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 Sticks 106, 107 &108 (1992), however, the materially-referential textures and low-key, near monochrome colouration of pieces that took their cue from her hand-made paper had to a certain degree 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. 

(Added 17.06.24) With Lawrence’s “minutely painted columns of ‘script’” in mind, is it possible that these might carry for both the artist and ourselves something touched on in Melville’s description, in Moby Dick, of Queequeg’s elaborate tattoos. These, he tells us, were “the work of a departed prophet and seer”, “hieroglyphic marks” writing out on the body “a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of obtaining truth”. Mysteries that, however, even Queequeg himself was not able to read.

(To be continued).