A tale of two sketchbooks

Artists have always had notebooks, drawing books, sketch books, call them what you will, the place where ideas, impressions and notations are set down. The links below take you to records of my own favourites:

Georges Suerat         Richard Diebenkorn

Many artists value them more highly than the actual finished pieces of work, they form a chronological document of a creative life, record a working process, a document full with potential, waiting to be developed.

I can relate to much of that, I have a collection of hard back books of various sizes that go back to my teenage years. To call them a diary would be wrong and create a different sort of impression, however they are records on my creative life and when I open them up I see notations that carry me back to where I was in by creative activities, but often a whole lot more beside. A particular page may conjure up recollections of people I was with at the time, where the drawing was made and maybe particular circumstances that led me to take a particular approach.

However, during the last eight years or so there has been a development in my sketchbook use. I now have two quite distinctive sets of books. The first is a book of plans, doodles, experiments and thoughts that relate to my main studio practice. They contain notations and instructions to myself that will help carry me towards the type of work that is documented in the ‘My own paintings’ link at the top of the page.

Within these pages I am puzzling out ideas and arrangements, recording plans and trying to find my way in this section of my creative output. This is undoubtedly the most important part of my work as an artist. The pages of these books rarely have a very aesthetic appearance, that’s not the point, they are about recording, experimenting and hopefully avoiding dead ends and the pursuing bad ideas when studio time is precious.

Alongside this I have a second set of books. These are mostly a little smaller, A6 or A5 format. I call them my ‘recreational’ books. For that is what they are. The very first one in this series was made in 2009 during a month-long family trip to Orkney in northern Scotland. I decided it would be interesting to somehow record this family expedition. It felt like a big adventure, my wife and me travelling with our children aged 9 and 11 at the time, on trains, boats and buses, with two small tents in rucksacks on our backs.

The resulting A6 sketchbook became filled with forty or fifty drawings and watercolours of the expansive skies and glistening horizons that we encountered. Since this trip I have continued the practice, whenever we travel the latest book comes with me, also if it is just a day trip. I enjoy the process, and over the years I do seem to have got better at rapidly capturing, mostly the landscapes, that we pass through.

So, I have two seemingly quite distinct set of documents in these compact books on my shelves. I have often found myself wondering about other artists who might have similar split creative outlets. One that springs to mind is perhaps Ellsworth Kelly. On the surface, his elegant and deceptively simple line drawings of plants seem to have little connection with the large scale geometric abstractions. But look a little more carefully and the connections are there, lines and edges, intersections and an economy of information.

Like with Kelly’s work, I am starting to feel increasingly that these two streams of creativity do in some ways show tendencies to converge. Geometry in the landscape has always fascinated me. Where is this geometry ever stronger than in the hard edge of the horizon of the sea on a clear day….a scene that I have often enough recorded in the travel notebooks. And more recently trees as a motif are finding their way repeated into the studio work and I would certainly be inaccurate to say that my experiences of drawing trees in the landscape in my ‘recreational’ books hasn’t in some way been feeding through into what I consider to be the ‘real’ work.

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5 May – Liberation day and an exhibition

In the Netherlands freedom and liberation are celebrated in the 5 May. On 4 May at 8pm a reflective two minutes of silence is held across the country to remember and reflect on those who died during the Second World War and conflicts since. Wageningen, the town in which I live, is in party mood today, the somber remembrance ceremony that I attended last night is followed up with a festival and processions that will draw tens of thousands to the town.

It is not an inappropriate day to be visiting an exhibition in the far north of the country though, before I too return to the Wageningen celebrations. In the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden in the north west of the country an exhibition entitled Burdened Landscape is on display until 5 June.

The exhibition explores how landscape can function as a sort of physical memory storage for history, and in particular, parts of history that while not being occasions that we should forget, are periods that don’t make for easy reflection. As the exhibition guide puts it:

“Violence, war and conflict leave their traces, even in the landscape. The past is visibly and invisibly gouged into the soil. Some places have become tangible monuments to history. However, more innocent-looking locations can also bear heavy burdens. Time and again, memories give the ‘crime scene’ its charge.”

It is an interesting and engaging collection of work, covering locations such as the landscape around Auschwitz (Oświęcim), Kuwait, Hanover, Ukraine, Armenia, Stalingrad and most recently, the Mediterranean Sea and its role in the suffering of migrants because of conflicts in North Africa.

