As some of you may be aware, my father passed away in October last year. He was 66. Needless to say, it has been very hard for my mother, my sister and me. I wrote a tribute to him, which I read at his funeral, and I can be quite affirmative in saying that doing so was helpful. It covered many aspects of his character and life. It was a private thing, meant for his family and friends, and I have no intention of repeating it all publicly here, but there is a part which is particularly relevant to the things I do choose to send into the world both virtually and physically, and it is this I wish to touch on now.
To say that my father was a great influence on me seems obvious, but still, the specifics are pertinent. He introduced me to painting – the pursuit I love most. The thing I work to build my life around. He gave me something that I will love and pursue forever. What more can a parent do for their child but to provide them with a source of lifelong joy? A joy that cannot be lost, nor even diminished. I can only hope I may be able to do similar for my daughter. In some way, everything I make now is in tribute, or in thanks to him whether I am conscious of it or not.
He was deeply intelligent, vastly knowledgeable, sharp, witty. One could possibly call him a polymath and whilst his modesty and self image would never have permitted him to accept such a label, his ego would have been quietly assured of its suitability. I have not inherited his ability to absorb information, but from him I have acquired a protective arrogance countering an insidious self doubt. Unshakable belief and deep fragility battle for supremacy, neither conscious of their mutual dependence and collaborative levelling of the whole, or the fragility of the structure they antagonistically fashion. We travel a narrow path, he and I. It can be treacherous at times, we have both had occasion to stumble, but have managed to self right, or be righted, and go on. I take comfort from this. Anyone may fail at any time. Most everyone will at some point. But, not everyone will get up, accept their failure and try again. It was in him to do this and I thank him for passing that on.
And it is these qualities we shared that form the foundation of my lasting tribute to him. He claimed as his own a phrase from the antiquarian book trade, the industry in which he worked for most of his life, to apply to himself – with all faults. In simple terms it means sold as seen, or that an item offered for sale is flawed, damaged or suchlike, and the prospective buyer ought to be aware that there are imperfections in advance of making a purchase. For dad though it meant ‘take me as you find me’. He was well aware of his own imperfections, but was able to accept them and face the world as he was. Latterly I have found it necessary to do similar, and his phrase, with all faults, is now inextricably linked to me too.
The statement stands alone, but I have also made my own addition. In connecting it with a second aphorism, are we found, it is read in a number of ways, all of which are valid:
With all faults are we found first refers directly to myself and my father. We were flawed in similar ways and have both strived to overcome the resultant problems.
It can also be read as a more wide ranging statement. It speaks of everyone. We all struggle with something, and are encountered as we are. Whether we choose to hide from or conceal these imperfections, or wear them openly, none of us are free of them. The statement is a universal truth. A leveller of sorts.
There is a third function of these words too: Here we are, warts and all, found with our faults, and that’s ok. The statement is a reminder that tolerance and acceptance are virtues to be pursued. It’s not always easy to be tolerant and it’s certainly difficult to be virtuous, but a reminder to be accepting of the bad you may perceive in others or yourself can help to leave you open to the possibility of seeing the good too.
These are the readings of the phrase in this format, however the statement can be reconfigured to appear as a question: are we found with all faults?.
This is my question and a response to a conversation I had with my dad over the summer. As I have said, he and I suffered with certain similar problems. Particular details were uncannily alike. He feared that our problems were likely genetic – passed down the generations and inherently ours. Then again it would appear that they came to the surface as a result of a series of extreme events – during times of severe difficulty. I don’t know how much of it to attribute to one thing and how much to another. It’s a nature or nurture question, therefore I ask – Are we found with all faults? Or do we gather them over time? It’s an important question to me because it has a bearing on my future, but I am also very much aware that it is an unanswerable question and, ultimately, not one that would change our course of action if we did know the answer.
Finally, there is the aesthetic input behind my tribute. Since I first encountered it at the Hayward Gallery 15 years ago the work of Douglas Gordon has been a great influence on me. Not specifically in what I make as such – his art bears zero resemblance to my paintings! No, it’s something less tangible. The atmospheres he creates, the suggestions and ambiguities he presents, particularly through text, and specifically his focus on a duality of character – the ‘Caledonian Antisyzygy’ if you like (thanks to Brian Robertson of Zembla Gallery for introducing me to that phrase). I find it all utterly compelling. He has often worked in the medium of tattoo, inscribing phrases onto himself and others. We will usually encounter them in the form of photographs, and I don’t know for sure whether the documentation alone constitutes the artwork or if it is the tattoo itself, but I love the idea of the permanence and impermanence of the works – tattoos are considered permanent, and to get one is often a big decision, but people are inherently impermanent, so tattoo as art irrevocably changes the person involved, but cannot hold any of the physical value associations that a painting, sculpture, print or whatever does. These works will not be archived or restored. They won’t be present in a retrospective show in 2117. They exist only as long as the ‘wearer’ is alive. They both transcend and remain slave to their own physical manifestation.
Now, I certainly don’t claim my tattoos as art. They’re a tribute to my dad, a message, a reminder and all the other things I have discussed, but they are also a nod to Douglas Gordon (I hesitate to use the word homage – too loaded). I have appropriated his style, format and the font he most often uses for his text pieces. On a very basic level, I love the aesthetics, which if you’ve waded through any amount of what I’ve written you’ll know is important to me. Going a little deeper, I would like to think I have been able to achieve some of the ambiguity and outre atmosphere he employs to such great affect. I understand much of his work is personally profound. This is certainly true of my tattoos as you have just read. Overall I suppose that the phrasing and clearly the sentiment are very much inspired by and for my father, whilst the presentation was heavily influenced by Gordon.
To wrap this all up I will describe a theory of dad’s that I have always remembered. You could call it a partial parenting philosophy. He believed that children should experience deep wonder – joyful things that amaze them and thrill them and, critically, transcend their ability to comprehend. Children perceive magic. Innocence carries them over the grit and dirt of reality. Unburdened by rational thought, understanding of the how and why, free from the demand to grasp the mechanics of life they are receptive to awe and this is something dad believed that we, as adults and parents, must ensure is not wasted, for it does not last forever. We have the ability to create lifelong memories of pure joy for our children. I know this to be true, not just because I have such memories, but because he gave to me the ability to perceive wonder where one could reasonably argue there is none. Painting, in of itself, is not an amazing thing, but his influence has given me the ability to be amazed and awestruck and deeply, viscerally moved by it. I can’t say that he gave this to me, or taught it to me, or that there was any one activity that caused it. I supposed what I can say is that he saw it and nurtured it and encouraged it. He drew it out with openness and enthusiasm, passion, belief and indulgence and in doing so, helped to plot the course of my life in a positive direction.