Rift #5 – Red Wall

In writing the essay for this module, I realised there’s another rift to address – the one concerning the perceived value of traditional art found in galleries which is almost always physical and contained within a frame, compared with the burgeoning digital field. My work is explicitly hybrid but, after a discussion with my peer group in a recent crit meeting, it became clear that, while the physical work is designed to stand on its own feet, the film version is the final product. So what, here, is the art? Is it the physical painting upon which everything else is predicated? Is it the video that uses the painting, possibly in some edited form via, for example, Rebelle5, Paintshop Pro, PhotoMirage, one of the apps in the Lightricks stable, and a soundscape? Or is it the whole process? At the crit meeting, we talked about how my most recent work – no/rmal – would be displayed in physical form and I could find no satisfactory answer because the impact of the image depended on being photographed in near darkness with a string of tiny LEDs. Did I also use a filter? Possibly.

Today (23rd May) I realised that it could become a kind of installation. At a show a couple of years ago, we were invited to view one piece through small gaps in a hollow container; the restriction reflecting the nature of the material which, I believe, was related to secrecy. The conditions for this piece could be replicated by placing it in its own dark room – a cupboard that viewers walk into via a set of doors, maybe resonating with the locked doors of the institutions; a hollowed out structure behind black velvet curtains. Not just a painting/print/video but an experiential installation.

Returning to this piece of work, I began by using a traditional support – a massive canvas that has been sitting, with four others, in a box being ignored for over a year. 30″x40″ and I don’t know why I bought them.

Still, there it is and here we go. My aim was to make an absolutely classical (contemporary) painting and chose a landscape that will be in my memory for as long as I have one – Pen y Ghent. As Sunday school kids of about 12 or 13, we were taken for a ‘walk’ up there by our teachers who, if I am being kind, must never have done it before and thought it might be nice. The boys had boys’ shoes; we had hockey boots with plastic bags tied over them.

Whatever it is like now, the trail then in the 1960s was raw. I recall mud, bog, nettles, brambles, and dry stone walls. We skidded, grappled, slid, crawled, and hauled ourselves up the steep sided lower hills, clambered up near-vertical scree on nothing anyone could describe as a path, and finally, after what felt like half a day, arrived at the summit, muddy, exhausted, and triumphant; alone on top of the world. That was until a fox shot across the space in front of us, followed by an entire hunt. I hope it gave them the slip.

Pen y Ghent (2,277′ 694m) is one of the three Yorkshire Dales peaks climbers like to ‘do’. They probably end up in the pub afterwards; we ended up back in the bus with muddy sandwiches.

First layers.

This is a primed canvas with an additional layer of transparent acrylic primer. It has a nice feel to it and I like the way the paint behaves although I could do with some tips regarding the intrusion of vertical and diagonal struts!

After realising that my rough paint sketch was so rough it had some of the key features wrong, I’ve been editing with soft pastels and paint to correct them.

This still isn’t right – and it has to be because too many people know it, so getting a close approximate of the familiar profile is important.

This is a complex piece of rock with all kinds of drifts and ridges, overhangs and underhangs. Soft pastel helps to find some of those shapes but as a medium, it is flat so painting over it is, to my eye, obligatory. I may resort to a white-out if I find I am trying to fix the unfixable. There is texture to work with and I’ve found many times this solution ends up as a better image.

The other approach would be to use a sketch book to rehearse the shapes but for me, these are too small to really see what I’m doing and starting at scale is my best option. There are obviously larger sketch books but the problem this time is their unwieldiness so that they end up on an easel of some sort where I don’t have to hold them in place while I draw. It works sometimes, trying out colours for instance, but rarely for composition and in situ painting. So it makes sense to cut out the middle man.

Ready to go again.

25th May and this is not going well. But I’ve been here before and quite often lifted something unexpected out of the mire.

This was the first unexpected item in the painted area – a boat! And while it’s possibly the best and most minimalist boat I have ever painted, it’s halfway up a mountain and has no business there unless we are about to go full Dali.

I blocked in the huge area of the final climb – large areas of stratified limestone and sandstone rock with the looming presence of the Death Star.

