At the Tate St Ives until January 2010
Have you ever been totally submerged in darkness? I mean a thick blanket of deepest night, through which not even stars penetrate. So pitch black that imagination is the only thing left visible. I have. Two and-a-half years ago I camped in a forest on Dartmoor and under the canopy of trees and standing on the overgrown path I was exposed and at the same time secluded. Darkness is like that. Every snapping branch, every stamping hoof is feared, every sound is magnified. In this space imagination gathers momentum and is made almost real. Dreams, nightmares; they are all graspable.
The Dark Monarch focuses us into this void, where spirituality, romanticism, and dreams lie. Artists capture what we may only hope of snatching in the darkness. I was instantly transported back to that night on Dartmoor when viewing Black Square (2008) by 2005 Turner prize nominee Gillian Carnegie. The thick, glooping, daubed paint is expertly sculpted into trees, flora, and deepest dark night. Light catches the crevices to reveal texture, making the scene come alive. This, for me, is what The Dark Monarch represents – art which borders on the magical.
Shining in its formaldehyde kingdom a beautiful unicorn, complete with gold hooves, horn, and captured in a gold frame, is the poster piece and introduction to the exhibition. Be entranced by it. It demands our full attention and in doing so we are lulled, like a child, into the land beyond. Aptly named The Child’s Dream, unicorns have long been the mythical creatures of fantastical lands. Like a fantasy, the exhibition will take you on a journey, and as we are lulled into the first gallery like children, with mystical promise, the next are far more charged.
Dreamy mysticism is replaced by tension. Tension between life and spirituality, ourselves and our inner-most thoughts, the longing for the past and acceptance of the present, familiarity and the unknown, and finally, Modernism and Romanticism. Pillar of Smoke (1964), by Karl Wescheke is situated opposite Owl in Flight (1988) by Sven Berlin and epitomises the tension echoed through the rest of the pieces. On one hand you have darkness, despair, desolution, and on the other, the grace of an owl, bright and soaring in mid-flight. But in the end, they speak together; that all of us have these elements within us. No matter what your religion or spirituality the art in gallery one forces us to confront that fact.
Modernism and magic would seem to be opposed and this is experienced in the earlier pieces, but I think that in the Post-Modern art this is somewhat resolved. There is an unflinching honesty in David Noonan’s Owl (2009). It is unapologetic, bare and unfussy. It is what it is. The man and owl coexist with an unobtrusive elegance, and this intermingling of difference is a tendency with seems to extend further than The Dark Monarch.
Today we don’t have to choose, we can be tarot card reading Catholics, or church going pagans, and we can read our horoscopes and the Bible. This eclectic approach to spirituality means that, like Post-Modern art, anything goes. And that is a magical thing for us to be free to do.