Centuries of thought
C. Douglas' paintings effortlessly weave in philosophy, literature and art
Speaking with C. Douglas is like flicking through centuries of philosophical and literary thought; you catch glimpses of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Lacan, Eliot, Milton — all within the brief arc of your thumb moving from the first page to falter on the last. Even if you had read all these works with close scrutiny, it would take some practise to swing so swiftly from Derrida to Sophocles, and then back to Barthes with the deftness with which Douglas does. Or, perhaps, I'm just slow.
Douglas seems to have read absolutely everything, and the slim strands of thought he's extracted from the vast bibliography of texts he carries so effortlessly in his mind are woven into the elaborate skein of his art. His latest series ‘Blind Poet and the Butterfly' combines the metaphors of the blind poet and the seeing butterfly. Yet here, blindness doesn't represent a physical handicap of the flesh, but instead, a rebellion against the autocracy of the eye — suggesting a way of seeing beyond what is physically registered. Conversely, butterflies carry the images of eyes the back of their wings to deter predators; where the poet feigns blindness, the butterfly feigns eyes.
Whilst operating on numerous layered planes, the series recognises the instabilities of language along with that of the gaze. Juxtaposing text alongside image, and repeatedly using the word ‘word', his work illustrates the very limits of language as a communicative system, and how it operates within the much larger fabric of context and reference. Looking at words through the semiotic lens, he recognises language as built on a system of arbitrary signs and symbols, observing that ‘meaning' is not a fixed, but protean entity that is forever being formed and reformed in the crucible of contemporary society.
Every colour and line of his papers navigates a course that sees each element and material it uses as weighted with significance and connotation, such that it could eternally be interpreted — there is no finite meaning imposed.
His metaphors and motifs connote, but do not denote. Douglas' points out that Northern European art has often had a distinctly darker, moodier tone; compare Munch to Matisse, he says, or Auerbach to Picasso.
A sense of introspection
He shares that sense of darkness and introspection, and his colours and scrawling texts are also influenced by the attention to calligraphy and script of the Madras School, led by Panicker. In fact, although his work bears influences of darker neo-expressionist tones and Madras School scripts, Douglas also quietly acknowledges these new forms of art that are becoming so prolific (as illustrated by the current Whitney Biennial 2012).
Tucked away in a corner of Focus Art Gallery is a small projector comprising Douglas' experimentation with a new form — somewhat asynchronous with the series of painted papers that line the gallery walls, but intriguing, nonetheless.
It is clear that philosophy, literature and art make up the triumvirate that rule Douglas' thought, and whilst they may make for excellent rulers, they do not bend or relent easily to the casual subject. His work is challenging. I could attempt to trace the intellectual impetus behind his art — but that would be challenging for me and tedious for you. And, actually, somewhat superfluous in this context. This isn't to suggest that Douglas' work is inaccessible — in fact, it's openness to interpretation is liberating.
Rather than speaking to Douglas, you should look at his work. His pieces are a vague blueprint of a sensitive, observant mind, rather than a map dictating the direction and destination you should take when approaching his work.
Like playing with an infinite Matryoshka doll, with each outer shell prised open, there is a smaller, equally integral facet within, which in turn contains another and another and another… all separate and hidden, but part of a larger, elusive whole.