Statement about 1980s paintings & Essay by Gillian Darley
The Midland Enclosures series of paintings are landscapes as seen, remembered and understood in various ways. Gillian Darley's unpublished essay was written to accompany the touring exhibition of my work organised by The Lady Lodge Arts Centre.
My paintings are in acrylic paint on canvas or paper. I use the landscape format, so the width is greater than the height. The paintings start from one overall colour, often a bright yellow, a pale green, or dark blue. This coloured surface is a field into and onto which I draw with a brush. Little of this first colour will be seen in the finished painting.
Acrylic and oil paints are quite different. Acrylic paints are water based emulsions and dry fast. Oil paints dry over many days. This speed of drying means that working in acrylic paint is an additive process. All the brush strokes made in the paint film are kept. So, I have to paint in a precise manner, and think out how the various layers of colour will work. I use acrylic co-polymer emulsion which is completely water proof and permanent, neither does it crack, shrink or yellow with age. It has great versatility as it can be used in a thin wash as a water colour, or put on in thick impasto. I work with manufactured paints, mainly Liquitex, and also with paints I mix myself. I make paint by adding a little water to a pure pigment and then mix in the acrylic emulsion. By adding a colloid I can adjust the thickness of the paint.
I lay out the structure of a painting by drawing, roughing in areas of colour, and then placing shapes and schemata. I work quickly to begin with and will often start a number of paintings in one long concentrated session. This family of paintings all share common concerns and features. They are worked on in succeeding weeks until the group is finished.
The paintings are about myself, painting, and Out There. They are about myself because they are expressive of moods and feelings. They are about painting because art is always partly about art. They are about Out There because I live in a lowland Midland landscape. This is an observed, known and remembered landscape of a few very particular places. I go to a place and make drawings with a brush. Later in the studio some of these drawings are made into paintings. I also take photographs as reminders. I have made a small collection of examples of all sorts of different ways our society has for recording landscape. Estate plans, aerial photographs, paining styles, parks and garden views and maps, modern and ancient. I also look at particular favourites such as keys for symbols on maps, and the Land Ultilisation Survey.
If I go up onto Burrough Hill, an Iron Age fort, I can look out and see the past visibly locked in surface forms in the landscape of Leicestershire. Medieval ridge and furrow strips from the old open fields, deserted villages, enclosure fields and their farmsteads, thorn hedges, fox coverts, parkland, paths and trackways. I also see farming, animals and machines and crops such as winter wheat, and the bright yellow fields of oil-seed rape. All the patterns of modern cultivation, the graffiti of agri-business.
All this, and more, is in my head, it excites me, and so I make invention with it. Not every mark or shape in one of my paintings can be interpreted as depicting something. Some do, some don’t, and some are ambiguous. The paintings exist in their own right. They are invented colour and line.
The following essay, by Gillian Darley, was commissioned by The Lady Lodge Arts Centre, Peterborough, to accompany Alan McPherson’s 1985 touring exhibition ‘Midland Enclosures’.
It is an insidious business, the hold that landscape can take on the eye. The east midlands landscape is - at first glance - as humdrum, even tedious, a countryside as can be found. But it creeps up on you.
Alan McPherson’s paintings are the product of total immersion in this scene - the landscape as seen, and as visited with paints and paper, the landscape as intimated and signalled in maps and the code of map-making, and finally as extrapolated and, sometimes, quite simply imagined. It is an honourable tradition; it seems to happen whenever landscape gets into the blood - think of Turner at Petworth, Samuel Palmer at Shoreham or, more recently, Graham Sutherland in Pembrokeshire. A momentum is established, the form leads on, one to the next and colours pursue their own, often independent, path. Yet the place merges, the symbolism and the reality enmeshed.
Landscape, literally , is static, yet in every other time scale beyond the immediate, it is a shifting affair slipping between the seasons, and - in an arable area - the crops. Extend the timescale, scratch deeper and a whole many-layered picture emerges. The kind of evidence that aerial photography, especially under drought conditions, or maps - by reading the complex evidence - can give is another kind of section cut through the strata. That evidence has been laid down over the centuries of cultivation and human incursions. Below are the actual strata, the geology, with its own immense timescale, also there for ”reading” and interpretation. Awareness of all this is a necessary introduction to Alan McPherson’s paintings which, despite their considerable variety, are unified in their constant investigation of the landscape - in every sense, and at every level.
