There isn’t really a typical day, although I often find myself concentrating on a particular patch of ground, a location that might be long familiar to me but which I want to revisit under new conditions as a way of extending the conversation between past and present, between what resides in memory and what emerges in the present moment. Sometimes I work continuously over a period of days, rapidly making and remaking a series of smaller images, only some of which I will keep. At other times I will work on one large image from the beginning to the end of the day, recording the shifting weather and light as well as the constantly mutating shapes that rise and fall in the tidal waters. The paper may be saturated in rain or river water before being marked and stained with pens, crayons, coloured ink and gouache. Often I combine these with mud or other organic matter found on site, and in order to keep the image fluid and malleable I will then allow the rising tide to wash over and even submerge the picture surface during the working process. In this way I can continue to work without pause for many hours, allowing the various pigments to float, drip and run over an absorbent surface, before they eventually begin to settle and dry on the paper. The result is surprising and unpredictable, with earlier markings resurfacing through transparent overlays or delicately mapped out areas fading away beneath opaque washes. Only when the image has completely dried out, which can take some days (particularly if the atmosphere is damp), can I then see how the assorted natural and man made elements have combined and whether I feel it has succeeded or failed as a picture.
It seems like there is a complex, symbiotic, relationship of creativity within the process, where nature is shaping the work as much as you are ‘shaping’ nature by fixing it, however loosely, on paper/canvas. Could you elucidate on that at all?
Yes, I think that’s a good way of putting it. Explaining this relationship in another article I said that ‘the final image belongs as much to the elements as the artist who began it’. This applies particularly to the work on paper but relates equally to my paintings which although much longer in gestation are also a record of process and time. Some years ago I did a series of paintings based on a journey to the Himalayas where I wanted to represent the way the natural minerals and pigments, found locally in the earth and rocks, are used to paint man made surfaces with vibrant symbolic colours and how, through the corrosive action of wind and water, they eventually dissolve back into the ground. Andrew Lambirth said of these works at the time: ‘everything is reduced to dust eventually by the elements, but in the meantime we may enjoy the trace of their being’.
If the paintings are a meditation on this process, often done from memory in the studio, the work on paper has a more immediate and visceral relationship to the natural world; they are both about, and shaped by, the place where they’re made. Perhaps this is best elucidated if I describe the way the process might begin: by registering marks, things that catch the eye – a passing bird, a blossom, a cloud, tracks in the mud, bits of flora and fauna. An accumulation of phenomena, both distant and close at hand, that creates a kind of equivalence, a response on a particular day to a place. It appears familiar but remains strange, a mutable scene that is never quite the same as the days blur and seasons shift, where streams alter their course, swelling and diminishing over time, and where mud flats that were previously sparkling black and silver are now softly carpeted in pale grasses and wild flowers. What forms is a series of recorded moments, a diary of days composed of sequential memories and sensory stimuli of the most immediate and fragile kind. It is a way of proceeding that is openly receptive, avoiding correction or revision while keeping the elements continually in play. The materials I use dictate this process, so a picture of the water is made with the water, the scattered marks and colours running in a way that directly mirrors the tidal flow that surrounds it or the rain that sweeps over it.
The writer Robert Macfarlane put it this way in a letter he sent me a few years ago:
‘I might try to articulate what I find so unusual and compelling about the work: its localism, for a start. But also the hover between encryption and archetype (enigma and fabulous openness). As you hold on to a leaf, a shell, feather or pebble before returning it to its microcosmos, you learn to see not the names of things but the things themselves. Absolutely. We are both collectors, but not in the possessive sense of that word; quite the opposite. Surrenderers of sorts.’
A sense of place feels like a starting point, but perhaps not an end point, for your work. If they are landscapes, or maps, then they would seem to record internal worlds as much as topographical ones. Similarly, they could be seen as recording time, duration – as much as place. Of course, time and duration are needed if we are dealing with concepts of flux, transience etc. Is this part of what you are exploring?
A sense of place is the essential starting point, as is the experience of journeying through it, responding as Richard Long described it, ‘to the earth moving beneath your feet’. But the work is also about memory and time as much as what is seen – the memory of what was once there, as well as the memory of previous work done in same place. The paintings become a way of examining my own transient presence as well as the changing nature of the landscape itself. By way of example, when walking along a mountain trail you can see the path travelled yesterday stretching behind you and the day to come running ahead of you. In this sense time and space become synonymous. The pictures record not only those ephemeral moments of personal submersion but also chart a deeper history, tracing out those often barely discernible fragments and stories that make up a place, the invisible yet palpable layers which lie within and beneath the surface. The rushing mountain stream I worked beside for a month in Vermont for example, was called the ‘Gihon’ (named after one of the four mythical rivers of Eden) and seemed to contain within its flow the quiet language of the past.
As with my earlier desert paintings they combine the mapping out in space, on paper and canvas, of a physical journey with a kind of cultural excavation that speaks of duration, time passing. For the critic Nicholas Usherwood, writing about the work in 2009, it speaks of ‘a continuous process of loss and recovery’.
And finally, can you give me some thoughts on the use of abstraction in landscape painting?
I find both ‘abstract’ and ‘landscape’ somewhat limiting terms – I’m more interested in working at the edge, or on the margins of both. There is always a fixed starting point in time and place, a relation to the exterior world of phenomena that allows for a dialogue with an interior space of recollection and feeling, but this is less to do with ‘taking in’ a landscape as the idea of ‘landscape’ itself and what this means in relation to other times and cultures. Early on I was fascinated by the desert paintings of aboriginal Australians, images that were read at the time by a western audience as abstract patterns but which in fact directly recounted their experience of walking over ancestral ground. They did not paint the horizon because they could not touch it.
My aim likewise is to be as receptive to the surface of the visual field I’m moving across as what lies unseen beneath it. The paintings grow out of particular encounters with places both distant and near, and the subsequent marks deployed on canvas and paper can be read as hieroglyphic texts – or even as maps of the ‘geographical unconscious’ – that set out to evoke both the trail of our presence and the passage of time. They place, as Odilon Redon once put it, ‘the logic of the visible in the service of the invisible’.
A longer version of this interview is printed in EST: Collected reports from East Anglia, edited by Martin Bewick & published by the Dunlin Press (March 2015)