Something from Nothing.
Spectrum, Scotland on Sunday, January 12, 1997.
One day early in the 1990s, the artist Kenneth Dingwall, at work in his studio, picked up a pen and wrote the following in a sketchbook: “I have noticed that when one paints, one should think of nothing: everything comes better.”
It is not an original thought, but a quotation attributed to Raphael, in conversation with Leonardo. It was, though, an idea which had come to inform Dingwall’s work over the past forty years. It is not that his paintings are about nothing. Although abstract, they are concerned with many things – at times as replete with references and metaphors as the most complex Victorian narrative painting. What is important is that, in the act of painting, the artist – the great artist – should achieve a transcendental state of grace. There should be an involvement with the painting such that it is only on reflection that its success or failure becomes clear. In another sketchbook, Dingwall has written how, while standing in front of Titian’s magisterial painting of the flayed Marsayas, on show in Washington, he found tears welling up in his eyes, not from the subject but from “admiration, envy as a painter”.
Despite their minimal appearance, Dingwall’s paintings and drawings belong, as he himself clearly perceives, within a tradition which looks back to the Renaissance and beyond. Part of their importance to us lies in their ability to disabuse the viewer of the heresy that art can be divided into the mutually antagonistic disciplines of figurative, abstract and conceptual. Dingwall’s art – like all of the great art of the past – is all three. The blinkered student of 20th century art will gaze on Dingwall and see obvious familiarities with the great abstractionists of the last 50 years – Frank Stella, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin. His texturally geometric arcs and semicircles appear to be comfortably within the minimalist mainstream. The truth, though, is that they defy such classification. Certainly like Martin, Dingwall displays an interest in Eastern transcendence – there is something of the mantra, Zen meditation, Sufi prayer in all of these works. It is true too that he evinces a connection of the blue and white void of ethereal eternity present in the apparently monochrome deep space of Ryman and Klein – a quest for serenity. But look again at Dingwall and try to think beyond the obvious.
Every one of these paintings is in effect a diptych, echoing in form and function similar bipartite imagery of the Quattrocento. These are not, of course, obviously devotional images – but they do carry in their simple iconic majesty, a metaphysical subtext. Perhaps the easiest way in which to relate Dingwall to the past is to look to a familiar parallel. Rothko’s huge red and black canvases, now in the Tate, have often been seen – in particular by the American art historian Robert Rosenblum – within the context of the Northern Romantic Landscape tradition. This of course, although only a starting point for the study of Rothko, is a palpably believable argument, particularly in relation to such artists as Turner and Friedrich – their compelling land and seascapes being concerned essentially with the emotive and associative power of the horizon – the meeting of heaven and earth.
With this in mind, compare Dingwall’s paintings to the complex alter piece diptychs and triptychs of Northern Renaissance art. Look perhaps at the panels of Hugo Van der Goes’ Trinity altarpiece in the National Gallery of Scotland. Forget the abstract/figurative division and you begin to discover the similarity of intent and method of two artists, divided by almost half a millennium. In both cases we are confronted by a sublime vision – an attempt in each instance to realise in paint something of the emotions inspired by the ideas of “being” and “creation”. Look, for instance , at Balancing. Typically divided into two by a strong vertical line, it resonates with a carefully worked, coppery glow. There is something elemental at work here. If you are still searching for an art historical reference, think perhaps of angels’ wings. And what about Trust. Here is a mandorla – the cradle of the risen Virgin or even Christ himself, as much as an element of Buddhist wisdom. Now look again at the first canvas and, using a different set of values, you will notice that the wings are composed of strata – thus locating them within the physical realms of the earth – earth which produced the very pigment used in their creation. Think about the title. Balancing is just that. The left of the canvas is grey and cold, the right bright and warm – predominantly yellow. They are opposite halves of the whole and here is the central aspect of Dingwall’s work. The world, it is clear to the artist, is governed by dualities. We exist only by posing one element in opposition to another. Heat and cold, good and evil. The one can only exist on account of the other. All of these works are attempts to explain the importance of this balance and containment – the invented emotional restrictions by which we live our life.
Even in their natural references – to the limbs of a tree or the eddies of wave-lines over a mud-flat – such paintings as Holding, reflect this two-sidedness, being divided by a vertical line. The line as Dingwall has written, of “the brain’s hemispheres, the central pivot on a balance, (the) trunk – in a tree or plant growth, a spine – book or human” – the polar axis of the world.
Clearly Dingwall exists within at least two traditions. Among his writings he has named his influences: “Spanish Romanesque wall paintings … Wols, Fautrier … Giotto … Greece and Turkey, archaic Greek and Byzantine Mistra, millions of vases … giant painted Koran texts in Edirne…” But there is one tradition undocumented in the catalogue. Dingwall, born in Clackmannanshire in 1938 and trained at Edinburgh College of Art is, as his name suggests, a Scot. And, despite the fact that he has taught in the USA since 1988, his art still retains an essential link with his homeland. It is significant that, apart from the Talbot Rice art gallery in Edinburgh, which originated the exhibition, and the Cleveland Centre for Contemporary Art in the US, this show will travel to only one other venue. Yesterday it opened in Orkney, at the Pier Arts Centre and, arguably, this could well be the best place to see it. For Dingwall’s art, for all its international and sophisticated contexts, also functions within a specifically Gaelic tradition. Looking at these paintings is an experience not dissimilar to standing before a carved Pictish stone – of the sort that Dingwall, while a student in Edinburgh, admired in the National Museum of Antiquities. He shares with the anonymous Pictish artists a love of abstract form and an almost primeval understanding of its power. In particular Time(s) suggests, with its two sinuous crosses, a formal link with Pictish interlacing. Such stones of course, often satisfy a votive function – and here too Dingwall’s art is significant, having an almost talismanic presence. In fact, to see too many of his works in one place is in a sense a mistake. They do not work as a group, but are better seen in isolation. Only with such individual and sustained attention is it possible to appreciate fully their immense authority and particular potential in 20th-century Scottish art to draw together so many apparently unrelated art historical achievements. Whether taken individually or as a group, however, they offer an insight into our relationship with the natural world and the essential duality of the human condition. It is in another scribbled quotation, this time from the late Sorley McLean, found among Dingwall’s sketchbooks, which perhaps best sums up the unique poetry of his art:
“ I walked with my reason
Out beside the sea
We were together but it was
Keeping a little distance from me”.