Monthly Archives: June 2024

Speculations on self and mortality: thinking with three artists and a poet. (Part 2).

On June 26th, 2020, I put up a post on this site about the work of Eileen Lawrence and Will Maclean, artists whose work I’d included in an exhibition called Imagined Landscapes that I’d co-curated at the RWA, Bristol, in 2016. (To belatedly put the record straight on that post, Will Maclean later contacted me to say he’d not been in any way influenced by the work of Agnes Martin although his wife, the artist Marian Leven, had been). I had first come across Eileen Lawrence’s work in the Liverpool Tate’s New North exhibition in 1990 and had been astonished both by its quality and by the fact that it seem to represent the outcome of highly original visual thinking, that of a dedicated outlier as far as mainstream British art of the time was concerned. But then, as now, the perception of “British” art by an art world dominated by London money is predicated on what appeals to the London art world’s “cosmopolitan” tastes and fashion. (While it’s true that both Maclean and Lawrence have been represented by a London gallery – Art First – it’s wholly indicative of their status in England that Tate “Britain” has just one work by Lawrence and none by MacLean).    

Looking back today, Lawrence’s work as a whole now suggests to me a shifting but consistent and sustained exploration of the question of how she should response to the domain of the more-than-human. (I still remember seeing in her Edinburgh studio three astonishing and very large, predominantly earthy red, works that were a response to her visit to one of the deserts in the USA and, if I remember rightly, reflected an interest in Native American beliefs). Many of her early works, however, involved her travelling to remote Scottish locations and, despite their very different approach, seemed to me to share something of the orientation that’s implicit in Agnes Martin’s response to the viewer who complained that there were no geese in Grey Geese Descending (1985). What is implied is a reverence for what cannot be literally represented. But if there is no guillemot in Lawrence’s 1980 work called:

                                 If the guillemot can identify

                            the marking on its egg

                                                so I must read these marks of charcoal

                 on my hands

and, similarly, no geese in:

Mica reflecting

 the light

                  of a quarter moon

             Damp night air

                    softens the sound 

           of geese      

         flying over

             Loch Sunart

we are nonetheless provided with very concrete, if oblique, indications of the type of experience that helped to generate these works. Unlike the multifaceted conceptual juxtapositions in the 1970s work of Pat Steir, these consists of a variety of detailed renderings of natural objects. These beautifully observed tokens or traces of the natural world are assembled as isolated images and painted on handmade papers made from material collected on site. These images insist on the distance between  what we experience looking at the work and reading it’s title and the nature of the experience out of which Lawrence has constructs an immaculately sparse combination of painting and textured hand-made papers. And yet, in their very carefully located and meticulously detailed reference to the world and in their sparseness, they suggest a sense of an experience of wonder implicit in two titles quoted above.

The catalogue entry for the second of these works, a long horizontal, scroll-like piece measuring 47 x 240 cms (1’ 4” x 7’ 10.5”), describes it as made up of “watercolour and mica on/and handmade papers”. It consists of four horizontal bands on which appear meticulously-painted images of twelve feathers and sixteen linear organic forms, fragments of more or less twisted twigs of heather, gorse, or other low-growing moorland plants. A thinner band between the uppermost and second of the three taller bands is covered with minutely painted columns of ‘script’. This, Sarah Kent tells us in  her catalogue essay, harks back to Lawrence’s invention, in her childhood, of written codes that have some resemblance to the calligraphy of a Sinhalese palm leaf manuscript Lawrence later bought in an Edinburgh book market. While the papers that make up the three main bands are a variety of off-white and pale fawns and provide their dominant colouration, the thinner band is predominantly a pale, washed blue; a colour picked up in thin vertical blocks of the same blue at either end of the main bands. The overall effect of the work is to suggest an possibly endless play of the visible possibilities of near similarity and subtle difference within the humble natural objects depicted, a process of variation shading off, at each end, “into the blue”.

