I have been searching back over what is now a fifty year plus engagement with making images, looking for hints and clues as to what of real value I missed or undervalued.
This involves two distinct but ultimately related activities. One, prompted by the example of two painters I greatly admire, Ken Kiff and Eamon Colman, is reacquainting myself with poetry. That is, re-reading what’s accumulated on my bookshelves since I was an art student at Leeds University. This includes, among others, work by Stevie Smith, Martha Kapos, Leland Bardwell, Penelope Shuttle, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Kathleen Jamie, Naomi Shihab Nye, Paula Meehan, and Anna Saunders, alongside Rilke, Yeats, Eliot, Saint-John Perse, Wallace Stevens, W.H Auden, Anthony Hecht, George Mackay Brown, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Don McKay, Charles Causley, Robin Robertson, and Octavio Paz.
Why do this? In part because I am increasingly convinced that Gaston Bachelard is right when he states that: ‘the image cannot give matter to the concept; the concept, by giving stability to the image, would stifle its existence’. This has helped me explain to myself why I feel more imaginative affinity to the work of poets than visual artists for whom self-expression or some conceptual conceit is primary. In part simply because I can take a certain comfort from reading poetry in these difficult times.
The other activity is to work back through past interests relating to the visual arts, disinterring and re-examining old influences and lines of enquiry, particularly those that animated some aspect of my earlier work. This has taken me back to two contemporary Scottish artists, Eileen Lawrence and Will Maclean. Their work has for many years been of constant interest, if sometimes only visible out on the periphery of current concerns. (Both artists exhibit with Art First in London, whose web site offers examples of their work). I am proud that their work was included in the exhibition Imagined Landscapesat the RWA Bristol in 2016, which I co-curated; just as I regret that my attempts to produce a book on Eileen Lawrence’s work came to nothing. Her work was for a time a direct influence on my own; so much so, however, that I had to set it aside or risk making poor variations on it. I still regard her Piercing the Black Dawn (1988) and Nightsong from Images of Paradise (1989), both painted using watercolour and gold leaf and each a monumental 180 x 260 cms and 170 x 255 cms respectively, as among the most powerfully affecting works produced in the UK in the 20thcentury.
All of this is an extended introduction to pondering what is, in the last analysis, the implications of a simple enough speculation.
I recently bought a second-hand copy of the catalogue Will Maclean: Collected Works 1970-2010. This includes the transcript of a conversation between Maclean and the distinguished Scottish painter and teacher Sandy Moffat. In the course of this Maclean notes that it was reading Ben Shahn’s The Shape of Content and seeing R.B. Kitaj’s work that enabled him to work his way out of his own uneasy relationship to the then dominant cult of abstraction and attendant ‘problems of form’. While this experience almost exactly echoes a rite of passage in my own self-education, what interests me now is that Maclean does not refer what I have always taken to be the highly significant influence of Agnes Martin on his work. I should make it clear that I in part assumed that influence because Martin’s paintings were given their first UK showing in Edinburgh in 1974, at a time when Maclean was mixing with Edinburgh art students and reconfiguring his practice in ways that have remained consistent ever since. To be fair the conversation with Moffat, and indeed the catalogue as a whole, has as its principle focus the underlying continuities between Maclean’s work and the culture of the Gàidhealtachd. In that context, reference to Martin might appear out of place, although Maclean is happy enough to reference the work of Giorgio De Chirico, Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Cornell and H C Westerman.
I now realise that Maclean, unlike Eileen Lawrence, may not acknowledge the influence Martin’s work in that Edinburgh exhibition because no such influence was necessary. He was already subject to forces that they ultimately share in common. Namely an emotional inheritance infused with a profound sense of the value of stripped back means, of a work ethic grounded in simplicity and rigour, although one with a rich poetics derived from the Gaelic language. The inheritance that had helped characterize the lives and spiritual attitudes of their Calvinist ancestors in the Highlands and Isles. (Agnes Martin’s family originally came from the Isle of Skye).
