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Cabin Fever

1 Aug

Over the early months of this year and on into Spring, I went on walks in Shropshire with some friends of mine, and I recorded my observations of cabins, caravans and sheds of various kinds.  (Also see earlier Homely post).  Each place was evidently a place of previous or ongoing habitation, mostly by persons unknown.  The circumstances of their abandonment are also unknown or ambiguous, but provoking curiosity.  Certain of the places were so ramshackle or spartan as to be unlikely places of long term living in any sort of comfort, and were perhaps only used as temporary shelter, or even merely as storage.  In their woodland surroundings, these places could be viewed as idyllic retreat or desperate refuge.

The drawings have formed a series entitled “Inhabited”, which I hope to exhibit as a body of work at some stage.  As I made drawings, initially in charcoal and later trying out various studies using collage/mixed media, pastels and finally using an ipad, I pondered this precarious living and what it might feel like to exist in these places. My musings have spun off in many directions.  We could be looking at post-apocalyptic refuges, or take away the signs of modern technology and detritus, and we could be looking at some form of Mesolithic shelter or the transition to a Neolithic hut.

 

These first three studies were made from photographs taken in woodland on hills close to the Welsh border (see earlier Motor Plantation post).  This first drawing has been selected for the “Eden” exhibition at Participate Contemporary Artspace by curator, Katie Hodson.  The exhibition runs from 5th August to 26th August 2017 (11am to 5pm Tues – Sat)

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“When Adam Delved”, charcoal on paper, 420mm x 594mm

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“Retreat in Winter” charcoal on paper, 420mm x 594mm

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“And Eve Span” pastel on paper, 420mm x 594mm

Gaston Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space” was brought to mind as I reflected on my reveries.  It seems to be a bit of a cliché at the moment to be referring to that work – since making the connection with my drawings, I have read about three different current art projects also inspired by the book.  Nonetheless, it is a book that, as I have found, rewards re-reading and there are clear resonances with Bachlard’s writing as I begin to daydream about all my own experiences of house and home.

“Memory – what a strange thing it is! – does not record concrete duration, in the Bergsonian sense of the word.  We are unable to relive duration that has been destroyed.  We can only think of it, in the line of an abstract tie that is deprived of all thickness… Memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are.”

“And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us…”

“Great images have both a history and a prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend, with the result that we never experience an image directly.  Indeed, every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special colour”.

Bachelard is convinced of the importance of the house where we were born in informing our ongoing experience of houses/spaces.

“In short, the house we were born in has engraved with us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting”

“…our attachment for the house we were born in, dream is more powerful than thought”

My family moved to a new bungalow when I was only a few months old so I have almost no recollection at all of the first house that I lived in.  So if Bachelard is correct, then this must be deep-seated in my unconscious.  I prefer to believe that all of the houses we live in create an accumulated experience of inhabiting, shaped most strongly by those formative experiences.

Bachelard goes on to discuss the primitive elements in our notions of inhabiting huts,

“… the  “hut dream” which is well-known to everyone who cherishes the legendary images of primitive houses.  But in most hut dreams we hope to live elsewhere, far from the over-crowded house, far from city cares.”

“When we look at images of this kind … we start musing on primitiveness.  And because of this very primitiveness, restored, desired and experienced through simple images, an album of pictures of huts would constitute a textbook of simple exercises for the phenomenology of the imagination.”

On a walk alongside the River Severn from Arley to Bewdley, I passed by a large number of plotland dwellings.  I’m not sure when these were originally built, but plotland houses began in the UK around 1870 when marginal agricultural land was developed by self-builders largely outside the planning system.  Some developments remain, the most well known appear to be in Canvey Island, Basildon, Herne Bay, Shepperton, Dungeness and Jaywick. See here for an account of plotlands on the River Dee near Chester.

More obviously than other places I encountered, these cabins have been cherished and developed beyond their original construction.  In many ways, they appeared to be the ideal cosy cabin in the woods – yet on the damp, misty day of our walk there was more than an element of sinister, malevolence hanging in the air also.

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“Plotlander I”, charcoal on paper, 420mm x 594mm

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“Plotlander II”, 420mm x 594mm

Bachelard continues to explore the idea of the hermit’s hut:

“Its truth must derive from the intensity of its essence, which is the essence of the verb “to inhabit”.

This place on the outskirts of Shrewsbury inspired several studies – which I am continuing to explore.

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“Retreat I” collage/mixed media study, 420mm x 594mm

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“Retreat II” charcoal on paper, 420mm x 594mm

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“Retreat study”, graphite on paper, 297mm x 420mm

The last place, barely discernible as a cabin, so overgrown with ivy, is in a “secret” woodland in Shrewsbury.  I’m beginning a series of works about this one, quite magical, place – further news on that to follow.  For now here’s a preview of an ipad drawing, now beautifully printed as a giclée print at A2 size, mounted and framed.  Looks great, if I say so myself.

