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Isles

of

Amnesia

Paul James Cunningham Year' s End 2018


Isles

of

Amnesia

Paul James Cunningham Copyright Š 2018 Untitled 2.0 All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any means without permission of Untitled 2.0 All works completed 2018 Paintings & Introduction by Paul James Cunningham. Text by Robert A.B. Sawyer. Isles of Amnesia {Untitled 2.0, November 2 - December 29, 2018} Photography & Design by Duane Megyesi Untitled 2.0 A Gallery on the Corner of 6th & G Street 119 SE 6th Street, Grants Pass, OR 97526 DeWayne Thomas Lumpkin untitled2gallery.com


Isles

of

Amnesia

Paul James Cunningham


An isle is an island, one charted or, just as likely, off the charts. In life, it can be a simple outcropping of rocks, but in our imaginations, it can contain an entire world. Real isles are often uninhabited and of little significance. Imaginary isles hold the potential of planets, perhaps because they are so often associated with Homer and other poets. In Homer’s Odyssey, they are islands on which Odysseus lands, or is blown to, and where great pleasures or terrible things await him. They are inhabited by goddesses such as Circe or Calypso and characterized by enchantment like the land Lotophagi (Lotus-eaters), or the home of monsters such as the Cyclops Polyphemus. Because they are remote or shrouded in mist, they serve as exquisite metaphors for exile.

The human soul has need of security and also of risk. The fear of violence or of hunger or of any other extreme evil is a sickness of the soul. The boredom produced by a complete absence of risk is also a sickness of the soul.

Amnesia is a mental disorder, a partial or total loss of memory. Memory that is erased or memory that can be rediscovered. Amnesia, the result of physical or mental trauma, is the stuff of nightmare. It is darkness although the cure is as simple as flipping a light switch or, in the trope of the amnesiac, being hit on the head a second time. An amnesiac, almost by definition, is an exile.

-St. John of the Cross

-Simone Weil

The endurance of darkness is the preparation for great light.


Paul James Cunningham’s new show, “Isles of Amnesia” is composed of paintings and drawings that while appearing at a glance familiar, also suggest places as hidden and distant from our lives as those described by Homer. They summon recollections of ruins and yet they are also a stone’s throw from the Belfast or London of Cunningham’s childhood. These particular cities, at that time, have been virtually erased by our collective memory. They were forgotten; no longer part of any landscape. Their absence represents for Cunningham a kind of amnesia. Places he knew had been wiped clean and only traces of them may be found, and then by accident. And, although these places and others like them existed, in fact, they remained just below our feet, they were distant as Isles belonging to antiquity, and, if inhabited at all, home only to ghosts. Memory functions in a variety of ways. It can bring forth images as detailed as the movement of a watch, or bright as an arrangement of flowers. Memory can play the trickster, turning over fragments of images that dart in and out of shadows. Light with flashes of terror; dark softened by moonlight.

Cunningham’s Isles of Amnesia argues that memories are of necessity false. Constructs decorated by things, inhabited by people we need to see, need to remember. In this way, they serve to hide, to deceive those who cling to them. His new paintings, heavy and gestural, often resemble cities. Of course, they are cities, look for and you’ll find the iconography, the landmarks. Others suggest landscapes, but resemblance is not portraiture and suggestions are not descriptions. Just as the map is not the territory, a cluster of buildings on either side of a river may be less than they appear to be. A view of a muddied cityscape that stretches from the foreground to the horizon is not intended to represent any place in particular. But what would be the point of that? What’s more, the aerial view, which Cunningham so often favors, does not look down, in order to organize the eyes’ passage, but rather out toward a horizon that takes one past the heart of a downtown, or out to sea, or into the mists and beyond. These places are all enchanted.


Art is the symbol of the two noblest human efforts: to construct and to refrain from destruction. -Simone Weil Cunningham is a literary painter, his work informed by books he’s read and what he calls “the dust of a thousand things he's written.” If Isles are no place, and Amnesia is no memory, I would say the show gives shape and color to Exile. The traces of home, of what was a real place grounded in Victorian orange, in shipyards, in construction sites, as well as in 200-year-old layers of charcoal clinging to brick, brick that could dissolve into dust at the rattling of the next crane load of debris. Why debris? Because cities are built on debris and of debris. Debris which is tangible and debris that is immaterial. In the case of Cunningham’s consciousness and so in his work, the debris of war-war past and war certain to return. The irony of his exile is the impulse to return, to return even to debris, certainly to failures, and even catastrophe. The paintings and drawings in this show scramble out of density and toward a horizon. There is a promise of an order that turns back on itself. If this is a homecoming, it is bittersweet at best.