What I find instructive now is that Maclean should apparently have had no difficulty in squaring such inherited proclivities with the exotic object lessons proffered by Kataj’s cosmopolitan, colorful (in both senses) and eclectic images. Images that draw, for example, on his particular personal interest in Jewish culture, the byways of art history as reveled by Aby Warburg, or moments in nineteenth and early twentieth century leftist political and literary life. Just as Eileen Lawrence had no difficulty, so she told me, in squaring her admiration for Martin’s work with her enthusiasm for that of Joseph Beuys. Yet any obvious affinity with Beuys is entirely absence from recent works such as Eagle Circle,Greylag Flying North and Owl Habitat (You can find these reproduced here. That is, absent until we remember Beuys’ underlying affinity with the processes of natural phenomena in places like Rannock Moor and his interest in the colour theories of Goethe and Rudolf Steiner.
The comfort I take from reacquainting myself with this apparently unlikely mesh of affinities is neatly captured by Maclean when, having listed what he refers to as the ‘ingredients’ that have helped shape his work, he adds that: ‘the way they mix and the way they finally evolve is the great mystery of our trade’. To work at any depth as an artist requires, it seems to me, precisely to place one’s trust in the processes that constitute that ‘mystery’ and, having done so, listen to what they bring to us. After that, it’s all a question of finding the appropriate forms for what is waiting to emerge.
For some years now my practice has been gradually reconfigured, moved away from the conception of deep mapping that had evolved over the previous last twenty years. That conception was ultimately inseparable from walking as a way of engaging with the physicality of place, as a vital counterpoint to its multiplicity of invisible aspects. However, following a course of chemotherapy in 2013 after an operation for bowel cancer, I developed peripheral neuropathy. The resulting discomfort as far as my feet are concerned has been enough to severely restrict my desire to walk the kinds of distances and in the kinds of places previously central to my deep mapping work.
Initially, my solution to this restriction was to make a number of constructed mixed-media pieces – such as Notitia Six Suburban Edge,2016 (fig. 1) in the Notitia series – based on places I either already knew well or were in themselves small enough in scale to enable me to walk there and absorb something significant about them in a single day. Judith Tucker, in her chapter ‘Walking Backwards’ (in David Borthwick, Pippa Marland and Stenning’s edited collection: Walking, Landscape and Environment, 2020), has given a sympathetic account of how these small-scale ‘polyvocal’ works developed out of my attempts to arrive at a lyrical micro-mapping that both drew on my previous deep mapping work and tried to develop its impulses in another, more ‘painterly’, direction. In short, these works marked the start of a shift away from my deep mapping back towards my earlier practice as a painter, one that allowed me the freedom to play with what Tucker describes as “a constellation of viewpoints, montage, collage and bricolage” that “does not allow any fixed reading of the landscape that is referenced” (p. 137).
However, while I wanted to continue to enjoy the playfulness with regard to evoking place in these works, particularly what Tucker sees as their “extraordinary range of materials and categories of sign (ibid.), I also found my concerns gradually shifting from a focus on place ‘as such’ towards various social, political and environmental issues associated with it. For example, those of opposition to religious authoritarianism, migration (both physical and in terms of identity), and the problematic nature of any essentialist politics of ‘the land’. Working with these topics in mind on various pieces – for example At the Border (RIP Anna Campbell), 2018, (fig.2) The Migrants,2019 (fig. 3), andThe Lie of ‘The Land’; or: A refiguring of landscape in the Age of the Great Derangement (for Amitav Ghosh), 2019 – 2020 (fig. 4)has drawn me into a complex set of considerations related to both my growing engagement with issues raised by the work of Irish artists and poets, particularly the painter Eamon Colman, about whose work I’ve written and who encouraged me to read Irish poets, and the work of the poet and essayist Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. (Issues that, to a considerable extent, have also been raised through my recent collaboration with the Welsh artist Lindsey Colbourne). The purpose of this essay, then, is to give a post-hoc account of this fitfully uneven and ongoing shift so as to try to clearly identify for myself where I now find myself in relation to the trajectory taken by the work.
Starting to let go: ‘Outliers’ and Irish connections
Inevitably, the reading and writing I’ve been doing over this time has had an impact on what I have been thinking about and doing in the studio. Perhaps the two most significant provocations in the last three years in this respect have been my reading the essays in Outliers and American Vanguard Art, the catalogue to an exhibition of that name instigated by the National gallery of Art, Washington, edited by Lynne Cooke and published by the University of Chicago Press, writing about the work of the painters Ken Kiff and Eamon Colman, and reading the poems (in translation) and then the collected essays, of the Irish language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. The catalogue essays caused me to reconsider the reasons for my having adopted deep mapping as a practice in the first place; Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s work, now bound up with writing on the work of Ken Kiff and Eamon Colman, served as a powerful stimulus to reconsider my approach to imagery and to visual language. I will touch on each of these provocations in turn, since together they have led me to reconsider the whole trajectory of my practice since the mid-1980s.
