Kirsten Glass’ enchanting paintings conjure alternate realms, invoke esoteric energies and summon nocturnal beings. In this creative essay, Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou meditates on the “obverse” side of her mesmerising work and its magical channeling of all things dark.
I’m walking along the cobbled streets of central London, and the cold November wind clasps my neck from behind. It’s only 4pm and buildings are under cover of darkness, seemingly locked up and in a state of arrest. Burying my hands deep within the pockets of my coat, I hear a passer-by complain into her phone about these ‘gloomy nights, when the moon stays out longer than the sun.’ I smile. Call me a lunatic, but I like these ‘gloomy nights’ where the moon claims her rightful place in the sky. Street lights flicker and falter as I walk up and down a desolate lane. I wink at the moon while trying to find the right address – we both know there’s more to these dark evenings than meets the eye.
What’s lost and found in the dark? What lingers in the shadows? What morphs and dances into alternate shapes and forms under the starry expanse of the night sky?
I don’t ask the moon these questions despite the urge to say them out loud. Crossing the threshold of an eighteenth-century town house, I sense I’m about to find out – have my curiosity rewarded in the most ominous yet marvellous way.
Tucked between the facades of more modern builds, the house transports me back to a time when low wooden beams and doors had markings, and engraved fire grates boasted of fables now unsaid. (A taunting fox and unsuspecting crow; a piece of cheese clawed by both). Though the house is lit with electrical lights, the rooms still speak of an era when ‘gloomy evenings’ were illuminated by dripping tallow candles and the oily rays of a pock-marked moon. If I stand still enough, will the room tip into this vision of past living? Will the tallow candles glint and spit into view?
Bare floorboards creak underfoot, the chill air sneaks into the room. I find myself in what would have been a parlour, greeted not by tallow nor the pure moonshine of my own imagination, but painted portals, sublime renderings, opening planes of patent, glistening colour siphoning into dark and distant domains. The dark has come to meet me, but it’s not what you think. Rare gems lie low, lie dormant, in the soil of these feats.
Kirsten Glass’ paintings are these rare treasures of the night, occult offerings, nocturnal outpourings, brimming with the force of the dark.
Walking through this former parlour-turned-gallery, I see that the sparseness of the space makes way for the grandeur and wealth displayed on its walls. (Again, I see the tallow, I see the drip drip of animal fat, I see the flickering fire, the fable come to life. I see twilight slip into moonlight, the markings glow indiscreet, a fox’s tail, a crow’s laugh, the knowing hand that lulls all to sleep).
That is, Glass’ paintings return us to a preternatural order and a primordial source; to ancient fields and nascent rivers; to gestating forms buried and brewing beneath the surface of the earth and to future cosmologies flying on the wings of the ether. Uncovering what is hidden, what is shrouded by dark and obscured by night, Glass sets about recovering ignored bodies, rediscovering alternate realms and rhythms, and reliving the violent vibrance and vigour inherent in all. Sensing, seeing that the dark is thick with restless and pulsating life – perhaps far richer than that which persists and pulsates in the day – Glass gives reign to these alternate figures; she lets the canvas show that the void is not empty but ripe and full and overflowing with unhatched forms. Not one to shy away from that which lies beneath one’s feet or behind one’s mirror, Glass flashes us a rare and bedazzling view of latency itself, of alterity in all its indistinct distinction.
In the moonlight, her paintings shine and sing, bark and bite. In the moonlight of this ‘gloomy night’, of this cold November evening, Glass’ works glow incandescent murmurings of other beings, other rites and rules. Flip the room upside down, turn the spotlights out, and the markings begin to crawl.
I’m told by C that the wooden doors of a cabinet in the parlour had been deliberately scratched with a metal implement and that the marks have survived centuries. An attempt to ward off the night, warn and cast out the witch. It doesn’t work. Glass’ paintings come with markings of their own, sigils and esoteric symbols, signals and callings to and from the oblique side of reality, sewn embellishments on canvas like words engraved into stone or ink embossed on textured paper.
