The Leith School of Art is currently exhibiting BP Portrait Award winner Owen Normand’s show entitled The Cut. All of Normand’s work tends to explore “the bittersweet awareness of impermanence”, inspired by concepts in Japanese aesthetics. Whilst Normand’s last exhibition, Moving On, was about Mono no aware, a concept which illustrates how something becomes more valuable when it is fleeting, The Cut is inspired by the Japanese art of flower-arranging, Ikebana. It also refers to Normand’s style of painting in which everything other than the essential is cut away.
Ikebana, literally translated to “making flowers live”, may seem a little contradictory for an art that begins by first initiating death. In my interview with Normand, I asked for his thoughts on essentially killing something, in this case the flowers, to “celebrate its essence” rather than letting them live and flourish.
“I think it’s about the idea of waking up,” Normand answered, suggesting that the flowers are sort of a metaphor for life. “The flower symbolises beauty and life and appreciation of that, but it needs its counterpart — it needs the death and the darkness to have significance”: just as we need death and darkness to make the life and light mean something. If life is lived in a trance, without having any awareness and experience of pain and death, or the transience of our experience, it is impossible to appreciate everything else that is good. Normand thinks that “if things went on for eternity and didn’t change or die, they would have no power to move us.”
The paintings in this series reflect that impermanence, in the tenderness of the slender stem, the softness of the petals. The viewer knows that the beauty won’t last, and soon the flower will wither, wilt and die. There is a sense of “restrained poignancy” in the paintings, echoing back to Normand’s previous exhibition.
What makes Normand’s work so insightfully powerful is that he immerses himself in the concepts of his work, he truly lives and breathes what he wishes for his work to inspire in others. The process for these pieces themselves, painted from life, mirror mono no aware due to the limited time he has to capture the image: until the flowers droop from the rope they are attached to.
Normand’s paintings evoke a poignant realisation of life itself. Even though the viewer knows that the flowers in the paintings will wilt, their beauty can still be appreciated in their short time. A famous quote by the Japanese writer Yoshida Kenko summarises this exhibition beautifully: “The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.”
Image: Owen Normand