It is very hard to write persuasively for others about the works of art that one loves, unreasonably and irrationally. “I am a Jane Austenite“, said E. M. Forster, “and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen.” In Forster’s case, the childish imbecility perhaps conceals an element of exquisite critical self-satisfaction: ‘I have been inducted into the ways of this writer or artist and I can only feel sorry for those who are too sophisticatedly stupid to feel as I do.’ An actual child would see things differently, without apology, and it is the work of a lifetime for many poets and artists to think their way back into that state of mind which encounters the world, and consciously ferments the encounter into a response, for the first time. It is Wordsworth’s subject, of course: the deep love of being that trumps learning, as learned as he might be. He’s sceptical about it, which is interesting, perhaps because he knows that this “under-sense” of replete identity with something (usually nature) is apt to sound pretentious, or even like a disavowal of adult responsibility. He calls it an “overlove of freedom” in Book VI of The Prelude. At the same time, it is indubitably real and important to him, because it represents the mystery of artistic immersion, which he experiences as a “treacherous sanction” of the critical. Better than any explanation, and worse, because it is not to be trusted.
The work of the English painter Ken Kiff (1935–2001) confronts this head-on: his is a riotous, protean imaginary of sexual archetypes, Shadows, surreal encounter, landscapes and artistic anxiety that takes seriously (though not sombrely) the whole business of love, the personal, sharing beyond words, and how hard it is to give a reliable account of these things to others. The open-ended summation of his, on the face of it, very un-English, wrestling with the Psyche, and with Jung (Kiff was in analysis for some years), is a 200-image serpent of continual making called “The Sequence”. He began it in 1971 at the age of thirty-five. A beautiful sketch, with an Uccello-ish dragon bottom left, and a tree dividing the page like a pale green fuse, was left unfinished at his death at the age of sixty-one. The paintings are mostly acrylic and pastel on stretched paper, with the gummed tape around the edges preserved as a reminder of their essential provisionality. Walking round the astonishing exhibition of sixty or so paintings, at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, is like visiting Regent’s Park Zoo with something from the reptile house as your anima and guide – a salamander, say. Kiff likes salamanders. Symbolic and actual, clearly emanating and signifying from inside the head, but smooth and scaly to the touch – a highly proprioceptive fantasy.
There is nothing like these paintings anywhere else. They do not belong to the main outgrowths of European Surrealism, with its manifesto-led disaggregation of narrative elements, its collage and taboo. They are not Abstract, although two abstract geometrical forms – a blue spike, like a tooth, and a flying parallelogram, like the Phantom Zone from the Superman comics – find their way into compositions otherwise made up of anthropomorphised animals, floating heads, defecating or spitting bodies, lovers, smiling naked figures, and darkly observing or listening shapes who might be the painter or his analyst. They don’t seem aware of their own facility, which is the problem with Chagall, and even Dali, whose idea of the unconscious was heavily branded from the start. They’re not faux-naive, either, or archly primitivist, in that way you can’t help laughing at when artists find a shtick and can’t stop waving it (Hodgkin’s frames). They’re not unaware of the rest of art – far from it – or trying to be singular. In “Spitting Man” (1976–80), a seated thick-set figure, pink and monumental, expectorates other smaller figures. The heaving up is a reverse-engineering of Goya’s famous Black Painting, “Saturn Devouring His Son”, and like that image, which started out as a wall painting, Kiff’s fleshy acrylic has an air of the built about it – of plaster and blank, wall-eyed permissions. They are happy to refer to things. In “Talking with a Psychoanalyst: night sky” (1975–80), a tremendous dramatisation of the scene of analysis, but in a real room with proper curtains, the two breast-like hills outside the window are Uccello again – the Fiesole hills in Florence.
