Michèle Griffiths was born and trained in London. Initially persuaded to pursue an academic career, studying French and German Literature at Cambridge University, her determination to make Art her life won out and she subsequently studied Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art. With eminent tutors like Prunella Clough she learned to develop her own unique voice as an abstract artist.
Her textured, incised works on plaster are subtle and multilayered.
“I aim to engage the viewer in slow looking”.
Michèle Griffiths has gained considerable recognition during her career. She completed a major commission for P&O (Britannia) and several works have been selected for Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions and The Discerning Eye in central London.
The art critic Nicholas Usherwood describes her paintings as:
“…meditations on surface and depth, illusion and reality, their painterly touch and mark synonymous with their mood of contemplative stillness”.
‘DARKNESS INTO LIGHT’ solo show in CHICHESTER CATHEDRAL
These paintings are worked on in many layers, on a rough surface of plaster, referencing the walls of the cathedral and their ancient graffiti.
The computer screen can only hint at their texture and the visceral impact of their presence as solid, material objects.
The dates, initials and other ciphers, incised into the plaster, evoke the feeling of a direct link with those who made them spontaneously, on the actual stone walls. Some are playful, or random, like the doodles of bored pilgrims, others record the presence of individuals who like ordinary people the world over and from time immemorial, consciously want to record their presence in a particular place.
The ‘light’ that appears to shine through and onto the surface of these works, convey in an elemental way the coexistence of the tactile and material with the intangible and spiritual. This series of paintings as a whole points to the possibility of hope in dark times: the triumph of light over darkness
‘DARKNESS into LIGHT’
Michèle Griffiths at Chichester Cathedral by FRANCES SPALDING
Darkness and light are words that come readily to hand. They connect with our everyday existence, divided as it is into night and day. But the moment ‘into’ is inserted between these two words, as in the title of this exhibition Darkness into Light, they become conjoined in a way that suggests a relationship less fixed, more mutable.
Michèle Griffiths’ recent paintings deliberately play, not with logic and certainty, but with the possibility of change and movement. She remarks in the catalogue that in Hope the cross near the centre of the painting, imitating an ancient piece of graffiti, can be taken as a religious symbol or as an anchor in the composition. These are, after all, immersive pictures, inviting us into a seemingly haphazard, non-didactic world. They act as a theatre for the soul, offering an opportunity for our own experiences to shape not only our looking but also the content of this art.
These new works are far removed from Griffiths’ previous ‘Prana’ series, a set of serene land- and seascapes that drew on finely adjusted hues and tones to establish the illusion of depth and space. Part of their strong appeal was the sure-footed access they offered the viewer, into an imagined scene, empty, restful, and spacious.
In contrast, this new work exposes the struggle involved in the making of these paintings. The complex process begins with the arbitrary roughening of the surface with a layer of plaster, and from then on layers are steadily built up, rubbed off and reworked, as the painting evolves. Like Bridget Riley, Michèle Griffiths often begins with no specific associations or title in mind, and criteria for judging progress only develop as the work evolves, when sensations begin to indicate the direction that it will take. These criteria, as Riley herself admits, ‘are not attached to anything particular, but when I recognise them in a painting, in certain abstract relationships there, then I feel that I have got something real, that I am on firm ground and can build’.
A sense of building is an apt metaphor for Michèle Griffiths’ recent paintings. Not only are there suggestions in some of doors and windows, but in many of them the surface of the picture is so scuffed and scarred that it begins to look like a time-worn wall. Graffiti, as found by the artist in Chichester Cathedral and other churches, is then added, reminding us of the passing waves of human history that attach themselves through these marks to sacred buildings. The Church invites us to recognise that most were made, not as an act of vandalism but a form of prayer, the double, over-lapping ‘V’ acting as symbol to ward off evil, and the vertical incisions made by the sword of a crusader said to have been completed with a horizontal line across the vertical on their safe return home.
But the most important intensifying ingredient in these paintings is the handling of light and its relation to darkness. It takes on a variety of roles: it seeps through veils of colour or suddenly flares with unexpected brightness; it can soften, bleach, darken, flatten or semi-obscure other colours like a floating mist. In places we can discover that the artist has used iridescent paint, which, as with certain shells, can only be seen when looked at from a certain point of view and which disappears again when we change our position.
