Patrick Caulfield: Serenely secular

Patrick Caulfield's work may lack the mystic glow of transcendence, but it is not wholly devoid of an ecclesiastical dimension, argues Tom Lubbock
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The Independent Culture

Patrick Caulfield's Crucifix doesn't show a proper crucifix. It's just a cross, with no little man on it. A plain cross is practically all it shows. In this 1968 screen print, from the artist's classic period, a solo, cruciform block is seen slightly from below, outlined in his characteristic thick, black, same-width contours.

The cross is coloured in a pale brown. It lies in an empty field of mauve-red, or not quite empty: there are marks suggesting that this area is an indoor stone wall. Tiny bits of outline (same width) indicate hooks and chips and cracks. The cross is set off-centre, a bit to the right, a bit up. Its placing in the frame is perfectly judged.

A cross, though? In a church? Has anyone ever taken Caulfield for a religious artist? Quite the opposite, I'd have thought. He's an utterly secular artist. Or rather, the question hadn't crossed my mind, until I saw this picture last week, in the new Caulfield show, Between the Lines, at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Then the answer was obvious.

A cross by Patrick Caulfield is a deliberate irony. He takes this central Christian emblem, and deprives it of all resonance or symbolism. It becomes a shape, a plain object. Off-centred, it doesn't address you. It's a bit of church furnishing, casually observed, neutralised: a subject, not for belief, but for design. It's a piece of anti-religious art.

Art doesn't get much drawn into the current god wars. When it does, it swings loosely both ways. The religious can appeal to the long association between great works and faith. (You like art? Well, you only get the real thing with the church.) The irreligious can claim art as a working substitute for worship. (We like art. So we aren't totally dead to higher values.) It all stays at a very general level.

True, there's plenty of religious stuff in current art. There's Damien Hirst and his turbo-charged but vacant symbolism. There are Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor with their invocations of the sublime. There are more serious engagements: Mark Wallinger's explorations of believing, Susan Hiller's confrontations with the supernatural. But these artists don't take stands or sides. Artists prefer not to.

Chichester is a good place to think about these things. It has form. It was at Chichester cathedral that Walter Hussey served as dean between 1955 and 1977. Previously he'd been vicar of St Matthew's church in Northampton. In both positions he proved himself, in Kenneth Clark's words, "the last great patron of art in the Church of England".

Hussey commissioned works from many living artists and composers, and he was insistent they were modern in spirit – this being the traditional practice. "Whenever anything new was required in the first 700 years of the history of the cathedral, it was put in the contemporary style."

Take a quick tour of the cathedral and you can see some of these works "in the contemporary style" (as it was a few decades ago) – an altarpiece painting by Graham Sutherland, for example, or an altar cloth by Cecil Collins, or a scarlet stained-glass window by Marc Chagall. They were controversial once. Now they look tame – and not only artistically tame. The work that Walter Hussey commissioned had a very vague and minimal religious character.

Hussey also had a personal collection, which now forms part of the Pallant House collection of 20th century British figurative art. Next month is the centenary of his birth, and the gallery will be marking it in various ways, including – what else? – with the launch of a new commission for the cathedral, a work to be hung in the nave, chosen competitively.

I'm sure there'll be many applicants. Not only in Chichester, art continues to be widely patronised by the C of E. It's common enough for church visitors to bump into a permanent placement or a temporary intervention. Artists are a soft touch for ecclesiastical jobs. Even if they have only the weakest spiritual commitments, even if they're thoroughly unbelieving, still they're irresistibly tempted through the church porch.

Churches hold out one of modern art's lost dreams – to have a public place, a social role, a ritual function. It's odd, given that few churches are now the living hearts of their communities, but a memory survives. The contemporary church commission is a two-way deal. The new artwork will help bring the church into the modern world. The church will offer the artist a fantasy-return to the medieval. Neither party is too worried about definite religious content.

But, to turn back to Patrick Caulfield – how does he look on these terms? As I say, he seems to be a firmly secular artist. It's not only in Crucifix. The rest of this brief retrospective appears to confirm this. His style is without any sense of depth or beyond. He dwells on man-made things – chimney-pots, lamps, jugs, jewellery, cut flowers, topiary, hi-fi. He works in the tradition of "things" art – the still life, the interior. This is a tradition that has often made its business to imbue the inanimate material world with spirit. Caulfield's treatment, on the contrary, unsouls.

Whether in his earlier outline-and-flat-colour manner, or his later, playful mix-up of styles – silhouette, shadow, photo-realism, pattern – it's an art of surface and sign languages, shape and composition. What's so good about his pictures is their clarity, their serene absence of mystery, their confidence that the world is a place we've constructed ourselves, for ourselves. Surely it's hard to imagine Caulfield taking a church job.

But he did! Another of the exhibits here is his model for a late work (he died in 2005), the doors he designed for the Great West organ in Portsmouth cathedral. Appropriate to a seaside church, these panels have Christian-cum-maritime themes: waves, lighthouse, fishes, sun and moon, the letters XP on a sail.

It's not a passionately religious work, but the imagery is specific enough. It uses the fish sign for Christ. It uses the Greek XP sign (= Chi Rho = Christ). It uses the idea of the being saved from the sea as a metaphor for salvation. Caulfield's doors are a perfectly orthodox, overt and well-informed bit of Christian art. Unlike most contemporary church commissions, it looks like the artist – he was brought up a Catholic – might even believe it.

So now I feel torn about Caulfield's secularism. Take the basic look of the classic pictures from the 1960s. Areas of pure colour, divided up by strong black lines? It's stained glass. The strong dark outlines make the uniform colour-areas like translucent panes: the colour-areas make the outlines like the lead "cames" of church glass.

And (though not in this show) there is another early work, called Stained Glass, that makes the comparison plain, and it probably isn't ironic. Caulfield's art may lack some of the standard visual marks of transcendence – radiant glow, mystic mistiness – but it has this ecclesiastical dimension, and what's more he could do the symbolism when required. How could Hussey have missed him?

I'm beginning to wonder whether any artist would have refused. The only one I feel sure of is Francis Bacon. He may have designed a wine bottle label. He would never have done a church painting. (Tell me he had, and I'd be shocked.) Bacon took a strong stand on his godlessness. Of course, his art may not seem such a positive image of godlessness. If a godless world looks like that, it hands the case to the godly. I'd prefer the calm Caulfield version of a secular vision. I can still believe that in some works this is exactly what he achieved.

Patrick Caulfield: Between the Lines: Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, West Sussex (01243 774557; until 14 June