The movement was small and quick, caught from my high, glazed window, stolen from the glare of the urban pastiche. There was a flash of something yellow beyond the buildings, like a fox crossing a dark road, but the shape was a woman’s. Then a frozen moment, as though a single raindrop had stopped to be noticed in the pattering mob. I found myself chasing it… her. This was the spot, but where is she now?
(Voice of The Seeker in ‘Yellow Woman’)
I had just written a poem called ‘Yellow Woman’, subtitled ‘Eclogue in a Dispirited Time’. I was reacting to an ambient gravitas that was causing me guilt, confused irritation and a feeling of inadequacy. My closest friends were engrossed in the problems of the large – politics, macro-economics, all matters organisational and power-based. I’ve never known enough about the ‘important’ and ‘crucial’ issues. My obsession has been with the small details of existence, the interaction between my body and incidental phenomena. Is this irresponsible and does that matter? Does simple joy have value? Does ‘selfish’ indolence have value?
in a green hedge masquerading as a small sun
see me sway see my petals spread
welcome welcome to my yellow bed
my soft thrown sheets my yellow furry pillow
and my stem that takes you places after all that rain
Wouldn’t you love to sink into her after a busy day at the office?
Wandering through my local library’s art section, I happened upon Pauline Bewick’s Seven Ages (Galway: Arlen House, 2005) and started to leaf. ‘Leafing’ is a good word to describe the experience of this book, packed as it is with paintings that proliferate those little green entities. But wait, wasn’t that my yellow woman, leafing most leafily? Yes, there she was – with water and oak tree; diving with her dog; grapejuice running down her back; asleep on a slanting bed; watched over by a frog. I formed the intention of using Pauline’s paintings to expand the scope of my subject matter and write more about this yellow woman, who seemed a strong part of her consciousness too.
Six months later, I met Pauline for the first time and told her about my poem.
“I don’t have a yellow woman,” she said. “I have a yellow man.”
She invited me to come and look at her paintings in the flesh, which I did. Before I visited, I looked more closely at the available illustrated books which contain reproductions of her work.
I found myself thinking a little differently and a little the same. What if Pauline’s seemingly spoilt women, wandering in unspoilt, spoiling and oblivious nature, embodied the part of our psyche that allows us to survive the heavier, duty-bound aspects of life? Wasn’t it the notion of natural right, of entitlement to freedom, that sustained political activists, tireless workers for a ‘better world’? So many people relinquish their indefinability, the integrity of their bodies, their greenness, for a life of work and battle. Does the captive, tortured woman survive because another woman has shown her how to dance in a thoughtless, untrammelled act of being?
The dance began when Pauline was just two-and-a-half. I suppose we are all inclined to dance at two-and-a-half, but she could have been absorbed by cats, couldn’t she? or mushrooms? other small things? Instead, she made a picture of a girl dancing, and wanted the girl to extend into the dance, so drew what could be antennae, hands or branches emanating from the girl’s face – just in case we wouldn’t get the feeling. This girl is giving herself over to the movement. She's dissolving.
I believe I could have stayed with the early drawings and still got a profound sense of the mind and orientation of the artist. Having now looked at a wide sweep of the work, my mind keeps turning back to them.
skin cling tight in a filmy wrap
is cloaked by trail-web clasped by shell
dress green in grass and purple in heather
has a flared skirt so my legs can stretch
and your head sneak under after all that noise
The numinous presence of she-who-dances-and-dance-who-shes moves through all of Pauline’s paintings in one form or another. She/it is an ache, a desire, a principle. It’s obvious that the artist can paint perfect proportions and symmetry, but she often chooses instead to render a leg folded on itself, or an impossible curve of the back. The woman dances like a current of air and becomes one. When she holds the fox and weasel, she is them and not them. She is both their enemy and their expression. Sometimes the numen is evident in depictions of its opposite. I ask Pauline about the paintings of her schoolteacher with a cone head and the harshness in the faces even of men she liked.
She paints instinctually and gave an instinctual answer. The headmaster’s head would have hurt if she had sat on it. And the men’s faces? Maybe, yes, they embody threat. ‘Pat With Horns’ presents him in a chequered dressing-gown, and the horns are striped in a strong blue and red that are rare on her canvases. She didn’t think about the colours, she said, or the absolute symmetry of the design on his clothing, but Pat is an intellectual and she was angry because he had stopped reading to her. She notices the background in the picture for the first time. She painted it without considering. The right side is grey and the left yellow.
It turns out that once, when asked to visualise her inner colours, she imagined her right side grey, her left yellow. The colour of stone – Medusa, Saturn – and the colour of the sun. Is she trying to escape the grey? Well, yes. Look again. There is so much pain and conflict in the world. Should we procreate at all? How do we cope with the lecherous wolfman, the lusty sailor, the natural devouring that takes place in the animal kingdom? How does skin bear the slink, slime and sheer persistence of the seven-lived eel, the inscrutable frog? The irritations are everywhere, the frog scattering its spermish, oozing-through-fingers spawn. Insects perch on the legs of lovers.
I have commitments. I have a duty to the race. Urgent messages, admonishing bleeps, a tin chorus of efficient routine, make the score that colours my life. But here is indolence; nothing seems employed, except in swaying and sending smells.
