The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary. The same animal may well look at other species the same way. He does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognized as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.
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About this series
Why animals, why now?
When I began this series of large paintings of animals I had relocated to a remote part of Andalusia and the instinct that resulted in both the move there from Barcelona and subsequently to begin these paintings stemmed from the same source.
I was raised in a rural part of England that was both remote geographically and lagged temporally behind the rest of the country. Since that time I had lived in various cities in several countries and the sense of exile I carried was not only one of displacement but also that of a separation from the genius loci, from the ebb and flow of the rivers and seasons, from the wildlife and woodland and from the sensible and tangible synthesis of a life lived as a part of a place - and it of me. It was the sensation of an exile from a particular unity.
'What drives the human quest to understand the world is a desire to apprehend our relationship to the world as being continuous - to apprehend humans and nature an being part of the same intelligible whole'
Thus there had, by a gradual process of habituation to a purely man-made habitat (is there now any other?), been a fading of any sense of a chthonic relation between myself and where and how I lived. This disjuncture was dimly apprehended at first yet became insistent and increased over the years.
This resulted in what is, I think, a very commonly held, typical and ordinary sense of estrangement in contemporary urban and western society from the 'natural' world. It is, and has been described for some time as, the modern condition of alienation. But it was not always thus, not for me, nor for anyone else. What has been lost?
The passage from nature to culture constitutes an expulsion of humankind from the sensible world - or at least, this is how the talking animals that we are, perceive our conditions sometimes. As a result, we live in a symbolic order (language) in an exile.
As a child I spent countless hours walking and kayaking, exploring and getting lost in the landscape of Norfolk which constituted the totality of my world. A family friend at this time was the late Andrew Lees (a prominent conservationist, scientist and former director of campaigns with Friends of the Earth). On occasion we would visit hidden areas of the Broads with him during the period of 'The Battle for the Broads' and his enthusiasm, knowledge and dedication to the survival of this unique landscape inculcated what I now understand to be an intrinsic aspect of my world view: which is precisely that habitat forms habit: We are creatures of the environments we inhabit and we have become wholly conditioned by those that we have built for ourselves, no longer rooted or connected to the world as we once were. The habitat we have constructed from the raw materials of nature is a purely man-made one and meant only for us. It is the built-environment. The wild, nature, what is left, is mere decoration, which we have come to regard as a leisure facility to be managed and enjoyed at weekends.
The 19th Century, in Western Europe and North America, saw the beginning of a process, today being completed by 20th century corporate capitalism, by which every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature was broken. Before this rupture, animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded man.
The urge to tame and control nature, driven by our endemic fear of a potentially lethal, certainly indifferent and wild natural world, leads us inexorably to the material destruction of it, the very thing that sustains us. The fear of the wild drives us to assume both an attitude of flight from it; to tame it by settlement, cultivation and domestication, and with a combative response to it - comparable to a fight response to this innate fear - to subjugate the wilderness thereby to hold complete dominion over it, as if it were our 'manifest destiny' to do so. Such are the drives behind the processes of 'civilization'. Our very rationality has lead us into a quite irrational situation and we are perhaps not the rational, thinking beast we assume ourselves to be, we are both fighting and fleeing nature at the same time.
‘Despite all the ink spilled by the Judeo-Christian tradition to conceal it, no situation seems more tragic, more offensive to heart and mind, than that of humanity coexisting and sharing the joys of a planet with other living species yet unable to communicate with them… Western thought, until now, has always sought to divide. By contrast the fundamental aim of the Lévi-Straussian project is to reunite these opposites - to see as one, as he puts it, what others have divided'v
This reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical and well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units.
In the accompanying ideology, animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe has lost all significance. They are the object of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know of them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are.
By fighting and fleeing the wild and by dividing and conquering nature we have lost contact with our origins as animals, distanced ourselves from the ground on which we stand, emptied a once full space and silenced those that would speak to us.
The cultural and socio-political constructs of western civilization have achieved nothing to dispel the void and we remain, as we have always been, in the position of contemplating the abyss, seeking through science to find ever more foundational particles the better to give structure to and explain away chaos, the wild.
When Lucretius considers the problem of origins…he suggests that the gods might merely be a mental error, the product of a rudimentary misunderstanding. Nothing, he declares, 'can ever be created by a divine power out of nothing, and things come into being without the aid of gods
But we continue to try to fill the void, attempt to placate and to tame our fears. What drives us to do so is anxiety about our fundamentally inchoate lack of control. All culture is but an elaboration and sophisticated expression of this anxiety and its source is as it has always been: the wild. For most of human history we delegated and externalized the responsibility for the mystery of origins and creation. This is solely and specifically a human problem, it is the human condition. Despite the epoch that we now inhabit appearing radically different from all that preceded it, our preoccupations remain the same.
At almost the exact moment at the end of the 19th century the modern concepts of the Übermensch and of the mythical self-made man emerge, H.G. Wells ‘The War of the Worlds’ is published and motorcar is invented.
