Talk given for ‘Hospital Rooms’ before my dog-drawing workshop, part of their Creative Wellbeing series.
I have had a double-sided career, since I studied and taught English Literature as well as going to art school. Therefore my painting is influenced by literature, especially by poetry and especially by lyric poems, poems spoken in the first person: ‘I’m like the king of a rain country’, ‘now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs’ etc etc.
Because of the influence of this ‘I’ voice, I often paint single, isolated figures, and these figures are often on a journey or in a wilderness, as in poems such as ‘The Waste Land’ or ‘Piers Plowman’. This was the kind of figure that I did for Hospital Rooms who asked me to do a wall painting for ‘The Junipers’ psychiatric intensive care unit in Exeter. The figure, inspired also by the ‘slow’ TV programme on the Sami people of the arctic circle, was of a reindeer herder trudging through the wilderness towards a luminous horizon.
I chose the image because I wanted something that owned up to difficulty and hardship. I imagined that it might be distressing for someone feeling depressed or ill to be shown pictures that were purely pretty and bland. But at the same time I wanted it to express hope, and so the figure, supported by the hardy animals, is bearing light and is going towards the light. The picture was situated at the end of a very long corridor. I wanted to link the real journey down the corridor with the imagined journey in the painting. I wanted to crack open the dismal cul-de-sac of the end wall (which to me suggested no hope, no future) with an image of luminous possibility beyond the present.
Strong light is a constant element in my work but it has different effects and implications. Here is Caliban from ‘The Tempest’ standing in triumph on a hill with light behind him. For me it is a joyful picture. But here is light in the desert, from my TS Eliot sequence, and the figure looks defeated and exhausted in the glare. And later I shall show the way light can destroy the figure, eating into contours and obliterating definition.
As in the Eliot picture and in this one, also based on ‘The Waste Land’, light casts shadow or creates a reflection. I like the way that painting a figure in sunlight implies time, since the figure casts a shadow that marks the hour. I also like the way that the shadow or reflection can delineate a monstrous or eccentric double as in these paintings of the figure by the sea in Margate or by a gasometer or this picture of a clown in the spotlight.
And as these pictures show, my wilderness is not exclusively a natural one, it can also be urban, a bleak impersonal space lit with neon. These paintings are from my ‘Shopper’ series of lonely, pensioner women in supermarkets, travelling down the aisles and bending into the freezers. And this is from a series of dining rooms, depicting alienating social occasions, again lit with piercing neon, and showing figures going to pieces under the pressure of the social occasion. Obviously these are not single figures but they are each isolated amongst the vast crowd. And the same applies to this painting of numerous sunbathers from my series of ‘Beaches’.
In both these sequences, as in my other pictures of wilderness, I set the figure in challenging landscapes or situations. Yet my style of painting also attacks and assaults the figure in order to make it seem more vulnerable. Set in difficult places, these figures are made more fragile by my ‘iconoclastic’ method of painting which defaces or undoes them. They are attacked by marks and blots, they dissolve into water, and bright light intrudes on their contours, as in this rider or this sunbather, destroying the edges of the body. These explorers are bombarded with huge snowflakes and combined into compound silhouettes which transform them into hybrids. And this sorrowful man from my sequence based on poems by Andrew Marvell, has within him a pale double, a strange shape emanating downwards from the inside. All these figures are morphing, morphing into semi-abstract shapes that however retain something of the human, something damaged by the process of mutation.
My interest in metamorphosis led me last year to do work from Ovid’s long mythological poem ‘Metamorphoses’ in which humans are prey to the forces of nature and the caprice of the gods. They can be changed into all sorts of things in a second. These paintings are from a series based on the Bacchanalia, the frenzied festival in honour of Bacchus, in which I depict all kinds of creatures—from bacteria to humans to demi-gods—all whirling around in an energetic chaos. They have even left the ground behind and are becoming airborne.
Painting things in air is something I enjoy. Since many of my figures are oppressively limited to trudging along the earth I enjoy the contrasting freedom of painting flying things. And it was also because of this that I painted a series of monkeys ‘flying’ through the canopy of the jungle, as in the painting ‘Flamboyant Jungle’. And once again the setting is a wilderness, once again there is threat, as in these baboons and lorises and gibbons, confronted by the viewer close-up and crouching and snarling. But my animal pictures, whether it’s these apes or the dogs which I’ll show you later, are treated in a different way to my paintings of humans. I think the animals are more self-possessed, with a defiant, unselfconscious being, while the humans are going to pieces, riddled with doubt or self-consciousness. This is why, perhaps, some of my animals come out as whole and cohesive while my figures are mutating and unstable. And so we come to the series of dogs which I did live for the Art Car Boot fair in the summer. People queued up to have their dogs painted. Once again they seem whole, integrated and they are creatures that I love and love to paint, as I hope you will.