Goddess Series and Spaces of Transmutation by Basil du Toit
In his introduction to the Penguin Selected Poems of Yannis Ritsos, Peter Bien suggests that “it may be helpful to think of Ritsos as a painter rather than a writer.” Reversing that equation, it may be helpful to think of Cleone Cull as a poet as well as a painter. She is a storyteller, whose mysterious narratives may be dimly discerned, but who is more interested in establishing a geography, and perhaps a cosmology, in which these narratives might unfold. That geography may be as diverse as industrial landscape and the human body.
Cull’s graphical texts can be read as poems, and positively invite such a reading. They have the same intertextual richness, allusive complexity, deployment of symbols and quotations, both of other individual artists (Frieda Kahlo and Hieronymous Bosch, for example) and from the store of common cultural property. There is also what may be called, without straining, the “metrics” of her works, their rhythms – based on balance, repetition and variations on a theme. In short, they are works of the imagination using public cultural landmarks to expose private and interpersonal concerns.
Her designs call not so much for multiple interpretations as multiple methodologies of reading – literary criticism, psychoanalytic interpretation, cultural study, as well as standard aesthetic appreciation.
There is indeed a powerful exegetical pull in these works – a will to be interpreted (and to communicate) which offsets, and finally resolves, the private and arcane symbols used. This will-to-be-read is expressed most dramatically in the vertical mirrorings which dominate her designs and which echo so clearly the “inkblots” used by Hermann Rorschach in his psychological tests.
A further observation by Bien on Ritsos’s metaphoric method may be pertinent here – “the external materials serve as entrées into the poet’s internal fears, hopes, wounds, dreams – the configuration of [her] soul.” Cull’s methods ensure that the configuration of the viewer’s soul is also brought into focus. The psychological exposure of the works is extreme, inciting spontaneous reactions in the observer, immediate gestalt-like reactions and associations. The discoveries to be made here are not, consequently, so much about the psyche of the artist, which remains a speculation, as about the vulnerabilities, fears and emotional susceptibilities of the viewer/reader.
The interpretation of Cull’s images thus enables a two-way discovery, both of the work and of the self who views the work. By pointing the lens of interpretation back at the viewer, the observed image invites not only a reading of itself but also a reflection by the observer on their own responses – as revelatory of character, cultural conditioning and, ultimately, of pathology – their own psychic turbulence.
Encouragingly, however, it also invites their participation in a rich heritage of public images, archetypes and symbolisms. It is this very participation, this membership of a common language group, which protects against any tendency to randomness and arbitrariness of response.
In fact two design structures clearly shape these works – concentricity and symmetry. The two structures form axes along which the narrative (vertical) and geographic (horizontal) dimensions of Cull’s works may be explored. That Rorschach symmetry, mentioned earlier (which is always folded or mirrored on the vertical plane) exploits identity and variation. Anticipated equations of the two halves are played with and corrected by minor discrepancies on the opposing side.
The concentric architectures of the works, on the other hand, are perhaps their most directly feminine feature – the enfolding of one space within another, sometimes a vastly larger space within a smaller, a cosmic within a bodily, or merely one body within another. These are not so much maternal images as ones of biological fecundity – of something about to emerge, during that mysterious period when one independence is still interlinked with another.
None of these interpretative opportunities should dull us to the sheer pleasure and explorative excitement of encountering one of her fables. They greet us, on our first acquaintance, with a scale of design and deployment of colour reminiscent of those vast/tiny star-nurseries revealed by the Hubble Telescope. Each is packed with objects to wonder at and puzzle over.
The ambiguous scale of her figures or universes makes it impossible to say if one is dealing with machines, or plants or a cosmos. We are faced with weapons and flowers, botanical and anatomical symmetries, forces of degeneration and regeneration. The works strike a balance between creation and destruction, between the animate and the mechanical, between comfort and terror.
Throughout there is an expression of feminine potency, both sexual and divine. The power of the old male gods is expressed in images of eruption, but here the vessels of that power are feminine – with floral and uterine manifestations.
What follows is an exploration of some of the metaphoric systems in this series of art works.
The goddess in this piece is a dreadnought, an armoured vessel of sea warfare, with a suggestion of bow-formation below, squatting over the coldest region of the painting, its crackling Antarctic. Long propeller shafts emerge from two electrodynamic turrets which suggest a technological source for her power. This is the most scientific region of the goddess, her “engine room”, though the ultimate source of her power is psychological.
