In a bid to return to basics and rediscover my joy of making I have been contemplating the simple form of a paper sheet. Now, a sheet of paper (or similar) alone has huge possibilities and is of course the substrate for much of human culture’s great art. At a more quotidian level, the single sheet can be a hugely democratic medium on which to convey an artistic idea; this can range from the humble postcard (perhaps the purest form of artist’s book?) through to the poster or hoarding. Or, to stretch the definition of a sheet to tearing point, what about the Nazca Lines of Peru: imagery on/in/as a surface at a landscape scale.
Anyway, my survey of the sheet overlooks these simplicities in favour of a move that for me really begins to bring the substrate forward, makes it more sculptural perhaps but also retains the portability of the sheet. It is of course the fold. It was on my BA Fine Art course at Exeter College of Art & Design in the early 1990s that I was first directly introduced to the artistic possibilities of folded paper. A mixed bag of us who had shunned the pathways of painting, sculpture, printmaking or photography) were collected together in a ‘visual research’ (I think that was the name) cluster under the care of the late Steve Berry. I don’t know how much Steve’s suggestions mattered to others but they meant a lot to me and I eagerly lapped up the knowledge imparted by a bookbinder that Steve got in to lead a demonstration and workshop (Rooks Books if I recall correctly). I also followed up Steve’s tip to visit the Cairn Gallery (then in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire) and meet Tom and Laurie Clarke. Tom and Laurie were hugely kind with their time, advice and encouragement and I was deeply impressed by the quiet certainty of what they were (and still are) doing. In turn this got me eventually into the artist’s book fair circuit where I came across other insprational artists, designers and small publishers such as Simon Cutts (workfortheeyetodo at this time now, with his partner Erica Van Horn, coracle), Colin Sackett (Uniformbooks), Ti Parks and many others.
Enough of the trip down memory lane. The here and now and just yesterday and tomorrow is that I still love the simple act of folding and what it can do structurally, conceptually, and visually to a sheet (of paper). This awakening during my degree may have seen a seed sown on ground already fertile with a pre-existing (and ongoing) love of maps and books (in their more widely published traditional format). The idea of an Ordnance Survey map as a sheet already conveying landscape expansiveness in hand-held form (through the power of scale) to then be folded down to (just about) pocket size is still, to me, a beautiful conceit. Yes, I know, Google maps on a smartphone now takes this nesting of scales and interactivity in yet further directions but it takes a certain kind of knowledge to go down that route and play with it creatively … I’ve dabbled there but I missed the physicality of the (paper) sheet.
So what I have spent a bit of time doing is starting to play with basic folded structures ably abetted by the word ‘fold’ (and avriations such as ‘enfolded’) to see what different folds do to how a folded sheet structure is encountered and how these folds might sit with text content.
I still very much enjoy the physical process of folding even if I have lost some of my previous precision. The click of bone folder against steel rule, the muffled scoring of the bone folder moving across and into the paper’s surface, the lifting of the paper and then the pressing and creasing to sharpen up the fold. All the while making sure that the paper’s grain is worked with (unless I’m being very lazy or trying to use up scrap paper to test out an initial idea).
[Of course, I also went to the etymology of the word’ fold’ hoping to descry some deep and vital meaning. Instead I find, appropriately, a painfully ancient word that has carried its own self-same meaning with it since the dawn of knowledge (well before I got up anyway) and sees the word bending back over itself across the world.]
For a variety of reasons the last few years have been rather a struggle for me creatively; thoughts and ideas have been patchy at best. It was suggested that I create a sort of mapping of the themes, ideas and inspirations that have been present in my artistic practice over the last thirty years in order to reignite my creative spark. I had found that I was struggling to motivate myself, legacy I suspect of years of working to public art commission briefs and then in the framework of academia for the PhD. I need to restart my practice, get the joy back and the freedom of making work for its own sake … be this through hands-on making or the (un)folding of concepts.
The pinboard will be an evolving process … I will add content and create new connections whilst also taking ideas and concepts from it to develop them in new directions (and revisit old ones).
Certain themes and forms begin to coalesce here in the pinboard surface: landscape has been a constant although the intricacies of the term have pulsed and faltered over the years; movement within and of this landscape concept, initially walking and in more recent years running too; the structure of a book (or even a basic folded sheet … or postcard) have long held an important place in my creativity … they are wonderfully democratic forms; some form of text has nearly always been there, be it written content, text as visual material or poetry; and a sense of ordering (through distillation or codification) seen here on the pinboard as the archive, the diagrams, the graph paper, etc. Although much of my work has been visual, I have maintained an interest in working with other senses too (specifically sound but maybe I often take a visual approach to this).
