2010

Joan Backes – How the Artist Looks at Trees

January 2010

Joan Backes – How the Artist Looks at Trees

The link between art and nature is  strong and enduring.  Since humanity was first motivated by a mimetic impulse  borne out of wonderment and fascination, the urge to record, to comment upon,  and in some way to participate in nature has been unstoppable.

The history of the tree as metaphor, symbol, subject and object  has been a long one in art-historical terms. Joan Backes, who has worked closely with natural subject matter for many years, has concentrated on the tree for the last decade. For Backes, the tree is both metaphor and actuality, symbol and object. The tree – a source of so much of the physical fabric of our built environment – is also a vast repository of human association where myth, metaphor, art and symbol collide and intertwine.

It would be a skewed reading of Backes’ work to see it as solely or primarily ‘eco’ or ‘environmental’ art, caught up with the pressing concerns of deforestation and global environmental Armageddon which, we are continually told, seems to be nigh.  Such an interpretation would be a facile but perhaps inevitable reading, given the times we live in.

These are issues which Backes understands well, as her participation in the 2008 exhibition  ‘Nature Interrupted,’ at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York,  so amply demonstrated. Here, Backes exhibited one of her increasingly well-known  Carpet of Leaves (measuring 19′ x 6 1/2′ ) consisting of over one thousand leaves representing many species and seasons.  The leaves were laminated in an acrylic seal and each was placed individually as part of an intricate pattern on the gallery floor.  

Joan Backes, Tree, Edinburgh, 2010

Backes’ art is essentially celebratory, not despairing.  Thus, it is set apart from so much earnest but rather single minded ‘issue’ art which has become all too common in recent years. Not long ago, Backes exhibited a related work Carpet of Leaves, 2010 at Sleeper Gallery in Edinburgh. Discussing these carpet works, Backes states

…when I began making them I wanted to bring the outside in to the Gallery.  I thought about how we have made indoor carpets with motifs from leaves to decorate their surfaces.  I wondered how it would work to bring the leaves directly into the gallery and to make an arranged carpet – as we humans try to organize gardens and nature outdoors.  But in this case I would use the real leaves from nature.  

Each Carpet is different.  I spend a lot of time planning the best arrangement and dimensions specifically for each site.  Some have been oval, some round, others rectangular and some very long rectangles.  For each Carpet I add leaves from the place where it is exhibited.  So every Carpet holds leaves from every past site as well as ones from its current site.  The Sleeper Carpet  features leaves from Scotland in its center around which is a distinct ring of dark oval leaves from Massachusetts where I currently live.  So the Carpets have background stories if people wish to learn about them.

These carpets therefore are possessed of both a specificity and a universality – they celebrate the local while affirming the universal.  They are also a way of arresting time — of preserving the leaves in a perpetual Autumnal state, and as Backes says, ‘bringing the outside in’.

Backes’ works are sometimes simultaneously symbolic and non-symbolic; often, they can be read in multiple ways. Another work which Backes showed at Sleeper, Tree, Edinburgh, 2010 is a detailed study in acrylic of the bark of a tree. Like Carpet of Leaves, 2010 this painting captures a certain genus loci while extending outwards in relevance and meaning. The image is both objective and subjective in that it records impassively – like a taxonomic process – while also being suggestive  in the way that, say, a botanical illustration could never be.

Where should we place Backes’ unadorned ‘objective’ painting of bark and her infinitely more decorative and colourful leaf carpet ?   Tree, Edinburgh, 2010 is part of an interlocking tradition in western art which can be traced at least as far back as Dürer’s Das grosse Rasenstück (1503).  The selectivity and focus which Backes applies to her bark study is no less intense than Dürer’s choice of an apparently mundane subject which, as we now appreciate, contains infinite wonders.  

Albrecht Dürer, Das grosse Rasenstück (1503)

As anyone with more than a passing interest in trees will be aware, Backes has actually painted the bark of a Scots Pine (pinus sylvestris). That this identification is so readily made is a testament to Backes’ skill and dedication —but why not name the work ‘Scots Pine, Edinburgh’, or even ‘Pinus sylvestris Edinburgensis MMX’ ?  Instead, Backes has chosen an apparently ‘neutral’ nomenclature which simultaneously rejects an accepted scientific methodology. Backes herself points to this ambiguity when she explains “I wanted to explore the possibilities of making a painting to read abstractly when viewed close-up while the painting would also represent something when viewed from a distance.”  Could the viewing process — the way in which we look at such a work — itself be seen as a metaphor?  The common catchphrase ‘He couldn’t see the wood for the trees’ comes to mind in this context. In other words, too much intense focus on the detail of things prevents us seeing the larger picture.  Backes offers both possibilities to the exclusion of neither.

Like Backes’ tree paintings, her  Carpet of Leaves use and celebrate local material and mix it with material from further afield. The patterning inherent within the carpet can be read as a kind of narrative – not necessarily a logical or sequential one.  The narrative leads the eye which seeks and requires sense, order and patterning. We are lead down an avenue of similarly coloured leaves, or a cluster of species, or a linked assortment of shapes….Each viewer will formulate a unique reading.  My own reaction was one of surprise and delight, for this was the first time I had encountered Backes’ work. I set about trying to decode the work at my feet. What were the species of trees from which the leaves came? How had the artist ordered them? By colour? By shape? By species? By size?

