Art Review by Charles Hall
A rare virus infection has gouged large holes in his brain, but artist David Jane survived to produce extraordinary paintings based on medical images of the damage. Charles Hall celebrates a bizarre and sometimes shocking strand of self-portraiture.
David Jane contracted viral encephalitis while on holiday in Brazil some four years ago. He woke up in England not knowing who he was, not recognising his family, and unable to speak, write or read. It took months to learn to speak; writing and reading are still a struggle. Without the support of Pat, his wife, and his daughter Caroline, from his first marriage, he probably would not have survived at all.
So much for the bad news. The good news is that, in the interval, something magical has happened to his painting. Four or five years ago his work was impressive, but hardly earth-shattering. He used dry pigment, brushed on to the canvas, to create dustily monumental, semi-abstract images of niches carved out of the solid rock of Indian temples. They were beautiful, but it was hard to see what personal charge they really carried. This is hardly a criticism which could be levelled against his body of work on show this month.
Even while barely conscious, in the early days of his recovery, he began making little figurative drawings – unconsciously recalling the drawings made by John Bellany, a friend and contemporary, during his recovery from a liver transplant. After his discharge, still utterly disorientated, Jane went back to his studio, and tried to pick up where he had left off – but found his work changing under his hands. The niches were displaced by images drawn from brain scans, dominated by the huge, shadowy cavities gouged out in his brain. Gradually these forms evolved into bizarre subterranean landscapes, desolate images of an unfamiliar territory. In some works, the caverns and voids seem to take on their own life, dark organic shapes occupying the canvas with muscular presence.
It is possible to trace Jane’s developing attitude to his experience of the disease in his increasingly controlled and vivid handling of his material. One series presents sequences of images, homing in on particular structures of the brain: cells and nodes loom from the darkness like approaching headlights in some surreal storyboard. But perhaps the most impressive works restore these medical records to their true, visceral charge. The new, forceful draughtsmanship is reinforced by an inspired use of colour, breaking through those powdery surfaces. To say that the end result can sometimes recall the intensity of Sutherland or Bacon is to stray into a somewhat bloodless, theoretical world. But it might be truer to the experience to say that sometimes one feels the artist has rubbed flesh directly into the surface of the canvas. And that, despite this, the work remains both disciplined and beautiful.
Jane believes the damage to the left, rational side of the brain may have forced the more intuitive side of his personality to take charge. But while the horror is powerfully expressed, so too is the artist’s fascination with this unique form of self-portraiture. The fusion rivets our attention exactly on the border between the mind and brain, the physical and the personal.
Medicine and the Media.