Idolatry Exhibition Essay – Jennifer Hay
Devotion of the masses to the materialistic excesses of contemporary life is explored in Robin Eley’s suite of paintings ‘Idolatry’. While this at first may seem to be a straightforward theme for the artist and viewer to appreciate, what emerges is a deeper acknowledgement of the existential conundrum of humanity. Religious paintings and their iconography of veneration, adoration and baptism found in the history of art, here represents an alternative spiritual journey for an alternative religion.
Eley has devised a series within a series with each painting referencing each other in some way. Processional and Recessional, two spirals made from paper and gold foil – symbolize our becoming in the world and then our ultimate exit. Recessional with its beguiling mirrored planes and angles draws the viewer further into its dark center – like a doorway from which a refracted view of the world can be seen.
Veneration portrays the artist himself in supplication with a foil globe balanced upon his shoulders. Eley uses artificial light and synthetic products such as plastic to emphasize the way disposable objects of desire have been elevated to objects of veneration “as a panacea for the anxieties of the eternal”. Veneration recalls ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ and the 1549 painting made famous by Titian. Sisyphus’ ceaseless task of pushing a rock up a steep hill as punishment for defying Death, is a well-known metaphor for the absurdity of human existence.
Adoration of course calls to mind Adoration of the Magi but here, Eley depicts a beautiful young woman in a transcendent crucifixion-like pose, her nakedness countered by the paper parachute held aloft like a veil worn by the Madonna. In Immersion, the ritual act of cleansing and spiritual rebirth is evoked, but an undulating black sea of plastic and void of utter darkness creates a mood of trepidation.
The dramatic interplay of light and tonality seen in Veneration and Immersion is repeated throughout ‘Idolatry’. The four paintings of Eley’s friends, with their faces immersed in cellophane and the complicated play of shadow upon skin and shadow upon colored shadow epitomizes Eley’s technical mastery of the medium of oil paint on Belgian linen. Omega and Immaculate capture a profound look on their faces as they recede away from the viewer. They observe Veneration, Adoration and Immersion and the notion that individuality is being subsumed by bland homogeneity is countered by Eley, who imbues them with a unique inflection and a strong sense of empathy between artist and subject is apparent.
Like the two spirals, the globes of Celestial and Dark Matter are still-life paintings capable of transporting the viewer into a vortex of contemplation. Indeed the overlapping visual and conceptual signs in each painting in ‘Idolatry’ and Eley’s skillful renderings of layers of texture and colour, incites a sense of wonder at the interplay between the ethereal and the material.