The Cloud Man

‘I am the man of clouds.’
— John Constable.

‘Oft as he travers’d the cerulean field,And marked the clouds that drove before the wind; Ten thousand glorious systems would he buildTen thousand great ideas fill’d his mindBut with the clouds they fled, and left no trace behind.’
— James Thomson, The Castle of Indolence, 1748.

‘Go out to walk with a painter and you will see for the first time groups, colours, clouds and keepings, and shall have the pleasure of discovering resources in a hitherto barren ground.’
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, 1837.

Et unquam vidisti nebulam pictam in pariete? Vidisti utique et memnisti [And have you ever seen a cloud painted on a wall? You have certainly seen one and remembered it].’
— Ausonius, Cupido cruciatus, c. 370-380.

Luke Howard’s story is told by Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies. London: Picador, 2002. For further detailed information on clouds in this essay I remain indebted to Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloudspotter’s Guide, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2006.

Howard’s nimbus was reclassified by meteorologists in 1932 as the science of rain developed.

Luke Howard, On the Modifications of Clouds, & c.. London: J. Taylor, 1804, pp. 5-6. Howard’s classification has been revised over time and the International Cloud Atlas (2 vols., Geneva: World Meteorological Organization, 1975-87) has ten cloud genera and fourteen cloud species, describing the shape and structure of each type of cloud. I have preferred to remain with Howard’s original ‘modifications’. Nephology is the study of clouds.

The basis for a nomenclature of clouds was elaborated in 1802 by an early amateur meteorologist and Quaker Luke Howard in a lecture entitled ‘On the Modifications of Clouds’ delivered to his local scientific society.1 At the heart of Howard’s lecture lay the insight that ‘clouds have many individual shapes but few basic forms’ and thus, he thought, they might be classified using the binomial Linnean system based on genera and species that had already been adopted in the fields of botany and zoology. The three basic types he identified were cirrus (from the Latin for fibre or hair), cumulus (from the Latin for heap or pile), and stratus (from the Latin for layer or sheet). Clouds were thus divided into tendrils, heaps or layers. Howard then named four other cloud types that were modifications or aggregates of the three basic families of cloud. Nimbus, the raincloud was, according to Howard, a combination of all three types.2 Howard was not alone in his enthusiasm for a classification of clouds and, curiously, in the same year the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck independently proposed a classification system which grouped clouds according to their altitude. Lamarck’s insight into clouds was close to Howard’s but his terminology, although never adopted, was more evocative: en forme de voile (hazy clouds); attroupés (massed clouds); pommelés (dappled clouds); en bayaleurs (broomlike clouds); groupés (grouped clouds); moutonnées (flocked); en lambeaux (torn); en barres (banded); en coureurs (running). Howard’s account of the factors determining the shape and formation of clouds has prevailed over Lamarck’s, but what links them is the attempt to classify clouds on the basis of their shape, and to interpret these shapes as functions of particular weather situations. I want to adopt Howard’s classification of previously shapeless and unresolved forms — his naming of clouds — as a framework to engage with the on-going work of ‘John Reynolds nephologist’, ‘cloud man’.3

1. Cirrus
Def. Nubes cirrata, tenuissima, quae undique crescat.
Parallel, flexuous, or diverging fibres, extensible in any or in all directions.

The name of cirrus comes from the Latin for lock of hair and describes the delicate white streaks of falling ice crystals that from a distance have a silky fibrous appearance. Cirrus is the highest of the common clouds — the most ethereal and perhaps philosophical — and its distinctive flossy formations known as fallstreaks may be in the shape of hooks, commas (mare’s tails) or even fish skeletons (vertebratus). 

Hubert Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting, translated by Janet Lloyd. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. Damisch puts the signifier cloud between slashes to indicate he deals with clouds as signs instead of realistic elements: ‘/Cloud/ is not just an instrument adopted by a style; it is the very material of a construction’, p. 16. 

A Theory of /Cloud/, p. 15.

In A Theory of /Cloud/ (1972) one of the most important contemporary theoreticans of art, Hubert Damisch, attempts to describe the ways in which artists, from the end of the Middle Ages until the late eighteenth century, have represented clouds in painting.4 Explained like this Damisch’s study would appear to be another detailed study of an object found in paintings, another iconography of a ‘motif’ and a research into the particular. But it turns out in fact that we are not dealing with such a traditional reading at all. The representation of the cloud is utilised as a pretext in order to observe the manifestation in painting — in paintings — of a series of concepts or theories of painting. For Damisch the rigour of linear perspective cannot encompass all of visual experience and, indeed, perspective generates an oppositional factor, the cloud, with which it interacts dialectically. It will be my argument here that John Reynolds’ CLOUD (2006), silver pen marker on 7073 small stretched canvases each 100 x 100 x 35 mm, first installed at the 2006 Biennale of Sydney Zones of Contact is a painting, installation of paintings, that continues the tradition of Damisch’s reading of the cloud as ‘semiotic operator’. The cloud adopted widely throughout Reynolds’ work, I want to claim, becomes a dynamic agent facilitat­ing new types of pictorial space, pointing to the concealed mechanisms that make pictorial representation possible. Reynolds, like Coreggio, as Damisch describes him,
was bound to be attracted to nebulous structures, both on account of their plasticity and because they provided him with the means to position, split up, and confuse the figures that he set among them … Bodies entwined in clouds defy the laws of gravity and likewise the principles of linear perspective, and they lend themselves to the most arbitrary of positions, to foreshortenings, deformations, divisions, magnifications, and fanciful nonsense.5

In the painting of the early Heian period (around AD1000) kasumi had a soft and transparent quality, lightly coloured in indigo blue. By the thirteenth century they appeared as solid blocks, with a rounded head often outlined in black ink, and were known as -suyarigasumi. See

A Theory of /Cloud/, p. 61.