You want to touch the markings, trace them with the tip of your finger, feel the energy resound and seam upwards like blood beneath the scarred skins of the works. I step away, back into the empty centre of the room, unsure of myself, my potential to misbehave and touch the paintings, unsure of the potentiality bubbling behind Glass’ vibrating canvases.
Flowers proliferate in obsidian, their precision working against a shade that says ‘nothing exists here’ (no.7, 2022). Flowers made with the fine tip of a compass, scaling, orienting, sizing into perfect petals, incisive and deliberate, line to line, a perpendicular patchwork, a continued corollary circling across time, concertinaed through the ages, patterning into a scheme, a field, a shield for one whose vision is to see into the innermost depths of things. To see in the dark. To pierce its petalled folds.
Knitting needles and compasses are again used to form perfect circles, planetary forces converging and convening in orbs of white, black and blue. The marked and sewn are one and the same in Glass’ paintings; messages and clues to those who know – to those who figure forth in the dark and magically reappear at the turn of each sundown. The witch, the familiar, the veiled companion, standing in the clearing, in the densest part of the wood or the highest point in a barren landscape, clawing their names and wisdom on stone, bark and mud. (Bringing all back to the violent and virulent nature of things). So that, to leave a mark is to leave a trace, to leave a word for those who may come after – should you not return.
Threads almost leak from the canvas: a red string knotted around a birthing stone, C tells me, is how a witch would “birth” her desires, her dreams, her most obstinate wants. A red desire, a red tie, a slip of heart, that ritualistically cleaves around a loaded object, compact and round, an empty space, a hollow, an aperture, none of which are for us to read, cling to or pass through, but to perceive and witness all the same. Voids to us but full to those who clung and begun new versions of themselves through them.
Those markings then etched into wooden doors from the early 1700s are now replied to in different tongues and curses; different instructions and warnings. Here is the triangular formula, here is the scar of the night, here is the witch’s calling, the enchantress’ rite, tessellating across a panel that is really a plane of stormy cosmos traversing the top – or bottom – of a partially revealed world (Seaside, 2022). No compass needle will point in that direction; no thread will lead you into its maze – or out again. These are markings and makings of magic and myth, as fine as moonbeams, translucent in sunlight, but shining in the blackest of nights.
The sigils, enchanted scrawlings, propulsive and purposive to those who make them, call out to deities and spirits I cannot recall. Innocent markings to one ignorant eye, darkening and desirous to another. In Seaside (2022), lines zig zag against an enlarged S shape then crossover in a symmetrical formation, a scrawl, a foreshortened screed and script that parallels another. I cannot fathom what this reveals or conceals, controls or extols, locks or unlocks, from out of the eerie darkness into which it is scratched, but it speaks more than any legible word. I know it commands and communicates from the surface down deep into the depths and up again. A word or command drilling down into the belly of the earth – or coming up from it? That same birthing stone hangs solemnly close to the signage; again, its red thread a vertical line penetrating the bowels of something, somewhere. Glass makes us follow the line, but we’re not quite sure from whence it arrives or terminates.
If the lower half, the sub-region of Seaside (2022), gestates and brews unresolved and unconfirmed figures – an orange orb eclipsed by a blood red disc; a sphere suspended and enwrapped in wine-dark purple – the upper body, the ‘above-ground’ plane roars into a black and brackish wave, a watery landmass storming against itself. This upper plane appears like two rivalling sea creatures battling for supremacy; two shadow forms writhing and fighting in plain sight. Small anemone-like imprints, mottled dots of light, golden sand, a gas-blue shimmering nautilus shell fall and tumble in the collision of it all. But this sea scene, of oceanic proportions and distortions, is belied by the subterranean movements occurring beneath.
Are they asymmetric mirrors of one another? Geological or elemental contortions, mirroring outwards across a temporal divide? Is the lower half where energies hibernate, where the terror and joy of pleasure are born? Is the upper-half but a cosmic echo, seismic in its ripple, yet still a flash of the magic material to come?
