A final pilgrim


MARK SPRAY | A final pilgrim

Mark Spray is an artist with a profound empathy for landscape. Distinct from the work of landscape artists whose focus is primarily visual, Spray’s work speaks of an altogether more conflicted and raw relationship with the land. Expressing instead a sensory and psychological experience of ‘place’, this collection of moody, dark and deeply textured paintings are at once strangely hypnotic and menacingly bleak. Known for a multifaceted approach to his work, Spray orders his artistic life into a series of long running projects, the course of which he allows to develop unhindered from their beginning. Often taking several years from start to completion, Spray describes the influences on his extended projects as ‘constantly evolving’. Accordingly, A Final Pilgrim has many undercurrents: initially intended to explore the idea of pilgrimage and self understanding, the project has shifted and continued to develop from its point of conception. Inspired by Goya’s Black Painting A Final Pilgrim and the poetic work The Spiritual Canticle by St John of the Cross, two voices that have remained constant for this project, further influences have been absorbed from Spray’s love of poetry, literature and music. Preparation for the works included in A Final Pilgrim took the form of a series of solitary journeys to some of the most inaccessible parts of the United Kingdom. Driven by an uncompromising wanderlust, the importance of Spray’s artistic journeys cannot be underestimated, bringing about as they do ‘a balanced state which is vital for the work’. Committed to developing a deeply personal, meditative relationship with our most remote and hostile environments, this collection of works is the result of a two year project absorbed in coasts, cliff tops and rocky outcrops from the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in England, Bardsey Island in Wales, Iona, Staffa and Mull in Scotland to the remote monastery of Skellig Michael in Ireland.

Concerned with ideas of circularity between the external and internal, and developing a creative dialogue between experience of landscape and expression of self, a vital part of Spray’s intensely applied artistic discipline includes a unique approach to his studio practice: intending to evoke the internal essence of ‘place’, A Final Pilgrim’s mixed media works are composed of oil paints and a wealth of natural materials collected from, and thus dictated by, the landscape in which he is working. Spray even sketches his landscapes with charcoal made from the wood he finds on site. For Spray the process of studio painting is as reflective and self directing as his lengthy preparatory work. Constantly walking the line between abstraction and representational elements, initial studio time involves the breaking up and grinding of rock, earth, sand, chalk, flint, grit, gravel and wood, which are mixed with a variety of media. Often working on several paintings simultaneously and following an instinctive pattern of application and extrication that facilitates a natural ‘weathering’ of surface, Spray continues to let the project dictate its own path, responding to the natural progression of his work as it unfolds.

‘My Beloved is the mountains, The solitary wooded valleys, The strange islands, The roaring torrents, The whisper of the amorous gales.’
The Spiritual Canticle, St John of the Cross

As a starting point for appreciation of A Final Pilgrim, it is worth contemplating the two creative works that served as initial inspiration for the collection: Francisco Goya’s A Final Pilgrim, also known as Dos Frailes or Two Friars, belongs to the series of Black Paintings executed during the final years of the artist’s life that portray intense, haunting themes, reflective of the artist’s fearful outlook on humanity. In this work, two figures emerge from a fathomless black space; the serenity of the tall, elderly figure in the foreground belies the darkly caricatured animal-like figure, variously described as a familiar or demon, that seems to be screaming into the ear of his companion. Compelling in its dark, emotional undertones, this image is sometimes considered to be a kind of self-portrait, expressing a brutal inner conflict of the soul. Thought to have been created between 1820 and 1823, the Black Paintings were neither commissioned nor sold and during Goya’s lifetime no visitor ever reported seeing them. Painted directly onto the interior walls of his villa and never intended for public exhibition, these works have been described by art historian Fred Licht ‘as close to being hermetically private as any that have ever been produced in the history of Western art’.

The poetic work The Spiritual Canticle is a sixteenth century verse by St John of the Cross. Both his poetry and his writings on the growth of the soul are considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature. Arrested in 1577, John was kept under a brutal regime that included nine months of imprisonment in a space barely large enough for his body. Forced to look inward for any sense of expansion and focusing his mind on imagery of mountains, valleys, rivers and flowers from the biblical Song of Songs, a work he knew by heart, it was during this period of suffering and isolation that he composed a great part of The Spiritual Canticle which, according to his commentary, is an exercise in forgiveness and a joyful expression oflove towards his captors.

