Exhibition Opening Address
Pippa Skotnes, Michaelis Professor of Fine Art
I am delighted to be able to speak at this exhibition, which I think of as a real celebration. It is a celebration of the power of painting, the affect of colour, the intensity of looking and seeing, but also of personal resilience. I see many of Virginia’s colleagues here, each of us I am sure, bathing in the glow of these works as evidence of how creative work can thrive in trying times. In a meeting today in which we, as a staff, were plotting the way forward for the finalising of the academic year and the beginning of exams, Virginia reminded us all that artwork is a way of giving new life to the world, of opening up possibilities and for making room to see things in new ways. And those of us who work as artists know this to be true because it is not knowledge that we produce, but rather a location: our work a point of inflection, where what it comes to means depends on a direction taken somewhere in the future. And frequently we see it as prophetic.
This morning I was allowed to choose a watercolour from a collection that Virginia had made as part of her work for this exhibition. I looked through all the lovely pages: several versions of a faceless figure in a hat (clearly Virginia); others of a dog swimming, his nose held above the water, his eyes clear and focused, perhaps on the approaching bank; a colour sketch of the flickering shadows of passengers in a passing vehicle. And then, the one I chose, a small, monochrome, dappled figure of a meerkat, erect, alert, looking back at me.
The little painting, which at once I imagined framed in my bedroom, inviting a silent conversation before I sleep at night, signified a quality at the heart of this exhibition, and resonated deeply with several memories of similar moments of seeing and being seen. I immediately recalled three of these. The first was a moment imagined, when, as a teenager, I read Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man. In one place she described her pursuit of David Graybeard, the chimpanzee she loved first, and most, and who she often found waiting for her, as she stumbled along behind the foraging troop. On one of these occasions she had picked up a nut he particularly liked, and as they sat near each other she stretched out her hand and offered it to him. He glanced at her, and reached over to take it, clasping her hand but, as he moved off, he dropped the nut, having no desire to keep it. This was Jane Goodall’s first moment of real communication with a chimp, and a moment of mutual recognition that was to change so much about how we now understand the non-human animal world.
The second thing immediately brought to mind by the gaze of the meercat, was a comment I have always particularly liked from a notebook of Franz Kafka’s. In the note he mentions a door in his apartment which he had never before noticed: It’s in a wall in the bedroom, which adjoins the neighbouring house,” He wrote, “ I never gave it a thought, let alone knew it was there”. Here Kafka describes a sudden realization of the presence of a connection at first unseen, and then the sense of a point of access to it.
The third was a dream I had not long after my husband David died. In the dream, I was hurrying along a road, and ahead of me in the distance there he was, walking without haste, yet always too far ahead for me to catch up. After a while he stopped and raised his hand, and I read in the gesture both the warmth of a wave of farewell, and a caution that I could not follow where he had to go.
The three memories provoked by the meerkat signalled the feelings that I think most belong to this exhibition. Feelings that result from a particular intensity of looking; each at once embracing recognition, regret, and realisation. Each one signalling a moment of inflection. As I look around the exhibition I see these moments visualised powerfully in the paintings of dogs. Of course these paintings are about so much more, but the dogs, I believe, give one a point of access. Seeing the dogs, is like seeing the door in the wall, and potentially, what lies beyond.
For me, one of the most affecting is an image of Laika, a stray from the streets of Moscow, and the first dog sent in to space in 1951. It is a sad, faded image, bathed in an unreal green, in which the dog peers from its seat in the rocket from which it will never emerge. Her gaze is one of regret, even as she, almost imperceptibly, bears her teeth at us the viewer. Recognising her gaze is to recognise complicity, as Peter Anderson says in his essay on the work, we recognise our own origin and destination.
In a larger work, a white dog – that somehow also reminds me of the tiny goat balancing on the precipice in Dürer’s engraving of Adam and Eve – stands on the edge of a blue abyss. The dog does not so much stare at the viewer, but looks back, partly with a look of menace, partly with a look of farewell as if it is about to turn tail and head off into a new feral future – an image fulfilled in another painting by the small jackal that trots into the moonlit Kalahari.
In Dancing with Doubt a dog, appears to be confronted with a tangled impenetrable black mass, yet the wonder of the paintings is that it seems to gaze just past this at something that is shared with the space of the viewer. The dog is a startled witness, arrested, alarmed, the black mass a mere mote, the beam being in our own eye.
These are the dogs with whom we share our domestic spaces and where we seem, in our relationships with them, to breach the distance of species and language. They are the dogs with whom we share emotional systems, (something understood by dog owners for millennia, yet only much more recently recognised by neuroscience). And they are dogs, who, according to recent studies, domesticated themselves (and not the other way around) suggesting a quality of agency not generally attributed, but also hinting at the possibility that our dominion over them may not last forever. That at some point their relationship with us will come to an end, they will turn tail and we will be left alone.
Virginia’s paintings look back at us. They reflect a world that is no longer subjected by us, no longer a place over which we hold dominion but whose transformation, wrought at our own hands, is now a terrible threat. She depicts what she describes as a tipping point. Yet in this very point there is the potential for another reality. They do, as she said of art, give life to the world, not least of all to a world of ideas, of fears, of desire, to what we must embrace and what we must give up. And all the other things that these painting mean are in the hands of you, the observers, for hers is a contract with all of us.
But before I end, I want, just to say a few words about the artist herself.
Many of us work in environments where we depend on the goodwill and the collegiality of our colleagues and students. Often we feel failed by them, unrecognised for who we are. In the wider world of art we work in spaces where there is greed, ambition, at times unbearable hubris, and there are many people who manage to be good artists and yet not good people. Virginia is not one of these. The quality of her work, its ability to move us, its subject matter, its attention to detail, its celebration of colour and process and the rich tradition of painting on which she draws, is a reflection of her humanity. She is principled, even as she is generous. She is wonderful company. She is a person I count amongst my good friends, and when we see each other across the parking lot at Michaelis (she usually with Georgie the dog trotting ahead) I recognise in her wave, a beckoning, a warmth, a open-heartedness and the recognition of a fellow traveller. It is a recognition I truly cherish.