If the forms of feathers, eggs, and portions of plants are taken as equivalent to the forms of animals in the quotation below, then they call to mind Adolf Portmann’s observation in Animal Forms and Patterns: a study of the appearance of animals. He writes:

“What more than anything else urges and indeed compels us to take an interest in these animal forms is the impression, conveyed by their appearance, that their life is related to our own and possesses an inwardness revealed through the animal’s form and it’s independent behaviour” (p. 57).

I will return later to how I understand Portman’s notion of ‘inwardness’.

The elements from which Lawrence built her work in 1980 would form the basis, in many subtle variations, of her Prayer Sticks, a long series of very narrow vertical works made over the next ten or so years. By the time Lawrence made Prayer Stick 64 (1989), however, the materially-referential textures and low-key, near monochrome colouration of pieces that took their cue from her hand-made paper had given way to works employing a rich sense of colour. To the earlier range of natural forms were added, however, organic forms such as leaves, seed pods and enlarged, isolated elements of her early calligraphy. 

(To be continued).

Speculations on self and mortality: thinking with three artists and a poet (part 1).

Introduction.

I’m speculating here about different values and senses of self in relation to the Terrestrial world (in Bruno Latour’s sense). The way I’ll do this is through thinking with the work of three artists, Agnes Martin, Pat Steir and Eileen Lawrence and with John Burnside’s Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction (2021). I’ve chosen the three painters’ work in part because Martin influenced both Steir and Lawrence but, more importantly, because the work of all three women has stayed with me for a long time, and still prompts me to think feelingly about the role of painting in the broader culture.

The Scottish poet John Burnside died on the 29th of May this year at the age of 69. I have long valued a particular poem of his, Out of Exile, and shortly after I’d begun thinking about writing this essay, his last collection of his essays caught my eye while my wife was buying summer reading in a second-hand bookshop. As my friend Lindsey Colbourne has suggested, maybe there is no such thing as a coincidence. Whatever the case, finding Burnside’s text felt like a gift.

To speculate is, according to the dictionary, to “attempt to form a theory or to conjecture without firm evidence”. Any speculation by an individual on what works of art suggest – whether they’re visual or otherwise – can never deal with “firm evidence”. It can only deal with traces, however oblique, of the paradoxes, ambiguities and imponderables of life as culturally articulated. In what follows I will try to track a particular line of thought of my own, one that’s inevitably entangled in the thoughts of others who have written about the work of these three artists.

If I were still teaching art students, I’d encourage them to read and discuss Rebecca Solnit’s As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender and Art (2001) because of what she writes there about beauty, Isabelle Stengers’ short essay Reclaiming Animism (e-flux 36, July 2012) because of her positioning of herself in relation to animism as a scientist and, for reasons that will become clear, Thomas McEvilley’s The Exile’s Return: Towards a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-Modern Era (1993). Not, in the last case, because I’d expect the students to be making paintings, but because it enacts an attitude of mind I’d hope they’d take to heart.

McEvilley’s chapter on Agnes Martin in The Exile’s Return is contextualised by two proceeding chapters: Seeking the Primal through Paint: The Monochrome Icon and The Opposite of Emptiness. Put very simply, these argue that abstract art, both in its early European forms and later in the USA, doesn’t really carry the ‘progressive’ aesthetic significance that influential Formalist critics, particularly in America, attributed to it. He demonstrates that the development of abstract art is more accurately understood as a series of diverse attempts to capture, in visual form, something of the aura of a wide variety of philosophical, esoteric or mystical spiritual positions. Positions that, put very generally, involve notions of ‘purity’, ‘transcendence’, and ‘the absolute’ that require a rejection of the mundane everyday world in order to evoke a ‘higher’, more universal, state. An aspiration that was flipped over and replayed in terms of the material Realism of the “what you see is what you get” of Minimalism.

In so far as Formalist critics tied the development of abstract art into notions of ‘historical progress’, it became caught up in a broader cultural rhetoric that we now see as deeply problematic because it’s underwritten by assumptions of Western exclusivity, justifications of colonialism, and so forth. I value McEvilley’s writing in part because, in addition to being an art historian and art critic, he had a deep knowledge of the cultures of ancient Greece and India, and of the histories of their religious and philosophical traditions. As a result what he writes about art is informed by an understanding of the distinct values, held over time, by two of the world’s major cultures. That understanding offers a powerful antidote to the cultural exclusivity of Modernist Western art history and to the art world’s exaltation of novelty.

