THE GREAT ALL
An essay on Elsa Duault
An essay on Elsa Duault by Ashraf Jamal.
The mystic-philosopher-painter, the French-born South African-based artist, Elsa Duault, has introduced a rich vein of thought and feeling into our art world. Running against the dominant interest, domestically and globally, in narrative-driven art, that is, art shaped by the consuming fixation with a raced or gendered identity politics, Duault has provided us with a more esoteric or gnomic set of concerns.
Elsa Duault’s ‘credo’, she says, is defined by ‘the Great All’, a belief in the eternal circularity of life in which ‘nothing is created, nothing lost, everything transformed’. This vision, or credo, deserves closer attention, for what Duault believes in is not the customary monotheistic absolute, shared by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, but, rather, a belief in an organically self-creating – and perpetually transforming – world in which neither a sovereign God nor a self-possessed artist is ever wholly in control of creation.
In freeing herself from self-control and from the reliance upon the absolute, Duault opens up a very different understanding of creation. It is perhaps fitting, as a French woman, that Duault should echo the visions of the molecular theorists, Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, as well as the philosopher of movement and author of Creative Evolution, Henri Bergson. For, like Duault, these three thinkers, and Bergson in particular, advocate the notion of an ‘Open Whole’, that is, the vision of a ceaselessly morphing totality. This vision is evident in the artist’s recognition of ‘mother nature’s balances and harmony’ which, all importantly, is ‘full of surprises and beautiful expressions’.
In Duault’s world, therefore, nothing is given, and yet everything is given. One cannot underestimate the centrality of this paradox in the artist’s painting. Her surfaces and framing form for her work are circular. This refusal, structurally, of a four-cornered world, affirms the artist’s commitment to an eternal, never-ending, geometry, for the circle, more than any other form, attests not closure but infinity.
Working in acrylic paint, the artist operates by creating three densities – three plastic containers of paint, in different colours, which vary in their thinness and thickness. The first layer, spilt on the canvas, is the most thinly pliable. Duault then varies the density, manipulating the paint by breathing upon and against it through a straw, or by shifting it about with a stick or blow dryer. What is immediately evident is that no paintbrush is used.
Duault’s reasoning behind this technique has its own mystic root, for the artist, as best she can, refuses to control the movement – coagulation and dispersal – of paint. In this regard, the artist acknowledges the influence of Jackson Pollock, wittily remembered as ‘Jack the Dripper’. Action painting, or colour field painting, or, more inclusively, abstract expressionism, is the artist’s ancestral painterly root. In a similar vein, she too seeks to gift priority to the animus of paint. For in Duault’s hands – hands which operate more as a medium than an agent – what assumes centrality is the matter that is paint. However, if Duault refuses the ego she does not do so with the cool flippancy displayed in Damien Hirst’s spin paintings. Rather, for Duault, it is neither the ego nor the machine that, finally, matters. Paint as a material does not only exist in and of itself. Rather, paint is a means through which nature’s fragile harmonies are articulated – paint is a mystic portal.
Duault speaks of ‘energy colliding… dispersing… reaching equilibrium… a resting point’. For what interests her most is the ‘essence of movement’. In other words, it is paint’s intrinsic vitality – after Bergson, its élan vital – which compels her. It is the mercurial, or ‘molecular’ nature of paint as a material and medium which, mysteriously, fulfils life’s meaning – the very meaning of creativity.
It is curious to remember that Duault began her career with a degree in marketing. One would reasonably have expected the artist to apply this very secular and media-driven skill to, say, marketing the products of others. However, on discovering a secret trove of paintings made by her grandfather, the artist chose to radically shift gears. A degree from the Michaelis School of Fine Art followed. Well known internationally for its conceptually driven ethos, and its commitment to an Afrocentric international style, Michaelis could, logically, have spawned an artist who could have branded herself as such. Duault, however, would have none of this.
This is because Duault is emphatically an outlier, someone who has chosen to carve out a singular and complex spiritual and philosophical path. One does not read her works as a cypher for some prescribed and current meaning – her works are not representative or illustrative. Caught up in the enigma and fluidity of marbled paper – an ancient Turkish tradition – her paintings invoke feelings and meanings as unerringly on point as they are mysterious. Aniconic, non-symbolic, anti-narrative, strange, Duault’s paintings have chosen – peremptorily, suddenly, surprisingly – to call up the unknowable at the very heart of the known.
This unknowable realm, which precedes and exceeds the fetish and obsession of the human today – its beleaguered subjective consciousness and fraught agency – is not, however, something to be afraid of. On the contrary, it is this primal mystery – the very mystery of the natural world – which, for Duault, will offer us a greater calm, a greater peace – a greater All.