Joan Backes, Carpet of Leaves, 2010

Does the meaning of this work — and other similar pieces by Backes — extend beyond the surface appearance? Should the carpet be seen as a metaphor for something else? Or should it be celebrated and enjoyed for what it i – a collection of ordered shapes and patterning; a joyful celebration of nature? Perhaps we should incline towards the latter view, remembering the words of Gertrude Stein who famously said:  “A rose is a rose is a rose.” A  metaphorical reading, although not impossible, is not necessary. It is certain that in creating these works Backes brought to bear her own personal associations of making. But these are unknown; it is the viewer’s experience which is important in this respect.

Discussing ways of reading Backes’ work, Jonathan Goodman (critic, Art in America) has observed

“While the paintings make no overtly political claims…Backes has found a way of painting non-objectively, as well as referencing the actuality of nature, her double set of meanings do not suggest a dichotomy so much as a union in which one way of seeing is equivalent to, and perhaps identical with, the other…Backes’ strengths as a painter are wonderfully exacting in her renditions of trees; her examples do not appropriate but rather incorporate a visual complexity operative in several fields of the imagination at once. We may well read her interpretations as evidence of the worthwhile desire to identify and preserve, as well as seduce, the eye.”

Explicitly, through her work, Backes not only celebrates nature and shares with us her joy and appreciation of it,  she also implicitly resurrects the notion of beauty.  Through the selection of many species of colourful leaves in her Carpets, to her painted recordings of the bark of trees from numerous geographical locations, we are offered the beauty and pleasures of the natural world worth preserving.  Backes’ work shares an outlook with many artists of stature and takes her place in a long and distinguished tradition, one which begins with Dürer but can also be found in the work of Van Gogh and Matisse, as well as the more recent American painters Cy Twombly and Joan Mitchell. These artists used the vivid colour of nature, often focusing on trees, leaves and flowers. They have done with their work what Backes does with paint and with raw material. Backes‘ work lifts the viewer toward a sense of delight  through its celebration of nature. 

© GILES SUTHERLAND 2010

Joan Backes Paper House 2007.jpg

Joan Backes Cardboard House 2008.jpg

Kate Downie: The Coast Road Diaries

August 2010

Over the past two years or so, the artist, Kate Downie, has travelled to a number of coastal locations in Scotland — and one in Ireland — to pursue a project which she has named The Coast Road Diaries. Each of the places she has visited has resonated with significance, either on a personal or professional level, or both. Discussing the project, Downie has observed that “..the overall project is based on a collection of journeys and short residencies,” adding that “…through the keeping of notebooks, film-making, photography and drawing along the way, [I] ultimately hope to present a personal art-history through this new work…”

The traditional idea of a diary may connote the lifestyle of a busy executive, or a leather-bound volume full of secrets or a planned and scheduled personal life. None of these applies to Downie’s project; this is, instead, more of a notional diary freed from logical, sequential chronology and linear temporality. It is a framing device which allows the temporally fragmented, spatially and geographically dispersed project to gain some kind of coherence, a form, if you like, of poetic or artistic licence.  Downie herself explains this approach:

The exhibition represents more of an idea of a diary than the actuality, that word ‘diary’ being used to convey the temporal and experiential nature of [my] own artistic development. The objective is to explore the connection between pictures and words, but more importantly, the revelations experienced by personal research into places, persons and influence.

The diary is, therefore, more of a metaphoric than a literal device and as such has a long history in art, film and literature. The literary diary and the road movie, although distant cousins, still have some common elements and it comes as no surprise to learn that some years ago Downie, with her partner, Michael Wolchover, made a short film, Driven (2001), which explores some of the themes in her work relating to Slains Castle on the East Coast of Scotland near Collieston, one of the locations visited in her present project. In many ways, the Coast Road Diaries is an extension of some of the earlier ideas explored here.

The Coast Road Diaries focuses on a number of well-known living and near-contemporary artists; and on a number of specific coastal locations. The choice of artist has been determined by a number of complex factors. The artists — Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004), Muirhead Bone (1876-1953), Joan Eardley (1921-1963), Marian Leven

(1944 -), Bet Low (1924-2007), Archie Sutter Watt (1915-2005), Sylvia Wishart (1936-2008) and Frances Walker (1930 – ) — are all well known figures in the world of Scottish art. Barns-Graham, Bone and Eardley, in particular, have reputations which extend well beyond Scottish shores. Undoubtedly, all have profoundly influenced Downie’s approach.

Frances Walker was one of Downie’s teachers at Gray’s School of Art, while Leven is a near-contemporary who works on the edge of abstraction and figuration, as well as the edge of sea and land. Bone was a consummate draughtsman, well versed in printmaking and drawing, who, like Downie was fascinated by the poetry of structure, architecture and engineering. Eardley, based in Townhead, Glasgow and Catterline in Kincardineshire, formed a dialectic (like a number of the artists here) from the opposing urban and rural tensions within her work; she was also a bold, determined figure who immersed herself in the — often adverse — elements to gain greater proximity to her subject matter. Barns-Graham, located in St. Ives and St. Andrews, but with a wider geographical frame of reference extending to Italy and the Swiss Alps, employed sparse and vigorous lines in her exploration of landscape and geology. Sutter Watt was a more lyrical artist whose love of the south west of Scotland and whose studies of sea, land and natural form, moved Downie to travel there to explore the artist’s work and the places which inspired it.

