1986 - 2001: WHAT MY PAINTING IS ABOUT
When I began painting in the 60’s, painters who practised abstract expressionism (Poliakov, Soulage, even Pollock), worked side by side with figurative or narrative painters who used representational, drawn forms (whether like Hockney at one extreme, or Bacon at another). In spite of classifications generally distinguishing abstraction from figuration (and putting people like Dali or Tapies in opposite camps), it was difficult to find any one painter whose work entirely fitted the developing critical picture or went some way towards resolving dichotomies of modern painting with which so many (in particular Kandinsky) struggled.
So it was important to understand that the essential problems of genre and style (what and how to paint), after the end of natural realism in the 19th century, needed to be considered independently of the way individual artists worked. One must know (or I must) as consciously as possible, why this genre and not that; otherwise, according to the predisposition of one’s natural talent, and artist (so far as I was concerned) would simply follow in the footsteps of this or that celebrated painter without having much idea why, and encouraged by the gallery which markets his work.
At an early stage I was drawn to the work of Lionel Feiniger (see Room 1, "Curved space") in whose painting the representation of abstract space is penetrated by light (meaning that the construction of form in the natural world has an underlying geometry: how do you represent that; what does it look like, independently of the way individual objects are actually seen?). I could have gone down that road as a painter, taking Feiniger, or the futurists, together with my interest in Rudolf Steiner’s commentary on Goethe’s colour theory, as my starting point; what one might call a ‘structural’ approach to painting (Room 1, "Curved space" and "Design for mural".)
On the other hand, I also found I could use paint, colour, texture and movement fluently, composing pictures instinctively with those elements and without reference to figurative drawn forms, except as a conceptual starting point. Hodgkin, who is currently so much discussed, attempts to eschew any figurative reference at all in his best pictures. They are aesthetically pleasing but unstructured; they don’t have stature. For me, referential structure in nature underpins all human experience and every kind of objective knowledge, including science: when Wittgenstein (in his Tractatus) says that what actually happened is governed by what is logically possible, he means that even the sciences must assume the a priori existence of the world and of the human being doing the science, even if neither can be pointed to or known definitively in the experimental sense. As an artist you cannot ignore the human context and the referential structure it confers on nature, because everything that happens in evolution, happens according to the rule of logic. The world, the human being and nature are the expression of the Logos. The artist cannot avoid this fact, but he must know consciously what to do with it.
Having family commitments and needing remunerative employment, I had no time to work through this dichotomy (between abstraction and figuration); so, around 1985 I stopped painting. However, the few paintings I had completed prior to that, in a short burst of activity immediately after returning from Martinique (an island of extreme natural beauty having an unusually pristine quality of light) -in particular, Birth 1 in Room 3 -went some way towards resolving the dichotomy. I did not see this at the time, but when I began painting again in 2002, I knew that these two or three paintings would be my starting point.
My primary presupposition about how and what to paint is that the act of painting itself (what follows aesthetically from the first intrusion of colour, shape and texture onto a blank canvas) cannot be divorced from referential figuration in ordinary experience any more than a human being can generate thoughts without reference to the fact of having a physical body.
Thus while the visual content of painting is generated by sensual responses to nature (in which respect I consider Turner the exemplar) my structural references derive from contemporary, lived experience: in painting, "Birth 5" in Room 4 (as in those just mentioned from Room 3), the conceptual structure of the work is given by the literal distance in space-time between pre-natal and terrestrial experience, represented by upper atmosphere and earth’s surface. Although things are happening at the latter level (a sculpture shows the physical act of love-making; on a plinth, because, given the existence of IVF, it’s a memorial to something we may not one day need to do), when the painting is finished, the whole image will need to be unified aesthetically to justify itself as a painting on the same terms as an entirely abstract painting, even though the latter genre normally achieves this unitary quality only be eschewing figurative reference.
The essential point is that, prior to the turn of the 19th century (when the development of the dichotomy experienced in painting between figuration and abstraction first appeared), the narrative in a painting always concerned an immediate world in which things were related to each other logically in time and space. If Turner painted a pastoral scene, in the corner of which the Argonauts, in a spray of light and water, brought their ship towards Ithaca, it was an incidental, non-contemporaneous event; a nostalgic memory. The effect of modernists and post-modernist thinking has been to demonstrate the way in which past and present events, determining also the future (as modern physics demonstrates) are in a real sense contemporaneous; so that our thoughts about what the reality is like are certainly a determining factor as far as the future evolution of humanity is concerned.
This, I thought, must also apply to painting. I wanted to be able to sink myself into a conceptual framework, that as far as nature and man-made environments is concerned, is fully referential, but to do this prior to any painting (experimenting in drawings as necessary). In other words, to pre-meditate the picture content as a coherent image. The act of painting would then proceed entirely from the use of colour and light, generating form and space; directed, as it were, by the governing, imagined image and producing textural surfaces (I use acrylic) not randomly, as if this were an end in itself, but incidentally, so that the formal content of the picture arose without drawing from the colour itself in the act of painting.
This would permit the same exploration of colour surfaces and relationships as occurs in abstract expressionism; however, the presence of a fluid conceptual framework, liberated from literal realism, would allow the painting to develop without the conventional constraints of figuration: that is, constraints which fix conceptual acts and image-making and pictorial objects in the logical relationships of ordinary space-time as we experience things in the everyday world.
Thus in Birth 5 shown in Room 4 the image of a developing foetus appears in the upper atmosphere (a time-boundary figuratively speaking) while the conceptually related sculpture of a memorial to sexual procreation is located on a shoreline beneath a vision of IVF test-tubes in the sky. None of this accords with ordinary narrative logic. The relations of these compositional elements in the painting (including the architectural plant with its dried and emptied seed-pods) has been subordinated to and generated by the movement of light and colour in the act of painting.
This illogical juxtaposition of events outside normal space-time is, in any case, how we actually experience the world in thinking consciousness, liberated (in our concept-formation) from the causal constraints of a physical environment. As Stephen Hawking says, we have to decide what we are seeing; nature alone tells us nothing about how to interpret given facts or about their meaning.