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Art Seen was delighted to organise Gary Colclough's first solo exhibition in Cyprus. The exhibition comprised of a body of new works consisting of painting, drawing and sculptures. The exhibition was supported using public funding by Arts Council England and British Council, UK. Jeremy Akerman, freelance curator and co-director of the organisation Akerman Daly, was commissioned to write a text on Colclough’s new works.
>To view the exhibition catalogue click HERE
Signposts and Terror
Colclough’s artworks are closely finished geometric assemblages. They have the beauty of crafted objects, appearing self-contained and complete. Scrutiny reveals an equally engaging counter direction of things incomplete. Sides of framing have been taken away, structures returned to component parts, images have been sliced up, colours mixed out. Contradictory forces are at play, a flux of real and illusion, is it sculpture or picture? The artworks are made of hi-tech materials but mix in old world imagery. They look like functional objects in the way a sign does, but they don’t instruct. Quickly one notices how they resist revealing narratives that perhaps they seemed to offer, instead they exude a knowing silence.
What is this work suggesting and what is their silence saying? I’ll answer my own question to propose that signposts are a good metaphor for thinking about Colclough’s artwork and that the silence is the sound of thinking.
In a series of lectures dedicated to thinking about thinking entitled ‘What is called Thinking, the philosopher Martin Heidegger provokingly states: most thought provoking in our thought provoking time is that we are still not thinking. Heidegger wishes us to make an active leap into thinking, to consider thinking as a handicraft to be practiced, he likens it to a woodworker turning a piece of wood on a lathe. Thinking for Heidegger means the concrete seeing and saying of the way the world is, attentive to things as they are. He’s scathing about interests, which for him only relegates the interesting things to the ranks of indifference and soon to what is boring.
This way of thinking as doing, as lifestyle, chimes with Colclough’s works. Along the Path (2016), shows a conventional image depicted in china blue monochrome cut across the diagonal by a metre of polished wood. What might have once been the frame is now a visual pun about linear time and distance. Sliced away on the other side of this dividing line are two blank triangles of green, colours that suggest something about foliage or hills. We are presented with an assembly of items that is both a landscape painting and a kit for thinking about landscapes. We’re being shown a seductive metaphorical space and a reminder of material fact. Colclough shows a dialogue that gets us thinking about being.
Heidegger’s book likewise introduces a dialogue for thinking drawing upon some gnomic lines of poetry by the romantic lyric poet Hölderlin.
We are a sign that is not read,
We feel no pain, we almost have
Lost our tongues in foreign lands.
What’s fascinating is the poet’s image of humans as signs, (the fragment are some preparatory lines for the poem, ‘Memory’). Heidegger puts forward that human beings are pointers (signposts) moving towards what attracts them, as they point towards what is as yet unknown by language. They point towards the things that pull them in the gravity of their wake, irresistibly drawing them on. The feminine muse ‘Dame Memory’ is important to Heidegger because, it safely keeps within it everything that essentially is and all that appeals to us, it reveals and conceals, it is the source of thought.1 What is concerning is when we stop engaging with thought, feeling no pain isn’t a good thing, it means we are numb; as thinking beings, the loss of thought is the loss of our humanity.
What’s Colclough pointing towards and what is he concealing in what he presents? Without wishing to sound glib, he seems to be pointing towards the enormity of existence and simultaneously concealing a fear of unknown horrors dwelling close to the surface.
Using sculptural assemblages is a strategic move by Colclough to make sense of our human condition, through it he can collage contrary thoughts together and remake a working model of the world. It also means he can contain the beguiling illusory power of the image, because the image is housed by his sculptural structures. This dynamic is something that Colclough shares with other artists, such as Phyllida Barlow, who paints the surfaces of her sculpture. Barlow’s structures come alive from the primal mark-making colours painted onto them, reaping the energy of abstract expressionism without appearing anachronistic. The artworks that Colclough builds also get a shot of colour and energy from ‘the painting bit’ but thanks to hi-tech surrounds remain contemporary in feel, despite the image itself being traditional or old fashioned in style.
The images are fragments cut from a whole. Clearly they are painted from photos, these origins link them to real places and historical memory. Colclough painted panels are a crystalline vision, a fragment spied through a magical portal often doused in honeyed light, painted in monochromatic hues. All is in sharp detail down to each blade of grass but none-the-less these are highly enigmatic depictions. What is that view? Where is that path, that group of trees? Is this evidence or suggestion?
