I’VE WANTED TO meet artist Mark Cazalet for a long while. Two years ago I’d seen his exuberantly coloured semi-abstract landscapes in RESONANCES, an exhibition at the Serena Morton Gallery in Notting Hill, London. They were dazzling in their depths and mark-making, velvety in texture and struck me as having a spiritual other-worldliness which I put down to some inner mystical, metaphysical pursuit, as if painted with a prayerful third eye.
Cazalet is of course a much commissioned and collected painter, best known for his figurative Christian and Cathedral commissions, contemporary interpretations of ecclesiastical narratives such as The Tree of Life at Chelmsford Cathedral, or his spectacular meditation West London Stations of the Cross. He is a man of natural, deep Christian faith. RESONANCES was exciting because there seemed to be a shift of sorts in his practice, something Other that spoke beyond dogma and Christian mystery, something even ontological, metaphysical, on the edge of the Mysterium: what was his story, his own spiritual biography as it were?
It was over a year before I was able to meet up with him and by that time, Cazalet had made another aesthetic shift – (‘You feel the Holy Spirit blow through you…’ he says to me later, ‘The wind of change; change is good and change is difficult…’); rather astonishingly he had just returned from a residency in Japan, where he had been drawing sixty of the many hundreds of Buddhist Zen gardens of Kyoto. ‘I was on the edge of a pattern,’ he confided, ‘I hoped Kyoto would shake me free…’ It’s an impressive risk and I imagine only someone utterly certain in their own faith would take it, but it seems Cazalet is never prepared to have the same conversation twice or repeat from his past praxis. He has spent lockdown this summer translating his Kyoto sketchbooks full of ink wash, crayon and felt tip drawings, into very large and frankly powerful collage works.
I arrive in Suffolk to meet him, curious about his artistic identity and how it dovetails with his Christian faith. Cazalet – an extremely likeable, assured and reassuring man of some presence – and who in another life might have been a priest or a bishop or even a charismatic televisual art critic – is also generous with his mind, serves tea and greengages under the shade of a crab-apple tree on his Suffolk lawn and we are immediately discussing ideas, books and art. He has had a lockdown summer of reading other artists’ inner worlds – Constable’s memoirs, Paul Klee’s diaries, Delacroix’s journal, Cezanne’s letters. It is all terribly relaxed. We sit cross-legged with the collages in front of us – ‘stacked like rugs, the worst way to see them’ he apologises – and a bit Buddha-like, it has to be said. Is this all meant to be, I wonder? And in fact Cazalet says that kneeling to sketch them, kneeling to make them, and kneeling to receive them – is all somehow part of their ongoing journey as made objects, as much as his own as an artist, and of course the traditions of Japan.
I point out it is all very far from the cathedral precinct and Cazalet says matter-of-factly he has never wanted to be seen as a Christian painter, or even a Christian who paints, so that when he paints, he paints without a fixed identity. ‘Foxes have holes but for artists it’s about not having a home, not closing down your options…’ he says. Did it matter at all then that these Zen gardens were not Christian spaces? Not at all he says, and implies they were places of real challenge to the soul and the Spirit: ‘Like all empty spaces you can’t run away from yourself…’
So how, then, does his Christian identity dovetail into his art practice? ‘It sounds really pedantic but it is important you’re not an ambassador for a faith…’ He references the paragraph in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India where Adela sees a stick, but thinks it might be a snake – and a fixed identity is bound up with that (illusory) judgement call. But for Cazalet, ‘Twisting between identities is something you want to look for…’ Because? ‘Because – as soon as you do that, you cut out doubt and the really interesting hinterland of where your understanding is. As soon as you wear a badge and say I am a Christian artist, you actually cut off all that wonderful interplay where there are communal truths.’
And of course the communal truths spelled out in the wisdom of the stillness of the Zen gardens are paradoxically an active one, an energetic stillness actively felt within, which leads to an enlightening – Buddhahood – and which Cazalet has sought to capture. It’s no surprise that Cazalet has quixotically named these collage works, ‘the Stillness, the Dance.’
With al fresco viewing under the flat Suffolk afternoon light there is no hiding the collages themselves and I’m struck by their simplicity, calm and beauty. I also can’t help thinking it’s a masterstroke to use collage, given Japan’s deep, cultural love affair with paper. They are large too, and carry a papery-enigma to them, layering themselves in quiet devotion. Coloured shapes dance – and settle. The surfaces shimmer with intention. There is materiality and craft. Tissue and marbled paper genuflect between ink and paint.
