I propose today to offer up my own recent experiences to show how a rediscovery of the importance of surface reinvigorated a practice suffering from creative doubt. From the outset I should admit that to achieve this in the allocated time I will be forced to take for granted some important contexts and debates concerning the practice of Painting.
To structure this creative journey I will use a sequence of physical journeys. Accounts of journeys - physical or imaginative - are prone to inaccuracies brought on by - shall we say - the disadvantages of hindsight, and I expect you to take this one with more than a pinch of salt. As in paradigmatic mythical journeys I'll also be heading for a kind of enlightened homecoming, and so to set the scene I need to begin at home, in the English landscape, with this image X by Samuel Palmer.
Palmer's works were my first encounter with a view of landscape that offered more than the picturesque - let's call it an intensity - that accorded with my own reactions to the natural world. I grew up on the edge of a small town, and always chose that same way out of it - walking into the landscape for peace - and pleasure. I studied Palmer's Shoreham drawings carefully, even making replicas of some. I also began - around the age of seventeen - works of my own in which the landscape was charged by emotional and sometimes religious symbolism, though this was borrowed from Palmer rather than devout. It was however through Palmer I came to appreciate William Blake - this is his 'Circle of the Lustful' - and although I viewed the two artists as inter-connected, I now understand that they were already appealing to different creative impulses. Certain works of theirs would sit happily side by side - as they do in a number of permanent displays - but when viewed close up, the Palmers have a potent materiality - a delight in the process and - in this case - the resinous surfaces, whilst Blake has a more illustrative intent, whether as here to an extant text, Dante's Divina Commedia, or to a mental image - a vision, that in certain cases might also become a text as well. Though fraught with danger, for the purposes of the story I'll attempt to hold notions of surface and illusion in tentative opposition - surface as inviting the maker to think primarily about the object being made, illusion as relating to an idea or narrative that has an existence elsewhere.
As my first degree was in English and Fine Art this debate was very much on my mind, and before applying for postgraduate study I spent two years painting in the Devon landscape, trying to rid imagery of unwanted narrative by writing regularly. Once in London - lacking the immediate reference - I turned to improvisation techniques to invent landscape. I'd been talking to a tutor at the RCA, the late Ken Kiff, about improvisational methods, and he urged me to work - as he was also doing at the time - on primed paper, which would provide a slippery surface that could be easily modified and erased, allowing for rapid transformations of imagery and space. As I hope you can sense from these works, my excitement with the method is revealed in the translucency of the paint and the energy of the mark-making. This excitement led to a large number of these works - 300 plus, and such a quantity meant that new allusions and symbols began to arise from the process, and I recall thinking that this unfamiliar imagery was the important breakthrough. I now feel that the true discovery was the process itself, and the importance of excitement, both to nurture the creative self and to bring the imagery - whatever the imagery - to life.
It was, however, the unexpected influx of allusion that led me by stages back to the painters of the Renaissance that I'd initially come across via Blake's studies. Certain fresco cycles from the Italian Renaissance began to hold my attention, and eventually became the motivation to study and paint in Italy for two years, thanks to an Italian Government award. So the next 'surface' I want to touch upon is that of the fresco.
Here are two excerpts from larger fresco cycles - Giotto's Stigmatization of St Francis in San Francesco, Assisi and Della Francesca's Dream of Constantine, part of the Legend of the True Cross cycle in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo. Witnessing them first-hand had a devastating impact. I was not prepared for either their scale or the eloquence of the fresco surface. I suppose I'd imagined them being like large watercolours - large Blakes perhaps, when it was clear from close scrutiny that they were meticulously executed in collaboration with a master plasterer. Though made at speed, they were worked up across manageable areas with a careful matrix of thin brush strokes and colour modelling, largely in obedience to a pre-existing design. But it was not only the surface itself, - at least surface is too limiting a concept here - but also the sense of the painting as material component of the church, bound into its location, a grounded quality reinforced by the use of pigments refined from the surrounding terrain. It is from this solid platform that the leaps of the visionary imagination seemed to gain their transcendence, a transcendence rendered tangible as flesh and bone of the monastery. It was a very persuasive combination, so much so that I entered a period of imitation. In the frescoes, expression submits to image because there is a potent story to be told, but in discarding my improvisational methods it had not occurred to me that I was also discarding my internal narrative. The resulting sequence of pastiches used aspects of early Renaissance painting as empty props. Of course I accept that there are times in which is necessary to learn in this way - through imitation and mistake - but I'd been exhibiting in London for a couple of years and perhaps imagined I was beyond that point.
