Katie Baker —
Katie Baker —
If we momentarily entertain the idea of Petrarch standing on a mountain, as the first man to enjoy the view for its own sake, then we might picture ourselves on a mountain almost seven hundred years later, similarly interrupted in our reverie. For Petrarch, the interjection is St Augustine’s pious rebuke that he should concern himself with his soul rather than the secular. For us, perhaps it is the opposite. Seeking some sense of the eternal and transcendental in the landscape, our contemplation is complicated by a suspicion of ideologically compromised notions of beauty and landscape. Perhaps, then, the paintings in this show should come with some kind of reassurance: No mountains have been climbed in the making of this work. For if this tension troubles our relationship with the landscape, then these paintings play on that, refusing, despite appearances, any easy aesthetic gratification.
Briony Anderson’s work explores the Western visual tradition of landscape painting. Whilst painting forms the foundation of her practice, it has encompassed video, performance, collaborative projects and a multi-disciplinary approach to landscape. In previous (and ongoing) work, Anderson has taken the portraits of Henry Raeburn (1756–1823) and removed the sitters to rework the landscape backgrounds left behind. Detached from their identifying features, the landscapes are revealed as indistinct and uncertain spaces, the coherence of the image and the sense of place verging on the brink of collapse. Anderson’s new body of work continues this investigation of landscape with historical landscape paintings remaining the starting point and past strategies of removing the presence of figures being once more employed.
Reworking and reconstructing the image vacated by the figure results in a landscape of some almost entirely imagined place. The palette is lighter than in Anderson’s past work and the effect less overtly disturbing – less of a reworking of a ‘shadow’, as Raeburn referred to his landscape backgrounds. Whilst previous paintings formed part of a series, gaining more from being read next to each other, a kind of working out through repetition, these stand more firmly alone as paintings in their own right. Elements of landscapes are picked out and an idea of place emerges in the smaller works, more contained and distinct than in previous paintings. In some, it is a procession of figures that have been removed from the original painting. In another, it is a detail extracted from a larger work that has been privileged. These are places that might be real, that could be real, yet most resolutely are not. They are disconnected from their original source through a process of deletion and selection, removal and insertion.
The voiding of the figure continues to create an absence that disrupts our encounter with the landscape; its spectre haunts the work. It is an erasure that has echoed the repressions and disavowals of landscapes and landscape painting, the concealing of those that own the land and those who labour on it on their behalf. The ‘darker side of landscape’.1 But these works go beyond previous political and ideological critiques of landscape, offering up a more complicated and personal perspective. The paintings enact a process of deletion, but also addition, both in the paradoxical affirmation of that which has been negated and the artist’s own refiguring of landscape images.
Working at a distance from her native landscape, Anderson has drawn on her own memories and imagery, as well as the landscape writing of authors such as Nan Shepherd and Robert Macfarlane, who have spent time immersed in nature and embedded in their environment. There are interesting parallels between landscape writing and painting. The former creates pictures from the imaginations of its readers, supplying the words but not the image. Although the words may describe specific places, the visual landscape is always an imaginary one, supplied by the reader. In paintings, too, the viewer is implicated in creating the space, drawing on his or her own understanding and experience of landscape to recognize these paintings as being ‘of’ somewhere. Above all, though, these writings speak of a relationship with the land that is a deeply personal one, ‘for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own.’2 It is this personal and subjective relationship with the imagining and picturing of a landscape that is introduced into Anderson’s new body of work. It is not just a deletion of the figure, but a consideration of how that figure might relate to the landscape. The figures and defining features are lost, but, in the process of their making, the landscapes in these paintings are re-imagined and recreated from the words of writers and memories of places visited and lived in. These works emerge from some point of convergence between their historical referents and the landscapes of lived-in experience, memory and imagination, both the artist’s and others’.
The paintings are landscapes, yet they never fully commit to a landscape, only suggesting it and at times threatening to dissolve altogether, needing to be seen at a degree of distance in order to give the viewer any kind of cohesive image. The works give an idea of a place, and yet insist on the viewer recognising the paint as a material. They dance between depicting a place and the disappearance of that place, leaving only paint on canvas. Whilst the smaller paintings, voided of human figures and activity, have more stability as distinguishable images of a location, the larger works are more abstract still. They grow ever more distant from the historic landscapes they originated from and adrift from any sense of place, dissolving into a kind of nothingness.
