Research and writing is very much at the heart of Delpha’s art practice and this page makes available some of her thinking around paintings and other texts by writers about her work.
‘I love bizarre multilayer obscure imagery in painting and like to attach my own meanings, imaginings and associations. So whilst I question my own (and others) need to label, describe and tell their intentions, I often write to discover my own intent AND this enables me to attach cultural and societal meaning that might ameliorate the lives and stories of women and carers.’ Delpha Hudson 2021
Read a review of Delpha’s work by Martin Holman 2020
‘Recent paintings are distinctive for the hive of detailed making on which the final surface rests. Process extends from the intricacy of drawing to the complexity of composition and on toward the application of colour. Executed on a canvas support, Hudson has adopted bitumen as a medium, dripping a viscous trail onto the primed surface. Even more so than oil paint, bitumen is a tricky, dirty material’ …read more of Martin Holman’s review
Some thoughts on medievalesque contemporary painting
For some years I’ve been making figurative paintings that aim to evoke the human condition, especially the continued plight and inequality of women and carers, who are often the very lowest paid in society. Current paintings are fuelled by a dark fascination for medieval imagery, patterns, and symbolism. Is it just me, or is there a revival of interest in medieval imagery in contemporary painting? Artists constantly dip their toes in the lake of historical painting and with cyclical ‘returns’ (Hal Foster) to styles and historical art movements, perhaps this renewed interest is a natural ‘return’, or are there other reasons for this medieval zeitgeist?
Perhaps the medieval period (c. 500-1500) with its frequent recurrence of plagues seems closer to us and more resonant since the Pandemic. As the ‘danse macabre’ of life and death becomes reality, we are reminded of the equalising forces of death and mortality. Perhaps it simply makes us realize that we have so much more in common with the humanity of the past, than we thought.
Medieval societies were rule bound, patriarchal, unequal. Modern society prides itself on equality, yet Pandemic statistics reminded us of how much life expectancy is based on status and income. Seeing the medieval period as a mirror, it is natural to take another look at Bakhtin’s theories of medieval carnivalesque as an ironic equalising force.
Mikail Bakhtin’s writings about medieval folk cultures inspired philosophers from the 60s onwards (significantly Julia Kristeva). He proposed that carnivals and festivals brought together the most unlikely people. In addition to encouraging interactions between high and low born, carnivals united all in celebration, rather than condemnation and judgement. In the inside-out world of the carnival anything was possible. Eccentric behaviour could be revealed without consequence and Bakhtin proposed that a bi-product of inverting the usual societal divisions allowed a kind of grotesque realism that invoked laughter; laughter as a therapeutic and liberating force that degrades power relations.
The notion of the ‘carnivalesque’ is a potent force in allowing invisible and voiceless masses representation. It is a powerful idea that over the 20th and 21st centuries has influenced figurative painting as a social and political act (look at writing by Tim Hyman). I find this a very encouraging reason to make figurative paintings that brim with figures and bizarre medievaleque imagery – and to paint women into new historical frameworks.
Originally a student of history, I moved to Cornwall for many reasons, yet perhaps it is not a coincidence that I now live cheek by jowl with medieval imagery. I live next to a church with marvellous ancient carvings, including a carving of a merman. Less well known than the famous mermaid carving of Zennor, it is nice to know that for once that history favours a story about a woman.
Half-women, half-beast symbolism is a complex representation of duality and female metamorphic potential. Every culture has a version of these female deities, often carved with beautiful curving lines with other strange animals and symbols. Medieval society and the church often appropriated such symbols for a largely illiterate populace to expound ideas about a woman’s place. As Edwin Mullin explains,
‘There can only one origin of so pervasive a desire to control woman, abuse woman, to set her up to tear her down, enclose her in a labyrinth of moral strictures with so many blind exist she will never be free – and that is fear’.
Medieval symbolism is powerful and fearful. Every illuminated text, painting or tapestry is full of arcane references that seem hard to penetrate and understand and in strict male-dominated medieval societies, female symbols, like the mermaid, were constantly in flux, inherently contradictory – powerful, evil, and frightening.
