Elements

Back in the 1970s the Boyle family launched their "Journey to the surface of the earth" project. Their "paintings" (actually moulded fibreglass) looked like a rectangle of roadway hung on the gallery wall. Astonishingly realistic, they were complete with fag ends and yellow 'No Parking' signs. As well as jettisoning perspectival space, they operated as ready made abstracts in urban nature.

The first group of paintings with which Maureen Stephenson announced her talent was of a similarly made abstraction in nature: water. This was not the element favoured by Courbet and Turner though, a lethal force which might annihilate you. It was of gentler rhythms eddying, swirling and shimmering. Furthermore, even when she dispensed with a horizon, the very scale of the waves hinted at space. These elements had shape-shifting identities, sometimes appearing as biomorphic cells each with its own energy, and sometimes offering hypnotic light-imbued depths. One of the current media fallacies is that of an artist's 'signature'. Once found, the 'signature' or brand is all you need to know about an artist, they imply. Like many of her predecessors, Maureen Stephenson ranges widely, a shrewd vignette of teenage girls here, and a keenly registered facet of landscape there. Her work is highly disciplined and is in an age of cheap novelty, a vindication of Leonardo's view that "Art breathes from containment and suffocates from freedom."

It may seem paradoxical given her discipline, that Stephenson's paintings are restless with energy, but Elizabeth Talbot's are preternaturally calm. They appear to have come into existence without human intervention. Like distinguished contemporaries such as Peter Doig or Gerhard Richter, however, she deals in pre-processed imagery, phenomena that have already been photographed, printed or downloaded. Experience for her, by and large, has already been mediated, but unlike Doig, who introduces into his visual conceits unsettling references to popular culture, or Richter whose oeuvre is fraught with ambivalent political events, Talbot's affinities are much more with the work of the early 19th century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. Her paintings are purposeful: they are not landscapes of the "I was there and it looked like this" school. Invariably they pose questions. Temperamentally she would be reluctant to make any over weening claims but for those who are prepared to engage with them in their still mystery, they hint at the metaphysical - and the sublime. Even so, she too, when circumstances demand it, works from direct experience.

Bill Varley, art critic, 2014

 

Elizabeth Talbot: the art of return

Elizabeth Talbot’s paintings are both familiar and strange. Her scenes trigger echoes of landscapes visited, read about or known through reproduction in the form of postcards, prints or illustrations to old books. These last are in fact the source of her imagery. She may only use a fragment of a scene, but it is nevertheless a fragment that has already been processed through another’s eyes or through the single eye of the camera. To others, such source material might seem tired or trite, but Talbot reinvests these scenes with a slow-burning mystery, often turning to a highly disciplined use of monochrome or near-monochrome in her handling of paint. Her paintings are the product of steady deliberation, developing slowly over a considerable period of time and gaining a stillness and intensity that far exceeds in quality the original source material. Time is necessarily an ingredient in painting, and if a picture is to last it must achieve duration, a sustained resonance that may change and deepen as time goes on. Much contemporary art acts as a barometer for the climate of the day, but quickly stales. Elizabeth Talbot’s paintings, however, belong to a different category.

What is especially compelling about this work is the way that the artist’s twenty-first- century strategies relate to how we live now. The revisiting of material already archived, by photographers, print-makers and illustrators reminds afresh that there is no such thing as an innocent eye. Talbot’s layered landscapes affirm that in this age, almost over-obsessed with heritage, our experience of nature, even at its freshest, is always mediated by culture. Still more so now that we are living in what Arthur C Danto has called a ‘post-historical’ period where development in the arts, and particular in painting, seems to be circular rather than progressive. Thus we respond to Talbot’s paintings as images in the here and now, while also sensing the cargo of mood and memory that they bring with them, which somehow makes even her most serene landscape subcutaneously disturbing.

Gary Schneider recently observed that the most radical thing one can do now is to stay at home. It is predicted that in the course of the next decade we will be deluged with major scientific breakthroughs. At the same time, environmental issues make it likely that we will be learning to live more modestly, practising the art of return, recycling past habits for present needs. It is this capacity to blend old and new, to layer experiences while uncovering new feelings that makes Elizabeth Talbot not just a painter of real stature but also an artist for our time.

Frances Spalding

Frances Spalding is an art historian, critic and biographer. Her books include a centenary history of the Tate and 'British Art since 1900',in the Thames & Hudson World of Art series. She is now Professor of Art History and was awarded a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2005.

