Signlessness, aimlessness and emptiness.


I am not a Buddhist, but I do find many appealing understandings within its teachings, including the three properties in the title of this blog post which I believe are referred to as the ‘Three doors to liberation’.
On my website I quote words written by Jeanette Winterson in the beautiful book, ‘Land’. She writes of an ‘essential aimlessness’. As soon as I read that it connected me to an element of my work.

In Buddhism, aimlessness is the midwife to letting go of attachment to form, desire, and self: letting go of our need to control outcomes and instead, rely on unshakeable confidence in our practice. Letting go means that whether or not the ball goes through the hoop, we can remain solid, free, and ready to get the rebound. From my earliest work in oils around 2000, I believe that I rarely sought a particular outcome, nor any clear idea about what form the work might take.

This 2009, 50cm oil on canvas began simply as a response to walking across the fields in November. Many of our ancient hedgerows have become tall and gappy because there is not enough labour to lay them each year to preserve their form. As I walked, the impact of this loss, and of the intensity of colour around my walk took root in me. While playing with the oil on the canvas surface, I also thought of the hidden energies buried deep in the soil, waiting to emerge the following spring.

2 years later walking through a field of unripe barley produced another oil. Its beautiful palette of contrasting limes and milky pale blue stems seemed delicious. The breeze pushing through created patterns like waves. Both these paintings simply offer my experience of that moment.

What you see was not planned. I was not trying to create these effects or compositions, but rather discovering as I progressed. I still work in this way and find it liberating. Listening to Jodi Picoult’s excellent novel, “The book of two ways”, I heard a character quote Edward Degas’: “Art is not what you see, it’s what you remember”.

Signlessness: in Buddhism means detachment from outward form. A cloud is then rain and then in the ground and in the plants and animals it nourishes. Its form changes but ‘it’ is still there. It is not lost. In neither of these early oils there is there clear representation of the forms of what I was actually looking at. I’m not sure if my unconcern with representing the forms as they are seen equates to signlessness, but whatever it is, it leads to fascinating developments over time.

By way of illustrating this, all three images below show that particular shapes or motifs have occurred in my work from the very beginning. These forms are not planned consciously and I often wonder why I find myself adding them to a piece, (or discovering them there). I can only tell you that they feel satisfying in some way. They are evident also in the first two pieces included in this post.
Far left, the oil was painted in 2011
The central watercolour, painted in 2013
The collage of tissue painted with acrylic ink, far right, was made in 2022.

You might be surprised to read that, of the three doors of liberation, the most exciting for me is emptiness.
Decades ago in a tiny book of Buddhist sayings, I found the statement that an empty vessel is ready to be filled. As a lifelong melancholic this was transformational. Suddenly what was sad became exciting. The prospect of emptiness being a positive.

My most recent work I think is confirmation that I have become more settled in my emptiness. I included the ‘hardly there’ paintings in my last blog, but I will include one here just to clarify what I’m saying. When I look at this small watercolour on board I like its simplicity and calm. The forms are separate, and this at first, troubled me. But if I share what a loved friend offered: ‘separate but in relationship’, the trouble is transformed to loveliness.

Thank you for joining my thinking in this post.
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