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