Published: 5 March 2020
What is it that separates humankind from the animal kingdom? What allows us to survive and prosper amongst land and sea when animals seem so much more equipped? The human body, without wings for flight or gills for water, seems limited in comparison. In ancient mythology, Epimetheus and Prometheus were given the task of endowing all the creatures on Earth with gifts (Epimetheus liberally spreading fur and wings etc.) but by the time they got to man, they had run out of gifts. Such is our lot. Although Prometheus stole fire to bestow man an invaluable gift in life's struggle, we were definitively separate.
We endeavour to push the boundaries of human form and endurance in remarkable feats of athleticism despite our separation from animals. Artists too have pushed their form ever since they were bestowed the gift of creativity. It's apposite then, that I should be looking an artwork by Patsy McArthur that explores both human endurance and artistic achievement. Sea Swim is a drawing in charcoal monochromes capturing all the energy and form of a sea swimmer battling tidal swell. The contrasting grey artwork is part of the forthcoming Shades of Grey group exhibition at Thompson's Gallery in Seymour Place. These hues would seem to fit the Promethean myth kindly – some traditions saying the first man was hewn in clay by Prometheus himself.
(Above: Patsy McArthur | Metamorphosis | Charcoal on paper | 27" x 32" | £1900)
It is also an artwork about limits. The artist, like the swimmer, has to ask themselves how far do they go? Watercolourists, coincidentally, have to know their limits when it comes to painting – white is never added, it is where the paper has been preserved – Patsy works on watercolour paper, borrowing this artistic technique. Water is a testing and challenging playground. At the water's edge it can be elusive but submitting to it can be enveloping and ultimately costs lives. Take for example Patsy's other work in the show, Metamorphosis, a body plummets and disappears, subsumed by the sea. We don't need to look far in recent news to know the perils of this relationship with water. Storms and rainfall in the UK bringing devastating floods and entire communities facing upheaval and rehousing. Immigration too, from war or oppression, has seen so many lives lost making perilous channel crossings. In this way, Patsy's images of swimmers are two-fold – they exhibit the attempt to cross water and to conquer the ocean (even ultra/endurance channel swims have an unhealthy parallel with colonisation – to take ownership of the sea, the territory between), and they're also a reminder of human limits – what happens when we (literally) fall foul of the water's power.
I had the pleasure of working with Beth French and Lynn Dennison recently on a project that documented sea swimmers and their passage into water. I even took to water myself for the project, swimming throughout the seasons for a year off the harsh West Somerset coast. Beth knows all too well what it means to make endurance crossings. In the excellent documentary about her record-attempt, Against the Tides, Beth has to face the psychological, not just physical, challenges in her quest to be the first person to swim the Oceans 7 (seven significant channel crossing across the globe) in one year. Patsy's work captures the extremes of this sport so well, the fluidity but sometimes failure. I can relate to the two subjects in her work, but there's also something for us all to relate to, whether we swim in the ocean or not. It would seem that Patsy too wants her subjects to speak of something more universal – however accurate the swim stroke is (the looping arm favoured by sea swimmers over the bent elbow of pool swimming) the subject doesn't wear goggles, perhaps more akin to the Promethean man than any salt-watered sea swimmer.
Designers of video games rarely render the entire landscape of their background, the closer we try to get to the limits and boundaries of the game scenery, the more it eludes us. Patsy's two artworks here seem to reflect this role play – the path the swimmer has taken fades into the white of the paper, or the subject in Metamorphosis plummeting downward like a character losing its life in a game, black and white, waiting to regenerate or to metamorphose. This is also true of life and artworks. The closer we try to examine something, whether molecular or just wanting to comprehend in more detail, the more the substance can evade us. A good artwork often requires a step back from it to regain perspective – stepping forward and looking for closer detail takes us further away. In Patsy's attempt to capture the impossible – a fluid moment within or under water – close-up scrutiny will only mislead us. It is through reflection and distance that we can fully appreciate the work. Sink or swim, we must decide how we enter the water.
Patsy McArthur's drawings will feature in our upcoming exhibition of greyscale works. Register interest with the gallery at 0207 935 3595 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.