Response to the poem The Whales by Harry Gallagher

10th September. Sometimes I forget just how draining involvement in unusual activity can be. I began this with the preamble to Steyning Arts trail in my mind and the preparation necessary for that, and tried to pick it up afterwards while bereft of energy or inspiration. Metaphors turned to concrete and sank, ideas withered in a blank imageless desert. I should have known because it always happens when unaccustomed demands take up my headspace and leave me like a mowed meadow with no variety of mental scenery. It takes a while to recover and today the flowers came back.

These are paint sketches in an A3 sketchbook where I’m exploring another response to a poem, The Whales by Harry Gallagher from his 2019 book Running Parallel.

The poem is, at root, about the inevitable flood should we do nothing about climate change, and the images in my mind came from two particular sources. The first, Maggi Hambling’s Wall of water exhibition in which her semi-abstract tumblings of colour tower above us as viewers, and the second my own experience of seeing the sea at Brighton for the first time. Coming from Yorkshire, the only seas I had come across moved relatively slowly across vast expanses of sand before creeping into the channels we had dug around our sand castles. They were low and a long way out. The one at Brighton though seemed to be on the doorstep of the promenade, somehow higher than the land even from the top of the hill near the hospital. It was an improbable sea that arrived at a gallop and threw itself at the shore in sparkling cascades of salt and sand.

The sketches mark out a V, one of them already flooded and with buildings collecting in heaps at the bottom, the other more shallow and with the landmass disappearing towards a vanishing point along with its buildings, mountains, and vegetation. Like extreme tectonic plate activity.

I’m not keen on the colours but I can feel the idea squirming somewhere just beneath consciousness, and how glad I am to have that back!

The Whales by Harry Gallagher. Reproduced with permission. Links to the publisher are below.

Newsprint featuring puzzles glued to transparent primed cartridge.

Yes, it looks like a T shirt and no, that’s not the intention! There is a long, steep line down the right hand edge, and there are folds that will lend themselves to some of the wild textures I’d like to bring to this. It will need to dry overnight.

11th September. The thing about pushing wet newsprint around in a puddle of glue is that it allows for the unexpected. Shapes appear and disappear; where there was a landscape, buildings emerge, and skies fall. This time it was the paper that fell and, in the process, reoriented itself. I’d oddly made a whale vertically, give or take the odd fin, so I worked it.

This has become rather obvious whale now but I’m intending to make it almost disappear with more collaged text, all of it drawn from the puzzle pages of a local newspaper and standing for the puzzle of climate change that we have so far failed to solve even though we know the answers.

To me, the eye of an animal is the feature that gives it life. A whale’s eye is huge but buried as a grey orb in grey flesh. I have made the shape with newsprint and, in the image below, used both paint and strips of paper to almost pixelate the whale out of its immediately recognisable shape. The eye is intended to be the focus after the streets and buildings along the bottom, structured in crossword paper and representing the flood the whales in the poem are waiting for in order to be rid of us, the despicable apes.

In this image, which may be the final one apart from a presentational clean-up, I’ve added some basic colours to the putatively drowned landscape. The shape of the whale is no longer obvious due to further painting which owes a debt to Hambling’s tumbling style, but I’m hoping the eye emerges as a feature that triggers cognitive construction of the rest of the animal so that the whole image makes sense. To me, the colours at the bottom draw the eye to them initially and, being so small, hopefully ask the viewer to question what the other 90% of the painting is about. I am vaguely toying with the idea of ‘leaving the lights on’ in some buildings – or I was till I wrote this! That way lies twee which is a very long way from where I want this to be.

This was not going to straighten out with masking tape or glue dots so I imported it to Paintshop Pro, close cropped it, then cloned out the corners.

With thanks to Harry G and his extraordinary poetry. Never obtuse or florid, always poking at the slithery interface of politics and social consequence with solid down to earthness; and he gives such a lot of it away on Facebook.

Animation in MotionLeap, audio and editing in Filmora10. Retitled Flood.

24th October and the more I look at this, it’s hanging on pegs from a clothes line of string behind me, the less happy I am with it so I’m taking another run.

The message is the same – the whales, intelligent long-lived, when we let them, creatures will benefit when we’re gone; flooded out of our whole-world niche through our own negligence and hubris.

Acrylics on A2 cartridge primed with white primer and gloss varnish.

Starting point: a whale in the sky above what will be drowning landscape. It looks like a space ship.

Here, I’ve added colours to the cut out, partly representing the land, foliage, and flowers of the drowned earth, and partly the blood taken by humans along with the lives of whales. Sweeps of wash beneath the strand representing buildings are intended to indicate stormy seas, although in fact the whole landscape is under water or how could there be whales above?

This will take some time to dry as, even though acrylics do get a move on, the paint transfer from the cut out is thick and I want to ensure the texture stays as it is. At some point though, I need eyes. To me, however abstracted or in some way removed from a photographic representation, a decent looking eye can give life to the artificiality of a living thing placed there in paint.

Also, I think that despite the presence of brush and pebble work, it is more illustrative than painterly. I’m hoping this will come as I work on it. In the past there’s been promising evidence that this sometimes happens. It’s all in the ‘editing’ which I’d never thought anyone did when they made art. Somehow it miraculously appeared on the canvas with no do-overs or chuck-outs. To find that has never been the case is massively encouraging.

Here, the cut-out is applied to the support under the two ‘prints’, the whole surface had been muted with a wash of Lamp black to reduce the blue. It also benefits from low light which again raises the question of what a painting’s ‘true’ likeness is.

25th October. I’m disappearing down a dystopian rabbit hole now. The whales of the poem are seen through a window and there is debris floating around on the inside.

Strips of printer paper glued into place, slightly off-centre. The unevenness will provide some resistance to subsequent layers of paint and because shabby is the aim, blotches are welcome.

And now for the grunge.

This window has been underwater for some time and collected all kinds of slime and lichen.

I needed some definition to make the window frame a statement rather than just a piece of the scenery. I did this using black conte crayon to make the various lines and borders, and also the handles. Drawing these in sometimes tore the paper or removed paint from it, adding to the grunge effect.

The last thing I wanted to add was the poem that prompted it and serendipity had left me a clear, unpainted edge on the left. Writing in the text there would provide balance to the fully painted right edge and might almost appear to be deliberate!

I’ve drawn a little on Klee’s c1925 naïve drawings of fish for the whales – oddly coloured and with angles in black conte for the tails, and on Banksy’s 2015 Dismaland for the grunge.

Background removed in Paintshop Pro.
Raw image. A2 cartridge.
Video in Filmora10, animation in MotionLeap for iOS, audio by Epidemic Sounds.

29th October. I’m re-titling this piece Despicable Apes after talking to Harry on Facebook and realising we both think of that line first.

Gallagher, H. 2019. The Whales. In Running Parallel [Eds Gallagher, H., and Morbid, P. A. The Black Light Engine Room Press.

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