Our Father is a Red Giant

A familiar conceit of abstract art is that a painting offers a vision of the cosmos – as if the artist had their own version of the Hubble telescope. Art and science converge in the urge to explore the limits of experience; the limits of what can be perceived by our senses and articulated in our language. Those explorations have obvious practical constraints but there are no boundaries for what can be achieved in the imagination. Every cosmic overview is really an interior journey, into the mind of the artist.

This same productive ambiguity may be found in Giles Alexander’s precise, illusionistic paintings of the cosmos. His topic could not be larger, being the origins of human life. The theory referred to in the title of this exhibition is that our bodies have their origins in the dust generated when a star dies. 

The light from a star comes from turning hydrogen into helium. According to Wikipedia, as a star exhausts its core supplies of hydrogen it switches to “thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen in a shell surrounding the core.” This is when a Red Giant – the subject of the major picture in this exhibition – is formed. Such a star has a relatively low surface temperature but may have a diameter 20 to 100 times larger than our own Sun. The process of thermonuclear fusion generates elements such as carbon, oxygen and beryllium, in which are found the building blocks of life.

Little by little these elements made their way to earth, where the unknown chemistry took place that turned raw substances into sentient beings. We are still so far from understanding this crucial transformation it is no surprise that most people prefer to believe that life on this planet was created by one god or another.

The faces of those deities are shown floating in the infinite blackness of space in Alexander’s paintings, from the lantern-jawed Mo’ai of Easter Island to the gods of the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Aztecs. The thin white lines that ‘join the dots’ in these works refer to our habit of seeking patterns in the stars – discerning the outlines of animals or mythical heroes. 

Around the edges we see clusters of radio telescopes, the instruments used by astronomers to probe the mysteries of the universe. This suggests that while the means and belief systems are completely different, science and religion are engaged in the same quest. The questions posed echo the title of Gauguin’s famous painting of 1897: Where Do we Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Whether it be a vista of the Tahitians and their idols or Alexander’s fantasias of deep space, the artist is perfectly placed to act as a commentator on this search for meaning. There are artists who engage with science and those who see their work in spiritual terms, but Alexander is neither of the above, being sceptical of the relgious viewpoint but equally wary of claims of science. These works demonstrate that one can engage with a subject in the most intense fashion without ever becoming a believer.

John McDonald July 2013

Art critic Sydney Morning Herald & film critic for the Australian Financial Review