Analysis of Practice

A temple at Anghor Wat engulfed by tree roots.

I have been to Cambodia and visited the temple an Anghor Wat which has been restored.  Surrounding it are a number of other temples, such as the one above, which have not been restored.  There I saw the incredible power of nature thrusting down to the forest floor to engulf these enormous buildings.  I have not been to Chernobyl but I have read about and seen photographs of the return of green growth to the contaminated land.  Nature has incredible powers of recovery.  In the context of current debates surrounding climate change and global warming will there be time for nature to recover before the planet reaches a tipping point and there is no turning back? This question has become the central focus of my practice.  I have also come to understand why, traditionally, the Chinese believed that all colour is contained in black and white.  Whereas at one time I never used black, then used it sparingly, it is now an important symbolic element in my paintings because of its association with death and doom. This change I relate directly to the deepening of my research into the subject matter of landscape at a number of levels.  Running parallel and integral to the rethinking of my colour range, is my process of using masking tape as a drawing medium which has an historical context for me in that it relates back to my days in Belfast living on the Peace Line.   I used it then as a metaphor for the barriers present in the urban landscape.  Aesthetically I became interested in the marks it makes and the marks that it conceals which are then revealed when the tape is removed.






Drawing with masking tape in the early stages of my working process, above.






Over the two years of the MFA course there has been a change in the temperature of my work which can be seen by comparing the colour range in the painting from September 2012 ‘Purple Rain’, above left, when my concerns were to do with the history of landscape and landscape painting, to a detail of the most recent painting of 2014, ‘How Many Miles from Barbizon?’in which I speculate on landscape’s future, above right. I can trace this journey through subsequent works, below, which relate to the consequences of climate change i.e. ‘Hard Rain’, ‘Fallout’, ‘Deluge’, ‘Dust Cloud’.











Although the central concerns of the work are dissimilar, two influences at the time of painting these works were Clare Woods and Paul Nash with whom she has an affinity.

In the BBC’s ‘The Big Questions’ programme on 8th May Dr. Tim Stanley, when asked to speculate about the effects of the First World War,  said that he dealt with facts and that speculation was for artists.  He was implying that artists do not deal in fact (

That is a huge generalisation but to some extent I agree with him in that speculation allows the imagination to go beyond fact.  Clare Wood’s imagined nocturnal landscapes, shown above, convey a sense of her fear which relates directly to her personal ‘factual’ experience. She was caught up in one of London’s bombings, and developed  a terror of the dark, forced herself into the landscape at night to produce a series of large works called ‘Fantastic Zoologies’ in 2008. In reality, partly because of their huge scale and the visceral quality of the gloss paint she uses,  they convey an unsettling sense of terror.  I flew from Belfast to Wakefield to see her show ‘The Unquiet Head’ at the new Barbara Hepworth Gallery.  Having seen her work only in reproduction before that, I was disappointed because the smaller works did not carry the same potency as her large scale work – painted on steel plate.  The danger implied by these huge steel grounds fixed to the gallery wall added to a sense of overpowering nature and of endangerment.

Woods references the work of Paul Nash whose paintings also  have an erie tension.  Nash considered himself part of the great tradition of the English mystical painters, William Blake and Samuel Palmer who both convey an otherworldliness.

‘Landscape of the Vernal Equinox’  by Paul Nash, 1943, above
I can understand Woods’ affinity with Nash, particularly with his war paintings, in which you sense the killing fields of war through his handling of the  landscape. There is a similar kind of brooding menace about Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Varus’.  Until I read Simon Schama’s ‘Landscape and Memory’ I did not know that this work actually commemorates the battle of Varus of 9BC in which 18,000 Roman soldiers were triumphantly slaughtered by Germanic tribes.  In this work I feel that Kiefer is facing up to German history through his interpretation of the landscape.  I think this is one of the reasons I became interested in Keifer’s work.  As a person born in Northern Ireland, who lived through’The Troubles’, facing up to its troubled, and troubling history is difficult.  How do you do it?  Do you  take history on?  Do you take sides?  That is something I have not resolved but it taunts away at me.  My response,  if I can call it that, is to  look on my ‘obstructive’ process as a kind of metaphor for my experiences in the urban landscape of Belfast.  However,  the process at times, seemed to trap me.  Because of its unpredictability, I tried through experimentation, to control it.  Significantly, Kiefer’s palette in ‘Varus’ is limited to black, red, grey and white.  It would be some time before I paired my own colour range down to the same extent.

