Some people like my angel drawings and some people hate them. I’m not surprised by this response; in fact it’s generally the response to most of my artwork. I’ll share it on social media and the numbers show that the greater majority just look without commenting. A smaller number will hit the like or share button and a smaller number again will express a written opinion. It’s interesting though that a few people seem to get so piqued on the subject matter of angels.
The main objection seems to revolve around the idea that a ‘serious’ artist wouldn’t choose angels as a subject matter; that it’s just that bit too kitsch – perhaps even as just a visual metaphor. Anybody that really knows me and my work will also know that being told not to make a specific subject matter or aesthetic choice is probably going to be problematic in realising the chance of me actually stopping doing it.
One interesting, and positive, comment I recently received after posting a new angel drawing was that it made someone remember the short story ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ by Gabriel García Márquez. Which I thought was a fine compliment. I also like the association (that I naturally made) of some of my work (the minotaur women and angels in particular) with the literary notion of ‘magical realism’. That idea of using a kind of hyperfiction to bring a focus on to an element of contemporary reality has been a common thread through a lot of my work.
Anyway, back to angels… I won’t apologise for them and I’m not likely to stop using them. Angels are an interesting cultural device.
Our European use of the word ‘angel’ comes from the Late Latin ‘angelus’ – literally ‘messenger’, but the angelic origin goes back much further in ancient religions than the Abrahamic texts. They have performed all manner of functions from a witness to a messenger to a divine soldier, but they all seem to wield a power beyond human capabilities and have connections to assorted deities. They have been, for those that consider them a reality, a manifestation of righteous power that would improve the spiritual or actual outlook of those that believe in them. They’re a metaphor for the power that people wished they actually could exercise in their earthbound lives. So the angel seems an appropriate metaphor for an artist, whose work is considered by some to be political, to use.
Anyway, on to the current band of angels I’m drawing. This set of work consists of 39 drawings and four poems.
In 1967, the American writer Richard Brautigan wrote the poem ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’. The title itself, for me, is perfect in both its capacity of specificity and ambiguity. As an artist I wish I could make the drawing or painting equivalent of that line of text. It’s one of those lines that I imagine any writer would wish they’d conceived of and put down for themselves.
At heart it was a poem that suggested a desire for a combined technological and ecological Utopia where all humanity exists harmoniously within the boundaries of an idealised nature, overseen by beneficient and human conceived technological guardians. Was it a heartfelt desire? Some critics suggest that it was more cynical and satirical in its intention but that’s probably informed by a contemporary awareness of the reality of humanity’s impact on the planet. Taking into consideration his lifestyle, the other creative people he mixed with and the (counter) cultural circles he ran in I prefer to be more optimistic of his intentions. And despite his lifelong mental health struggles and eventual suicide I even think Brautigan was an optimist too – particularly with regards to humanity’s inevitable recognition of having to cede to the natural authority of our ecosphere.
In an interview in 1983 he expressed his love of the growing availability of ‘information’ or knowledge. Maybe he was suggesting that modern, industrialised humanity was, at long last, on the cusp of being able to understand its natural place in a natural world. He was optimistic that the proliferation of ‘information’ in the early 1980s would give us the necessary tools to effect the social and cultural change needed.
And, like Gabriel García Márquez, in Brautigan’s writing there is also the blending of reality and fantasy. Brautigan said himself, of reality and fantasy, that one is the mirror and the other is the reflection – but that they are also interchangeable. And that is what my angels are for me I think (it’s always subject to change of course). They are the aspiration and the action. They are the watchers, the messengers but the fighters and saviours too. They are what we want to help us make change and what we want to be in making the change for ourselves. And they have the authority of ancestors. They are of a time and world far older and wiser than us.
The world we know, that our parents and their parents knew is disappearing. Its waters are acidifying, its ice is disappearing, its seas are rising. Forests burn and tundra melts. Temperatures are rising sufficiently to make vast areas of the planet soon uninhabitable by mammalian life. Cereal crop production, one of the primary drivers of early human civilisation is already being affected by repeated reduced yields. Species are being made extinct at a rate greater than over the last ten million years. We need help, but realistically the only help that can make the changes needed is going to have to come from ourselves – working together.
Our angels can be the messenger of action or it can be the action itself. The mirror or the reflection. We all create our own personal guardian angels. Be it science, religion, political or direct actions; alternatively, but equally attractive to many – fatalism, denialism and defeatism. Varieties on a theme of personal survival strategies. But our long-term survival can only be achieved at the expense of the individual.