Like Walker, both Low and Wishart were fascinated by the landscape and seascape of the north of Scotland — particularly Orkney — and it is the vision of these artists which drew Downie herself so powerfully to those northern islands.

In discussing the Coast Road Diaries project at some length it became clear that Downie’s motivation and purpose for undertaking the project were complex, and indeed, almost impossible to express fully in written terms. Equally, the results, outcomes, and consequences of her exploratory, investigative, experimental vision were almost, by definition, unknowable.

That said, the premise of Downie herself visiting and working in places which inspired and motivated some of the Scottish artists whom she herself so admires, is a simple enough idea to examine. However, it should be emphasised that Downie’s approach — about which she is emphatic and adamant — was not simply to revisit places, scenes and landscapes depicted by these artists and for her then to render them according to her own vision. The process and the journey have been more multi-layered, subtle and variable than such an approach would suggest.

In discussing the idea of influence Downie has commented that “there is nothing as invisible as the recent past and that which is just behind us. It colours our experience and our way of looking. That is what I want to understand so that I am able to move on.” For Downie, these artists represent the recent past, as well as the present. From the outset, Downie has been strongly motivated to examine both the work of these artists and the places which inspired it. The particular symbiotic relationship between place and art — the mutual influence which the one has had on the other — is, therefore, what has held Downie’s attention.

Downie is cautious about attempting to pin down her ‘influences’ more specifically, pointing to the multi-layered nature of any definition, its subjective individual quality and the fact that exploring the nature of influence also formed part of the basis for The Coast Road Diaries:

[I have an] interest in the nature of influence …sometimes people ask you who influences you.  And usually ….I find it extremely difficult to answer.  And I am extremely reluctant to say ‘well it’s the… vigorous line drawing of so and so, and it’s the painterliness of so and so, and it’s the real zest for life of someone else.  And it’s the rule of so-and-so….and the act of disobedience by someone else, and the example of lifestyle of someone else’…as everyone knows… those things are like saying ‘well being alive on the planet Earth is what influenced me’.

That said, Downie does cite specific examples of how visual thought, communication and culture affected her development as an artist:

… Edward Hopper … that emptiness…or … Rembrandt or [other] people that are so obvious that you don’t talk about them.  [others]… like Tony Hart and Rolf Harris…I was an American kid, I came to this country and television and what you saw on it was your little window into what other people did. So I didn’t have a hierarchy of influence. It wasn’t until I went to art school that I was told these people are supposed to influence you.  So I suppose that’s what I mean by looking at the recent past, … I need to look just behind me.  So these women and these men are not so much older than me, they’re still doing stuff, a lot of them, and if they’re not still doing stuff they’re still being appraised and I’m part of that appraisal.

In the democratic spirit of the American Pop artists, Downie’s range of influence embraced not only visual culture, but the visual generally. Her way of seeing and looking was also informed by a non-hierarchical vision, or what Downie refers to quite specifically as her ‘open-gaze policy’ .

Such an approach is frequently reflected in Downie’s art — evolving from her early work in Paris where she sat literally instreet junctions and intersections in the midst of bustling urban life to a recent residency in Karmøy, Norway, where again she positioned herself and her drawing materials in the midst of an intersection (this time on an Oselvar rowing boat) better to record events around her.  Discussing this approach, Downie has observed that,

…the junction is where everybody who belongs to a place passes over at some point, so there is a kind of…collected ownership of that place. …the intangibility of drawing a junction always attracts me hugely, that there’s apparently nothing there…

In the current project a work such as ‘Full Tide’ completed in the north-east coastal village of Gardenstown (or Gamrie) in the winter of 2009 further illustrates such an approach. The impression is not of looking at the sea and heavily-laden sky, the cautious, gabled-ended village, the restless greyness of the Moray Firth with a band of unbroken light just in the westerly horizon but, rather, of being within the scene. Just as the artist seems to be straddling the concrete road and the blue-grey sea so we, the viewers, seem to straddle the representation of a reality and reality itself.

Downie herself terms such works not as ‘seascape’, ‘landscape’, ‘townscape’ or ‘skyscape’ but rather as ‘edgescape’ – thus positioning them at the periphery of notice and experience.  These are places where the road ends, most often giving on to the sea. Although it is tempting to see such an approach as symbolic, it rarely, if ever, is. Downie is an artist whose vision is firmly rooted in actuality. It is worth noting an observation made by the critic Cordelia Oliver in respect of Eardley, for the same may also be said of Downie herself:

…in spite of the obvious emotional charge invested in her late canvases (those grapplings with the immensities of earth and air and water and sun) …Eardley was essentially a factual painter, neither fanciful nor romantic…subjective-seeming responses to the elemental tumult beyond the cliffs of Catterline are found to contain unmistakable points of topographical reference.

Like J.M.W. Turner and Joan Eardley before her, Downie believes that only by total immersion in an experience and place can it be done justice; her work is not solely about representing a place but conveying a deeper, wider experience of it.  Her straddling of the concrete in Gamrie in the middle of winter and depicting it as seen is the equivalent of Turner strapping himself to a ship’s mast in the midst of a storm, or of Eardley painting on the shore in equally bad weather.

This approach was adopted to a greater or lesser extent by most of the other artists here. Frances Walker, for example, has exhibited landscapes on large portable panels so that the experience of looking at her work and thus the work’s relationship to objective reality has been crucially transformed.

