THE MAP has become for many a modern painter and poet a metaphorical, almost sacred object. In a secular world it exerts a fascination; the empty spaces and the unknown territories beckon. To travel has become synonymous with the pilgrim’s journey into the heart of darkness. It is to lay oneself open to new experiences, to new ways of seeing the world. The place between “here” and “somewhere else” may be the very place that must be traversed in order to reach “there”, to know, as Eliot said, “the place for the first time”.

The Christian pilgrimage was both an actual journey and a voyage to the centre of the self, while psychoanalysis is often described in terms of travel in an unknown land. To be a true pilgrim requires that one is watchful, observant, aware of subtle shifts and changes – both in the external landscape through which one travels as well as in the internal. In the silence of the wilderness we are able to rediscover the language of memory and our links with what is ancient; the stars, the sea, the wind.

Over the past decade, the painter Luke Elwes has made journeys to the tablelands of the Hopi Indians in New Mexico, the central Australian desert, the Great Rift Valley in East Africa, and to the Buddhist sacred mountain Mount Kailash in the Tibetan plateau. The result has been a series of landscapes that not only captures something of the physicality of these sacred places but which also speaks of the empty loneliness that is at the spiritual core of much creativity.

“Compass” is Elwes’s fourth exhibition at the London gallery Art First. The mixed-media paintings on paper, created by subtle layers of washes and marks, signal a shift of emphasis, while also revisiting the concerns of his series “Pilgrim” (based on the expedition to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar in Tibet), “Sanctuary” (which grew from a journey to the caves of Cappadocia) and “Osea” (inspired by an island only a couple of hours from London).

His oils on linen deal with the contrast between dark and light, space and edges. Compass, a monochromatic ellipse, might be read as a sacred eye, whilst also suggesting something of a medieval Mappa Mundi, created around a central sacred place such as Jerusalem or Rome. Although implicitly abstract, the physical world is never far away in these paintings; they suggest the expansive horizons of sea or the sky breaking from night into dawn. Light emanates from beyond the edge of a fecund semi-circle in Gaze (above), again suggesting the pupil of an eye or the edge of a planet revolving in deep space.

Elwes’s territory is both familiar and strange, distant and yet somehow known. As the French philosopher-poet Gaston Bachelard wrote in Poetics of Space, “We cover the universe with drawings we have lived.” The thinly layered surfaces echo patterns of weather and erosion; marks are made then washed away or erased. Ancient pathways across plains, deserts or fields are suggested to create, as Elwes has said, “spaces which are mapped by belief rather than measured by science”. These pathways are markers in the emptiness of the canvas, making sense of the space as they also attempt to make sense of the world.

Sue Hubbard, The Independent, September 21, 2004