In this seemingly innocent and evanescent object of the cloud theories — concerning theology, physics, biology and even representation itself — accumulate and come into conflict in each individual painting, as they do in the entire course of the history of art. An object like the cloud not only becomes laden with theoretical elements, it is itself a ‘theoretical object’, an instrument of the manifestation of a group of ideas and a history of ideas. It is not only to be understood as an element at the level of content of expression (a semantic element in the semiotic paradigm) but also as a trace of the material nature of painting, of its production and its effect with respect to a viewer. In this sense it is possible for Damisch to read the history of art — his subtitle is ‘Toward a History of Painting’ — as the relationship, succession and conflict of objects in painting, both determined by theories and the carriers of theories. An object like the cloud is then recurrent in history but with a varying function: in the late Middle Ages it serves to introduce the sacred into the profane and, by providing a support for apparitions, ascensions, mystical visions of Christ to thereby justify the insertion of the metaphysical into the physical without directly questioning the latter. In the Renaissance the role of the cloud becomes fraught since the regulation of each composition is assured by perspective. The cloud serves to indicate what cannot be represented: the infinite. The infinite is marked by the cloud but at the same time designated through it. In fact, Damisch insists, the rigidly defined system of perspective based upon an effect of linearity enforces its own countersubject of the cloud: indefinable effects of pure colour exceeding the boundaries of the line and beginning to fracture the perspectival space as precursors of modernist abstraction. In the eighteenth century Ruskin and Turner carry out, both in conditions and in practice, a revision of the appearance of the cloud as a landscape feature. In parallel terms, in Japanese painting we could point to the artistic device the Japanese call kasumi (mists spreading horizontally in bands) that give depth and perspective to landscape scenes. As well as providing depth, like a filmic dissolve the kasumi also signify the passage of time between different scenes in an image.6 And so it is that each single cloud represented may become, under the pressure of particular historical and epistemological circumstances, a condensate of the applications of theory. That is: a cloud in painting can itself become a ‘theoretical object’, the reflection or origin — intrinsically — of an abstract reflection on art or representation in general. As Damisch argues, the cloud ‘reveals only as it conceals: in every respect, it appears to be one of the most favored signs of representation, and manifests both the limits and the infinite regress upon which representation is founded.’7 

Writing around Reynolds’ work, Leigh Davis has argued that we must understand post-classical painting as ‘a well of theories’, ‘Country & Western,’ p. 16, at:

‘The Clouds’ in Lysistrata and Other Plays, translated by Alan H. Sommerstein. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, p. 125. See also Jean-François Lyotard: ‘Thoughts are clouds,’ in Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, p. 5.

The point is as follows: not only do there exist in art objects that may be analysed with theories, but rather certain objects once confronted with problematics of their representation contain at least potentially and internally one or more of their theories.8 Reynolds’ artistic practice of the cloud explored in this essay is based upon the assumption that direct experimentation with the problems of painting can in fact become the subject of painting. Perhaps it is true as Aristophanes argued around 420 BC in his play entitled The Clouds: ‘From them [clouds] come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason.’9

2. Cumulus
Def. Nubes cumulata, densa, sursum crescens.
Convex or conical heaps, increasing upward from a horizontal base.

John Reynolds’ CLOUD (2006) at the Sydney Biennale was a cumulus, an altocumulus in fact, one of the middle clouds, a patchy layer of more or less regularly spaced smaller cloud lumps, sometimes called ‘cloudlets’. Cumulus is called perlucidus when there are gaps between the cloudlets — and in a clear sky the sides away from the sun tend to be shaded, and it is designated floccus when the cloudlets are all tufts. CLOUD is a clumpy layer of tessellations that represents a large puffy breadroll from a distance. Convection clouds like cumulus form when air rises in thermals from the warm ground. A particular subgroup of altocumulus are ‘orographic clouds’ which form when air is forced upwards over an obstacle such as a hill or mountain. Their shape becomes more solid dense and is referred to as lenticularis. As Reynolds’ CLOUD races over the high door arch in the foyer of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and shoots around the corner wall it begins to bunch up like this. Altocumulus also commonly feature supplementary fibrous tails of precipitation, known as virga, that hang beneath the cloudlets, sometimes making them look like jellyfish. CLOUD, too, contains some of these tessellated ends.

