Journey to the East

‘I am so grateful to Colin Watson for accompanying me on my tour of the Far East and for producing such a wonderful series of paintings which have in many ways captured the atmosphere of the places we visited.’

HRH The Prince of Wales

Most of these new paintings by Colin Watson record a journey he made late in 2008 to Japan, Indonesia and Brunei accompanying HRH the Prince of Wales. Others are drawn from the regular trips Colin makes to Morocco.

As an experienced and culturally knowledgeable traveller, Colin’s ability to absorb the elements of a place as lived and seen experience, and then to reassemble that as a painting, is remarkable. But while the paintings mark physical journeys, the deliberate ambiguity of the title insists on their role as the enlightenment of a spiritual journey towards the east made over many years by a painter coming from the very edge of western Europe.

These temples, tombs, dancers, actors, monks and landscapes are always treated with a consciousness of their physical presence, yet ultimately they signify only the worldly embodiment of the meaning that Colin paints. Place and fact exist as they are and equally as metaphor. As this, they take on immense meaning; there is evocative formal description of the remarkable world that these journeys record, the rare access to such a full experience of these cultures, but Colin is also able to fill the spaces around physical objects with the meaning that has inhabited them over time.

There is nothing of the tourist about these images and these works are not topographical or tourist records. They depict place, fact and mood as it exists but with an unfixed, ambiguous suggestiveness. Each place is infused with the particular, but also the more broadly culturally significant. Even the curve of a group of trees in Java recalls the sculpture of that place.

The highly fluid treatment of the image and the use of patterning as an abstract element allow Colin to avoid pinning down places, people or performances to one moment and existence within the contemporary world. The casein that Colin uses, while creating a flat, yet vibrant surface, suggests the patina of the ancient world. The marks that are made have visual references within the painting but also have the resonance of other abstract marks with very specific meanings, such as those of Islamic calligraphy or Egyptian hieroglyphs.

In his own absorption with the broader spiritual implications of the people, objects and places of the east, Colin achieves an unexpected universality; he accepts them within their own cultural and spiritual context, rather than attempting a westernised and individualised interpretation of what he sees. Theatre, dance or performance resonate with the sense of their meaning in the culture from which they emanate. The colour and form of this visual spectacle is a key to their enduring and universal meaning, but the paintings still retain the accidental form of their everyday existence.

Four large figure paintings lie at the heart of this exhibition. While they appear to stand apart from the paintings of Morocco, Japan, Indonesia and Brunei, in fact they make more explicit both the meaning of the smaller works and the theme of the entire exhibition. These are works whose pure invention allows them to express the complex meaning of the metaphysical ideas that permeate the works drawn from the visual world.

Coincidentally, Colin had already drawn inspiration for this fresco-like series of paintings from the friezes at Borabudur before knowing that he might visit Java so soon. While the other works in the exhibition are drawn from the idea of the worldly object, these come from the idea of the symbol. In the figure paintings, Colin abstracts the image of an object or a person to the degree that it becomes endowed with the quality of pure metaphor, representing the deepest understanding of its existence on earth. For example, there is no attempt to treat water to demonstrate the physical properties of water; rather it is depicted as a symbol embodying the meaning of water and its implications in Islamic culture. These paintings pass beyond painting the substance of the physical world to paint the shadow of the substance.

This same consciousness of the metaphysical and the spiritual enduring beyond the worldly also informs the paintings that are drawn from specific places and events. The large paintings allow a more coherent reading of the suggestion in the other works that they have a resonance beyond their actual nature and an existence beyond the particular moment of their depiction. These paintings are a record of a momentous journey for Colin, where the physical act of travelling mirrors the metaphysical journey that it has assisted him to make. Despite Colin’s intellectual understanding of Islam these paintings are dominated by their emotional experience of the east and the visual experience of this exhibition conveys this in its fullest meaning.