The work is very coherent. Particularly in the last year and a half, when Alan McPherson has been working quite single-mindedly on these paintings. Some constitute groups, some are independent workings, all interconnect, veering in and out of sharp focus according to the moment (and, though not obviously in the sense of autumn tints or winter dark). As the paintings progress they investigate the particular features of the scenery, or on the legend of the map. It is no more obsessive than the build-up of evidence on sophisticated maps; whether this is the easily interpreted information on modern Ordnance Survey or the semi-abstruse, recondite codes of the geological or land use maps which also fascinate Alan McPherson. The vertical slice of the archaeological survey is another source - with every pebble recorded. Much of Alan’s source material came from researching the ‘What We Have’ Exhibition for East Midlands Arts.
From these disciplines, and from on-the-spot observation, come the themes of the painting. Thus the field patterns, laid down one upon the other; ridge and furrow of openfield, followed by hedge and fence of enclosure, followed by clearance and most recently, a huge enlargement of scale. The episodes are not laid down literally, or chronologically, but are inferred as man (and machine) redraws the patterns. It happens all the time. The bundles of hay or stooks of corn, triangles upon the ground of the paintings, are replaced from time to time,with their literal replacements, those great swiss rolls which linger in the fields - sometimes the year round. There are other adjustments too - blowing up the scale of one element to macro proportions, whilst others are constant or even micro scale.
It is, of course, all a rather mysterious world out in the fields now. Most country people, let alone town dwellers, are mystified by what constitutes modern agriculture. Farming Today becomes a journey into the unknown. In Alan McPherson’s paintings the form suggested by the agriculture are usually dominant, though coexistent with the dominant natural forms in the landscape, be it Burrough Hill (an iron-age fort) or a river. Then there are routes; trackways, some borrowing the dot and dash of the map, some petering out into the fields as they often do; trees, those that remain of ancient woodland, or those neatly laid down like the cross-stitch on a sampler. The marking of that information, graphically, even decoratively, in blazing near fluorescent colours, depends on the symbols which flash round like the spinning cherries on the fruit machine. Then, suddenly, Alan McPherson will disconcert with a figure or a tractor, rendered in a naive fashion which links to the code language of the scene itself.
I well understand an obsession with the sign-language of landscape; it is a kind of secret language, whether followed on the ground or, voyeuristically, in the comfort of your armchair, maybe many miles distant. It is about landscape, but also, essentially about human endeavour; graphic anthropology you might call it. All the information connects back to the ground. To peel back the layers and begin to understand, even a little of that information, is excitement of a special order.
There is, of course, a quite literal connection between the mapping and the code used, and the landscape as it is. Seen from overhead, from plane, church tower or rising ground, the landscape abstracts into the map; you can see it all down there, schematic and scarcely more animate than the folded paper of the Ordnance Survey. These paintings then can sometimes serve as connecting thread between a literal bird’s eye view and its formal equivalent.
Colour, it might seem superfluous to add, is a powerful force in Alan McPherson’s work. There is a sense that colour is used deliberately to take the forms out of the realm of the representational and into the imaginative, abstract world on the borders of which they lie. It is a palette which here and there offers a clue - much in the way the references to forms in the scene are dropped in, as a trail - the blinding, stark yellow of rape fields; the acidity and luminosity of early summer foliage, even, here and there, a russet, burnt umber shade for the rippled plough. But mostly the colour is following a quite separate path, in which it bounces, evaporates, even shrieks out at us.
Paintings from Alan McPherson’s work ten or more years ago sustain the impression of constancy - not of the specific theme but of approach. These are carpeted interiors, which then mingle into carpeted landscape. Pattern, colour, optic shifts, symbol and reality - they’re all evident. Working in north Wales for a time, the sea and sky begin to dominate; not often literal blue spaces (or even grey) but spaces all the same. There are rarely such intervals in recent work, though sometimes a field, or a boundary clears a void for itself in the picture. The sky has long since gone- Alan McPherson intimates it is on the way back, but for now, we view the landscape from the air - the carpet analogy continued.
Sometimes the paintings need their space; occasionally the compositions verge on the overwhelming, with multiplicity of imagery and form which can be, dare I say, almost blinding. A pause, a clearing in the forest of marks on the canvas , is something Alan McPherson rarely allows himself - or us. But the paintings feed off one another; when the absolute limit is reached, they seem to react. They either open out, offering a different sense of space, or they become much more tightly delineated or looser, depending on where they have been before. Wetter finishes loosen the technique, colour and line can be separated.
The paintings are evidence of an enquiring mind; even if they are abstract, or almost so, you feel a kind of wondering behind them. If they are more literally interpretive, they offer a generous sharing of knowledge. they are not facile paintings; they indicate learning, experience and emotion. This is evidence of a painter whose explorations are placed before us, but the complexities remain. Isn’t that exactly the way that all those celebrators of the landscape work - in the past, and still ? The genus loci is a great inspirer; those quiet, reclusive east midland fields have found a celebrant, and this exhibition celebrates the fact.