One may also cite the example of Muirhead Bone, who although a seemingly impassive observer does convey – in work such as ‘The Great Gantry, Charing Cross’ (1906) – his closeness to his subject matter, his intimate knowledge of it and, by turns, his emotional involvement with it.  Like Downie’s (although the comparison might seem at first odd) Bone’s, at its best,  is deeply affecting work.

The sheer scope and ambition of Downie’s The Coast Road Diaries — involving an investigation of the work of eight artists over a two-and-half-year period, in a ‘journey’ or more accurately series of journeys — make a description and blow-by-blow account of events an impossibility. However, it is clear that a number of important themes have emerged over the course of Downie’s project.

One of these is the idea of dichotomy. Almost all of the artists here, to some extent or other — including Downie herself — have an element of this in their work. With Low, Eardley, Wishart and Walker, and even Bone, there is an oscillation between the urban and the rural; or between the constructed world and the natural. Barns-Graham, although predominantly concerned with the geometries and underlying structure of natural form, has dwelt from time to time on the architectural — while the work of Sutter Watt also exhibits such a polarity. Sutter Watt was selected by Shell to record some of the company’s activities in Port Glasgow; so, although far better known as a lyrical painter of landscape, still-life and seascape, his scope extended beyond this to the world of the constructed and the engineered.

Downie’s subject matter therefore inherits such dichotomies and expands upon them; although largely un-peopled, her work nevertheless rarely, if ever, fails to record a human presence. And while her subject matter here embraces the rawness of the cold winter sea or the desolation of two days spent alone on a grave-yard island (Eilean Munde on Loch Leven) the fact that we are presented with views through windows or, even windscreens, makes the mediation of the human an important factor in Downie’s work.

As Downie has noted, The Coast Road Diaries has been a project with various unknowable outcomes or outcomes which may be only partly perceived or understood. One of these relates to what she refers to as a ‘personal art history’. At it simplest this has been about discovering and to some extent documenting the effects and influences these artists have exerted on her work. Downie has to some extent recorded this experience here. However, it is worth noting her particular ‘relationship’ with Eardley and her work. Downie never met Eardley as the latter died when Downie was a young child and still living in North Carolina. However, as an art student in Aberdeen under the guidance of Frances Walker and Sylvia Wishart, Downie was keenly aware of Eardley’s reputation, legacy and ‘presence’. Realising increasingly in later years that she shared some of Eardley’s concerns, Downie avoided visiting Catterline — the village on the east coast twelve miles south of Aberdeen where Eardley lived between 1956 and her death in 1963. It is important to note, however, that this did not mean an eschewal of Eardley’s work and what it generously had to give to the younger artist. The issue revolved around place and particularly Eardley’s relationship to it:

I had made a specific point … before this journey, The Coast Road Diaries, never to visit Catterline…and specifically never to make work there. And the more people who said ‘oh have you never been to Catterline’, I’d go ‘well, actually not, because what would I say that hadn’t [already] been said so brilliantly?’…. [Eardley] influences the way that you would look at a particular coastline…and although I’m a figurative artist, I’m always interested in the conceptual side of how we interpret landscape or seascape or faces or buildings or anything.

Downie’s points are important and require scrutiny. She clearly felt that Eardley’s vision and way of looking were somehow definitive and could not be bettered. Eardley’s stature was such, and her abilities as an artist so formidable, that revisiting Catterline for the purposes of making art would be a futile, counter-productive, and perhaps even humiliating exercise. Downie was not the first artist to have to deal with the legacy of another artist of great stature. Since J.M.W. Turner painted what was wrongly thought to be the Bass Rock in the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century, that subject matter has undoubtedly proved problematic for generations of artists. Numerous examples of this ‘syndrome’ appear elsewhere.

In fact, the decision to visit Catterline near the outset of the present project proved a fruitful and energising experience resulting in some of Downie’s most successful work. It gave the project momentum and helped to shape it.  The three ink drawings, ‘Bird Watching in Catterline’, (1-3) made in June 2007 present views from Downie’s camper-van across and around Catterline Bay. Although it may be tempting to see these works as ‘sketches’ (with that term’s connotation of the preparatory) they are in fact carefully constructed, finished works (using three types of ink) and as such allow a number of crucial observations to be made about Downie’s approach.

All are views through a rectangular window and implicitly recall the work of Sylvia Wishart. But they also offer an apt metaphor for The Coast Road Diaries. The project itself is about Downie looking at the work of other artists through the prism or lens of her own art and experience, and reciprocally looking or re-looking at her own work after the experience of place and work which these artists offered. In the first of the three, Catterline Bay is seen through the window of the Hymer van and is inscribed: “Willow warblers and common gulls looking east from Catterline”.

It is as if Downie is tentatively edging toward a direct encounter with Eardley, for the ‘view’ is partially obscured by a shrubby tree, and despite the inscription, it is a lone gull which inhabits the sky in this image. In numbers 2 and 3 of this series, Downie directs her gaze northwards, towards Catterline harbour, the cliffs and beyond that to the ‘Watchie’ (one of the buildings used by Eardley as a studio).  It is a view to which Eardley herself devoted considerable attention and is represented in paintings such as ‘Winter Sea IV’. Downie’s perspective is taken from a point on the road which leads from the cliff-top cottages down to the harbour. As if to eliminate any doubt that the view has been made from the road itself, Downie has included a triangular road-sign which indicates the danger of falling rocks. The image of the sign is closely juxtaposed with the image of the ‘Watchie’ – and in both cases sign dwarfs dwelling.