Discovering works by Anselm Kiefer within such a context isn’t perhaps that surprising but there are plenty of less familiar works that open thoughtful windows on their own landscapes.

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Hans Citroen’s photographs show intimate corners of domestic landscapes, between vegetable gardens perhaps, yet there between the slightly overgrown fences are the remains of a railway line. The track lies, seemingly forgotten, in Oświęcim a short distance from the nearby Auschwitz. You are challenged, no, forced to reflect on those who passed through this space towards such a terrifying and uncertain future. Yet now, here it is, the line slowly being reclaimed physically by the landscape, but at the same time a landscape that is so heavily loaded by its history of seventy-five years ago.

The way landscape recovers and reclaims is also visible in the large-scale series of photographs by Sophie Ristelhueber. They show images of the Kuwaiti desert and the way it holds a physical record of the Gulf War (1990-91). In some images the relics, the evidence is slowly being covered over, fading from view.  In others though you can’t help feeling that these remnants will remain every bit a revealing in the distant future as Hadrian’s Wall is to us today.

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On a more recent note, but maybe more disturbing for it, the video work Liquid Traces the Left-to-Die Boat Case by Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani tells of the tragic fourteen days adrift at sea experienced by a group of seventy-two refugees from Libya. The result of the two-week period without rescue, was that only nine of the seventy-two survived to recount their experience.

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The exhibition deals mostly with the traces that war and conflict leave on the landscape, but departs from this a little to end with the image of Frenk Windels, sitting next the place he, without the necessary permits, buried his wife after her death. The result is a small domestic landscape with a huge emotional charge.

Back home in Wageningen, the landscape that surrounds me is beautiful, green and for the most part peaceful.  But look at little more carefully and the same Burdened Landscape can be found. There was heavy fighting on the nearby Grebbeberg in 1940 and the parachute landing for operation Market Garden of A Bridge to Far fame occurred just north of the town. These and other periods during the 1939-45 conflict are still all too present and 4 and 5 May of all days are the days to reflect on this.

 

 

Is there a better combination of exercise, landscape and art?

I first visited the Kröller-Müller museum in the Hoge Veluwe National park when I was an art student in London.  There had been an official college trip organised to Barcelona and Madrid, however I and a few friends simply didn’t have the money to join such an outing.  As an alternative we organised our own cultural excursion.  It was a cut price affair, staying in the cheapest of cheap hostels in Amsterdam and spending, I think, five days visiting the cultural high points of the Netherlands.

Undoubtedly the most surprising to me then, was the visit to the Kröller-Müller museum. An hour east of Amsterdam on the train, followed by twenty minutes on the bus, before entering the park and picking up one of the free white bikes to get around the expansive landscape of the Hoge Veluwe Park.  If I think back to that first visit I remember walking through pine forests and across dazzling sand dunes on a bright, crisp morning in early spring.  It wasn’t what I had expected of the Dutch landscape.  How different it was as a way to approach a museum art collection.  My more familiar routine was to battle through the busy streets of London making use of packed buses and underground trains.

Crossing this windswept Dutch landscape brought us to the destination that our tutors back in London had raved about, the elegant Kröller-Müller museum.  A stylish, modernist building housing the collection put together by Helene Kröller-Müller in the early years of the twentieth century and featuring the work of van Gogh, Mondriaan and many other modern masters.  Behind the museum you have an extensive and ever growing sculpture park and forest.

Little did I know when I made that first visit all those years ago, that within three years I would find myself living in the Netherlands and within biking distance of the park and the museum.  Regularly, as we did yesterday, we take our bikes and head off in a north-east direction.  It is a 20km ride through forests and over heathland.  As I said at the start, I’m yet to discover a better combination of physical exercise, landscape and art. The temporary exhibition for this particular visit being a rarely seen display of early van Gogh drawings.

Click here for more about the Kröller-Müller museum.

Gearing up for my first solo show in quite a while

The last couple of months I’ve been gradually getting ready for two exhibitions.  The first is a group show in the Dutch town of Nijmegen.  The second is a solo exhibiton, in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the town that has been drawing all the attention the last few months for its Jheronimus Bosch exhibition.

The exhibition is going to give me the chance to dip back into work influenced by the very Dutch interiors made by Vermeer, that I was making when I first arrived in The Netherlands back in the nineties. This will be hung alongside more recent work that is  more orientated towards the Dutch landscape and our relationship with this most manipulated of environments.