The paradox, time and again explored in these paintings, is the relationship between surface and depth, and the way painting can somehow abruptly tip from one to the other. Similarly, these paintings remind us that dark and light can be inverted. After all, light makes visible but can also blind us as to what is there to be seen. Darkness, on the other hand, can become fertile ground. Although the famous opening chapter of St John’s gospel presents light and darkness in stark opposition, the ‘dark night the soul’ is claimed by some to be a part of spiritual progress. Henry Vaughan’s famous poem ’The Night’, takes this paradox further. His poem begins by reminding us that Nicodemus sought out Christ at night, needing answers to his questions. From then onwards the poem turns the more usual understanding of darkness and light on its head. The two final verses read:
But living where the sun
Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tire
Themselves and others, I consent and run
To every mire,
And by this world’s ill-guiding light,
Err more than I can do by night.
There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!
Michèle Griffiths paintings tap into an extraordinarily rich cultural history, not least in terms of theological thought, both Christian and Buddhist. In the same way that the use of iridescent paint introduces an unexpected tenderness and intimacy, Griffiths’ titles also open pathways for thought and memory. An element of personal history lies behind the artist’s choice of title for Transcending Sorrow, in which can be found the most dramatic use of light and dark, but it is also particularly apt title for today’s world, struggling to emerge from a pandemic. Griffiths’ titles add another layer of resonance to these engaging works. They are in harmony with the time in which we live. In themselves, these paintings are also in harmony with each other, and together form a remarkable unity.
Frances Spalding 2021
About ” Lockdown Drawings”…This series of 50 works was made during Lockdown. The daily practice of drawing them was both an expression of and a release from this strange situation. The process I use is in a way sculptural, in that I use erasers to “chip away ” at the forms. The latter emerge from an instinctive, organic engagement with the simple materials of charcoal and acid-free cartridge paper, which I first incise with a sharp point so that they appear as fine, white lines in the finished pieces. To paraphrase the writer Michèle Roberts, I draw from the unconscious about the unconscious.“Thinking about your set of drawings, to me they collectively represent a discrete segment of time in which you were going through a particular experience, not separate from your life, but distinct, identifiable, like the journal of a journey. Their intimacy is conveyed not only in their marks and forms, but in their scale”. Eileen Richardson June 2020
About “Wall Fragments”…
Michele Griffiths first started making what she calls “Wall Fragments” in response to the time-worn walls of villages she saw during her regular visits to Greek islands. Looking closely, she found them just as interesting visually as the more obvious beauty all around. Michele creates textured surfaces which, she repeatedly scores and scuffs, draws and paints on, then overpaints; thus replicating the random marks made on the real walls and their annual whitewashing.
The move to a very old house, with its patina of nearly 300 years of dwellers visible on the uneven and asymmetrical walls all around, has no doubt also contributed to the feeling of rightness about this new body of work. I have also long been interested in old graffiti i.e. marks made by ordinary people, to testify to their existence or for other reasons, and have recorded them over the years with photos from different places and countries.
Our village church happens to have 18th century graffiti and also crosses scored into pillars which are said to have been made by Crusaders. The same kinds of crosses can be found in other local churches and in Chichester Cathedral. In chapels in Normandy, I have found many drawings of ships, some dating back to the 16th century, scored into pillars. It is presumed they are votive offerings, made by sailors for the safety of their vessels. I find running my fingers over these graffiti strangely moving, as they are such a direct link with people long gone, but sharing the same urge as myself to make their mark.Michele uses plaster which she works on while it is still setting. In the artist’s words, this technique “keeps me very alert, in a state I can best describe as “painting mindfulness”. “The methods entailed, which I am constantly inventing and developing, make me feel fully alive in an exciting, physical way and they allow me to say more. Though possibly less accessible than the ‘seascapes’, they are truly mine. I am finally following the advice of my tutor at Wimbledon, the distinguished painter, Prunella Clough, to “be less polite”.”
Analysing the Concept of Surface Griffiths’ work explores ‘surface’ in two distinct ways. The works on canvas evoke light on the surface of the sea, conveying the calming reflections and rhythms of the lapping waves. Her works on plaster are surfaces in their own right; each like a fragment of a time-worn wall, scored repeatedly with lines, marks and graffiti.
Achieving her Desired Texture Griffiths builds up the texture of her surfaces in layers, replicating the patina of age by inscribing lines and ciphers, and overpainting again and again. This process is reminiscent of imprints of experience and loss, the workings of memory and forgetting. Griffiths is inspired by the brightness and vivid colours of Greece, be it the light on the sea or the no less attractive whitewashed walls of ancient villages. Her work emanates energy and life.
