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Rachael Burnett - Liminal Space, Chapter House, York Minster, until September 6
AT different times in her life, artist Rachael Burnett has found York Minster to be a place of escape, reflection and inspiration.
She lived in York until the age of 22, then made Edinburgh her home for seven years, staying on there after attending the university and Edinburgh College of Art. She later moved to London, setting up a studio in Wimbledon, but she returned to York three years ago with husband Robin, a religious education teacher at Huntington School .
“It wasn’t like a homecoming because there aren’t many people that I knew still here, but the Minster was definitely a place that I felt I was coming home to,” says Rachael.
Throughout her childhood and adult years, the Gothic cathedral has played its part, and she loves escaping from the bustle of shopping to the contrasting contemplation of the Minster.
Yet her relationship with the building and indeed her faith has changed and is still changing, hence the theme and title of her exhibition in the Minster’s Chapter House: Liminal Space.
“I have a faith that has grown wider and much less didactic,” says Rachael. “Mystery is the key, and in that respect I’m more drawn to the big cathedral spaces that embody that.
“You feel it even in things like the air being different and your voice sounding different once inside such a space.”
Through her paintings, Rachael has explored the idea of liminality: in essence, a spiritual and psychological state of being on the threshold of, or between, two different existential planes, as she explains in her exhibition statement.
That state in turn results in a feeling of transformation in a cathedral where “the ordinary norms of everyday life are suspended in its architecture, worship and symbols”. What happens when Rachael’s “being, thoughts and feelings” are drawn to imagery, symbols and words outside her “constructed life” is that she finds the Minster to be “utterly consoling, refreshing and peaceful” on the one hand, or “uncomfortable, alienating and obscure” on the other.
In layman’s terms, that has resulted in her faith being characterised by honest doubt and uncertainty, leading her deeper into the mystery to which she referred earlier.
“All the exhibitions I’ve had, most of them have been based around the paradox of certainty and uncertainty and I’ve tried to embody that in various ways,” she says.
“Painting is about seeing, but also not seeing, like life is about certainty and uncertainty, so you juxtapose them.”
Ironically, the act of painting forces Rachael, the artist, to freeze that liminal state, that doubt and uncertainty, and what’s more she then chooses not only to put it in a frame but also place it behind glass.
“I feel it’s important, in terms of finishing a painting to do that, to make it look like a precious object, like so many things in this church,” she says.
How, then, has Rachael translated her thoughts into oils on boards? She does so by favouring abstract, fragmented composition, sometimes scraping away paint, other times painting over the initial surface to obscure it, or applying a wash over a very detailed area of a painting. Often she does this to emphasise the relationship of light and darkness – a relationship so central to Damian Cruden and Paul Burbridge’s production of the York Mystery Plays 2012 in the Museum Gardens too.
Rachael paints intuitively, and in the case of her Minster works her preparation involved spending time walking around the building, sketching, taking photographs and “just being”. “In some ways that can be like being in the countryside; it’s a similar feeling,” she says.
Rachael has been reading the work of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and spiritual teacher. “He talks a lot about the liminal world and the space between worlds, and he also talks about buildings remaining long after we have gone,” she says. “I find the idea that there’s a story that’s bigger than you to be reassuring.”
How true that is, but like any artist or writer, she is seeking to work out her place, our place, in that story. She will continue to do so in a medium that has a paradox at its heart.
“The whole nature of making a painting is that you have faith in something that is uncertain: how it will turn out,” says Rachael.
“I always feel that whenever I start again, I have no idea how to do this, and somehow, bizarrely, that can make it better, that uncertainty.
“I feel, bizarrely, that I always have to change and move on in my painting. I can’t stay in one place. It’s a beginner’s state each time that I start something new, and I think that faith is the same, drawing you back to a beginner’s state, having faith rather than certainty.
“I’ve found that anything that’s worth knowing in life has come out of a struggle. We learn very little when things are going well, and maybe that’s why I paint, because it keeps that struggle going.”
- Rachael Burnett’s exhibition, Liminal Space, is on show in the Chapter House, York Minster, until September 6.
Rachael Burnett fact file
* She graduated with a first class degree from the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art in 2001.
* She won the Royal Scottish Academy’s James Cumming Award for Draughtsmanship, and then the Latimer Award for a Young Scottish Artist in 2001 and 2003, judged by the president of the academy.
* She has exhibited at the McLellan Galleries, Glasgow; Scottish Royal Academy, Edinburgh; and Belgravia Gallery, London.
* She lives in York with husband Robin and two children.