‘Old as new’ is a renewal of meaning through appropriating and re-imaging familiar imagery. This is an old idea from Heraclitus law of enantiodromia (c. 500BC). He declared not only that old is new that eventually everything becomes its opposite. As ancient symbols morph and change, meanings and representation can be manipulated to promote new ways of looking at things.
Denigrating and debasing imagery of powerful female symbols (like mermaids) can be understood to be part of a timeless propaganda campaign that confined women’s power. Feminist artists of the 60s and 70s reinvested in old symbolism in order to create new iconographies, realising that symbols are a mould in which the meanings of male dominated culture are poured. As Griselda Pollock writes
‘the very signs and meanings of art in our cultures have to be ruptured and transformed because traditional iconography works against women’s attempts to represent themselves.’
The past is a mirror to observe our own times, and as we learn from what has gone before, it is a touchstone for the present. As a lens that enables us to look at things differently, it is the very contradiction of using medieval symbolism to promote visibility and equality for women now that appeals to my sense of humour. There is easy satire in raiding a medieval treasure chest for iconography and symbolism. Medieval art is deceptively simple. This simplicity is broken by swathes of dark humour and imagination (like that used in marginalia on the edges of manuscripts).
It is idyllic to think that the vast networks of symbolism for each animal, flower, tree or object, is an insight into a different world. Yet what is truly disturbing, is how little some things have changed. Medieval imagery is resonant and ripe, ready for playful carnivalesque humour in contemporary painting, that promotes equality and aims to be an agent of social change.
Delpha Hudson, January 2022
Painting notes for ‘The sixth sense of understanding’
Whilst I don’t often so directly reference other works of art (though like all painters appropriate constantly) I was drawn to the imagery, colours, and patterns in the most beautiful of all Tapestry Cycles La dame a Licorne a series of 15th century Flemish works in the style of mille-fleurs.
Interested in the symbolism of animals and plants and interpreting them, five of the tapestries are understood to depict the senses whilst the one I reference – the sixth tapestry’s meaning is more obscure. It bears the words ‘a mon seul desir’ – ‘to my desire’, yet one of the interpretations I like best is that it is not about selfishness but represents the sixth sense – understanding. Since my paintings address care and empathy in order renegotiate status for such acts (often by women), re-appropriating some of the symbolism seems a perfect way to re-represent women’s lived experiences.
I had been painting curtains, using the canvas as woven cloth to reference women’s work and proposing affirmative change in domestic space. Figures invading household patterns, replacing the idea of merely looking (witness) with Ettinger’s empathetic notion of ‘with-ness’. We are all in the warp and weave of everyday life but asking questions about what we value.
Zooming in on central tent of the ‘a mon seul desir’ tapestry, the flaps of the tent in my painting become curtains. The central figure is a strange composite medieval-contemporary figure, who looks askance at the tree as she plucks a pomegranate. Pomegranates represent fertility, but also a pause in fertility—perhaps in myth and in life. She has a red dress with a panel featuring female figures in childbirth, Medusa and a baby roughly painted in her muff(!)
On the curtains and the floating sphere on which she stands, mythical and everyday creatures mix with pattern and become the pattern. It was a departure for me to include animals in painting. They became mythical creatures, metamorphosing half-women half beast composites. Aiming to humorously represent domestic lives of mothers and carers, I also wanted to create new transformative symbolism. I threw everything into the patterns – monsters, unicorns, rabbits, dancing bears, she-wolves, lions, bat women (Jorugama), a qualupalik (an Icelandic monster created to scare children away from the ice) stryx, babies riding goats, and children in unicorn T. shirts clutching cuddly toys.
The extreme eclectic mix becomes almost a carnivalesque experience, an alternate reality certainly, and an alternative space. Bakhtin’s notion that the carnival creates an alternative social space characterised by freedom, equality and abundance is a useful one. During medieval carnivals rank was abolished and everyone was equal. People were reborn into different human relations. Useful ideas for ways in which we might transform and metamorphose representations of domestic life, women and carers.
