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Toby O達rien: Eternal Life (The Miracles of Love)

Martin Holman


Love is the hastening gravitation of spirit towards spirit, and body towards body, in the joy of creation... And therefore, for those who are in love with love, to travel is better than to arrive. For in arriving one passes beyond love, or, rather, one encompasses love in a new transcendence.
D.H. Lawrence in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence, New York, 1968, p. 151.

Lawrence痴 poignant observation finds an echo in the paintings, sketchbooks and writings of Toby O達rien. I doubt, however, that O達rien has encountered the quote and he may never thought of Lawrence as a fellow traveller. Yet the two artists appear to circle profound emotion in comparable orbits. Like Lawrence, O達rien痴 journey is far from complete. And that is a good sign.

For both men, love and religion are linked. For neither, however, is connection found in conventional or institutional ways. 全acred love is always in our hearts, forever writes O達rien in one of his sketchbooks, the pages of which bristle with spiralling lines, jarred statements and questions about the existence of fidelity and faith. 然eligion does not exist, he declares; and then he asks 船oes anything exist? Lawrence, raised in the Congregationalist tradition, also doubted the institutions of belief of his time. He discarded Victorian structures of belief, telling his minister as a young man that 選 cannot be a materialist but a Cosmic God I can believe in. O達rien may well agree. His recent paintings point that way and, maybe unknowingly, subscribe to the Lawrence痴 credo: 前ur religion is loving.

Equalising the World痴 Faith, 2020, oil paint on gesso panel


At least, that speculation provides a lens through which to see this show. A painting called Equalising the World痴 Faith lays a very black field of paint across the smooth surface of a rectangle of wood. Consequently, the perimeter borders an interior space which seems ineluctably flat and, in the density of blackness, immensely far-reaching at the same time. Three dominant shapes occupy the ground and around two of them gather smaller dots. On the top left is a juicy circle of terracotta red, as physical as a coin of gum trodden into the pavement, that has attracted three lividly yellow spots. At top right is its material opposite, a feathery mark in white with a tapering tail that resembles the icy trajectory of meteorite alight in the night sky. That shape has no satellites, perhaps on account of its speed and perceived evanescence.

Below both and roughly in the centre is a third shape: another streak of white and this time larger. Its shape also implies the velocity of its passing, except that this form is ringed by spherical marks, mostly yellow again but with some warming into red. The viewer confronts the contradictions of, first, what is moving and which is merely hovering, and then whether the comet at the centre has been halted in its progress to the distant edge. Its cordon of acolytes appear like an escort of spherical outriders in the manner of a visiting dignitary. The equivocal title that O達rien accorded the mysterious arrangements of marks will puzzle the onlooker. Nonetheless, that person is already too deeply invested in meaning n to pull away unsatisfied by a kind of universe in which celestial concepts are perceived. The pulsing energy contained into rectangle has a thread running, offering a connection upon which a pinhead couple walk together in apparent amity.

Artists usually turn to abstraction because they harbour a desire to change the world. By only alluding to natural phenomena, abstract work avoids being parochial and implies universality. O達rien, who lives in Penwith and is self-taught in art, fell into abstraction as the quickest way to start what he felt strongly needed to be done. That was to create in order to search and thereby to change. That urgency is palpable is in his paintings and it spirals off the pages in the driving lines of his drawings. While he may not be a born painter, he is naturally a maker of marks and, in his grand design, those marks have to add up to subject matter on a level beyond the world that surrounds him.


These Pirates Eyes, 2019, oil and ink on gesso panel, 200 x 300 mm

The nearest he approaches figuration is through primal, humanoid shapes. The simplest appear as the emblematic couple in Equalising the World痴 Faith. In These Pirates' Eyes he experiments with more developed types: one, on the right, is drawn with single green strokes for limbs and head, converging on a feathered mass that might be a clothed body. The other is found in the screen of inflected verticals to left. In fact, it is hard to decide which is the figure type and which an implement that figure is holding, because between the slimmest forms are broader white ones, that fizzing sparkler-like shape again, and this time alive at top and bottom. The shafts of those verticals are dotted in brown and could be rudimentary tunics. Indeed, the whole conception is rudimentary, as if the encounter existed in an early stage of evolution, when species began distinguishing themselves from mitochondria, but conveniently conflated in their conception here with the moment when tools first came to hand.

