Dr. Jane Humpries

A Particular Enigma


To us art is an adventure into an unknown world of the imagination,which is fancy free and violently opposed to common sense.  There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing.  We assert that the subject is critical.(1)

Before life on earth what was there, if anything, and why did the Universe as we know it come into existence?  These have been some of human kind’s most thought provoking questions.  Past and present theological and philosophical thinkers have come up with the idea of a ‘Super Being’ or a God or Gods who have been responsible for creation, leading to the greatest, most fantastical stories ever told to our children and our children’s children, in trying to make sense of it all.  In our more secular, scientific age, the question remains and new narratives based on state-of-the-art cosmological models such as the Big Bang Theory, tease out a continual stream of innovative research papers and creative practices to suggest new possibilities for age-old questions.

In 2013, Avi Wasser and Maya Lincoln wrote an intriguing paper called ‘Spontaneous Creation of the Universe Ex Nihilo’ which takes the cosmological scenario one step further, proposing that it is information that gives rise to every particle, every force field, and the space time continuum (2)  It is a theory that correlates well with the information age in which we find ourselves.  Yet it seems we are becoming lost in a glut on information technology that propels the world forward at a frantic pace, where there is the danger that we are becoming desensitised, if you want, ‘de-humanised’ by an over saturation of visual images and time spent tapping and staring at screens.  That our being is bereft of interior contemplation of the soulful kind, thereby leading us backwards into the future, as Walter Benjamin famously stated, into a new dark age.

It is this ‘critical subject’ – the unsolved of the Universe, coupled with the threatened erasure of the sensory pleasure of face to face human interaction and traditional forms of art making, that is the conceptual base for the artist Anne Harkin-Petersen’s vital, visual adventure into the ‘unknown world of the imagination’ – Ex Nihilo.

Harkin-Petersen’s forceful, penetrating works lure you into their mesmerising textural orbits, by colour and gesture that seem to mirror the artist’s authentic character.  As a strong but sensitive woman, she is constantly challenging herself to explore and inquire.  Indeed it is a testament to the artist’s character that she has achieved recognition as relatively young artist in terms of career, being selected for inclusion in the collection of the Mark Rothko Art Centre in Latvia, especially considering that she came to art later in life. However, her sheer joyful positivity for the act of painting is evident, both in person and within her work. “From the time I started painting I was absolutely sold on it – I loved the excitement of it`’.

This work is an ambitious project, which is still unfinished.  It will appear and reappear in various reincarnations in different space, with collaborations and responses from various artists, such as the intend installation with sound works, for as long as the artist feels compelled to make it.  This in itself seems to be a metaphor for the continual transformations and tensions in life and art making.

In staging this work at the Triskel Arts Centre, twelve large vertical panels each measuring 174 x 96cm, roughly the size of the human body, have been sequentially placed in colour formation from low tones to bright tones of blue, depicting the artists’s vision of the events before and after creation.  The tonal progressions lead the viewer through the gallery, a building whose walls are seeping with history, into a phenomenological state of becoming. Like the question posed, as to the origins of the Universe, there is no exact beginning or end to reading the work, but a sense of a continuum.  These colour cycles are interrupted by one horizontal panel, representing a supernova, the collapse of a star from which new stars are born.

The fascination that humans, animals and most matter are composed of similar elements of carbon, nitrogen,  and oxygen atoms, intrigues the artist.  On a quantum level, all matter in the universe is essentially stardust, and we are all connected with transformative  qualities.

We are a way for the Universe to know itself.  Some part of our being knows this is where we came from.  We long to return.  And we can, because the cosmos is also within us.  We’re made of star stuff.(3)

In a gloriously exuberant and gestural manner, bowing in part to her two greatest influences, Mark Rothko and J. M. Turner, the artist’s quest into the cosmos bathes the viewer’s senses in a primordial inner journey to the core of being.  Like Rothko’s spiritual exploration of colour, where he strove to provoke a quasi-religious experience, the restricted palette of blue tones, not only challenges the artist in her process, but also is a signifier of the spiritual.  Turner’s interest in getting to grips with the science of his time to help in his quest to depict atmospherics, and light also influenced the artist.  As she said, “On his deathbed Turner is reputed to have said: ‘God is Light’ and I liked that Rothko wanted his work to be hung near Turner’s in the Tate”  Considering both these artists were concerned with shimmering patches of colour and light, and that these elements are evident with Harkin-Petersen’s works , she has, as Harold Roseblum observed of her eminent predecessors, tried to dissolve all matter into a silent, mystical unity.

Rothko’s aesthetic in Kantian lines was in trying to achieve the ‘sublime’ rather than the ‘beautiful’  These works are caught between both.  The viewer can sense calm and comfort in some pieces but also the chaotic force of change and uncertainty, losing themselves to the waves of tonal blues in fathoms of oceans and celestial skies, portals into the known and unknown dimensions of time space.  As the artist said’ “we think that everything need sot be explained away now, everything needs a title, everything needs to be rarefied, everything is brought down to how much something is valued as a thing, a material value and we are in danger of losing what it is to be human.”

True to the concerns of the artist’s chosen art language, Abstract Expressionism, (quoted at the start of this essay) by disregarding formal conventions to search for significant content to reflect the individual psyches of both the make of the work and its audiences, the work reminds us that what makes us human is the emotive, that the process of art making requires and inward journey that is itself mysterious and devoid of finite explanations, intellectual or otherwise.


Dr Jane Humphries UCD

(1) This famous quote was the statement of the Abstract Expressionist artists Adolf Gottlieb and Mark Rothko in the New York Times in 1943.

(2) Published in Physics of the Dark Universe, Vol.2 Issue 4, December 2013

(3) Attributed to the 1980’s astronomer Carl Sagan quoted on his popular TV series ‘Cosmos’

(4) One of the reasons Mark Rothko gave the nine Seagram murals to the Tate in the late 1960’s was his admiration of Turner.  When seeing Turner’s work in 1966 he is reputed to have joked, ‘This an Turner, he learned a lot from me.’