The illusion of wholeness produced by CLOUD rests on a double disavowal and this is significant in such a text-based work. The gaps between the canvases need to be disavowed (to see the whole they must be perceived as continuous) and the gap between the word and the representation of it equally disavowed. Secondly: the placing on the gallery wall is arbitrary and necessary: arbitrary, because there is no evident connection between the placing of the individual canvases. This process echoes Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotic theories of the arbitrariness of language (the connections between letters and acoustic sounds and referents are exterior and imposed from the outside rather than naturally motivated from within). Necessary, because once the canvases are grouped there appears to be a connection (alphabetical, thematic, alliterative, semantic). Here are some chains of meaning placed close together that clamour for attention:





Any ‘word’, though it is equally possible in place of any other, is nevertheless once selected, an exclusion of others, and bound to a definite logic. While each canvas is a document (objective in a material sense and also copied from a dictionary), each whole is a contrivance (subjective), real without being true, belonging to the artist’s and our imagination and projection. On the process of installing CLOUD Reynolds comments:
… we endeavoured to randomize the works to ensure that a term beginn­ing with ‘S’ (for example) was not surrounded by others like it, because we wanted to give each term some independence. But, as time went by, we would become aware of a series of delightful and unlooked for collisions between terms, or there would seem to be a little cluster forming — 3 or 4 of the works would collude — despite the purely accidental positioning. The curious effect of building them up so densely was that it exacerbated that flickering quality where the eye drifted across the surface rather than picking out individual pieces; yet by randomizing them, I provided the opportunity for the works to riff around and make connections.

What gives CLOUD its momentum and presence is not causal connection but this double play, lucid, simple, yet very complex. CLOUD’s cloudlet words and expressions are fragments of hypothetical connection, potential, undefined, unfinished crossing each other, folding, partitioning, tracing, touching, a universe of virtual, incomplete connections that never cease occurring.

See also Reynolds’ comment in
‘A Lexicographical Wallscape,’ p. 2:
‘Since the latter part of the twentieth century, language, words and text have, of course, been central to contemporary art practice. New Zealand has notable examples. We might think of the gift of Colin McCahon’s Victory Over Death to Australia as a prior trans-Tasman export of word-strewn art work.’

What connects the 7073 canvases of Reynolds’ CLOUD is, of course, the fact they are drawn from the one source, The Dictionary of New Zealand English, edited by Harry Orsman, but also the emptiness they evoke, that surrounds and conditions them, an emptiness that is directly related to their virtual possibilities and the multiplicities they suggest. It is not that individually they don’t convey a meaning but that they are open in their interaction with each other and the spectator, and because of this openness in some way illegible and ambiguous. This is not the fullness of consequence found in, say, a painting of McCahon whose words always have somewhere definite to go. It is instead the true fullness of going nowhere in particular. Reynolds’ connection with McCahon is explicit but revisionary. See, for example, the way he reworks McCahon’s often-cited ‘I will need words’ into his 2005 exhibition title I gotta use words when I talk to you.10

3. Stratus
Def. Nubes strata, aquae modo expansa, deorsum crescens.
A widely extended, continuous, horizontal sheet, increasing from below upward.

Stratus are the lowest-forming grey layers of cloud. Stratus weighs above you, may even make you feel claustrophic and suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Stratus are called opacus when they are thick enough to completely mask the sun, They are featureless, flat and indistinct misty blankets with diffuse edges. As I write this on a wintery overcast Auckland day these ponderous concrete-grey stratus clouds cast a drab and dreary light outstaying their welcome. 

The Invention of Clouds, p. 11.

In his biography of Luke Howard, The Invention of Clouds, Richard Hamblyn writes: 
Weather writes, erases and rewrites itself upon the sky with the endless fluidity of language; and it is with language that we have sought throughout history to apprehend it. Since the sky has always been more read than measured, it has always been the province of words.11

H.W. Orsman editor, The Dictionary of New Zealand English: A Dictionary of New Zealandisms on Historical Principles.
Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. vii.

In Of Pavlova, Poetry and Paradigms: Essays in Honour of Harry Orsman, edited by Laurie Bauer and Christine Franzen. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1993.

Reynolds’ inspiration was to make his ‘province of words’ The Dictionary of New Zealand English — with its 6000 headwords, 700 from Maori, 47,000 quotations arranged chronologically over 965 pages — and write them in the sky. Not just any words but ‘New Zealandisms’: ‘the history of words which are in some way distinctively or predominantly, though not always exclusively, “New Zealand” in meaning or use.’12 In the Orsman dictionary, as poet Vincent O’Sullivan has written,
All our lingo sung or mumbled,
Foreign import, local bloom,
Twitch or kahikatea
Rooted here at home,
Take lexicographic purchase 
(‘Harvest (almost) home’)13

The dictionary and Reynolds’ painting practice are natural friends and the dictionary like Reynolds’ work is the product of ‘hard yacker’:
Yacker, yacca, yakka, yakker n.1. work, esp. as hard yacker, hard or strenuous work, toil, but not necessarily physical. (The Dictionary of New Zealand English)

See K.M.E. Murray, Caught in the Web of Words: James A.H. Murray and the Oxford Dictionary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977

Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition, translated by Alastair McEwen. London: Secker and Warburg, 1999, p. 226. 

We might think first of Harry Orsman meticulously compiling his lemmas (headwords) and recording his citations (often first heard in the pub or on the sports ground), and then of John Reynolds as he painstakingly trawls twice through Orsman’s tome and writes his selections in silver enamel pen on small canvases which are then collocated (randomly) on a gallery wall. Both in different ways repeat the labour of Scottish schoolmaster James A. H. Murray, the chief editor of The Oxford English Dictionary, who worked with thousands of slips (called citations), each consisting of a quoted passage containing the word under consideration.14 There is a distinction of labour to be made here though between Orsman and Reynolds. It is the distinction semiotician Umberto Eco makes between dictionary and encyclopaedic knowledge. Dictionary representations ‘take account of relations within the language, leaving aside elements of knowledge of the world, while knowledge in an encyclopaedic format presupposes extra-linguistic knowledge’.15 Dictionary knowledge uses semantic categories organised hierarchically; encyclopaedic knowledge on the other hand is uncoordinated by nature with an uncontrollable format. I am going to propose that Reynolds’ CLOUD turns the Orsman dictionary into an encyclopaedia.

