An Uneasy Oracle: Brad Westmorelandʼs “The Hanging Man” Surely the art critic and the seer have much in common? There are more than just parallels between the contemplation of the mystical meaning of the yarrow stalks that form the abstract hexagrams of the I Ching and the calligraphic strokes of a Motherwell. Which is not to say that art is fortune telling but rather to suggest that “fortune telling” properly understood is a contemplation of existence which shares much of artʼs fascination with mortality, chance, fate and the individual. Methodologies such as the I Ching are in their essence, visual aids to meditations on these themes, inspired by philosophies of resemblance and spirituality. They rely on an investigation of meaning that draws on the userʼs life experience and their interpretation of the hexagram in light of their relationship to those philosophies. This can take many forms, whether it be a simple minded question relating to good fortune or a subtle probing of the exigencies of fate. Whilst the Eastern tradition used the mystifying abstractions of the hexagrams as the well spring for such meditations, in the West the obtusely allegorical images of the major arcana of the Tarot have performed a similar function, though in a signiﬁcantly different way. Many of us would be familiar with this collection of images, the twenty one trumps of the major arcana. These ﬁgures, such as “The Fool” and “The Devil” are at once familiar and redolent with meaning, yet cast within the divinatory framework of the Tarot, they become elusive, their signiﬁcance requiring a “reading,” that involves contemplation and questioning. And, of all the Tarot, “The Hanged Man” is perhaps most mysterious. Which brings us to Bradd Westmorelandʼs “The Hanging Man.” But before I begin to look in earnest at the signiﬁcance of its subject, let me ﬁrst talk of the painting as painting. “The Hanging Man” is executed with a loose and vigorous style, which resists the temptations of impasto, commonly associated with those who wish to display their vitality and instead preserves a ﬁnish that is lean to the point of miserliness. The paint is thin, just enough for the pigment to color the surface, which remains ﬂat, just as Mister Greenberg preferred. These are large panels but not so large that they destroy any sense of intimacy between viewer and canvas. Though not lavish with paint they are rich in pigment using a palette that is vibrant to the point of toxicity. Yet, these chrome greens, azures and vermillions are restrained with areas of grey that undermine this exuberance with a ﬁrm ﬁsted sobriety, as if to say, “have your fun, but in the end weʼre all dust.” Paint has been allowed to drip and ﬂow across the canvas, creating blurs and shimmers that add a painterly expressiveness to the work. Here and there volumes have been created with painted lines and small amounts of shading. In the background zones of scrabbled hatching mingle with an abstracted checker board patterning. Each of the panels features a ﬁgure. Reading from the left, we see a headless man hanging by his feet from a tree, one leg crossed over the other in the classic representation of the Tarotʼs twelfth trump “The Hanged Man”. He dangles from what appears to be the remains of a tree. His feet are bound with rope, again, a classic representation of this ﬁgure, whilst with one hand he points at his bindings. The right panel features a solitary ﬁgure standing on top of a cubic volume about to ascend a set of stairs leading through the arched door of a “temple.” To his right is the roughly painted form of a tree standing by a lake, its image reﬂected by the surface of the water. The technique is loose to the point of abstraction and indeed much of the composition is given over to areas that are ﬂat and dominated by abstract motifs or painterly effects. In the midst of this ephemerality, the ﬁgure is well formed and given volume, with darker greens and blues. Together the panels form a single composition in which we can read elements extending from one through to the other. Yet, there is also a sense of disjunction, the suggestion that these are different incidents featuring a single individual, one horriﬁc, the other transcendent, relating in a kind of yin and yang inversion. The left panel, whose subject gives the work its title, shall be the ﬁrst focus of our deliberations. “The Hanged Man” is the most discussed of the twenty one trumps of the tarot, for its meaning is the most ambiguous. Thought to have originally been derived from a Norse legend that describes Odin hanging himself upside down from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days to attain wisdom and thereby retrieve The Runes from the Well of Wyrd, the (source and end of all Mystery and all knowledge), its iconography is also clearly suggestive of Christian martyrdom, death and sacriﬁce. This blurring of symbols is part of its suggestive power, for whilst one is inclined to think the worst of an image called “the hanged man,” it is in fact an invitation to commit yourself to deeper contemplation. The ﬁgure is generally read as the wise fool, who willingly gives up an ordinary view of the world to experience a different perspective, in serene contemplation. Coins fall from his pocket, but he is unconcerned. He has sacriﬁced not himself, but control, and in return, he gains insight and ultimately wisdom. So, if wisdom was the point of this action, why then does Westmorelandʼs ﬁgure point at his bound feet in such a marked way, the hand detailed and clear, whilst his head has dissolved in a spray of dripping, bloodied vermillion? Here pain and sacriﬁce seem to be emphasised, the Christian heritage of martyrdom reviviﬁed. The tree, traditionally shown as the bearer of life, is rendered from the same veil of bloodied red that obscures the head. Are we discussing the difference between the philosopher- hermit, content to ﬁnd wisdom in tranquil contemplation and the artist bound tightly to the burden of their drive to express? Is this the depiction of an artistic impulse ridden through with pain and sacriﬁce in the quest for inner truth? Indeed the work is reminiscent of Francis Bacon and his appropriation of religious iconography, in which the allegorical load is repositioned. The pope screaming through his veil of paint necessarily requires us to re-address our relationship with the subject. Here too, a familiar image has been re-imagined in a disquieting manner, evoking a dream like mysticism. So if the requirement of the tarot in the ﬁrst instance is to divine meaning through the study of images in relation to each other, then perhaps we can ﬁnd some clue to the meaning of this work in its relationship with the second panel. The second canvas of the diptych is altogether more tranquilo, beside the appassionata of its neighbor. Here the painter butts geometric ﬁgures and intense coloration against softer lines and forms to create a bipartite composition. In one half the ﬁgure entering the temple points upwards in a gesture that echoes that of the hanging man. There is a tension in the similarity of these two gestures that is accentuated by the differences that exist in the circumstances of the ﬁgures involved. Is this the same individual at different stages in a spiritual journey? Or two entirely different approaches to the same understanding? Or are they in opposition, one punished, the other rewarded? Unusual circular forms structure the work with negative space volumes that rear uneasily from the bottom of the picture and are echoed in the “temple” roof. Despite the unease of the composition there seems to be a sense of the Edenic as well as evocations of “knowledge” and a desire for transcendence. Together the panels form a complex and allusive work, like two tarot cards thrown together. Each seems an answer to the other in a circular inquisition that enlightens just as it interrogates. In that regard it is worth remembering that traditionally the diptych was a gated work that would open to reveal the altar, one side displaying a list of the departed, the other, a list of the living. In any instance, it is a satisfyingly “old school” image that reminds us that art may be a committed activity in which “meaning” is a contentious issue worthy of sacriﬁce and pain, rather than something whose effect is “measured” in column inches. Westmorelandʼs work is consistent with renewed interest in canvas painting, which increasingly, seems less a trend and more like a determined renaissance within which the avant gardʼs “establishment” have accepted that painting remains a useful and valid means of expression. Ian Houston Shadwell.