In 1998 I was invited to participate in a touring exhibition initiated at the Mead Gallery titled Slow Burn; Meaning and Vision in Contemporary British Abstract Painting. This was partly as a result of some writings I had submitted to the curators following a solo show I had at the Castlefield Gallery in Manchester.
I had spent some time reflecting on and re-evaluating my practice and I had begun to question what I was making, its value and what did it mean to me. What were the qualities that I admired or sought to achieve in the making of a work of art? I certainly recognised the type of descriptions attributed under the heading “Visual Intelligence”, words such as resonance, expressive power, subtlety, poetic and compelling vision all having relevance. Two particular texts at the time had influence on my thinking, Suzy Gablik’s Re-enchantment of Art and Andre Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time.
I became much more interested in issues of transference and metaphor in abstract painting than in the self-reflexive approach that dealt purely with process. The work moved away from an investigation with just process, towards introducing a more subjective potential for some kind of narrative in the work, yet there was always a sense of one balancing and counterbalancing the other and content need not necessarily compromise form. What I wish to achieve was a gradual intensification of resonance as the viewer engaged with the works.
The work at this time was born partly from concern with formal and thematic themes of Japanese Haiku poetry, and an engagement with the early Renaissance painters, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca and Giotto. Overlaid drawings and singular forms were placed on delicate grounds as a focus for reflection and meditation. I’m more responsive to imagery that evolves in the making as opposed to having a defined end in mind; however I do sometimes imagine or get a glimpse of a vision of a painting that may start me off.
Sources for the work are not easy to define as they do not rest with one idea or one subject and I seek to avoid categorisations. Work is born out of the accumulation of references, some purely visual, some to do with words, memory and experience and more formal matters are also dealt with. In some respect each painting I start is made in its own right, however certain applications and technical processes that are being explored are taken through a series of works. Particular emblems are also developed from, for instance recently tree-like frames in these three images. It is through exploring these forms in paint that I take them into a place that is essentially metaphoric, where meaning resides not in a direct deconstruction or decoding of an image but from the thought processes that expand outward from the subject. It is the synthesis of these complex associations that configures to make the painting, and this takes place in ways that are sometimes difficult to identify.
Therefore for me the judgements made are not systematic or predetermined. I’m having a dialogue with the work as it evolves. So it’s important for me to allow for unforeseen events to occur in the making of the work. This sometimes happens through becoming more focused with the formal concerns that are being dealt with at the time and imagery may develop through making. I’m continually testing the possibilities of the fluid matter of the paint, to arrive at a moment of stillness, achieving a strange dichotomy between substance and nonsubstance.
I’m very interested in the creative process through to realisation in other art forms such as music, literature, dance and film and the parallel stretches that they share. Particular authors have had an influence on my thinking; metaphysical states conveyed so imaginatively and eloquently in writings by Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx and Paul Auster. Ondatjee in particular translates in such lucid prose an experience of the world through a heightened sensory perspective, beautifully conceived and executed. The inter-connectedness and attention to detail I find really inspiring.
Which takes me on to the significance of words and how they feature in the making of work. At times when I’m working, particularly when I’m creating a new series trying to form something unusual , words come into my mind as recognition or as phrases in response to what I am painting and these words set up certain associative references. For example in the painting Feathered Cloak, the words “cage”, “freedom” “held” and ‘ flight’ came forth. Often they may be polarities of thought and I try to create something that is imbued with contradictory yet interlinked elements. They must be interwoven seamlessly, you can’t trace the threads of where one begins and another ends. In my recent show at the Eagle Gallery, there was a higher degree of figuration employed than in previous works and the paintings contained suggestive remnants of objects, organic yet formed, anthropomorphic, that could be interpreted as emblems of complex states, somewhat displaced yet held in strange, but familiar environments .
In the painting Feathered Cloak I initially started with quite a delicate structure, that’s similar to the shield motif used in previous paintings. As before in the making of other paintings I would write the words down in a studio journal and these would later be referred to when titling the painting. Words such as “birdcage”, “chandelier”, “shimmering”, “hanging”, “whalebone”, “corset”, “bodice”, “restraint”, ”animal”, “body”, “bird”, “swan”, all these words were written down in the journal. I was also responding to a series of other references, both literal and metaphoric. For instance with this work I was aware that I was recalling from a personal experience of cycling through a marsh near Manchester, early in the morning and being surrounded by geese on a path , the collective sound of their beaks sucking rainwater from the grass, intent and absorbed. In addition I was also referencing to a Maori ceremonial cloak seen in a museum. To begin with in constructing the form in the top right hand corner I was trying to create an empty cage of feathers, I was trying to create a few things but again I didn’t want to be pinned down For all its apparent delicate attributes I wanted to create a structure that had a formidable presence. Because I’m trying to create something that can’t be pinned down or easily described I allow these streams of thoughts to continue, being aware on areas that I have quite a visceral as well as an intellectual response to. During this time I’m trying to allow spaces for drawings, structure, the form and the process not to be compromised. I need to be incredibly relaxed and focused at the same time so when a word comes to mind I acknowledge it but then I push it back so that they become background noise. That way I can allow for the possibility of something unexpected to be revealed to me.