See Reynolds’ comment that ‘It seemed effective, since a number of people who had only a passing grasp of the work would suddenly notice an Aussie slang term, or a phrase rude about Australians, and then they would engage’ and his description of the small boy ‘staring at all the words without really engaging, and then his eyes lit up and he said aloud: “Weasel shit!” After that he started hunting for other terms’, p. 455 this volume.

See Michael Hoey, Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language. London: Routledge, 2005. Hoey builds his reflections on the importance of lexis on the lexical grammar of M.A.K. Halliday and the work of J.M. Sinclair.

Will CLOUD travel or is it caught in its ‘New Zealandisms’? The responses of an Australian audience at the Sydney Biennale seem to suggest it has blown successfully across the Tasman.16 Nevertheless, for a New Zealand audience Orsman’s ‘words’ have been learnt through encounters with them in speech and writing, and they are loaded with the cumulative effects of those encounters. It is tempting here to cite Michael Hoey’s ‘lexical priming’, a new theory of the importance of words to language, that places words rather than syntax at the centre of language and views words as the organising factor of our language.17 

The theory of lexical priming claims that we hold in our minds elaborate networks of possible co-occurrence patterns and calling up the words in our mental lexicon sparks off a series of expectancies that we use to build up discourse. Grammatical and lexical choices will be governed by these ‘primings’. As an example of ‘primed words’ we might think of ‘language families’ or hyponyms. A hyponym is a word or phrase whose semantic range is included within that of another word. For example, scarlet, vermilion, carmine, and crimson are all hyponyms of red (their hypernym). Also central to this theory is the concept of collocation whereby two or three words seem to appear frequently in each other’s company (for example, inevitable + consequence). Primings are built up in our minds through contact with language and how we expect units of language to perform. This individual knowledge of co-occurrence patterns stored in an individual’s mind is then harmonised through socialising factors like education or literary traditions, mass media, dictionaries all of which lead to the development of shared language expectations. Put another way, collocational choices are built up in the individual mind and harmonised in a collective consciousness of language.

Reynolds’ CLOUD works on this principle of collocation: the disposition or arrangement of words placed or arranged next to each other. There exists a process of selection at the first point from the dictionary to produce the corpus of words; another selection at the moment of hanging (or collocation) from a (diminishing) body of choices; and a further selection of collocates at the point of viewing involving speculation of how they might interlock. As claimed above, this is at once personal and individual and also part of a collective process. Classical linguistics holds that grammar is generated first and words are then slotted into the opportunities created; lexical priming reverses the roles of lexis and grammar, arguing that grammar is the outcome of lexical structure. It is collocation that seems to offer a clue to how language is really organised. Words are ‘primed’ for use through our experience with them and everything we know about a word is a product of our encounters with it. Words — slang, jargon, borrowings, phonetic spellings, New Zealandisms — in CLOUD, lifted from the Orsman dictionary, are not confined to the definitions given to them in the dictionary but interact with other words in common patterns of use. Hoey’s theory, like Reynolds’ CLOUD, is a testament to ‘word power’ and the amazing organisational properties of words. It also helps explain how as language speakers we are fluent, creative and natural at the same time. The clouds that were oppressive and smothering as I began to write this section of my essay are now beginning to break up as glimpses of broken blue sky appear.

Def. Nubeculae densiores subrotundae et quasi in agmine appositae.
Small, well-defined roundish masses, in close horizontal arrangement or contact.

High patches of cloud that appear as tiny white grains without shading and often arranged in ripples or broad undulations. Cirro-cumulus is the most elusive of the cloud genera forever dissolving and changing to become cirro-stratus. The most memorable is Cirrocumulus stratiformis undulatus or ‘mackerel sky’ known by mariners as the warning of approaching storms. Mackerel sky displays the distinctive stripes of a fish: the choppy forms indicating strong winds with the individual cloudlets as the fishy scales.

As Damisch points out: ‘In absolute terms, no “cloud” can be drawn with a pointed instrument. Only a brush, used as delicately as possible, is capable of expressing a cloud’s “edges” and textures in all their variety … The reason why cloud does not encourage drawing is not so much its shape, but rather its instability and evanescence,’ A Theory of /Cloud/, p. 190. Leigh Davis notes that Reynolds’ ‘oilsticks are knubbly, sticky like lipstick … his lines or marks are on the jerky side of gestural,’ ‘Country & Western,’ p. 38.