Of the essays in Lynne Cooke’s magisterial catalogue, her Boundary Trouble: Navigating Margin and Mainstream, Darby English’s Modernism’s War on Terror and Suzanne Hudson’s Personal Voyages made the strongest impression on me. Cooke unpacks the institutional rigidity …”in the museum, as in the academy” that means that “reparative practices” [retrospective inclusion] “rarely contest the foundational structural hierarchies on which relationships between the margins and mainstream are built”. (p. 24) English focuses on the same issue but in the context of criticism, reminding us of:
“The often brutal character of modernist criticism is shown in its insistence on the primacy of external judges, which is another way to describe its tendency not to think of the makers as the primary seers and knowers of their work. No matter how sympathetic to artists, properly vanguard criticism displaces maker’s vision and knowledge in favour of its own rigorously cultivated awareness of how Art (i.e., the feverish machinations of autonomous aesthetic forces) operates in the work at hand”. (p.31)
Finally, and equally importantly, Hudson writes of the importance of considering:
“the cosmos as a way of dissolving the ostensible distinction between individual subjective experience and the larger world. What might it mean to argue for the fundamental impossibility of being an ‘outsider’ relative to art making? It is to assert that each person, each maker, exists with no greater or lesser salience than another, as physical fact”. (p.118)
“As the present exhibition proposes in using the cosmos as an organizing theme of one concluding section, and as this essay upholds relative to the artists brought together under its mantle, world making is central. These artists are both part of a cosmos and they create cosmos.”
While I have always had an interest in what, following Cooke, I now understand as ‘Outlier’ rather than ‘Outsider’ art, the primary effect of reading these essays was a sense of considerable relief, a final shaking off of residual anxieties and restraints internalised during my long and sometimes difficult sojourn in the world of university art education. Most fundamentally, perhaps, a questioning of the ultimately conceptual or intellectual basis of deep mapping, its intellectual bias. A relief that, in turn, would make clear to me some of the less positive reasons for my taking it up in 1999, which I do not intend to go into here.
The effects of my engaging with the poetry and essays of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill are now inseparable from both my return to studying the work of Ken Kiff and my deepening relationship with various artists in Ireland. They are, in consequence, more difficult to summarise. Central, however, is my renewed sense of how, through the physical act of making works in all their visual “musicality”, it may be possible to imaginatively evoke the flowing-together of everyday life in all its multi-faceted variety and the complexity of our relationship to place-time and that “other life” which, as Ní Dhomhnaill notes in her essay: ‘Why I choose to Write in Irish, the Corpse That Sits Up and Talks Back’, ‘even the dogs in the street in West Kerry know … exists’; and where constant movement ‘in and out of it … is the most natural thing in the world’ (Selected Essays 2005 p. 19). I sense something of this psychic inclusiveness as distinguishing aspects of Irish culture from that of England. It is echoed, for example, in the work of the painter Eamon Colman who insists that: “the earth is a living being like you or I … it’s an organism that breaths and communicates.” (In conversation with Brian McAvera: ‘Between Landscape and Abstraction’ in Irish Arts Review Spring 2007 p. 67). It is typified, for example, by his Meabh’s tree on the hill of pain (2017) with its echoes of both the specificity of place directly experienced and the continuing resonance of mytho-historical Irish characters in shaping that culture’s sense of place or, in Irish, dinnsheanchas. To summarise: what both sets of provocation have led me to is a re-evaluation of my priorities, one that now leads me to an emphasis on a poetics of listening that I want increasingly to distinguish from the more programmatic, research-based approach to creative work I adopted at the turn of the century.