Out of True

It is a convention of contemporary criticism, including the variety to be found in exhibition catalogues, that the critic refer to the artist or artists under discussion by, in general, if not at all times, their surname. This is the case even if the writer is personally familiar with the artist, actually knowing them, whether casually or as a close and intimate friend. Such a form of address may seem, depending upon the relationship involved, somewhat artificial, a “cold” and disingenuous way of referring to someone with whom they are reasonably well acquainted. But the reason for adopting this form of writing is that with it a certain degree of distance between the critic and the artist is implied. The alleged impersonality of such an explication carries greater intellectual, critical weight than one that is obviously the product of personal familiarity. But since the present essay discusses the work of three closely related artists (I mean related by family, as brothers and a sister, and all sharing the same family name), I will need to abandon this rule of thumb, calling each artist by his or her first name. Hopefully, as the text progresses, something akin to what Ludwig Wittgenstein termed a family resemblance will make itself apparent between these three very distinct individuals, but also some manifest indication of their respective particularities as artists will materialise as well. [1]
Elizabeth Talbot’s paintings carry with them a carefully measured sense of melancholy, of stillness, and a conscientious silence that has, I believe, more to do with deliberation, selection and the careful manipulation of paint than the obvious factor of painting being, regardless of what is often claimed to the contrary, implicitly mute. The static, tranquil but also somewhat brooding mood of these works has come about through a combination of elements. On the one hand there is the imagery Elizabeth selects, which is predominantly but not exclusively that of the English landscape, a field of reference that is already rich in evocations of restrained grandeur; on the other, the layered staging of the paintings’ surfaces draws into focus aspects of this pastoral picturing, sharpening up the overall atmosphere through the process - surely a paradoxical one - of stressing the interpenetrating and overlaying of forms, rather than, say, a tightening up of the potential edges of those “objects” of which the works are composed. Treetops seem to shift across canvases like clouds moved by a slow but bleak breeze, a forest at the edge of a lake drains into the water whilst still holding to its own distinct placing in the plane of the composition. The monochromatic patina found upon most of Elizabeth’s pictures does much to keep each one within the confines of a coherent ambience, a cohesion that may also have quite a bit to do with the source material employed. I refer here not to the choice of English and other landscapes as subjects for painting but rather to it being the case that the source of the subject matter is not the artist’s direct exchange with the landscape but in fact her use of found photographic imagery. These particular slices of countryside come not from unmediated personal experience but from photographs, usually, ones not taken by the artist herself.

It may be something chosen from a picture book or encyclopaedia, or perhaps a postcard. Within the borrowed image Elizabeth further selects what is possibly only a modest detail of the whole, the latter being itself relatively small. Thus this painting practice, which at first sight might well seem “traditional” is in reality connected with modern artistic notions such as that of Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades” or, more generally, what Susan Sontag calls the “image-world” of the photograph. “Photography does not simply reproduce the real”, remarks Sontag, “it recycles it, a key procedure of a modern society.” [2] These paintings further recycle what is already a segment of something other than itself (the photograph is not identical to the landscape fragment it has trapped and retained). They draw attention to details of other images, zooming into them, opening them out.

A further key point in the chain of images bearing upon Elizabeth’s work is the extant tradition of English landscape painting. One thinks, for example, of early Turner or of Richard Wilson. In the present case several referential levels are combined: select parts of found photographs, memories (direct or indirect) of landscape painting and, not least, Elizabeth’s own experience and memories of living in the countryside. Her paintings weave together these separate entities, resulting not so much in a “collage” of connections as a painterly practice that is, in the long run, more about the act of painting itself than any kind of summary of a given place or time. These are pictures in which what one sees is, to quote an appropriate passage from Roland Barthes, “multiple, irreducible, coming from a disconnected, heterogeneous variety of substances and perspectives: lights, colours, vegetation, heat, air, slender explosions of noises, scant cries of birds…All these incidents are half-identifiable: they come from codes which are known but their combination is unique…” [3]
Neil Talbot’s carved stone tablets and relief sculptures are frequently small in scale but rich in implication. Two or three simple but ambiguous representational forms may be placed in close proximity against a smooth or featureless background, the entire work forming a fractured ellipse or an extended rectangular slab. For example, “Waft” (2005) consists in the placing together of a finely carved feather-pen positioned within the composition as though lain on a table with, above and to the right-hand side of it, an image of a sumptuously folded curtain or cloth, the curves of which roll around to become the surface upon which the pen is placed. The whole of the block of marble from which this work has been produced is merely a couple of feet wide. The curve of the feather echoes that of the stone, with the folds of cloth or other “encoded” material looking like the stylised waves of a rough sea or of clouds rippling into one another on a windy day. The feather may be just that and not an anachronistic writing instrument. Everything in the image may be natural, or, conversely, a transformation of nature into culture, of marble into meaningful depiction (this is certainly so), of bird wing into human tool, and the whole of the support into parchment or folded blanket.