These two large canvasses represent a group of works made once I was back in England. The impact of fresco remains obvious - they are painted thinly onto fine calico, almost as a staining process, with few changes possible during the making. Although I think the better examples of this set work well in reproduction, I can say that they lacked joy in the making. The endgame of this approach is played out in what I came to term the Pleasure Dome series, started appropriately enough in Los Angeles. Taking my cue from the 'snow-shaker' souvenirs picked up in Italy - and also the biosphere research project in Arizona - I had a series of these shapes made from 20mm medium density board, sanding the edges to a curve, and completing the illusion with a black 'frame' or base. Referencing the compartmentalised cultures of L.A., each painted image was imagined as a ersatz version of itself, de-surfaced and hermetically sealed within its exclusive dome - an illusion of meaning, a comment on how meaning is formed, rather than significant in itself.
It was a difficult time - the mid 90's - the flow was against painterly practice and my gallery in London had recently closed. The domes appeared to be, as I suggested, an endgame. Out of the blue came an invitation to teach a workshop in India. It was a country I'd wanted to visit for many reasons, and so I jumped at the opportunity. After an exhilarating month I knew I'd need a lot more time there, and so I arranged further visits - lasting 4 and 2 months respectively - not merely to observe the culture more fully, but also because I sensed it as a way out of the creative impasse in which I found myself.
It proved not to be so straightforward - a set of intimate drawings using local pigments were made in Mysore studio during the longer visit prove the point. Here I struggled to make sense of the high key and high intensity information surrounding me. Though I also view these drawings as failures, they represent an earnest attempt to come to terms with the bewildering cultural surround.
Here we are on the Ganges river looking back at Varanasi, Hinduism's holiest city. From this view it appears elegant and sedate, but the sensory experience was very different from that. The surface of the city was more powerful than its illusion. In the alleyways the sick and the dying have arrived in the city to prepare for death, and the mortal intensity of the place is gripping. To die in the ancient heart of Varanasi is to be granted Moksha, release from the cycle of death and rebirth. No relevant image came to mind. Each day I would walk along the ghats, the tall steps that protect Varanasi from the Ganges during monsoon. The edge of the river was fascinating, a receptacle for all that the city was about - predominantly death - since most of the objects we can see here have come from the riverside funeral pyres or the silk-clad and flower-garlanded bodies launched into the holy river. This mingles with discarded puja vessels, plastic containers, dead animals, excrement. It seemed a rich enough surface to contain all the city's complexity in one small area.
One day I took a boat to the other side of the river for an address by a Buddhist guru. The sand there was free of detritus, and had a striking sparkle. Stuck in an unimpressive lotus position, I found the address uninteresting, and started to play with this sparkly substance. An hour or so passed, and the sun eventually reached a position where my finger marks in the sand were thrown into high relief, and reminded me strongly of the writhing and vibrant forms of Hindu temple architecture I'd been visiting. I had only a disposable camera with me and so the recorded drawings were of poor quality, but the action accorded with my growing feeling about India itself - that its reality was bound up with intimate spaces, personal spaces, perhaps just a few square metres of dust. It is a huge land, but its huge population also makes it a land of intimate spaces, often outdoors. It also connected with the key concept of Maia - the idea that the world is an illusion, not in the conventional sense of reality lying deeper, but suggesting that the true illusion is the one we cast in front of ourselves, through preconceptions. The act of touching earth, finding reality through the fingertips rather than relying on the recycling of imagery appeared to be a way forward.
India of course has many religions, but the Hindu pantheon of 333 million gods reinforces this observation - a tiny niche for each one, small gods for small spaces. The drawings also gave me important physical contact with the country, with the earth. It felt good for me to be there, and making the sand drawings gave me a feeling reminiscent of my earliest paintings. On my next visit I returned with a decent camera and a chair to stand on to take the photographs, and as you can see here, they turned out well - however -there was something about remaking them that felt wrong, and I almost expected it when on a lecture tour some months later the entire set, bar these two, went missing. A fortnight ago I gave a paper to the annual conference of the British and Irish Sandplay Society. Sandplay therapy involves the communication of patient and therapist through the medium of sand, sometimes involving other objects, and I'd been invited by a therapist who viewed my early paintings in which narrative emerged through improvisation as an oblique parallel. It was a energising moment when I projected the sand drawings - a thrill of recognition ran through the audience. Without realising, I'd performed a similar therapy on myself. Sandplay stresses the importance of the physical interaction, and I understood the process exactly.
