Escape from Eden

When I first came across Sue Williams A’Court’s work, I was immediately struck by its combination of wit and beauty, a combination one is not used to encountering in the work of contemporary artists. Her creations are obviously both ingenious and skilful; but they are much more than that. So often wit is used to distance, whereas here it is used to engage.

Much of her work plays with the ambiguity of perception. Research indicates that Westerners, by contrast with Far Easterners, tend to home in on a salient feature of a scene and neglect the rest. But here we are invited to shift perspectives and attend differently. For A’Court, the background is more important than the figure. In this she follows the tradition of the landscape painters of the eighteenth century from whose work she has drawn inspiration. Narrowly focussed attention, in keeping with the the predatory purpose of the brain’s left hemisphere, attempts to close down on something known and familiar, at the centre of the field of vision. By contrast the attention of the right hemisphere, which guards against predators, is broad, sustained and tolerant of ambiguity, and opens up a space for something larger, genuinely unforeseen, genuinely new.

Indeed one of the most highly characteristic facets of the right hemisphere’s way of construing the world is its attention to the background, rather than just the salient feature, of a scene. A second is its capacity to hold more than one interpretation open at the same time. And a third (there are many) is facial perception. The business of seeing the whole is what the Germans call Gestalt perception, whereby we see at once what the whole scene imports, rather than trying to build it up from isolated elements. Here it is deliberately promoted by A’Court’s approach to the experienced world, in which a scene taken as a whole is more than the sum of its parts. It invokes, in an ‘aha’ moment (which is also robustly associated with right hemisphere function), a human face.

Without any conscious contrivance to do so, therefore, this body of work powerfully engages right hemisphere understanding, one of the implicit aims of all art. The right hemisphere is what links us to the world – integrates otherwise fragmentary experience, and enables us to feel our way into what we experience. I am put in mind of the fact that the magical landscapes of Gainsborough were first modelled by him on a table, using sticks of broccoli for trees, rocks for mountains, and pieces of broken mirror as lakes. These elements were brought together and transfigured in his imagination that produced the finished work. Now those works are reintegrated at a still higher level with the human form.

This is both disconcerting and comforting. We feel ourselves mysteriously inhabiting these landscapes of the imagination. We feel a rapport between the natural world and the world of the human soul, as did Wordsworth. And yet we feel there is something uncanny here – did we invent it or did we discover it? With her interest in Eastern philosophy and meditation, A’Court explores how visual pleasure is connected to the ‘numinous’ experience.

In a note on one of her Tantric compositions, she comments that she wants to remain ‘quiet – so as not get in the way – to draw in the viewer’. There is a fatal tendency in much superficially clever art work for the artist to get between ourselves and the business of direct experience. This rebuffs our approach to the work itself; we experience a hard, reflective surface.

In A’Court’s work the artist is effaced and we do, precisely, find ourselves drawn into the grain of the experience. The stare of the hungry eye is softened and, as she puts it, in a wonderful phrase, the gaze is ‘slowed down’.

This coming together of the human form and that of the landscape is also at work on another level. In an era before the machine became the only model for every kind of understanding, the obvious correlation between the human body and other forms in nature, such as the stream, or the tree, was more apparent: ‘whilst rendering landscape’, writes A’Court, ‘the natural forms reminded me of antique medical illustrations of the tree-like forms of the body and brain’s nervous system’. And she continues: ‘the landscapes felt quite visceral, like portraits, in that sense’.

Such profoundly human landscapes are indeed viscerally experienced; something calls to us from an Eden-like world from which we have ‘escaped’, and of which this work reminds us. ‘Desire and longing’ is a recurrent theme of her work, in which we feel we connect with something greater than ourselves: in other words, with the transcendent. For many now this ‘desire and longing’ is too painful to contemplate, and it too has been banished from the repertoire of most contemporary art. All the more reason to relish the beauty and skill of this collection, and to be grateful to Sue William A’Court for her painstaking and beautiful work. 

Iain McGilchrist*, February 2017

*Iain McGilchrist is a former Consultant psychiatrist and Clinical Director at the Bethel Royal & Maudsley hospital, London, and has researched in neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Baltimore. He taught English at Oxford, where he has been three times elected a Fellow of All Souls College. He is the author of "The Master and His Emissary-the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World", works privately in London and otherwise lives on the Isle of Skye.