Essays

Atlantic Coast

When I was planning this exhibition earlier in the year I was reading the essays and poems of Kenneth White. I was struck by his idea that the way we consider our environment and our aesthetic response to it needed a big overhaul and a rethink; he writes at length about the early Christian monks who settled the wild and lonely fringes of the Atlantic, of their wide knowledge of language, philosophy and deep wisdom. Of how they would travel long distances in small boats as a spiritual voyaging, searching and meditation that has parallels with the Aborigines’ walkabout, and he suggests that a return to that close relationship with our daily living and our interaction with environment might be a part of this re-evaluation. So it was with more than a passing nod to his ideas that I have borrowed the title of one of his many discerning books for this exhibition.

I have lived on this Atlantic coast for nearly thirty years and have seen the dynamic of changing weather that close proximity to the edge of a large ocean brings, through the seasons it can be by turns wild and sublime but it is seldom passive. So too in the upsurge of hills and mountains on the edge of these tectonic plates that once caused volcanoes and lava flows from Mull and the small isles north and are still active as their point of pressure moves beyond Iceland today. The legacy of this activity in combination with ice sheets and glaciers created the soils and the flora which we see around us, and with a little knowledge it is easy to read this landscape whose skin is so thin and whose ancient bones are so close to the surface.

The exhibition has paintings from Applecross, Inverpoly and North Uist; unlike St Brendan I travelled by car and Cal Mac ferry but also walked long distances on foot. Like those early travellers I had some modern technology of the times in my backpack, a Trangia stove for cooking, pencil, sketch book and digital cameras for recording what I saw; I can only wonder what they may have travelled with! How times change, North Uist with its legacy of runrigs, stone cleats and ruined dwellings would have been the centre of the known world, Inverpoly and the central Highlands an impenetrable barrier too dangerous and difficult to cross.

The large painting of Inverpoly speaks of autumn, the end of the year when a few leaves still hang on the trees but the days are short and the light is low. For the painter these are some of the best times, low light casts long shadows and form is clearly seen. From a series of video and digital images I have made a painting with two vanishing points, one each to left and right; the left hand one is echoed by the crook of the birch tree’s branches below it, the one on the right with the two lochans leading away is reinforced by the procenium arch of the two trees to create the illusion of depth. Apart from the two distant mountains there is little or no tonal recession in the colours of the mid ground, the feeling that you could reach out and touch the nearby hills says that the air is crystal clear. The painting is also “human scale”, no illustration to be perceived as reality, one could walk right into the grasses, heather, rocks and trees of the foreground.

The Loch Lundie triptych involved an altogether different process. I began with a pencil drawing made on location on a beautiful July morning. The triptych format allows many vanishing points; as the vertical divisions frame each image, it is possible to sustain a panorama that has a vanishing point somewhere near the centre of each panel and also on each of the two vertical joins, (with even the possibility of two more on the outer edges); clearly careful planning is required! Having worked the drawing up in the studio, transferred it to the canvas and executed my plans to perfection I was most disappointed with the result, which was wooden and dry and lifeless; in disgust I put the piece away in the store. Some six months later, excited and still energised by completing another project I got it back out, keen to have some fun and divested of all the emotional baggage that often surrounds the finishing of a painting. I began a “rescue” package that I have used before; first paint the whole painting white and let that dry; next, tungsten carbide sanding disc on the end of a power drill and begin to grind the surface down. Because I apply paint that is thick and sculptural the original structure is not lost and as this had been a summer painting so highlights of colour also emerged. This rather cathartic process I think of as a parallel to glaciation, and to extend the metaphor, next I did the weather with wild stokes of wind and snow, dribbled marks of rain and gouges of rock and ice. This frantic maelstrom of mark making hung on the original over tight construction released the power of the mighty landscape that I had first sketched six months before, summer turned to winter with a covering of snow revealing the skeleton beneath.