McEvilley discusses Agnes Martin’s work in a chapter called Grey Geese Descending. As might be expected, given his interests, he’s particularly sensitive to her involvement with Eastern thought. He recognises Martin’s engagement with “classical Taoist texts”, and describes her use of grids as analogous to Lao Tzu’s account of the purpose of the “Uncarved Block”. Martin claimed that she always painted the same theme and, when a viewer complained that there were no geese in Grey Geese Descending (1985), she responded by saying that she “painted the emotions we have when we feel gray geese descending”. As a serious student of Taoist and Buddhist teachings, Martin understood her own work as a path to the sublime  and McEvilley sees her mature work, produced in an isolated studio in Taos on the edge of the desert in New Mexico, in that light. How we respond to it will depend, in part at least, on whether we are sympathetic to such a reading or simply view it as perhaps the ultimate example of a Minimalist aesthetic.  

I had read McEvilley’s chapter on Agnes Martin long before I visited the Tate Gallery’s major exhibition of her work in 2015. Visiting it, I could respect her achievement as an artist committed to a particular view of art and, reading her text, Beauty is the Mystery of Life, I felt I understood and could appreciate what she argues for. However, I couldn’t really enter into the spirit of the work as she understood it. In retrospect I think my family history, particularly my childhood contact with the legacy of Calvinism in the Scottish Highlands and Isles, along with my having walked away from a spiritual practice with much in common with Martin’s, prevented that. At the time I didn’t know that Martin’s family originally came from the Isle of Skye or that her devout Presbyterian grandfather was a major influence in shaping her attitudes to life and work. I was aware, however, that certain contemporary Scottish artists had made a similar connection between a cultural background formed by a strict Protestantism and the visual language of Zen Buddhism. All of which finally brings me to what I see as a significant ambiguity inherent in artistic claims to access ‘the sublime’ or a ‘higher consciousness’ in some form or another. So all this is a preamble to exploring that ambiguity and, more importantly, to pondering what the psychic, social and environmental implications of such claims might be today.

Agnes Martin, Pat Steir and Eileen Lawrence.

I was aware of the importance of Agnes Martin’s work to Pat Steir well before I know that Eileen Lawrence shared that interest. I had been intrigued by Steir’s combination of painterly and conceptual elements when I came across her Looking for the Mountain (1971), which is based on one of a number of memorable visits she made to see Martin. It seemed to me then to share something of the eclectic approach to image-making I found in the early work of R.B. Kitaj, a touchstone for my work as a student, but with the important distinction, as I see it now, of dealing primarily with place.

My interest in Steir was confirmed by works like The Four Directions of Time: 1. Standard Time (1972), Cellar Door (1972), Line Lima (1973), Blue (1974) and Between the Lines (1974) but began to fade as, in my view, the work made later increasingly became more self-consciously “about” processes of making art, as with The Brueghel Series: A Vanitas of Styles (18982-84). McEvilley may well be correct when he writes that Steir was working out implications within Agnes Martin’s painting that Martin herself did not choose to address but, if so, they are implications that didn’t particularly interest me. What did interest me, when I first came to understand the influences on Eileen Lawrence’s early work, was the way in which she and Pat Steir briefly appeared to adopt a similar trajectory, only for the work to then diverge. In Lawrence’s case because, rather than an increasing preoccupation with art-making processes and art history, she set about absorbed two apparently irreconcilable orientations: that of Agnes Martin on one hand and of Joseph Beuys on the other.      

(to be continued)     

The Piano

The second series of Channel Four’s The Piano, in which amateur pianists play a piece in a railway station, ended last night. Less an amateur talent show than a celebration of extraordinary dedication and, importantly, joy in playing the piano. I’ve avidly watched both series and find myself wondering just why I find the programme so compelling. I’m not a particular fan of solo piano music, although I’ll happily listen to Holly Bowling, Thelonious Monk, Robin Holcomb, Rachel Grimes, Keith Jarrett, and a few others.

