Kathleen Watkins and St Ives.

What a weekend! Went to St Ives, Cornwall, to leave in a new sculpture for the spring exhibition at the Penwith Galleries (the gallery of the Penwith Society of Arts). This gallery is very important to me because of its history, having been created by Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and other radical artists of the time, in a breakaway movement from the St Ives Society of Arts. Even today it has a Hepworth at the entrance. To top this I had my first long conversation with Kathleen Watkins, the Curator, who has been with the Penwith since the days of Hepworth and Nicholson, and went drinking with them in the ‘local’ at a time, as she says, when artists got together in this way. Her name is there in the history books, and as far as I can see her knowledge of the St Ives artists of the 1940-60s is an untapped historical document in itself. I liked her witty put down of historical writings on the St Ives artists, and the St Ives movement – a catalogue of inaccuracies, in particular at a personal level.

She spoke of a different era, in a sense, of artists who designed and sent their own Christmas cards and of a St Ives that had not yet succumbed to ‘tourist destination’ status. (The lack of sales in the art market? “People don’t come to St Ives to buy expensive art. They come for a holiday”).

I spoke to her of my recent discovery of Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham, and she was immediately able to offer some examples of her prints, right there in the gallery, lying around! Called ‘Willie’, Barnes-Graham was one of the artists who came to St Ives from elsewhere and became part of British Modernism (see attached image). I spoke of her because I’d recently seen references to a couple of exhibitions of her work and was just amazed at the work, in particular the drawings.

Then in the hotel I was staying at I came across an artist from Sweden, Asa Ardin Keyja. She was travelling around, and it interested me to find that she had the same experience as me with finding pieces of stone on isolated walks that were sculptures in themselves. Having just been thinking about this issue, I was startled to find that it is, it seems, a commonplace experience among artists – well, certain types of artists. (Presumably ‘installation artists’ don’t quite see things in the same terms (Do you?)).

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Moore and Dartmoor.

Went for a walk on Dartmoor today, and as usual spent as much time inspecting the shape of stone rubble on the moorland pathways as anything else. The stone around here is always intriguing, and I’ve wondered at times if there are patterns to the breaking up of stone by natural erosion – I seem to see many shapes repeatedly, and have also come to love many of the shapes that nature throws up seemingly randomly. Henry Moore seemed to have a similar experience on beaches, with his obsessive pebble collecting (And anyone who has been to the studio at Much Hadham will see many of his sculptures there in the shapes collected). So it may be a common experience to be seduced by shapes of stone that have no particular visual reference, but which draw us to them inexplicably (whilst others do not). I’ve also taken to having a camera with me to record pieces that I feel should become sculptures (or already were sculptures in all but completion by me!). In part, I’m intrigued by the power of abstract forms that seem to have no intentional design to them, and in finally pursuing this I have been to a local quarry and am having 200k of good variegated Cornish slate delivered for me to work on. I spent a few hours choosing shapes that already were quite stunning to me, and the intention is to finish the pieces with minimal intervention, perhaps emphasising shapes or bringing some forms to a fine finish, etc. (We’ll see!). This kind of slate, however, is brittle and fractures easily, so all the work will be with diamond discs and polishers. Hopefully I can end up with a few pieces that contain that element of randomness to balance much of my present work, which is, I feel, over-designed. One extreme to the other, perhaps….

Attached: a couple of pebbles in the hands of Henry Moore, and some emergent drawings. (With Moore, of course, one always feels that, even at its most abstract, there is an anthropomorphic element to the pieces. Here the pebbles in his hand could become another Reclining Figure, or another of the sculptures that echo bone structures).


One of the important aspects of Modernism, for me, has been the idea of the Western Tradition. As an undergraduate I took courses that covered the arts and literature, studying everything from Homer and the arts of ancient Greece to Virgil and later Dante, Chaucer, the Renaissance, and so on. For many of us, this great tradition was what Modernism is sitting at the end of, representing a crisis in how we see the world and ourselves. I’m put in mind of all this by the writer Malcolm Bradbury. I’m currently re-reading his novella/essay ‘Mensonge’, which explores in a satirical manner the loss of this tradition and the crisis Stucturalism and Deconstruction represent for it. I’m offering here a passage from the book, which begins by looking back at the Western Tradition and what it has meant. (Might not be so funny as a snippet):

‘Over that two thousand years, an entire lineage of philosophy, starting in the Eastern Mediterranean, spread westward and northward through then primeval forests by very bad routes, some of them still in use today, to bring home to people the notions of monotheism and conscience, deism and transcendentalism, the basis of western culture. The thought enlarged to incorporate evolutionism, materialism, scientism, psycologism, and then modern relativism, existentialism and Kierkegaardian fear-and-trembling. Yet it all had a common basis founded on the mind-body dichotomy, sometimes called the Cartesian cogito, though at other times not. Through it we learned, in a series of prodigious feats, how to dominate nature, build culture, master the organisation and structure of the universe, invent the collar stud and discover how to use the cellular telephone. We also learned how to write string quartets and make a fairly good soufflé, so perhaps it has not all been wasted.