But, in referring to things, to ideas and other artists, to writers (there is an astonishing drawing of Mayakovsky blowing his brains out), to himself, Kiff never feels as if he is drawing on a store of decided knowledge or material that has been imported from another discussion or medium. What comes up for him in the process of painting is the unaffected recreation of passion and erotic delight, the importance of colour as a ground to which every other question of formal invention and planning is subject, and in both the passionate and colouristic manoeuvres he is convincingly childlike, without being creepy. The paintings resemble those semi-ritualistic, incrementally developmental games that children play as they discover for the first time, and with a never-to-be-recaptured combination of hesitancy and sweeping confidence, their relationship to the external. That’s why the donkey’s legs (“Donkey”, 1976) are so accurately seen, the soft kink of the hind legs, and the scale of the animal so intuitively grasped before a mark is made. That, too, is why the sun is smiling. It’s not kitsch. It’s a matter of stepping truthfully into the moment. The world exists before my eyes, and I am making it.
Idealism agrees, and so would C. G. Jung. For the great symbolist analyst, the psyche was individual and irreducible to anything else. This is also broadly the position of philosophers like Thomas Nagel and John Searle, for whom the mind is physical but not in ways we currently understand; for whom the subjective viewpoint, our looking-on at the world, is not a skim on the surface of objective reality but a puzzling part of it. And inextricable from it: this may be the most important point to consider, Kiff suggests. Before we recruit him to one side of the subjectivist debate or another, we need to remember that he is an artist and a maker before he is anything else, and that artists do not feel they are transcribing or representing or interpreting the world. They’re just in it, and they’re in it more comprehensively for their willingness to have an experience that doesn’t try to isolate the understanding. The problem with the language of symbols in artistic activity – the sun is the mother principle, the shadow challenges the ego, the tree recalls Ygdrassil, and so on – is that the attribution of meaning takes place after the event, when one is only looking on or looking back. One wants to ask: how can unconscious meaning survive into consciousness? Here is the logical obstacle in the path of psychoanalysis. To get at meaning, we need to relive, not describe, and experiencing art, Kiff thinks, is one way of achieving this.
We want the kind of absorption in all our contemplative activity that neither stiffens into description nor threatens a psychotic episode in which objective distinctions disappear (Wordsworth’s “treacherous sanction”). Kiff puts it best himself in a long and sensitive letter to his friend, the writer Ian Biggs, dated June 10, 1998: “My position is to emphasize that the unknown is the unknown. That the unconscious is unconscious. ‘Self’ is an unknown, as ‘wholeness’ is an unknown . . . Painting evokes the sense-data by which we read the world, I suppose . . . It is an independent thing, however, because it isn’t the servant of our conscious activities, nor is it merely a product of our unconscious activities, nor is it a mirror. It is a highly developed medium with a continuous logic.” In other words, painting isn’t a record; it’s a form of pattern-forming attentiveness, in which things that are seen change as the painter looks at them, and in a way that feels logical and sensible, however unlikely the changes. It’s striking, as one moves from painting to painting, how genially unperturbed Kiff’s dramatic personae seem to be by all the psychic chaos. Nothing puts them off their stroke; there is illness and fear (a man throws up), but there is also comfort (another man, rising out of the ground, comforts him). Domestic routines are done naked. It’s Eden, or the 1970s, or a bit of both, maybe.
In “Posting A Letter” (1971–2), a beaming male nude strides towards a smiling red post box with an envelope in his hand. He is lifted up above the ground, above his own shadow; he walks on air. Behind him, to the left of the sheet, a bowler-hatted commuter disappears behind a tree. Both figures are regarded with total self-possession by an ant-eater, where one might possibly have expected a dog or a squirrel. The surprise is like the bend in a pencil when you put it in water and the memory of the first time you looked at that phenomenon. It is a real thing, an image, and a piercing emotion all at once. Emma Hill’s excellent catalogue to this rejuvenating show – the most enjoyable I have seen, anywhere, in years – reproduces an email from Kiff’s former student Emma Bosch, who remembers him at work on this particular painting. Kiff was a great correspondent, and he talked, Bosch says, about “the excitement of leaving a letter in the postbox and then waiting for the reply.” Hope is often an unreasonable and irrational feeling, of course, but it’s sentimental to think it always without foundation. The man in the air could fall. At the same time, he is buoyed up, right now, by sheer communicative delight.
First published in Brixton Review of Books Issue 5, March 2019