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 Landscapes at 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.