Reynolds’ large 2 metre by 12 metre painting Hope Street (1997) is both a streetscape, a landscape and a cloudscape, an architecture for/of clouds. Oilstick on fourteen Rimu panels — a discontinued line of native timber purchased from Dunedin Placemakers — Hope Street deliberately opposes the heaviness and material loading of the wood panelling (ground) with the lightness and trans­lucent play of clouds (figure). The composition is articulated around three distinct elements: on the left, a bunch of clouds that bump and twist and turn together in complex patterns of interaction; intervening in the centre, a grid and clamber of architectural joists; on the right, fabric folds of landscape hills turned snaking on their side. This latter in a metacommentary contains a hidden human figure engaged in the act of drawing. Reynolds registers the ineffability, the lightness of the oilstick by drawing on dark wooden panels. The oilstick line evokes the spectral equivocality of the cloud,18 its resistance to being located or contained within representational forms. The oilstick also draws connections between the transcendent lightness offered by the cloud on one side of the composition and the lateral, descendental, gravity that seeks accumulation of the landscape forms on the other. In between in the centre of the composition, we encounter the regress and subtle play between outline (in oilstick) and interior in wood (ground) that is used to ‘represent’ the wood of the stacked and supportive 4x1 panels. What is being rhetorically conjured here is something at once infinitely responsive and in transformation, something always on the point of becoming something else. Consonant with the mobile, the nomadic, the urban street of the future (street of hope) that sits between landscape and sky, that moves on and up responding to the echoic lie of the land.

Hope Street 1997
oilstick on 14 Rimu panels, 200 x 1200 cm
courtesy Sue Crockford Gallery

A Theory of /Cloud/, p. 35, 21, 15.

Hope Street fits Damisch’s characterisation of cloud as matter aspiring to form registering its infinite provisionality and imminence. Although a cloud may offer ‘flights of the imagination, this seems to be thanks not to its outline, but on the contrary to whatever it is about it that defies the regime of delineation and pertains to its material nature, its “matter” aspiring to “form”.’ In his commentary on the frescoes painted in the early sixteenth century by Coreggio in the cupolas of San Giovanni Evangelista and the Cathedral in Parma, Damisch describes these images enabled by clouds as ‘operators of elevation’ while at the same time noting that the cloud theme ‘contradicts the very idea of outline and delineation and through its relative insubstantiality constitutes a negation of the solidity, permanence and identity that define shape.’19 We might ask similar questions of Reynolds’ CLOUD. Are the ‘painted’ words in a cloud mere air or do they have material density — the density of a dictionary? What is the function and materiality of language inside painting?

But still more is at stake. What is striking in Hope Street is how the clouds and landscape, even the cumulus of 4x1 boards, sit outside the system of perspective. A principle function of the ‘cloud’ and ‘landscape’ segments in the composition is that they deliberately break down a sense of horizontal and receding space.

A Theory of /Cloud/, pp. 121-24 and Damisch, The Origin of Perspective, translated by John Good-man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994, p. 94.

Reynolds’ painting is thus also a paradigmatic example of the role of the cloud as it functions in Damisch’s classic analysis of the early Renaissance demonstration of perspective reportedly carried out by Filippo Brunelleschi.20 Onto a small panel, Brunelleschi painted a perspectival rendering of the Baptistery in Florence, making a hole in the board at the vanishing point towards which the parallels converged. Holding the back of the painting to his face, and looking through the hole, he used a mirror held in front of him to sight the image, thereby producing an optical structure that articulated the homology between the eye of the observer and the vanishing point. How­ever, on the painting Brunelleschi crucially did not render the sky, but instead provided a silvered surface upon which the real sky was reflected, before again being reflected in the hand-held mirror. Damisch argues that cloud is thus presented as something excessive to the perspectival system, something that escapes the jurisdiction of perspective and forms its constitutive outside. With Brunelleschi, and Reynolds’ Hope Street, a cloud’s spectral equivocality and resistance to being definitively located or contained within representational forms, insofar as they are the pre-condition for its appearance, turns out to be its simultaneous (virtual) absence. Similarly, as I have claimed, the white ‘cloudlet’ canvases of CLOUD dissolve into the spectral haze of their installation white wall, at once breaking down and ensuring ‘the jurisdiction of perspective’.

See Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, Blur: The Making of Nothing. New York: H.N. Abrams, 2002. 

Here, as a final example of the represented cloud’s virtual absence, it is worth briefly mentioning the most celebrated and transgressive of contemporary architectural clouds: the Blur building of New York architects Diller+Scofidio, an exhibition building constructed for Swiss Expo 2002 on Lake Neuchâtel, beside the town of Yverdon-les-Bains, in Switzerland.21 The Blur Pavilion was a suspended platform 300 feet long covered in an artificially produced cloud or fog, produced from 31,500 jets spraying tiny drops of pressurised lake water into the air. Stabilised by its hidden steel structure, this building took the form of a cloud hovering over the lake, a fog mass, a piece of architecture made, accord­ing to the architects, out of nothing but the ‘site itself: water’. A piece of heaven brought down to earth.

Def. Nubes extenuata sub-concava vel undulata. Nubeculae hujus modi appositae.
Horizontal or slightly inclined masses attenuated towards a part or whole of their circumference, bent downward, or undulated, separate, or in groups consisting of small clouds having these characters.

Largely transparent milky veils of high cloud tending to cover large areas of sky that sometimes produce the white or coloured rings, spots or arcs of light around the sun or moon that are known as halo phenomena when the sun’s rays are refracted as they pass through the ice crystals of a cirrostratus cloud. These might be miniature, upturned rainbow arcs sitting above the sun (circumzenithal arcs) or when the cirrostratus has a fine fibrous or striated appearance called fibratus it can produce a sundog or parhelia (mock sun) or its moon version paraselene. Sometimes the cirrostratus is just a faint opalescence over the blue sky.