Nationally Established Artist Michele Griffiths has gained considerable recognition during her career. She recently completed a major commission for P&O (Britannia) and has exhibited at The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and The Discerning Eye in central London.
Artist’s Statement September 2017
“Gold in the Mud”
When you first look at a stranger, you tend to see only their main features. So it is with my work: the initial response will be to the colour, composition and texture. But look more closely, “get to know” the particular piece, and you will see countless marks and ciphers scored into the surface. As with experiences that shape a life, these range from random to deliberate, half obliterated (discarded/forgotten) to more obvious and indelible (retained/remembered).
There are initials and dates, as written by people on walls throughout the ages. I have been recording old graffiti in different countries for many years, moved and inspired by the way they provide such a personal connection with the hand of whoever made them and such a direct link with the past. The18th century equivalents of “I was here” can be seen in our village church. There are also crosses inscribed on a pillar, thought to have been made by Crusaders.
My ways of working with what I call “Wall Fragments” are constantly evolving, most recently incorporating chalk in the ground, which makes it easier to inscribe than plaster on its own. I collect lumps of chalk from the South Downs nearby and grind them to a powder with a mortar and pestle.
The “Wall” concept first came from looking at ancient walls in old Greek villages which are annually whitewashed but still bear the imprints of the passing years. This has become for me an apt and meaningful metaphor for the way life marks, and sometimes scars, us. We continually remember and forget but some things never go away. I use my artistic experience and intuition to tease out the right composition and create a unique beauty from what I see before me, however rough, misshapen and unpromising it may at first appear. To quote Baudelaire; “I seek gold in the mud”.
Artist’s Statement February 2017:
My work has been described as “in the stream of Modernist Abstraction”. It explores surfaces in two different ways. In the one, evocations of light on the surface of the sea emanate a life-giving energy or ‘prana’. In the other strand of my work, each piece is itself a surface, like a close up section of a time-worn wall.
The meditative wave upon wave of the ‘Seascapes’ looks different from the ‘Wall Fragments’ but the multilayered way of making the latter is similar. I replicate the patina of age: the surface is built up in layers which are successively scored,obliterated and overpainted; the process corresponding to the imprints of experience and loss, the workings of memory and forgetting.
In his poetry, Baudelaire sought “gold in the mud”. From the mess of random marks, including initials, dates and symbols as observed in old graffiti, I seek an aesthetic order; a meaningful shaping of the indelible and an equilibrium unique to each piece.
Extract of a letter from a friend (2016)
I felt a real connection with the paintings. I have been thinking, over the last week in Rome, about immortality through Art. There were so many poignant messages from the past engraved in stone in the museums we visited. Your recent paintings/reliefs bridge that gap between ancient and modern. They speak of the past but are very 21st century. They have an enduring quality.
“Oh, that I may join the choir of immortal dead who may live again” Although, George Eliot wrote that about her writing, I feel that it can apply to painting too.
I first started making what I call “Wall Fragments” in response to the time worn walls of villages I visited regularly on Greek islands. Looking closely, I found them just as interesting g visually as the more obvious beauty all around. I make textured surfaces which I repeatedly score and scuff, drew and paint on, then overpaint; thus replicating the random marks made on the real walls and their annual whitewashing.
Metaphorically, these works signify the processes of time: imprints of human experiences: the things that have marked or injured us, the things that happen to us by chance and are then obliterated by forgetting and the things that have marked us so deeply that they cannot be eradicated.
A major commission that I completed in 2014 was of 12 large oil on canvas paintings for the restaurant on the top deck of P&O’s new cruise liner Britannia. Although sharing the same general source i.e. the light and environment of the Aegean, and many superimposed layers, those were of fine oil glazes on a very smooth surface. This kind of work has been described as having a meditative, calming quality.
My subsequent return to developing the “Wall Fragments” was fired by the visceral effect they have on me. The process of using plaster which I work on while it is still setting, as well as afterwards, keeps me very alert, in a state I can best describe as “painting mindfulness”. The methods entailed, which I am constantly inventing and developing, make me feel fully alive in an exciting, physical way and they allow me to say more. Though possibly less accessible than the ‘seascapes’, they are truly mine. I am finally following the advice of my tutor at Wimbledon, Prunella Clough, to “be less polite”.
