The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom
In William Blake’s poem ‘Jerusalem’ the 18th century visionary asks whether Jesus Christ once visited England, as legend has suggested. And he asks, ‘was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark Satanic Mills’? In doing so Blake condenses over a thousand years of history by visualising Jerusalem - or heaven - in the contemporary landscape of early industrialisation, and in England. The phrase ‘dark Satanic Mills’ belies Blake’s concern about the development of society, where relentless industrial and capital progress became a clear and prevailing threat to the individual and the spiritual. The perceived loss would be the pastoral, idyllic lifestyle defined by natural simplicity. At least, this is the view that returns in cycles throughout history and is recalled again by Dominic Shepherd.
Shepherd’s paintings represent a contemporary visualisation of the Golden Age, that idealised, mythical time in Arcadia of innocent pleasure. As with Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, it is a place similar to Eden, that resonates with any individual who longs to remove himself, as Shepherd has done, from the flux of city life – from the industrial and technological. But the Latin phrase ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ warns us that ‘Even in Arcadia, I [death] am there’. And similarly Shepherd shows us that fear and loss also inhabit these mythical, idyllic worlds. Drawing on folklore and the transference of wisdom through festival and ritual, Shepherd depicts his subjects performing such rites. ‘The ghosts of England’ - Pearly Kings, Morris dancers, romantic poets, gurus - occupy his paintings, ‘working, singing or dying to create a New Age of Romantic pastoralism’. However, these pastoral revivalists twist and implode in the midst of Epicurean hedonism and counter cultural zeal.
Shepherd’s recent reintroduction of the tondo and of trompe l’oeil frames painted within the picture plane serve to help the illusion of observing this other world. We are quite literally given windows – or perhaps mirrors – that invite us to witness the rituals within his elaborate alternative reality. Personal memory, cultural and political history, dream, imagination and the hallucinatory are drawn on to form symbols, obscure meanings, suggested narratives, and allusion to the arcane. This invented domain is the artist’s New Jerusalem.