Rohena West – 09.06.2022
As part of Fine Art: Painting’s end of year show at Camberwell, third year, Reuben Sian de Gourlay, is exhibiting two paintings, Oracle and Arcadia; the titular connotations of these works are a small insight into the largely meditative atmosphere of his work. During our interview, Reuben expanded on the obscurity surrounding the ‘semi made up’ narratives of his pieces, indicating a willingness to always leave the door of interpretation open to the viewer; a cryptic approach to contemplation, characteristic of the purpose behind his work, termed by the artist as a ‘relocation of spirituality’.
My interest in Reuben’s work initially stemmed from it’s tendency to deal with the uncanny ambiguity of myth or, to use his words, the nature of ‘mysticism’. His pieces find subliminal ways of ‘relocating’ these themes and interweaving them into everyday experience, reminding us of what we’ve lost touch with. This methodology calls to mind psychoanalyst, Carl Jung’s, ideas on symbols and how they create pathways and associations in our subconscious. In Man and His Symbols (published in 1964), Jung describes a type of unconscious event which is ‘absorbed subliminally’ and ‘though we may have originally ignored their emotional and vital importance, it later wells up from the unconscious as a sort of after-thought’ (Jung, 1964, p. 5). Discussing his own work, Reuben presses the importance of avoiding overly explicit narrative commentary, rather than using symbolic actions and objects to provoke a deeper, more unconscious emotional response in the viewer.
To support this kind of obscurity, the traditional style of figurative painting demonstrated in Oracle and Arcadia (although the latter is perhaps more experimental) plays an important role in constructing a more digestible narrative. Both deal with myth in different ways, yet each are linked by the inclusion of a Neolithic tool used to create fire: a type of hollowed out biannual flower. Again, Reuben’s work elicits stories that lie dormant in our unconscious, the tool symbolising the ‘double-edged sword’ of human creativity, a narrative that unfolds in the mythological story of Prometheus. This is a possible interpretation, however, the Druidic influence is also apparent; as expounded on by Ben Johnson in his article on the history of Wales, the Druids ‘knowledge of the earth and space may have come from megalithic times’ and heavily incorporated ‘contact with the spirit world and holistic medicine’ (Johnson, 2019). Reuben’s work imbibes ideas from a range of disciplines and cultural movements, creating a hybrid of contemporary figuration and archaic reverence for the natural earth. Naturally, the style of painting birthed as a result of the Pre-Raphaelite movement came up as a significant influence during our conversation, as well as Frederic Lord Leighton (b.1830), who worked simultaneously to the group, although was never considered a Pre-Raphaelite himself. Leighton’s Idyll , considered his most mythologically abstract work, demonstrates a characteristic preoccupation with aesthetic principles while suggesting a subtly implied symbolic or otherworldly narrative.
Female figures are a common subject in many of Leighton’s classical works, which often concern the ever-present theme of melancholic love. As a parallel, Reuben’s triptych, Arcadia, highlights the poetic role of the feminine archetype in mythological painting, however not as a reworked story of tragedy. In explaining his inspiration for the painting, Reuben referenced Et in Arcadia Ego by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), a French Baroque artist, depicting a group of shepherds surrounding a tomb with an inscription meaning ‘even in Arcadia, there am I.’
His work being heavily influenced by Celtic culture, Reuben’s piece depicts a female Druidic figure who appears as a shifting apparition, radiating a quiet power. Further contextualising the work, Reuben commented on the relevance of a matriarchal structure within Druidic society and practices, asserting that if he ‘saw a spirit in the forest, it would be a woman’. The grave-like monolith, shown in the central panel seems a being in it’s own right, conjuring up the dense energy that seems to hang in the air around spiritual sites and commemorative burial grounds, like Stonehenge. There is an undeniable sense of darkness or ‘memento mori’ about Arcadia; a habitation of the liminal space between our mortality and the idyllic connotations of the title.
Despite the stylistic similarities between Reuben’s work and that of the Pre-Raphaelites, his outlook does not translate as a utopian romanticisation of the natural world. Instead, the modern human’s experience appears to us subverted through the lens of pagan and Druidic practices and beliefs; there are certain ‘realisms’ we can grasp and some we must rediscover.
Art in context (2021) Pre-Raphaelite Art – A History of the Pre-Raphaelitism Art Period, artincontext.org. Available at: https://artincontext.org/pre-raphaelite-art/
Johnson, B. (2019) Who were the Druids? Historic UK. Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofWales/Druids/
Jung, C.G. and Marie-Luise Von Franz (1968) Man and his symbols.
Leighton, F., Jones, S. and Academy, R. (1996) Frederic, Lord Leighton: eminent Victorian artist. New York: H.N. Abrams; London.