Monday, September 29, 2014

Mental Health and the role of Trauma.

Mental Health and the role of Trauma.


Collecting dead and wounded soldier from a battle field requires a spirit of steel. A personality able to look beyond the present towards a future of hope, a world that somehow will make meaningful the current carnage and loss of life, a belief in a better world. If you searched for an experience to change your life this surely would have to be it. Unfortunately such experiences often continue to haunt us making expulsion impossible. Memory has a habit of returning to inhabit the present.

There is a continuing debate among psychologists about the cause of mental distress, the nature-nurture dilemma. Whether mental health is the result of our biological genes or alternatively the product of daily circumstances. People behave differently, have different personalities resulting in different reactions to traumatic events.

An old friend from my youth had the misfortune to find himself in the middle of one of the last conventional wars, the Korean War, acting as a stretcher bearer. An experience that bordered at times on the inhuman not that all conflicts don't exemplify such. Stationed near a Turkish army unit, who’s members took turns each night to steal out and cut a few Chinese throats. The collection of the dead and dying by day coupled with this activity at night resulted in his developing a major alcohol problem. Unable to cope with everyday living he was condemned to a living hell, rarely being in a sober state.

Such are not uncommon problems with ex-servicemen, particularly historically were they were simper[y discharged and expected to re-enter normal life. Some are able to departmentise bad experiences, to shut them up in a secret cupboard and throw away the key, others never seem able to do so. With the current wave of throat cutting it seems reasonable to seek some understanding of the whys for such extreme actions.

Various psychological studies support the view that childhood trauma is substantially associated with an increased risk of psychosis. The study did not specify particular age groups, but as long as they were under 18years they were included. 41 studies [Filippo Varese and Colleagues] found evidence that childhood adversity is substantially associated with an increased risk for psychosis. The implication of these findings suggest that primary prevention is urgently needed in our detention centres in terms of policy towards refugee children. Specific types of adverse events include abuse, neglect, parental death, sexual abuse, not to mention exposure to war and parental separation.
It seems reasonable to suggest that current Australian Government policy of the detention of refugee children for extended periods of time often years is creating perfect conditions for psychosis. Is it not possible that this policy is encouraging possible future recruits for terrorist organizations. Social factors play the strongest role in the origin of mental health problems, this is a serious question that needs to be addressed by government

Monday, September 22, 2014

How to lead a calm life. Stoicism.


Stoicism remains perhaps the most immediately relevant and useful philosophy in our time. Its ambition is to teach us how to be brave, how to remain calm in the face of today’s anxieties and possible disasters a dress rehearsal for catastrophe. Stoic teachings are dark and sober yet at the same time profoundly consoling making us defiant in the face of difficulty.

Our mind is a system of organs of computation designed by natural selection to solve problems faced by our ancestors in their foraging life style. We developed an understanding of how to outmanoeuvre objects, plants, and other people. This Darwinian process that has developed over time. Human existence has lived in such conditions for 99.5 % of its time on earth. It is little wonder that we unconsciously act the way we do. These historic conditions required bravery and calm in the face of overwhelming anxiety. It seems reasonable to suggest that Stoicism presents one of the more useful philosophies for this uncertain age.

When anxiety visits we need to remain calm, to systematically and intelligently crush the last visage of hope rather than tell ourselves that better times are near. If we think and prepare for the worst possible outcome, we enable ourselves to cope as we have envisaged the worst outcome. Generally we don’t dare to do this, any glimpse of horrible eventualities are banished. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote,

‘To reduce your worry, you must assume that what you fear may happen.’

He suggested we take time to practice worst case scenarios, sleep on the floor for a week and only eat stale bread. We must in order to be calm learn to expect less from life. It is natural for acquaintances to fail us, friends to lie, loved ones disappoint. The wise person needs to aim to reach a state where nothing suddenly disturbs their peace of mind. We naturally exaggerate our own importance; incidences in our lives loom large in our view of the world. We must learn to reduce their importance to regain composure. Life is always in the hands of fate, understanding this is the best philosophy.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Gestural Painting and the Zen connection.

 Gestural Painting, the marks of Zen.


Child at Play ink on paper 1995.
Currently I’m exhibiting a number of works drawn from examples of paintings I  produced over the years, four decades in fact, and as often happens you come across work that has not seen daylight for quite a long time. Work that has been in hiding in my studio behind more recent arrivals. One series of paintings I found were watercolours dating back to my time in Rome during the late 50’s, when like many young painters I became enamoured with Zen Buddhism, ideas that influenced abstract expressionism and other forms of minimum art.

