What Kind of Spirit Is This?: Group Exhibition

2 May - 1 June 2019



“I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms.” Ovid, The Metamorphoses


At thirteen minutes “Misty” is the longest track on the tenth studio album “50 Words For Snow” by English singer-songwriter Kate Bush. In an interview with Mike Ragogna about the song she explains, “The subject matter is sort of just about a girl who builds a snowman, and later the snowman comes to visit her in her bedroom.” This fantasy raises a question, what are snowmen? A kind of votive folk sculpture to a household demi-god? An act of figurative making, performed in order to properly receive the sky’s gift of heavy snow. 

In the Roman poet Ovid’s epic “The Metamorphoses”, the God Jupiter transforms himself into all manner of protean forms in order to stalk, seduce and abduct the adored being. The imagery of “Misty” recalls Jupiter appearing as a fog around the mortal Io, or as a shower of gold to Danae (“My bedroom fills with falling snow / Should be a dream but I’m not sleepy.”) Ovid’s Jupiter is an all-powerful aggressor, who encompasses and possesses fully those he desires. The Gods stare down from heaven at the mortal world without being seen. Jupiter gazes at his quarries with anonymity and absolute authority, instilling fear at the moment his godly presence is revealed. 

In “Misty” Bush changes the power dynamic in this supernatural encounter; the snowman is presented as somewhat impotent, an unstable presence in retreat (“I can feel him melting in my hand.”) The heat of human blood both makes and undoes him. Melting snow takes on the mythical idea of metamorphosis, the familiar becomes transcendent. She receives the visitation of the snowman having created him in the usual manner, but observes and embraces him without fear, describing closely his melting form, lending an urgency to the encounter. In the middle of the track, Bush poses a plaintive question rich in irony, “What kind of spirit is this?” Does the girl wonder about the supernatural power that gives vitality to her snowman? Or does she wonder about the fleeting love that might be a dream?  The ontological question gives way to further mysteries; he disappears (perhaps melting completely) leaving only residues, leaves, “...bits of twisted branches and frozen lawn.” 

Ovid himself understood the persistence of his poetic work, the final line of “The Metamorphoses” reads, “Wherever Rome’s influence extends, over the lands it has civilised, I will be spoken, on people’s lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poet’s prophecies, –vivam- I shall live.” There is a connection, perhaps, between the mythic life represented in art and its continued importance in our lives, tales of spontaneous change and liveliness, holy moments and material chemistry. 

It is no coincidence that so many cutting-edge life science and biogenetics companies take their names from the Greco-Roman pantheon. We no longer stand atop the accumulated certainties of science and philosophy, but instead slide continuously, in process, with the rapidly changing propositions of every field of knowledge. Painting, that played such a central role in the imagining of the human, now receives and transmits images to better communicate the post-human; the networked, the cloned, the augmented, the virtualised. How can painting express the subjectivity of those who thrive in the greater space of online culture, capture the abstraction of precarious life and work, bring together the contradictory beauty of humanity’s waste products? 

These endeavours bring us full circle back to the protean uncertainties of Ovid’s world. What kind of spirit is this?The old categories no longer hold sway in the way they once did; can we speak of figuration and abstraction as meaningfully opposing poles in a world of genetic sequencing and quantum physics? The truth is in retreat, and revealed to be an historical contingency. In their place new urgencies grow, laying roots that tear at the fixed borders of established thought. As we learn more and more about our precarious shared existence on the planet, the dominance of the human must necessarily be called into question. We find ourselves in a moment of intercession, searching for shapes to receive our spirit, to show our liveliness within a troubled world. 

Painting carries on, in spite of everything, a post-everything endeavour. As Isabelle Graw has argued, paintings are an indexical expression of the liveliness of the painter, they capture vitality in their structure, taking on a kind of subjectivity beyond “aura”, beyond simple objecthood. In the age of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the charisma of painting, objects that thrum with living energy, gain a renewed relevance. Each spirited gesture recorded on the canvas support adds up to a gestalt phenomena felt in the mind, a living spirit, that reminds us of Ovid’s Pygmalion, whose sculpture sprang to life. 

In each of these exhibited works I have hoped to bring together some aspect of this spirit.


 David Surman, April 2019

David Surman is an artist based in London and is represented by Sim Smith.