John Slavin Art

Portfolio: 1a. South Skye Landscapes

The Heights of Darkness


'John Slavin -- Paintings from the Isle of Skye'


Original oil paintings from the Isle of Skye, 1998-2013.


Artist’s Statement:

'The Heights of Darkness'


Ask a child what his favourite colour is and the response will perhaps be ‘yellow’, because it is the highest chroma.  We, as part of the choice making illusion found in nature, emphasise our rejection, indeed demonization, of the dark.  In the darkness lurk our monsters; loneliness, discomfort, disorientation.  It is not good for tourism to portray Scotland’s highlands or islands, in this particular case South Skye, in an inclement aspect. However, my response to South Skye where I lived at tinker level in a succession of weather-torn caravans for fifteen years is to exult in the rain, the North Atlantic storms in excess of 100mph, the short days of winter, where the sun close to the horizon is lost in cloud and my candle must be lit at noon.

Looking back at Scottish landscape -- Mackintosh Patrick, Horatio McCulloch, John Knox --  have influenced me, to the exclusion of Jo-lo Morrison, Pam Carter and William McTaggart.  I feel there is a certain contemporary facility in the tube colours of popular painters which is appealing directly to our tendency to choose inauthentic renditions, to reject the dark twin of what we like.

I realise there are sunsets and summers and red deer-grass in autumn, blue white snow days in winter.  And my practice incorporates this but I see through fifteen years, into dark heights and a vast ocean presence beyond. The North Atlantic is not the Mediterranean.  I have not driven from a city to photograph for one pleasant afternoon.  Rather I have been strapped to a mast.

Yet it is not the eye of the storm through which I seek vision.  It is through the storm to the tranquillity in that eye that the ocean, sky and mountain lead.  This is the yin essence, the shakti, mother earth, Gaia our goddess.  In respect of her presence I, a poor partaker in the fantastic visions available on this fjord bitten, beautiful island, paint. And my landscapes are made from long years of studying the rock, beneath the high tide or on the high mountainside.  As Ruskin said of stones:  ‘There are no natural objects out of which more can be learned than out of stones.  They seem to have been created especially to reward a patient observer, for in a stone when it is examined, will be found a mountain in miniature.  Nature can compress as many changes of form and structure, on a small scale, as she needs for mountains on a large one.’

My landscapes of South Skye are made from studying the mists which move like tides and cover the noses and breasts of the wild mountains.  Despite the eclipse of the earth by mist, the excessively high wind speeds, the sometime presence in one day of both hailstones and midges; I could find no better occupation than to free my soul with practice so that it might travel like those mists and hailstones, across an extreme beauty, across a wilderness free of industry and industrial agriculture.  And that my brush might be a conduit for the most expressive gestures of nature, be they wild, tranquil at dawn or dusk.  The phenomenal lights and darknesses of South Skye are not permutations of a series.  Each movement in the dance is original and Skye is close to the origin.

In accordance with the Tao I have kept to the low glen where possible, or the microcosm of the shore, crossing the heights always by the lowest path of least resistance as would the tide were it to continue to rise.  These are not the paintings of a mountaineer or a romantic.  I am a walker and a peat cutter.  My observations when I stravaig or cut peat, are unfiltered by technology, other than brush and canvas.  I adore certain places, in a most pagan manner, and am fully aware of the potency of place -- the omphalos – the deep glen or the high peak, the sacred stone and the fabled mountain which is the centre of the earth.

I have tried to avoid the painful light of Ferdinand Hodler’s beautiful alpine landscapes, or the romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich’s mountain top.  I feel that the Norwegian Munch would have been very much at home where I lived and painted.  I tried not to turn nature into a dream with anthropocentric tendencies, rather to focus on the awareness of the absence of man’s work and presence.  No rowing boat, no white cottage.  A consciousness of a world without man, where there is no artificial sun to prolong the winter day, no fear of a darkness which is the medium in which the ancient soul, from preconception to after death, has always dreamt.

This metempsychosis in the darkness is the source of the most beautiful visions.  A certain holistic and harmonious being pervades the deepest darkness.

I must embrace the storm and the darkness and the desert place, as I would my mother, in confidence of eternal peace.  I feel I must elevate the image of the dark wilderness where primal presence is facilitated by man’s absence.  I personally know the heights of darkness.

These portraits of mountains express the character and the mood of a being.  I feel that recently in Scottish landscape a facet of this being which I love has been neglected by contemporary artists in favour of inauthentic colour sense.  But my paintings are, I hope, in harmony with nature and not a reaction to a current trend in painting.

It is with the greatest gratitude that I express my love for the landscape of South Skye, to be able to walk, to wake and dream and work in these landscapes affirms the inner resolve of the artist, and calls on the picture maker to survive and produce in the face of daunting miracle.