Where these two paintings are solid and stable the waves and shifting light of North Uist are in total contrast; ever moving ephemeral forms they appear and fade before your eyes. Although turbulent and ever moving the surface of breaking waves on a rough sea is essentially flat but with none of the visual constructs associated with landscape to denote depth, the only receding space being a change of scale and a sense that some waves are in front of others. The flying spume, the tumultuous energy and above all the colour of sunlight through the curling wave tops and broken water are the substance of this wild environment.

When these oceanic energies meet the craggy rocks and sandy strands of that western edge where the light is always changing as the tides ebb and flow, as the ever-present wind whips the sunshine and clouds across the turquoise water and the myriad flowers of the machair blow to and fro; then there is work to do! To achieve this the painter must use a different language to hold down what is fleetingly there, describing light with colours that dance and sing beside each other. Complimentary colours invigorate each other, broad marks are stopped by small sharp gestures, it is necessary, if you can, to abandon analytical thinking for a while and to just feel the world around you; not to stand apart and observe but to dissolve your edges and become seamlessly part of it all.

For the first time I have included in this exhibition some of the short video pieces that Flick and I now make. For me the lens facilitates feeling part of Nature, seeing right into the micro-cosm provides a very rich involvement and engagement. Often the camera’s decontextuallising of a subject really forces one to look afresh and try to understand, which has parallels with drawing that is also about looking hard as well as doing. This is a very modern sketchbook, one that allows me to record and compare details and large vistas, to reconsider and reappraise. But perhaps most significantly for me as a visual artist used to working with more traditional methods the “no loss” possibilities of the digital world are the most exciting, poor decisions can be reversed! This new workspace can incorporate tried and tested ideas in an enhanced environment, it may have taken away a certain edge but it has opened an enormous horizon.

James Hawkins, July 2006

Way Out West

Way out west is the collective title for this group of related painting projects that I have been working on during the last 12 months. Before Christmas I went deeper and deeper into the birch woods, I was intrigued with what it was possible to see looking out through the edge of the tangle of trees. There is a feeling of being protected and sheltered in even the smallest wood, creating the idea of looking out from a sanctuary onto the wider world, seeing and not seen. The intertwining of trees presented different notions of describing space; some trees silhouetted against the light, others lit against a dark background. Far from single vanishing point perspective these paintings became about multi vanishing point perspective, whatever was beyond the edge of the wood seeming to disappear to a distant point through any criss cross of branches within the picture. They were mostly created by forming a web of masking tape over the paintings’ surface that resembled the silhouettes of trees, on top of this the birch bark trunks were painted and then the mask removed before this paint had time to dry. This left a lattice of tree trunks from which trunk and branch shapes were sometimes missing, the minds eye compensates for the incomplete sections and the illusion of looking through many layers of trees is created.

Early last summer Flick and I again visited Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The cliffs on the west drop sheer into the Atlantic and there are swells and big seas most days. We were lucky enough to be there during a storm and the waves smashing on the rocks and beaches were awesome. I made some paintings based around Mangursta which is just south of Uig bay. Some of these were photographed digitally at very high resolution and I was able to look at them on my computer and zoom in to small details of paint within the image. These details looked strong and I used them as starting points for a further set of paintings about storm tossed seas at the foot of tall cliffs. I wanted big gestural marks to convey the energy, movement and scale of what I was seeing and by enlarging the paint in the originals I was able to progress my language.

The holy grail of wanting to achieve the perfect "mark" goes back to De Kooning. Once in a book about him I saw a beautiful detail of a single large brush stroke that looked like the high gloss reflection in a curved and polished car wing. I started trying to achieve something similar by dragging different colours with a flat piece of card; when I had the exhibition in Berlin I saw my first Richter and he was doing it too. Unlike Richter and De Kooning I wanted to use this mark making language figuratively and so the marks and processes that I now associate with reflections across water, birch bark, snow and ice or windswept hillside were conceived. At the same time I was having to develop tool making skills in order to apply the paint on the scale I wished to achieve, palette knives were bent and adapted, pieces of MDF and mount card cut with a jig saw, even individual paintbrushes became favoured for their particular "footprint".