As a painter, Cunningham’s work is indebted to Simone Weil’s observation, “Art is the symbol of the two noblest human efforts: to construct and to refrain from destruction.” Weil also wrote that St. John of the Cross called faith “a night.” Exile is also a night. A night that lasts until one can return home. The darker Cunningham’s paintings, the deeper the longing for home. Where light appears or illuminates, the promise of return is strongest. But in this painted world, promises are seldom kept and so, like wishes, one must be ready to accept the consequences of a promise kept. In the work, there is no narrative. Even a painting far from the “city’s center” is not a landscape and even less a pastoral. In these paintings, as in the center of his apparent cityscape, what one experiences is gesture and paint. The paint reveals but does so with the ambiguity of an oracle. There is beauty in the work, but Cunningham takes no pleasure in the idealizing of nature, particularly that as practiced by the English landscape painter. His natural world is characterized by constant and unsettling motion, a coming together and coming apart.


Even the natural qualities of water, whether river or sea, are intended to confound. If they appear wet, in motion unlike the earth or stone they border, that is an illusion. A false memory as they are, in fact, another impenetrable surface. Two paintings, of the same subject, sum up the all the ideas spawned by notions of isles and amnesia. These are paintings of the Coliseum in Rome. Even the most critical and appreciative mind might find them out of place here. But in fact, they may require the least analysis of any other in the show. What do we see? Ovals, concentric ovals, lit by a bit of light, allowing us to drop to the bottom of it's well. And, also, a range of the color ochre, ochre the color of dried blood. We look but we do not see what, in Cunningham’s words, was a crucible of violence. Cunningham says that everything that has ever existed continues to exist. What is the Coliseum? A ruin stripped and degraded through millennia. Yes, but what is it doing among paintings that call to mind 19th, 20th and 21st century cities? What is this building-a favorite souvenir from the painters on the Grand Tour to those taking Selfies today?

In what parallel world, in what dreamscape, what nightmare, do shouts rise from this, the progenitor of our great stadiums? Unlike Cunningham’s cities, blocks or districts, the Coliseum still exists as it was imagined. First and finally a colossal. Today, a tourist attraction, but in its day, a monstrous abattoir. A hell on earth. The crimes committed there, even the mock battles, are felt, if at all, by the thousands that visit every day-arriving and departing with a bit of frisson that approaches schadenfreude. But the reality erased from our memories. Scant bits recalled but on an isle hidden by mist. That said, in the context of this show, what is it except a city in miniature? Another city broken and set aflame during the Blitz. A city raised by masons and ironworkers that was flattened by history, only to rise again, only to ‌ Cunningham might say, that the life and death of a city is not a puzzle to solve, but a mystery to experience. Amnesia is evidence that there is a reality outside of the time and space we occupy.


Memory of a life can only take shape when that person has died. Memory of a place can only be constructed when one is exiled from it. In this environment as in the paintings in the show, amnesia is the charnel house of memory. Time moves forward on a road paved with bones. Death was central to the rows of Victorian brick houses, breweries and shipyards. When they were gone, or on their way out, new towers rose over them, and Cunningham believes they in their turn will topple. Death on a massive scale builds and unbuilds these cities. Cunningham shows that there is a reality outside of time and space that remains accessible to us. Which is why in his work viscosity does not obscure, but rather compels the viewer to look. Look the better to actually see. See ourselves as we are, which is in transit. At some point in the process of painting Cunningham claims that he loses control and the painting paints itself. The informing ideas discussed above are not sacrificed but endorsed by an unconscious drive to see that the truth is told. It is the unconscious that ensures that the present day is not privileged over the days that preceded it, or those that will inevitably follow.

