through generalized abstract forms rather than representational images.
Tony Urquhart himself began his career under the direct influence of American Abstract Expressionists. But instead of succumbing to Greenberg's much touted formalist fiction of that movement, Urquhart absorbed what recent critics have recognized as the 'spiritual heart of abstraction' (Gablik 1984:23).
In the preceding section, we examined the central organizing themes and motifs in Urquhart's imagery. The richness and integrity of his visual system is such, however, that still other themes and images not touched on in any depth here, serve only to enhance the overall significance of his work. The impression of 'landscape in jeopardy', for example, is another aspect of his landscape ideology calling for further examination. The idea of nature as a harmonious garden threatened, poisoned, or shattered by science, technology, or man is implied in a variety of works: My Garden III, 1964; Box with Six Landscape Shards, 1970. Latent, too, is the enigmatic place of human forms in the cosmos, a theme suggested by the formal qualities of figural representations. Almost all figures are dreamlike and unreal, visualized commonly by means of photographic collage. Miniature in scale, they represent cherubs, saints, and memory images of usually long gone and forgotten figures. They are like souls or ghosts, fleeting, transparent, and small: Forgotten Man Series, 1961; The Oakdale's Reunion, 1961; Urquhart Icon, 1963. So, too, the relationship of Urquhart's work to the symbolic traditions of Neo-Platonism and alchemy would seem to require closer scrutiny.
As a whole, however, the meanings are consistent and Urquhart's work may be interpreted as a visual system geared to expressing the enigma of human existence in an unknown and changing universe. Almost the whole of his symbol system is interpretable as an expression of liminality, an ambiguous and dangerous phase between two contrary modes of being. Anthropologists have defined the 'liminal period' as an 'interstructural situation', characterizing not only the rites of passage but any marginal 'transition between states', between any fixed or stable condition. As defined by Victor Turner, the term 'state' is applicable to almost any phenomenon, to ecological conditions, to war and peace, illness and health, famine and plenty, sacred and profane. Most notably for our interpretation, Turner cites symbolic motifs of liminality already seen in the work of Urquhart:
Urquhart's symbol system is expressive, in part, of the liminal state of society in the post-modernist era, a period between 1960 and the present which can only be described as an era of radical cultural change, threatened on all sides and from within by ecological disaster, nuclear annihilation, incurable new diseases, and social disintegration. The time is literally a state of chaos. Liminality is the essence of contemporary consciousness.
Urquhart's work epitomizes the search for order and meaning in this chaotic, liminal world of apparent randomness, unpredictability, and danger. It is a quest for transcendence to a new state, one that has been eloquently described for the whole of contemporary culture by Eliade:
Urquhart has rediscovered meaning in a world of change. His symbolic expressions are rarely recognizable representations, but patterns, motifs, and formal relationships extracted from the visible world, whether natural landscape or man made environments and artifacts. And, as we have seen, images resulting from this process of visual discovery have striking parallels in sacred forms of art and architecture and are echoed in myth, ritual, and poetry of diverse periods and cultural traditions. This tendency of Urquhart's to create archetypal patterns and images is not forced or self conscious, but is rooted authentically in personal experience.
As such, Urquhart's work represents a genuine response to cultural crisis, to the spiritual emptiness of contemporary consumer society. In this respect he is aligned with those other contemporary artists who seek a return to myth and to meaning grounded in humanistic and universal values. At the same time, however, he must be seen in the context of a long line of artists whose works are governed by a transcendent conception of the world.
from the catalogue Worlds Apart: The Symbolic Landscapes of Tony Urquhart
Text: © Joan M. Vastokas. All rights reserved.
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