Created in conditions of physical and psychological isolation, both these creative endeavours have been interpreted historically as highly introspective works of private meditation. Spray’s fascination with these masterpieces stems from the implied duality of the human spirit, and the struggle for balance between the physicality of experiencing the external world and the spirituality of looking inwards toward the self.

‘I close my eyes.
The darkness implies your presence.
The shadow of your steep mind
on my world. I shiver in it.
It is not your light that
can blind us: it is the splendour of your darkness.’
R.S. Thomas

Spray’s own immersion in physical and psychological seclusion takes the form of extended solitary journeys through the landscape. These, combined with both long standing and incidental influences, become the framework around which each project takes form. A particular inspiration for Spray’s paintings combines his fascination for landscape with a life long love of poetry. On Bardsey Island where the poet R.S. Thomas was once vicar of nearby Aberdaron and was significantly involved in the protection of Bardsey, the poetic work Shadows became an influence on the project. Sharing Thomas’s impulse to explore the spiritual experience of the ‘self’ within the landscape, the project was a constantly receptive work in progress ‘dictating to me which direction it should go’ and ‘moving in ways I would never have thought possible’. Ideas of self expression and the condition of human existence within A Final Pilgrim are drawn in part from Franz Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks, from which the much cited quote ‘Everyone carries a room about inside him’ reflects the idea that wherever and however far you travel, it could never be possible to escape the internal space within you. As a product of focused introspection they reflect and have informed Spray’s own creative exploration ‘into the darker corners’ of the self.

Having completed the project’s initial journeys to Holy Island and across Wales to Ynys Enlli, and returning with his sketch books to Cornwall, a period of studio time allowed Spray to focus on paintings from these trips before the next stage of the project could develop. Heading north on his first trip to Scotland the next journey ‘had the usual concentration of wanderlust and found me travelling between the islands of Iona, Staffa, and Mull, drawing all the way’. On Iona, a tiny island of wild Hebridean beauty, the project took in magnificent white beaches that, reflecting the forgiveness of St John’s poetic verse, remain pure and unstained by their distant history as the site of a mass slaughter of monks by Viking raiders.

‘I thought about how the vision of wildness
with which I had begun my journeys – inhuman,
northern, remote – was starting to crumble from
contact with the ground itself. The human and the
wild cannot be partitioned.’
Robert Mcfarlane

Time on the island of Staffa, a location that ‘creatively was more than I could have hoped for’ was followed by the last journey for A Final Pilgrim, which took Spray to the remote island of Skellig Michael off the west coast of Ireland, accessible for only a very few days of the year due to rough Atlantic swells. In a landscape that for 600 years was a centre of monastic life for early Christians, Spray experienced the spartan conditions of Europe’s most isolated hermitage, situated almost at the summit of the 230 metre high rock, spending several nights drawing and painting and watching the sun set and rise over the Skelligs. For the paintings inspired by Skellig Michael, he collected additional materials from the nearby island of Valentia, the only source of external material that was shipped onto the island for the construction of the monastery’s oratory.
Derived at its beginning from Spray’s encounter with Goya’s Two Friars and initial thoughts about where and in what space such a transcendent encounter might occur, comparative ideas of the artist’s studio, the hermitage and the place of remote pilgrimage have become entwined in A Final Pilgrim.

As landscapes these paintings remove the viewer to a place of contemplative solitude, but, heavily layered not only with paint and natural elements, but intrinsic meaning, inevitably these works invite far deeper interaction. As works of public exhibition this privately created and intensely personal collection of paintings have much to say on the universal nature of existence. Spray’s exploration of internal reasoning and response provoked by extremes of external condition is reflective of our own daily struggles with self and situation. Like reading someone’s private diary, we are comforted by how closely another’s tenuous reality mirrors the fragility of our own. The much anticipated exhibition of A Final Pilgrim represents another marker on the creative path of one of Cornwall’s most respected painters. Spray’s artistic journey is ongoing, and among the questions this new collection of works raises is perhaps the most important: where next?

Mercedes Smith