text written for Jonathan Michael Ray’s
solo exhibition, Mono No Aware, at Auction House in Redruth,
Cornwall, November 2021
… Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, And palmeres for to
seken straunge strondes, To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes …
(From the ‘General Prologue' to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury
There is more than imagery in Jonathan Michael Ray’s latest work.
Yet the territory beyond the image requires some persistence to
enter. Any space with potential returns its fullest rewards in art
beyond the point where the eye meets the surface. Penetrate that
surface and this artist offers the moving textures of forgotten
journeys and hidden voices kept mute by the lost key of common
On the level of imagery alone, Ray stirs the imagination. He
constructs an ambience in which the present day habit of splitting
any rational, cohesive whole into ambiguous fragments merges with a
past time when the bigger picture was composed of superstition and
The process of deconstruction is the leading factor behind the
stained glass pieces. The silhouette of the coloured, arched window
alone generates the presumption of religious faith and the habit of
memorialising. The practice is embedded in the past and uses a
visual vocabulary that is now hard to translate. Ray acknowledges
this present-day predicament–and by his treatment of these reclaimed
glass fragments, twists it further into incomprehension. The outcome
is a toy box of colours and designs from which to assemble a new
story – not one given by others but a fresh narrative of each
In Redruth, Ray mounts these cacophonic frameworks on gibbets to let
the images hang out into the room. Light pours through the glass to
give perspectives from rear and
front. Their installation resembles pub signs as if confirming the
work’s transition from hazy ecclesiastical history to the familiar,
lived environment of the material world. The association can revive
the complexity of medieval lifestyles: pubs once existed in
monasteries and monks brewed the beer. Hostelries provided shelter
for travelling pilgrims, and to locals they were refuges of another
sort, then as now, from the pressures of life.
The Japanese term mono no aware literally means ‘the pathos of
things.’ The weightiness of that feeling defines the items that make
up Landslip St Wite: a composition of mostly organic parts including
a wooden frame around a rubbed and textured black and silver
moonlike expanse; a wooden shelf, topped with a broken length of
clay and an arrangement of objects and a pallet supporting the
work’s main feature, a mass of chalk, which might have been felled
by the landslip of the title.
The objects of the shelf are spaced apart with intention, although
what that might be is initially uncorroborated by the items
themselves. This work will satisfy the fan of cryptic crosswords,
who might interrogate the clay, chalk and wood for traces of
landfall and the objects for evidence of veneration. The reference
to St Wite is a signpost to meaning, but an obscure one as it
recalls the medieval holy woman of Dorset whose tomb, one of only a
few in England to survive the reformation, can still be visited
St Wite was believed to restore sight. On the chalk block rests a
stereoscopic viewer and photograph. The double sepia print has
faded. Seen through the lenses of the viewer, the image can just
about be made out. The value of stereoscopic images lay in the depth
of focus they offered: they enhanced sight. The eye burrows into an
early record of a famous landslip on the Dorset coast in 1839. It
was an event which gave way to conceptions of the earth’s history
contradictory to the Biblical description of the planet’s creation.
Ray withdraws and suspends past meaning to objects in a tidal ebb
and flow of time and memory. He allows for new journeys that project
the imagination into an image of the future. Without physically
stepping into one, the onlooker nevertheless might sense having
entered a cell-like setting from which to view these works.
As a process, layering buries, obscures and reveals. Ray intensifies
its multiple actions in the film, At The Root. Patterns, forms and
surfaces are submerged beneath water or overlaid with new surfaces.
The film extends the scrambled messaging encountered in the stained
glass pieces into the unvisited dimensions of movement and sound.
Layering is taken to a higher level in the cyanotype print on paper,
Pritchard’s Crypt. Across the textured blue field are scattered a
mass of line drawings superimposed one upon another in palimpsest
style. Lettering jostles with leaf forms that appear tucked under
symbols; there are many figures and heads and a few hands. Medieval
churches are rife with deeply-engraved graffiti, so much so that a
modern visitor will wonder at the anti-social tendencies of
congregations in the Middle Ages.
However, the authors of these marks were not defacing the holy
places with territorial markers, in the manner of today’s graffiti
artists. They embellished the fabric with prayers, and their actions
were both accepted and acceptable. With this work, Ray has netted
hidden voices from past centuries.
But what if these inscriptions are actually a premonition of the
future? Impressed by the ‘what-if’ literature of Russell Hoban and
Will Self, Ray does not neglect the possibility of a world to come
that has more in common with the brutish dystopia of the Middle Ages
than the relatively benign present.
The fony could not forbear from affecting a tone of great reverence
and informing them that:
- Viss, yer reervús, iz ware íall Bgan 2 fouzand yeers ago, wen Dave
berried ve Búk. Eer í lay til ve Kings great-great-grandad - but an
umble woolly bloke on ve burbz - duggí up.
(From Will Self's The Book of Dave, 2006)
© Martin Holman 2021. Martin Holman is a writer
based in Penzance. He is a regular contributor to Art Monthly and
the Burlington Magazine.