Saturday, 25 March 2017

How did it come to this?

I've been a little bothered recently by the wonky and not so convincing line that's appeared in my current images, and thought I would look back over my breadcrumb trail to remind myself of how I got to here.

The images above were done about four years after I left St Martin's School of Art, London. I left because what they were teaching me (abstract, conceptual and performance art) made no sense to me (I was 18). In my previous year, at the Berkshire College of Art, I had had a good basic training in drawing techniques and colour theory, and had taken a course in the history of 20th century art and architecture. What was going on at St Martins was alien territory, and it didn't smell right.

I understood the principles of 'Western' aesthetics, had studied the development of ideas about paint and representation; the movement and counter-movements of painting in recent times. I remember very clearly the day our lecturer introduced Malevich's 'white on white', painted in 1918, which is essentially a white square on a white ground. Something jerked me awake and I thought, oh, ok, that's it for painting, I guess. Now what?

After that, I lived in Italy for three years, painting and drawing, while working a day job as an English language teacher. I was in the middle of the Umbrian countryside, drawing and painting one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. And with every single thing I did, I thought, no, not this... no, not this. It was an unconsciously driven process of experimentation leading to elimination; a working through of all the traditions I had been given, and finding nothing in them that interested or excited me.

At the end of the three years, I got a job teaching Tibetan refugees in North India. One day, early on in my time there, I was sitting in my bedroom, looking out at the monsoon clouds gathering across the valley. I was suddenly compelled to make the first drawing in the collage below.

At a certain point in the drawings that followed, my line finally broke free. This was what I had been waiting for, without realising it. Western representational techniques, for all their majesty and wonderful use of paint, simply didn't interest me, for reasons that were a total mystery. But this lively line suddenly dancing on my page was the most exciting thing I had ever seen (reading left to right, pictures 3, 4, 5, and 6.).

I didn't know it at the time, but I was unconsciously searching for one of the principles at the heart of Indian traditions of aesthetics; the idea that a painted or drawn image must convey prana, life-force or breath. Many years later, when I was doing a degree in Indian art and architecture, I would come across a quote in an ancient treatise which said that the painter needed to be able to show with the movement of their line whether a figure lying on the ground was alive or dead. The idea took my breath away.

Some years before that, however, when I was back in India again, I met a young painter who had been studying in England under a painting teacher who taught 'old master' techniques. She reminded me about tonal drawing and taught me some of the things she'd learnt from him. I learnt a lot from her (the last three drawings in the collage above).

And then there was a twenty year break, during which time I did a degree at SOAS in Indian Art, Philosophy and Architecture, and went to India to do two field-based projects in Tamil Nadu. One of these was an architectural project, which involved a lot of drawing (the bottom two pictures on the right in this collage):

During a holiday break from my job as a lecturer in Adult Education in the university sector, later still, I participated in an Earthwatch project which involved documenting old Turkish houses in Kula, Turkey, for an American architectural study (the other drawings in the collage above). Somehow drawing kept raising its head and looking at me.

When I came back to painting in 2008, the work that first appeared was abstract. As I've said before, I was more than a little surprised. I was convinced that I was completely finished with trying to make art, and had always found abstract art quite difficult to respond to.

I'd been using  complexity theory (chaos, fractals...) as a theoretical framework for my critique of adult learning models, so perhaps the appearance of these images is no surprise. I used to say that Complexity was my way of getting Indian philosophy into my theoretical work in Education; perhaps it was also my way of staying connected to the one kind of visual form that had always made sense to me, the shapes and repetitions of the natural world.

A year or so later, I remember wondering on this blog about how my studies of Indian art and philosophy, and my interest in Indian aesthetics (the idea of conveying the movement of life through forms, as opposed to the proportional and muscular accuracy of my own Greek-influenced tradition...) were going to come together.

Eventually, after two trips back to India, and an intensive study of Hoyshala temple carvings and Jain murals...

...the free line managed to find its way back in. One morning my dancers just quietly took off from their Indian roots and began doing their own thing.

Suddenly, they were everywhere. They just would not lie down.

I've always been full of admiration for European and American traditions of using paint; the techniques of using oil and acrylic, building up layers, using tonally blended colour etc. But I've never wanted to do it for some reason. Instead I've always been drawn to translucence, the way that light shines through the paper in watercolour, for example. Light, shining through things... in a way that isn't quite the same as when you add white paint to oil and acrylic pigments.

When I'm painting figures now, I have to keep consciously steering myself away from European drawing habits like seeking out the light source, or wanting to convey that light source using tonal values that are linked to light sources in life. My aesthetic always rejects it. It has to be thin, translucent veils of pure colour, rather than blending and tones.

Sometimes I deliberately mess with the light source...

I have no idea where it's going. I try to simply follow; some fugitive trail laid down by aesthetic experience, study and sensibility that can only be seen/felt if I get out of the way. There's some kind of embodied knowing; an invisible, accumulated store that has accrued through decades of looking and feeling and being. I have to keep going.

In October last year, I came back from my workshop with Paul Oertel in France, and things took a slightly different turn.

It was easy at first. The images just came without thought. But then they started to lose the freshness of line and colour that had so beguiled me when it first appeared. For a while I studied the earlier ones and tried to reproduce that quality. But it was impossible. The minute I start trying to do something, everything turns to lead.

At the moment I've decided that it's evolution and there's nothing I can do about it. I often don't like what comes out, but I've decided to accept whatever it is, and stop trying to make it capture something from an earlier stage.

I've been aesthetically offended by many things that have appeared recently. But then some days later I've sometimes seen something new that's trying to come through.

I feel a kind of relief now that I've stopped trying to constantly trick myself into the conditions that allow for the emergence of the free unconscious line. It's still wonderful when that happens, as it did the other day...

But there are other forms of image coming. This is the latest, in progress...

I can see here how I was trying to get into the state that I know can generate the free line, but it wasn't entirely working. Probably because I had an image (a detail from a carving, for example) in front of me; the quasi-copying process 'from life' seems to be deadening somehow.

This is ironic, if it's true - that working from life, for me, kills the life force in my images!

My current idea is that I need to work with a process that isn't quite this; in fact with the process that I've just realised is what generated the dancers in their freedom. This means that I draw from my image of the carving (either a photo or a drawing done in situ in India); I draw to study,  to learn and internalise the forms and the expression and the things that I love. But then I need to put the source image away, and work with the residue of it, with what's left in memory, mind and heart...

That's my current theory, anyway. Let's see what happens next.

(If the early part of this post seems familiar, I took part in a facebook challenge a year or so ago that involved exploring these same ideas in the history of the evolution of 'the free line'...)

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