Alone, in an artist’s residency in Richmond in the Northern Karoo, I see a painting of a Shaolin monk. The eyes are closed, the shaven head faintly bowed. The mouth conveys a delicate smile. Is this the inclination of all faces at peace – that they smile? Or is this simply an involuntary characteristic, something that faces do. I am inclined to believe that the monk is smiling, though not for good reason, if, as they say, reason plays no part in the business and ritual of prayer. But there he is, smiling ever so slightly.
The painting, in pencil, Japanese ink, and watercolour, is by Tracy Payne. It is one of a series, perhaps her most enduring and most loved, titled ‘Sacred Yang’. In Chinese philosophy it is considered ‘the active male principle of the universe’ and associated with ‘heaven, heat, and light’. However, if gender plays a key role, I am not sure if it as cut and dried in Payne’s world. True, the masculine principle drives this series. For Payne, however, gender is fluid. What drew her to paint the monks – from stills taken from a documentary – was their softness and strength. The monks are Kungfu martial artists, yet they are as sleekly sprung as otters. They possess qualities both masculine and feminine. Looking at her monk on that still and quiet Karoo night, lamplit, lit from within, it is the delicacy of the whole that draws me.
Payne uses an overhead projector to trace the contours in pencil. She then works with ink and watercolour, which allow more for a pooling than a configuration. The artist’s relationship with fluidity runs deep. Watercolour and Japanese ink are ‘uncontrollable’ she says, and yet they can be ‘controlled’. This is only possible when ‘becoming one’ with the brush, ‘one’ with the flow of ink. Payne speaks of painting as a ‘meditation’, ‘a single pointed focus’. Prayer and ritual are not only the theme, it is Payne’s condition for making art. While drawn to art’s ability to copy a ‘real world’, Payne is more compelled by what remains inscrutable – love, calm, stillness, prayer. We are well supplied with symbols through which to recognise these states, however, it is not the artist’s intention to guide us thither with any pre-set spiritual compass.
We are beckoned unaided. There, in that limpid pool we find ourselves.
In an art world jaded and wounded, in which spirituality goes largely unheeded, Payne crosses a strait. She gives us what we most yearn for and rarely find – consolation. Contemplation is the key. But what are contemplating? The face we see, what it contains? Embodies? If the mood is inward, what of the trails of ink and watercolour that run along the soft contours of the monk’s face like rain, mascara, from his closed eyes? Is it there, along a human contour, that the inner and outer worlds meet? Or, is it there that they remain forever separate? Is Payne telling us that art is but artifice, that what we most seek – inner peace – cannot be communicated through art? That art stands at the frontier of a possibility, forever removed from what it yearns for most – truth, love, salvation? There is the artist’s skill. There is the hope she affords us. They are not one and the same, and yet, together, they form a promise. Hers is an invocation. The faces of her monks – the one I see before me – beckons. We go inward as we move outward, as we start to reach.
“Payne tells me that we need not fear, that we can sense, if never truly know, the undivided divinity within us.”
The project is therapeutic. Payne offers us what art rarely provides – grace. On that quiet lone Karoo night, Payne tells me that we need not fear, that we can sense, if never truly know, the undivided divinity within us. Despite all our sorrows, all our failings, we can reach, even touch, the face of grace. Is this not what we avidly seek in the faces of others, in our own, despite all our cynical disregard, our doubt, our gnashing gnawing pain? Consolation? There, in that lamplit face, in that shadowed room, I stood and looked, and thought I saw a grace that otherwise eluded me. There, I found warmth, there, I was becalmed. We are light. We are divine.
I am reminded of my favourite poem, ‘Corsons Inlet’ by A. R. Ammons. Walking along the beach the poet notices how by transitions the land falls from grassy dunes to creek to undercreek: but there are no lines, though change in the transition is clear as any sharpness: but “sharpness” spread out, allowed to occur over a wider range than mental lines can keep.
It is this apprehension that comes to me on looking at Payne’s monk. The marks or transitions are clear, but it is what they intuit that is the greater goal – a ‘”sharpness” spread out’. There are no lines in nature, Ammons’ reminds us, it is we who place them there.
For Payne the line is her point of departure. The goal – the spirit plane – may seem unreachable, but this is only so if we refuse to overcome the limitation that we impose upon ourselves. If Payne’s paintings tell us anything, it is that we can, and must, surpass ourselves.
Sfumato is a source of inspiration. Preoccupied with softened colour transitions – from creek to undercreek – Sfumato is the technique used to compose the most famous of all paintings, which is also of a human face. Leonardo da Vinci, its author, describes Sfumato as painting ‘without lines or border, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane’. Something similar occurs in the painting of the Shaolin monk.
Payne, however, is not concerned with wholly smoothing out the contours of her face, or with setting it apart from the medium and technique she applies. There is the smokiness one finds in Sfumato, but there is also something else, less manufactured, more natural, which Ammons also sees: ‘the possibility of rule as the sum of / rulelessness: / the “field” of action / with moving, incalculable centre’. If nature is divine, then it is incalculably so.
The spirit world which Payne conjures with pencil, Japanese ink, and watercolour, cannot be contained. It exists ‘beyond the focus plane’. The sanctum she gifts us possesses no walls. Grace is groundless. It is boundless. As is the face … an infinite and inscrutable aperture …a consolation for the unconsoled.