Strictly speaking, millions of years separated those events. But time is not a factor in O達rien痴 paintings. If it is, he thinks in cosmic time of aeons and light years, with black holes thrown in as great swallowers of data. Because O達rien also knows that abstraction permits the maker to span vast arenas of possibility in search of change. Like those feelings, his technique is intuitive and not tied to a prevailing style. Whereas he has collected inspiration from a raft of historical figures, from Turner痴 most romantic landscapes to the informality of post-war abstract expressionism, especially the European variety termed art informel associated with Antoni T瀾ies, also essentially self-taught as a painter (the few art classes he attended left little impression on him), and the rough calligraphy of the American ex-patriot imbued with classical Italy, Cy Twombly. He may have responded to them because inherent in their practice is an almost tactile acknowledgement of the past and of today痴 experiences being built upon those of previous generations. Above all, they concentrated upon the transformation of their materials through handling. O達rien, however, has mostly found his own way towards self-expression and sought encouragement, adjustment and corroboration in the work of others.

Another influence is writing. The stuttering, repetitive nature of written lines in sketchbooks declare for him the insufficiency of language to delve sufficiently deeply into the enquiry that preoccupies him. So the sketchbooks follow his tentative movement away from the use of words towards marks with the quality of notation. Onto these he loads a cargo of meaning; they communicate some essential idea about what it is to be human to be individually human. And in the manner of emergent languages, meaning sometimes fails to come across although the effort carries its own narrative. The third influence is memory and includes the recollection of work already made, of mixes explored and gestures to build on.


Beyond Reason/Atoms of Reason (Stratospheric Sounds), 2020, mixed media on gesso panel, 690 x 970 mm


To arrive at the image that constitutes Beyond Reason/Atoms of Reason (Stratospheric Sounds), O達rien prepared the MDF panel with layers of gesso, a white paint mixture consisting of a binder medium mixed with chalk that has been a constituent of painting for centuries. Several layers of this mix are needed and as each dries, it is sanded smooth. The surface built up in this manner is hard but, depending on the degree of polishing, can have the luminescence of paper as well as an illusion of alabaster-like density. The process requires patience and manual labour, as does O達rien痴 habit of adding a layer of dark paint over the gesso. Both light and dark trigger his imagination, and he might try to move back from the dark again by rubbing the surface to release its inner, obscured light. Or go further to retrieve the grain and tone of the wood itself. But the ghost of what had been above stays in the wood; it cannot be entirely eliminated. These elements provide the painter with properties (colour, texture, scale and edge) to work with and against as his hand passes over the surface, first to prime, then to sand and then to paint, and edit while painting by taking away.

This motion feeds energy which nourishes feeling, and the outcome can be convulsion of unsettled marks made by a variety of implements a slim brush or stick to drip from, perhaps, a cloth to wipe with; a broad, soft brush with pigment in its bristles; and a sharp point to score random lines into the wood. The painting is as inarticulate as if it precedes language; indeed, the swell of gestures around two adjacent ovals aims to obliterate form with friction as if abrasion might create new forms that can be believed in. Yet, as before, the opposite might also be true: what occurs in the breaking of wave-like surf in the vortex at the picture痴 centre is the resolution of the act of creation itself, imagined at the physical level or with a cosmic dimension, with both too extraordinary to grasp. The uneven cells in red and blue that appear to lift off the commotion and advance beyond the surface have mystic potential to change themselves.

This primal quality appears both the product of novelty and intelligence. The novelty derives from the artist痴 relative newness to painting; his technique is in formation. As he embarks upon the journey of testing his aspirations against his growing ability to transform the dead materials available to him into the living expression of his take on the world, his imagery reflects that state of coming into being rather an emphatic statement of 選 am here. The intelligence is visible in his awareness of being a newcomer and the licence that gives him to take risks. By working the surface with rubbing or sanding the preliminary layers of smoothed white and a coarser black, O達rien agitates the surface and his mind into environments that his marks can occupy. His actions connect each panel with his inner state of mind and the result can be strangely beautiful.

Death of Massachusetts, 2019, oil and ink on gesso panel, 200 x 300 mm


The impression of opening the flat surface into interior space enlivens the beguiling composition of Death of Massachusetts. That supposed space might be air or water. Objects 素loat there that have weight (the black, tadpole-like shapes) or seem light enough to be subject to any river current (the green drips and 素ronds). The space itself is indeterminate in terms of depth and purpose because accident probably brought it about. This product of technique, of rubbing away light and dark layers, alludes to an atmosphere that generates an image: darkness is either evaporating or is closing in from the edges. The painting has overtones of pre-war English romantic art; a certain moment of John Piper痴 career comes into mental view when, after turning away from geometric abstraction, the artist adopted a naturalistic figuration that emphasised emotion and introspective individualism while glorying in the past and in nature.

