Silent Kingdom

Luke Elwes: the path, the thread; the water, the depths

Constable spoke of landscape painting as a branch of natural philosophy, and there is a case for the otherworldly landscapes of Luke Elwes to be seen as a branch of philosophical enquiry. Elwes explores the landscape of memory, the history and spirit of places, but at the same time evokes the journey into self, which is not about the indulgences of autobiography or self-expression, but primarily concerned with the intermingled layering of time and experience. He takes a particular path, chooses to follow certain threads, and spins out his indefinite painterly narratives in imagery of a delicacy that seems to contradict its formal robustness. He works with trace rather than statement, with suggestion rather than description. He aims to capture atmosphere and the ephemeral effect, but also the underlying truths which hold the key to the pattern.

His paintings can resemble veils, with vertical bands of colour emerging through them, a little like faded banners, the vertical frequently played off against a horizontal element or axis. (The horizon line or division of sky and earth is another principal means of apportioning the picture space.) A marker pole appears in a current of light, of water, of cloud. There might be a suggestion of a window or doorway, a rectangle of darkness, or an opening through a surface – which might be a wall – onto other light, a featureless prospect or perhaps one full of invisible potential, like the future. The laden atmosphere is filled with motes, of dust, of memories. The past helps to shape the present before it metamorphoses once again into the future. Elwes investigates the relationship of parts.

In a very literal sense, it’s all about placement, spatial conjunctions, the dispersal and articulation of related elements. In the oils on canvas, the objects painted, such as they are, are often of an architectural nature, and have the appearance of presenting abraded surfaces, weather-worn and aged, witness surely to countless events and histories. But are they actually eroded, these partially-stated surfaces? Are they really losing their detail? Perhaps in fact they are seen only dimly, as through a haze or a clouded lens.

Sometimes the focus pulls away so much that we appear to be off-Earth, viewing the planet from afar. But then the subtly non-spherical shape on the picture plane suggests we are actually looking at a snowy hill resembling the Earth. Certainly we are looking at the edge of something, a rim, a dividing point and threshold. This liminal quality, which is also allied to his fascination for maps, is an abiding theme of Elwes’ work.

If the paintings in the main derive from the artist’s travels abroad, the works on paper deal with a subject much closer to home: the stretch of land and water at Landermere in Essex. Here Elwes spends time in the marginal territory of rivers and tributaries, marsh-land for the most part, where water is a way of life. The effects of light on water, so easily (and lazily) reduced to an optical dazzle, are carefully analyzed and re-formulated in watercolours of great subtlety and considerable seduction.

The works on paper are decidedly crisper in their distinctions than the oils – their areas of “thing” and “no-thing”, the pattern of white which emerges through the delicate skeins of paint, the insistent linearity and the subtle layering of colour. Occasionally the particles are distributed across the picture plane like autumn leaves in an aerial ballet, or fragments of vegetation floating on a placid lake. The patterns gather and writhe into new configurations: the root system of a tree, the crow’s-foot spread of a river into a delta, the eddy and swirl of clearly-observed moving water carrying a cargo of flotsam. Occasionally it is as if we are looking through a faded and torn fabric onto some brightly-coloured spectacle beyond, revealed only in tantalizing glimpses.

Other associations reach into the mind: reflections of the winter branches of trees threshing the wind; a landscape seen at dawn or dusk, in moments of swift extremity and flux; shadows breaking up into their constituents of coloured light; weather charts exquisitely detailed with temperature-colour variations. The incidents of colour on a softly modulated ground suggest medal ribbons at a parade or the bright plumage of small birds on an autumn day. One cannot escape the feeling that Elwes portrays this finest of filigrees – his net or mesh in which to catch experiences – so often because, having identified it, he wants to explore the utter permeability of our world, and its state of constant change due to influence. How, in effect, everything influences and affects everything else, touches it, touches us, and whether we like it or not, we are moulded by our environment.

He is also casting a net of connectedness over what he sees, reaffirming his recognition of man’s place in the story – which is properly one of co-operation and co-existence rather than dominion. There is a wonderful equality of attention to these paintings, an all-over-ness which helps to account for their surprisingly assured appeal.

Elwes makes a kind of celestial confetti, a serene fusion of light and the motes dancing in it. He might also be painting a million million prayers, written on multi-coloured scraps of paper and scattered to the ends of the earth, falling alike on fallow ground or fertile, but all heard by God. Whatever its cause, there is a quiet joy to his meditations, which chimes well with the understated beauty of his images.

Andrew Lambirth

January 2011