The locus of that power might well be the sombre subterranean region of her being, a room which is divided off from the rest and has almost been forgotten. This blackly inked domain contains a box – part coffin, part high altar; it is clearly the gloomy realm of subconsciousness which drives the goddess’s aggression.
The symmetry in this piece is expressed fully in the central figure, but subtle variations offer themselves in the diaphanous surroundings; there, flanking basically apse-like religious structures, we find faint, half-emerged symbols like those on the staffs of Egyptian priests or hierophants – the sun, moon, hand, bird, leaf, wheat-ear.
The work, symmetrical on the vertical axis, has clear narrative development in that plane, through a progression of chambers and tunnels. Visually, the work is structured from top to bottom (because the sun-burst at the top is what first catches the eye) but from a narrative (and maybe temporal) point of view it reads best from bottom to top, i.e. from the crypt-like origins in a dark sub-structure, up through the sexually exposed body of the goddess and ending in the display of eruptive power in the thermonuclear sun-burst.
There is a clear sexual narrative and route-map, leading from the bright vagina-shape just above the crypt, up through cervical/fallopian piping, into the hot womb of the goddess, from which, by means of exposed vein structures the generated power of the goddess is distributed and ultimately expelled in projectile forms.
The goddess herself, both peeled from her skin and utterly invulnerable, with her supplementary rows of eyes and exposed, volcanic brain, is alien, formidable, terrifying.
The playing with scale reaches interesting extremes in this work, in which large foundational faces (drawn close-up in intimate detail) are contrasted with images of spiral galaxies, which themselves are suggestive of jellyfish. This is no Eden, however – it is a post-industrial heap of discarded mechanism reminiscent of piles of crushed automobiles, producing waste-smoke and other effluvia. There are several exhaust structures by which this world attempts to regulate itself, to siphon off its noxious by-products. It is an extremely complex functioning mechanism, as dense as a human brain, in which organic, imaginary and technological components are thrillingly fused.
Tubes snake through the mass like intestines or animal burrows and emerge at the surface to perform obscure symbiotic transactions with the outside world. Shapes from the interior of the mass come forward and recede, half-conceding their identities like ambiguous offerings of the subconscious.
It could be a hell, with quotations from Hieronymous Bosch, especially the empty heads like cups, or tumbrels, with their tops taken off, and the scenes on the right, a mini-Hades with devil figures and bottled victims.
In the heap we have, on looking more closely, a repository of monochrome dreams, referring back to ancient Egyptian iconography – god-dolls, fertility figures, fox-headed creatures. In the end it is an embryo of the divine, it is the womb of some future, with galaxies waiting to emerge and half-realised forms awaiting release – for this is a wheeled cosmos, it is going somewhere, there is an element of hope. One way or another it is dynamic, it is working.
We have here a vast structure, part organism, part landscaped garden, which contains alchemical references, and a sense of paradise in its fountain-punctuated formal gardens whose tapering perspectives are reminiscent of Versailles. Tassels, candelabra and smoking candles suggestion a site of ceremony or celebration. There is symmetry of shape but dissymmetry of content in the two circular designs on either side of the pyramid.
The embedded face on the left is a planetary symbol (the man in the moon) whose world is riddled with lava tunnels that deliver plant-like tendrils onto the surface. Alternatively they might be sperm cells that have wriggled into the mass and then petrified. The counter-balancing form on the right hand side continues the cosmological imagery in its use of concentric circles, hourglass shapes and other galactic references.
The reticulated skin of the base has been peeled back to show quasi-scientific instrumentation – part atomic structure, part planetary model. This is an instance of mirroring on the vertical plane, for above it there is a twin structure, one of the seed- or egg-like forms that give a sense of promise and fecundity to the series as a whole. Images of generation and fertility adorn the top, where fallopian structures sit in expectant proximity to smoking eggs that have fallen like seeds off drooping willows.
In the central pyramidal column of the design there is a sense of structural or narrative cascading, as happens in doodle patterns, or automatic drawing, where one shape suggests and leads onto another, which then feeds into further shapes – a burgeoning of linked ideas giving structural shape to the whole.
The structure carries reminiscences of uterine biology with its funnels and curled seed-like shapes. It also possesses volcanic structure and function, though its power is more decorative than destructive, suggesting son et lumière in the grounds of a French chateau.
The hints of classical South American civilizations (Aztec, Inca, Hopi) which have been glimpsed throughout the series become explicit and dominating in this drawing – the characteristic petroglyphic heads in profile, the feathered headdresses, the stair-dominated temple awaiting human sacrifice.
