The Exegesis Series 2012 – 2013

The Exegesis series has preoccupied me along with the Multiple Ethnographies series for the last year or so. The idea of Exegesis (the critical study of a text, usually the Bible though now widely appropriated for academic use) represents responses to what I regard as the ‘book’ of my own life, exploring what I have not understood, have failed in, and now reflect upon - at leisure. One work entitled The Book of Ours refers to the illustrated Books of Hours of medieval France by the Limbourg brothers but connects with the difficulty of standing outside one’s own life in a naturally connected way but takes into account hemispheric laterality as well. The materials in these works reflect the ‘earthy’ and primal nature of this quest. The structure of the works mostly occurs from unconscious processes, where the form appears in my mind complete and as an almost tangible vision.

The Vitrine Series (Multiple Ethnographies) 2012 –

The Vitrine Series stems from a ‘dispute’ I have with the course of art today. I grew up understanding the making of visual art as a quasi-spiritual activity which was non-intellectual at root and touches on things irrational. It seems now to have become the norm that ‘art’ is primarily political, and engages with power politics and materialism. With that shift has come the training of young artists in the means of polemics – the word has taken over the visual, and one is expected to write at length about one’s principles, motivations and methodologies in an intellectual fashion. The poetry, and aesthetics in general, have disappeared, and ‘thing making’ has declined.

This shift is a actually a form of ethnographical process, so the series is entitled Multiple Ethnographies to explore the regressive, reflexive layering which is necessarily engendered. The vitrines contain my original artworks but, in addition, variously some connected photographic source material, some ‘site collected’ artefacts, a display label with spurious accounts of sources based on those in the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford (highlighting their purpose here), and sometimes a bibliography identifying the texts from which the ideas proceed. The vitrine itself doubles as a frame as well as a display case also draws upon the style of those at the Pitt Rivers dating from the 19th Century. Of course, this all also heads off towards the Wagnerian ideal of a gesamtkunstwerk. Fortunately, however, my ‘essential’ work lies at the back, now preserved and unreachably remote in time and space from its point of production.

Writing, Publications / Texts  (日本語 )

About Prism Print, How Exhibitions Happen and Introduction in catalogue to ‘Graphic Editions’, Prism with Belfast Print Workshop members at the Oriel Gallery Antrim, Northern Ireland, October 2018 (Design by Meadhbh McIlgorm and BPW)

Introduction in Prism catalogue to Prism:Khoros, Clifford Chance Gallery, Canary Wharf, London, October 2018.

Introduction: Prism 8 “Connections” - at the iXth International Engraving Exhibition, Cremona, Italy 2017

John Read – Eclogues. (Booklet accompanying 2017 Japan exhibitions) Foreword by J. Parker Wigmore.

                                            Text and images by John Read. 16pp. Published by Rock Horse Studio Press 2017

Introduction: Prism 7 - Poland Catalogue, Bialystok 2016

Introduction: Prism 6 Clifford Chance London, Catalogue 2016

Introduction: Prism 5 London, Identity and the International Print Artist, Catalogue 2015

Introduction: Prism 4 Tokyo - Goto Gallery, Catalogue 2015

Introduction: Prism 3 Milan - Spazio Ostrakon Gallery, Catalogue 2014

The St. Edmund Cycle  2011-2012

A number of the relief paintings, or constructions, in this exhibition are from an ongoing project of mine to create a cycle of works based on the life and death of St. Edmund, English king and martyr. I was led into approaching this subject because my routine bike exercise route takes me through nearby Hoxne and over the Goldbrook bridge where Edmund was found hiding, according to local legend. My years of interest East Anglian history seem to have brought me instinctively to this point. The titles are from the few lines about King Edmund in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded probably a century after his death. We know very little about him, except he was likely the last of a dynasty of the first true English kings, kings of East Anglian territories, called the Wuffingas or 'people of the wolf’ who came little by little following the Roman withdrawal in 410 AD.

In 869 and 870 AD the Danish horde of violent invaders roved through the country attacking, killing and stealing, as they had done for many years before. The people in the east were by then too few and weak to resist so Edmund, their king, decided to give himself as a martyr rather than cause more bloodshed by fighting against this savage force. In itself, this is a striking indication of the effects of Christian conversion on the settled Angles, since their native tradition was of glory and fame for exploits of bravery, and death in battle rather than in captivity (as recorded in Beowulf). St. Edmund turned this idea on its head, meshing Norse and Middle Eastern traditions, and sought glory in Christ's name, giving his body to be cruelly pierced with many arrows and finally to be decapitated. Legend has it that his head was guarded by a wolf but villagers found it and placed it together with his body in a grave.

