DARKNESS into LIGHT Michèle Griffiths at Chichester Cathedral by Frances Spalding June 2021

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

REVIEW of The Stour Gallery Exhibition Spring 2016 for Galleries Magazine by Corinna Lotz

Michèle Griffiths’ work (The Stour Gallery) has a deceptive simplicity. A complex process of laying down plaster on wooden panels allows her to search for and exploit accidents, as cracks and fissures appear. Whilst plaster is an opaque substance, its chalky whiteness acquires inner light and spatiality in “Diana” and “Finding Space”. Scoring, scratching and scarring endows them with a worn and aged feeling, full of hidden meanings. Shadows float in and out, recalling sails, doors and openings. There is a liminal quality in the full visual and symbolic meaning of that word. Inspired by ancient graffiti incised by sailors on church walls in Normandy, these marks signify the scuffs and scars of remembering and forgetting as they become metaphors for the passage of time.

REVIEW of The Stour Gallery Exhibition 2012

In her latest exhibition at the Stour Gallery Michèle Griffiths shows herself to be a painter with a steadily developing abstract language of some range and richness. When she first started showing, a decade or so back, the work took as its starting point seascape subjects that derived from sailing holidays in the Greek Islands – meditative pieces, intense in colour, that had Whistler’s Nocturnes as a powerful influence. Then, two or three years back, she embarked on her ‘Wall Fragments’ series, based on studies of the whitewashed walls of Greek houses, radically different pieces with their heavily scratched and scored surfaces of delicately tinted Plaster of Paris that took on the quality of secular icons. To these she has now added a third group, works that move away completely from the world of appearances and start trying to give expression to purely abstract visual sensation. A Little Swaying for example, seems to merge into a world of pure light and subtle movement – and unmistakable spiritual calm

Nicholas Usherwood

Art Critic and Editor of Galleries Magazine[x_line] Extract from Editorial in Galleries Magazine 2009:

“Michèle Griffiths (…)looks back to an earlier historical moment, that of Whistler’s Nocturnes to confirm her artistic intuitions. A keen sailor, these richly coloured ,translucent paintings are concerned with light, weather and mood, the particular experience sailing towards sunset in the Aegean, the final outcome a series of meditations on surface and depth, illusion and reality, always intensely painterly in their touch and mark”

[x_line] Full Review by Nicholas Usherwood for The Stour Gallery Summer 2012:

“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star” Friedrich Nietzsche

Often, as she paints, Michele Griffiths has noticed herself transferring weight from one leg to the other, in the same way that she does to keep her balance in a boat gently rocking on the sea. Quite apart from hinting strongly at the significant role that the sea – time once spent by it and, latterly on it, sailing in the Greek islands – has come to play in the evolution of her mature abstract painting style, this acute observation also provides us with an important, and very relevant, insight into the intensely physical process that lies beneath the deceptively serene and meditative outward appearance of her paintings.

This, it should be said immediately, is never the kind of painterly and gestural physicality that underpins one particular strand of 20th Century art, the extrovert Abstract Expressionism exemplified in recent years by painters like John Hoyland and Bert Irvin, but something altogether quieter and more inward, in which surfaces of paint are built up layer upon layer, then repeatedly erased or over-painted, thinned or thickened in what she likes to term “an often prolonged meditative dialogue with the canvas.” Increasingly, in the most recent work in this show, this has also involved the scoring and scratching of lines into the already well-worked surface with brush-ends, palette-knives and even, now, scalpels, the latter to get the effect of sharp gleams of light. It is all part of another, equally rich tradition that traces its origin back, in part at least, to Whistler, the sight of whose ‘Nocturnes’ at Tate Britain in 2005, was an important moment for her in the development of her mature style.

That moment led, initially, to the ‘Prana’ series of paintings that formed the core of some of her earlier shows, the ‘seascape’ paintings that have derived their inspiration from those sailing holidays in the Greek Islands and still provide, even today, a major strand within her work. As I observed then though, with Whistler very much in mind and the wonderful Prunella Clough as one of her painting tutors at Wimbledon, these were never going to be straight topographical records or reminders of happy holidays. For ‘prana’ is a life-giving force in the yoga she has practised for many years and, as the titles of two outstanding recent examples in this current show suggest, ‘Prana 7’ and “Prana 3’, these are works which take on, unmistakably, the sense of being meditations on surface and depth, illusion and reality, their painterly touch and mark synonymous with their mood of contemplative stillness.

