Child of the Storm

13/11/2019 - 07/12/2019

Joshua Yeldham

Joshua Yeldham
Castle Bay

2019

acrylic on hand carved paper

201.00 x 210.00 cm

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Child of the Storm

A famous passage in the Bhagavad Gita tells how Krishna reveals his true form to Arjuna when that great hero is stricken with doubts before the battle in which he will fight and kill his kinfolk. That vision shows Krishna as a supernatural being with “many eyes and mouths, many arms, thighs and feet, with many fearsome tusks, and many bellies.”[1] To lesser mortals he appears as a man amongst men – Godlike, perhaps, in his bearing, but without the extra appendages, let alone the “blazing colours” or the flames that leap from mouths and eyes.

For Joshua Yeldham – a student of the Vedas, an artist who practises meditation as part of his creative processes – Divine multiplicity is to be found in every landscape, every tree, bird or human form. Yeldham may not have been vouchsafed a glimpse of Krishna in His mystic glory, but he portrays the world as a field of shifting energies in which surface appearances provide only a schematic outline to be filled in from a busy imagination.

Yeldham’s landscapes almost squirm with life. Surfaces are covered in tightly-drawn patterns, empty planes are carved into repetitive grooves. Tiny loops of cane or other materials have been embedded into these hyper-decorative constructions, which might even incorporate the strings of musical instruments. His owls stare out at us with the intensity of ancient deities.

In pieces such as 'Bird Catcher', Yeldham incorporates many forms within a single figure in the manner of Hindu art. The drystone carving of Morning Bay might be an example of ancient tribal sculpture from Micronesia.
In Yeldham’s multi-media works there is a constant awareness of a spiritual dimension. I say this in full realisation of the frivolous manner in which so many contemporary artists embrace the idea of the spiritual (or indeed, the political!), as if their merest gesture conveyed an infinity of meaning. This often manifests itself in representations of the Void: that mystical emptiness-that- is-also-a-fullness – if stated as such in a catalogue essay or a wall label.

This is not Yeldham’s way. The repetitive elegance of the Void holds no attraction for him. It is at once too easy and too much of a refusal of all the teeming complexities of the material world that have to be negotiated on the way to a higher understanding. Yeldham is a pilgrim, so enthused and stimulated by his quest that he can never visualise a destination. He’ll recognise it when he gets there.

To a certain extent every artist is on a quest, although there are many different impressions of the Holy Grail. Some are happy to settle for money or fame, but the deepest satisfactions are more intangible. For Yeldham the keenest pleasure comes from creating works that draw upon a common reservoir of spiritual energy discovered in his travels in Japan, India and Arizona, as well as his bush retreat along the Hawkesbury.

In his most ambitious pieces he combines these sources of inspiration, notably in Kyoto Studio Interior, in which an antique cedar frame sourced from Japan encloses a photograph of a tree from the Hawkesbury that has been doubled in Rorschach fashion, then incised to make it seem as if the trunks and branches were infused with glittering light.

Yeldham draws freely on the iconographies of different cultures and the direct stimulus of nature in works that recognise no boundaries between the Self, the earth and the cosmos. To quote again from the Bhagavad Gita:
“He whose self is established in Yoga, whose vision everywhere is seen, sees the Self in all beings, and all beings in the Self.”[2]

The Self here is not the brash, egocentric version we know too well in the west. The Vedic Self is the highest form of aspiration. The perfected Self has overcome earthly desire and is at one with the universe. He [3] does not insist on his own priority but recognises his connectedness with all forms of Being.

Yeldham points to a passage from Wim Wenders’s book, Instant Stories, in which the film- maker discusses the difference between “self” and “selfie”. The former denotes an attitude of confidence, independence, a feeling of being at ease with the world. The latter sees the world as entirely secondary to our own bodily presence – no longer “an object of curiosity and nostalgia” but a stage on which we perform the starring role. Wenders describes “a loss of reality, of the world, of social tissue and responsibility.” [4]

Today we are engulfed in a storm of digital narcissism. The “child” of this storm, in Yeldham’s title for this exhibition, is his small son, Jude, who will grow up in an environment in which human beings seem increasingly incapable of looking beyond the needs and desires of the moment; a world in which nature and art are to be consumed in the blink of an eye; recorded as an image on a mobile phone to be posted on Facebook or Instagram as a record of one’s own existence. It’s the virtual equivalent of writing your name on some famous landmark.
This preoccupation with self leads to the abnegation of the Self as a holistic concept. When we are incapable of looking inwards, of finding echoes of our own being in a work of art or the experience of nature, we have lost all sense of the sacred.

Yeldham would like to believe that Jude will retain that sense. Having already been exposed to different cultures such as that of the Hopi Indians; and through his own creative endeavours, Jude is storing away experiences that will act as a shield against the corrosive, ubiquitous influence of the Society of the Selfie. That, at least, is what his father intends, while knowing that every child will find his or her own path, regardless of a parent’s desires.

The owls that feature in so many of Yeldham’s works are akin to a personal totem, reminiscent of the way indigenous artists may be affiliated with a particular bird or animal. Unlike those artists Yeldham did not inherit this connection at birth, nor did some elder give him permission to use the motif. It’s a personal choice that reflects a wishful image of the Self – as wise, all-seeing, constantly alert. If we all had to choose a bird as a totem I’d probably pick the magpie – curious, voluble, never a backward step. Others might see themselves as eagles or flamingos. There’s no shortage of galahs.

The many incarnations of the owl reflect the compulsive character of Yeldham’s work and the animist spirit that lies at its core. In Yulong River Owl one can tap a small brass bell, like those modest devices in a temple that attract the attention of a God when a worshipper comes to offer prayers. The symmetrical, almost mandala-like nature of this image heightens its religious con- notations, but it is more likely to be a symbol of the Self rather than any familiar deity. The same might be said of Owl of Nature’s Judgement, another supremely hieratic image.

In these owls Yeldham is not boasting of his own wisdom but presenting himself as some- one seeking knowledge or enlightenment. It’s the underlying theme behind all of these strange, various, ritualistic works. For Yeldham a painting is not a window onto the world but an instrument (sometimes even a musical instrument) that allows us to go beyond the visible. Ideally it’s also a tool for transformation, a vehicle for self-discovery.

If the burden of ambition in this work feels too dense and profound, Yeldham might well advise the viewer to do the opposite: to put meaning and metaphysics to one side, and approach these creations with the lightest of hearts.

JOHN MCDONALD

[1] The Bhagavad Gita, trans. By Laurie L. Patton, Penguin, London, 2008, p.129 [2] Quoted by the artist in an email, 7 August, 2019 [3] I’m using the masculine pronoun for the sake of convenience, rather than the cumbersome repetition of ‘he and she’, ‘his and her’. [4] Ibid.

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