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“Who was then the gentleman” ipad drawing available as giclee print, 420mm x 594mm

The title of the latter drawing and two of the earlier studies originate from the speech made by radical preacher, John Ball, in which he insisted on social equality, and which led to the ultimately futile Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.  In reflecting on the drawings and on the long span of human history, I began to wonder if there was ever a time, or ever could be a time, when, even in primitive living conditions such as those depicted, one human did not, or will not, exert power over another.  Perhaps its a bit of a stretch to get from a drawing of a run down hut to the Peasants Revolt, but it was on my mind nonetheless.

Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space” focuses on the phenomenology of the individual experience in houses, nests and other nooks and crannies.  The house assumes a life and identity of itself, inextricably linked with its sole inhabitant.

“…that faraway house with its light becomes for me, before me, a house that is looking out – its turn now! – through the keyhole.  yes, there is someone in that house who is keeping watch, a man is working there while I dream away.  He leads a dogged existence, whereas I am pursuing futile dreams.  Through its light alone, the house becomes human.  It sees like a man.  It is an eye open to night”

But what happens when two or more people begin living together.  Clearly, the dynamic changes dramatically.  It seems there must inevitably be a tension, a contest between the individual connections with house, the relationship between the group and their house, and the identity of the house itself.  In that contest, is a source of power struggle.  Perhaps the desire for the “hermit’s hut” is stronger than we like to think.

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Homely

11 Apr

I mentioned in an earlier post that my research following my In Parallel project has broadly followed two lines of enquiry: one using collage, paint and layering to explore relations between organic and human-made forms and ideas around mapping; the other is looking at edgelands in relation to the sense of home, belonging and security in a series of paintings.  The former works are predominantly process-led and abstract, whereas the latter are figurative paintings.

In these times of uncertainty and intolerance, I aim to raise issues with these paintings about isolationism, migration, refuge, outsiders, the other.

On a camping trip last year near Ledbury, I was fascinated by a caravan parked near an old agricultural shed in a woodland which was full of discarded/stored building materials, like found sculptures.  There was an edgeland or “outsider” feel to this scene. The caravan was evidently occupied, a man emerged occasionally, and there were rare glimpses of his partner, but it was ambiguous as to whether it was a permanent living space, or just a temporary visit.  I was drawn to the marginal, outsider aspect.

I took some photos, and made a sketch in situ, which I later made into a quick watercolour study in the studio.

Following further studies, I produced a small canvas with pinkish, “scratchy” ground.

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Away, oil on canvas, 355mm x 250mm

I like the small scale canvas, but for the next in the series I increased the scale.  This time I worked on the wrecked cabin/caravan I found near the Coton Hill allotments site.

I experimented with different coloured grounds and printed wallpaper.  I was unable to source any real retro wallpaper, and didn’t have the chance to get back to the caravan to see if I could scavenge some – its probably too mouldy now anyway.  I went with a slightly more restrained approach, reducing the palette, using a mix of warm and cold grey/blue/green colours.  How does the painted wallpaper affect how the image is read? Are we conscious that it is more mediated, unreal, or do we just see it as part of the painting, when everything else is painted?

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In other studies I reduced the subject into abstract shapes and textures, and played around with different viewpoints and spatial organisation.  I was looking for an impression of the interior without having to reproduce the actual layout/view.

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Get Away Study 5, oil on canvas 400mm x 300mm

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Get Away Study 4, oil on canvas, 400mm x 300mm

 

There is something about the grungy yellow brown colours and overly ornate patterning which marks the wallpaper out as originating in the late 60s/early 70s and conjures up childhood memories.  Viewers have commented to me how they are be “able to remember the homeliness but smell the damp in this scene”.  This is about faded, degraded nostalgia.

These studies show an interesting progression towards the final painting in which I bring all the elements together.

The title plays a role in interpreting this painting.  I toyed originally with naming it “While you were out”, perhaps implying that this was a scene of vandalism and violence, or merely the effects of the ravages of time once the occupants vacated the place.  Then it was “Get out” until a film was released under that name, so now it is “Get Away”.  This also has multiple meanings, on one hand it suggests a place of refuge, escaping the world’s harsh realities, later succumbing to dilapidation and decay, while on the other hand, it could refer to a more violent attack on the occupants.

I really don’t know what the story behind this cabin was – it is located down a private track, about half a mile from the edge of a housing estate, in an overgrown field adjacent to allotments and surrounded by beehives in a poor state of repair.  There was a heavy atmosphere in a quiet place.  So the ambiguity in the painting title is fitting.

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Get Away, oil on canvas, 650mm x 500mm