What does this tell us about Downie’s approach, her vision, and her stance in respect of Eardley? Downie has commented on what she describes as her ‘open-gaze policy’ and her ‘non-hierarchical vision’. These images are clearly part of this way of looking, for she has stressed that it is not so much the medium in which she works or the style or method of her approach but where she directs her gaze which is the most important element in her work:

…you don’t really need to make things up, you simply have to allow everything in…I’m choosing to look at the solidity of the silhouette… there’s little comments to be made [about] the relationship between the past and the present. I’m almost coming to Catterline in a historical context but by including these symbols… I’m bringing it up to the here and now… by creating the window effect I’m placing myself as … [a] …tourist … I’m always really interested in that relationship.

A common tendency in this context would be the deliberate exclusion of the road-sign as representative of, perhaps, modernity or visual ‘clutter’. Indeed this approach was practised in Catterline by Eardley herself.  But to Downie the inclusion of the sign is crucial and stands firmly at the centre of her approach to image making. To Downie, everything which comes within the scope of her vision has an equal status and thus fits within her ‘non-hierarchical’ artistic view of the visual world. This way of looking was partly encouraged by both Wishart’s and Walker’s ‘deep-looking’ – their landscapes often include elements such as telegraph poles as a form of vertical ‘punctuation’ in work necessarily dominated by horizontals. Downie explains:

I always remember expressing frustration at what was left out in … the cliché of landscape and getting very cross with the fact that things like…telegraph poles or cars were ignored in the context of things.  [The] artist’s job on one level is…to introduce people to…their own truth … there’s always a game between what you are fed in the picturesque image and…the reality…by completely, continuously updating what is really out there you help people to assimilate a full view of their own role…

Downie further explored these ideas with a series of monoprints in which the framing device of the window is developed. In most, the road-sign is not only visible but is the dominant compositional element of the image.  It was this way of looking which allowed her to approach Eardley’s legacy in all its forms. Thus, Eardley’s vision has not obscured Downie’s but is complementary to it. This series reaches an accomplished and powerful conciliation in Downie’s  ‘The Watchie Path’ —where Eardley’s cottage, although partially obscured, is seen as an element with equal compositional status to the sea, sky, vegetation and pathway which comprise the image.

It is clear, therefore, that through her approach to Eardley, Downie has also been able to contextualise her own work in relation to that of the other artists here. The result is a series of powerful, exciting and absolutely fresh images. While acknowledging her debt to past and living artists, Downie has nevertheless succeeded in her primary purpose —to create a personal art history, at once unique but deeply aware of its antecedents.

Michael Lloyd – Twelve Vessels

Publication: Crafts Magazine.    
November 2010

Michael Lloyd — Twelve Vessels
Innovative Craft
Dovecot Studios
10 Infirmary Street
Edinburgh EH1  1LT 

Until 11 December 2010 

The term ‘vessel’ is loaded with meaning and association but at its core is the notion of a receptacle for conveyance or deposition. Doubtless, however, the term’s etymological freight was uppermost in the mind of silversmith Michael Lloyd when he conceived this wonderfully elegant and simple project by inviting eleven sets of friends each to commission a vessel based on one month of the year which held significance for them.   For Lloyd’s Twelve Vessels of Life, Love and Death  — to give the undertaking its full title — is about the celebration of the fundamentals of human existence. Explaining his approach, Lloyd writes that the “…collection embraces my love of the natural world and our place, as part of nature, amongst it…”  Twelve Vessels, he continues is “…a recognition not only of the beauty of nature but of the profound events that mark our lives as we progress from cradle to grave — of birth, of love, of survival, of loss and death. It’s plain from examining, admiring and even coveting these objects (all of which, on a practical level, could be used for drinking) that Lloyd’s impassioned love of nature is complemented by his skill as a crafter and worker of metal. His chasing, planishing, polishing, raising, sinking and repoussé  — along with the engraving of George Lukes and the gilding of Stephen Wood — celebrate nature as well as underlining the sanctity and delicacy of life.  For, with the exception of one (September’s, commissioned by John and Jenny Makepeace) all bear motifs derived from plants and trees.   August’s goblet was commissioned by Michael Lambert  who comments: “A shared wonder of nature first drew me to Michael’s work and his delicate observation of flora made him the obvious choice from whom to commission a special piece of silverware to celebrate the August birthday of my son. Decoration of this vessel with the subtle chasing of rosa rugosa is particularly apt given the profusion of wild roses that bejewel the hedgerows around our family home in Northumberland….” A number of these vessels bear inscriptions. Alexander and Lucinda Scott, for whom Lloyd made March’s vessel, chose a verse from The Song of Solomon which provides the inscription around the base of the goblet: “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.”  The floral motif is the guelder rose, bursting with buds, evocative of fecundity and sensuality. Chris Philipson’s late wife Patricia is commemorated in July’s vessel, a small eight-sided cup, which bears the stylised motif of the wild poppy.  October’s vessel (similar in form and size to July’s) was made for Amanda Game in memory of her late husband, Andrew Raven. Here, Lloyd uses an expertly drawn hawthorn motif as an elegiac device celebrating Raven’s love of wild land and his belief in the importance of humanity’s stewardship of our common home. This show, beautifully lit and carefully presented, is a joy; moving and uplifting by turns it celebrates the sacred communion between life and death, and humanity and natural world.

