There are artworks you see and enjoy and then walk away from and forget. And there are artworks you assume you’ve forgotten but which, sometime later (days, months), will not be shaken from their ever-tightening toeholds in your sensibility and you start thinking about them all over again.
You want to see them one more time. And, in the case of Acorn Theory, a painting-installation by Kingston-based artist Dave Gordon, you go so far as to make an appointment and drive to his studio for a second encounter
I first saw Acorn Theory in a small but potent exhibition Gordon mounted in the autumn of 2017 at Kingston’s Verb Gallery. The show was called A Time for Everything: New and Selected Works. It was a richly heterodox show (as its title forewarned), its various works jangled together with an almost gleeful disregard for the sobriety of strict chronological or thematic development.
Many of the pieces referenced Gordon’s wide reading. The show’s title came from the 2004 novel by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, a book Gordon referred to in a piece called Angels for Knausgaard. I remember another vivid piece that referenced the artist’s reading of Julian Barnes’s 1984 novel, Flaubert’s Parrot.
But it was Acorn Theory I wanted to see again.
One morning last week, Gordon and I met at a coffee shop not far from his studio. He had a book with him that he intended to lend me. It was titled The Soul’s Code, and bore the rather daunting subtitle of “In Search of Character and Calling.” The book was by best-selling psychologist and lecturer, James Hillman.
The Soul’s Code is just the sort of title I hate. All I wanted was to see and talk about Acorn Theory. But when, over our delicate lattes, I finally ask him why he’s lending me James Hillman, he cheerfully opens the book to its first chapter and holds it up for me to see. And there it is: the first chapter is titled “In a Nutshell: The Acorn Theory and the Redemption of Psychology,”
I don’t care a lot about the Redemption of Psychology, but I was intrigued by this acorn business. Gordon’s piece, that I found so strangely compelling, bristled with acorns.
Acorn Theory, as I remembered it, consists of a beautifully-wrought medium-sized painting of a gigantic, rather Magritte-like acorn hovering, like a spaceship, above a sunny meadow and a line of exquisitely painted trees. Sitting on a small shelf attached to the wall in front of the painting is a short, absurdly over-decorated plaster pillar, topped by a quite handsome if kitschy painted plaster acorn. Beside it would lie (were it not sitting now on the table between us) the Hillman book.
We finish our lattes and repair to Gordon’s studio. And there is the painting on the wall, lit by a theatrical shaft of sunlight that only enhances the delight I take in it. The pillar and the model acorn sit nearby on his desk.
Some works, like this one, take a long time to develop. Gordon tells me it was during a residency at James Baird’s Pouch Cove Foundation in Newfoundland in 2004 that, in the course of browsing through the facility’s vast library, he found an interview with James Hillman in a copy of British Vogue that clearly intrigued him.
It was three years later, in 2007, that he found the little pillar in a Value Village Store in Kingston. It was five bucks. He found the acorn there too. “I didn’t buy it that same day,” Gordon tells me, “but when I did decide I had to have it, I went back to the store and it was gone.” Who would want to buy an apple-sized acorn? Who besides Dave Gordon? Lucky for him it hadn’t been sold – just moved. It was five bucks too.
I look more closely at the Acorn picture. I marvel at how exquisitely it’s painted (Gordon has always been a prodigiously gifted painter). The sky in the painting is moody and threatening. One of the prominent trees in the painting – an oak tree – is aflame with sunlight (Gordon says the tree is from a photograph taken near the Kingston airport). The shadow thrown by the tree is actually shaped like an oak leaf. “I hated surrealism when I was a kid,” Gordon tells me. He may still be wary of it, but now he gets to pick what he needs from it and use it as he wishes.
That giant floating acorn, for example, humming overhead like Rene Magritte’s hovering rock in A Sense of Reality (1963) or one of the airborne bells in his The Voice of the Air (1928), seems the harbinger of a coming of wisdom, the descent of the great gift of insight to be bestowed on the groundlings of earth. It evokes the same sort of prophetic force – in a slightly comic, engagingly absurdist way – as the monolith does in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And what of James Hillman? Well, on p.11 of The Soul’s Code, he writes that “The acorn theory proposes…that you and I and every single person is born with a defining image….” Two pages later, he expands this idea to insist that “The entire image of a destiny is packed into a tiny acorn. The seed of a huge oak on small shoulders.”
For me, this last image, “a huge oak on small shoulders” is both inadvertently funny and about as alarmingly surrealist as any surrealist thrill-seeker could require. Frankly, I don’t think Hillman seriously nourished Dave Gordon. I think Hillman gave him a title, not a Way of Life, and that Gordon first painted and then added the Hillman book to his installation – as a sort of justifying addendum. Which, because Dave Gordon is a better artist than James Hillman is, the work really doesn’t need.