It’s not simply that many of the various performers on The Piano have disadvantaged or difficult backgrounds, or that they are so deeply involved in the music they play, that draws me. Perhaps most importantly it’s the rapt look on faces of some of the people who, having stopped to listen in a busy railway station. Faces that appear momentarily transformed by their unexpected encounter with music played for free and for its own sake. That’s what really speaks to me.

So, thinking back it should have been good news that, in January 2023, the UK’s Department for Education published  a policy paper called: The power of music to change lives: a national plan for music education? After all, it promotes the idea of providing: “opportunity to progress”, a “great music education”, the notion that making “music together is a vital part of a rich and rounded education”, and claims that “music plays a key role in brain development” because it “helps to develop language, motor skills, emotional intelligence and collaboration skills”, and so on. It’s a wonderful set of ideas until you remember the social context in which it appears.

A major part of that context is indicated by a report by the anti-poverty charity the Trussell Trust, which ran food banks that distributed parcels from 1,699 locations across the UK in 2023/24 and noted that there are at least 1,172 other independent food banks in Britain. I’m sure it’s hard to learn to play music if you or your family don’t have enough money to eat properly or can’t pay your energy bills. Particularly if there is no access to a piano at your school. Of course we know what the present Government thinks about this situation. When challenged about the increased dependence on food banks, the senior Tory politician Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed that they give people the chance to provide “charitable support” to their fellow citizens. Something his party clearly feels under no obligation to do, despite rising levels of poverty. Indeed, he says he finds food banks: “rather uplifting” because they show “what a good, compassionate country we are”! He goes on to claim that the real reason for the rise in numbers of people having to use food banks is that: “people know that they are there and Labour deliberately didn’t tell them”. Something only a man so steeped in his own ideology that he could accuse UNICEF of “playing politics” after it launched its campaign to help feed British children living below the poverty line could pretend to believe.

It would be easy to see the astonishing dedication of many of those appearing onThe Piano as supporting the belief that anyone who really wants to can take the “opportunity to progress” in any walk of life, not simply in music. That any child, no matter their background and with talent, hard work, and the right attitude can benefit from a “great music education”. And part of me still wants to believe that there’s some degree of truth in that. Only, for many of the young people appearing on the programme, music very clearly hasn’t been “a vital part of a rich and rounded education”. Instead I get the distinct impression it’s been something that they, with the help of biological or foster parents, have found and worked at as something quite outside their formal education. It’s certainly true that music can play “a key role in brain development” and help the development of “language, motor skills, emotional intelligence and collaboration skills”. However, for all but a tiny minority putting that into practice will still be dependent on first creating an education system based on social justice and equality if it is to have any real meaning.

At present the UK education system serves to ensure the continuation of a status quo that, in 2024, in which the lower 50% of the population own less than 5% of wealth, while the top 10% own a staggering 57%. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out, wealth inequality as an issue is inseparable from those of social and economic justice, the key principles on which an education system should be based. Glimpsing those momentarily transformed faces on The Piano was somehow a very powerful reminder of what is lost when an education system is ultimately required to serve the aims of the global consumer culture. When musical skill and creativity is treated as inseparable from economic gain. I suppose those faces speak to me of another form of education, one in which making and listening to music are experienced primarily as a transformative gift and as a celebration of the mystery of our shared humanity.

Remembering my mother on the 80th anniversary of the D-day landing

The photograph, taken some 40 years ago, is of my mother when she was living in West London.

My mother, who spoke both French and German fluently and had worked for both the BBC and SOE, went into Europe just after D-day to liaise between the Allied forces and the Red Cross. She followed the Allied advance across France and Germany and, finally, into Berlin. She was also involved in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of a notorious concentration camp and had some very unsettling stories to tell about that experience and about the war more generally.

She was by upbringing a Conservative and asked her friend the Conservative MP for Tyneside, Irene Ward – later Baroness Ward of North Tyneside and the longest serving female Conservative MP in history- to be my godmother. That Irene Ward’s Conservatism was light-years away from that of the Tory Party today is made very clear by her Wikipedia entry. It’s enough here to say that she was regularly re-elected by a largely working-class constituency because she genuinely cared about representing the needs of her constituents.