Figures, animals and hybrid creatures find their way through our subconscious and can confront contemporary concerns. Ancient myths, symbols and patterns speak to us in the present and and offer visions of complex yet changeable realities. Delpha Hudson, December 2021
This is the first of a series of new large paintings on canvas that feature tapestry-like curtains as the main stage on which narratives play out. For mental health reasons, I have for many years often visualised cloth or curtains to cover ‘subjects’ of anxiety. They help me to prevent hamster wheels in my head. Like shutting a book on an unpleasant chapter, you know it may open up again but it gives temporary respite. The process has had limited success as things always leak through,
yet it has helped to cloak some things until I could deal with them.
The title is a quote from Aechylus’ play ‘Clytemestra, and aims to mock societal condemnation of women that aggrevates their frequent feelings of guilt. Something that mothers and women so often experience. The painting’s medievalesque figure-stories explore women caught between societal judgement and an inherent guilt that tells them they must be a fault. Visually exploring past and present reveals devious cultural psychologies that trap women in cycles of guilt and anxiety and
suggest that we share and laugh at our common condition in the hope that we can change society and ourselves.
Consider the lilies… 150x180cm, mixed media canvas, 2021
I love the idea of a process that creates multiple paintings within a painting. The title is taken from a biblical quote that infers that we need not work or toil as all will be provided. This painting laughs at the implication as in patriarchal societies often it is women who do all the work. It also riffs on a famous lily pattern design textile and classical Italian painting with the figure who pulls back the curtain.
The lily pattern is eaten away and partly destroyed in replication and an additional cast of characters hide in its domestic undergrowth. They are all care-givers and home-workers. The loosely dripped black bitumen paint provides dark treacly textures that obscure and destroy the pattern further. The cloth, the linen and the material (the subject and object) of painting create an interplay between our material senses and our experiences. Patterning becomes a language to be subtly invaded and changed, as dark symbol for adaptation.
Exploring power relations and hierarchies, the title denies its historical and religious references, yet patriarchy is there in the central trinity of figures juxaposed with a coat of arms of 5 ‘diapers’, the diamond patterns that led to the synonymous American ‘diapers’ because of the diamond pattern cloth. We call them nappies in the UK.
Bizarre domestic settings situate women and mothers in new imaginary realms that
challenge domestic legacies of inequality, guilt and misrepresentation that damage women’s
Dripping and layering canvases creates dynamic networks from which figures weave narratives that aim to humorously engage our empathy and propose that we initiate new conversations about who and what we value.
Paintings create rich tapestries of dark yet colourful scenes that aim to re-shape our thinking about equality and visibility. Narrative is a central function of language and to learn to speak is to tell a story – yet that story has primarily been written or illustrated by men. Creating differentiated narratives that layer and connect time, people and equality, takes us on a journey and that ‘once upon a time’ tells us that things change. As we exist in the middle of our stories, we all need to be reminded that we can make the ending different.
The title is inspired by ‘The Double X Economy’ by Linda Scott.
Painted during lockdown, I had sketched out ideas for this painting nearly a year before. I was thinking about overcrowding and the political push for more housing; the idea of ‘space as the final frontier’ – and often the tipping point for poverty for many as housing is a huge issue – and a very pressing local issue here in Cornwall.
Strange now, to finally complete the painting as we create space between us because of COVID. The thought of humanity crushing together, it seems, will be increasing an anachronism even in cities, and many countries around the world. Most of us have the luxury of some space. But if we do not? What are the psychological pressures on people who don’t have enough living space and who cannot get away from others? (even their families). You might recognise a nod to Gin Alley, Goya’s flying figures, the star trek enterprise, colourful skyscrapers and surreal buildings with ‘eye’ graffiti (from a photos of a real place). This is a busy, gaudy palette of colour used to communicate the joy and distress of humanity – with dreams of escape.
More recent painting notes and writing can now be found on my news blog.
Have a look at previous writing below:
Have a look at paintings available for sale
Take a look at more writing on Delpha’s archive