The unconscious, whether in our dreams, or through the strokes of a brush or spread of a palette knife, reminds us that things coming undone are also coming into existence. Looking over Cunningham’s work illustrates something Weil wrote to the poet Joe Bousquet: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I return to Weil because it is apparent that Cunningham has been paying attention to his surroundings and to his feelings since he was a child. Over the decades of his exile, he has never forgotten the formative images and sensations. If his paintings were purely autobiographical, they would not have the weight they carry. Cunningham’s work is relevant because he is bringing to life things that need to be seen, things we are inclined to forget and set aside in our collective amnesia. We have built the machinery, constructed a psychology and invented a language to explain away essential truths. These are the truths Cunningham wants to preserve. They are not, in the conventional sense, pretty. This is why one may find the work possesses a macabre quality. A cathedral under a blackout.


Highways that lead nowhere. A perpetual autumn. It is this passage through the dark that reminds me of Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person. A book about an amnesiac, in search of a lost isle. Like Modiano, Cunningham creates an immense melancholy. And not all his skill as a draftsman or as colorist, or as a master of aerial perspective or pictorialist, can distract us from the fact that what we may initially admire as a great city, is at second glance, uninhabited, under an enchantment. Nothing is entirely what it seems.

Old stone/ on old stone/ on old bone Cunningham has found something in common with the late German writer W.G. Sebald. Sebald wrote on the theme of memory and loss of memory, both the personal and the collective with great wit and insight. Like Cunningham, he was attracted to the idea of the decay of people and civilizations. In his best-known novel Austerlitz, the protagonist Jacques Austerlitz is on a quest to recall what he had forgotten. As a young Jewish boy, he was sent on a kindertransport from Czechoslovakia to Wales.

Over time, he will learn who he was, the better to understand who he is; then he will expand his search to find out the fate suffered by his mother and father. In this way the book takes the reader on a guided tour of a lost Europe. In a similar fashion, Cunningham takes the viewer to the world of his past. This shorthand does no justice to the book, nor to Cunningham’s paintings, but it helps focus our attention on time past, on civilizations fallen, on life set again in motion like a clock rewound by an invisible hand. Cunningham offers impressions that while evocative are not emotional. They are intentionally incomplete in the way our memories of dreams are incomplete. We see built environments and somehow know, although possibly cannot express, the fact that they will recede into the dark or back into the earth. In Romantic landscape studies ruins and follies served both symbolic and actual purposes. They were paintings of no place. Particular care was taken so they would be read as idylls. In this way they encouraged dreaming. Cunningham has taken that practice into our recent industrial past. The buildings, sacred and secular, public or private, are not places but symbols. Structures remain; all souls have left.


Cenotaphs for the Living At a glance, the only uninhabited work are the landscapes, the shorelines. A city by definition is peopled. Cunningham’s work challenges this assumption. Yes, there are things easily identified in the work. A cathedral in black, another in white. Some have stories to tell. Stories largely forgotten: the black cathedral is in Cologne, Germany served Allied bombers as a marker, a stop sign that said, to go further is to risk running short of fuel. The white Saint Paul’s is in London. A deathly white, it served as the Luftwaffe’s marker. There is much here for the alert viewer, the patient viewer, the one who hasn’t forgotten. But the canvas is not a board game and there’s no prize in locating a specific location. Or spotting the civilian who has not yet taken shelter. Construction, different architectural styles may suggest progress and everything that implies. But a glance at the rivers may give you pause. Since Heraclitus running water has symbolized the passage of time, but in these paintings, the water is solid, time has stopped.

There are certain paintings that seem to deviate from Cunningham’s central concerns. Mass dissolves, and the canvas opens. These pieces are urban in nature, modern by design, to the point of suggesting a certain Corbusier-esque logic. In fact, these “structures” were conceived as a solution to the post-war housing crisis. It was thought they’d help restore life to the battered, sunk and burned neighborhoods. They were the “prefab” houses built on the cheap, for the poor and working classes. Towering, set at right angles to one another, separated by empty spaces, a world of grays, they appear more like cenotaphs than housing, (They are not unique and seem to conform in obvious ways to the public housing built in America’s older cities.) The prefabs were cities within cities, buildings that condemned people by class, damned families to an underclass while encouraging the rise of a new criminal class. Cunningham’s renderings are sharp and as rectilinear as his Coliseum is circular. If his Coliseum brings to mind a descent into Dante’s Inferno, these suggest a postapocalyptic landscape. He has described both as gladiatorial pits.


