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An Uneasy Oracle- The Hanging Man

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					             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.

				
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