This exhibition is a chronological movement on from my last exhibition, Apotropaia. Where Apotropaia dealt with the symbolism found in the USA from my experiences visiting New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas during travels in 2003 and 2004, Arbroath Devotional is a more personal response to my Scottish ancestry.
Arbroath is a small coastal town on the east coast Scotland, situated between Aberdeen in the north and Dundee in the south. It is where I spent a month working in September 2003 as an Artist in Residence awarded by the Royal Overseas League.
The transition between the American influenced works in Apotropaia and the pieces in this exhibition lies in the historical ties between Scotland and The United States of America. The emigrants and the Forefathers, the consciousness of being part of a culture or people that have migrated, integrated and dispersed around the world. Some of the links between Scotland and the USA can be seen in the integration of the Scottish and York rites of Freemasonry into American society.
Several of the founding fathers who signed the American Declaration of Independence were Masons; the most famous being George Washington, the first President of the United States of America. Many leaders of the USA have been members of Gentlemen's societies. During the 2004 US Presidential Election between George W Bush and his opponent, John Kerry, the Yale College secret society, Skull and Bones became the most prominent of the Gentleman's societies. To date, three 'Bonesmen' have been President, William H. Taft, George Herbert Walker Bush and George Walker Bush. John Kerry is also a Bonesman, as was George H. W. Bush's father, Prescott S. Bush.
Another important tie between Scotland and America is the Declaration of Arbroath. Signed at Arbroath Abbey in 1320, this document was addressed "...To the most Holy Father and Lord in Christ, the Lord John, by divine providence Supreme Pontiff of the Holy Roman and Universal Church..." and described the degradation of the Scots by the English. The text in the Declaration describes the history of the Scots and their ancestors as being migratory people. "...from the chronicles and books of the ancients we find that among other famous nations our own, the Scots, has been graced with widespread renown. They journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage tribes, but nowhere could they be subdued by any race, however barbarous. Thence they came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to their home in the west where they still live today. The Britons they first drove out, the Picts they utterly destroyed, and, even though very often assailed by the Norwegians, the Danes and the English, they took possession of that home with many victories and untold efforts; and, as the historians of old time bear witness, they have held it free of all bondage ever since...". They asked, "...to leave us Scots in peace, who live in this poor little Scotland, beyond which there is no dwelling-place at all, and covet nothing but our own..."
It is well documented that the American Declaration of Independence was based on the Declaration of Arbroath. Every April 6th, the USA has Tartan Day, a celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath. Both Scotland and the USA were under English rule before they drafted their declarations.
For me to visit Arbroath was to find a way to trace back my heritage. I found several generations of Couper headstones in the cemetery of Arbroath Abbey. Close to Arbroath are the townships of Coupar-Angus and Cupar. Having traced my lineage starting from a sixth generation New Zealander back to William Couper landing in Port Nicholson aboard the Samuel Cunard in 1837 to Rev. John Grant Couper (William's father) in Glasgow in the late 1700's. Of course, once ancestral ties become frayed, you can only guess possible links. Direct lineage of a specific person merge into a family name, family names merge into variations of a surname, surnames merge into clans, clans merge into a race of people and so on. So a romantic vision of ancestry begins to appear. Mine reads in this way:
New Zealander - Scot - (possibly) Dane - Pict - Briton - Celt - Scythian - ?
Being in Arbroath presented a specific opportunity to learn about the Pictish people from their symbol-incised stones. Many great examples of Pictish stones can be found in the neighboring towns and villages near Arbroath including the Dunnichen stone in Forfar and the Class One stone near Aberlemno Village. Some Pictish imagery from different stones can be seen in the drawing Tour of Duty including Picts in a boat, a hunting scene on horseback and a personified swastika. The majority of information on the Picts has either been gleaned from the visual imagery on the stones or from writings by historians such as the Venerable Bede and Eumenius, the Roman panegyrist.
TRAVEL AND TRANSPORTATION
Painted Devotional objects were prominent during the Byzantine and Renaissance periods. Either painted wooden panels or carved ivory, the devotional operated as a mobile or transportable altarpiece used as a meditational aid.
The idea of the devotional format came from the notion of travelling, being in limbo for two months. My first trip was in 2003 for the Royal Overseas League Artist in Residence. During this time, I found fresh material while visiting art galleries, museums and heritage sites. Being away from New Zealand allowed me to free up my acceptance of imagery and entertain illogical ideas and develop them on paper while working on large canvases in my studio in Arbroath. I was letting strange subconscious ideas enter my head, and then getting them onto paper as fast as I could. Many of the devotional paintings come straight from those original drawings completed in while travelling in 2003. The exposure to Renaissance painting and altarpieces while travelling through France and Italy in 2004 and the development of my Whiteworld series of drawings emphasised the idea of portable artworks and transportability. In the devotional painting, Myth Maker the main idea came from a vague memory that Native American Indian smoke signals were actually a Walt Disney cartoon invention. Coupled with the Mappa Mundi and a typical fresco painting of an impending storm, the painting references the quip 'never let the truth get in the way of a good story'. The idea for Beauty and Maintenance came from learning about IBM's business interests in Nazi Germany during World War Two via Edwin Black's book, IBM and the Holocaust. Fraternity and Good Luck is a retrospective look at symbols before they took on a sinister meaning. The depicted Nazareno and Flagellanti monks read as Ku Klux Klan-ites while the facing panel has a stacked composition of the 1919 Edmonton Women's Hockey team, the swastika stone in Yorkshire and a Middle Eastern clay object decorated with swastika motifs. Bath Salts links treaty settlements, industrial progression and religion.
Originally, the concepts for the devotional paintings were taken from single A4 landscape page drawings. Later, I divided the composition in two; then sketched out each panel so the painting worked both as a solo panel (if folded back on itself) and as an open devotional painting. The viewer therefore becomes the controller of the composition, whether it be viewing the front or back or as single panels.