CARCERAL SPACES: Anticipating the sublime…. (Reservoir Gallery, Oliewenhuis Museum, 2017)

An exploration of the sublime through the power of suggestive drawing trace towards the transformation of the self and the O/other.



Artist statement:


In my body of drawings I specifically explore the transformative power of suggestion as a means towards containing a certain presence which could lead to an experience of the sublime – specifically the awesome in drawing.  I focus on large scale portrait drawings of the self and the other (in this case, prisoners with whom I interact) and its particular relationship to space, thereby, creating a means through which the psychological and spiritual effect of the sublime in drawing is explored and its subsequent transformative effect on the self and the other.

Furthermore, my drawings explore the possible ways in which the sublime would function in the “space between representation and abstraction” contextualizing this specific notion in contemporary drawing practice dealing with the sublime in the 21st Century.  I propose that my suggestive portrait drawings, in essence, function as transformative psychological and spiritual self-objects which would, in certain areas, almost become abstract landscapes in which case the drawing trace itself would start functioning as an autonomous means of communication.

As established in my previous research on the transformative potential of drawing, I affirm that there exists a mutually conducive potential and influence that the interplay between the spiritual and the psychological in the drawing process bring about.  Concluding, as a “self-object”, a drawing attains its own ‘silent visual language’ replacing or assisting the role of the therapist, becoming pivotal in a transformative ‘interpersonal dialogue’.  Jung (Miller, 2004:  4) claims that the unification of the conscious and unconscious results in “a living birth” that leads to a new level of being, a new situation” (Miller, 2004:  4).


OPENING ADDRESS by Dr Gwenneth Miller:


In her artist’s statement Marieke shares with us that the exhibition CARCERAL SPACES:  ANTICIPATING THE SUBLIME is “An exploration of the sublime through the power of suggestive drawing traces towards the transformation of the self and the other.”  With this statement the artist makes two important proposals:

  • firstly that carceral space can pre-empt the sublime,
  • secondly that the traces of drawing can mediate transformation

Both of these suggestions can be seen as audacious and so it is most worthwhile to consider the significance of these two ideas.

One could ask how on earth anyone could even link the idea of the sublime to incarceration.  Is prison not the space of both absence and fear?  Are our carceral bodies not the epitome of finite?  How provocative to suggest that the sublime can be associated with denial in the isolation of a cell and erosion of identity through enforced sameness.  Particularly if one takes the popular and deflated use of the word ‘sublime’ into account:  where at the local party you might hear “this peach mouse is….Sublime!” which means it si wonderful, brilliant (Hagen-Guest 2001:  49)!

Therefore I need to contextualize Marieke’s work with earlier concepts of the sublime.  18th Century philosophers Edmund Burke and Emmanuel Kant wrote that the aesthetic of the sublime is an emotion of awe that is evoked in the viewer/spectator for that which is beyond comprehension.  Burke describes a feeling of ambiguity (Vaughan 1973:  33) of attraction and repulsion to stir the mind of the viewer.  Beauty, often pitched as the sublime’s opposite, is associated with attractive objects whilst a sense of sublimity would be caused by objects with associations of aversion, such as an overwhelming experience of the obscure, mysterious, darkness, vastness, monumentality, vacuity, solitude, silence and infinity (Burke 1990:  65, Vaughan 1978:  33).  Kant similarly characterizes the dynamic sublime as a vibration that attracts and repels at the same time, implying the motion of the mind when phenomena inspire fear or power (Kant 1952:  496, Monk 1960:  8)

Burke’s theory gave new importance to the disturbing and the suggestive powers of art at the time, (Rosenblum 1975:  17) and claimed that anything that can cause pain or terror can be a “delightful terror”.  He explains that objects either overwhelm us to such an extend that they place a strain on us, or when we encounter dangerous objects from a safe position, its perception causes a weakened state of terror (Miller:  1997).  Our delight in the sublime is then due to the fact that the situation creates a feeling of invigoration (Burke 1990:  122).  A contemporary example is the experience of watching a horror movie, where in Burke’s (1990:  58) words “the mind is hurried out of itself”!

Marieke’s project therefore continues and reviews possibilities of Burke’s sublime, particularly in their huge format, darkness, and the awareness that these figures are in prisons, submitted to experiences of deprivation, solitude and fear.

Yet these works reflect interiority in the people portrayed.  Enormous obscure portraits solemnly fill the formats in packed compositions.  Eyes often cast down, harrowed, contemplative and inward looking, their souls are shielded from the viewer to induce isolation and silence.

The presence of the works are partly due to the melancholy we experience from expressions on faces, but also found in the tension between drenched opaque smudges of charcoal and the translucency of fine veil-like strokes and velvet dust that seems to stream or hang over the faces.  The immediacy of an escape to a place in comprehensible from the present moement is what art is capable of offering.  This is where artists are taken to during the process of making.  In this process the surface becomes a terrain beyond the portrait, a landscape of the mind where the artist feels her way in the dark.  In these large scale drawings we are immersed in this world of shaded tones.  Offering a chance for artist and viewer to merge in material, the will-to-abstraction is also the will-to-immediacy (Taylor 1992:  90).  Yet, for me this artist’s in-between-world carries more than a Barnett Newman totality of the mediated moment (Taylor 1992:  90).  This exhibition is also an intervention of the space of the mind through the encounter of carceration.

What we see today is a sliver of the artist’s process.  Our experiences are the end product of processes.  At the entrance of this exhibition hangs a collection of etchings and drawings:  competent self-portraits of the prisoners that form a dialogue with Marieke’s charcoal sketches.  The interpersonal dialogue between the men and the artist is pivotal for the context of this entire project which attempts to grasp the marks and tones of lives beyond our everyday understanding of humanity:  they are Marieke’s other and she is their other.

The darkness of yearning (Cardinal 1975:  28) is often described in terms of catastrophe, but Marieke’s darkness speaks of compassion and empathy.  The Romantics turned to nature to create the feeling of the sublime, modernist abstract artists immersed themselves in the self-sufficiency of medium (Miller  1997).  Marieke links with this notion of performing the medium, but brings to us a real social context as conceptual framing.

Transformation also alludes to redemption but in the aesthetics of the sublime it would be expressed as an impossible achievement.  The unattainable redemption of our consciousness, whether incarcerated or not, speak of a human condition.  The dynamic and ambiguous sublime experience is found in its acknowledgement but continued engagement with this incomprehensible.  It is in the relationship of compassion with the carceral condition where Marieke dwells on the melancholy of the unattainable.  Our internal space is not necessary the awe that we have for an external space.  It is not being at the edge of a cliff (like the Romantics) – it is falling inside (Morton 2012:  15), not an inside of nothingness but inside a cluttered and opaque world of contradictions.  We follow the caressing brush strokes of Marieke’s material thinking as we become submerged in the work where we are part of a social connective fibre.  Art transforms the ordinary particles of charred wood and the presence of fragmented human beings into an evocative soul-scape – a social topography of sublime expression.

There is a restorative element in acknowledging another.  To stand in front of someone and say:  I see you, is an act of humanity and dignity.  There is something to be said about being “regarded”.  We view the art work with reverence, but we also spend time with the person portrayed, a special time to “regard” the presence of another life.  Beyond the extraordinary craftsmanship of the artist, it is this potential for compassion I find sublime in the work on exhibition.

Thanks to the Oliewenhuis Museum, especially Ester and Lana, for the opportunity to be part of this remarkable exhibition.


Thank you.