When the body was dug up to be taken to what is now Bury St. Edmunds, the shrine of St. Edmund, it was reputed to have been remarkably preserved and the head to have mysteriously re-attached itself with only a thin red line where it joined again. Modern thinking is that, if true, it would indicate that it was likely a 'bog body', one of the sacrificial ritual strangling and immersions in acid peat bogs which were common across northern countries in the millennium preceding Edmund's time - and not Edmund's body at all. However, medieval tradition encouraged pilgrimages to Bury St. Edmunds and claims of miracles no doubt spurred this behaviour.

Wishing to better understand the forces at work in Edmund's mind shaping his desire for martyrdom, I decided to try to immerse myself in the psychologically and historically displaced period of the Anglo-Saxon settlement and to let this provoke ideas for my work. I began thinking about using Japanese masks, with which I was familiar, for a 'shell' of an identity, but soon encountered West African tribal masks and was overwhelmed by their beauty and chthonic power. Here was a living 'pre-Christian' spiritual system which, the more I read about and studied the masks, revealed that these were extant traditions closely related to all those traditions common to European pre-history. I then began trying to re-imagine the Anglo-Saxon world through the mirror of these lively, holistic spiritual traditions and shamanistic practices and let these shadowy impulses and intuitions guide the forms I was creating, leading onward through time to the later encounter with Christian concepts.

Early in 2012 I was delighted to be able to hold an exhibition of this and other work in the Edmund Gallery which is adjacent to the Cathedral precincts of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and is owned and run by the Cathedral.

The earlier work page shows work from some of the other avenues I continue to explore or return to, one of which is the attempt to construct a viable ‘illusionistic spatial abstraction’ deploying classic layered oil principles but using highly transparent glazes of acrylic instead. I have been intrigued for years that the ‘real’ oil technique emerged in one generation, with the Van Eycks effectively, and was immediately ‘perfect’; they somehow realised that the optical greys produced by scumbling over warm, dark under-painting reproduced the natural effects of light in the real world (as scattering of light on atmospheric particles produces the blue of the sky). Their methodologies enabled a virtual 3D effect because the eye reads this translucent opticality, and shifts of warm to cool in the layers, as ‘like’ natural vision. With time, of course, much of this hyper-translucent glassy effect has ‘died’, since oils and varnishes change or because cleaning has damaged it. Also shown, along with some early works, are recent shaped wood pieces exploring themes such as St. Edmund’s martyrdom and the psychoverse of the Angles. I suppose I do subscribe notionally to the idea of the artist as modern alchemist, turning base materials into things of beauty, with meaning, and perhaps value.


Earlier work

© John Read 2012

All rights reserved

The recesses of the brain throw strange images back into consciousness

when the mind is relaxing, typically just before sleep.

These are the ‘Inscapes’ - the title of this exhibition. Working on a picture during the day, developing issues about how it should evolve become ‘problems’ which, it would seem, the unconscious mind starts to grapple with. Later, the ‘answers’ to the problems are projected into the dimly-awake visual consciousness.

All of the work here has distinct connections with themes and interests from long before but the eventual trajectory of its form and content is profoundly modified by these ‘suggestions’ from the hidden mind working in a dialectical interaction.

Most also individually carry the title ‘Exegesis’, a term from Biblical studies now used to refer to in-depth analysis of meaning. Here it refers to reflections on a lifetime of misunderstood events and personal experiences and the belated attempt to unravel them.

The creations are nominally abstract but many have found objects and natural materials attached which function in various ways, perhaps symbolic, simply by association, or a personal attachment to something they suggest. One might even suggest that these are really figurative as they represent images from inside the mind.

In this exhibition held in the Mackintosh and Bassett-Lowke Museum, quite naturally the subject of the railway, both as psychological symbol and representing regressive childhood passions for the toy engine, has seeped into the internal expressions of other concerns. It is a potent connection.

There is a definite inference that the box-form bases have a certain hint of remembered archaeological exhibits, suggesting events taking place on a daïs or stage. Thus isolated from real world and real time situations, it recalls the form of the ancient, Shinto-inspired, Japanese Sumo wrestling ‘arena’ called the ‘dohyoh’, where two opponents battle to cast each other from this sacred space.