Inkubator 2 – critical essay by Giles Sutherland

Publication:     April 2010

Critical essay by Giles Sutherland published in conjunction with the travelling exhibition 
Inkubator 2 by David Faithfull



‘Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen’ 
(Where books are burned in the end people will burn)
Heinrich Heine, 1820

As its title indicates, this exhibition and installation, conceived by the artist David Faithfull, is the second in the series of an ongoing, evolving project with coalesces around a collection of artists’ books, installation art and other aesthetic interventions.

An unusual, challenging and deeply stimulating project, it is, in essence, a conceptual framework which allows for the display of various media within a coherent and cohesive structure.

Faithfull himself has likened the project to a ‘multiple’ in that it is a kind artwork of which is repeated, or has the capacity to be repeated, in almost infinite variation.

In Inkubator 1, shown at Edinburgh Printmakers in 2007, Faithfull divided the available gallery space into three conceptual and actual spaces, with a fourth, termed the Annex, as an addendum with material which did not easily fit into any of the three other categories. These groupings, or rooms, labelled Study, Log Cabin and Landscape, housed a plethora of printed and visual material.

Faithfull sees the Study and the Landscape as antithetical spaces — where culture and nature oppose each other — with the Thoreau-esque cabin acting as a symbolic synthesis. Describing the concept, Faithfull has written:


‘Study’ or sanctuary for intellectual and scientific contemplation, political and philosophical speculation. ‘Log cabin’ or xylotheque where shaman meets poacher, twitcher meets stalker, a shrine or a retreat, a hide or a hideaway, an arboretum, the spiritual and the ritual, ecology and mythology, etc. ‘Landscape’ environment in flux, representations, of topography, geology, meteorology etc….i


The Landscape houses works on meteorology, geology and geography — as well as works on the landscape in art. Artists grouped within this area included Alec Finlay, Arthur Watson and Stuart Mugridge. 


As part of his overall schema, Faithfull also conceived furniture (including shelving), wallpaper and other ‘decorative’ interventions. Thus, the Log Cabin contained printed hand-made wallpaper printed with an oak-leaf motif, a log bench, and a floor rug woven with a bear and oak-leaf design (itself a multiple, woven in Iran). In the Study — which has a kind of Ruskinian ambience — we find a William Morris-inspired wallpaper by artist Nicola Murray derived not from Morris’s store of floral motifs but from a series of ‘mutated’ plants found in Murray’s allotment. These are complemented by comfortable floral pattern chairs, a putative ‘fireplace’ by Miranda Schofield (derived from the fireplace in one of Karl Marx’s former London homes) and a small, delicate writing desk. 

The bookshelves — themselves another form of multiple — are fashioned from reclaimed mahogany, in contrast to the Cabin’s locally-sourced oak and the Landscape’s sustainable ash. In the Landscape, the walls are decorated by paper derived from Faithfull’s own landscape drawings (using ink made by Faithfull from oak galls) while, in keeping with the outdoor theme, the furniture consists of deck chairs. Landscape drawings, thematically linked to the wallpaper, adorn the walls.

The Annexe, a repository of unclassifiable material, a problematic issue for any classification-obsessed librarian, finds an appropriate taxonomy in this space. The room is adorned with what appears to be astragalled window wallpaper in the fashion of the ’seventies children’s TV programme, Playschool — but is, in fact, an interactive wall diary by Chris Taylor and Craig Wood. This playful wall is complemented by a child’s work-table — also informing the viewers’ response — and steam-bent, laminated plywood chairs. Here are filed the unclassifiable ‘picture books for grown-ups’ by Otto Dettmer as well as others, including, for instance, those relating to contemporary dance. 

The context of Inkubator 2 has been determined by the physical space in which it has been displayed. Happenstance and circumstance have therefore dictated the evolving form. Faithfull, inventive, spontaneous and highly adaptive in his approach has allowed the Durham Art Gallery and Light Infantry Museum, with its obvious military context, to suggest themes of Armageddon, the Cold War, apocalypse, nuclear weapons, Chernobyl and other related themes such as legendary labyrinth at Knossos.

Working with the Museum and Gallery’s Curator, James Lowther, Faithfull has invited additional artists — many of whom are based in the North East of England — to contribute to the evolving form of the Inkubator series. Many of these works are sited in a room Faithfull has labelled the Bunker. The space is purposefully and deliberately evocative of the themes suggested above. However, the work it contains also connotes personal as well as military, national and international conflict and, as such, embraces a spectrum of dissent from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic. Conflict is thus, according to Faithfull, “an open premise”.ii

Within the Bunker, therefore, visitors can experience a series of atmospheric bunker photographs by Uta Kögelsberger. Printed on aluminium, these images portray the defunct, derelict concrete structures from the past conflict of the Second World War. Taken predominantly at night, or in the half-light of dawn or dusk, with long exposures, the photographs evoke the ghosts of the past inhabited by the eyes of the present. Kögelsberger has commented: 

The bunkers and blockhouses from WWII could be described as being physical incorporations of terror. Their monumentality acts as a demonstration of the power of the state by inducing a fear and reverence that atomise the individual, inducing them into the service of an ideological whole. Their current gradual re-assimilation into the environment becomes metaphoric for the failure of these structures in their defensive role. iii

Kögelsberger’s imagery is highly suggestive of the themes explored by the philosopher Paul Virilio, particularly in his work, Bunker Archaeology which, in the phenomenological vein of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, explores architectural space and place as an entity evocative of memory and emotion. 

