“Ocean #1” 1995 - 1997, oil and wax on canvas, 164 cm x 470 cm


Following the Drift: on the Paintings of Nick Gammon

By Mel Gooding
(catalogue essay for ‘Oceans and Other Paintings’, Stephen Lacey Gallery, London 1999)
"We have a duty towards music, namely, to invent it." (Stravinsky)

Stand upon the Atlantic shore; look west into the infinity of ocean: never for a moment still, never for a moment without variegation of light, no second of its radiance by day or its flecked darkness at night the same; what is before you is beyond description, beyond words. There are things that can be said, but they cannot convey the experience; a recital of facts can give only a clue to the immensity: ‘l live in the west of Ireland, the furthest west,’ writes Nick Gammon in a note on his work. ‘1500 miles further and you hit St John’s, Newfoundland, due south and the next landfall is Morocco, due north on longitude 10 degrees 30’ west and you’re off the end of the world. The sea surrounds me, it is ever present. I live on a kind of satellite, a splinter of rock in the Atlantic. ‘Living and working such a place, with such a sense of being at such a point on the surface of the earth, seven tenths sea, Gammon acknowledges freely the relation of his painting to the stupendous phenomenon of the ocean.The roaring alongside, unlike Elizabeth Bishop’s sandpiper, he does not take for granted, nor that every so often the ground is bound to shake. ‘In winter the ground shivers and groans when the swell grinds the reef in front of my house ... The sea is inescapable here.’
Rather he is like the singer in Wallace Stevens’ The Idea of Order at Key West, the artist whose orderings are audible and human, who is the maker of the song he sings: ‘The ever hooded, tragic-gestured sea / Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.’ For the music of Ocean no. 1 and of Ocean no. 2, is indeed an ordered music, its intervals, in hue and tone, and in its formal patterning, constant and repeated; it is an incantation of colour, as insistent in its rhythms and intonations as a piece by Philip Glass, perhaps, or by Arvo Pþrt, it is a song of celebration. That kind of formal order (and this applies to all Gammon’s work) can be traced partly to his interest in systems, in the generation of form and effect by constraints that determine the artistic outcome, though he cannot predict it. Unlike systems artists proper, however, Gammon is not concerned with the discovery of a mathematical, or geometric, truth, with the revelation of a beautiful and timeless idea in a visible form, of something behind the things we observe in the sensible world to be endlessly diverse and variegated. I might say, he is after quite the opposite, and paradoxically achieves it through the use of formal devices that are derived from systematic procedures. And in this he works, of course, like a composer. As Stravinsky observed, we may love the sounds (and sights) of nature: ‘they may suggest music to us, but they are not yet themselves music . . .They are promises of music; it takes a human being to keep them . . . tonal elements become music only by virtue of their being organised . . ‘

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