The devotional element in Cazalet’s work is clear, and he tells me his work is liturgical, by which I think he means worshipful and full of sacred intention – after all, he says, this has been a very personal, spiritual journey for him – and yet the actual time in Japan was often frustrating. It was hot, the bus journeys between gardens were long, often the gardens were shut for no reason. Sometimes his drawing garnered attention and he had to work quickly. In some gardens he wasn’t even allowed to draw but had to memorize. He makes the point that art is not therapy, as some might feel sketching the Zen gardens could lend themselves to that idea. There was no ‘self focus’ as he calls it, but as he has emphasised to me, the process is trying to capture that flow of the Zen garden, the organic aspects of rock, stream, gravel, plant. A breakthrough moment came when a Japanese monk instructed him not to get obsessed with the age of a stone or how the earth was raked. The monk emphasised that the garden is a model of what you experience in meditation. He was told, he says, ‘When you go away from that garden you carry that model of our garden with you… and you can re-enter it. At that point I was thinking this is very close to what art does – it’s a model of something else, which is very Platonic.’
I think I misunderstand the use of Platonic here and suggest to him there is indeed a sense of the abstract but Cazalet corrects me that they’re not so much abstract – like the works of artist Agnes Martin he explains – he is rereading her Writings at the moment, so she is on his mind. He says Martin reduced and reduced – and pared right back until the mark is what you read. Instead these collages are, ‘Slightly codified, reduced like squinting; really a memory of a place, or an encounter, a soundscape, a smellscape: You remember the experience obliquely… that glimpse of perfection…’
I stumble at the word ‘obliquely’ and ask if he means metaphorically. ‘I mean you’re not looking for a literal description or similitude,’ he says. ‘That’s a reductive path of more and more detail. You’re not persuading people of reality. I don’t want to persuade people of anything actually.’
He has said in other interviews that his work is similar to being a sign maker communicating visible signs for inward (and invisible) transformation. Does that process – praxis – begin with a religious routine at all? ‘I try to begin with silent prayer, of letting go of yourself. In fact I don’t begin with drawing at all, but looking. And so slowly letting go of yourself and saying, I’m not here to do a good drawing or perform. In fact I could leave with nothing and that would be a great day… I don’t have to prove anything now. If I can only let the gardens speak to me – I can get out of the way…’
It sounds, I suggest, a deeply spiritual communion with the artist as a conduit and he says simply and almost with a twinkle: ‘God is creative and we must bear it as well…’ It helps, he says that, ‘Painters make their own language. You feel as if you’re inventing it. It’s fresh for you.’
One of the unusual psychological aspects of this is a detachment from the process. Again, emotions are not invested as they would be in the more modern idea of art as an emotional exploration. ‘If someone criticises the works,’ says Cazalet, ‘That’s really fine because ultimately it’s not really about me. I’m not staked or involved in whether somebody else, a singular person, says it has merit or not… If I felt the call had gone, the vocation – it would be very different…’ But is art really a calling like a priestly calling? Certainly, Cazalet says, ‘Creativity is about answering an internal need. A professional art practice is about ministry, vocation, liturgy… you’re performing for other people and you yourself are not that important. I think when you get out of your depths and you get to the point when you’re no longer in control, to the point when you’re obsessed and committed to it, and there isn’t another way out, it’s not a choice… then it’s dangerous waters and like swimming out and you’ve gone too far – you need to keep going…’
So Cazalet embraces change, he doesn’t wish to have one singular style – not having the same conversation twice – those codes of expression, where the Spirit blows him.
And I am struck again, as I was with RESONANCES, how Cazalet allows himself to be a vessel through which experience of the universe flows and which he seeks to capture, which in itself is very delightfully classic Zen. Cazalet says that in Japan, Suzuki’s book The Beginner’s Mind, was philosophically and intellectually very important to him, illuminating as it does the inner mind – the beginner’s mind – how to free it, keep it empty, open to all possibilities, and most importantly, learning to start every day afresh.
We come back to the collages themselves and I think I see even more that their result is a philosophical poem in torn paper.
