Keith Payne’s Early Marks

The Gallery in the Burren College of Art in Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, recently opened an extraordinary exhibition by Keith Payne – Early Marks is a summation of Keith’s own insights into the beginnings of art and the possible source of a prehistoric worldwide visual language.

Keith Payne (left) and friend

We worked closely with Keith on our Rock Art Exhibition – long-term readers will remember his enormous and colourful depiction of the rock art at Derreennaclogh which lent so much visual impact to the exhibition and it’s included in this show as well. In addition we have seen individual pieces from this collection in Schull’s Blue House Gallery shows so we knew his interest in early art of all kinds. But individual paintings and sculptures, impressive as they are, are one thing – an integrated vision is something entirely different.

Keith’s Derreennaclogh painting is on the right – but what are those antlers all about? You’ll have to check that out for yourselves

And that is what we get at the Burren show – Keith’s long preoccupation with archaeology, anthropology and early art come together in a stunning sequence of artworks that lead the viewer not just through time and space (he provides a ‘Genographic map of the Human Emergence’ that shows the location of the inspiration for each piece) but also into that part of the human psyche that has always striven to communicate through art.

Robert contemplates the Venus of Laussel (above) and filiform (scratched or incised designs) occur throughout the world

We don’t know, of course, what some of these Early Marks meant. On one canvas Keith shows how a piece of ochre from Blombos Cave in South Africa (below) was engraved with diagonal scratch marks over 75,000 years ago. Our brains leap to provide an interpretation of such marks – to the modern mind, they must mean something – a tally, perhaps, or a primitive alphabet. We will probably never know exactly, but what we can deduce from such early markings and from all of the art that Keith shows us is that symbolic intent was embedded in the human cultural experience from the earliest times.

Faithful as they are to their models – Keith depicts cave paintings, rock scribings, Irish rock art, masks, a Venus figure, finger flutings – these are not copies of the originals, but come also from Keith’s deep knowledge of prehistoric and primitive art and from his own aesthetic imagination.

Finger fluting – when fingers are used to make marks on soft clay deposits on cave walls. Torchlight moving across the wall would have given life and movement to the images

In a pair of paintings with almost 3D tactility he shows how two handaxes represent a startling continuity of technology – one comes from Olduvai Gorge and dates from one and half million years. The other comes from England and dates to about 400,000 years. But identical handaxes have been found in sites that date to 40,000 years. A useful tool and a reliable technology persisted over time and produced these beautiful objects that truly united form and function.

For Keith, early marks spring from the visionary state which was part of the everyday ethos of early humans. His exhibition notes talk about ‘animism’ – a belief that that all things animate and inanimate have an intention of their own where there is no boundary between the physical world and the spiritual or ‘Other’ world.

Physical and cultural evolution are underlying themes in the exhibition

Those of us privileged to be at the opening were struck, individually and collectively, by the continuity of the human imagination over time. Curiously, the works seem to bring us together as a species, reminding us of common threads woven through our collective consciousness over the millennia.

Title: When the Great Door Opens – Turn Left

Louise Janvier, an artist, art historian and lecturer, who opened the exhibition summed it up this way in her erudite remarks: The work has literally been brought out of the darkness and into the light to reveal the ‘Animism’ of thought and with antiquarian curiosity stir the imagination to further contemplate on the nature of being. . . We can receive the offering and experience the closeness of the ancient world then absorb it as a visionary gift.

I will leave you with a final example of this ‘visionary gift.’ In this piece, from the perspective of a hunter hiding in an enormous cavern Keith views a herd of Woolly Mammoth passing by the cave entrance. The mammoths are rendered in true cave-painting style, leading the viewer into all kinds of rumination about the nature of these early depictions.

A trip to the Burren is a great experience at any time – make it before September 7th and catch this wonderful exhibition!