The vastness of scale (with the entire image culminating in an erupting volcano) is questioned and humanised in the base of the drawing by the wheeled cart supporting the entire culture.
A body shape, part human but with bird and insect components, dominates. A human ribcage fits over a marrow-shaped oblong which dribbles bladder-like or womb-like into a pellet-filled repository below. Insect segmentations surround this oblong giving it the character of a pupa or some primitive form such as a trilobite. The chest cavity is also a magma chamber from which blood-tinged fire begins the volcanic spew, though its pyroclastic flow is soon transformed into meteorological phenomena – dark clouds and lightning form the burst-open, vaporous head of the figure. Joining that discharge, smoke pours from pouting mouths which form an industrial silhouette.
Several eye shapes present themselves, but they are overshadowed by the pair on either side of the ribcage. These, reducing the dimensions of the entire drawing to that of a head, makes one identify the head as that of an insect, something like a locust. What before appeared to be sexual and digestive items now become the mandibles and other parts of the locust’s mouth. Such shifts of scale and perspective are among the most rewarding aspects of these works. They are reminiscent of Milton’s treatment of the devils in hell – giants one moment, winged insects the next.
The chimneys or columns on either side of the cart are part industrial, part castle turret. They reinforce the strong asymmetrical binaries of the work, and help to balance it. Their suggestion of warfare and industry contribute to the sense of a working civilization. Despite the fiercely destructive implication of the volcano, the tiny figures inhabiting the blast and its aftermath seem at home in their element.
In this picture a central column of vulva-like and uterine spaces is balanced by a horizontal proliferation of repeated forms moving to the left and right edges. A tremendous sense of kinesis and upward thrust is created by this use of the two axes.
This picture illustrates also that there is a development or evolution of shapes across the series – a common vocabulary of forms being adapted to different uses. The aureoles around the eyes are transmutations of the starfish figures, for example, and nebula/squid images are used elsewhere.
Spaces of significant cross-over are important in this work (as are passages of transition as a whole in the series). The theme of expelling (ejaculation or eruption) is here given a twist as blood-letting, not from wounds but from purpose-built devices which end in cups from which the blood evaporates in a red haze.
The crucial cross-over point is the one signalling a process of impregnation – where twin sets of heads face each other across a small divide, and branch like bronchial tubes from the central column. This is clearly a place of the transference of something – life, energy or thought, mediated by red discs seen side-on.
At the centre of the womb-column is where the act of creation itself it taking place, encouraging one to see the whole design as a support system to this act/event, and so to see the whole as a kind of self-supporting machine, like a space craft, to complement the other images of travelling that we encounter in the series. A dim figure, part astronaut, part embryo, is emerging below a transparent globe played upon by arcs of electricity. But in fact human bodies in these worlds are reduced to mere organs of a greater whole – akin to eyes, kidneys, or simple leaves on a tree.
From the whirring fans to left and right, tendrils curl away far beyond their botanical bounds into smoky phantoms to form interactions with other forms which are, depending on how you view them, either neighbouring or else whole dimensions of experience away. The playing with scale means that adjacent areas of the designs can be metaphysically worlds apart, in terms of image cluster, associations, spatial denotation. Traversing great gulfs across adjoining areas is one of the delights of reading these works.
In this blazing work the iconography of ceremonial dolls is used. Here we have something like a voodoo or fertility doll, standing formidably akimbo against a winged and flaming cosmos. A world of angels and pentecost is evoked. Flames of souls and revelations surround the figure. A lack of exception to the prevailing symmetries indicates the unambiguous control this goddess has over her self and world.
The ubiquitous presence of fire, the feu d’artifice bursting of radiation, the Catherine wheels of flame, all contained within circular forms, powerfully suggest the energy and self-control of the central monumental figure. This is a goddess very much in charge of her universe, one who beguiles with the fiery displays of her nature, who disarms with suggestions of softness and generation in the plant images, and one who compels respect – and a good measure of fear as well.
The exposed nervous and circulatory systems connote for us neither the vulnerability of Frida Kahlo nor the compassion of the Sacred Heart. They are a manifestation of will and capability. Like Brunhilde at the close of Die Walküre, she is a goddess ringed with fire, but less as an imprisonment than as a defence, or as a pure show of force. In its echoing of the thermal pods of a gas appliance, this fire has a defiant domestic quality too.
