Black Dogs and Smoking Mirrors
Text by Vivian Seabright
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries a predilection had emerged amongst admirers of landscape to turn their back upon nature and observe vistas over their shoulder reflected in a small mirror, slightly convex in shape, with its surface tinted a dark colour; bound up like a pocket-book or in a carrying case. The apparatus, named ‘Claude Glass’, (a moniker given in homage to the seminal Picturesque landscape painter, Claude Lorraine) was used as a sort of pre-photographic lens which afforded the viewer a more ‘picturesque’ aesthetic of subtle gradations of tones and a softer, more desaturated colour blend.
It is significant to observe such arcane meditation upon landscape in a modern era, plunging the use of glass back into the ancient divination rites of obsidian surfaces and highly polished iron ore of the Mesoamerican era.
The cosmetic function of the mirror and its home amongst the quotidian and common place is new, brief and I believe unlikely to last. For the greatest period of human history reflective surfaces were viewed as metaphors for sacred caves and as conduits for supernatural forces. They offered up a realm of semiotic silhouettes and buried meaning, through which to glean a discreet and arcane knowledge of nature and the symbols man constructs in the face of it.
Virji’s paintings like the black glass of Mesoamerica, offer us meditations upon cultural signposts through the reductive opacity of the mythic fog and rain that they exist to defy, the whisperings of agreed meaning echoing with ever diminishing return in the darkness of a restless night’s sleep.
The beauty of the work is in carving out a landscape large enough in its possible cultural readings to be stalked by the semantic possibilities of both Blake’s Tiger burning bright, and the Tiger who came to tea.
A graphic novel, a secular hand painted Japanese scroll, Greek busts drifting in a floating world of Yucca plants and palms, a child’s view of a domestic wilderness populated by the fleet footed Samurai of Kuniyoshi. Eye level with the soil of the pot, a landscape of adventure now lost to the fog of anxiety and corporeal horror.
Painted on linen primed clear, the images preserve an active textural presence, the faded sepia and beige tones trigger our cultural memories of Zenga painting and the ideology of wabi sabi, treasuring asymmetry, asperity, economy, intimacy.
This is calligraphic ordnance survey measuring not only the topographic but also the spiritual dimensions of a landscape that you may not yet know, but has always known you.
When the work speaks so clearly as good work must, I believe one should say something of the man. It is of no small significance who he is and where he has been. It is his hands after all that have gathered these parchments that we, unsure of our mission, now survey.
Living and working beneath the yoke of chronic anxiety and wading stoically through the honeyed swamplands of depersonalisation, he is a man who offers us not pictures of thoughts but maps of territories. These are real places, viewed in the smoking mirror of his own life.
A touch of the black dog, a silhouette of a house plant half remembered from his father’s study, an illustration of a Japanese mountain daemon rushing through fog, a whirligig of spatial missteps, quick breath and the resting heartbeat of a bolting horse.
Across his left bicep is tattooed a clean linear transcription of Rousseau's infamous tiger prowling through its tropical storm. Beneath it is a quote from Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: Apocalypse now.
‘Never get out of the boat.’
Chef screams these words hysterically, repeatedly, after a near mortal encounter with a tiger in the suffocating depths of the Vietnamese jungle. His folly almost paid in full for leaving the units vessel to look for Mangos, a fragile fever dream of being a Saucier in New Orleans, so many worlds from the Horror that beckons him.
The quote inspires the memory and utterance of Willard’s internal meditation.
‘Never get out of the boat. Absolutely Goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way.’
I have followed Virji’s work for a decade now because he has so many times left the boat lashed to the shore; he has waded down the serpentine rivers, through the swamps to the beating heart of darkness, and when he asks me to look at the sky in a smoking mirror I’ll never ask him why.