early life and the influences
My father was a painter and a printmaker. Silk screens, squeegees, inks, a huge array of brushes, paints and tools lined the studio shelves and walls like a magical emporium, smelling of exotic turpentine, oils and shellac. I helped him lay out prints to dry, kneeling carefully to space them without overlapping any. I stared into the pristine crispness of the new wet print’s shiny surface, the scent of the ink rising from the paper. A perfume of natural turpentine, smelling like eucalyptus and the pinewoods of southern France, gently wafted through the house when work began. My father believed that to be a ‘real’ artist you had to grapple with traditional serious materials, only oil paints for example, and throw yourself into competition with the historical greats. Mixing the remaining paint colours on the palette to an Elephant's Breath Grey; tenderly washing then wiping the brushes; oiling his wood palette; these actions were just part of a methodical religious ritual at the end of each working day.
After leaving art school I settled for a while in a small, lonely cottage, with no electricity or neighbours, in the great park of a Wiltshire ‘country estate’. The stately home had gone and the family had let the park ‘go back to nature’ as it was also ‘too expensive to maintain’. The woodlands and lakes had quickly become a private reserve for rare fauna and flora. It was common to come across specialist moth-catchers in the dead of night out on the thin stretch of lonely tarmac that connected me with a pub and a small village, miles down the lane. Ancient oaks raised eight-hundred year-old branches to the sky, supported by old iron rings. A herd of deer wandered through the bluebell woods, occasionally stopping at dawn to feast on my vegetable plot. All this was my own personal ‘secret’ garden. I discovered that my home was on an established ‘ley-line’ between Glastonbury Tower and Avesbury stone circle. The connections between ley-lines and Feng Shui, and their individual mysteries captured my imagination. This was heightened by studies at art-school, into the mysticism of ancient tribal sculpture and study of the post-Jungian philosophers and psychologists. Land-artists such as Goldsworthy and Nash, whom I visited in North Wales on a week’s ‘apprenticeship’ as a young student, were strongly admired. Indian raga music and Gregorian chants drifted through our studio. Books of poetry by Heaney and Hughes lay among our sketch-books and tools. In a year living alone in this isolated cottage I became increasingly close to nature, with a heightened sensitivity to the rhythms in nature, to the changing weather, seasons, times of the day and my place in the landscape and on the earth. My connection with people grew distant, tenuous and surreal. Just as I could feel electricity coming in waves off the TV after months of no electricity at all; so I could feel the energetic force of each person I came into contact with, having lived so many days in isolation. I began to create a visual language which might begin to express these feelings and ideas: I introduced a grid of lines and the formal visual recognition of a moment of stillness and place. I traced the progress of a physical or a mental voyage. I symbolized the meeting with another person by the meeting of two lines of force, resulting in a cross-referenced point on the canvas's surface.
On arriving in Provence, France, and settling into a mediaeval village rich in history and rich in architectural decay, these grids became symbolic window panes, through which part of a bigger picture might be glimpsed. Despite finding myself in the middle of famously beautiful, wild and arid landscape, my daily reality as I worked, was of being in a dark interior looking towards a brightly coloured, sun-filled ‘outside’. The warm colours and clear blue skies of the Mediterranean contrasted sharply with the deep, dark shadows inside, where I was standing. This view was inevitably crossed and fragmented by the window frame. Looking out of my window onto other crumbling facades and other windows, onto the strata of life and lives all around me, I began gradually to transform this image into my metaphor for the distance and layers between individuals, and the way we look out of ourselves towards others. The layering of coloured washes, ink marks and scratched traces evolved into a visual language for the passage of time and for history; for the changing facades we all live behind and may gradually become.
Living in Asian cities did much to enhance this sense of human-being, and widened my knowledge of the modern human-being’s relationship to nature and natural rhythm. I am thinking of the vast shimmering skyscrapers of Tokyo and an isolated wisp of a tree growing in between them; of the perfectly pruned tea plantations of Sri Lanka and the wild jungle below; of the endless blind apartment blocks of a large, sprawling, ugly Asian city, dissected by over and underpasses, and the frangipani flowers in a brass bowl on the wall nearby; of the fleeting sight of Mount Fuji from a bullet-train window; of plucking a ripe mango from a tree in a concrete yard, sprinkled with fallen blossom and Coca-Cola bottle tops. Travelling and working in South East Asia I learned to love new aesthetic perspectives. Liberated from the constraints of a classical European education I felt greater freedom than ever before. Ironically the thread connecting me to Europe and my roots was binding itself more closely and more powerfully, as my sense of, and my understanding of, my personal identity and of my origins was growing. Meanwhile Asian colours, textures and rhythmic mark-makings infused my art. I began to focus on the nature of duality: of holding two opposing feelings of equal force and reason at the same time; of belonging and alienation; of individuality and the need for affirmation through others. ‘Connection and recognition’, ‘distance and proximity’, ‘penetration and dependence’: these themes now became recurrent ideas behind my visual vocabulary.
An early painting by David Hockney (We Two Boys Together Clinging, 1961,) seen when I was a very young child, is still one of the most influential artworks on my own work I can think of. I can conjure back the intense feeling this picture gave me even now. Despite having grown up in a house with a large studio in it, with family and friends who were artists, with artistic creation almost a daily banality of my young life, that picture sang out to my soul and stirred music in me, giving me a first glimpse of the exceptional nature of art. Hockney, along with Monet, Matisse, Bonnard, Klimt and many more, continue to provide me with moments of pure joy, vital alertness, and sensuous delight in colour and form. Other artists, however, influence and inform my own artwork. I am inspired and provoked by artist's using film and video for example. Mid-twentieth century American abstraction has had a powerful influence on my work, but pieces by Indian artist Amar Kanwar, by Douglas Gordon, or Bill Viola have directly affected and stimulated my most recent ideas.