Glass tips us, not just the canvas or space, upside down; turns us inside out. Moving from left to right in the room, I am lost in the painting’s sinking horizon, its containment of what is boundless, its unleashing of what may surround the bounds above ground or sea level. There is a sense that we’re travelling here, to the core or the apex and back again, but where this centre, this elemental crux is, Glass will not disclose.
Disorientating and defying linguistic description, Seaside uncovers a volatile state, reveals two diverse but interrelated phenomenological planes, that only the art of painting, the magic of the painter can control and draw out.
Tom Jeffreys’ enchanting essay in the booklet that accompanies the show understands how intrinsic alterity and contrariety are to Glass’ work. Writing on his hand to ‘remember the obverse’ when looking at Glass’ paintings, it becomes apparent that the artist herself not only paints with the obverse in mind, but paints into and from this positionality.
Seaside is one example of this, where land and sky and the inner workings of the earth are at once divulged and retracted again. Glass conveys the obverse only to confuse which side we’re on, which panel of the work discloses the ulterior vision, the underside of life as we know it. Walking around the space, surrounded by these oblique and refracting views, the obverse paradoxically comes closer, closes in, only to move and slip away again.
Two large works that simultaneously play with and pivot outwards from this position are Hawthorn Helper (2022) and Flying Dream (2022). Like Seaside, both paintings problematize and obfuscate the underside, the points at which spaces begin and end. Hawthorn Helper shows intersecting areas which bleed into each other, their outermost edges overlapping across time. A red and yellow net unfolds with tessellating pyramids threaded on one side, whilst the opposite reveals the persona of an enchantress, a burnished witch supporting some kind of oracular orb.
You can try to reconcile the forms and their narrative, but a precise meaning recedes into the evasive distance of the work. Some conjuring is afoot, some channelling that brings the obverse – and indeed, multiverses – together, but a precise location of time and place and object, the exact asymmetry that Glass brings will not be confirmed. This, like the colourful oval shapes – eggs of promise, glittering jewels found buried beneath the soil – that cascade in the centre of the work, is a trip into the abyss of creativity. It is painting into the obverse and highlighting the complexity and polysemy of all sides. (It is revealing the alchemy of creation whilst concealing its exact process and what that fully entails. We have the witch, the hare, the allusion of the pagan magic of the hawthorn to fertility, to legacy, to love, to folkloric tale-telling itself, but the narrative is up to us to create; the reconnection of all sides and threading of all things together is our task, our story to make).
That Glass paints with such precision, such perfect and poetic lineation, only serves to further, not lessen this aesthetic and practise and performance of the ulterior. Moments and places and moods may collide, but not in a confused or unconscious fashion. Swathes and stretches of colour are outlined, much like the faces and eyes and ovular primeval forms – openings into alternate dimensions or the possibility of doing so. They are sublime and distinct; still, they do not admit their origin or ease you with exactly what, who or where they are.
Flying Dream operates at once from the same obverse positionality and stylistic exactitude on the canvas as Hawthorn Helper. Landscapes are turned inside out and bodies become landscaped into geographical planes of maroon and black. A figure pulls the prow of a boat or the water that it would sail on. Objects are metamorphosed into spaces and spaces into the forms they would usually contain. A rainbow of glitter cuts through the lingering dark in the lower half of the work, a reminder that all is not as it seems and chaos can return to cosmic calm again.
The obverse, then, is ever in the surface, not just behind it; and the foremost side inevitably infers that which lies, concealed, under. The obverse may return – or return us – to ourselves more whole or full or rounded – like a glowing egg, a baptismal moon, two golden eyes, a rock with a womb-shaped hole – more knowing of what it is we’re made.
