I have been developing works surrounding the genre of landscape. My work seeks to address the importance of landscape painting within the current nature of debate centring on the breadth of accepted contemporary practice that it remains to be a valid currency within the parenthesis of visual language. This subject is important to me because I spent my early childhood growing up in rural surroundings and so my relationship with landscape has formed an important role in my psyche and personal development. It is this relationship with the natural environment that governs the origins of my practice and that first drew me to the landscapes of Cyprus.
I have explored notions of human relationship with the environment to develop ideas within the context of ‘inscape’ of which the paintings entitled ‘Lunar landscape,’ ‘Lunar landscape II,’ ‘Last light,’ ‘Night flight’ ‘High horizon,’ ‘Emergence II,’ ‘Flight,’ ‘Arched sun,’ Fragments of flight II’ and ‘Big red’ are examples of. I have used the banana plantations of the Cypriot villages of Lemba and Kissonerga as a vehicle to communicate a psychological response to landscape. The banana plantations are of particular interest to me for a number of reasons, the first being that this agricultural landscape was completely new to me on arrival to Cyprus and as I discovered is a relatively new phenomenon to Cyprus too. My personal discovery of this landscape suggested concepts of the ‘uncanny’- a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange. The state was identified by Ernst Jentsch in 1906 who defined the ‘uncanny’ as:
“...being of a product of intellectual uncertainty; so that the uncanny would always, as it were, be something one does not know one’s way about in. The better orientated in his environment a person is, the less readily will he get the impression of something uncanny in regard to the objects and events in it.”
The work entitled ‘Dog hidden in the plantation’ plays on this state, as you will have noticed there is no dog in the image, but the title encourages the spectator to look for a dog, exploring a disjointed world of amorphous forms which ominously elude to landscape and evoke atmosphere. The spacial composition owes much to the work of Max Ernst highlighting the influence of the Surrealists on my work at large.
My investigation has been set with a focus on ‘real engagement’ with this particular landscape to explore the notion of ‘spirit of place.’ I have worked directly in the plantations producing studies and photographic works which were then brought back into the studio and developed further in the paintings. The effect of the light in the plantations and absence of it contribute to the sense of the ‘uncanny’ and greatly impacts the experience of being in this landscape at changing times of the day. I have therefore used light as a vehicle to traverse both concepts of the ‘uncanny’ and ‘inscape’ within the genre of landscape, anchoring my visual language concerns within a long standing history of painting.
The series of photographic works entitled ‘lunar eclipse’ were taken immediately after a lunar eclipse, at this moment the sun was setting and the moon was high in the sky. What effect does the absence of light have on our perceptions of a place or landscape? The feeling of being in this particular landscape during the eclipse was both unsettling and mysterious. In this instance I set about creating a body of photographic works which would be considered drawings, using light as a tool to draw with, to describe, manipulate and define forms and space, identifying the changing moods and interpretation of this landscape. The result is a collection of surreal images which describe something of this unique moment in time.
The work entitled ‘Lunar landscape’ demonstrates the influence of Asian art and calligraphic line with an emphasis on Zen painting. In 2002 I studied the art of calligraphic line under the direction of Yoshida (a Japanese monk and artist) the influence of which can be seen in subsequent works. As well as the influence of Zen style painting in this work it was my intention to visually depict a poetic statement about my experience of this landscape mirroring Zen ideals:
“Sometimes it seems that we should take a half an hour and just sit down and figure it all out and by that get some control and sense of place... And what does this have to do with Zen and painting? When things are going well there is no particular reason to figure it out. But, everyone finds that the world is not a place that is made just for their needs and desires. For many this is the beginning of the spiritual quest. The adversities of life force us to think about ourselves in terms of a larger perspective.” –Robin Buntins on Zen painting.
It is the ‘larger perspective’ that arouses an innate response in us towards landscape urging a sense of our own identity in reflection of our relationship with the environment. Landscape encourages us to think about where we belong which brings us back to the concept of inscape. The following statement by the Boyle family defines the relationship between inscape and the environment:
“Inscape is the inner essential nature of anything. It is anything perceived, or experienced, or felt, without the filters of conditioning... It is so sad when this most unique and wondrous state is presented as a series of smutty clichés and when we have a look in wonderment at a system in our world that requires that we look at this sublime condition as something disgusting. But this too is part of our amazing environment. And this word environment, which used to mean the things that surround us, has I am glad to say, gradually come to mean something completely global. So that everything we can think of is part of our environment. We ourselves, our art, our innermost thoughts and essential nature are all part of the environment. The environment is the inscape of everything.” – Feature on ‘inscape,’ Art and Design Magazine. 1994 edition.