Colclough’s painstaking painting technique frees the images from the factual ties of photographic reportage turning them into archetypes of place. The analogy now is to panels of illustrated stained glass held by heavy lead margins, fitting the shapes made for them and working in relation to their context. Colclough’s painted panels appear to absorb and emit light just like a painted window. There is a common exchange between the image and its supporting structure and one suspects these images have created niche constructions for themselves; like immigrant animals each inducing specific environmental conditions and bringing simulacra of habitat with them.2
Popular in Colclough’s image bank is a view that takes the eye along a track into scrubby undergrowth amongst a copse of trees. Sometimes little more than a patch of ground is shown. These out skirting hinterlands are the settings so beloved of crime dramas, the places where shadowy goings-on are stumbled across by dog walkers and joggers. Many artists are drawn to this kind of non-event landscape, most famous currently is George Shaw. Colclough shares Shaw’s forensic style of recording detail and he also shares an understanding of the tropes that can tie back to a landscape painting tradition.
This link to landscape, glimpsed or otherwise is hugely important, it makes connections to a romantic landscape lineage, where evocative titles like ‘Entrance to a Wood’ or ‘The Forest Path,’ first gained their potency. We may be centuries on from the ‘wild landscapes’ of Salvator Rosa and the pure inspiration of Constable, but somehow those forceful references lurk in the undergrowth, conjured through depiction of rough ground, tree and leaf formations. What also lurks is more than a hint of our own otherness, our memory and fantasy of the natural world with wind, rain, sun and mud. This raw world is a place we still like to encounter; metaphorically it’s that natural state of being that we credit with authentic feelings. Landscape calls us to thoughts of wandering and in thinking this deracination we are never far from terror.
In a short piece of writing Colclough speaks about being on the train looking out to homogenous landscapes flicking past. He ruminates that his regular journey via Woking was also the incongruous setting for H.G. Wells, ‘War of the Worlds’, the first great science-fiction masterpiece, originally marketed as a ‘scientific romance’. Well’s plot effortlessly turns archetypal everydayness to scenes of complete terror when an alien force invades. The invasion is efficient, unstoppable and without pity turning all inhabitants of planet earth into powerless fleeing exiles. The novel tapped into the fears of terror plots that were in ferment at the start of twentieth century and it continues to find echoes in the horrors of many disgusting conflicts today. Wells’s fictional invading Martians soon found real forms as invading armies in the First and Second World Wars. Contemporary fears of terror attacks are on the increase now and fears of invasions in other senses have profoundly shaped our contemporary politics in this country and elsewhere. Terror and the threat of terror are visiting our lives again. It is not surprising that Colclough looking out on the benign landscapes of Surrey imagines a dark horror concealed and potential world-changing chaos just as Wells also imagined.
Colclough writes: I think I do the same thing every time I look at an image of the landscape; I imagine that fateful discovery that will turn the world upside down…3
Little by little one follows Colclough’s attentions, his preoccupations and the directions he points to. Some of the artworks seek place, others seek the path, some suggest the void and others loss. All ponder how to reconcile transitory experiences with the concrete materiality of life. There is pleasure and fear, warm sunlight is close to hand but not much further is a healthy respect for unreasonable forces that so easily break out. Wholesome thoughts about being fully alive, such as Heidegger’s leap into thinking, sound good in principle but who will heed thoughts that will cause such major disruptions to our comfortable lives? Colclough’s works are signs that point us to ourselves, signposts that say we are thinking creatures and that we need to think about what attracts us.
1. From J. Glenn Gray’s introduction and translation of Martin Heidegger’s ‘What Is Called Thinking’, published by Harper and Row, 1968.
2. Niche construction is the process whereby organisms, through their activities and choices, modify their own and each other's niches. By transforming natural selection pressures, niche construction generates feedback in evolution, on a scale hitherto underestimated, and in a manner that alters the evolutionary dynamic. The phrase niche construction was coined by the evolutionary biologist, Dr John Odling-Smee.
3. 'The Arborealists the Art of the Tree', Published by Samson & Co, 2016.
Jeremy Akerman mini biography
Jeremy Akerman is an artist and freelance curator, he’s co-director of akermandaly.com; an organisation that specialises in commissioning and publishing writing by artists. He is also the guest curator for HSBC’s art collection at Canary Wharf. Akerman is a painter and has exhibited widely in the UK and in Korea. His curatorial ventures have included numerous exhibitions working with many contemporary artists. Recent publications from Akerman Daly are Loose Monk by Fabian Peake and 8 Poems by Maria Zahle.