When I came back to the UK I was left with very little to work on from the Indian experience - the best of the pigment drawings were exhibited in Frankfurt, but with some misgivings. India as reference seemed very remote, and England was numbingly bland by comparison.
What I felt I had to work with was the memory of the sand drawings, the edge of the Ganges, the idea of the margin as meeting place, an ever changing still-life, I took up the offer of a studio in Porthleven Cornwall to attemp to sort things out. The studio was right by the beach and so initial references were to the tide line, using objects washed up as implements. I was still working on canvas, and tried to add sand into the pigments to provide a more robust or physical surface, and I also tried the same technique using silver graphite. My first attempts turned out much too dark - the graphite was much more dense than I'd imagined - and I tried to remedy the situation by pulling some of the graphite off the surface using some discarded paper I'd been given by a friend. It was coated shiny surface - not a lovely surface at all, but when I looked round at the sheets at the end of the day, remarkable things had occurred - the mineral spirits and sand and graphite mixture had begun to erode and leave sedimentary deposits in a remarkable manner. This brightness of surface left by this chemical action reminded me of a number of things simultaneously - the Ganges shoreline, Palmer's gum drawings, surrealist experiments by Max Ernst (for instance these decalcomania paintings and the 'forest' frottages). The combination of references lit my imagination and I immediately began to investigate the material, using larger sheets of the same resistant paper. In these early images I have already completely discarded colour but have retained the idea of using found implements and - as with the accidental ones - employing gravity as a major force within the making - such as here where leaving the paper on the uneven beach produced the distinctive pattination.
The rediscovery of a medium that asserts its own reality - very much an issue of surface - was crucial. I found myself in a dialogue, rather than haranguing the image, and this had a relaxing affect on my imagination, allowing me to discover again rather than to insist. Surface - and gesture too - emphasize non-logical decision-making, and this was an important way back to meaning. The other revelation was a by-product of the monochromic method - by beginning with an even grey tone I could suspend judgement about the nature of the space I was working into - so this central area could read - provisionally - as ground or sky or water or mist, and could change again as the image evolved. It was enormously liberating to be improvising to this degree again, and although this aspect moves beyond concerns of surface, it was the enjoyment of the surface for its own properties that led to this discovery. One thin skin, revision - but keeps the image in the moment. Allows the physical contact and tangibility of the sand drawings, but also allows images to be incorporated. Using a grey ground was a revelation - bird's eye view, but also a square yard of personal space - dusty space, space receptive to drawing. Loss of horizon relates to loss of colour, because not having to decide upon an initial colour leaves the nature of the emergent space open to question - this central grey area might become air or water or earth or cloud, it can even be a number of those qualities at the same time. This is a product of illusion, but it is the assertiveness of the surface that allows the relaxation - I'm no longer in a hurry to insert images because the surface itself is so eloquent.
In the Eden Project residency - which was ironically the result of a discussion about the Pleasure Domes - I began using the graphite onto large sheets of aluminium. The decision was made partly to parallel the relationship of the hi-tech architecture to the friable surfaces of clay pit, as well as to increase the scale. The method also emphasises surface properties - not least because I could dispense with glazing and framing, allowing the graphite surface to be displayed in an elemental, quasi-industrial manner.
Although I have no sense that the actual journey involving the graphite process is nearing a conclusion, I did promise a kind of homecoming, and I suppose we are already there, because the geological qualities of the graphite returned landscape to me as an immediate reference, whilst monochrome led me back to Palmer, and the detail of childhood landscape experience. But the true homecoming was actually to the raw experiments with paint, to recognize that in my enthusiasm for narrative and imagery I'd lost the basic enjoyment of painting - of being in the medium, working alongside it & receiving physical sustenance from the procedure. Without this, the validity of the act of Painting is again drawn into question. For all the attempts to write painting off as a contemporary art form, its ability to engage its maker in very cerebral and very physical properties at the same time is perhaps its crucial feature, a feature dependent on an deep engagement with surface.