Looking up at the moon as C and L take me to the second gallery, Offer Waterman, that houses Glass’ other works, I consider how the sun and moon have one thing in common. They can both be seen on the other – obverse – side of the globe, just at different points in the earth’s rotation. But the moon, she spins and whirls on her own axis too, rotates around us, showering light and darkness in equal measure depending on which place in the world you stand. The sun burns still, burns brightly, a static roar of light, the mover of us all, while moving on the spot, slowly, slowly, making its own imperceptible galactic revolution.
We, like the moon, occupy alternate, ulterior positions from afar, then come up close, face-to-face, round and declared in the fullness of our devotion to the turning.
We could turn the canvases of Glass’ works around, and still they would at once obscure and clarify the surreal worlds depicted therein. There are outlines of things – witches, animals, female figures giving off a distinctly Bewitched vibe – the stock “night” types playfully alluded to in the exhibition title. But these are not reliable either. These types come like the cosmological voids and ovules spilling and falling and widening throughout her aforementioned paintings: at once empty and full, these signifiers are emptied of their usual significance, only to be refilled and reloaded in Glass’ displacement of them. Surrounded by a cosmogony of influences and drives, these types, stencils of hares and crows, deers and dogs, wolves and women, start to take on an alternative energy, start to animate and radiate in radiant hues and lights not originally their own. These familiar types, the stock figures of our cultural and popular imagination, become unfamiliar again, mystical and enchanted in Glass’ relaying of them.
Wittily playing off all the meanings of ‘stock’ – stone and wood idols, bundles of bracken, the kin from which one descends, an ancestral type, a human body, fetters and instruments of punishment – these forms are transmogrified by the nightscapes into which they’re embedded. By the light of the moon – the light of the painter’s head and hand – all is transformed, all becomes night-scented stock.
Painting with Hekate (2022), Glass’ formidable work, ceremoniously reassembles such night stock before the most mythically obverse figure of them all: the goddess of night herself. At once nocturnal wonderings and somnambulant wanderings, Painting with Hekate encapsulates Glass’ ability to do exactly as the title says: paint into and with the obverse; to reclaim the night and make visible that which dwells under its cover. Hecate, goddess not just of the nocturnal mode but magic, light and crossroads, is trimorphous in nature, a triple-faced goddess who sees all sides of things (under, over and straight ahead). Though a visual poem of mythical associations – the traveller’s bundle, the ghostly familiars, the witch, the sleeping head, a rhizomatic branch sprouting roots in the womb of the dark – Painting with Hekate is about just this: the manifold decisions and choices in painting, the dark turnings and inversions of creating and the development of the creative process itself. Whether Hecate appears or not – though there are technically three embodied female forms in the work – Glass hails her as mythos and mythical figure to paint towards, paint into and, indeed, paint with. Standing at the crossroads of her own artistic practise, Glass hails Hecate, mother of night, and summons her power, her multiplicity, her opaque way of seeing and being and seeming, to give us a dream where those decisions in painting are not so much withheld from the viewer’s eye, but symbolically given to us. Handing us the obverse, placing us at the crossroads, revealing a path, a clue, a way through the gloomy night by the magical light of the moon, Glass asks us to paint with Hecate too.
Recreating a ceremony, a ritual of worship and sacrifice, Painting with Hekate becomes an observance of seeing and being and travelling in and of itself. We see the expressionless face, moon-like and vacant yet full in its portentousness and promise. We see the closed eyes wrapped in sleep-inducing fog, the haziness of memory, of unknowing, of longing. We see the apparitional outlines of animals, guardians, portents of the night. We see, so we step into the work, approaching and traversing its manifold thresholds and boundaries and eyeless seers, knowing that for us to look, therefore, is to participate, and for us to participate is to take up the act of worship; to take up the bundle and waver or wander in dream. By the light of the moon, we worship, we walk, we paint, we see with Hecate anew.
Feature image: Kirsten Glass’ Before the Moon, 2022. Image courtesy of Karsten Schubert, London. Lucy Writers and Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou would like to thank Iona Lowe and CeCe Manganaro at Karsten Schubert, London, for their kindness in allowing us to write about Kirsten Glass’ work.