Thursday 29 October 2015

Marguerite Horner: Bringing the Sublime into the Mundane

Marguerite Horner: Bringing the Sublime into the Mundane

The Sufi master Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan once said: ‘To bring the sublime into the mundane is the greatest challenge there is’. The sublime, ideas of which are generally dated back to the first century AD, when the Greek critic Longinus wrote an aesthetic treatise on the subject,1 is largely associated with greatness, awe and something exceeding human understanding or representation. Kant suggests it has the power to transform and uplift, to make human reason transcend sensibility, by confronting it with something at first seemingly incomprehensible.2 His focus – as well as that of his predecessor Edmund Burke3 – is upon nature and the divine as sources for the sublime experience, and this can also be seen in contemporary 18th and 19th-century artworks by artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, JMW Turner and John Martin.

Marguerite Horner’s paintings might therefore appear to depict the polar opposite of the sublime. Her suburban streets and highways, deserted parking lots, cars, telegraph poles and wires, largely inspired by her experiences of small town America, are the stuff of the everyday – mundane, quotidian, manmade. Yet, with their grisaille palette, fluctuating between being crisply focused and blurred to the point of obfuscation, there is something uncanny about these otherwise easily recognisable scenes. They are familiar, yet strange – estranged. Freud delineates the uncanny as ‘that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’,4 as ‘nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression’.5 He drew a distinction between the uncanny and the sublime, by imbuing the latter with solely positive attributes, ‘rather than with the opposite feelings of repulsion and distress’. The uncanny, on the other hand, he classed as those things ‘which lie within the field of what is frightening’.6,7 This is false on two counts: (i) his interpretation of the sublime is somewhat rose-tinted, since it is often associated, in the first instance, with terror and horror, and (ii) this very process of alienation and repression, which Freud attributes to the uncanny, is what leads to Kant’s transcendental encounter with the sublime.

Consider, for example, the incident with the madeleine in Proust’s Combray. Describing the moment of tasting the known-but-unknown delicacy, Proust writes: ‘…this new sensation having had on me the effect that love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.’8 His description is of a form of self-transcendence, an encounter with the sublime, triggered through an encounter with the alienated and forgotten, the known-but-unknown, the uncanny. In the same way, Horner’s paintings serve to trigger a memory. In their veiled state, they seek not to represent, but to signify. They seek to fill their viewer with an essence. This realisation and resultant introspection then suggests that Horner’s paintings have succeeded in meeting the Sufi master’s challenge: a seemingly mundane image, like the simple madeleine, can contain the seed, or essence, of a memory or state, that can lead the viewer to transcend his or her physical being and cease to feel ‘mediocre, contingent, mortal’.

Simon Morley, discussing the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, notes that beauty is static, that we are charmed, seduced and captivated by it, while the sublime transports, moves and dislocates us from our self. He references how Arthur Schopenhauer ‘explored the fissure that lies at the heart of being, and envisaged a self that can in certain situations observe itself in the very act of confronting a fearful inner abyss’.9 It is this inner abyss that Horner captures so strikingly in her paintings: a sense of loneliness and emptiness, a far greater and more terrifying phenomenon than anything nature can offer. As Derrida observes, contrary to Kant and Burke: ‘The sublime is not in nature but only in ourselves’.10 Horner herself speaks of taking inspiration from Jung, when he declared a similar, if reversed, observation: ‘For the only equivalent of the universe within is the universe without’.11 She says: ‘In my paintings, I strive to capture the meaningful dialogue between my internal and external realities, which are metaphorically portrayed, by using images intuitively taken from my passing landscape’.12

To return to Morley’s notion that the sublime transports, moves and dislocates us from our self, we begin to understand the latent symbolism of Horner’s cars: parked or frozen in movement, they are vehicles of transcendence, transporting the viewer from within to without, from without to within. Her use of blurring, reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s use of the squeegee, has dual effect. Firstly, it suggests transience – a sense of passing by, of motion. Secondly, like the veiling of the greyscale palette, it reduces the image to the bare minimum – the Proustian essence. Richter, speaking of his own use of the technique, says: ‘I blur things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant. […] I blur things to make all the parts a closer fit. Perhaps I also blur out the excess of unimportant information’.13 In terms of the sublime, these blurred passages represent what Lyotard terms: ‘a cleavage within the subject between what can be conceived and what can be imagined or presented’.14 They are the physical, painterly manifestation of this fissure.

Derrida, in his essay ‘Parergon’, focuses attention not on the object of contemplation (the work, or ‘ergon’), but on its boundary. He speaks of the need to frame something to prevent it from becoming merely monstrous. Horner’s paintings are full of frames within frames: the grey skies, streets, and parking lots are bisected by bright white road markings, lamp posts, trees, and telegraph wires. In Boxed In (2010), the block of flats is set in a vivid red square, restricting the main frame of reference to a fraction of the composition, with the mundane continuing all around. Within this red frame, a myriad windows – further, smaller frames – push up against one another. Each offers a different (albeit the same) viewpoint, a reflection of the outer world. This segment could be seen from any angle, upside down, it would make no difference. Pixelated imagery, like reflections on the retina, multiple tiny photograms, just prior to being interpreted into a coherent image by the mind. Horner speaks of a constant dialogue between the mark and the inner eye in the process of her painting. The same is true for the viewer as he or she interprets it. Horner is providing just the ingredients – the flour and lemon juice of the madeleine – and asking viewers to reconstruct their own memories – to recognise in the universe without, their own universe within and to confront and transcend this inner abyss. In so doing, she is bringing the sublime into the mundane.


1. Longinus, On the Sublime, available online as part of the Project Gutenberg, EBook #17957, trans. by HL Havell, 2006, (accessed 11 October 2015)

2. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, 1790, trans. by JC Meredith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911)

3. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

4. Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XVII, 1917-1919, ed. and trans. by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), pp219-252, p220

5. Ibid, p241

6. Ibid, p219

7. See also Jessica Wren Butler, ‘What is Literature?: The sublime/uncanny as a conceptual framework for answering the answerless, and the problematic quest for certainty,’ essay available via (accessed 11 October 2015)

8. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. 1, Swann’s Way, 1913-27, ed. and annotated by William C Carter (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), p51 [my emphasis]

9. Simon Morley, ‘Introduction: The Contemporary Sublime’ in The Sublime: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. by Simon Morley (London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press: 2010), pp12-21, p16

10. Jacques Derrida, ‘Parergon’ in The Sublime: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. by Simon Morley (London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press: 2010), pp41-46, p44

11. Carl Jung, Collected Works of CG Jung: The First Complete English Edition of the Works of CG Jung, vol. IV, 1953, ed. by Sir Herbert Read, Michael Fordham and Gerhard Adler and trans. by RFC Hull (London: Routledge, 2015) p1482

12. Personal communication with the artist, August 2015

13. Gerhard Richter, Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, ed. by Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009) p33

14. Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘The Sublime and the Avant-Garde’ in The Sublime: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. by Simon Morley (London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press: 2010), pp27-40, p36


You wont find it by yourself 
oil on linen 

oil on linen 

oil on canvas 

Boxed in 
oil on linen 

All © the artist

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