Luke Elwes: Sanctuary

“When we enter the landscape to learn something we are obligated, I think, to pay attention rather than constantly pose questions. To approach the land as we would a person, by opening an intelligent conversation. And to stay in one place, to make of that one long observation a fully dilated experience. We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more then we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language.”

– Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America

Art is first of all a question of private passions, passions that only finally, connect with a wider audience through the sensuous instincts of the artist. For Luke Elwes, over the last decade, that obsession has been with the sacred landscape. His journeys to the dry tablelands of the Hopi Indians in New Mexico, the Central Australian Desert of the Australian Aborigines, the Great Rift Valley in East Africa (the first landscape consciously known to human eyes) and, more recently, to the Buddhist sacred mountain, Mt. Kailash in the Tibetan Plateau, are all part of an intense need to confront and give form to the inner loneliness of our existence – those same “desert places” that so haunted the imagination of the poet Robert Frost. And, on each of these journeys it has been the quietness and steadiness of his attention to the landscape, his willingness to let the complex language of the land shape his experience of it, that has resulted in such a consistently rich and rewarding body of paintings over this period.

Yet, it should be stressed, it has also been part of an intelligent conversation, one to which Elwes has, in the most open-minded way, brought both his own knowledge as well as a desire to understand. The resulting paintings have not been driven by an overriding desire for a new form that the landscape might provide, but on the contrary have led to the discovery of the physical and spiritual correspondences between apparently diverse geographies. In this new series, derived from his latest journey to the astonishing cave complexes of Cappadocia in Central Turkey that gave home, and literally shelter and protection to the very earliest Christian communities, Elwes has produced paintings that bear close kinship with the work in his Storyline exhibition some seven years ago, which resulted from his travels among the American Pueblo Indians and in the East African Rift Valley.

This is immediately apparent above all in the dark hard edged rectangular openings that form such a dominant visual element of both groups of paintings and landscapes. On the one hand is the similarly punctuated surface, in the Cappadocian paintings representing the apertures hewn out of the rock itself, and marking the entrances to the countless literal spaces of the hermetic cells, chapels and tombs of the Early Christian fathers that honeycomb these extraordinary rock formations. On the other is the remarkable spiritual/geographical coincidence of their east facing entrances, so constructed by the Pueblo Indians that they might “watch the sun being reborn out of the earth’s womb each day, bringing light and lifeback to the silent skin of the earth”. Geologically remarkable in themselves, quite apart from these moving outward evidences of human belief that seem at times almost to float across their surfaces, they are too, as Elwes himself observes, visual metaphors, “suggestive both of individual lives and the connectedness of all Life”.

And, like the landscape of Mt. Kailash in Tibet which provided the inspiration for his last exhibition (Pilgrim, 1998 Art First), this is a landscape filled with visual reminders of belief. “The scenery of early Christendom lay all around us”, Patrick Leigh Fermor observed of Cappadocia, although in its long abandoned and distinctly melancholy uninhabited present state this once populous landscape is not one of continuing belief but instead a potent reminder of an existence and belief largely lost, as our Western/Christian civilisation has become more complex and less innocent. This was very much part of what attracted and absorbed Elwes’ attention. Also the strong sense, nonetheless, that the life and belief that existed in these peaks and valleys was always rooted firmly in the earth, a fact forcibly brought home to him one day when, walking by one of the streams that feed the lush valleys that once provided the hermits’ livelihood, a strange clattering noise in the grass brought him to a group of rutting male tortoises, the descendants of those painted 1500 years earlier and still to be seen decorating cell and chapel walls alongside images of the cross and stars in the sky. As the artist observes, “even the doves stillcircle and return to innumerable dovecotes. The simple wonder of being at one with the earth, the sky, the rocks, the seasons, with all of life, has faded”.

That sense he has of a faith deeply bound to the earth feels unfamiliar in the context of a Christian/Western belief that has, in the intervening period, intentionally distanced itself from what it sees as pagan, naturebound cults, and depicted the earth as of little or no importance spiritually. This tendency has had disastrous consequences, environmentally and emotionally for the human race as a whole as we simultaneously destroy the earth and lose our sense of place within it. For, as Paul Devereux has written in Revisioning the Earth, “Place is not passive. It interacts with our consciousness in a dynamic way. It contains its own memory of events and its own mythic nature, its ‘genius loci’ or spirit of place”. It can bring things to the fore, into awareness, that were until then existing in the unconscious mind. Place can therefore illuminate us and provide mythic imaginings within us”.

Luke ElwesAll this might sound like a heavy agenda to superimpose on these paintings, and it is a measure of Elwes’ subtlety and command as a painter now that he can find so surely the technical ways and means to translate these apprehensions into a series of visual images that are at the same time direct and yet resonant with feeling. Beneath the great washes of colour that drift across some of the large canvases one senses, unmistakably, the traces and gleamings of the decorations that fill the walls of those underground/overground chapels, while the layers of paint surface upon paint surface in themselves provide a potent metaphor for the tantalising, obscuring effects of time and history on our understanding. They suggest too.the layering of memory. The poet Kathleen Raine complaining of our present education as “a language without a memory”, observed that “the language of poets is a language of images upon which meanings are built, in metaphors and symbols which never lose their link with light and darkness, tree and flower, animals and rivers and mountains and stars and winds and the elements of earth, air, fire and water. The language of poetry in the language of nature”. In a culture that is becoming increasingly amnesiac, our attention spans ever shorter, these paintings have the effect of engaging our attention with that same quality of quietude and passion that Luke Elwes first experienced in the Cappadocia landscapes.

Nicholas Usherwood
February 2000