In my essay for this module, I wrote about finding a route to representing ways in which we could transition, as artists, away from apocalyptic representations of the Anthropocene to a more positive view of human-scale changes we can make in our own best survival interests. I suggested that optimistic representations based in reality might engage people whose view of the possible is crushed by feelings of powerlessness.
I ran a search on ‘positive anthroposcenery’ with no expectation of finding anything. Instead I found several collaborative organisations already looking at ways in which, not to put too fine a point on it, we can save ourselves.
What I didn’t find were examples of art that take a positive view; in common with the zeitgeist, it seems stuck in the apocalypse.
After searching then for photographs I might base new work on and finding nothing helpful, I reminded myself that my own focus here is individual, small scale, local effort. I have a wildflower patch at the bottom of the garden, a bug hotel under the holly which also has a bat box, hedgehog huts under the window, and a view from that window onto what I describe not as a garden but managed habitat. My new studio attracts insects when the doors are open – bees, hoverflies, butterflies, ladybirds, tiny unidentifiable buzzing things, and big lumbering crane flies – insects that were obviously given magic wings overnight and have no idea how to use them.
As an adjunct to this very close quarters positivity, I spent much of the Spring watching Osprey nests via live streaming nest cams in Scotland and Wales. The nests are observed and protected variously by The Woodland Trust, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, and Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust’s Dyfi Osprey Project. They operate a minimal intervention policy, accessing the birds only to ring the chicks at the appropriate time. There are some 200-250 breeding pairs in the UK, returning to the same nests from Africa each year. Osprey were hunted to extinction here in the early 1900s but populations have been increasing since the 1950s due to projects such as those above. One of last year’s didn’t return. Her mate waited weeks but eventually paired with another female on a different nest. He keeps returning to the old one.
3rd August. Let’s call this a practice run, a repetition of a previous painting which didn’t work too well on duck cotton. My tutor suggested trying it on a different surface and so this is A1 card, one of my new favourites.
This time it’s black and I prepared it with a layer of gloss medium then added strips of film from my old palette. This too is a bit of a favourite move, partly because, for obvious reasons, it carries the remnants of medium in my favourite colours, but also because whatever shapes and patterns there are on it are unintentional and so they elicit new ideas about what’s emerging. I realise though, that I’ve positioned the strips in predictable horizontals so I will make a note to myself to be more ambitious next time.
The reference, as before, is a photo I took of a recreation ground near the sea at Shoreham. I’ve walked my dogs there and on that occasion, the wild flowers were out in abundance.
This is the rather stark first pass, and I really didn’t find it particularly promising. There are strips there of the film I use to cover to paint to delay its drying, and rips from the freezer paper on which the paint is mixed. It looked a bit contrived.
This is a layer of dilute burnt sienna, applied with a pebble to slice it across the surface. It dampened the bright white of the paper a little but not enough for my liking.
A lot had happened at this point. Using oil crayons, I had raked colour across the textures made by the paint on the palette surfaces, and by the brush strokes in the gloss. This began to suggest a landscape and stylised flowers hinted at by the emergence of shapes in relief. There appears to be an unlikely borealis at the top left too!
This stage shows the addition of a scraped layer of dilute Payne’s grey (I like the hint of blue in this paint) across the whole of the surface, pushing and pulling at its density according to what I wanted to reveal underneath. then there is a further painted layer (acrylics again) mixed with gloss medium to render them slippery and oily. I have drifted elements across the different strata formed by the various surfaces; connecting them but not interfering too much with their own identities.
This is a very different image from the canvas-based one although the colours are similar. Canvas absorbs medium no matter what you (well, what I) prime it with so it works very differently from even plain card. This card though, is deliberately gloss surfaced to enable brush-swivelling, slicing, pushing and scraping of medium across it.
It dawned on me recently that this kind of palette and spread of marks probably has its roots in Millais’ 1851/52 painting of Ophelia. I remember sitting in front of that for quite some while on a visit to the Tate many years ago, absorbed by the message – a woman floating just on top, or maybe just beneath, the surface of a stream surrounded by lush vegetation and wearing a dress that seems to be made of jewelled brocade which does not lend itself to floating. I thought it must be a shallow woodland stream. I had no idea she was a character from Hamlet; whatever we read for English Lit ‘O’ Levels it wasn’t that. Or maybe it was, I have no memory of any of it even though I passed! Perhaps if it had been taught alongside this piece of art, I would have taken notice. A glamourised fantasy based on a fiction.
I am quite riotous as a painter, I think, no matter what the surface!
So is this positive anthroposcenery? I believe so, even though I had never even conceived of the idea when I took the photograph. This is the anthropocene – humans – being positive by just leaving things alone to get on with being wild. Perhaps it merits a place in the parallel project series, although I may ‘edit’ it further down the line.
Finished work. For now anyway!