At this extraordinary Lucretian moment Man arrives at the belief that he is a self-creating, wholly autonomous being, harnesses the powers of combustion (severing his long association with the horse and the ox) to become truly auto-mobile, man-machine, and projects from his imagination the modern myth of extra-terrestrial beings. We have yet to decide whether these aliens are monsters, or indeed reflections of ourselves - emerging from extramission or arriving through intromission.
The founding myths of civilization concern heroes who exterminate monsters, like Oedipus outwitting the Sphinx or St George slaying the dragon. The Monster represents our lowly animal nature, or a state of existence that is formless, disorganized, unworthy: its death makes possible the genesis of a true humanity
The modern, extra-terrestrial chimera/hybrids, drawn forth from the void, relates to and reiterates the fact that, although all thought is anthropomorphic, our animal nature is just as present as ever and by inventing them we tacitly acknowledge that we are still, in some ways, wild. This scares us and we attempt to externalize the animal nature within and to place the monstrous far away but;
The cultural marginalization of animals is, of course, a more complex process than their physical marginalization. The animals of the mind cannot be so easily dispersed.
So it is not so much that 'god is dead' but that man has now become the Creator, has taken up the reigns of creation and yet we are trapped in a paradox of our own making. The paradox is that within the beginnings of civilization and of culture lie the roots of our divorce from the world and thus our subsequent alienation; as our societies become ever more sophisticated, ever more rapid in their development and ability to communicate and disperse those developments there is a concomitant decline in the health of the natural environment and a degradation of our attitudes toward the natural - an increased distance both physically and mentally from it. The lesson to be learned, yet never heeded, from the first cities in Sumeria - which grew from, depended upon, depleted and ultimately destroyed the immediate and fertile environment from which they sprung and promptly disappeared into the sand is salutary. Man however, continues inexorably and increasingly to urbanize.
The principal thing that has been lost is the ability to think in a non-urban way - indeed it is increasingly difficult for us to imagine in anything other than an urban dimension but it also worth noting that with the increase in mechanization and urbanization there has been, of necessity, an increasing imagining of a different kind of open space; the wilderness of outer space.
(Nature is) a value opposed to the social institutions which strip man of his natural essence and imprison him. Nature thereby acquires the meaning of what has grown organically, what was not created by man, in contrast to the artificial structures of human civilization. At the same time, it can be understood as that aspect of human inwardness which has remained natural, or at least longs to become natural once more.
It seems then than we perhaps have not lost, nor cannot lose, our connection to nature completely and retain a desire for the notion of wilderness and as such we retain in some sense our penseés sauvages. The distant horizon draws us forth because we simply cannot accept that we are alone.
It seems utterly crucial that we have simply, and very quickly, forgotten (and continue to deny) that we too are animals and in forcing animals into extinction we are ipso facto heading the same way. As Lévi-Strauss famously said ‘The world began without man, and it will complete itself without him’. In our attempt to complete it ourselves we have made a fundamental error.
Once we held other animals to be divine, the first symbols were animals and yet still, despite the impact and ramifications of Darwin's theory of evolution, we believe ourselves to be unique, set apart and behave as if to be human is to be omnipotent, alone.
With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.
We pride ourselves on, and vainly believe in our infinite faculty for knowledge but this is an over-compensation for what at heart we know to be our, often willful, ignorance. What we have done but must not continue to do is to consider ourselves to be first among equals and we would do well to recuperate our prior relationship to animals for both succor and self-knowledge. As John Berger elegiacally says in his essay of 1977 that time has probably now passed hence it feels imperative to paint these fading eminences at this time. In Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’ the awareness of self happens early in infants but through these paintings I wish to argue for a more inclusive inter species awareness – to induce in the viewer the sense that they are having an encounter with a sentience and in doing so become aware of a shared and unifying animus.
One of the aims of this series is to forge through the medium of painting a reconciliation between viewer and animal somewhat akin to Lévi-Strauss's proposition:
That it is in the very nature of the work of art to be apprehended as a 'totality' - or rather, to be more precise, it enables the world ('represented' in the work of art) to be apprehended as a totality. And it is this which Lévi-Strauss puts forward as the source of aesthetic pleasure. The work of art fulfils here a quasi-magical function. Like a voodoo doll, it constitutes a mediating term between the creator of the object (or it's consumer) and the sensible world.
There exists, for every artist, the fundamental and most problematic of questions to be answered: why create?. Why indeed make more things, why paint or sculpt anything at all?. Particularly if, as Robert Hughes said, the time when a mere picture could change anything has long gone.
Yet it is in our very nature to create, to bring new forms to life: to combine raw materials with the full range of our preoccupations and by an almost alchemical synthesis arrive at works which speak both of their own inception and transformation and thus also demonstrate ours. After all what is a painting or sculpture but simply stone, wood, mud, and plant matter, from which are conjured our ephemeral totems.
However, the strange separation of form from content which began with Duchamp's cognitive leap. Wherein the process of eradicating the made artefact and replacing it with the found object (to which is given a title and subsequently placed within the contextualizing arena of the gallery) culminates and reaches it's apogee with a concept of art which is, as Tom Wolfe outlines in The Painted Word, mere illustration of the theoretical and quite sterile.