So we need to come together and prioritise our common humanity. We have to reject the flawed and arrogant directions that have driven our economic ideologies of chasing a progress judged by material measure at the expense of other (more human) cultural and social metrics.
With this work I’m just calling out to our metaphorical angels. Be they priests or physicists, economists or ecologists, bankers or bakers. They’re all just you and I. Help us bring the changes humanity needs to negotiate the potentially apocalyptic future we face. Because, like it or not, we face it together.
Despite our worst, selfish, natures.
MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE?
herald triumphant new vision
that machines witness our madness
lest carve reluctant incision
to grace parting love’s sadness
and yet bears no burning witness fires
to the sorrows of old Daedalus
imprisoned still in his selfish desires
of wars on youth and nothing less
sun setting we find our shamed eyes drill the earth
journeyman’s feet, iron shod, and spread for some cull
wearing tired eyes of the life that only we chose to birth
considering value of aged wisdom essentially null
so we direct them to the heavens, still turn to the dreaming
the thin finger is raised, waved and it’s pointed
and guarantee, to sedate us before of our screaming
their weapon will be loaded, and blessed, and annointed
our oft timed watched waters will rise
and cancerous leased nations still fall
surveyed through smoking pyre eyes
beneath fumy softening black pall
imagined thresholds lit by winged strangers
their bells still ring a long calculated rout
and our elders, their priests, the prophets, some saviours
hold hands as humanity softly blacks out
some severed politic history end thread
of a now tangled voiceless gold line
finds Theseus reformed, and hanged, lost, dead
strangled veiled head again, thick twice bound in twine
bull-headed, bull market bullshitters
fear the red rag of no simple heroes
bearing witness their hardest big hitters
cybergod no ones, just zeros
so hear the burning call of children crying for your change
step down, stand back, come forward when demanded
ever fearful the yearning fall of lead primed for the range
and rest grateful for any opportunity of forgiveness if extended
so pity the inheritors of todays political hand wringers
when the too hot sun melts our dreams technical, mechanical
will have little to do but count bodies and point fingers
at those previous generations that drove their betrayal
we watched as white sank, blue claiming way
then waters once calmed boiled to vinegar
declared forged warnings of green carpeted grey
under the marathon of an ever hasty calendar
who half century on still celebrates mundanity
though hoping a surrendered Minos may call
to end again yet this unbounded insanity
but ever the king teaches that all angels still fall
then finally our angels will
fall short and rest still
A STORM ISN’T COMING
we’ve pursued every pound
poisoned air, sea and ground
danced as the future roared burning
cold truths were presented
realised and resented
but the dance had no move with a turn in
a storm isn’t coming
it’s already here
still no abate to the dancing
push hating, sell fearing
to dance their own dance to the polls
so estates count their numbers
but don’t number our counters
and we audit their fictions and failings
now we say, we reckon on a reckoning
for the future generations
to have air, sea and ground
and time for a masque and a dance of their own
PARADISE CAN ONLY BE HERE
Cease your brawling
we are the fallen
here to declare paradise
hear all seeing leaders
deaf swingers and bleeders
declare but the asking price
You will witness from hills
our washed away ills
as masters maintain division
and you’ll wish for our wings
to escape your mad kings
who justify all excision
Neither your left or their right
can stop the day chasing night
Pray where you will
but all deities rest still
the solution rests where we fear
there was ever only one earth
from the day of our birth
and paradise can only be here
THE AMBIGUOUS ENGINE
you claim abstention
of the ambiguous engine
hawking carnival tunes from afar
but roads driven by others
are yours, and our brothers
pull charred dreams down under the car
sleep direction away
to dream just one more day
declare clowns on the return ticket wrong
world engines refrain
so never again
this bread and handbill circus song
the caravans now closing
to songs of bankrolling
tried to feel the fall as time came
but neither your left or right
will stop day chasing night
the world will never be this again
3 thoughts on “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”
I have followed your work for some time as I believe it is prolific and stunning and emotional. I just searched for your website and found these new paintings. I am blown away. I was painted once as an angel and in an eerily similar style and felt deeply moved upon seeing these. I will unfortunately never see one in person, as I am in the heart of a small town in Massachusetts, in the United States. But I dream of someday being able to walk into the church where these will hang. I have continued to find new facets and pieces of yours on the internet here and there over the years. I look forward to many more.
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Well done as always! Glad to have one of the prep works. Hope to acquire a finished piece.
Thank you for the wonderful work Guy. I find it very moving. Are these works for sale.?
Best wishes. Jonathan Butler firstname.lastname@example.org