The pinboard contents form a surface of sorts; a surface of connections, relationships and disjunctions. Features gather in loose groupings, establishing dialogue and suggesting difference. The features operate as vessels containing more than they initially suggest; maybe they are adits into creative seams, fractally unravelling as they are interrogated or put into sets with other features. For example, the postcard of Graham Sutherland’s Entrance to a Lane (1939) is a reproduction of a painting that holds a prominence for me in and of itself (it is a little nostalgic perhaps) but it also represents additional meaning … maybe it is the use of colour and brushstroke but probably it is Sutherland’s link to the Neo-Romantic movement and so connections back through to Samuel Palmer and William Blake. A visionary quality that is also there in the mystical work of Paul Nash here, in the pinboard, represented by one of his Wittenham Clumps paintings (Landscape of the Vernal Equinox, 1943) and this gives the slightest echoing nod to Alfred Watkins and his Old Straight Track a New Arcadian mythical wormhole, or perhaps to archaeology.
The image of a wartime operations room forms a meta element within/on the pinboard … it talks to the idea of control and recording of progress in a specific way but also, the pinboard in itself is the process being depicted. An overview is made (if that is possible) and elements are organised into groupings where new dynamics can be interpreted, and next moves plotted. Likewise, the watcher on the watchtower attends to the activity of the pinboard whilst also alluding to an artistic process that forms an element of the pinboard’s content. An observation is made.
The archaeological drawing performs a direct representation of archaeology and all its significance and processes (surveying, drawing, interpretation, etc.) but also, through the word alone, recalls Foucault and his Archaeology of Knowledge … a leap to the PhD container then. The PhD keywords are confined to a box to avoid too much contamination, they are a Pa(h)nDora’s Box of nightmares if not treated carefully and if curiosity becomes too strong! Further, the archaeological drawing and the image of the archive sit well together as they both speak of organisational processes … knowledge is put in an order which in turn makes a sense of that knowledge; a placing in a context occurs and new relationships are realised or recognised, new logics pertain.
Spatial connections arise from the happenstance of the content’s placement within/upon the framework of the pinboard. At other times the placement is more intentional … revision and contemplation of content further lead the placement of new and existing components. The marks of knowledge sparkle and jostle for attention. Connections likewise glimmer and glow (sometimes misleadingly). An obvious connection of contradiction has arisen as the vigorous gestural painting of Peter Lanyon (Soaring Flight, 1960) rubs against the order and control of graph paper, of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work (Scottish Zulu, 1970), or against the very spirit of The Unpainted Landscape. How can this contradiction be given voice? Can this contradiction fuel creative moves?
Is this a productive friction created through the presence of the two oppositional elements in such close surface proximity … together in this nexus of practice? Visually, conceptually and through modes of approach the elements vibrate their difference. There is a feeling that the grid of order will always imprison, trap, frame, the gestural exuberance and blatant materiality of works like Lanyon’s. But, at the same time gestural energy will ever disrupt or flee the systemic frame. In Susan Howe’s collages this is often apparent … ruled pencil grids are unable to contain the fluid materiality of watercolour samples or even the collaged found photographs. The paint hovers over and behind the pencil lines whilst the collaged images seemingly overrule all else but are then pulled back in to order through the imposition of a pencilled border line. Typewritten elements and found texts add another shade of potential interpretation. The tension ripples through and across the sheet’s surface.
Across and through much of the pinboard’s surface an air of order and careful process (this is not to say Lanyon’s approach is without care) persists. There is a feeling of colder, rational analysis with a careful distillation down to the necessary elements required to convey an idea or information. There is a structuring of knowledge which the Romantic and the gestural don’t appear to be bound by. Maybe, to put it more simplistically, there is a graphic quality present in many of the elements and yet the very word ‘graphic’ creates problems as what it signifies today is a little unhinged from its etymology of drawing and writing.
This is not to value either approach over one or the other … indeed, to even go along with the pretence that the approaches are oppositional. Both a large Lanyon canvas and an Agnes Martin painting require large outpourings of energy (exertion even) it is maybe that one is much more explosive than the other. Maybe the control required by Martin is at even greater personal cost than the robustly physical painting approach of Lanyon. There is a worry that this apparent opposition is trying to maintain its existence for its own sake and has no benefit to either party of indeed the progress of the practice of the creator of this pinboard.
Right, I’m off to fold something.