There is a similar use of colour with the addition of blue by Maruki Iri and Maruki Toshi in their collaborative work ‘Nagasaki and Hiroshima’. Unlike the Kiefer painting, this work, in reproduction, fails to suggest either atrocity. In ‘A Brush with Nature: Twenty-five Years of Personal Reflections on Nature’ Richard Mabey asks, ‘How  do you convey endangerment?” This is a question I continually ask myself.  Descriptively explicit work such as that of Maruki Lui and Maruki Toshi attempts to convey endangerment that has been experienced while  Warhol’s ‘Electric Chair’ conveys anticipation of it.  There is a considerable amount of uncertainty, and speculation surrounding the debate on global warming and climate change. In reading the advocacy of  George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Polly Higgins for action, there is also a sense of futility in face of the enormous loss of ecosystem, ice cap and forestation due to factors that seem beyond control.  Because of this, I wanted to allow outside factors determined by other people, beyond my control, to become part of my work.

I shelved my use of masking tape as a drawing medium to try out another approach to landscape and the threats to it.  I used a colour graph drawn up by doing some unscientific research across the international group studying on the MFA course.  I asked each person to fill in a form noting the colour they associate with each month of the year.  This graph became a metaphorical landscape spread over one year which, in the context of climate change, was under threat.  But how to convey this? After I had completed the graph,  I recognised its similarity to Gerhard Richter’s stained glass window for Cologne Cathedral (1248 – 1880) made in 2007 – a work which drew ferocious criticism because it was deemed to be an affront to the Gothic architecture.  I found this interesting because I am an admirer of Richter and his expressed realisation that ‘anything’ can be a painting.  It also references James Hugonin’s work in which there is a more even temperature throughout.  There is also a precision and contemplation about his work which I admire.  He designed a stained glass window for St. John’s Chapel, Healy, Northumberland in 2010 which is not dissimilar to Richter’s in format but is very different in tone.  His ‘Binary Rhythm’ of 2012, shown below, is closer to Richter’s and my own colour range.

James Hugonin’s ‘Binary Rhythm’ shown above.
I wanted to anchor my new work in a landscape I grew up near – a seemingly indestructible one formed mainly of granite – the Mourne Mountains. This graph became the basis for ‘Carbon Course’, below left, and ‘Sump’, below right,  although they were painted almost a year apart.  The third painting ‘Cable Connections’ was also based on this graph but in a different way.  A miniature landscape of the country of origin of each person who participated in the graph was positioned on the canvas. This work was also a comment on how connected the world is today.  It depicts the cables carrying internet connections around the planet with a concentration, as the painting shows, in Europe.










Above, ‘Cable Connections’ with details.  I listened to the feedback from observers of these works and in almost every case they were seduced by the colour graph which suggested pixelation to some of them.  While my concern was the potential ‘endangerment’ to everyone’s ‘ideal’ landscape the final works did not convey that danger. In these three works I had changed my process and did not use masking tape as part of the mark making of the work as I have been doing for a number of years. So, I decided to start a new series of experiments using only tape and thin washes of paint and a reduced colour palette.  Using that process I painted ‘Fracture’, a diptych.

With this work I felt I had made a breakthrough which led to the work ‘Vortex’, below.










This progress was not without a number of diversions.

The MFA Interim exhibition was held in The Rag Factory off Brick Lane.  We were asked to make site responsive works for this show.  I felt that I could not respond to the space physically so I read up the history of the area and of the factory itself.  It had been a garment factory originally but in subsequent years the artists Tracey Emin and Gary Hume had their studios in the building.  Charles Saatchi had a pivotal role  in the development of their careers through his ‘Sensation’ exhibition.  I have  had an interest in religious icons ever since I completed a course on traditional mosaic making in Ravenna and did a study tour of the work of Piero della Francesca in northern Italy.   I decided to make a complete departure from my normal way of working and paint an icon for the 2oth century depicting Saatchi as a Christ-like figure flanked by the garments of Tracey Emin and Gary Hume which through Saatchi’s imprimatur, I suggest,  have become relics of the 20th century.  I make references to the YBAs, and Saatchi’s Iraqi origins in the work. In the triptych he is holding a copy of the ‘Sensation’ catalogue. Based on the recorded falling footfall in churches compared with that in art galleries, which continues to rise, Charles Jencks suggests that art has replaced religion as a means of fulfilling spiritual aspirations. In the format of this work I am making comment on that and on the power of patronage to turn otherwise mundane objects, such as clothes, or garments, into valuable ‘relics’.

This triptych led to another triptych and another experiment in realism called ‘The Price’ which is to do with the international market in ivory at horrendous cost to endangered elephants.  I was very unsure about going down this route and because of these uncertainties, I was not fully engaged with the work, doubting almost every stage of it.  I was looking at the work of the collagist Tom Lubbock at the time.  However his collages were created mainly for The Guardian.  They elicited immediate response from readers, serving a similar purpose as cartoons.

