Angus-Hughes Gallery

I like the title of the exhibition At the Edges currently showing at the Angus-Hughes Gallery. It aptly captures the position not only of landscape painting but of art about nature in a world dominated by the city. As if the viewer’s depth of field had to be expanded in a short sighted age. It sounds grand but that is the thought that occurred to me as I looked at Hannah Brown’s small painted landscapes. The viewer’s gaze is sometimes directed towards the horizon by the diagonal lines of pathways and hedgerows; sometimes obscured by trees and at other’s green foliage is punctuated to reveal it. The world she creates although familiar also has a strange primordial feel about it: everything is a soothing green, soft and beautiful and empty of people. It can’t be real! But that is the point – there is a fine line between the ideal and real perception of beauty that runs through Romanticism towards a sentimentalised vision of nature.

Boo Ritson’s collaged photographs make this point too, but this time the horizon is the American dream. Her digital landscapes look like American vistas but are actually constructed from images closer to home, her back yard in Chesham. The idea of the horizontal planar is brought home by her displaying one image on the floor of the gallery so that the viewer is in no doubt of the image’s flatness. In another the image raps around the corner of the wall, again emphasising the three dimensionality of the viewer’s perspectival vision. The body becomes the point of reference located in real space. Hanna Brown also takes the viewer out into the real space of sculpture, with her, Model for a Mute Triangulation Pillar.

This playing with points of reference continues with Gary Colclough’s exquisite drawing machines. He has framed his beautifully precise pencil landscapes in geometrical supports that elevate the image both literally and figuratively, echoing platonic ideas about abstraction and also the geometric motifs and roundels found in the decorative arts. Positioned on the edge of drawing and sculpture, while referencing the painted landscape they are perfectly balanced and minimal too in their aesthetic. I was also so happy to discover the reference to the ‘spiritual energy batteries’ of The Aetherius Society, pointed out by Graham Crowley’s essay on this show, and the allusion to a quiet, spiritual atmosphere and magical conversions. It put me in mind of Emerson’s Transcendentalism.

It might not be possible to experience nature through a ‘transparent eyeball’ as Emerson wanted in the mid-19th century. Our experience of nature today is so mediated by an historical understanding of concepts such as the wilderness, the garden, botany, evolution, etc, and the perceptual eye of painters such as Turner, Constable and one of my favourites, Claude Lorrain, to believe in a direct, unfiltered experience. The wilderness for example, has been deconstructed to such an extent that it is difficult to say with certainty if what we see is wild at all and has not been altered at some other point in time by man’s interference through enclosure, deforestation, mining, species control, etc. Such concepts frame our perception and experience of the all-pervading thing we call nature in a dialectical relationship. The wilderness, becomes a metaphor for an infinite chaos that is bounded by the discrete, concrete form of language. The landscape in this case however, is not just a conceptual category or ‘idea’ through which nature sees itself. The materiality of language and the ‘realism’ of our perceptual vision is emphasised in a multi-media approach in a seemingly effortless dance between the idealised space of painting, the virtual world of the digital and three dimensional sculptural form.

I want to hold onto Emerson’s ‘transparent eyeball’ for a bit longer. It ‘speaks’ of a kind of conceptual realism that is hard to maintain in today’s cynical climate. To believe that the individual’s experience of nature is one’s own, purified of history; a seeing without memory, even if it is an illusion is seductive. The individual is important to this idea: the ‘self’ reads nature as an outward sign of the Spirit and identifies with it internally. This is not only a biblical concept it is a unity of mind and body that fuels both philosophical and theological discourse within Transcendentalism borrowed from Buddhism and the Bhagavad Gita. There is no such illusion in Jane Ward’s digital paintings. Switching between the surface of the real and the internal projective space of the ideal is operating in her apocalyptic work but the outcome is ambiguity. This Horizontal Landscape for example, suggests a precipice; of being on the edge of vision; as Emerson wanted, at every moment – but a visual world renewed at every moment means a destruction of history; of any sense of before. In her virtual world the inside of painting erupts onto the surface into the materiality of paint, into a kind of renewal. The mind and body paradox is apparent again in Impact Scars where the scars of history operate on both a physical and virtual place and are not repressed.

All the work in At the Edges leaves a question about the private, intimacy of experience in the face of history, for me, but in spite of this the relatively small scale of Hannah Brown and Gary Colclough’s works give the kind of self-contained intimacy offered by the miniature. Even when the works cross the boundaries of their own medium, moving between digital photography, sculpture and painting there is a quietness about it. Nature might be ‘mute’ but it does not mean it can’t be spoken about.