Faithfull, too, points to Virilio as a major influence on his thinking in respect of Inkubator 2: 

Paul Virilio sees the bunker as a kind of ark for new life. But he also views it as a crypt, an old dank place which harbours the fear of being trapped and blasted by a grenade. The bunker, for Virilio, also contains the idea of resurrection. Once the nuclear dust has settled you come out of it like Lazarus, once the marauding army has gone. Virilio talks about Europe during the Second World War as being the first example in history of a ‘fortress without a ceiling’ where war came from the above. He describes the more recent Kosovo conflict Virilio as a ‘fortress without walls’ with the advent of the graphite bomb, history progressing at the speed of its developing weapon systems. iv

Another of the ‘bunker’ artists is the ex-infantryman, Craig Ames. The artist, who now works as a lecturer in photography the University of Sunderland, has contributed studies of infantrymen in what is now The Military Museum in Newcastle. Accompanying these are works by Stefan Gec, from Gateshead, whose work deals with Cold War and nuclear themes and those of Newcastle-born Gerald Laing whose images of the Iraq war, including the atrocities of Abu Ghraib prison, have won him acclaim and caused controversy in equal measure.

The sixth and final space of Inkubator 2, which Faithfull has labelled the Hangar, has been reserved solely for film and video works. These include films by Angus Boulton and the collaborative artists Roland Rust and Walther Eckelmann whose work deals, respectively, with the absorption of Napoleonic ‘Martello’ towers into the suburban landscape and meditates on the route of the Docklands Light Railway, through Canary Wharf, in London.

There are, therefore, in each of these unique themed spaces multiple objects and texts which we may ponder at our leisure. They are by turns provocative, disturbing, intriguing, beautiful and puzzling. One of the most absorbing of all if these, belying its apparent simplicity, is a small publication by the Berlin-based artist Wiebke Loeper. Loeper, brought up in the eastern sector of the city when the Cold War was at its height, was the privileged child of middle class intellectual parents. The family was allocated an apartment in a newly-built block of flats, the pride of the GDR’s economic and social programme. The book, entitled Moll 31 (indicating the address of the Loeper family’s apartment) is an outstanding exemplar of the artist’s book genre in terms of production, impact and execution. The cover, a vivid yellow, relates to the interior wall colour within the apartment when it was inhabited by the Loeper family. Interestingly the book’s epigraph is a quotation from Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space — “ Das Haus ist unser erstes All. Es ist wirklich ein Kosmos”. v


In Moll 31 Wiebke Loeper has juxtaposed photographs taken in the ’seventies by her father, architect Herwig Loeper — showing his beautiful blonde wife Bärbal Loeper and the couple’s children, inside and outside the utopian apartment — alongside those taken by the artist more than twenty years later. In one, Bärbal walks along the pavement with the apartment block in the background; the scale and perspective of both photographs are identical. With the passage of time, the trees have grown taller, partially obscuring the block. The newer photograph is devoid of people and this theme defines the series — the unbridgeable gap between absence and presence, then and now. The images are an elegy for a lost childhood, a lost parent and a lost ideal — and are, in most cases, heartrending, even tragic. Another shows a bathroom with a child’s head, its hair covered in shampoo — a happy, family snap; its counterpart is a derelict abandoned space devoid of tiles, fittings — and child.

In the book the writer Annett Gröschner notes: “The history of the building reads like the history of the GDR which at the bad end of the metaphor scale was often compared to a house built on solid foundations. In the end the foundations proved to be faulty. By the summer of 1989, the building was already condemned…” 

The apartment at Mollstrasse latterly looked like a bunker; and by extension we may view the GDR in the same light — a self-contained world, protected, enclosed and virtually impregnable which became redundant because of massive, external historical forces.

Elsewhere in this city of bunkers (from where so much of the apparatus of state terror, from the 1930s onwards, operated out of sight and out of mind) is another kind of bunker — a hole in the ground, into which one peers, not at things but at non-things, absences and ghosts. This is the architectural sculpture by the Israeli artist Micha Ullmann (b.1939), entitled ‘Bibliothek’ (1995). Sited in Bebelplatz near the Humboldt University and the Altebibliothek, the sculpture commemorates the burning of thousands of books by Nazi students on 10th May, 1933. The sculpture, simple in concept but deeply chilling, consists of a window down through which one looks upon empty shelves. That Ullman should have chosen to represent his vision as a subterranean space is telling; it evokes the notion of a bunker mentality in a city and a state which saw its ideals and apparatus as impregnable, to de defended to the hilt.

The adjacent plaque reads ‘Where books are burned in the end people will burn’. Heine’s prescience is as portentious as it is chilling. It serves as a warning to future generations and a reminder of Virilio’s view that our present nuclear technology cannot be truly understood and controlled until it is taken into the ‘ownership’ of artists, writers and intellectuals.

This exhibition represents one such part of this process.


GILES SUTHERLAND, August 2009

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Neil Manson Cameron (1962-2008)


(I) David Faithfull, Inkubator, exhibition guide, Edinburgh Printmakers Workshop, March 

(II) David Faithfull, Interviewed by Giles Sutherland, August 15, 2009

(III) Uta Kögelsberger, http://research.ncl.ac.uk/sacs/projects/Kogelsberger.html

(IV) David Faithfull, Interviewed by Giles Sutherland, August 15, 2009

(V) The text reads: “For our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.” Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. 30

Pipe-Burst

In Memoriam David Michael Bowes

Minus ten for days — water giving way to tightening ice,
softness becoming hard, as liquid becomes solid
and molecules fight for space.


