Prior to isolation I’d been operating under a cloud of uncertainty – doubting the kinds of directions I was considering taking and unable to commit to a way of working. I felt like I was choking. This is not something I’m not all that comfortable admitting…but it’s true.
I’m used to having some kind of structure to work to, which guides what I do and sets boundaries. This is something I invent for my own purposes. Recently I haven’t been able to find one I’m comfortable with, and it’s been stopping me from doing anything at all. This is something that’s been building for a couple of years now.
Once quarantine hit I found myself in the same predicament, but with less time to dwell on it. I started to get swamped by other commitments, spending huge swathes of time transferring my previous teaching commitments to online models. Despite all that I count myself lucky that I still have a job.
There are other good things – my wife Jo still has her job, the kids have adjusted well to working from home, and we’re all healthy. I have a studio in the backyard and plenty of material to work with. In the absence of having shows to work toward in the short term, I’m free of time pressures.
With all this in mind I decided to just begin a few things with no clear purpose to see what might happen. This is something that has always seemed slightly out of reach for me. I made a charcoal pencil sketch from a photograph of a collection of Swedish glass bowls, for no reason, just because I could and felt like it. It wasn’t all that successful but it was a beginning. After that I started stretching up some canvasses with no clear intention other than to work transparently with black paint. I found an old washed-out image of a mid 20th century interior in a magazine and decided to paint from it, attempting to imitate its printing process. Again, not with any clear goal in mind, or with any expectation that anyone would ever look at it. I didn’t work all that well, it was too clean and fussy, so I let it sit for a few days. On returning to it I decided to play around, I grabbed some coarse bristle brushes and some rags to wipe off excess paint and created something that looks like nothing I’ve ever turned my hand to, guided by a kind of loose feeling about the subject matter, and perhaps by the current climate of isolation. It’s a beautiful thing. To make this kind of painting previously, I would have needed to invent an elaborate system, but now, I feel like it might be possible to start with the act of making, and let the operation of the object guide me toward a system, if I feel it’s something that might be worth pursuing. While I was thinking about my messy expressionist painting, full of jagged pockets of trapped light, a figure came to mind – a prematurely balding man in his early 30s, a painter, overweight and alone, happy despite his circumstances, operating out of an old tin shed, oblivious to contemporary concerns, who might be responsible for something like this. I’ve named him Benny. He’s operating in the shadows, not fully fleshed out, and it might be best if he stays there. I might call on him again.
I’ve also been contributing to a research project with Harriet Parsons reconstructing the working life of the artist Alexander Buchan, a neglected Scottish painter who travelled with James Cook on his first trip to the Pacific on the Endeavour. Hie worked with a team identifying and painting specimens of new flora and fauna. I’ve been re-making his watercolours and through the process making some speculations based on what I’ve discovered.
A renewed respect for introspection and imaginative processes and practices.