Recovering the Body
A collaboration: Jon McAuliffe and Craig Stockwell, 2014
Exhibition: Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, January 2016
George Mallory, an Englishman, died near the summit of Mt. Everest in 1924. His body was recovered in 1999. Mallory was a gifted climber, a member of the Bloomsbury set, and a survivor of trench warfare in the First World War.
Jon McAuliffeand Craig Stockwell began discussing a collaboration after Jon attended an exhibit of Craig’s in 2013. They are of different generations: Jon is a young representational painter, while Craig works in abstraction. In discussing the collaboration, their conversation moved towards a book that Craig was reading, Into the Silence, by Wade Davis. A book about George Mallory and Everest.
What stood out for both Craig and Jon was the extraordinary moment at the beginning of WWI wherein the young men of England (and Germany) thirsted for the war as a means to bring redemptive meaning to lives they felt had become rudderless in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Sensing common themes in our own time, Jon and Craig agreed to use the study of Mallory and the times he lived as a starting point for an investigation through collaborative painting.
ABOVE: Recovering the body 3, oil on panel, 2014, 18”x 6”; RIGHT: Recovering the body 2 (detail)
It began with listening to a book, randomly chosen as driving entertainment: Into the Silence, by Wade Davis. In this book, Davis sets out to examine the death of George Mallory on Mt. Everest in 1924. What he ends up doing is an exhaustive study of an era. Within that era there is the transition from a golden age of prosperity and settled culture: Europe at the turn to the 20th century, to a devastating war. One aspect of this turning is the phenomenon of the young men who welcomed the coming of war as a call to meaningfulness. This desire for meaningful struggle was completely made both absurd and profoundly tragic by the mechanized slaughter that the war became. Freud, in defining what he calls the Death Drive says that, “the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion.” Within the context of WWI there were millions whose deaths are taken from them. George Mallory, a survivor of the trenches and also an intimate of the Bloomsbury set, becomes involved in the post-war effort to deliver to Britain the “conquering of Everest.” In 1924 he was both a member of the third substantial British expedition to Everest (1921, 22, and 24) and the chosen and gifted climbing leader. The climbers were venturing into a litany of unknowns dressed in wools and tweeds and thin leather boots. After months of hardships and a variety of attempts, Mallory and his young climbing companion, Sandy Irvine, made one last attempt on the summit. They never came back. They may have made it to the summit and died on the way down. In 1999 Mallory’s preserved body was found on ledges below the Northeast Ridge. He had died in a fall. If Mallory’s compatriots, who died in the trenches, had their deaths taken from them, Mallory, it could be argued, claimed his own death. It might even be said that Mallory’s death redeemed the deaths of millions. And his death suggested, because of its single-minded obsession, the very Modernist willfulness that led us to such tragedy in the later 20th century.
So much is at issue when considering the circumstances of the First World War and that of Mallory’s subsequent ascent of Everest, and to do as we have done here, using as inspiration the historical accounts and general conclusions of these events, their myths and legends, all for a particular kind of artistic exploration and introspection is at best a precarious venture. After all, to reduce so sweepingly the complexities of such immense occurrences - as art has the tendency to do, and painting explicitly so - is to sublimate the significance of the personal, and to ignore or make invisible the lives at stake. Insensitivity, it seems, is not just a risk for our endeavour, it is a certainty. But if we have been successful, our hope is that the opposite may also be the experience for our viewers, that these paintings might make sensitive the personal from the general, the actual from the symbolic, the present from the historical. And while our current times seem particularly “self oriented,” where it might be said that narcissism has become a dominant language in our culture, we felt that it was important to place ourselves in a literal sense within the work, not only to re-contextualize the issues we hoped to discuss, but also in recognition of the histories we have borrowed in that undertaking. At its core, this body of work is seeking to rediscover the self within the dominant culture - the soldier in the history of war; the artist in the history of art - and most central to that inquiry is the critical issue of choice.
RIGHT: Recovering the body 4, oil on canvas, 2014, 32”x 26”