Inside rigid lengths of copper and polyethylene,
plugs form — cylindrical ice pistons, rupturing
couplings, finding the thinnest copper wall, 

oozing ice-hardness outwards to find the space
into which its nature expands. Ice pressure everywhere
inside and outside these built walls — despite lagging, 

mains turn-off, tap opening, the bleeding of pipes.
A heating coil did not drain, providing a confining space.
It’s physics, hydro-dynamics — a system of which we’re part.

Now, he uncouples the joints, the pipe-cutter
embeds its spring-loaded energy in the copper,
bisecting the pipe with each successive, anti-clockwise turn. 

Push-fit give up easily, snapping off, leaving only
toothed washer to hack away. Take plumber’s wrench in one hand,
spanner in the other, turn opposing ways simultaneously. 

Now, hear the satisfying crack as threads tighten around
PTFE twisted threads. Slowly he’s repairing, undoing ice-work,
under floor and sink, intuiting clock- and counter clock-wise. 

Water finds its own level, around the ice-plugs, over floors,
through walls — a cycle of deposition, evaporation,
condensation, mediated by temperature and gravity. 

In this scheme, he intervenes, forcing it through routes, channels,
pipes where it’s never been. Confined, it will always try
to break free. Lovingly he restores its exploitation, 

knowing his work will bring the soothing spray of heat
on backs, clean dishes, kettles full again …
Water flows, pressure restored, equilibrium found.

Giles H. Sutherland
March 2010

Digging

Digging

(For D.)


Break the sod with spade’s sharpened edge;
kick it in & push it through that first resisting
skin of earth. Eternal geology of podsol
where a few sparse inches of topsoil (if you’re lucky)
give way to ruptured rock, metamorphosed strata,
schist & gneiss drilled and broken by bracken root –
elongated, blackened, questing fingers which ease
& push themselves caressingly around the crumbling,
buried layers.

What is this turf I cast away so seemingly carelessly
but Dürer’s own? When Man’s Renaissance mind saw & drew
reality — what was really there.

To celebrate the ‘ordinary’ & find such beauty in a blade of grass.

~~~

It seemed like  millennia I lay there,
absorbing and being absorbed by
the black-brown acid of the moss.

Millennia watched me as my skin, bones and teeth
yellowed, tanned and creased under that weight
of time, history, expectation.

I waited under those rushing, big skies
as they opened to a blue heaven or closed
under a freighted, laden mist & gale.

How heavy is this sodden, retting mass of
sphagnum, heather, trefoil, orchid…
how light the touching, waving bog-cotton

set up under the sky-lark’s invisible song.
This earth-mass of new geology is pressing my bones;
my femur dislodged, my knuckles snapped.

I walked here in a pine forest – felt willow,
rowan caress my face; while looking down on forest
floor sensed dry needles under leathery feet.

I am ghosted by my own presence in the graveyard
of stumps & roots where my only birk is stained, shrivelled –
betula. My bones are sunk in time; the last time

I saw the wolk-pack bring down the three-year-old stag,
his velvet antlers no match for jaw on foreleg and throat.
Geology is bone; the dark & softening peat, flesh;

Turf & sod the skin. I am écorché, flayed, my bones
bleached as schist. The tairsgeir’s blade angles a cut,
kniving down & through, sharply jolted to & fro

the peat torn from its sod-bed, tossed on the bank to lie.
To be wind blown, the abandoned bodach to one side
the fresh and new-cut like bleeding flesh.

There’s my history, down here with me
in my ghost forest, the cutting blades scraping my shins
where families work, men-in-eights, cut & stack & throw:

Thumb prints solidify to stone on the weather-cured peats.




 

Giles H. Sutherland
June 2010

Ben

For Uisdean

He was his loyal companion these half score years;
His genealogy traced back down both lines
From dogs that worked the Cheviots on the hill
& moor, the sea meadows and sometimes – in Spring
& Autumn – on the rain-lashed island.

Quick, lithe, one eye blue, the other brown, fleet-of-foot
Through heather, long and sodden grass, over the burns
 in torrent & drought. His coat matted, rain & mud bedraggled
So that the dog-smell & dog-damp of his hair would fill the car, 
leaving spider’s web traceries on the steamed glass.

Through thick-and-thin, rain-and-shine — he followed you;
At your heal over in Sleital or on the Rhu. Moving ahead,
crouched low, his limbs packed with latent, sprung pounce-and-dash,
ever-vigilant, watchful bid to bring the stray gimmer back into the fold,
or face down the recalcitrant, ballsy tup.

Days of silence in the high sweetness of Summer;
 heather scent like salt and honey nectar moves over the hill
& envelopes you both sweet unsaid companionship.
At the clipping when the bleating weft of noise is quelled by his
Rounding hard-wired instinct. Hours & days of unspoken trust
Where ancient bond forms, reforms & tightens.
A constant companion –

The men build a loving coffin, dog-sized, to take dog-worn,
 dog- tired body. Venerated, loved, respected the box laid above
The exact coffin cut grave on spade shafts, lowered with orange baler twine
— four-men’s worth — into the earth of broken schist & heather-root:
 to be mourned, to be remembered, to be marked, to be missed.

Giles H. Sutherland
June 2010