I felt that for me to continue along this route, the work would become reduced to a descriptive discourse and my concern with the synergy of subject matter with process would be lost.  Shown is Lubbock’s ‘It’s That Man Again’. In ‘Relics of the 20th Century’ and ‘The Price’ I departed from my usual process of using masking tape, not only as a drawing medium in the development of the work, but also as an integral part of the work.  In the mixed media painting with printed paper, ‘Gossip From the Forest’, below,  the marking is made almost entirely by using masking tape.  I made this work after reading Sara Maitland’s book of the same name.  The book is a mix of fact and fiction in that it has chapters covering her observations in the forests of the UK followed by her interpretation of traditional fairy tales based on each forest she visits.

She highlights the fact that in most fairy stories the forest represents danger.  However in spite of specially selected excerpts from her book which are inserted into the work, I feel the work fails to convey that sense of ‘endangerment’ that Richard Mabey talked about.

In the works of Clare Woods, Paul Nash, Anselm Kiefer, and Peter Doig, the subject matter allied to their handling of paint creates a sense of ‘something out of the normal’ which alerts a sense of impending endangerment.

Reflections’ by Peter Doig, 1996, above
In this work Doig’s treatment of water is almost interchangeable with that of Gustav Klimt’s in ‘The Swamp’ of 1900.  but whereas Klimpt’s achieves a decorative finish, there is a feeling that there is something lurking below Doig’s reflections.

The Swamp’ by Gustav Klimt, 1900, above

Shown above is my most recent work at an early stage.  It is called ‘How Many Miles from Barbizon?’.  It is a tetraptych planned with a predella, a conflation of ideas which link the ‘Ideal Landscape’ of Corot and the Barbizon School with human experience in the conflicted landscapes of Jennifer Johnston’s novel ‘How Many Miles from Babylon?’ Although not directly influenced by John Martin’s enormous ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’ which was one of the paintings discussed at the Paint Corner presentation at Tate Britain which I took part in, the suggestion of apocalypse is inherent in this work, particularly in the deliberately cold palette.  In this work, the pairing down of my colour range, mentioned earlier, evolved directly from the subject matter.  The yellow is acid, the blue is electric.  There is a teeth-tingling quality to the juxtaposition of the two.  This work is a reinterpretation of Corot’s ‘Four Times of Day, Morning, Noon,  Evening, Night’ in the National Gallery.  It was planned with a twelve-part predella to be read as a key to the main work.  It is based on my drawings of Corot’s ‘Four Times of Day’  and records four species of trees from the Fontainebleau Forest and four deceases affecting them.(link)Below is a later stage of ‘How Many Miles from Barbizon?’ with the four canvases laid flat.

The Great Day of His Wrath’ by John Martin, 1851 -3, above
‘How Many Miles from Barbizon?’ has a John Martinesque Book of Revelation subtext suggesting a forthcoming Babylonian Landscape.
I photocopied my ink drawings of Corot’s original paintings, shown above, and transferred the images by photo transfer onto small linen canvases.   I consider these small drawings on linen, as a group, a memento mori for the forest which may at some date in the further no longer exist.  In this new work I speculate on what might happen to landscape itself and to the idea of landscape by looking back at an ‘ideal’ landscape and projecting it into the future. (link)  Because of the space I was allocated I was not able to show this work as I had planned it and was pressurised into splitting the work up to its detriment.  I delivered the work according to the proposal I submitted with all the dimensions including the height dimension.  This work should have been shown in a room with sufficient height to support it visually and allow the predella to run comfortably linearly across the bottom.  The final configuration of the work  is shown below, with ‘How Many Miles from Barbizon?’ on the right and the twelve small canvases straight ahead.  This configuration compromised the work.






I have recently been looking at the work of Gavin Lockhart whose technique bears some similarity to mine.  Above left is ‘Catapult’ and right is ‘Unknown Explorer’.  His work has a layered surface which bears similarities to my work ‘Vortex’.  There is also an ambiguity about his paintings which is also present in mine. Although they are about landscape, it is possible to discern other possibilities within the works.  They are almost the antithesis of a view that C. S. Lewis held about ‘Paradise Lost’ (which is to some extent what my’How Many Miles from Barbizon?’is about).
In his work ‘A Preface to Paradise Lost’ C. S. Lewis wrote that the first question is to determine what sort of work it is.  “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used.” That leaves very little for the viewer to bring to the work and closes down the dialogue before it begins.  I prefer to leave my work open to interpretation.

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