The painting entitled ‘Lunar landscape II’ marks the influence of Abstract Surrealism painting in my work, particularly the works of Arshile Gorky. In my opinion landscape art lost its focus over the later part of the last century, having been superseded by the complexity and confusion of practice which could be construed as artistically introspective. It is apparent that a great deal of contemporary practice which parades as ‘landscape’ inspired work, has not addressed the real essence of the accessible history of landscape art, but instead has only fed on short term, often superficial or fashionable practice.
My imagery is an amalgamation of forms recorded through studies made directly in the plantation, looking at positive and negative shapes, organic forms and perspective as defined by the changing light, juxtaposed with amorphous forms which are derivative of microscopic and organic life, used as a metaphor for our existence, evoking both a sense of the real and the surreal. The ambiguous spaces suggest a psychological space as opposed to any view or vista found in the landscape, serving aesthetically to present a synthesis of natural holistic rhythm, suggesting a meditative state. The images are not just abstract but allude to a higher awareness of reality. There is a visual layering which requires navigation, the eye first takes in the over- all dynamism and then focuses on the details and intricacy of line, as well as referencing appropriated symbolism. A number of the paintings undergo a lengthy process of collaging mono printed imagery with tissue paper and over painting with acrylic, building the image in a system of layers which serves to present a process which I like to think is unique, engaging the aesthetic and the tactile through surface. There is an interesting tension between the scissor cut line of the collaged shapes and the painted line giving rise to a lyrical fusion of imagery.
I would reference Roberto Matta as a major influence in my work. Matta’s strange organic forms came straight from the subconscious, produced by a technique called ‘pure psychic automatism,’ whereby the artist produces spontaneous drawings directed by his inner being. This interest in the subconscious is typical of surrealism. Matta’s ‘inscapes’ are preoccupied with infinite, cosmic space. Matta’s works were to have a significant influence on the paintings of Gorky and the American Surrealists. My own investigation involved developing through drawing, a language that could communicate different types of narratives, to develop a family of marks and forms that are characteristically my own and remain open to interpretation.
Mono-printing allows spontaneous mark making providing the opportunity to respond intuitively to the landscape, recording in the open air by a more intensive re-perceiving of the landscape at work, in movement with particular emphasis on changing light. Automatic mark making is mirrored in the work of artists of influence to me (including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Graham Sutherland.) One of the most prominent issues in my investigation has been the identification of the word ‘landscape.’ This is not a new concern and is definitely one which will continue to change throughout history with ongoing influences of country, politics, media, art, literature, society, etc. Aside from the ideas, thoughts and transformations and experiences of landscape that we collect, we must realise that our interpretation and understanding of ‘landscape’ is conditioned by what we bring to it. This is better described by J. B. Jackson in an extract from ‘Land and Environmental Art:’
“... If a child’s vision of nature can already be loaded with complicating memories, myths and meanings, how much more elaborately wrought is the frame through which our adult eyes survey the landscape?... Before it can ever be repose for the scenes, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.”
The banana plantations can stir feelings of the unknown, hidden, forgotten, unusual, intimidating and overlooked; paralleled with distinguished features of beauty, intrigue, exotic and compelling interest, again presenting a dichotomy of the strange yet familiar. But this particular choice of landscape as a subject reflects the current contemporary portrayal of landscape art and consequential shift in the perception of ‘landscape’ to acknowledge what is the man- made, the strange, the mundane, the ugly, the functional and the commercial environment as landscape; owing more to mans relationship with the environment and consequently denoting notions of the picturesque, sublime and pastoral to encompass the urban, agricultural and every-day.
Decades on from the 1960’s and we are still searching for what is beyond the throw- away society, the obsolete and the dominance of technology. We should not just try to address social concerns, but question societies understanding of art today. I hope for a resurrection of artistic language which truly addresses issues of landscape, as history tells us that any language that is neglected will eventually fall into decay and die.
Copyright, Lorraine Cooke- September 2011.