I have often thought of the minds eye as a camera on a long telescopic boom, if one can think in this way it is possible to picture the same scene from different viewpoints, a little to the left maybe, looking up from below or down from above. After climbing Ben Mor Coigach in the ice and snow with my son Sam in early January I moved from considering a small enclosed space with glimpses of beyond to exploring large panoramas from a great height. The day was short but clear and we sat at two thousand feet watching the sun set behind the islands to the south, the light flooded across the sky and glinted on the water; sometimes clouds and small squalls moved between us and the islands. The sense of infinite space was tremendous and as a result I have made a series of paintings that explore many locations on both sides of the Minch. These too have multi, not single vanishing point perspective implicit in their construction as the eye finds distance in first one and then another part of the horizon or sky.

To live way out west in this part of Scotland is to live with a constantly changing sense of the land and the sea, to see in each calm beauty and furious wrath; it is to live both on the edge and at the centre, in the heart of nature.

James Hawkins

Amid all the showmanship and media hype that has surrounded the current crop of Britpack artists, there are times when it has been tempting to think that painting as an artform has died. And then you come upon artists such as James Hawkins, whose enthusiasm for paint and its limitless potential is infectious, and that notion is immediately put to rest.

I first came across James’ work in the late 1980s when he had a number shows with Andrew Brown at Edinburgh’s ill-fated 369 Gallery. His work then was sparser, more calligraphic in feeling, the landforms implied with great broad sweeps of the brush, and where the bare canvas or paper had as much to say as the marks themselves. Having part responsibility for suggesting additions to the City of Edinburgh’s Art collection, we took one of his works to our selection panel, but without success. In hindsight, I’m glad we waited

Nevertheless, James’s paintings lodged themselves into those deep recesses, and when I was asked to curate our 1995 Festival exhibition, which we devoted to the theme of 20th centaury Scottish landscape painting, I pulled out his file once more and tracked him down to his remote Highland studio on the shores of Loch Broom.

It was a clear, crisp January day when I pulled up – James was working in his studio on a large canvas, with others placed about waiting for further attention, or stored in racks. I had seen slides of his more recent work, but at that time he was beginning to introduce wild almost florescent colours into his paintings. Anyone who has tried it knows how difficult it is to control such brilliant colours on a small scale, but here he was working on huge wall sized canvases. Colours oozed like syrup over the surface, where they were moved around, dragged, pulled twisted scraped and scrumbled until they satisfied his intentions (albeit momentarily). Then came another assault hard on the first, and more energy expended. Then a time of reflection and looking sometimes for long periods. Other paintings were in various stages of completion, put aside for the time being. A small heater barely took the chill from the air, yet a sense of urgency permeated the space.

James’s work is about Scottish Landscape – not the dour, driech, Spartan Highland moor, but the sparkle of a mountain stream, the languid depth of a loch on a clear day, of a river in spate, of steep craggy outcrops, of fearsome climbs and descents. Here is Nature at its most potent, unaltered by human touch, unexpected, primeval, majestic. He works from memory, the paintings borne out of long walks in the Highland Landscape. These times immersed in the wilderness are crucial to his output. He never takes a sketchbook, but rather journals the trip after he returns to base. His wife Flick is his constant companion, providing from her own scientific training a greater understanding of what they have seen and experienced.

Hawkins begins each new work by staining or washing the complete canvas, usually with a representative of each primary colour, for example Yellow ochre, Cyan blue or Crimson. On the colour ‘field’ he then layers curtains of colour and form with holes through, as an essential, see-through ingredient. In this way an images is built up little by little. Tool making has become a very important part of his way of working. As well as a burgeoning selection of brushes, palette knives and cement working tools, he has taken to cutting mount card, MDF or plywood into shapes that enable him to spread the paint in a particular way and with quite individual results.