They are among the lightest of his work, but light as in the absence of dark, which is to say, nothing is illuminated. What we see is not pleasing, the city more a prison and the lower building more like barracks than places of business or recreation. They are remarkably Orwellian cityscapes. The architecture imposing and indifferent to light or life. In this sense they reflect a collective unconscious, a terrible feeling of what is to come, again. What one remembered was terrible and amnesia offered relief. Cunningham always allows the piece to outline and fill its own existence. He says: “The work appears as if on a continuum. A stop in a painting is at best a comma, a recognizable object, a punctuation mark. Yes, it is a city, that is a train trestle, a skyscraper, a cathedral, a bay, an estuary. But they are, in reality, an ‘arresting’ point.” The pun is intentional. One look starts as another ends, and another begins. The viewer proceeds in starts and fits and to try to take a painting in at a glance would be a mistake. They deserve very slow viewing. If one rushes, he or she will not see that the construction sites are silent.

Their purpose is delayed, if not aborted. Trains neither arrive nor depart. Comfort is not the point of the work. Cunningham says it is not his job to create a convincing landscape. Rather, he seeks a quality often found in what is often described as outsider art. He is insistent that he is not painting an idea, that he has never been part of a school or movement. Any aesthetic or political statement would be entirely beside the point. Work that follows the laws of the unconscious can only be appreciated by the unconscious. Perhaps the wow in the work is found in its stillness. In a world defined by constant interruption and almost demonic aural and visual noise, Cunningham offers stillness. Standing in front of a work, one can settle into a quiet. Something familiar rises but quietly as a soufflé rises. This strong, sometimes punishing work whispers something essential. It hints at something lost. We come to the work as an amnesiac awakens. Consciousness can be understood as an Isle of Amnesia. It exists but cannot be approached.


But this realization does not detract from his instinct to create, Cunningham adopted the painter Francis Bacon’s insight to choose your mythical center. Cunningham’s childhood is his wellspring, and he refuses to stray far from that. He was a child, emerging from a wasteland whose soul was saved by Turner and Rembrandt. The museum became his spiritual home, the real home away from home. His isle. Post-war Britain was a vulnerable time. London, Belfast were cities putting themselves back together and not for the first time. But having witnessed the aftermath of one of the world’s great tragedies, he refused to forget it. These works are both an antidote for amnesia and an enchanted isle. We move on but in our unconscious is a record in real time of the events that formed us. While we weave in and out of time the echo remains. The brush is master and as brutal and insistent as the hands of a clock. The finished painting is an unconscious act. Cunningham describes it as a full stop. It’s a palpable thing. Not conscious, intellectual, not like planing a piece of wood, stopping at a mark. It is as if something takes the brush out of his hand. It’s done, everything there is to tell has been told.

At which point Cunningham describes himself as a spent force, except he feels a sense of redemption. Redemption is the only word for it. Cunningham has said, when I look up and see a good painting, I’m as surprised as anyone who first sees it. The principle point of this work is to remember and help others to remember that the world has been damaged and will surely be damaged again. What remains, remains in the unconscious and the unconscious cannot be neglected. But these are not pessimistic works or polemics; they invite engagement with certain ideas that are generally not discussed, if for no other reason than the unconscious is not reasonable and, as Freud observed, when it becomes conscious, it goes elsewhere. The works offers the end of something, which foreshadows a new beginning, in fact, infinite possibilities. But possible is not the same as rejuvenation. As Elio Vittorini, in Conversations in Sicily, reminds us: who has not been wronged and who has not done wrong to the world. In this and in other ways, Cunningham’s sensibility is more European than American. It is not can do but wait and see. As a child he saw that no downpour was strong enough to clean the air.


The wastelands he experienced offered not so much potential but promised more of the same. This said, the ultimate paradox is that terror and worse cannot extinguish hope. An artist has to be an optimist. If not, why go to the trouble to create and show his work. In Cunningham’s case, he denies optimism or pessimism. At most he’ll admit to a secret mind at work. A mind that has to work. A mind that works even as it is detached from the work. Painting, he enters an alpha state; the dresser not the actor as it is the brush that summons the memories, which he is incapable of remembering. Cunningham believes if he tried to recall a particular scene, he’d go blank. When he knows a work is done, there is a sigh of relief because he’s found an ineluctable rightness. Cunningham describes his process as “pastoral and burn the ships.” Both images taken from antiquity, the former representing a utopian vision and the latter, a metaphor for a desperate and drastic strategy. Both are used by Cunningham to explain his process. He reminds us that ‘Stendhal, the 19thcentury French writer and novelist and one of the earliest proponents of realism, had acquired an engraving of Ivrea,