In fact, you can almost follow Cazalet’s mind as he composes between the stages of this route. He says he set out to capture this fleeting moment of perfection of the gardens themselves. ‘The garden is already there…’ he says. ‘What you’re drawing is this confluence, this very gentle moving up towards perfection then back into the real world…’
It is the mind decanted through materiality. Trying to capture joy – tranquillity – and also an emptying – as the gardens themselves in Japan are meant to capture, literally, a three-dimensional experience of Zen Buddhism and Daoism. Expressing this in paint, any paint, oil or otherwise, would have been counterproductive – the intensity of the paint, the movement of the brush, it simply wouldn’t have worked. But paper slows Cazalet down to the ontological rhythm of the gardens. To my untrained eye, the narrative of building collage seems a process which is freeing in one way, but Cazalet disagrees. It was more restricting, he says, and uncomfortable, but to an artist (and he references Keats’ letter about Negative Capability) this has real value: ‘You stay in that place of uncertainty and irresolution, and that’s awkward. Because that’s where you’re at your boundaries and edges; but the spirit is calling us out into deeper waters which means letting go of things, and a new aesthetic. I hoped Kyoto would knock me out of a style…’
None of this I note (again) is particularly Christian. But he disagrees and counters to some extent that this art process is exactly like a spiritual life: ‘And the actual patterning within the collageworks – the dots and perforation, the interplay between purples – they reflect the pattern of the spiritual life. Or it’s about finding a much bigger pattern for yourself, and not resolving individual scenarios….’
So art is a vocation, paint a votive offering – and painting a service. The tools of painting his chosen subtle ministry. Platonically – within the Mysterium – he seeks truth, beauty and goodness. It is, therefore, the soul that looks and the soul that paints.
I’m tempted to say talking with him reveals almost a theology of creativity, and the creative process involves a sacramental journey with spirit; there is a clear sense that his paintings are sacramental statements of empirical experience through the lyrical eye of his imagination – and it is in fact why he enjoys that Paul Klee observation, ‘One eye sees, the other eye feels…’ There is certainly a sacred intention that runs naturally through his works, or perhaps more effectively to say, a sacred intuition. So with Cazalet I have the impression that faith and identity are one – so the brush, like the breath, becomes an expression (even extension) of soul.
Cazalet spent eighteen months in India as a student on an Association of Commonwealth Universities Scholarship and, reflecting on our conversation, I’m tempted to use the language of an Eastern religion to describe his art process. It strikes me that whilst his is a strong Christian faith (ontologically, metaphysically) his aesthetic being – that Platonic tool that he has referred to, of beauty, truth and goodness – operates very similarly to those Eastern systems of Dharma, that singularly untranslatable word that can conjure up so much in thought-feeling – a way of being, a right way. Whilst I might have got him wrong, I feel that over thirty years or so his paintbrush has become a finely tuned tool for embodying the divine in the world. We are back in the Zen gardens, and with the rock, rake and Buddha.
There is a sense when talking to Cazalet that he chases and has always chased disruption, in order to push himself on this journey, ever-evolving. Perhaps this began at school, when his clear natural ability was disrupted by what he calls being a typical 1970s dyslexic (‘my language and expression wildly out of kilter with my mediocre results, neither fish nor fowl’), so his attention shifted to painting. As a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he encountered Indian art at the Musée Guimet. Realising that within the Romanesque that he loved there was a key link to Medieval Indian art – miniatures – he extraordinarily became a student at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Gujarat, under Professor Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, who taught about the relationship between Sienese painting and the classical Moghul period. Cazalet says in India he wanted to explore a new language of art that wasn’t enthralled to the West. Having lived in India, I’m intrigued and ask him to elaborate. It’s almost like magical realism, he says, that dip into miniature story and then stepping back out to the macrocosmic. This theme – being drawn into the small part that is equal to the whole (or as Cazalet says more succinctly, being able to ‘See the whole in the small’) – is a theme that has been philosophically meaningful to him all his career, and has echoes too of the spiritual life, finding a much bigger pattern for yourself and not dwelling on individual scenarios. ‘I’m utterly indebted to India,’ he says.
We talk about the modern fashion of art as self-expression or therapy; again he is firm this is the wrong appreciation of artistic creativity of the human psyche. He points out that for him art isn’t about freedom in a wild, bacchanalian sense; it might be about a particular type of freedom or what you need to nourish you – but what you need to nourish you might actually be restriction. He references back to the collages in front of us. ‘Art is not like therapy, it’s like liturgy…’ By which he means materiality, craft – discipline, care and skill. It is like the psalm, he says, ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’. It is about skill, care.
