“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are damned.”
– Albert Einstein, 1931
Welcome to the gromboolian plane, “an absurdist zone somewhere near the astral plane, where the irrational can thrive.” This is Michael Vale’s own definition but the term is drawn from the equally absurdist mind of Edward Lear, and his poem ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’ from 1872: When awful darkness and silence reign / Over the great Gromboolian plain. In the context of Vale’s exhibition at James Makin Gallery, the artist’s wordplay on plain/plane adds yet another layer of interpretation and thus extends the already limitless range of his gaze. It also injects some critically needed humour into these darkly absurdist times.
Vale’s cast of characters is legion, as are his numerous winks and references to the artists he admires – and the occasional riposte to those he doesn’t. He describes his work as “‘gothic absurdism’ … a hybrid of the macabre with surrealism and theatre of the absurd.” To exemplify this, here’s a short list of Vale’s protagonists and symbols, many of whom are to be found occupying the gromboolian plane: skeletons, lightbulbs, mushrooms, Yuri Gagarin, cacti, smoking dogs, the picturesque, the sublime, James Ensor, Delacroix, surrealist twists, Magritte (his vache paintings), Philip Guston, Gustave Doré, van Dyck (Anthony, not Dick), B-Grade movies, Ivan Albright, zombies, monsters, Daumier, orientalism, Salvator Rosa, domestic pets, buzby bearskin hats, pinstripe suits, Bob Dylan, fur lined jackets, modernist abstractions (including jazzy Stuart Davis), Arthur Rimbaud, speech bubbles, mummies, graveyards, and greetings to Courbet. It’s a heady brew but like many, Vale’s individualistic approach gained little traction whilst the artworld laboured under the monolithic vision of modernism courtesy of Greenberg et al. Thankfully the fence rails have now been loosened, and appreciation for Vale’s unique vision is increasing, with his joint win in the prestigious Moran Prize in 2021 being one key indicator.
Vale is an artist who nonetheless submits himself to new challenges, and for gromboolian plane he continues his experiments with blue underpainting (a strategy he has routinely avoided until recently), triggered by a further line from Lear’s poem: he lands where the Jumblies live / Their heads are green, and the hands are blue. Lightbulbs also appear, inspired by Vale’s manifest respect for Bob Dylan, who arrived at London airport in 1965 with an enormous light bulb, gifted by a friend. A hapless reporter asked what his message was. ‘Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb,’ joked Bobby. But he followed this with ‘Well, I plugged it in the socket and the house exploded,’ and this advice is now passed on to the viewer. Forget ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out.’ Vale invites you instead to ‘Plug in, switch on, EXPLODE!’ – a far more illuminating way to experience this (ir)rational world.
Andrew Gaynor (April 2023)
Andrew Gaynor is an independent curator, historian and writer. He is currently researching the life and work of the expatriate Australian painter Roy de Maistre.