I have been a painter since 1980, who has mostly been concerned with what might be described as post-abstraction. But to begin at the end, so to speak, over the past four or five years I have become increasingly interested in photography and inevitably, I suppose, in how I could braid the two disciplines together.
I came to understand abstraction as a concrete visual fact. And the experience of it as concrete experience, rather than a report of or reference to an extraneous event. But despite that, the more slippery, intangible aspects of abstraction became fundamentally important to my work. For example it takes a lot of effort or painterly skill to make a picture look flat, for it to have no space: it’s as if we are hard wired to read imagery in paintings and for that reason abstraction is no less pictorial than figuration.
In the 90s I began a series of paintings that deliberately exploited this disjunct; the disjunct between the way and how you see things. This has been a constant in much of the work I have made since. Those paintings were highly chromatic - they twitched and floated despite the physicality and weight of their waxy paint and their boxy supports and despite the rigidity of their geometry - (see here)
I realise the camera, of course, is in essence it is a tool for narrative and reporting. In that vein the early “painterly” photographs I made a few years ago were of birds shot in flight at slow shutter speeds, leading or panning with the birds, so they blurred but adding a little flash to fix a few details, perhaps an eye or a feather - (see here)
They were made light heartedly, whimsically. But what interested me about them was the way the blurred birds seemed “realer” or more bird-like than they looked when they were shot more conventionally. Which when every feather is in focus, can have a tendency to look like taxidermy. In other words, these pictures are primarily about their subject’s dynamics.
Conscious of that, shortly afterwards I began a series of still lives, titled “Forgotten”. As we all know, still lives and particularly Dutch still lives, had a significant role in the evolution of abstraction. So, I set up a still life like the displays some Amsterdammers place in their street-side windows. Like the birds the flowers are blurred, but this time because the camera moves instead of the birds. - (see here) So these images, like the birds are gestural, but here the gestures become a form of drawing. At the same time, how you see the image becomes important. In some ways the way you see these images functions like memory, with its elisions, imperfections and improvisations.
In the same way the “The New Still Lives” series, which is also ongoing the current Môr series is shot through a neutral latex screen which has been arranged in my studio. This has the effect of blurring the brightly coloured objects that are created by suspending pieces of different coloured paper in against a backdrop of aquatic green and are the focal point of each picture. They are lit, as you would light a product shot, and there is a fall-off in the light so there is a sense of depth and spatiality as though these brightly coloured objects are suspended midwater.
But beyond the repetition there are subtle changes of temperature and exposure, the coloured object reflects light, so they seem to glow. The images, at first, seem simple, but echoing my earlier paintings, the longer they are seen the more complex they become. There is a meditative quality to the images and a core purpose of these pieces is that the experience should be mesmeric, as is looking at the sea.
My photography comes very close to painting but it is important to remember they remain photographs and as I suggested earlier, I think the camera’s central function is to record. But there is an oddity here, in that the subject matter - the paper colours are abstract but when recorded by a camera become references to an outside event, and one that has happened in the past. Even if that event is itself abstract. The way the light changes is important – it could only be photographed, and if it was painted then it would become something else.
The plan is to produce a large number of prints hung together to fill an exhibition space so that they become completely immersive, so that the marks and dots and lines catch the eye dancing like rays of light. I hope – this is my aim, that they will appear to be an indecipherable code, incomprehensible at first, but becoming clearer and clearer through its lyricism and through the looking, until it would seem everything is in its place and could be no other way.
They echo the earlier Ocean paintings, described here by Mel Gooding, an influential British art critic, in the catalogue notes for my 1997 solo show “Oceans and Other Paintings”
In this Gooding lit on a central paradox in my work, that whilst I see abstraction as actual visual fact and therefore the experience of it is actual direct experience, nevertheless my work is about something, and has subject matter. Even though it isn’t representational as is figuration, nor report other experience as does photography. Rather, the Ocean paintings, for example, offer a parallel experience to their subject. Gooding expresses it best when he says:
“As a painter he has devised his own rules in order to make works that will keep the promises of nature, that will bring into concrete form the phenomenal elements that wait to be organised into artistic realisation … as (he) points out, the powerful optical effect is not illusionistic, or trompe l’oeil, it is, in fact, a consequence of a visual fact. It is not unlike that dazzle occasioned by sunlight shimmer on disturbed water, or that impossibility of maintaining focus on any one of a succession if incoming coastal waves: the eye is actually tricked by the conflicting demands on the retina of successive waves, of light or colour or moving matter, into switching between one and the other, and is never allowed to find more than a momentary fixed focus.… Gammon’s Ocean paintings ‘sing’, as Stevens’ poem has it, ‘beyond the genius of the sea”
In the early 2000s I moved to Biarritz in SW France, triggering a change – originally my work employed the rectilinear structural described above, which underpinned the vibrancy of the colour – the problem, pictorially of course is that if you break that geometric convention in abstraction then people often begin to read depiction in the image.
But there isn’t a fundamental reason for that. Think of textiles such as damask napery – we don’t see imagery depicting roses, we see table clothes. In the later Green Room paintings I tried to use this, in other words to reverse the rectangle = abstract norm by taking blatantly figurative imagery – the flowers and to make them read as abstractions. One reason this works is the scale of the work – the paintings can be five meters wide, combined with the cropping of the images means that the viewer will read the flowers abstractly. As the art historian Jean François Larralde put it in his catalogue essay for “Flowers from a Green Room” exhibition at the Musée de Guethary,
“His paintings give an extraordinary feeling of innocence, spontaneity and freedom which only belongs to him. Colour is the essential element of his pictorial language and an important aspect of this is in its expansiveness……. the pictorial spaces of his canvases have the expanse of serene imagination. He tightens his drawing, purifies his colour; in an indefinite meditation, as if dreaming.”
Additionally, the overlaying forms perform dual functions, in that first they make the viewer exclude one image in order to read another, and secondly their translucence allows a triple tonal colour contrast. For example, if one form, say composed of orange and green, is overlaid by a translucent blue and white form, then you get a dark orange/ green colour contrast – the one overlaid with blue, the original orange/green colour contrast and finally a light orange/green colour contrast from the white. Consequently, it becomes difficult to see the whole thing all at once at the same time. In this the large Green Room paintings titled “Coming Up” follow the earlier “Ocean” paintings in that even though compositionally they are completely different, the have much in common. The Ocean paintings comprised of thousands of rectangles of twenty tones of blue range in ten steps from eau de nil to indigo, adjacent to a similar scale in reverse, a half tone apart. Similarly as with the Green Room series where you can’t see all the shapes at the same time, it is impossible to see all the blues at the same time – you either see the light and the dark tones to the exclusion of the mid tones, or vice versa. This has a forceful optical effect, although it is important to remember, as Gooding explained in the earlier quotation, this is not an optical illusion. Rather it is a consequence of the way we see things. And the way we see things, not least the way we see the sea is something I am revisiting again in this new series, Môr.