The water’s edge is a recurrent theme in James’ recent work, those intimate corners where silent pools reflect the surrounding vegetation and the sky above, where the Lochside birches and Pines dip their branches, and rocks disturb the peace. Here he reveals his full repertoire of marks – paint is stretched in waves across the surface, colours flow and mix together, overlaid by the sinuous forms of twisted branches and wiry grasses. Other views are perhaps less easy to recognise at first, where the artists has seemingly flirted with abstraction. These works have an echo for me of Turner at his most adventurous, where figures and forms emerge from an enveloping maelstrom.

Above all there is throughout James’s work an abiding and enduring sense of celebration of beauty and of Life. And that, in this present climate, is a very rare quality indeed.

David Patterson

City Arts Centre Edinburgh

December 1998

James Hawkins

Seeing is a physical experience. We are usually too busy thinking about what we’re looking at to be aware of this. But it is difficult not to do so when going for a walk in the Highlands of Scotland. Not only can the wind be lashing in your face but the light, too, can surprise you with its ferocity, especially when the sun blazes out between clouds or, on those clear days when the light seems reflected back up into the air, from everywhere, from the sea that’s never far away, from the lochs and burns, rocks and birch bark, from the mosses and heather, till the whole world seems molten and burning in your eye. Many artists have tried to express these experiences in paint, but James Hawkins succeeds where so many have failed, because unlike them, he doesn’t begin with the sensation of seeing light but of seeing paint. Whereas many artists try to make paint imitate light, Hawkins discovers light in paint. He clearly loves the stuff; he scraps it, lets it run and stops it, he drags it around and cuts into it, when it’s wet or dry. He pushes it to its limits, like no one I know, and yet you always know its paint. He never lets it lose its identity to represent something else. And yet the magic is that it does. We’ve all seen reflections of light in water and ripples of paint but where else have you seen a ripple of paint that is a reflection of light in water, as in ‘Lochside Garden’? This may seem an obvious thing to do, but obvious things are often the most difficult to achieve. Hawkins’ achievement is so resonant because he loves paint and the landscape equally. And his achievement is true because he understands the whole scope of the effects of nature and of paint, from their smallest configurations to their largest conflagrations. In ‘Silver Birch’ or ‘Birchwoods, Evening’, the dry paint is the flaking bark and the cracks in the paint are the black twigs as they search into the air. These are details of nature. Or rather I should say the details in nature because no details in Hawkins’ pictures are allowed to jump out of context. There is always a continual interplay of space in his works. As one explores his pictures, one discovers a surprising depth in the foreground, under some leaves or under the bank of a burn, or through the background a sudden glimpse of distant hills. Yet all this natural space is in your eye and your imagination only; it is what you read into the configurations of paint that refuse to be anything but paint on a surface. Hawkins’ art is a physical experience, just like his journeys through the Scottish hills. He stands in the burn or in the storm just as he stands before his painting, struggling with it, enjoying it. You feel nature happening all around you, in all its tremendous variety, from a walk on a clear day across ice and snow, ‘Ice Climb’, to a summer day of sheer exuberance, ’GreenLoch’, from a walk through birchwoods in evening, to standing on a hillside lashed by snow and rain in ‘Windswept’. Each painting has its distinct distilled sensation. Hawkins does not repeat himself but rediscovers more and more of his own experiences as he discovers more and more of the possibilities of paint. Hawkins’ pictures don’t fade into the wall, just as the landscape around him doesn’t fade into his background. These paintings are not polite; they are as strong and as wild as the Highlands really are. As for their poetry, there is something heroic about them; not just in their ability to hold an experience that is fleeting, but to do something with that experience that is to do something with life

