Genius Loci

Extract pp47-49

An artist’s encounter with a place is always uncertain and provisional. What is selected from its visible architecture, its particular light and forms, depends on what remains or is recalled in memory. What is seen and experienced is conditioned by other places and other times, just as in the act of painting, where the continuous process of loss and recovery, erasure and repetition, becomes a reflection on how the past is enfolded in the present. The image is a space whose visible dimension is inseparable from what remains concealed, below the surface and out of sight. It is what remains absent from the picture that draws the artist back to a place. The desire to record or embody some aspect of the experience is balanced by the knowledge that something unknowable and mysterious remains intact and out of reach. The paintings operate in the shared border between the physical and the metaphysical.

The exploration of a particular place or territory often takes the form of a journey, of going out (leaving home) in order to see the self more clearly. The images made on return are a way of illuminating that encounter, of mapping an experience ghosted by time, as well as marking my own brief presence and the recurring traces of other histories and cultures. In the course of painting, what is recalled – the tracery of desert tracks and pilgrim paths (in Cross for example) or the patterns left like ‘a hieroglyphic text’ on the walls of a temple or inside a hermit’s cell – is as important as what is buried or concealed from view – in the occluded spaces suggested by the darkened doorways and apertures, in the returning tide of Blackwater and the empty space of Boundary. There are other signs as well – the silent markers, the stone steps, and vestigial crosses – whose original meaning has drifted with age. It is, as Kapuzcinski says about the travels of Herodotus, ‘another expression of man’s struggle against time, against the fragility of memory, its ephemerality, its perpetual tendency to erase itself and disappear’.This space of recollection also unfolds at a certain distance: what is seen is viewed from afar, or else carefully framed, as though through a window (as in Sea Room). They operate in a way that is sometimes similar to Mannocci’s images, and which W.G. Sebald has described, in relation to memory, ‘as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height.. and curiously, although it’s further removed, the image seems much more precise’. The new work (Watermark) also carries echoes of previous encounters and paintings, often of deserts and islands. They exist in the same liminal space, in the shifting margins and uncertain borders between earth, water, and sky. In Venice, an island of stone, brick and water, the bruised pink walls, patinated with a secret history, slowly dissolve in the silver green of the lagoon. One passes through it, as Joseph Brodsky once wrote, as though in a movie, absent from the action, ‘save a scene with me walking along the Fondamente Nuove with the greatest watercolour in the world on the left and a red-brick infinity on the right.’

Luke Elwes 2008