The swirl of winged creatures around the goddess forms part of the concentric design of the work. They are ranged about the central rosette-like shape, which focuses the absence of a heart – the heart has been extracted, diagrammatised, and placed between the legs of the goddess like a birth. This is how the creation of the world is sometimes displayed, emerging from the thighs of a standing goddess. Around the rosette and its lace-like designs suggesting articles of clothing (most particularly in the pearly, lifted skirts at the queen’s waist) we have one circle of pure fire, encompassed by the outer circle of impressionistic winged creatures – equivalent to the heavenly host of more conventional iconography.
Images from the worlds of botany and marine biology feminise the goddess. The “arms” of the goddess are remarkably transposed into the form of exotic plant shapes, their sexual organs (stamens or pistils) protruding from folded back petals, like expulsions of energy, like firings. Her oystery skirts are lifted, there is a hint of suspenders and underclothes in a joyous celebration of uninhibited exhibitionism.
With her sombrero-like headpiece (and with its menorah-like candelabra) the figure gives us the sense of a hatted Peruvian woman, and so adds her identity to the catalogue of South American references that are made throughout the series. Inverted, the headpiece becomes a jellyfish, adding its stings to the formidable weaponry of the cosmic queen.
An obvious figure of fertility, this is yet no mother figure – the milk spilling from her many-breasted skirt is a display of sheer abundance and fecundity. She pours herself forth in a gesture of excessive plenty. If anything is nurtured it is the world itself, not offspring.
Concentricity in this work focuses us towards the notion of sanctum – a sacred space hidden within layers. The sanctum in this image floats within an oval of featureless space, and is itself an oval solar heart containing its pearly nucleus.
At the bottom of the image is an enclosed nightscape of equinoctial blue. Via uvular shapes this leads sideways into a fantasia of lung-branchings and upwards into the central heart-womb.
A feature of the work is the structure of capillaries threading through the material masses of the goddess – blood vessels, but also conduits of more precious fluids – supernatural and generative. Again the impression is given of a complex, working organism, almost seen in cross-section like a machine diagram, or the sliced-through images of magnetic resonance scans.
Exudations and gushings are another characteristic, such as the little spillings of liquid from the row of blue eye-based pods spread across the middle. Many of the organs of this goddess are designed to release liquids, but it is also a metaphor of the uncontainable fertility of the figure.
The large twin structures surmounting the goddess give her a curiously owl-like appearance; the large-lensed belt-driven spectacles suggest wisdom and intellectual workings.
This drawing is a feast of narrative and symbolism, much of which cannot receive definitive disclosure – the viewer is forced into the richer terrain of speculation and emotional participation.
The symmetry in this piece derives more from the anatomy of the human head than from abstract patterning. Eye and nose shapes, heightened in white, give the basic orientations. But within that familiar organic design, tokens of Cull’s image vocabulary appear – cellular shapes reminiscent of fish, plant and wing forms, a piping system serving some obscure purpose, fruit and seed shapes. These familiar idioms ground the picture in reality, while more fantastic, dreamlike events are being played out in the structure.
The head is a theatre in which dreams, visions, enigmatic dramas and esoteric machinations are enacted. There is something of Heath Robinson in the connectedness of mechanisms, beginning with the wind-up key on the right of the figure and ending on the left, after many peregrinations through pipe, chain and wheel formations. In one of the most intriguing part of the drawing, a diagrammatic head in profile receives liquid from the main body, which drops downwards into a bowl-like stomach. This action determines the dominant direction of movement of the drawing (right to left) contrasting with the predominantly vertical movements in the other pieces.
There is another series of movements with a more overtly spiritual import, in the figure of open, upraised arms which is deployed in various components of the drawing, at large scale (the wing figures on the sides) and in small scale in the branching figures in the central white column.
Again we have sites of mysterious interchange, where charged liquids (perhaps embodiments of enlightenment) are being transferred from one area to another. Sometimes it is a circular process, sometimes, as in the bottom right of the picture, an image of nourishment, where liquid tapped from the overflow pipe drips onto a sallow, expectant plant.
Such description can convey only a fraction of the associations which the drawing evokes.
Another artist working in the same field of intuitive materials that Cleone Cull explores is the celebrated Scottish-born painter Alan Davie. The following assessment of Davie’s work would apply with equal force to Cull’s inspired and transfiguring imaginings:
“Overall, [this] work might best be seen in the light of ancient shamanic ideas concerning the transmutation of matter into magic: the transformation of consciousness into that animistic and exalted state where it might once again become aware of what Miro called ‘the magic sense of things’.” *
* Dr Michael Tucker, from “A Mystic Ring on the Finger of the World”, in Alan Davie, Small Paintings 1949 – 2000, University of Brighton, 2000