Then the glitch idea returned. Previously, I have done this digitally but this time, using paint scraped from my palette and applied with a pebble, I am having a go at making it in physical terms.

This is somewhat random so, when it has dried, I will focus on picking up colours along the horizontals to feed into the verticals.

8th June. Looking at the other pieces that are strong submission candidates, I can see I need to change the palette and be a bit more canny about the subject matter. Handily, the possible removal of a few blue bricks in the previously Red Wall is in the news due to by-elections, one of which is not a million miles from Pen y ghent in Wakefield. The rift now is one of expectations versus what seems to be a dawning reality.

This now is the outline and structure of Pen y ghent in the shape of bricks with collaged maps of the area cut, torn, and glued into place. Here, they’re soaking up the water I just applied with a view to increasing the transparency of the parchment paper they’re printed on. It all looks rather pink and blue at present due to the colour of the maps and leakage of the printer ink, but that is easily remedied by soft pastels in dark orange and other grubby colours. The aim will be to bring out the shape of the bricks, pull out the underlying colours, and add in some collaged political commentary. The bricks help emphasise the geology of the landscape – stratified and sharp – and the collage reflects those angles. The maps offer tantalising opportunities for pen work. I have no idea what the foreground is doing, but I like it – there’s something bright and vibrant about it that reflects the astonishing range of colours up there, and there are glitches which resonate with the turbulence that made it what it is.

Suddenly, this has become a lot more interesting following an application of soft pastel sprayed and sometimes brushed with water. This image shows further soft pastel marks in red and I’m beginning to see a cliff face at the top, evidence of industrial activity along the flat peak of the mountain, and TV screens with shows playing in the bricks. The colour choice is about reclaiming the red from the blue in these northern towns and cities while reflecting the palette of the earlier works. I may want to put people, politicians probably, into these ‘shows’.

And I think I have an idea about the foreground. There is a trail of Payne’s grey running vertically beneath the ‘TV’ bottom right which puts me in mind of some drip trails I used in a previous (digital) piece that eventually became a physical work with cameras on poles looking back at the viewer. The foreground is a high bog meadow, as it is in real life, into which the poles for these TVs are inserted, as they very much are not in real life!

In the dark photo. No enhancements beyond the camera’s own low light auto adjustments.

9th June. I have lubricated the soft pastel as before but this time with gloss varnish so that it will drip and granulate but not dry to a matte finish which looks dead to my eye.

This canvas is 30″x40″ (76.2×101.6 cm) which is unfamiliar to me both in scale and aspect ratio, and this, I realise, is throwing my composition a little.

These are collaged images of MPs, parliament, and headlines, randomly selected from a Google image search and with no political filter applied. This was deliberate and I have cut out, cut up, and applied images or parts of images with no reference to party allegiances or constituency. Some of them are standing in for flags, as bunting has been very much on people’s minds of late. This piece is teetering on the edge of completion in that, once this is dry, I can begin to pull out detail with a pen and/or brush, change the colour or saturation, and emphasise or push back elements. This sounds like a lot, but in my experience it can happen quite quickly from the suggestions the dried painting makes. I want the bricks/TVs to stand out, the flags, and the hill itself. According to YorkshireDales.org.uk, the name may mean Hill on the Border, Hill of the Border country (Celtic) or Hill of the Winds (Welsh) and there must be some mileage in that.

In this step, I’ve highlighted parts of people’s faces in white soft pastel, stuck the stems of some miniature union flags onto the tops of the triangular ‘bunting’, made lines inside these and other areas with acrylic pen, and added a union flag sun and a cut-down flag top right and bottom left. These are partly reflective of recent jubilee celebrations but also symbolise the ‘sunlit uplands’ so many in these northern constituencies felt they had been promised with Brexit. Disillusionment is growing as many benefits seem not to have been delivered, hence the Red Wall issue whereby the Conservatives are at risk of losing seats they gained in this historically Labour part of the country.

