The Remains of the Day
Gathered along the Mississippi as it bends through New Orleans are dozens of homes half hidden by willow trees that shadow the riverbank. Sometimes called shanty boats they stand on stilts on the riverside slope of the levee. You won’t find them on Google Street View. When the river is low, the homes are surrounded by lush gardens, sloping yards, and the occasional kayak or propane tank. When the Mississippi crests, the homes appear to float on it—or in it. They are precarious, rickety structures foraged together from whatever floats down the river and what can be gleaned from the levee. Assembled from discarded off-cuts and scavenged odds and ends they exbibit an outsider’s shaky self-reliance. They ask of their residents a life of spontaneity, perpetual vigilance, a forager’s serendipity, and specialized knowledge acquired through generations of miscalculation and cataclysm. It’s these places I think of when I think of Richard Proffitt’s haphazard, thoughtful, floating world environments. Where are we now? Washed ashore here on the edge of the divine.
This vigilance and serendipity, this peripatetic concentration is a present-day echo of one of the founding paradigms of modernist artistic production: that which compares the artist to the chiffonier, Varda’s gleaner, the rag picker who scavenged the daily cast offs of the city. Baudelaire, in 1863, has it like this, ‘… here is a man entrusted to gather the remains of the day in the life of the capital. All that the Metropol has rejected…’
Proffitt is an artist of the dog-eared, the torn away, the discarded. The crumpled, chewed up and grubby are all enthusiastically welcomed into the creative process whose central concern in this exhibition is with what has been left behind, with improvised treasures, with family folklore, astronomy and alchemy, with luminous magic after a spell. The work is about excitement, authenticity and memory in the shadow of our ongoing crises.
We get the news as we arrive, pages of environmental and activist zines, Greenpeace chronicles, holistic resource guides, have been taped up over a window, insistent as a sign, telling what we know but want to forget, doom loops, climate breakdown, catastrophe already ongoing, missed or misunderstood opportunities receding behind us.
Then there is the rough protective magic of the low-lit room, It’s a curious hermetic twilight, an installation all attention to ceremony, incantation, response. A cobbled together memory palace, family birthdays and gatherings, the pathos of Christmas, there’s an expressive pantheism of all the household gods, lyric and pastoral. The irrational poetry latent in the discarded, in the corroded surfaces of cheap artifacts. It’s a dim shrine, supernatural, spellbound.
We attune ourselves to reveal abstracted, improvised landscapes, quickly made with a dreamed-up logic, a ludic bewilderment. Smoke rises in great drifts, the sun takes it time setting, whirl winds swirl soft greens, blues, turmerics and mars violet through the atmosphere, funnelling soft pear green oil marks into the dust devil sky, both wide and light, intensified. We note tilled fields, we imagine windmills, wells, shadows, soft and bright, clearings, copses, grottos, for these are holy landscapes, access maps to the ecstatically divine, the supernatural. High combustion colour harmonies offer temporary access to the joyful. Colours unravel through each other. Trees give cover, waterfalls cool the air, flowers scent the breeze. Proffitt is a self-aware outsider romantic, a dreamer of the golden dream, and is sympathetic to other outsiders, both alive and dead, with their arcane and magical beliefs. Immediately we think of Samuel Palmer painting In a Shoreham Garden, Blake’s lines running through his mind. It’s the Buddhist concept of bardo, in its clairvoyant italic, with its opportunities for liberation and its associated hallucinations.
His paintings accumulate from just such free marks, tightly packed, a million parts per million it seems, a slightly stoned, sci-fi expressionism, a barely suppressed immanence, telling of displacement, exile both physical and chronological and great efflorescent joy, pinks and blacks and yellows all together, alive. An outsider’s world vivified by the conviction, as Joan Didion has it, that ‘a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.’
His working materials are at a remove from anything conspiring to artistic mystique; ball point pens, oil crayons, house paint, an unruly abundance. There is a great deal of pleasure in describing the colours, melting blueberry, squished blackcurrant, mango ice-cream, indigoes, yellows and greens, their euphoria, it’s the high road or forget about it. They’re roses, irises and peonies, but they needn’t be, more than that they’re colour, and paint and the moment of their own making, guided by inspiration and accident as well as a hard-won artistic understanding. Made in one sitting and usually in one particular mood they offer moments that momentarily lift the spirit. The paintings glow in the dim room.
We are getting nearer to what we could call the disposition of his work, the sum of its layered atmospherics, its melancholy, sustained strains of mournfulness, about the hard afterlife of sixties and seventies environmental counterculture politics, about the slender possibilities of safe haven, out there in the interstices of sprawling space, for renegades and castaways, the unmoneyed and unreconciled whose vision of the good life squares only very little, if at all, with the state sanctioned corporate real.
Always open in humane regard for the way people struggle, it’s attentiveness to experiences of genuine human grief, of losses impossible to compensate, the work exposes the porousness of reality, the two-way state in which the visible is permeable by the invisible, the here and now by the elsewhere and before. And this is what the artist understands as surviving in this long shadow of austerity: the possibility of some comprehensively different order, aslant the world in its quotidian garb, possessed of a weirder physics, a more potent geometry of its own, an inspiring otherwise. In the right impressionable mood with the dials of your susceptibility turned just so, you can find yourself bewitched for an instant or two by the promise of renewal on offer here and helped to withstand, for a moment anyway, the twenty-four seven materialist technological onslaughts.
Richard Proffitt’s exhibition tells a tale that is strangely balanced between unease and ecstasy. The works share an affinity, a kinship would be better, with folk art, surrealism and ritual. His way of working is rather like a form of psychoanalytic free association, embracing memory, fantasy and arcane knowledge, it straddles different worlds and times just as dreams do, we are blissed out, we are full of hope.