The use of primal materials - earths, muds, metals, woods - exposed to fire and water, undergoing ritual actions of mixing, forming and attempted erasure, touches on childhood mysteries of ritual, magic, and the disturbing, numinous aura of ancient sites which have left an incurable fascination with the feel of distant ages. They speak of some great loss during the rise of the modern scientific age and provoke echoes our own preliterate past.

The primitive sense of soul still lives in each of us, in the hindbrain, and drives our need for experiences of parallelism, or Cartesian dualism, and mystery. We can disavow its presence and ignore the call, or satisfy its sly needs and recover an emotional richness and sensitivity which is shared across the living world.

John Read would like to express his sincere gratitude to the Trustees of 78 Derngate for their generosity in mounting this exhibition, and especially to the Chairman Peter Gould and to House Manager Alison Sutherland-Kay for their kindness and assistance.

About the Inscapes

The Metalogues Series 2014

About Metalogues

These works emerge in self-conscious recognition of the kind of metaphorical play which is inherent in what is usually called abstract art. These works are not a purist form of abstraction but are rather an engagement with conditions of such making - that is why I have called them Metalogues, which is a linguistic term for a dialogue which simultaneously carries an intrinsic meaning while expressing the self-conscious extrinsic interrogation of the form of the dialogue itself through various linguistic devices. It is a concept highly suited to the peculiar conditions of the 'one-sided dialogue', not quite a monologue, of the abstract artist.

They contain numerous references and hints of representation, despite the ostensible non-representational ethos, which derive from ancient symbols and ideas. These cross cultures, since in the remote past we were one more-or-less truly 'international' society, as architect Terunobu Fujimori has suggested, so that they are recognisable, I think, to all even if only at an instinctive or unconscious level. And as such the concerns of these works are primitive and affecting.


I am attracted to the distancing of time in aged materials, and by the alchemy which makes a simple material become complex and loaded with essences of past experiences. Inside that metamorphic cauldron, which in my work actually involves earth, fire and water, and primal materials like lead, gold, clay, and the fibres of numerous plants and trees, faded recollections become attached to the changing substances and are fixed into the materials as they cool. Working and re-working the surfaces is a similar ritual process, where the unconscious is released into the actions, leaving traces and descriptive markings, like a kind of automatic writing, as deeper thoughts revolve in my mind. Later, I discover for myself what has emerged from reading these changes. I am in no doubt it is a form of intuitive divination. As the future is inescapably made from the past, so my works intermingle histories personal and general in the new light of today.

My work is always partly autobiographical. It contains references to things in my past life sometimes by a kind of symbol, and sometimes through a technique. For example, my use of scorched wood connects directly with my experiences in Japan and especially with Chado and chashitsu architecture. But then it also connects with my interest in African tribal artefacts and ritual, so there is nothing simple or pure about these connections. And yet again, it has to do with my practical interests in the preservation of materials. Similarly, whenever a work seems to me to have become too pure, I instinctively apply some contradictory form or method to reduce this single-minded aspect. 

It is entirely part of my character to seek to be 'between' states and to dislike any kind of extremes, even when they fascinate me. I use natural materials in most cases, using them as themselves for their associations and through past connections (operating like T. S. Eliot's objective correlatives), and sometimes reworking them to appear or mimic other materials, or simply to make their real nature obscure. I engage with histories personal and general, and 'talk' about my feelings and experiences of these but my art of forms and colours is couched in a world of ambivalence. 

Always, the works are somewhere between pure non-figuration and a kind of symbolist representation. I resist the idea of mere representation as an empty exercise in technique, yet actually I do 'represent' in the way that I reproduce the look and feel of some materials for expressive purposes. Meaning is complex and indirect for me. Even when, or especially when, someone is trying to be very direct and clear this is when they are least honest and true to their heart. That is why I find making these non-figurative works such a satisfying means of 'communicating' things which are unclear even to me.

The Metalogues Series 2014 in Japanese (shortened)








  1. *エリオットは「芸術という枠組みの中で感情を表す唯一の方法は客観的相関物を見出すことである。それは、特定の感情を示す方式となるような一連の事物、状況、事件の連鎖であり、感覚上の体験として終わるべき、外的条件が与えられれば、感情が即座に呼び起こされるようなものなのだ」と主張、芸術作品の評価の判断基準とした。

(Translation courtesy of Yoko Shimada)