It is in fact incorrect to refer to the plane of white stone as a support, since “Waft” is made of a single block of marble, which means that the stone is both a platform or background to the work but also the very stuff of which the image is made. The pen will never leave the location upon which it apparently rests. The act of writing or drawing (for which an ample blank surface is provided) will never occur. Although being in essence invited to activate this work, literally and metaphorically, it is only in the mind of the viewer that such an “action” can occur.

“Piercing the Dragon” (2005) again brings together only three main elements but these are also, when juxtaposed in this way, triggers for a considerable range of meanings and ideas. On the left-hand side of the irregularly-shaped stone are a series of steps, to the right, more difficult to decipher, is an organic arrangement calling to mind the depleted body of a swan other once sentient creature. It is really just a cipher for, or an only small part of a natural, if elusive animal. The area below these two conflicting forms is readable as the surface of a swirling sea. The steps lead into the water, the bird-creature or “dragon” is beached. The sinuous drift of the water cuts across the bottom of the relief, pulling one’s gaze both left and right, whereas the rigid geometry of the steps take one into – but also out of – the work. Neil’s considerable carving skills, the exceedingly detailed execution of his fine, fluid lines, reminds one that technical skill is best deployed not for its own sake but to carry out a purposeful task, one unachievable by other means. The long-term labour involved in all this pristine carving and cutting reminds the viewer, once he or she has recognised its presence, that Neil’s shockingly beautiful reliefs implicitly proffer an allusion not only to the physical world he so economically depicts, but to, to borrow a phrase from Proust, “the slow accretion of many, many days”. [4]

Whilst the works of both Elizabeth and Neil Talbot point in an uncompromising fashion to objects and situations external to the works they make, those of Richard Talbot entertain what is arguably a more conceptual “take” upon the conventions and currencies of western art. Both Elizabeth and Neil bring to their work a recognition of the fabricated nature of the artwork, the former through her utilisation of the photograph, its role as “mediatory” device, the latter via his method of concluding each piece he makes at precisely that point wherein its status as both a recognisable depiction and the physical form of the material worked is preserved. Richard’s practice, drawing on the history of perspectival representation, also involves an investigation of what it might mean today, in a world packed with cameras and digital recording machines, to be a visual artist.

Not content, unlike many contemporary artists, to adopt a way of working and then simply apply it to a series of pre-selected referential subjects, Richard’s practice sees him constructing large scale drawings that take the translation or coding methodology of perspective as a point of departure for a series of works that emerge from the studied application of (but also by extensively reformulating) this celebrated technique. Rather than set up a grid or network of points around or through which a predetermined image is “correctly” constructed, what emerges in the drawing is largely subservient to the geometrical implications of the constraints Richard has opted to employ whilst simultaneously rejecting them. It is the result of a highly intuitive way of working, a modus operandi connected with the artist’s own scholarly investigations into the history of perspective’s invention and its usage within the practices of important Renaissance artists such as Masaccio, Uccello and Piero della Francesca. Such researches have borne out Richard’s belief that much of the work of these and other artists who are conventionally regarded as employing perspective in a formulaic fashion did not in fact do this. In tracking the construction of the objects they depicted, it became apparent that a too-rigorous application of perspectival mapping is counter-productive. Richard’s drawings, some of which have led him to produce related sulptures, come about through a combination of the application of rules, together with their abandonment as and when this appears appropriate. A rendition of a boat-like form will therefore have been developed, its exact configurations and internal consistencies wholly formulated, within practice, that is, as a result of setting up a series of parameters, a kind of mesh of reference points upon the paper or board, but without entirely honouring their restraining import.