I think that both she and my mother would be horrified by what the Conservative party has become, in particular by the calculated and self-serving xenophobia of its Brexit grandees, its callously inept handling of the covid epidemic, and its undisguised contempt for the poor and the chronically ill. My mother, who was sent by her grandmother to stay with a family in Paris at the age of fifteen, understood herself to be both British and a European. She also believed that her privileged background came with real obligations to others. Both led her to work with Polish refugees and other stateless individuals after the war and then, for many years, with the RWVS.

I write this today to remember her and her contribution to society both during and after the war, but also because I wonder why, when the last surviving veterans of the 1939-1945 war are being interviewed, nobody seems willing to ask them what they make of the state of their country today. The country that many of their follow soldiers, sailors and airmen died for. Maybe it’s a sense of shame?

Irene Ward lost her seat in the House of Commons when Labour won a landslide victory in the 1945 election. A Labour victory that very clearly reflected what the majority of those who had fought in the war wanted for the future of their country. A future that would come to include, among other things, the world-class National Health Service that is now on the verge of collapse. Although they were both Conservatives, if they were alive today I know both my mother and Irene Ward would be horrified by the state of Britain, but particularly of an England dominated by London and the south-east. I also like to think they would wonder why the hard questions that this Anniversary should raise about a Britain so many died for are being avoided.

“Narrating the Many Autisms: Identity, Agency Mattering” by Dr Anna Stenning

The ebook version of this book, written by my friend Anna, was published on March 5th 2024 by Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis Group.

I’ve just downloaded a free copy from the publisher’s website and look forward to reading it, not least because it looks as if its insights will converge with work I’m involved in on a project called “Re-wilding the Artist”. When I’ve read it I’ll review it here but I thought I’d give advance notice of its existence to any readers who may be interested for personal reasons, or who work in education or in the community.

Poppies and other reds

Sometimes I just need to sit outside in the sun and look at what’s in front of me. Currently that means looking at the wonderful crop of poppies in our garden.

Frustratingly, my photographs just don’t do the colour of these poppies justice.

They are of course wonderful in their own right, but I also value them because their colour in shifting light comes close to two other particular rich reds. On one hand to the extraordinary deep red of old stained glass windows found in a cathedral like Chartres. The other is the red of a particular type of old-fashioned waxed paper bag. I used to get one of these whenever I bought small items like screws from a hardware shop just off the Tottenham Court Road that I used to visit when I had a makeshift studio in that part of London many years ago.

R.I.P John Burnside

My co-author Mary Modeen contacted me today. Her email included the following lines:

“My friend, the poet John Burnside just passed away. It seems like a year of many losses”.

It may seem odd, given the current slaughter being carried out in Ukraine and Gaza (among other places), to single out for mention the death of one man, albeit a respected poet. But John Burnside’s poem Out of Exile has long been important to me, both because it summons up the Scottish border towns I’ve so often driven though, alone or with my younger son and, perhaps equally importantly, because of how it speaks to my own childhood. It may also be that, in mourning what one particular person who has contributed a sense of depth or insight to our lives, we also remember something both of what it is to be part of the human community and honour those very real threads, however fragile, that link and enrich our disparate lives.

Continuing Conversations

In the last month or so I’ve been helping an American book artist, Heather Green, who is currently based at Cardiff University on a Fulbright-Cardiff University Scholar Award. She has been busy collecting information and making visual work about the many aspects of the Severn Estuary, with the help of the geographer Owain Jones. She’s also been meeting people who can contribute and drafting out the layout of the four interrelated books she’s proposing to make. On the Bahía Adair in Spanish and English and on the Severn in Welsh and English.