Can we isolate the grey that we might escape it? Pauline showed me a drawing of her thought-body. A lizard-type slink of grey inhabits the right side of the torso. I am not a psychologist and this is an attempt to understand the mind in the work rather than that of the artist, but this, it seems to me, is symbolic embodiment. The grey is a creature inside and can’t be eluded, only expelled or absorbed. Will it ever be expelled if the woman fancies that it's an external force? I know we're entering the territory of Jung, but might I suggest that the rock is that which both steadies and imprisons? The woman keeping the fish alive, the woman with the frog, the woman grappling with the fox and weasel, is not a victim of an inexorable force. She moves within it, experiments with it. She's keeping the fish alive so she can study it. She's entering the swan so she can understand it. She interferes in the lives of animals. She restrains them and tries to be their boss. She wants to influence the persistent, incomprehensible dynamics of the world. She knows better, she thinks.
I have counted thirty-seven paintings of people thinking or dreaming. There may be more. Thinking and dreaming are hardly activities, or so you might imagine. But does the artist, as I do, view thought as a form of action and dream a type of experience? Look what’s happening while the woman is sleeping. The bedclothes are happening, the room is happening. As in a Pieter de Hooch painting, there’s a window, and the distant day is happening. The woman’s closed eyelids are happening; her skin is an event.
It’s a lot to ask that artists name their paintings. After all, writers are not expected to illustrate their books. But Pauline doesn’t seem to mind the naming, which is simple in the manner of many artists, but subtly captures mood, particularly in the Yellow Man series. Sometimes she even writes whole descriptions of her characters and their doings into the picture itself. I am taken with the names of her very early pictures: 'Girl Dancing with Breasts'; 'Girl Dancing, Arms Up'; 'Girl with Flowery Dress'; 'Lovely Lady'; 'School Girl'; 'Green Woman'. Later, we have: 'Small Town Lady letting Loose'; 'Wife Thinking'; 'Ann and the Cat'; 'I Been Around'; 'Orange Dancer'; 'Purple Dancer'; 'Pat and I with Mice'. This painter likes words. She likes thinking. Dare I say, the bodies she paints are thinking dancers, dancing thinkers, embodied thought. I’m reminded of George Lakoff, who says that concepts are based on our spatial and sensorimotor perceptions of the world.
my femurs feeling through confused grass
i twist shake limbs learn the melodies of small
make them echo make them echo through
hear them gained always by another
whistle them to you after all that wind
I suppose we're dancers in the grey light. We must move while we can get away with it, to avoid turning to stone, to keep the yellow flag flying. Make words visible and dancing, watch thoughts dancing, feel how movement is thought itself. Thoughts are dances into wormholes, taking us to another dimension.
The process of expression is, inevitably, a fusion of order and chaos. Opposites only exist in relation to each other. The body itself is an order which yearns to disorder. Grey and yellow are not always representative of rock and sun. Mist is grey, cloud is grey; our yellow sun is the power centre of the entire, structured, functioning universe. In the galaxy of Bewick, do men embody a grey, stiffening in-breath? Pauline thinks so. And the woman embedded in nature is a wish for the forbidden recklessness. In that sleep what dreams shall come, when we have shaken off… but isn't the ‘coil’ integral to us? Aren't we always in a compulsive relationship with our indwelling nemesis?
If I didn’t worry, if I sank and spread my limbs,
would my mind become that dreaded thing,
an obsolete machine, pitched in an empty room,
thoroughly recycled, never knowing what it has become?
I wrote the ‘Yellow Woman’ poem because I wanted to construct a dialogue of effort and ease. These opposites were embodied in, I must admit, the forms of a male and a female, though this would not have to be the case. Is yellow woman liberated? I think she’s just a principle in the natural world, as encaged by her nature as the seeker is by his. She is not, though, eggshell woman flying over slate man. I think the seeker is more fragile than she, grey and all as granite is. Perhaps that’s why, when I try to visualise my own innate colours, I can only find blue and purple, not even my beloved yellow and red, no warring opposites.
“You seem to experience colours as entities,” Pauline says. “Colours don’t exist. They are vibrational reactions with the retina. I see things. Things have colours.”
Colours don’t have things. That brings me to Pauline's Yellow Man series. This imagined entity is a man only in the older, etymological sense of ‘human’. His penis is so insubstantial as to be redundant. He is transcendence, the ultimate, all-observing unit of consciousness. He doesn’t exactly avoid life’s vicissitudes, though he lives alone and wanders from observation to observation. Rather, he is empty of desire. Maybe he's the state before and after experience. What about the colour? The yellow hardly exists. It evanesces, it merges. In an instant I could anticipate this ‘man’s’ absorption into the background of the pictures he inhabits. And my woman’s yellow? I don’t know. It was instinctual. I wasn’t thinking of Pauline’s yellow man. I wasn’t thinking of cowardice. It seemed the only colour to make her. It seemed the colour she was. Maybe it’s the sun, flexibility, joy. Or maybe Pauline and I are both right. Maybe we are all possessed by the manner in which we perceive, which creates our line, form and colour, and becomes the art in which we clothe our selves. In Yellow Man’s words: “I am yellow but a mouse sees me as grey”.
The ground has spawned a fluid feel,
as if it were it about to fly.
Back to that tin chorus, those needy bleeps,
a calipered symphony…
fold me in
* * * * *
Visit Pauline Bewick's website at www.paulinebewick.ie