Cirrostratus may be identified by its halo phenomena: arcs, rings and spots of light. Reynolds has done a number of paintings of parhelia or mock suns using a continuous internally circling line to represent halo phenomena. Sundogs are points of light that appear on either side of the sun. They are red on the inside and yellow and white on the side away from the sun. The ice crystals that form these halos are hexagonal columns like very short unsharpened pencils that fall horizontally, lined up in different combinations, and depend on light passing through them in different ways. Reynolds has also commenced a series (BIG SILVER LIGHT) of smaller coloured works on small canvases that use silver and coloured spray paint from an aerosol can and reproduce the effect of coronae and irisation when sunlight passes around very small droplets or ice particles. A corona is not a ring like the halo phenomena but a central disc with rings of colour around it, and irisation refers to the irregular and fragmentary iridescence found along the borders of clouds.

Big Silver Light 2007
spray paint on canvas
100 x 100 x 35 mm each
Private collection, Auckland

See the essay on this painting by Gwynneth Porter, pp. 242-51 this volume. 

In 2007 John Reynolds exhibited a major painting entitled Last Evenings on Earth in the Sue Crockford Gallery22 and he has subsequently painted a number of similar smaller works with the title Any Other Night. Last Evenings on Earth consists of strips of coloured paint applied at an incline. The colours tend to bleed, disperse, seep and fade off as if somehow escaping from the figure they are perhaps meant to define. They become a transparent shadow of what they represent, without clear outline and substance. Something unstable like the fleeting ghostly quality of watercolours. These paintings also contain pencil or oil paint marker traces; traces of the painter’s hand. The askew rectangular blocks of acrylic colour are enlargements of a single brush stroke expanded and expanding until it fragments into its constituents like the pixel, becomes abstract shapes, brings to the surface tiny lines that had never been seen before, ‘compulsions of the painterly process’ as Reynolds calls them. The Any Other Night series also contain halo and coronae phenomena applied directly from the spray can.

End Game#3 2004
oil and acrylic on canvas, 90 x 60cm
courtesy Sue Crockford Gallery

Leigh Davis, ‘Country & Western,’ p. 19.

Because Reynolds’ images are unstable, the relations between the image and what it depicts are exposed and made questionable. On the one hand these are only images (pattern and shapes of colour together with lines); on the other hand, they are a contemplation and investigation of images themselves. They are critical and interrogatory and subjective and sensual. They make their presence felt like phantom shadows. What haunts these paintings is the drift and dispersion of the nebular, what resists being tethered by signification. The slip and slide between the inclined blocks of colour — and their media (acrylic and spray enamel) — in these paintings takes one back to the broader project of Reynolds’ work as Leigh Davis defines it: ‘the invention of the hesitant edge … the development of a representational system where the visible world [is] seen to touch, to resemble and be disturbed by, the invisible one.’23

Any Other Night #2 2007
mixed media on canvas 500 x 1400mm
courtesy Sue Crockford Gallery

Def. Nubes densa, basim planam undique supercrescens, vel cujus moles longinqua videtur partim plana partim cumulata.
The Cirro-stratus blended with the Cumulus, and either appearing intermixed with heaps of the latter or superadding a wide-spread structure to its base.

Low puffy layers with well-defined bases usually composed of clumps or rolls and which often showing variation in tone from bright white to dark grey or bluish-grey may produce some precipitation. The cloud elements may have gaps with blue sky showing through (called perlucidus or lacunosus with larger holes). Stratocumulus contains great variation: they may be long rolls (stratiformis) or a mass in a smooth lens shape (lenticularis) or they may display crenellated tops (castellanus).

Giorgio Vasari, ‘Life of Piero di Cosimo’ in Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by Gaston du C. de Vere. London: 1912-14, vol. 4, p. 127. Leonardo da Vinci, Treatise on Painting, translated by Philippe MacMahon. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956, vol. 1, pp. 50-1. 

Both Lamarck and Howard compared their new science to another ancient practice that was being renewed in the eighteenth century along scientific lines: physiognomy by which the study of a person’s outer appearance, primarily the face, may give insights into their character or personality. The principle promoter of physiognomy was the Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) whose essays translated into English and French were highly influential. Who cannot remember from childhood the dizzying effect of lying on the grass staring at the moving clouds searching for likenesses? In the unpeopled sky we have long sought out objects, faces, animals, human figures. In his Lives of the Artists Giorgio Vasari had criticised Piero di Cosimo for trying to make out strange figures and constructions in cloud formations despite the fact that in his treatise on painting Leonardo da Vinci recommends that the artist in search of new stimuli ‘stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes in a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places, in which, if you consider them well, you may find really marvellous ideas’.24 The Saint Sebastian (Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, 1457-8) and Triumph of Virtue (Paris Louvre, 1540) of Andrea Mantegna contain clouds in which the silhouettes of figures can be glimpsed and are clear proof that Piero di Cosimo’s ‘bizarreness’ was not at all exceptional. In Saint Sebastian we discern the figure of a horseman, which corresponds to the sculpted fragments — a head, a sandaled foot, a number of busts — with which the ground is strewn. In the Triumph of Virtue the easily missed cryptomorph profile of a gigantic cloud face looms among the painted clouds as if propelling them on. The best-known instance of the fanciful projection of shapes into clouds (aleamorphs) is Hamlet’s teasing game with Polonius:
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By th’ mass, and ‘tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale.
(Hamlet, Act 3: Sc ii)
More seriously, of course, Hamlet uses the shifting shapes of clouds (in the shapes of animals) to demonstrate his own tragic loss of identity. In these images made by chance there is something quotidian, contingent and provisional, something that diminishes the romance of clouds as cosmic spectacles over our heads. But this projection is also something universal, encapsulating, as Goethe in a commentary on Luke Howard written in 1820 notes, ‘the function of the human imagination, which, from a natural instinct, endeavours to give a necessary form to every shapeless image of chance’.