In that phase of his life, Piper often painted buildings Gothic churches mostly perceived in organic colours heightened by strong primary tones of stained glass. The cumulative effect was of permanence (with imagines a future) but also decay, even desolation (which assumes finality), and O達rien conjures a similar impression. Piper was an inveterate traveller, too, and his journeys were metaphorical as well as topographical; architecture gave his memories structure. O達rien varies his structure between fluid compositions, such as Beyond Reason/Atoms of Reason (Stratospheric Sounds), that stress the dynamic urgency of direct feeling transmitted in materials, and a basic architecture of his own devising which slows the speed of the image and, conceivably, of its making, too.

Forgotten Hymns, 2020, oil and ink on gesso panel, 200 x 400 mm

One example is Forgotten Hymns. Here broad gesture gives way to a gentle formality, even to self-consciousness that has tempered the rawness experienced elsewhere with an element of predetermination. The tonality of this painting is lighter than most of its peers, with broad band of white ground to separate margins of black inflected with lighter blues to variegate the surface. Within the light area are dark horizontal shapes with rounded edges in that same inky bluish-black, unrecognisable as objects and so accepted as shapes alone. From one side to another runs a bar in terracotta red like a waistband that is going towards oxblood in colour. Or is its function equatorial, between the darker north and the brighter south that has room for a swatch of sandy ochre? In there, as well, is a wash of the medium sky-blue that O達rien likes to use as counterpoint to reds and blacks.

But prominently distributed all over the picture plane are rows of unevenly formed dots: black and grey dots mostly, some silhouettes only and others with inner circles like optical irises. All are constructed by the dab of the brush and the weight of the gesture. As a result, the surface resembles pegboard, the perforated alternative to the traditional noticeboard once familiar in homes and shops on which individuals displayed their messages, thoughts and motivations or hymn numbers for a religious service. Not that O達rien necessarily had that purpose in mind; his images do not depend on forethought but string together putative meanings in their making. Nonetheless, the title is too temptingly suggestive to ignore the similarity, and the artist seems aware of the allusions that the play between title and image throws up. But, of course, in place of hymn numbers, the artist offers only blanks to the viewer. Is that the realisation that any invitation to sacred music is currently redacted, the melodies silenced and words 素orgotten?

More typical, however, is a structural basis placed between these two approaches. O達rien has a fondness for typologies of image and in this type, larger blocks of blackish colour appear superimposed on a ground of indeterminate form and swirling, gaseous shallow space in a bilious yellow, the colour of old varnish or nicotine. In Everything, rough rectangles and squares cloud the ground; they are part of the bigger picture, as it were, but they block the view, a hindrance that maybe carries the metaphorical heft in this relationship of gestures. Lines arc and jut between them, either as bridges that join up or as random jetsam.

Once again, the title raises plays with the viewer痴 thoughts: is its application cynical? Is that all there is? The disillusioned lyric of Lieber and Stoller壮 hit tune for Peggy Lee perhaps echoes deep in the ear at this point, set to melancholic tones reminiscent of Kurt Weill痴 Berlin satires. Other paintings have one-word titles and none has neutral significance but seem to denote O達rien痴 quest for emotional self-awareness. Although no single work depends upon a link being made with the image, that rapport of image and word is felt in Deliverance, Acceptance, and in Jericho. That last name belongs to a Biblical reference where walls reputedly came down, a town where later, in another breakthrough of the senses, Jesus is said to have returned vision to the blind.

O達rien痴 vision is as much inward as outward as his journey continues. He has had the opportunity of doing much of that travelling in public because his exhibition at Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens is his fourth dose of significant solo or group exposure to audiences in just three years in the Penzance area. That record demonstrates remarkable fortitude for a young painter. He is learning from the experience for this exhibition had the commendable and rare success of holding together the diffuse and architecturally encumbered lower space at Tremenheere痴 gallery into something approaching a unified environment.

This setting was achieved predominantly through shape and colour: the mostly horizontal orientation of his paintings ran in a line at eye level and his limited palette meant that tones of terracotta, black and yellowing umber smouldered warmly from bay to bay around the room between stocky bare wooden beams. As a result, the visitor walked into a sequestered place where visual language grappled for some articulacy. O達rien has grasped early that art exists to communicate some essential idea about what it is to be human and not about being successful. He has learned that process is primarily creative. Above all, O達rien has realised that we grow as we make art.


Toby O達rien: Eternal Life (The Miracles of Love) was at Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens gallery, 14 August 10 September 2021. Martin Holman is a writer based in Penzance and a regular contributor to Art Monthly and the Burlington Magazine.
ゥ Martin Holman 2021.