Then, in the ‘ Wall Fragments’ series that she began to develop alongside these, some 2/3 years back, Michele began taking her working methods a further radical step forward, abandoning any ostensible landscape subject matter for paintings which had, as their starting point, the whitewashed walls of Greek houses. Radically new techniques now seemed called for so that, instead of building in layers of paint, she built up thick coatings of Plaster of Paris which were then heavily scratched and scored, rubbed back and delicately tinted with coloured chalks mixed into either the paint or plaster. What is remarkable about them however is the way that, while containing moving reference to the modest places and human histories that inspired them she, somehow, also completely transcends them. They have, too, been greatly influenced by her reading of Rowan Williams’ writings, in particular on the ancient religious icons to be found in small Greek churches, and above all the ways in which an image can profoundly affect the person looking at it. Thus beautiful recent examples of this series, like ‘Poros Wall Fragment I’ and ‘Wall Fragment with GLP’, begin to take on the quality of secular icons, embodying in the very substance of their making something of the same meditative spirit as their religious models in their gift of seemingly looking at you and thereby creating an atmosphere of unmistakable mental calm.

More recently still a third group of themes seem to me to be emerging which go well beyond either of these two earlier groupings in their now, almost complete, abandonment of any outer point of departure in the concrete world of appearances, whether the sea or whitewashed wall surfaces, and starts trying to give visual expression to more purely abstract physical sensations. In such key works as ‘A Little Swaying’, ‘Torso’ and ‘Louise Bourgeois was here’ – the titles are always ambiguous, suggestive only perhaps of her state of mind when starting to make them, what one reads into them being an entirely subjective matter – the essential element in their making being, simply, light. Along with one of her particular artistic heroes, the American painter Agnes Martin, she feels them to be about “light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form” and going into “A world without objects, without interruption or obstacle. It is to accept the necessity of the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at an ocean.” It is hard to disagree, for these newest paintings, painted on gleaming white gesso panels, the scalpel marks into the often darker paint surface, revealing its stark white surface beneath, contain a quietly serene belief that in this world of visual sensation we inhabit lie the beginnings of a spiritual calm.

Nicholas Usherwood Features Editor, Galleries Magazine August 2012

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

 

REVIEW of The Stour Gallery Exhibition Spring 2016 for Galleries Magazine by Corinna Lotz

Michèle Griffiths’ work (The Stour Gallery) has a deceptive simplicity. A complex process of laying down plaster on wooden panels allows her to search for and exploit accidents, as cracks and fissures appear. Whilst plaster is an opaque substance, its chalky whiteness acquires inner light and spatiality in “Diana” and “Finding Space”. Scoring, scratching and scarring endows them with a worn and aged feeling, full of hidden meanings. Shadows float in and out, recalling sails, doors and openings. There is a liminal quality in the full visual and symbolic meaning of that word. Inspired by ancient graffiti incised by sailors on church walls in Normandy, these marks signify the scuffs and scars of remembering and forgetting as they become metaphors for the passage of time.

REVIEW of The Stour Gallery Exhibition 2012

In her latest exhibition at the Stour Gallery Michèle Griffiths shows herself to be a painter with a steadily developing abstract language of some range and richness. When she first started showing, a decade or so back, the work took as its starting point seascape subjects that derived from sailing holidays in the Greek Islands – meditative pieces, intense in colour, that had Whistler’s Nocturnes as a powerful influence. Then, two or three years back, she embarked on her ‘Wall Fragments’ series, based on studies of the whitewashed walls of Greek houses, radically different pieces with their heavily scratched and scored surfaces of delicately tinted Plaster of Paris that took on the quality of secular icons. To these she has now added a third group, works that move away completely from the world of appearances and start trying to give expression to purely abstract visual sensation. A Little Swaying for example, seems to merge into a world of pure light and subtle movement – and unmistakable spiritual calm

Nicholas Usherwood

Art Critic and Editor of Galleries Magazine[x_line] Extract from Editorial in Galleries Magazine 2009:

“Michèle Griffiths (…)looks back to an earlier historical moment, that of Whistler’s Nocturnes to confirm her artistic intuitions. A keen sailor, these richly coloured ,translucent paintings are concerned with light, weather and mood, the particular experience sailing towards sunset in the Aegean, the final outcome a series of meditations on surface and depth, illusion and reality, always intensely painterly in their touch and mark”

[x_line] Full Review by Nicholas Usherwood for The Stour Gallery Summer 2012:

“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star” Friedrich Nietzsche

Often, as she paints, Michele Griffiths has noticed herself transferring weight from one leg to the other, in the same way that she does to keep her balance in a boat gently rocking on the sea. Quite apart from hinting strongly at the significant role that the sea – time once spent by it and, latterly on it, sailing in the Greek islands – has come to play in the evolution of her mature abstract painting style, this acute observation also provides us with an important, and very relevant, insight into the intensely physical process that lies beneath the deceptively serene and meditative outward appearance of her paintings.