A Theory of /Cloud/, p. 185.

For a selection of Peirce’s writings on signs, see James Hoopes, editor, Peirce on Signs. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

John Reynolds, ‘A Lexicographical Wallscape’ (Interview with Dianne Bardsley), NZ Words 11 (May 2007), p. 1. 

Reynolds’ CLOUD takes on a shape that is already itself a shape and may in turn take on the shape of multiple objects. There exists, inbuilt, a limitless semiosis in this shape of a shape of a shape… in which, as Damisch suggests, we discover ‘configurations of [our] desires, images from [our] theatre of life, signs of [our] culture’.25 Cloud is a sign in the triple sense outlined by the American founder of semiotics, Charles Peirce, of a symbol, an icon and an index.26 A symbol because it arbitrarily connects, as I argue in this essay, to the practice of painting; an icon because the painting ‘fits’ the shape of its object, like the other recurring icons of Reynolds’ oeuvre: signposts, trees, umbrellas, grids; and an index because it points our way to the Orsman dictionary. The triad is not mutually exclusive rather, as Peirce insisted, three modes of relationship between signifier and signified that coexist. In its presence, its presentativity, how does CLOUD work? The whole ‘cloud’ is not seen but imagined in the gaps between the small canvases. It is these gaps that Reynolds’ work ‘covers’ and in doing so produces a whole, a spectacle. The gap between one small canvas (cloudlet) and the next is perceptible but in staging or editing them into clumps and then a (larger) cloud, the gap is bridged by the spectator in making a leap in space and lured on by the apparent completeness of the whole. As spectators we understand how Reynolds’ cumulus CLOUD cumulates; it adds up. In this game there is an element of digitalisation. The ‘page’ of the wall on which the 7073 small canvases sit is not unlike a digital screen with each canvas like a tiny pixel. Furthermore, the silver words are mercurial in the changing light, shifting of their own volition in and out of vision. Most altocumulus look their best and most dramatic at sunrise or sunset when the low-angled sunlight casts them in a dramatic relief. Walking alongside CLOUD, past the individual canvases, turning at the corner and then stepping back from the work produces a series of shifts. The silver enamel on white responds animatedly to the lighting source, it ghosts spectrally, it can blur momentarily, disappear even. Reynolds has commented: ‘I felt I was vapourising a book, that the work was a visual haze from the Dictionary.’27

A Theory of /Cloud/, p. 23. 

In July 2007 Reynolds’ work Looking west, late afternoon, low water, (also known as Black Cloud) composed of 1173 canvases painted black and inscribed in silver marker with Maori loanwords and composite-words from the Orsman Dictionary, was hung on two walls at either end of the Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington. On the larger wall, the canvases, hung tightly together in alphabetical order like tiles, took on the distinguishable shape of a meetinghouse (wharenui) with an open door and, on the opposing wall through another door­way into a smaller room, they assumed the form of entrance gateway and lintel. The cloud, ‘in the ever changing variety of its forms, may be considered the basis, if not the model of all metamorphoses’ as Damisch has stated,28 and the model, we might add, of all ­ cross-cultural exchange.

Def. Nubes vel nubiam congeries [superné cirrata] pluvium effundens
The rain cloud. A cloud, or system of clouds from which rain is falling. 

Cumulonimbus, thunderstorm clouds, are characterised by their dark bases that produce heavy showers and their enormous height. The classic shape of a mature cumulonimbus is a huge vertical column, several kilometres across and extending up to the troposphere with an anvil-like shape (incus) at the top which spreads out in plumes of ice particles. It is the cumulonimbus’ complex, evolving structure that makes it seem almost like a living organism. The other rain cloud nimbostratus is a dark, ragged in appearance, precipitating layer covering the sky. These thick, grey, featureless layers of cloud without the tower effect of cumulonimbus cause prolonged heavy rain, ice or snow. Nimbostratus tends to release its precipitation slowly but relentlessly.

Treatise on Painting, vol. 1, p. 114.

In Part Seven of his treatise on painting, the Codex Urbinas Latinus, Leonardo da Vinci gave himself this instruction:
You will paint the clouds pursued by impetuous winds, beaten against the crests of the mountains and enveloped among them, whirling about like waves dashed on the rocks, with the air itself terrifying because of the dark shadows created in the air by dust, mist and thick clouds.29

In the later part of his life Leonardo produced a series of absorbing drawings of heavy storms, cataclysmic in nature. The group of sixteen Deluge drawings position the viewer looking through the atmosphere from a high altitude. The eye travels huge distances in these tiny drawings that depict scenes documenting violent natural disaster. Leonardo demonstrated a multiplicity of motives in these works: the observation of climatic phenomena, the depiction of mythical or biblical apocalypse, and the contemplation of his own death. Over the years, Reynolds has worked aspects of Leonardo’s ‘deluge’ into his compositions. In the summer period between late 1994 and early 1995, the Auckland region was subjected to a drought and the city found itself in the midst of a major water supply crisis blamed upon the El Niño effect. Reynolds response was a series of ‘Water-Petitioning Paintings’, rhapsodic compositions of rain chants that contained the hook motif of an umbrella (one painting had the title Plato’s Umbrella) combined together with sheets of falling rain. A response that sees painting as totemic sites in which the rainstorm is understood as a local event and a charged pressure point.

