The Great Work

above: Six Kinds of Magic, acrylic, oil, pastel and copper leaf on canvas, 150x90cm, 2016

catalog essay by Campbell Whyte

Nostalgia is often thought of as being something a little saccharine. Rose gardens, lace curtains, those embossed biscuit tins printed with impressionist paintings. A sentiment for the feeble, for those whose mind wallows in the past instead of engineering the future.

This wasn’t always the case.

In the 1600’s Nostalgia was considered a very serious medical condition. Symptoms included nausea, fainting, fever and would eventually result in death.

Sitting by a fire. Smoke slides between our fingers. Rising into the night sky. It weaves its way into the fabric of our clothes, coats our hair. The smell lingering for days.

Humans have always tried to hold on to the fleeting. To secure our intangible memories in the physical realm, so our hands could grip them, clench our fingers around them. So that they would not be lost.

In 18th century England, brooches were crafted, featuring portraits of loved ones, encased with locks of human hair. Metal. Flesh.

In Mexico, masks would be carved depicting the first white Spaniards that landed on their shore. Masks, worn to remember what was inflicted upon their ancestors. Wood. Resin.

In the walls of the Chauvet Cave in France, prehistoric humans painted hundreds of scenes. Animal migrations, weather patterns and the phases of pregnancy. Stone. Water.

Elements bonded together in a sort of alchemical process to become something different. Something of increased power and import. Arranged and rearranged to transfer meaning from one body to another. This was also the primary aim of alchemy, as practiced across centuries and continents.

As far as modern scholars can tell alchemists were equal parts scientists, poets and charlatans. For every interrogation into the nature of our material realm they performed there was an equal and opposite act of deception and snake oil sales. For every invention of gunpowder, there were uncountable poisonings by heavy metal laced elixirs of immortality.

The mixing of the elixir of immortality, or philosopher’s stone was the alchemist’s greatest ambition. The process to get there was known as transmutation. It was used to turn lead into gold, quartz into ruby, the dirt of the earth into the sugar of heaven. To turn something of lesser value and meaning, stone, water, into something of greater value and meaning, a painting.

The alchemists sat in their laboratories, alone. They read from their secret texts, boiling metals and rendering stone to ash. They were not only transmutating the material world around them, but also, more importantly, the soul that resided within their own fleshy chrysalis.

Their encrypted texts of runes and glyphs held record of everything they mixed and burnt and consumed and evaporated. Every past deed recorded in the dance of ink over paper. And so it is with all things, every object containing within it a secret language of memory. Everything we touch, connecting us directly through thousands of years of memory, of human hands shaping the world around us.

We remember the alchemist in their studio. We remember Lucy walking the plains.
We remember crawling out of the ocean.

The physical manifestations of a universe made conscious.