Review: ‘Still Lifes and Poems’

‘The Man Who Turned On Time’

Currently on display at the Durham World Heritage Visitor Centre is ‘Still Lifes and Poems’, an exhibit of Mark J. Windle’s humble yet quietly expressive drawings. Of the nineteen drawings displayed, most are pen and graphite on paper, hung in unassuming black frames. Recurring throughout these works are themes of time and its contemplation, man’s relationship to nature, and relics from the sea. A self-taught artist, Windle lists as influences such diverse artists as Frank Auerbach, J.M.W. Turner, L.S. Lowry, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Marcel Duchamp, and Picasso. His own style, however, is difficult to pin down; rather, I found myself mentally categorizing the works on display into roughly three categories: abstract/surrealist, still lifes with ‘sea debris’, and softly shaded landscapes. It’s not immediately clear where the ‘poetic’ element of the exhibition’s title comes in; at first glance, the modest display of charcoals hung in this small room of the World Heritage Centre doesn’t register as a strikingly inspired set of work. To an amateur art-lover, these drawings appear competently executed, but not acutely arresting. Upon closer scrutiny and deeper reflection, however, I found more to pique my interest.

‘All Things Comprise the Universe’

‘The Man Who Turned on Time’ and ‘All Things Comprise the Universe’ are among the most intriguing of this collection; both fit firmly into what I found myself mentally designating as Windle’s ’Surrealist’ oeuvre, given his self-professed admiration for artists like Duchamp, Picasso, and Klee. The clean lines in these drawings, their meticulous structure, and the focus on form in favor of representation make these pieces visual poems of a sort, deserving of the exhibition’s title. ‘All Things Comprise the Universe’ features an intricate configuration of rectangles interspersed with almost hieroglyphic images of underwater plants, fish, ships, anchors, and stick-figures. The letters ‘A’ through ‘I’ are scattered throughout the maze, like points in a technical instruction manual. The legend to which they correspond reads like a poem itself: ‘Brought into being, from being’. A Heideggerian remark if ever I heard one! ‘The Man Who Turned on Time’ is equally compelling. Like ‘All Things Comprise the Universe’, this piece explicitly reveals Windle’s debt to Cubism and Surrealism, with its sharp geometric shapes and cryptic hieroglyphs that especially evoke the later works of Paul Klee. Both pieces invite bemused contemplation and provide plenty to ponder.

Of his ‘sea debris’ drawings, one of the most intriguing is Windle’s ‘Still Life with Sea Debris, Microscope, and Philosopher(s)’. In this drawing, we see the partial portrait of a man’s face, angled so that his gaze is fixed firmly upon a microscope that stands surrounded by a collection of stones. Beside these sits a smaller picture of another ‘philosopher’, face half-hidden by the camera he holds, caught on the verge (or perhaps in the act) of taking a photograph. In ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, Heidegger writes that technology challenges forth reality into being, while poetry reveals it. Windle’s drawing engages with this idea in a delightfully clever sense, representing sophisticated human tools of knowledge, and their employment, through one of the simplest of artistic media.

Although Windle’s skill with a pencil is evident, I was unmoved by his placid landscapes, in which I could neither discern the marks of exceptional technical talent nor tease out any particularly compelling interpretation. These works seem mere representation, lacking that spark of genius that makes us stand reverently before a work in a gallery, letting our minds wrestle with what the art reveals to us. ‘Park by the Sea’ and ‘ Stroll in the Garden’ feature softly rolling hills and simple, rounded trees that wouldn’t have been out of place in a waiting room or office building, but which left me yawning: in other words, kitsch. Despite these disappointments, visitors to the exhibit may find enough of merit in his other works to redeem the exhibition as a whole.

‘Metaphysical Anxiety’

Across the board, Windle’s art could be characterized as neat, balanced, and almost starkly mathematical, as evidenced in ‘Metaphysical Anxiety’, and slyly toyed with in ‘Pythagorian Nik Nak’. In these and other pieces, crisp lines and precise shading work to convey complex ideas in deceptively simple artistic terms, making Windle’s work accessible and aesthetically pleasing on one level while simultaneously revealing his dialogue with Philosophy and Art History on another.

But the exhibition of his work is informal and unpretentious. A guestbook lies nearby for visitors to sign; a single printed leaflet provides the only biographical information available; the artist’s website has not yet been born. Windle is very clearly a local artist, with strong ties to the North East, as evidenced not only in his subject matter, but also in the intimate reception his art has been given here at Durham.

‘Still Lifes and Poems’ runs until 28th February at the World Heritage Visitor Centre; admission is free.

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