As someone who has lived on Auckland’s west coast, Reynolds does not flinch from facing the sky at its most confrontational, braving the often threatening, rolling configurations of moisture-laden clouds, dazzling silver highlights on dark ground, the fearful ferruginous west coast sunsets. Reynolds’ Nietzsche on White’s Beach is the portrait of a west coast squall; a tattoo of golden rain in finger-daubed lines; a sudden showering of rain while other parts of the landscape nearby are still lit by sunshine. In a recent statement for a moody, raincloud-evocative painting entitled The Second Fall that trails blue, violet, purple and grey with flaring lines of silver spray across its darkly dropping clouds, Reynolds cites the following passage from John Banville’s The Sea: ‘You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a mockery, a lust gone cold. Gust after gust of entropy.’ 

Nietzsche on Whites Beach 1996
acrylic on hessian,
280 x 800 cm
Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

The Invention of Clouds, p. 253.

The Invention of Clouds, p. 91.

See also Reynolds’ statement in ‘A Lexicographical Wallscape,’ p.2: ‘Leonardo da Vinci once described clouds as “bodies without surface … they are ghostlike, ephemeral, nebulous…” he might have been describing language.’

As someone who has lived on Auckland’s west coast, Reynolds does not flinch from facing thRalph Abercromby who helped redraw Luke Howard’s original cloud types in 1887 lamented that ‘Clouds always tell a true story but one which is difficult to read.’30 Richard Hamblyn is also wistful over fixing in words the calamity that is a cloud: ‘Clouds themselves, by their very nature, are self-ruining and fragmentary. They flee in haste over the visible horizons to their quickly forgotten dénouements. Every cloud is a small catastrophe, a world of vapour that dies before our eyes.’31 Abercromby and Hamblyn’s vexation is prompted by the affective indeterminancy of the image of clouds. Because it is both formal and formless, the cloud is an open invitation to interpretation. What has the cloud done for John Reynolds? It has allowed him to have a foot in two very different places at the same time: to present works that are inhabited by a will toward language, or at least to communicate, to signify (works full of words), while simultaneously to enjoy the freedom of a wonderful weightlessness and provisionality in the attempt to construct a system without ever being able to achieve it fully.32 He has said of CLOUD:
There were a number of other possible titles, but when I thought of the work on the wall, it appealed as a great amorphous speech bubble, and because its character was never going to be grasped in its totality, I thought of clouds as a motif. They are with us all the time and yet they are shapeless, they form out of the air, and they’re a great issue for us in New Zealand. They have their own terminology — a set of prescribed terms for the shapes and structures of clouds. I was attracted by that amorphous, open, white whale of an opportunity, with its own set of imperatives and vernaculars and internal mechanics.e sky at its most confrontational, braving the often threatening, rolling configurations of moisture-laden clouds, dazzling silver highlights on dark ground, the fearful ferruginous west coast sunsets. Reynolds’ Nietzsche on White’s Beach is the portrait of a west coast squall; a tattoo of golden rain in finger-daubed lines; a sudden showering of rain while other parts of the landscape nearby are still lit by sunshine. In a recent statement for a moody, raincloud-evocative painting entitled The Second Fall that trails blue, violet, purple and grey with flaring lines of silver spray across its darkly dropping clouds, Reynolds cites the following passage from John Banville’s The Sea: ‘You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a mockery, a lust gone cold. Gust after gust of entropy.’ 

The Second Fall 2008
oil and acrylic on canvas
213 x 180 cm
‍courtesy Sue Crockford Gallery

See Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/: ‘On a conceptual level, a ‘cloud’ is an unstable formation with no definite outline or colour and yet that possesses the powers of a material in which any kind of figure may appear and then vanish’, p. 31 and ‘cloud reveals only as it conceals: in every respect, it appears to be one of the most favored signs of representation, and manifests both the  limits and the infinite regress upon which representation is founded’ p. 61.

As I hope to have shown, John Reynolds — ‘cloud man’ — thinks by way of painting and his paintings themselves carry out projects of ideas, and do not merely illustrate or dimly manifest them. For him, the ‘great issue’ with the cloud is that it is closest to painting; it is a stain; it is a ‘degree zero’ of painting to use the term with which Roland Barthes celebrates contemporary writing (écriture). If we return to Damisch’s account of Brunelleschi’s experiment in which he represents the Baptistery in Florence by all the means available to geometral perspective but when he gets to the sky, geometry defaults we find he has to insert a mirror in which to reflect the real clouds and sky. The cloud introduces something that has no place in painting but at the same time it is the essence of painting. So painting is itself defined within this kind of paradox.33 The cloud is found exactly at the point in the system where it escapes and painting vanishes within the graphic system only to discover itself in the cloud.

Laurence Simmons