Lastly, I press him about colour. It was colour that first brought me to Cazalet when I saw RESONANCES. I think I ask this because I am slightly myself obsessed with colour or rather the effects of colour (in painting, particularly in an abstract painting) on my spirit – possibly two different things. Often I feel receiving a painting is akin to having a religious experience and feeling an encounter with God. So I ask, rather clumsily, Is God to be found in colour? Is pigment something beyond itself… ‘All colours exist in relationship,’ he says, ‘God is not found in colour.’ I must look disappointed as he goes on: ‘But possibly God is found in the shifting realising of colour… if we switch to dusk from moonlight, the tonal richnesses, the palettes, the light is delicious…’ And then to illustrate his point further (and this is the reason I will always wish to sit at the feet of painters talking about their craft) – he threads it back to Rothko and Paul Klee and Francis Bacon (whom we have been discussing): ‘Look at Rothko, there it gets complicated with colour. Those sublime landscapes which are gaseous horizons that drift away… When you stand back you get the dramatis personae, these big actors pushing against one another optically and that wont work close up, you’ve got to be far away for the blocks to pulse in the eye. Now Rothko was very private about his colour paint mixtures; he wanted sublimely matt surfaces with glossy, almost egg tempera qualities. He invented his own preparations to achieve areas that are fugitive, that sink into the canvas and other areas that are vibrantly glossy on the surface – and so – it is not just about colour, but – application – and materiality. So if God’s in the colour – God’s in the mixture – and the elements – and the application…’
An illustration of Dharma, I think, if ever there was one.
We are circling in the Mysterium, and I feel as I often feel talking to painters whose minds expand in conversation beyond the canvas – think Van Gogh’s letters as an obvious example – a deep vitality of ideas, an authenticity that you simply can’t get with a (non-creative) critical mind alone (talking about art). Equally he has been struck by Klee’s process of being artistically set free by colour in Egypt. Cazalet relates when Klee ended up painting in Hammamet, ‘The mossed domes, the camels, date trees, sand dunes… he realized, “this was the antithesis of what I wanted, what else can I do?” And he starts painting a grid and putting colour blocks in that grid – and realizes he’s painting the heat of the place – and the texture through the colours – and it all comes together and yes that’s a metaphysical thing; in some ways Bacon doesn’t get to that metaphysical layer, a lot of his paintings feel like illustrations which are meant to trigger a response; almost as if he’s working so hard that he hasn’t experienced what he wants you to experience...’ Cazalet pauses, mind whirring. ‘He would have made a rather good filmmaker. Forget Jarman making a film about Bacon, I’d like to see Bacon making a film about Jarman…’
I really like the way Cazalet talks about painting and frankly could listen to him at length – it’s rare to have an articulate witness to material craft such as he has. Where does he place himself within the legacy of British painters? ‘The neo-romantic was what I came out of college thinking I was…’ he replies. William Blake, then, and Samuel Palmer? Yes, but – he muses – even Prunella Clough as well: ‘Slightly unplaceable and mysterious in her intentions, yet really poetic in the way she constructs her surfaces… They make you look and feel: they are real experiences, not many clues…’
We are back in the Mysterium.
In a world where we politicize and monetise art, I find it breathing to be able to be with his paintings. Where the reference is faith but not even faith but a state of prayer, where the mind engages and God enters. Cazalet has often used the word ‘encounter’ but actually in his paintings we encounter to some extent God encountering us, encountering him. Circular navigation. It makes perfect sense – it’s no longer about paint, it’s the state beyond and paint. This might sound clumsy – theologically obtuse – but it’s an ontological, metaphysical thing. In fact – oddly – it’s quite Zen.
Upcoming exhibitions: a retrospective exhibition of Mark Cazalet’s landscape-based work will be held at CLARE HALL, UNIVERSITY of CAMBRIDGE, next year as soon as current restrictions on public access allow. The show will focus on the shift from topographical representational themes to his current more abstracted interpretations. Please check the Clare Hall website for updates on their exhibition diary, which will be updated as the situation changes.
In June 2021 there will be a solo exhibition of Mark Cazalet’s Kyoto work: The Stillness the Dancing, at Serena Morton, 343 Ladbroke Grove, London, W10 6HA
Radiant Light 15, 2019 / Resonances
Oil on masonite board, 60.8×38.2cm
NOV 2020 Sophie Lévy Burton MONK