My first experience attempting to produce drawings spontaneously, that is without any preconceived thought occurred during a life drawing session at Desiderius Orban Art School at Circular Quay, Sydney. Orban a Hungarian artist had deserted Europe during the 1930s’ to escape the Nazi Government backlash towards modern art. Australia at the time was fortunate in acquiring several European artists familiar with the latest artistic development. Orban insisted on immediate and spontaneous response to subject matter without preconceived ideas about the result. He would run up and down the studio shouting faster, faster as students attempted to produce fifteen, thirty, or sixty second drawings. Draw from the shoulder not the wrist he would say, only then will you produce spontaneous drawing. This approach to creativity eventual lead to Pollock’s action painting in America, and the gestural work of Motherwell and others.

During the immediate post-war period Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir existentialist philosophy became popular in intellectual circles. Artists influenced by the interchange between subjective perception and objective reality in the world, lead many artists to engage in exploration of abstraction. As far as I was concerned the idea of a total mediative state as a starting point for creative expression seemed like a great idea, Zen offered an encouraging entry point. This eventually lead to many gestural drawings and paintings were marks made on a surface by unconscious physical action becoming closed statements, where a viewer often could not interpret the resulting image in any meaningful way, this still remains a barrier for many people viewing abstract work.

My drawing during this period took on the appearance of Oriental calligraphy without any meaningful reference to any existing text or writing, they were calligraphy marks on coloured ground as simple as that. A Japanese artist Roy Kiyooka dismissed the idea as meaningless, which was fair enough being a highly structured painter and Japanese, but it seemed reasonable to me that the subconscious was able to connect with the objective world even if gestural association was not intended.

On later reflection I realised that some point of entry was required for a viewer beyond the decorative, this would enhance their experience and hopefully enjoyment. Thinking back this no doubt was what Orban was trying to instil in us as students while retaining the spontaneous approach. In re-engaging with this idea after rediscovering these early painting I have decided to reintroduce a gestural approach in my work. Such an approach is the closest a human being can give physical visual presence to their subconscious. Dancers often move to sounds without formal interpretation of the music, their movements a spontaneous reflex  response, so there seems no reason two dimensional work should not also.
Hanging figure ink on paper.1959.

Wreck of the Laura. 1996.
Musical instrument. 1959


Saturday, September 6, 2014

ARCHIBALD PRIZE for Portrait painting. 2014

Each year the annual Archibald Portrait Prize seems to take another step backwards and this years is simply more of the same. Each year technology takes another step to the determent artistic skill. Far to many works seem to be based on photographs producing a display of lifeless portraits. The tell tale signs of photography copies are there, the use of casual attitudes, turned heads and lighting effects produce flat lifeless results. There is no substitute for drawing, whether academic or expressionistic. A portrait should tell us something about a living person, if possible their attitude to life. Kate Blanchett's portrait above illustrates the trend in this approach.

There are however a few bright spots, that in my opinion demonstrate a more creative method of painting. 'Here' by Quiang Zhang and 'Rox' by Paul Ryan are two paintings were the artist has attempted to present a living person. At least here we know the works are by living people, not a photo, not that I have anything against photography, it is simply not in the true spirit of portrait painting. Zhang's is a very strong work, while Ryan's expressionist work has a lively feel.

'Rox' by Paul Ryan.
Torah Bright by Zoe Young
'Not a sexpat cowboy painting by David Grigg.

'Here' by Quiang Zhang.

Two other paintings also caught my eye, David Griggs' 'Not a sexpat idiot cowboy painting' and Zoe Young's portrait of Torah Bright offered a little light relief from the photo brigand. I like Grigg's inclusion of supporting material offering a view into another world. Zoe Young is more straight forward with her exploration of what is possible with colour.



Monday, September 1, 2014

A Dance for the Forgotten.

Threefold Dance Experience.


‘A dance for the forgotten’ will not be forgotten quickly. Tasdance and Dancenorth turned on a stunning performance at The Theatre Royal, Hobart last night. The two modern dance companies preformed one of the most vigorous and sensual dance routines I have seen for quite some time. The choreography moved between the sensual and search for survive as waves of dancers throw themselves across the stage only to crash on rocks of disappointment. A shorten version of a piece first performed as part of Ten Days on the Island in 2007, a dance for the forgotten was all things to all people.

The vigour, beauty, and presence of the dancers as they fought for survival revealed a sense of pathos that moved between the medieval world and the present. Choreographed by Raewyn Hill, the two dance companies demanded total attention of their audience. The almost religious musical backdrop forced the viewer to dig deeply into their heart. All the dancers were superb, but Erynne Mulholland deserves special mention, her magic presence seemed to dominate and hold together the performance. This is not to dismiss the other dancers as all dug deep into their souls to produce an unforgettable night.