From here to there: reconciling process and truth

1. For Dave, ‘truth’ in his title for this exhibition means honesty. And that truth-honesty comes across most clearly in his response to reality—which is very like what Czeslaw Milosz, writing in 1954 about someone he saw on the Paris metro was talking about. Milosz titled his reflection with the Latin word for ‘to be,’ ‘Esse’:

I looked at that face, dumbfounded… And so it befell me that after so many attempts at naming the world, I am able only to repeat, harping on one string, the highest, the unique avowal beyond which no power can attain: I am, she is. Shout, blow the trumpets, make thousands-strong marches, leap, rend your clothing, repeating only: is! She got out at Raspail. I was left behind with the immensity of existing things…

(New and Collected Poems 1931 – 2001 (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 249)

That’s what Dave’s got hold of, ‘the immensity of existing things’ and of course, people. Getting hold of the reality of colour, shapes, things, landscapes, people.

The German-Austrian philosopher of history, Eric Voegelin has noted: “The odd thing about a work of art is that it is an intelligible unit even if it is only, in the most naturalistic sense, a segment of a reality that extends around it in all directions… How to produce such units and make them convincing models of the unity of the world – that is the problem in art.” So, for Dave, as an artist, the ‘unity of the world’ comes across in his dedication to truth as relationship, as genuine expression of what Martin Buber called I and Thou, I and It. Because each Thou (in the drawings and portraits), each It (in the landscapes, abstracts, still lifes) is her or himself, or itself, is a world Dave is responding to, and through the transfiguration of his painting, is helping us to see, to recreate that relationship with Thou, with It, as something not just transient, but eternal, a fleeting glimpse of a new heaven and a new earth.

2. The second topic in Dave’s title is ‘process.’ Many of his works of art came about as a result of days, maybe months, sometimes, as with Pablo, 29 years, of inner effort. Though there are also sketches, like the wonderful penguins, that took seconds and minutes, but were created from the same workshop. Each work has a history, both psychological and technical; you should ask Dave about it afterwards. Like Imogen Stuart’s sculpture of John Paul II with the children, outside Maynooth University library: Imogen – following the tradition of the Orthodox icon painters, fasted while she was working on it, because artistic process means suffering: for her that meant giving up smoking. This was what we can see in the process as an asceticism of focus. I myself saw Dave at it when he called by my place day after day, sketching, colouring, checking the sunlight and its angles, joking with me, so I wasn’t just a face out there, but a person he was making a huge effort to in some way transfigure. He does that with everything…

3. A third step, after truth and process, is what we’re all enjoying this evening – the fruit of that process of truthful wrestling with reality that we can call gift. Because the artist puts himself or herself fully into their work, it’s not just the work of art as material, but as carrier of their generosity in transfiguring and making reality memorable. A friend of mine, David Walsh, puts it well: “When we give ourselves we do not give something; we give what cannot be given. But that means that there is no gift without the intention that is the source of giving, that stands outside of the gift…” In other words, the work of art is a gift, born, like every generous act of giving, of losing, of suffering, in Dave as artist, and shared with us by Dave as person.

4. But a gift can only be given if there are persons who receive it. And in a way, unless we’re prepared to go through a process at least in some way as demanding as the process Dave did in producing these works, we won’t be able to receive them. Which is why it’s great to see so many of you here this evening who are ready to make that effort. Because Dave needs us just as much as we need Dave, and the gift of beauty that artists can share with us. Through their giving and our receiving, we’re experiencing that art builds relationship, helps to make a community. And we understand what Tarkovsky meant about the work of art when he wrote in Sculpting in Time:

The great function of art is communication, since mutual understanding is a force to unite people, and the spirit of communion is one of the most important aspects of artistic creativity…I simply cannot believe that an artist can ever work only for the sake of ‘self-expression.’ Self-expression is meaningless unless it meets with a response. For the sake of creating a spiritual bond with others it can only be an agonizing process, one that involves no practical gain: ultimately, it is an act of sacrifice. But surely it cannot be worth the effort for the sake of hearing one’s own echo?

(Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (London: Bodley Heard, 1986), 39–40)

And it’s that community of mutual concern for the truth of the existence of the concrete realities Dave has transfigured for us – persons, things, colours, shapes – that unites us here this evening.

5. I’ll finish with a word on his most recent and largest scale work here, Dave’s ‘Mary Seat of Wisdom.’ My first reaction to it was – she’s like a Vermeer woman receiving a letter, where each of those Vermeer portraits is of every woman, conveying vulnerability, openness to suffering and to love. The ‘letter’ Mary here is reflecting on is the scroll containing the Word of God.

Dave’s ‘Mary Seat of Wisdom isn’t a traditional Madonna, it reminds me more of the Hungarian painter Tivadar Csontváry’s ‘Mary at the Well,’ or some of the 1920s USSR mother and child paintings (for example, Kuzma Petrov Vodkin’s ‘Petrograd 1918’) which were modern presentations of Mary – a woman who could be smoking a cigarette, yet who is timeless, whose wisdom comes from decisively and quietly being who she is more than from talking or writing.

So Dave’s ‘Mary Seat of Wisdom’ in a way sums up all his work up to now, because it’s a beautiful expression of the mystery of communication between Artist and Audience, between persons who are eternal beings in time, as is this wonderful collection of some of the best of his work.

Dr Brendan Purcell, February 2010

New and Collected Poems 1931 – 2001 (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 249

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