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AGAINST THE SUBLIME | gardening nature

Updated: Jun 13

Inspired by the work of Joe Fan... and Grace Slick.


The lyrics of Jefferson Airplane run through my head when I think of Joe Fan’s work: one pill makes you larger, and one makes you small. It is only now I realize why. Fan is ‘the red’ pill in the Matrix. Pop a Joe Fan pill and we fall down a rabbit hole and land with a jolt in a world not ruled by the romantic painters and ecstatic followers of the sublime. It’s a fresh uplifting place to be. There is no Damascene light, and no epic battles between wave and land. You, the viewer, are not alone, the first to set foot on virgin soil. It is a land where we mortals are the Gods. Fan’s paintings are rare and important things for they make the case against the sublime. Sometimes it feels good to be empowered and to take your thoughts and garden them into a place of mystery and beauty. We too can be the great architect.


Fan was born in Hong Kong in the early nineteen-sixties and moved to Aberdeen to study art in the late seventies. He has worked and occasionally taught from this northern outpost since then. I have not asked him about his cultural influences. It seems wrong, like asking a magician how a trick is done, but one can guess. I assume he is urban in nature for both Hong Kong and Aberdeen are proud metropolitan centers, and his characters work with endeavor and enterprise – a blend of eastern Confucianism and Scottish Protestantism. It is also fair to assume that Fan is a lover of nature. His paintings overflow with trees, flowers and fruit; all the elements of wildness but, here, it is tamed. Instead of the harsh romantic conflict there is a gardened harmony.


Fan is an architect, imposing a glorious geometry not found in Beowulf’s northern wildernesses. In truth I never really wanted to fight a monster naked under the north sea anyway. He has clearly worked out an underlying mathematics that takes his work back to the careful compositions of the Italian and Dutch renaissance, and even his art school tutor Joyce W Cairns. Each work is carefully arranged on the canvas and loosely based upon an initial conte crayon drawing. Beneath all, he suggests, lies a hidden mathematical beauty.


Fan’s paintings are always of manmade places – playgrounds, homes, temples and orchards. They are places for fresh young minds. Everything is moveable. Even the trees are in pots. Sometimes things are smaller than they should be (a tiny bush or a building small enough to fit in a child’s hand?) and sometimes they are larger (a huge bunch of grapes or a large white rabbit?) There are often in enclosures. Places of entrapment? No, I think they are safe zones away from nature’s brutality. Anything can happen here, like the pages of a book or the mad hatter’s party. White rabbit? Did someone say ‘white rabbit.’ Drop the Joe Fan pill; it’s better than swimming in the cold sea.





One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small And the ones that mother gives you, don't do anything at all

Go ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall

And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you're going to fall Tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call

And call Alice, when she was just small

When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go And you've just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving low

Go ask Alice, I think she'll know

When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead And the white knight is talking backwards And the red queen's off with her head Remember what the dormouse said Feed your head, feed your head

‘White Rabbit’ Grace Slick, 1967

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