Mining the filament of life between memory and death

A gatekeeper opening the door to memories and ghosts, such is the role David Storey has ascribed to himself. But to whom do these apparitions belong, whose world is it that we are invited to look in on? For Storey, the source is both his own, personal subconscious and a collective firmament he has tuned into via the photographic residue we have left scattered around. As he says, his work is about "people glimpsed... people half remembered", but not people remembered as active members of our individual past, rather of all our pasts. This is why he presents us with characters that are both "haunted and haunting".

If Storey's world appears perplexing, daunting even to fathom, such a feeling is not far from the artist's own starting point. "For me", he says, "it's like a recurring dream from my childhood: the world seen through an anxious child's eyes." While he remembers his childhood as a happy one, Storey points to an enigmatic experience as having a lasting effect on the way he approaches his art, an experience that goes back to almost the earliest days of coherent memory. As he explains, "When I was six or seven years old, I was off school ill one day and my mother found an old jigsaw that she gave me to make. The problem was, the box didn't have a picture to follow. Anyway, I spent all day assembling the puzzle, which turned out to be a really haunting image: a painting of a bedroom shown in semi- darkness—deep maroon bedcovers, rich wall tapestries in bottle green and dark blue, with gold trim—and inside the bed a gaunt woman, either asleep or dead."

For the young artist, it was an image that was both tranquil and disturbing and one which he realizes he now tries to capture the essence of in all his paintings. To add to the feeling of what might be equated to the calm before the storm, Storey openly admits that the world in which he immerses us is laced with inherent danger. The artist refers to the South American Sanema tribe who "believe in a dream world inhabited by the spirits of everything around them, the trees, the animals, the rocks and the water." Within this living, spirit world, Storey explains, is an evil spirit that walks amongst the tribe, one "who is responsible for all the bad things that happen in their world". Despite living far from the Sanema's home in the jungles of Venezuela, Storey says that a similar character – "a bogeyman" – haunts his own dreams, a figure that can be said to lurk "behind the curtains" of his paintings.

Given the dark and deep nature of Storey's artistic practice, it might be expected that the painting process would be psychologically fraught. He says, though, that this is not the case. Rather, "it is therapeutic to explore this very personal material. I become haunted by the image I'm working with and it's tremendously satisfying and cathartic when I manage to get the milky idea from the back of my mind onto the canvas." Again here, Storey is referring back to the importance of emergence and the metamorphosis of a memory or idea into paint. Looking from the opposite direction, we might say that his work is about the transubstantiation of canvas and paint into the embodiment of his subconscious.

What is also important to remember is that Storey's objective is not fixed, he is not trying to depict something physically certain, nor to present us with precise individuals. His characters do not have a proper autonomy of their own, nor a singular sense of identity, they are the "faces in various stages of definition that populate waking dreams and nightmares." When Storey uses found images to trigger his imagination to 'remember' such faces he is not trying to accurately capture the people shown in his sources. He is looking instead to realize something more diffuse. A good example would be 'The Conspirators', a painting that derives its composition from a found image, but significantly alters the mood. When Storey looks, then, for the roots of his preoccupation with haunting imagery it is apt that he finds them in blood and environment, rather than any physical experiences or episodes: "My brother is a printmaker who, independently of my own work, produces quite macabre images, so I guess 'darkness' is part of the Storey DNA. We come from West Cumbria, which is a bleak coastal plain, welded onto the side of the Lake District. The municipal buildings are built of sand stone that turns black when it rains... and it rains an awful lot there!"

Clearly, Storey's work is also about much more than darkness. Reminding us of the thin line that separates us from what has faded away—the here today, gone tomorrow fragility of life—his paintings also allude to the richness we can experience in any single moment: the noise or else hushed silence of a classroom, the vibrancy of a brilliant sunset, the weight of a relationship resting on a pin head. In looking backwards, the artist says that he is particularly drawn to the period from 1935 to 1945, when his parents were children. "For me", Storey says, "this seems a fertile and unique moment in time, full of fear, displacement and drama." The period he identifies, of course, is an important time both for his own origins and for the whole sweep of human history and society in which he is wrapped up. It is a period of birth, as well as destruction, and one that reminds us experience is visceral.

Sharing in their fragility, the characters Storey depicts are aware they stand on the edge, but they are aware too that we who look on them are also fragile. The blurred faces gaze out as if to ask if we who exist now have forgotten those who went before and if we believe our experiences today are really unique; the couples trapped in tension stand as a mirror to all relationships, while the most haunting characters come as associates of Ebenezer's ghosts, ready to awaken us to who we truly are.

Richard Unwin
©2014 The Art Collective


'Couple on a Hill'
by David Storey
oil on canvas

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Empty Skies series