I try to select a title that does not direct nor restrict the potential of the personal subjective interpretation to take place. Some of the titles chosen have been taken from specific writers’ works ; they are not given in the literal sense but do offer a way into the painting. Some titles I write myself. I do take time to reflect on what is suitable; trying it out and sometimes the word is triggered from words noted in the studio journals during making a work or during a period of reflection when a work has been completed. I would rather leave a work untitled until I found the one that feels right.
With regards to having exhibited or sold work before I felt ready to do so the answer is, yes, and with exhibiting before I feel ready ,it’s usually with a work that I feel - may have a strange awkward quality to it as in this painting titled Husk. It was not entirely familiar to me and in some respect it’s what intrigued me when I made this painting but it was taking me time to feel assured with it. In some ways I was still getting to know it and feel my way with it. I felt quite exposed about it being exhibited before I’d gained an assurance with time. With experience I now understand that those paintings which I may feel uncomfortable may be the most interesting and its important to take a risk with something you have doubts with. With selling, it’s a new work recently developed that I’m still having a dialogue with and the conversation is within mid-flow and I still need it around. There are of-course works that I choose not to sell.
There was a time when I first started exhibiting when I wrote about my work that I was not entirely comfortable with writing. I think this is because you’re still very much trying to find your own voice and don’t wish to be pinned down to something that is still changing so much but with experience I feel O.K. about it now. So it’s become so much of what I do through teaching, articulating and clarifying those thoughts, that I find it quite interesting and sometimes ideas emerge through the writing and reflecting and this too becomes part of the creative process. The relationship between theory and practice, questioning existing modes of practice, presentation, interpretation, are now areas of concern to me but I am also aware of engaging primarily with the work and looking. As Keith Patrick said, “Painting’s ultimate justification is unquantifiable. It resides in its visuality. The subtleties of painterly language are a justification in themselves. Painting may in the end prove resilient precisely because it cannot be reduced to the kind of restrictive polemics associated with post-modernism.
PK: I was wondering, because you’re dealing with content that’s quite intangible I just wonder how you go about measuring the success of the work.
RS: When something starts to intrigue me and I’m not quite sure about what it is, that’s when I actually become quite engaged with the work. When something new is happening for me, that’s quite important and so that’s what I would equal with success. It’s to do with it satisfying a particular creative need in myself by the fact that something unusual is happening.
CC: Could you tell us just a little more about the physical nature of these things, how big they are? It’s very difficult to see is what they’re made of ….
RS: They’re made of acrylic but I also use mediums which give a quality of oil within the work as well and often that the paint looks like it’s still in a state of flux, in terms it’s still shifting and changing and that’s to do with the process of how the paint’s applied. I mean this is about five by six foot, it’s quite a large canvas but I like to work on a much smaller scale. Recently I developed a series of paintings that were in scale and physicality reminiscent of religious icon paintings made on small panels during fourteenth and fifteenth century They were only about 10” by 12” so I quite like the interesting dynamics created within a small structure as well as a large painting.
RF: You said something about the work having a relationship to words, memory, experience. Could you say a bit more about that? I mean at the beginning of a work will it be something specific?
RS: I think someone mentioned earlier about the fact how literature informed the work and how in sense the recognition comes towards the end of the work and I think that’s quite pertinent with myself as well because I don’t want something to be described, I don’t want to take a piece of text and describe the actual piece that could be having an influence in terms of making the work because that restricts what happens in terms of the imagery evolving in the painting. It’s during a time of reflection and looking at the work and that I may acknowledge the type of thinking that’s been going on elsewhere, and then align certain correlations. Take these two sentences out In terms of memory, there’s a kind of creative imagining that goes on. When I’m trying to construct a structure, I’m drawing and trying to form it, before I was trying to describe how words come into my head as that happens. I’m also trying to subvert those words as well because I don’t want the painting to be narrowed down to describing that word at the front of my head. It sounds quite contradictory but it’s a way of infusing the formal structures with metaphorically elements that are triggered from the words acknowledged but at the same time wanting to push the word back, so that I’m still engaged with the process and the materiality of making the painting. So it’s a continual push and pull between something which is being said at the front and then pushing it back so I’m still allowing for something to emerge through intuition and making of the actual work.
GD: Could I ask you a question about essences, as you mentioned Haiku in your text and some of the paintings, not all, are very iconographic. Could you perhaps tease out the link that there might be between the very pure and subtle essence in Haiku and in way that you are identifying images through process?
RS: With Haiku there is the sense of simplifying down to the three lines but the words are chosen to go beyond the content of the words, triggering associative memories so the experience becomes much more, not necessarily epic, but much wider than just those words set within the three lines. It is also to do with the structure of the thematic themes within Haiku in the sense that they’re often about trying to locate a particular place or a particular kind of atmosphere so certain environment and seasonal references come into the work. This is still just as significant within contemporary Haiku prose that are set in urban and city dwellings as in the original rural counterpart of the Japanese . I don’t wish to describe an exact location but it’s important for me that a location is there and it’s important to try and express something that’s been felt at a particular time. That’s why I refer to Ondaatje, it’s that kind of sensory perception of a particular atmosphere and how an individual can feel within that. With Haiku often there are certain objects which are referred to, which you’re left thinking or reflecting about and again when the paintings are constructed the images are placed so there’s only a couple of elements which are set up within the painting so you’re left to focus on them. But because there are so few elements left to focus on, by focusing on them you then spin off to other places.
GD: What you said recalls what Rachel said about boundaries giving a sense of structure and order but also within that giving a sense of freedom in some way.