An important part of my working process is the conscious ‘shaping of the indelible’. That is to say: seeing how all the different random marks, lines graffiti, numbers etc can make formations; a kind of symmetry, an aesthetic order reached for intuitively. It is a way of making sense of the apparently arbitrary and random, a way of making meaning.
I am mindful of Baudelaire’s aim in his poetry to ‘find gold in the mud’ and also of Racine’s motto:” faire quelque chose de rien” The use of minimal means to maximum effect.
I deliberately use simple materials and basic tools.
Sculpting tools I have inherited from my grandfather, who came from a long line of monumental masons/sculptors, have been useful for scoring and working into the plaster. I can remember as a small child seeing his men engraving lettering in marble and I have always been interested in handwriting and developing my own. This way of working enables me to incorporate this as well as elements of language and poetic concepts derived from my first degree, in Modern Languages (Cambridge) which was mainly literature.
I hope that the people who see my own wall paintings/drawings will similarly share a sense of connection, and will themselves not be afraid to touch them.
MG updated 01/2017
Notes about some Recent Paintings2018-2019
Thinking Back This framed painting was started in the green surroundings of Piedmont, Italy, where Michele had a studio during September 2018. Dissatisfied with it and feeling it was incomplete, she reworked it on her return to the UK, thinking herself back into the place she had been. The “veil”, being as it were “nearer” the viewer, represents memory working at the present time.The vivd greens of the past are not far from the ‘surface’. It has been said of this work that, in part due to its strongly scored texture, “it has a real presence”.
Omphalos This piece is named after the Omphalos stone at Delphi, Greece. It symbolises the centre of the universe. The texture is rough, like stone. The viewer is invited to do the equivalent of “navel gazing” by imaginatively looking beyond the material surface, through to a deeper mystery, as suggested by the central darkness at its heart.
Heart of Hearts The clue is in the title! The viewer can make of it what they want, but the colours suggest warmth and the composition, depth and integrity.
The Blue and White Geometry of Greece. As the title suggests, this painting takes its inspiration from Greece. Although there is a clear reference to architecture – with uneven whitewashed steps leading to a cool dark doorway- it is really about something more general, evoked in the artist’s imagination and memory, of Greek Island life. (The trigger was a line from a novel). Anyone who has been there will recognise the archetypal blue and white combination, found everywhere including the Greek Flag.
Sanctuary In this piece, the viewer can take refuge by spending time contemplating the way in to the dark opening at its centre. The texture of the piece references the rough surfaces of ancient walls and is particularly redolent, to the artist, of places of retreat in Greece. If you look very closely, you will spot a Christian cross over the “door”.
Fire Screen On the face of it, this is about fire (the red hot core of the work) and a screen (the lines in front of it – as it were between the red and the viewer). It is open to interpretation but it invites the viewer to look at and contemplate the illusion of surface and depth.
KnickerbockerThis is a light-hearted piece. If the viewer looks closely, the forms of the 2 legs of an old-fashioned pair of knickers can be made out. It was not the original intention to portray this. Michèle was playing with materials and finding a composition that worked: this is what emerged!
Rothko’s AlternativeHaving recently been to see the monumental paintings by Rothko at London’s Tate Modern, Michèle was struck by how, rather than giving the viewer on optimistic gateway to another place, most of them throw you back on to yourself, with a feeling of no way out. As a response to the oppressive feel of these late works, she returned to the studio and painted this fresh “alternative”.
Homing In The square etched into the plaster in the top right quadrant of the painting is defined and focussed: It is where the eye “homes in”. It is like a return to the four walls of home.
Any Which way There are compass points on the right. It is hard to find your way, but these help.
Square into Rectangle goes Orange The title refers to the dominant geometric shapes (the square within the rectangular format of the support) and the colour that emerged as the composition settled into place. It also points to the essentially absurd exercise of trying to title any truly abstract painting.
Binary/Non-Binary This is about an increasing interest in non dualistic thinking ,(and indeed the need for it in contemporary life). It is not really possible to make out what is receding and what is coming forward in this painting: it is like a riddle to engage the viewer’s imagination; a kind of visual Koan. The original title was “In Front of Behind”.
Viva Verde! This framed piece was painted in Piedmont. Italy, during an extended stay there in September 2018. It is a celebration of the green all around.