Without giving too much away, I can promise a place for both of the painintgs below.

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Empty Room, Oil paint on canvas, 1993

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Untitled, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 2016

900 Poplars losing their place in the Dutch landscape

Rows of poplar trees have had a place in the Dutch landscape for many years, often in hard straight lines cutting across the fields or following a road or lane.  The poplar though as a tree is it would seem, losing its popularity and the rows of spectacular verticals set against the horizontal landscape are increasingly being removed.

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Near where I live in the centre of the Netherlands one of the most spectacular avenues in the country is living on borrowed time. Some 900 trees are due to be removed over the next couple of years.  The landscape on the edge of the town of Wageningen it is fair to say, won’t be quite the same without them.  Writers, artists, photographers, runners, birdwatchers, sound recordists and others have contributed to a new book that reflects on the trees, there presence in the landscape, their importance to us and ultimately what their removal will mean to us.

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Wim Huijser and sound recordist Henk Meeuwsen have taken the lead in assembling the book, but I too have contributed to “Het ruisen van de populieren”, or in English, “The Rustle of the Poplars”.

There can be few landscapes around the world that are as manipulated and carefully managed as the Dutch landscape.  The presence of man and the control he exerts is almost always present, sometimes subtly, sometimes in a more extreme form. My manipulated photograph for the book connects with this and the way the landscape forms the scenery for our lives.

Big skies and geometry

I grew up in the east of England in an area to the north of Cambridge known a s the Fens. It’s a landscape that is dominated by the simple and often hard geometry of a flat horizon line interrupted by an odd house or cluster of trees. Many might find it a bleak and empty landscape but it is an area of great beauty, rich colours and hugely expansive skies. I love visiting the area, as I often do, and driving and walking across the roads and tracks that run like ribbons across the fields.

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Simple geometry and hard lines have always been an important part of my own work and I often wonder whether some of the reason for this might actually be in part tied up with my love for the simple structures found in the Fenland landscape and indeed the expanses of the nearby north Norfolk coast with its beaches and marshlands.

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The fact that I have ended up living in the Dutch landscape has, I guess, only strengthened this fascination. I don’t consider myself a landscape painter, although I am hugely interested in the landscape and what it means to us, how we use or abuse it and how we manipulate the way it looks.  These are the sorts of issues I am considering in my work.  Whilst doing this, that interest in geometry keeps coming back, and above all that horizon line stretching taught across a composition.

Having been back to the Fens during the Christmas break with camera in hand I feel the geometry recharge has set me up for the coming months in my studio work.

Manipulated landscape

There can be few more manipulated landscapes in the world than the Dutch landscape.  There is constant construction and reconstruction, rearrangement and quite literal landscape creation as land is reclaimed from the sea. There is a constant tension between man and nature in this densely packed land.  My work as an artist has grown increasingly to focus on these tensions and what the natural world around us means to us and how we respond to it.

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Today we walked through a small section of the landscape of the central Netherlands. As I often do on such an excursion I made a small watercolour sketch, in this case of a the linear geometry of a recreated piece of nature, a pool for wading birds.  Further on we encountered a selection of other newly created pools of a various of forms for a variety of nature.  I was reminded of my own pools I created in my work a few years ago.  Manipulated nature of a slightly more extreme form.

To reduce or not reduce? – Studio day

I haven’t posted a reflection on a day working on my own work for a while. Various reasons, the inevitable intrusion of other activities being the most significant of reasons. Still, the work goes on, even if it is not as speedy in its production as I would desire.

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Today I’ve been working on the two images shown here. Both are, essentially built of the same components; a sky, a bowing coloured wall in the foreground and distorted by perspective verticals that in the drawing on the left are trees and in the painting on the right have been reduced to single fine lines. Also in both cases there is an ambiguity in whether the ‘wall’ is standing in the landscape or whether the landscape is possibly a sort of theatrical backdrop that has been painted or pasted onto the wall and now appears to be becoming separated from the surface creating the illusion that it is bending in space. The way in which the verticals are, well not vertical, play into the visual uncertainty.

When starting these pieces I thought that the drawing with the four tree trunks was just an experiment for myself, to prove that I was going the way of the greatly reduced ‘trees’ in the curved painting with its red wall. But having worked on the drawing with the trees today I am less certain. I think there is still work to be done to strengthen the drawing, particularly in darkening it to make it heavier, but maybe there are still possibilities worth exploring here.