I first met Heather some years back when she was over in the South West to scope what could be done to develop an estuary project here. A project that will parallel her other concerned with an estuary, that of Bahía Adair, a large embayment in the northern Gulf of California in Sonora, Mexico. The Bahia Adair is a place she’s known since childhood. Taking as one of her starting points Lucy Lippard’s claim that: “Untold land is unknown land,” Heather is working on the basis that our engagement with place through names, maps and photographs can help to authenticate our communal imagination, our sense of history and identity, and in doing so can support and validate stewardship and conservation.

Last evening I met with another friend, the Welsh artist Sarah Rhys, an interdisciplinary artist living in Llansteffan, West Wales, who has been in touch with Heather and is hoping to work with her at some point in the future. Sarah is currently working on making a coracle, the small, round, lightweight boats that were a traditional means of water transport in Wales. I first met Sarah when she came as a Masters placement student to PLaCE, a little Research Centre I was then running at UWE, Bristol. A Centre that, despite its short life, has somehow managed to generate a considerable positive legacy. (After UWE closed PLaCE, Prof Mary Modeen at the University of Dundee and I arranged to maintain its spirit by setting up PLaCE International. Work at the Centre also led, in no small part through the efforts of another PLaCE student, Sue Adams, to the creation of a group called SpacePlacePractice, to which Sarah, Heather, Owain and myself belong). Like many of the students linked with the Centre, Sarah was interested in working as an artist but across a number of different disciplines and approaches. In her case, her focus was on different aspects of her Welsh identity as these linked into a range of environmental concerns.

Not everyone sees the linking of the arts and environmental concerns as positive. Indeed, in some quarters that link is seen as another example of the arts as parasitic or as a placebo for facing up to reality under capitalism. Given the often fairly tenuous nature of the relationship between aesthetic and activist concerns, it’s all too easy for activists to make blanket generalisations like George Monbiot’s claim that:

One of the greatest threats to life on Earth

is poetry.

I found this quotation recently in Caroline Lucas’ Another England: How to Reclaim Our National Story (2024), where it seems an odd inclusion in a book that frequently refers admiringly (and, if the index is correct, at least twelve times) to the work of the poet John Clare.

I’m no longer interested in engaging with these kinds of deliberately polemic generalisations but, to anyone who feels Monbiot may have a point – and as always there is a grain of truth in what I think his provocation is trying to say – I would highly recommend the chapter Scapeland in Rebecca Solnit’s As Eve Said To The Serpent: On Landscape, Gender and Art (2001). Solnit is every bit as engaged in radical thinking, about the environment and many other urgent aspects of contemporary life, but is a far more nuanced and thoughtful writer. The chapter contains a long discussion of why, to quote her, “the Left would like to deny beauty as a motivating force altogether, to deny the power of form and embrace content alone – as though the two were separable’. I think Solnit’s understanding of the role of beauty puts its finger on the fear that is the real reason for Monbiot’s claim about poetry.

Solnit’s argument is too rich (and too long) to paraphrase here, but it is very well worth hunting out, regardless of whether you disagree with Mobiot or not. I would suggest it is also central to understanding the value of the work that Heather Green, Sarah Rhys, and many others are doing and, as such, well worth taking to heart.

Postscript

As I’ve written in this blog before, my friend Lindsey Colbourne once said to me that there is no such thing as a coincidence. Having finished this post and eaten dinner with my wife and daughter, I turned to the Culture page of the Guardian Newspaper on my wife’s laptop. It contains an article by Clare Longrigg about the Italian poet Maria Grazia Calandone’s quest to discover why her mother first abandoned her and then killed herself. I refer to it here as a reminder that, whatever we may think about poetry, we should not divorce its making from the lives of those who make it. As Longrigg notes, Calandone: ‘gives workshops in schools and prisons. She is a believer in the redemptive power of poetry. One of her volumes tells the stories of missing persons. Others, of Hiroshima, 9/11, Babi Yar’. In short, poets and poems may do and be many things. (Perhaps even sometimes and in some respects a great threat to life on Earth). But one of the great, and perhaps redemptive, qualities of any good poem is that, in the poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub’s words, it is always among other things an acknowledgement of its own ‘binding inadequacy’ and is therefore ‘close to to life’. (From the final chapter of Holub’s The Dimension of the Present Moment and other essays (1990).

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