But this tradition depended upon a stable concept of the self, and a reasonable firm notion of a reality out there, dense enough for us to be able at least to put a nail into it, and hang up a picture when required. It is nothing less than this whole tradition that Structuralism and Deconstruction are helping to bring to an end, opening up new and confusing opportunities. In this it has been the culmination of a process. Karl Marx demystified capitalist ideology, and showed how history worked, if we followed the instructions properly. Sigmund Freud undermined the rational ego, and showed us how the unconscious functioned…. Albert Einstein undermined traditional science showing that the world was a non-Euclidian four-dimensional space-time continuum…. Now Structuralism and Deconstruction have come along to complete the process, demythologising, demystifying and deconstructing our entire basis of thought, and suggesting other ways to use it. They have required us to redefine all our values and transform all our epistemologies, or at the very least to take a two-week holiday in the sun with someone we love very much and work out all future priorities very carefully. They have dismantled our preconceived framework of consciousness and perception, removed all our ideas of the transcendent and the everlasting, and dismantled the concept of the ‘subject’, or, as it used to be known in the old days, the person, so making table-setting for a dinner party very difficult indeed. They have done this by challenging our sense of essence and reality at its very root, in language……….In brief, Structuralism and Deconstruction are and remain important because they have quite simply disestablished the entire basis of human discourse’.

It is this sense of loss that sits behind a lot of Modernist art, I think, and, although it is not much discussed, it is one reason why abstraction developed – the loss of faith in what is ‘out there’ is balanced, in abstraction, by a focus on what our own engaged minds reveal as we go, disengaged from ‘things’. If Picasso’s multiple perspectives represented a loss of faith in how we see, then abstraction joins with science, geometry and abstract thought in the attempt to work out what might be there ‘behind’ the appearances that we can no longer believe in.

Attached: a piece that plays with some Cubist norms, with some constructivist leanings too. Yes – art that is unhappy about ‘out there’. Insular. Detached. 


Significant Form.

In 1913 Clive Bell published a little treatise called ‘Art’ in which he argued that all works of art must have a common denominator – what he goes on to define as ‘significant form’. This idea has meant a lot to me, in the main because it offers a way of looking at art that sees form and its relationships as a kind of ‘language’ that we offer, as artists to the world. As a result of this there is a kind of ‘logic’ to the art work (the logic that any language must have) that should be intelligible and open to understanding and even analysis, by all.

For me, however, significant form had a universal dimension that Clive Bell did not seem to recognise. He argued that significant form only existed in an art context, and that it did not apply to Nature (to say, beautiful butterfly wings, or to any other aesthetically pleasing set of forms thrown up by Nature). He also seemed to dislike the idea that the significant forms could be analysed (proposing that this was outside aesthetics and therefore not the concern of the artist). My own position has been that the term ‘significant form’ is still meaningful and important for us today because all form that we ‘appreciate’, for whatever reason, has a foundation that is both psychological and evolutionary. For instance: the human form in nature and art. In nature we all ‘appreciate’ the human form. Our evolution seems to dictate this, as part of desire and procreation. So, when we propose that the human form is beautiful, and use it in our art objects, we are finding the form (and the complex of forms that make up the human body) ‘significant’ because there are profound evolutionary, and hence psychological, reasons for doing so. My proposal would be that our psyches are made up of our evolutionary development and function to that end. So, when I work in the abstract I would also propose that the forms I exploit are made meaningful, at least in substantial part, by the inherent demands of my biology.

When I design an abstract piece of work it interests me how I get to some of the forms I then make, and I would propose that, insofar as the forms are meaningful, they are so because of the ‘demands’ of that part of the brain that art ‘digs’ down to. In a short story called ‘A Simple Melody’, Virginia Woolf (a friend of Clive Bell’s) refers to how “all the time ideas were rising from this pool (beneath) and bubbling up into one’s brain”. The melody of the title of the story takes its power from its roots deep inside our beings. This is a kind of ‘depth psychology’ that can help explain the power of art, in all its forms.

Attached: two pieces. Both emerged from doodling and were made to see what might be there.


Part of my interest in Modernist art comes from growing up in that context. However, a specific commitment to abstract art has followed me around, pursuing me and often annoying me!

Picasso and David Hockney were prominent artists of the twentieth century who pushed towards abstraction but who could never, in the end, abandon art’s connection with specific, ‘witnessed’ visual images and the actual world. But it has also interested me that it was Picasso who, along with Cezanne, pushed art out from a commitment to the actual, and of course Hockney himself got very close to abstraction at times – see the Very New Paintings of the early 1990s.

I have found that abstraction takes many forms, from the religious leanings of early non-objective work, to Constructivist, later Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist work. And one of the things that has interested me has been the emphasis on structure and structuring. We see this initially in Cezanne, then in Picasso’s cubist period, then in artists like Mondrian, the Constructivists and Minimalists such as Donald Judd. I have felt this in my own work too – a desire to create forms that are highly defined structures, although for me, without the regularity of more geometrical abstraction. So, with ‘South Bank 2010’ (attached) I was seeking to work with an architectural theme – my interest in Brutalist architecture – as well as being intrigued by Constructivist artists.

Brutalism always interested me because of the sculptural form of the buildings – they always seemed to speak of architects who sought an element of sculptural plasticity. So, in making some work that referred to Brutalism it was like returning the sculptural element in the buildings back to their art origins.

This is not a successful piece, though, it bothers me. But I am hoping to continue to develop this theme, in part because it takes something from the real world that is out there, and for me transcends the specific object that Picasso and Hockney could not abandon. I’m trying here to see what is actually there without the visual tropes that make up ‘realistic’ or figurative art. At a material level, what are we dealing with? This reflects, in some ways, a fear that this ‘materialism’ has an inner meaning too, for me as a person. What IS the attraction of the material devoid of image? What is attractive about concrete, as its used in Brutalist work? Why have so many modern movement foregrounded the material at the expense of the image? Even Cezanne did this – paint takes on a tactile quality, an unsentimental materiality, which Picasso took further, and later artists such as Richard Serra moved on with, offering a look into what lies behind the image. What, then, is this kind of work SEEING?