Sylwia Chomentowska has made a distinction in her recent research on the difference between void and nothingness: void being a place of subtraction but also potential; nothingness a negation of representation.3 Both void and nothingness are at work in these paintings. There is the voiding of figures from landscapes that then become a site for the production and projection of the viewer’s imagination. Then there is the slipping into indistinctness and territories of pure paint that suggest a nothingness beyond representation. The larger and more abstract works, growing out of the more readily definable landscape paintings, appear to play with the modernist idea of abstract painting as the logical and natural progression of landscape. But the works never quite give way to total abstraction, nor to absolute nothingness. There is a refusal of representation, an apparent nothingness, but they stop just short of this through their relationship with the other works and their referent titles. Though they may verge on the inchoate, they suggest a new landscape, defined by absence but not without presence; it is a place that nevertheless remains at a remove. The viewer is alienated from a landscape he or she can barely discern.
This distance is a quality of all of Anderson’s work. The distance in the paintings from their original sources; the literal distance between the artist and the landscapes of her imagination; the distance demanded by the paintings on viewing, in order to retain their sense of place and resist abstraction. Landscapes typically involve a sense of distance, a depth of field that can place the artist as some all-seeing eye surveying the view in its totality. In this case, distance underlines the futility of attempting to represent that view and emphasizes the artifice of the landscape that is being depicted.
These works play off another idea associated with distance: a suggestion of far-away spaces of some wild and natural beauty. There is a melancholy loveliness to them, a seductive, romantic loneliness. Soft, hazy light; the tranquillity of an undisturbed pool; a shaft of light breaking through the clouds to illuminate a mountain range. The temptation is to submit to the escapist fantasy and aesthetic idealization they appear to offer, to yield to its lyricism. But, should the viewer succumb to the pleasure of the view, the titles interject: From a Set of Similar Scenes; From a Figural Procession; Stand-in for a Blue Pool. Eight of them begin with the word ‘from’, a caution that these are not paintings of a view, but works that come from something else, from many views. These are not paintings of something but from something. They are stand-ins, substitutes for something else. This landscape, we are reminded, is not real.
If landscape must represent itself as the antithesis of land, as a poetic property rather than a material one, then Anderson’s work confronts this poetic masquerade.4 It refuses to easily indulge this desire to be transported, but it acknowledges and invites it all the same. Just as the works themselves can move between the real and the abstract, they also alternate between a kind of loveliness, an alluring quality to these imagined places, and an investigation of the gaps that make this romanticism possible.
Charles Harrison notes that landscape achieves autonomy as an artistic genre in England only when it can be viewed as something other than property and thought of as a ‘paradigmatic site of individual experience’.5 Our relationship with the land today is ever more remote and mediated. Landscapes are sites to be visited, occasionally and self-consciously, often to regard a ‘view’ that has been already framed, the local ‘beauty spot’. Then we can climb back down the mountain and purchase it as a postcard. We are doubly alienated, both estranged in our everyday life from the land and in our responses to it that feel rehearsed and clichéd. We come to the landscape with an idea of how we are expected to feel: amazed and awed, humbled and elevated. Our response to the landscape might then be rightly judged to be suspect, but where does that leave us and our subjective experience of it?
For landscape to be poetic, an act of repression must happen – reason enough to resist it. But what alternatives might there be beyond an encounter with the landscape that is entirely reducible to social and political inscriptions? Anderson’s work operates in the spaces between the two, between the poetry and what that poetry does not permit. These are not paintings of real places, though they remind us of places that could exist. But nor are they simply the cynical reworkings of the paintings of others, despite the uncompromising and unsentimental nature of their titles. They are equally created from the artist’s personal relationship with places known and unknown and, as such, open up in their fictitious and devolved sites new possibilities of landscape. James Elkins talks of the sweet and soporific effects of landscape theory and representation, the tendency in writing of it to fall into bemusement or sleep, such is its romantic power.6 This work demands of both itself and the viewer that they stay wide awake.
Emergent View, EB&Flow, London, 25 April – 22 June 2013
Text copyright, Katie Baker 2010.
1. John Barrell, The Dark Side of the Landscape (Cambridge University Press, 1980)
2. Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (Canongate, 2011)
3. Eikones Project Archive http://eikones.ch/projects/project-archive.html (April 2013)
4. W. J. T. Mitchell, ‘Imperial Landscape’ in Mitchell (ed.), Landscape and Power, second edition (University of Chicago Press, 2002)
5. Charles Harrison, ‘The Effects of Landscape’ in Mitchell (ed.), Landscape and Power, second edition (University of Chicago Press, 2002)
6. James Elkins, ‘On the Book Landscape Theory’ www.academia.edu/163424/On_the_ Book_Landscape_Theory_English_ (April 2013)