Such a way of going about making a drawing is an important reminder of what is meant by “practice” when the word is used to point to an approach within the arts. It is not a matter of following in a fastidious, unquestioning way an already-formulated conceit. As Lyotard has noted, for the artist, “the work he produces [is] not in principle governed by preestablished rules and [it] cannot be judged according to a determining judgement, by applying familiar categories to the…work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for.” [5]

This approach requires marked-out constellations or frameworks to determine the course of the work, set it up, get it going, but a slavish attention to an overarching system has been rejected outright. Richard’s practice, as he has himself observed, is “the result of varying amounts of intention, pragmatism, accident and intuition.” Furthermore, as he also recognises, “a strict geometric drawing system such as perspective allows me to have an almost purely intuitive response to ideas and images.”

A continuing interest in scientific discourse alongside that of his practice as a draughtsman and sculptor is, then, not surprising. Richard’s initial training was in the field of science, but his current approach to visual art draws on the ostensible rigour of science in part to test its limits but also to show – and perhaps this is one of the most important things about his work – that no single method of working (either within science or the arts) is consistently productive.

* * * * *

The present remarks are in the end merely introductory, a way of beginning to consider the three very particular practices of Elizabeth, Neil and Richard Talbot. The point is surely to look at the work itself, engage with it, and in the immediate context think about each artist’s field of concern in relation to those with which it is currently consigned.

Peter Suchin

Notes

  1. On family likeness See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Basil Blackwell, 1981.
  2. Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin, 1982, p. 174.
  3. Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, Fontana, 1977, p. 159.
  4. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (Vol. 3), Penguin, 1983,
    p. 1107.
  5. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, Manchester University Press, 1984, p. 81.

Peter Suchin is an artist and critic. He has contributed to many British and international publications, notably Art Monthly, Art Press, Frieze, Untitled, Variant, and Mute. In summer 2006 he participated in Merz= at Bregenz Kustverein, Austria, and his solo exhibition The Grey Planets, will be at Gold Factory, Nottingham, in September 2006.

This catalogue essay was written for The Poetics of Space exhibition held in 2006 at Red Box Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne

Strands of Perception

Paintings by Helen Donley and Elizabeth Talbot

"What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?"

Hamlet Act II Scene II

The search for nurture in the art of the past is frequently a source of anxiety for today's painter. The reductive reasoning of successive waves of the avant-garde has construed sympathy as sickly dependence, a failure to acknowledge the need for a year zero in which the art of the museums is swept away by an exemplary art of the present moment. To have regard for what painters before us have done is by this reasoning to indulge in a form of self examination which disables our capacity for acting in the here and now - to be of our time. At its most extreme, for theorists who see no meaningful distinction between the activities of the artist as an artist and the living of her life in other ways history as a tool of individual retrospection is a paralysing encumbrance. As if this were not trouble enough historians of art have come increasingly to promote a view of art as a system of signposts pointing to problematic social or political realities. The banishment of aesthetics from such a scheme leaves no significant place for the connections worked out through practice of one painter with another. Painting is reduced to a set of illustrations to histories unconnected to its own.

The painters in this exhibition are deeply aware of the conflicts involved in the interrogation of their artistic genealogy. They are, however sustained by the knowledge that paintings from the past live in the present. They are alert to, but not in awe of those censoring voices which seek to exclude the possibility that expressive sympathies can be awakened in the work of past centuries. The physical survival of that work guarantees that the art of the past must also be the art of today. These artists hold unique and complex conversations with the past made present.

In the work of Helen Donley responses to qualities of surface and nuances of gesture and pose are an intimate link to the tradition of painting passed from Titian to Velasquez, from Watteau to Goya and Manet. These exchanges are not part of a scholarly text but of a traffic in things felt and seen. Nor does this become a game of Chinese whispers for the act of translation leads not to a sum of losses but to a gain in new and unanticipated meanings.

Elizabeth Talbot too deals with interwoven strands of perception. This is not a matter of referring to sustaining sources for their own sake. Rather she is reflecting on the sometimes startling consequences of the weaving and reweaving of certain traditions of landscape image making. Her practice exploits the sometimes banal inheritance of "artistic" landscape photography alongside the undiluted original vision of Corot or Friedrich. In consequence no two of these tensely structured paintings is alike every reference having been sifted and sieved for its essential emotional resonance.

These artists have held so many conversations with so many. Not with ghosts but with immortals.

Gavin Robson, 2006

Gavin Robson is Head of Fine Art at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He wrote this catalogue essay for the Surface Tension exhibition held at the Myles Meehan Gallery in Darlington 2006.