The bunting is not quite red white and blue but does have some incongruent pink marks in it. I suspect my unconscious was tapping the cognitive dissonance that must be rife among those feeling let down but also defensive of their decision. Waiting to be applied, are three paper plates I had painted (daubed, actually) in dark red, dark blue, and slightly grimy white as jubilee decorations. Sealed with varnish, they withstood three rain storms and now, trimmed a little and with Irish colours drying on the inside of two of them, they’re due to be unlikely blossoms in the foreground of this bizarre landscape.

Well look how these turned out with orange (and green) ink poured into them!

I had sealed these roughly before hanging them from my tree in the front garden so there was some resistance to absorption of the ink. I had also sprayed the soft pastel with matte varnish. Nevertheless, the ink ‘took’, the pastels stayed put, and the result is really rather good. I like the last one particularly; it has a stained glass/ancient jewellery look about it.

This is the third arrangement of the flowers; one having taken the role of the sun, and another becoming a creeper. I have no rationale for either but having moveable pieces adds further interpretive possibilities which lends itself to interaction with viewers. This is a bit fragile for that kind of activity so I’m putting the idea aside for a future piece of work.

There is such a variety of mark-making techniques here, all of them driven by the evolution of the painting and the scale of it. I had forgotten that, at large scale, there are small corners that can be detailed, textured with marks, made to look like dirty glass using pens or a stylus. Postcards on a wall.

Photo taken with no light other than the string of LEDs.

Photo taken with ambient LEDs in the room,

Red Wall
Cropped in Paintshop Pro.

Red Wall. Cropped in Paintshop Pro.

There are some visual qualities in the first cropped version (in situ LED light only) that I like for the extra reflections on the flowers/rosettes and the light cast on the foreground area. But it feels too similar to the Blue Passports piece while the second crop has an element of understatement to it. I have to add though, that this is an almighty pain to photograph and I’ve brought quite a lot of that on myself by using a gloss varnish. I may go back and give it a matte coat just to get some decent images for the raw painting while keeping these for the animation/video elements. I have been catching up on Stranger Things after ditching it in the middle of season one for its weak, doe-eyed female characters. I’m hoping reviews of subsequent seasons live up to their ratings and have stopped delivering manic pixie dream girls* as padding, but meanwhile my head is somewhat in the ‘upside down’ and I think it shows!

This video was a bit of a challenge to complete as it’s probably the most complex I’ve built so far with multiple tracks and small, precise placements of elements such as the video clips into the various ‘TV’ screens. Wondershare is discontinuing Filmora Pro, with which I’d persevered as a graduation from the more basic Filmora 9/10/11; instead, it will be focusing on the non-pro platform. So I began with Filmora 11 but had to shift back to Pro to get what I needed from the making. F11 is a little gaudy but I expect I’ll get used to it.

11th June. Clearly, this is a long way the classical/digital rift I had adopted as my brief at the outset. Do I still feel the need to do this? I’m not sure. For the purposes of the course, I may have enough visual material for the assessment process even though I have a lingering sense of dissatisfaction due to not having completed my own agenda. However, I’ve found inspiration often arises from distance generated by having to do something else, and that something else is probably the essay, so there’s the possibility that another visual idea may emerge as redirected activity while writing and mulling words.

Post script: my tutor asked, in the tutorial on Wednesday, whether the video was ‘the end’ or did these images/ideas move back to more physical painting processes. At the moment, I see them as the end point but I did in fact take an earlier digital process and remake it in physical terms, coincidentally referring to it earlier in this post: “There is a trail of Payne’s grey running vertically beneath the ‘TV’ bottom right which puts me in mind of some drip trails I used in a previous (digital) piece that eventually became a physical work with cameras on poles looking back at the viewer.” I suspect my view of the end point is the conversations that might be sparked, whether internally or among friends/viewers. This is what happened when people viewed the videos via the Artivive app at the art trail where we covered conservation, Chinese philosophy, rock music, jazz, and the state of mind of a cat waiting for its owner to come home, amongst other things. There were very few of these conversations with people who did not view the videos and so, arguably, the physical painting was itself the end point.

*Manic pixie dream girls – a term coined by Nathan Rabin who defined them as characters who “exist[s] solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” See Manic Pixie Dream Girl – Wikipedia.

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