It is striking how this runs concurrent with the processes by which neo liberal economics came to be so far removed from and so little based upon the trade of actual commodities or manufactured goods that our fiscal systems have also ceased to have any rootedness in reality.
Perhaps then it is only right that art has become an expression and emblem of dysfunctional financial practices. Art in this sense has become a trade based on abstract concepts and values which are it seems arbitrary. Cost has effaced value such that artworks are now mere 'tulips for oligarchs' and the dealers snake oil hucksters peddling a panacea for the soulless.
The curious position of the artist at this juncture is that he or she has now to act with either a great deal of cynicism (in the manner of a broker which of course Jeff Koons actually was) or conversely carry out their practice with fragility, vigilance and wisdom (The qualities of the artist as defined by Roland Barthes in reference to Michelangelo Antonioni) allied with an authentic and chthonic basis for creation in an attempt to reclaim the ground and repair the schism between content and form.
How might this be possible?
So why make more objects, which in pragmatic terms have no intrinsic use, are of uncertain value and why is it still important to continue to do so. Why indeed make paintings or beautiful objects and how, if one does, might an artist create work that can function as a cogent method of an affecting and effective communication - one which serves as the balance upon which society’s values are weighed.
If, as Elaine Scarry posits in On Beauty and Being Just, the opposite of beauty is injury/injustice we, as artists, can pay homage to the beauty of the world by making beautiful objects - and by doing so attempt to heal the rupture, the wound and the division of culture from nature –a coincidentia oppositorum and rejoin the poles of beauty and injustice to their shared root; fairness. The vital importance of the aesthetic is that:
Beauty elicits from us a desire to protect and take care of the thing, if it's already alive - such as a garden or a stream and it gets us to confer the privileges of lifelikeness onto the thing if it is an artifact, as if it was actually alive
Therefore the experience of an encounter with beauty is also an encounter with the anima, the élan vital.
The 'aftermath' of an encounter with Beauty gives rise to (the act of) creation.
The result by this encounter is a reconciliation, engendered through the beautiful object, to the void - which is as I have described, the heart of the matter - and it assuages our incomprehension our origins in the void and it is this which drives us as creating beings.
A creation cannot come from nowhere, but it can help us to comprehend the nothingness that is our place of origin and our destination
In all of this the artist must be like a lens through which all that is external is filtered, focused and developed, he must be the vessel in which the whole universe is present and from which it pours forth and he must make his artifacts both photograph (in the old sense) and microcosm (in the fullest sense).
When the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw
The aims of this series, through the process of creating it, have become synthesis and symbiosis and as described above a reconciliation: to depict, to demonstrate the thing to be reconciled to. The paintings are also, of course, elegiac, the animals depicted may well disappear very soon and so I feel I must make them as Present as I can, to return the viewer to that feeling of awe and wonder within the cave. The method is to frame the communication between them and us, between each animal and each individual, since we cannot speak we must look into the others eyes to begin again to know and understand that there is a shared sentience which can bridge the gap;'Where nature ends culture begins'.
I have tried to treat the beasts with dignity and integrity, not as specimens but as subjects – individual portraits equal to those of the great and the good, the eminent and the royal. However, what the viewer of these works may perceive as anthropomorphism is in fact the reverse: the animals I depict are regarding us as animals equally and they challenge us to return that regard in kind, as equals. I also recognize that necessarily all portraiture is in some way self-portraiture -the gaze of each animal is also my gaze, my guarded wariness - and as a result there is a redoubling of reflections, a flickering recognition and a encounter between artist, viewer and animal in a hall of mirrors.
Placing these paintings, made on this scale, in the urban cave - within the domain of our solitary 'air conditioned nightmare' domestic spaces is a way of forcing both a confrontation by eye contact between the viewer and the animal, communicating through, as it were, the medium of the animal. This interaction forms a cycle of communication; it eradicates taxonomic divisiveness, reconnects us to nature and beckons us forth once more without fear into the realm of wild.
Wild modes of thought … strive to maintain a state of equilibrium between humans and nature ... 'a profound identification between humanity and the world beyond thought and beneath society’ in ' an essence that may be vouchsafed to us in a mineral more beautiful than any work of Man; in the scent, more subtly evolved than our books, that lingers in the heart of a lily; or in the wink of an eye, heavy with patience, serenity, and mutual forgiveness, that sometimes, through an involuntary understanding, one can exchange with a cat
The series is thus an attempt via the medium of painting (though mediated and authored by me) to address the issues and answer the questions raised in this essay. These constitute the underlying structures upon which the paintings are based and within which I have tried to frame encounters between the sentience of an animal and the pensée sauvages of the viewer - to reconnect and reconcile the one to the other - the painted animal becoming at once the icon, the index and the symbol of this transaction.
There is a 'sense of 'un-selfing' in the experience of beauty - that it is both inclusive and at the same time personal
They are, in this way, approximate to what first prompted man to depict the animals with which they shared their lives on the walls of their caves.
The totalising function of (this) ethno-anthropological-aesthetic means that 'no longer outside nature, no longer separated from nature by the symbol, the animal kingdom speaks to human beings a language that they understand and that is their language too