a picturesque town in the Piedmont region of Italy. Cunningham retells how one day, to Stendhal’s dismay, he realized that the picture of Ivrea had replaced his own mental image, the authentic image, of the place. Following this realization, the realist Stendhal offered this advice: "Don’t purchase engravings of views one sees while traveling, since before long they will displace one’s memories completely, they might even destroy them utterly." Cunningham, apropos of art in general and his own work in particular, believes art is both the preserver of memory and its mortal enemy. These two competing visions have been with us as long as we’ve been conscious. There to inform and there to correct our presumptions about the work hanging in front of us. Yet in spite of this we still pretend that a utopia is possible in the city and arcadia in the country. Cunningham is vehement. No. No, he will not give you pretty pictures of the kind Stendhal warned against. But he will offer you this consolation: amnesia is not terminal, and enchanted isles did, do and must exist.

-Robert A. B. Sawyer New York, 2018


Index

Cranes

in order of appearance

Charcoal on Heavy Rag Paper 36 x 36

Imaginary Portrait I

Excavation

Shell

Envelope

Prefabs

Marker Study

Idyll

Red Rust

East End

Blue

Street Study

Marker

Oil & Wax on Board 15 x 13

Charcoal on Heavy Rag Paper 36 x 36

Charcoal on Heavy Rag Paper 36 x 36

Oil & Wax on Board 60 x 60

Oil & Wax on Board 48 x 39

Oil & Wax on Board 20 x 16

Oil & Wax on Board 60 x 60

Oil & Wax on Board 18 x 22

Oil & Wax on Board 21 x 15

Oil & Wax on Board 24 x 24

Oil & Wax on Board 24 x 24

Charcoal on Heavy Rag Paper 36 x 36


Colosseum

Dock Land

Sea

of Japan Oil & Wax on Board 15 x 14

Motorway 1961

Prefabs Study

Marker

Brutalism

East End Study

Oil & Wax on Board 60 x 60

Oil & Wax on Board 23 x 30

Oil & Wax on Board 24 x 24

Oil & Wax on Board 20 x 20

by Oil & Wax on Board 60 x 60

Night

Oil & Wax on Board 60 x 60

Oil & Wax on Board 20 x 16

Edge

of the Land Oil & Wax on Board 14 x 14

Railway Study

Isle

of Dogs Oil & Wax on Board 35 x 60

Nocturne II

Nocturne I

Not Here

Oil & Wax on Board 12 x 16

Oil & Wax on Board 20 x 16

Oil & Wax on Board 12 x 16

Oil & Wax on Board 11 x 16


Adumbration

Nocturne IV

Shell, Falling Down

Colosseum Study

Night River

Old Globe

Pit

Excavation

Euphorbus

Prefab

Hecatomb

Altar Piece

Nocturne III

Isle

Charcoal on Heavy Rag Paper 36 x 36

Oil & Wax on Board 23 x 30

Oil & Wax on Board 22 x 16

Oil & Wax on Board 24 x 24

Charcoal on Heavy Rag Paper 36 x 36

Oil & Wax on Board 60 x 60

Oil & Wax on Board 12 x 16

Oil & Wax on Board 12 x 16

Oil & Wax on Board 15 x 21

Oil & Wax on Board 25 x 30

Charcoal on Heavy Rag Paper 36 x 36

Oil & Wax on Board 60 x 60

Oil & Wax on Board 45 x 60

of Dogs Study Oil & Wax on Board 12 x 30


Spanish City

at Night Charcoal on Heavy Rag Paper 36 x 36

Nocturne V

Railway

Vail, Vale

Motorway Construction

Brutalism

Pit & Crane

Imaginary Portrait 2

Oil & Wax on Board 48 x 40

Charcoal on Heavy Rag Paper 36 x 36

Oil & Wax on Board 24 x 24

Resurrection

Charcoal on Heavy Rag Paper 36 x 36

Vickers Town Millbank Oil & Wax on Board 48 x 40

Falling Down Oil & Wax on Board 60 x 60

Oil & Wax on Board 12 x 16

Charcoal on Heavy Rag Paper 36 x 36

by Oil & Wax on Board 60 x 60

Oil & Wax on Board 14 x 14

Day


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Isles of Amnesia  

Isles of Amnesia