Golgotha Exhibition

Derek Culley
Liverpool Cathedral
7th March – 26th April 2011

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

Glass and Golgotha

As you enter from the West Porch of the cathedral, there it is: Derek Culley’s Golgotha on the Nave Bridge above the Well.

Golgotha comprises fourteen paintings on a single piece of canvas 30 feet long by 59 inches high. The paintings are distinct – separated by white – but related by technique and symbolism. All have hard-edged motifs but some are stronger, darker than others. The remoteness of the work has its own impact: distance gives clarity and we get the experience of it as a whole whilst also perceiving the different bursts of movement and colour which give each panel its own mood.

If you try to read the painting from left to right as we in our culture are prone to do the four on the left have elegiac mauves; the ones on the right are more sure, more distinct and there is greater contrast. Is there a movement, therefore, to clarity, solidity, certainty?

Of course, there is no reason to presume that the work should be ‘read’ at all.

The Celtic symbolism, the bright colours and the use of black echo the stained glass windows of the cathedral. Which brings me to my point. The use of coloured glass brought light and life and inspiration to the mediaeval worshipper who must have marvelled at the way Bible stories were brought to visual life. This is solar power at its most beautiful, transforming the density of the stone walls into rainbow light. More spectacular than the painted diptych or triptych, this was mediaeval TV changing as the light changed.

I don’t think paintings, however epic, angel-filled or gold-leafed they are can have the impact that stained glass windows have. Not when they share the same space. With some exceptions they can’t compete with the scale; they can’t compete with the medium. So why are paintings in such huge spaces? I think they represent the human scale of things and I think the glass represents the spiritual realm. The windows are our human endeavours to make sense of things – our paintings if you like – lifted by the light of faith that clarifies, illuminates and transforms everything - even the heftiest stones, the claggiest clay of our human existence.

Golgotha was the place of skulls: the place of Christ’s crucifixion, the scene of His most vulnerable human manifestation. I originally felt that Derek Culley’s Golgotha shouldn’t be a painting but a piece of stained glass: the jewel colours, the spatial plane, the abstraction, the religious symbolism all cry out for this. But I’m no longer sure. With the human realm and the spiritual realm it isn’t a question of competition but of aspiration.

And Derek Culley has addressed questions of context and scale before. A previous exhibition was in a casino which some would call the devil’s house! His spiritual message could not compete with the worldly sensuousness of the space, with its coloured flashing lights and temptation to excitement and unearned wealth.

But it does have a place in God’s house.


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