Heather Neil’s The Bog Cutter: A Cultural Archaeology
by John David Ebert
Heather Neil is an East Coast artist whose work is currently represented by the Sugarman-Peterson Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her various paintings are extraordinary works of Realism–although that term can, of course, be deceptive–but it is her 2014 masterpiece The Bog Cutter that I wish to focus on here as an example of the process of what I term “cultural compression.” Artists often paint in layers: Heather Neil, for instance, lays down a coat of gesso and then adds layer upon layer of paint on top of that, creating very dense and detailed images. But the psyche, too–as Freud pointed out–is capable of image compression, a phenomenon in which one image will contain many other images embedded inside of it. Only a cultural archaeology can dig out these images to reveal their stacked complexity. To do so is to reveal the particular Unconscious of the work of art in question. Each work, as we will see, comes equipped–just as each individual does–with its own collective unconscious.
The Bog Cutter depicts a man who is a stonemason by trade, although he agreed to pose for Neil in the attitude of one who digs up peat moss in order to use it for fuel for burning. (It is perhaps not insignificant that the melting of peat bogs in Russia is a major contributor to global warming, since these bogs contain highly compressed amounts of CO2 within them).
The image ghost of Jean-Francois Millet’s 1850 painting The Sower is unmistakably buried in Neil’s painting.
Millet’s painting is an example of strict realism, however; whereas the weird unearthly light that falls upon Neil’s bog cutter is mysterious: it looks as though it may emanate from a spotlight, and it catches him in a static pose, whereas Millet’s protagonist is in rapid, dynamic motion as he spreads his seeds across the ground, oblivious of an observer. Neil’s bog cutter is quite aware that he is being observed and even seems a bit irritated by the fact.
In 1888, Van Gogh produced three paintings which are embedded in Neil’s Bog Cutter. First, he did a reworking of Millet’s painting entitled The Sower with Setting Sun, as follows:
We note that the light source is now located behind the sower, although Van Gogh represents the world as though it were entirely self-luminous, like a piece of stained glass. For Millet, the sower is simply a matter of fact inhabitant of the countryside, but for Van Gogh, the entire world is a manifestation of Divine Radiance that shines with revelatory power through all things. The sower is no longer even the protagonist, but rather the power of Transcendence itself that luminesces through the whole canvas.
Also in 1888, Van Gogh painted a self-portrait of himself On the Way to Tarascon, in which he represents himself in the mode of a sort of artist as pilgrim along the Way. Now there is a distinct shadow represented on the ground beside him, almost as though it were another figure, the shadow side of Van Gogh’s troubled, unstable bipolar personality that would eventually consume and destroy him, just as this painting was destroyed during the Allied firebombings of World War II.
In 1957, the great British painter Francis Bacon reworked Van Gogh’s painting in a work that he titled Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh. For Bacon, the shadow on the ground haunting Van Gogh takes on a becoming-animal quality and very much resembles a dog on a leash, as though to bring out the visceral, feral quality of the shadow that lived inside Van Gogh, and ultimately tore his psyche to pieces, like the hounds of Artemis who went after Actaeon after he dared glimpse her bathing nude. Bacon paints Van Gogh as though he were a shade encountered in some journey of the artist to the Underworld of art history, where all its iconotypes and shadow forms dwell.
In 1888, Van Gogh also painted Pollard Willows with Setting Sun, in which three willow trees are represented as gnarled, bony figures very much resembling the three crosses of the traditional iconotype of the Crucifixion. It is as though Van Gogh had taken the figure of his own shadow from the ground and multiplied it threefold to produce a “natural crucifixion.”
Returning now to Heather Neil’s The Bog Cutter of 2014, we note that the shadow that is cast on the ground at the bog cutter’s feet very much resembles a Crucifixion. The West’s great Master Signifier, that is to say–its ultimate iconotype and Transcendental Signified–now exists only in shadow form at the feet of a bog cutter whose process of digging up peat moss will contribute to the planetary crucifixion of global warming. Iconotypes in contemporary art haunt its various figures and images as shadow forms: that is to say, they still exist as shaping archetypes that glow through the images and which can be unearthed only by the process of the kind of cultural image archaeology that I have just demonstrated in this essay. It is also ironic that the source of the light that is casting the crucifixion shadow may not even be natural, but rather a studio light shining on a stonemason who has agreed to pose for Neil’s painting.
The Bog Cutter is a masterpiece of contemporary art.
Heather Neil’s work may be obtained by contacting the Sugarman-Peterson Gallery in Santa Fe. Their website is http://www.sugarmanpetersongallery.com/
Their phone number is 505 820-0010.