I now see this shift as linked to a renewed interest in the importance of poetry to visual art, something Kiff understood only too well, particularly of certain types of poetry. For example, in addition to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill I have been reading the Scottish poet Robin Robertson, who was brought up on that nation’s northeast coast where, as he has said, “history, legend and myth merged cohesively in the landscape.” Furthermore, Robertson’s interest in the stories of Celtic and Classical myth, the vernacular ballads, and folklore align closely with my own as they fed into my deep mapping work. Perhaps most significant to me now, however, is his terse claim that ”writing poetry has very little to do with the intellect”.
Figs. 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9.
I’ve now reached a point where, having worked on a number of formally loosely related pieces following on from the Notitia series, I see them as having led me to a point from which I cannot find a way forward. These works include Flight/Paths: (Her bones…) , 2018 (fig. 5), a collaboration earlier this year with Lindsey Colbourne that produced a piece entitled Côr-lan Siwan – of which title she writes that this phrase:‘combines something of the sacred (Côr = sanctuary as well as choir, and Siwan [the Lady of Wales] in recognition of her as the connecting element’ –(fig. 6) and, most recently Dinnsheanchas / An saol eile(“the other life”) – for Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, 2020 (fig. 7).The nature of the problem I face is implicit in what I have already written, namely that I have clung onto the programmatic, research-based approach carried over from my earlier deep mapping work which, while it fed reasonably productively into the works mentioned above, has increasingly come to feel stale and unproductive, a hindrance rather than a necessary support. In retrospect this began to become apparent in works like Wound, 2020 (fig. 8) and Seithenyn Morfa Borth/ Cors Fochno (for Erin Kavanagh), 2020 (fig. 9) For some weeks in late May and early June I was preoccupied with an upwelling of half visualised possibilities but found myself unable to take these into any specific work. This upwelling circled around a statement by James Hillman, as follows:
Elusive, mercurial, the unconscious is not a place, not a state, but a dark ironic brother, an echoing sister, reminding. (On Paranoia 1986 p. 41).
In mid-June I decided to try and force the issue, starting work on a piece provisionally called Echoing Sister a construction that, in its engagement with unconscious material, reaches back to Double Mapping, 2017 (fig. 10), a work that tries to ‘map’ a recurrent childhood nightmare involving an encounter with a wolf the height of a man. In trying to crystalise a form for the new construction I turned to the work of two artists who make constructed work, Will Maclean and Mimmo Paladino, looking for a way to consolidate and develop the complex construction and imagery I had used in Corlan and Dinnsheanchas / An saol eile. Productive as reviewing their work has been, Echoing Sister now feels like a mis-step, an attempt to move things on formally without addressing the more fundamental issue of a necessary shift of attitude on my part if I am to work out of listening to, and then working in response to, an upwelling of unconscious material rather than constructing what I now see as a programmatic ‘safety net’ of researched material that starts to dictate what is, and is not, present in the work.
This mis-step became clear when I found myself following a thread of feeling prompted by the name Maebh that had attached itself to an old photograph intended for a project begun in about 2010 and never realised. My first reaction, conditioned by my tendency to always begin by constructing a loose web of meanings through research, one that will then support the constructing of an image, was to ask a friend of Irish descent whether she knew of any material relating to Queen Maebh as a girl. My intention had, as so often before, been to gather the types of historical and vernacular material out of which a sense of place can be illuminated via the processes of deep mapping. But the image of Maebh (as the girl in the photograph has now become), resisted this attempt to imprison her within a scholarly framework of given meanings. What it/she requires, I now understand, is that I allow an imaginal matrix to slowly form, a container into which the additional material necessary to amplify. It appears that all that matters, at least for the present, is that I keep in mind that the name means “the cause of great joy” or “she who intoxicates” and the description of the adult Medb as a “wolf queen”, an attribute which carries psychic resonances that have been with me since I was a child.
While I wait for the material that I hope will become a work to start to crystallise around the Maebh photograph, I have been following my nose along apparently random threads of interest in the vast storehouse of images that is Pinterest. This had taken me, to give a few examples, to the extraordinary visual richness of a book containing 99 pages of swatches or samples of silk, from Lyon and dated 1764, to the drawings of the brain made by Santiago Ramón y Cajal at the end of the 19th century, to posed photographs of heroic Soviet female snipers, and to wonderful examples of the motifs used in the craft of traditional book binding and decoration. At present, all I can do is sift through this material, listening out for whatever speaks to the image of Maebh in the hope that, like a caddisfly larvae, she will gather to her the material she needs to house herself as an image.