This, it should be said immediately, is never the kind of painterly and gestural physicality that underpins one particular strand of 20th Century art, the extrovert Abstract Expressionism exemplified in recent years by painters like John Hoyland and Bert Irvin, but something altogether quieter and more inward, in which surfaces of paint are built up layer upon layer, then repeatedly erased or over-painted, thinned or thickened in what she likes to term “an often prolonged meditative dialogue with the canvas.” Increasingly, in the most recent work in this show, this has also involved the scoring and scratching of lines into the already well-worked surface with brush-ends, palette-knives and even, now, scalpels, the latter to get the effect of sharp gleams of light. It is all part of another, equally rich tradition that traces its origin back, in part at least, to Whistler, the sight of whose ‘Nocturnes’ at Tate Britain in 2005, was an important moment for her in the development of her mature style.

That moment led, initially, to the ‘Prana’ series of paintings that formed the core of some of her earlier shows, the ‘seascape’ paintings that have derived their inspiration from those sailing holidays in the Greek Islands and still provide, even today, a major strand within her work. As I observed then though, with Whistler very much in mind and the wonderful Prunella Clough as one of her painting tutors at Wimbledon, these were never going to be straight topographical records or reminders of happy holidays. For ‘prana’ is a life-giving force in the yoga she has practised for many years and, as the titles of two outstanding recent examples in this current show suggest, ‘Prana 7’ and “Prana 3’, these are works which take on, unmistakably, the sense of being meditations on surface and depth, illusion and reality, their painterly touch and mark synonymous with their mood of contemplative stillness.

Then, in the ‘ Wall Fragments’ series that she began to develop alongside these, some 2/3 years back, Michele began taking her working methods a further radical step forward, abandoning any ostensible landscape subject matter for paintings which had, as their starting point, the whitewashed walls of Greek houses. Radically new techniques now seemed called for so that, instead of building in layers of paint, she built up thick coatings of Plaster of Paris which were then heavily scratched and scored, rubbed back and delicately tinted with coloured chalks mixed into either the paint or plaster. What is remarkable about them however is the way that, while containing moving reference to the modest places and human histories that inspired them she, somehow, also completely transcends them. They have, too, been greatly influenced by her reading of Rowan Williams’ writings, in particular on the ancient religious icons to be found in small Greek churches, and above all the ways in which an image can profoundly affect the person looking at it. Thus beautiful recent examples of this series, like ‘Poros Wall Fragment I’ and ‘Wall Fragment with GLP’, begin to take on the quality of secular icons, embodying in the very substance of their making something of the same meditative spirit as their religious models in their gift of seemingly looking at you and thereby creating an atmosphere of unmistakable mental calm.

More recently still a third group of themes seem to me to be emerging which go well beyond either of these two earlier groupings in their now, almost complete, abandonment of any outer point of departure in the concrete world of appearances, whether the sea or whitewashed wall surfaces, and starts trying to give visual expression to more purely abstract physical sensations. In such key works as ‘A Little Swaying’, ‘Torso’ and ‘Louise Bourgeois was here’ – the titles are always ambiguous, suggestive only perhaps of her state of mind when starting to make them, what one reads into them being an entirely subjective matter – the essential element in their making being, simply, light. Along with one of her particular artistic heroes, the American painter Agnes Martin, she feels them to be about “light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form” and going into “A world without objects, without interruption or obstacle. It is to accept the necessity of the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at an ocean.” It is hard to disagree, for these newest paintings, painted on gleaming white gesso panels, the scalpel marks into the often darker paint surface, revealing its stark white surface beneath, contain a quietly serene belief that in this world of visual sensation we inhabit lie the beginnings of a spiritual calm.

Nicholas Usherwood Features Editor, Galleries Magazine August 2012