Julian Spalding January 1996

Director. Gallery of Modern Art Glasgow

The Straight Line Ramblers Club

The Straight Line Ramblers Club was first conceived when we were teenagers walking our parents dogs around the Oxfordshire countryside, membership was flexible, anyone could join and of course the one thing we didn’t do was walk in a straight line. Many of us have kept in touch and when we meet up that spirit of adventure still prevails, there aren’t any rules but if there were they would be that spontaneity is all, planned routes exist to be changed on a whim and that its very important to see what’s around the next corner or over the next top. Flick and I go daily into the hills to exercise our dogs and several times a year make more organised trips to parts of Scotland that we haven’t visited before to explore, take photographs and video and research ideas for paintings. Last May we went to Knoydart. Blessed with the fine weather that stayed uniquely on the west coast of Scotland for most of the summer, we spent five glorious days exploring that remote peninsular in true SLRC style. We walked the coastline and found sandy bays with wind tortured trees clinging to the rocks above them, oyster catchers fishing in the shallows and seals basking on the offshore islands; we explored the hill lochs and glens and on one occasion were rewarded with the discovery of a disused mica mine, complete with a huge ancient rusty compressor who’s location 1500 feet up a rugged hillside defied comprehension. Another day our ascent of Ladhar Beinn saw us out for over twelve hours, the walk back to Inverie along the Aonach Sgoilte ridge, with views of the Cuillins on Skye and Rum and Eigg to the south west was magnificent.

As a boy I read a lot of books and these were the early inspiration of my creativity; I read Brenden Chase by BB and imagined living in a wild camp in the woods, back then I would break bounds from boarding school and take long walks through the Berkshire countryside, I remember well discovering my first scarp and dip slope. I graduated to Gerald Durrell, Corbett’s Maneaters and then Gavin Maxwell who inspired enormously seeming to have a lifestyle that embodied all my aspirations. Later I read Thoreau’s Walden, John Seymour’s Self Sufficiency and within the whole 70’s idealism pursued the back to nature dream. I left Oxford and moved to a croft on the West coast of Scotland; if there is a straight line running through the rambles of my life this desire to connect with Nature has been it.

Sometime during 2007 it was believed that for the first time more than half the world’s population were living in cities, this struck me as a huge change to our collective unconscious. For millennia we have struggled and survived within the natural environment, now more than half of us were living in an artificial one with a whole new set of rules and strategies to be learnt. Don’t get me wrong, I am most enthusiastic about technology and our intellectual development; I am very happy to be writing this on my new PC that also helps me enormously with many aspects of my visual work, no its more that in our long evolution there seems a danger of a disconnect at this point. We have always been controlled by Nature, now we think that we can control it. John Muir, whose writings I have discovered during the research for this exhibition felt that he needed to experience the wilderness "to find the Law that governs the relations subsisting between human beings and Nature." Intuitively he postulated, "an essential Love, overlying, underlying, pervading all things"1 After many long and often dangerous journeys into wild places he began to understand that their existence was essential to our well-being, "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike"1 "..wildness is a necessity...mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life". Later in his life he was instrumental in persuading President Roosevelt to set up the National Parks in America to protect wild places from exploitation by loggers, miners and ranchers.

Today unspoiled wilderness seems to be of more importance than ever, in a world threatened by climate change we must guard and cherish these shrinking places as never before; we all feel uplifted by them and our spirits nourished when we see images or better still visit and spend time there. Its reassuring to know that there are organisations like the John Muir Trust raising money to buy tracts of land and use inventive methods to manage them in an environmentally sustainable way. My own sensation is that when I return from a few days walking and camping I am subtly altered for a time, my senses more alert, my inner harmony more balanced; like John Muir and many others I need to connect my nature to the wild Nature of the land at regular intervals. These paintings are my Chronicles from some of the wonderful locations that we’ve been able to visit during the last couple of years, they are born of an immersion in wild places and are a celebration of them. You’re all welcome to join The Straight Line Ramblers Club, we look forward to meeting you on the hill soon.

1 Son of the Wilderness The Life of John Muir by Linnie Marsh Wolfe