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Lie of the Land: Notes on The Subversive Landscape

Martin Holman



Amikam Toren, Armchair Painting - Untitled (To Be Honest With You), 2003-4, oil paint on canvas, 500 x 900 mm


According to government statistics published last October, 8.7 percent of land in England is developed. ‘Developed land’ means anything from agriculture, the biggest user, through industrial and residential uses, to defence, which has the smallest slice. As a result, over nine-tenths of England is non-developed land that (to keep matters manageable for the layman) could be called ‘landscape’. Bring into the mix the national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), and 24 percent of England ends up within one of these special districts.

Not surprisingly, the English have a particular attachment to landscape as bracing open space as well as poetic spectacle. A common image of the land exists in many people’s minds (especially the town-dweller’s) that has been absorbed from the arts and become a kind of descriptive shorthand. Asked to summarise landscape, an English respondent might mention the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, poetry by William Wordsworth or the paintings of John Constable. Two and more centuries later, those visions still set the popular standard.

In a way, that perspective helps explain why British national parks, unlike their counterparts in the US, exist first and foremost to preserve ‘natural beauty’. The 1949 Act that set up the parks places aesthetics over recreation and the environment in importance. As if to ensure that politicians keep the faith, the National Trust is the second largest membership organisation in the UK (even though its scope excludes Scotland). There are more National Trust members in this country than there are trades unionists.

The 21 artists that painter Hugh Mendes approached to participate in this show are not primarily associated with the genre of landscape. Most began their careers when a questioning attitude to the mechanics of art-making and to its outcomes were standard procedure. By that time, the traditional genres defined in the seventeenth century (history, portrait, religious imagery, everyday life and landscape) had long been dispensed with by progressive artists imbued with the Modernist spirit.

This background is reflected in ‘The Subversive Landscape’, where the image is, by and large, a vehicle for concerns unconnected with depictions of nature. While the choice of image is not incidental to all these artists (Andrew Grassie, Kirsty Harris, Reece Jones, Liane Lang, Robin Mason and Alex Gene Morrison can all claim to have responded specifically to the experience of place or phenomena of the outdoors), their approaches are predicated upon ideas that are not dependent on representing open air subjects, nor are they distinguished by questions of style. Concept is all.

Even John Constable in his day was regarded as radical by his peers. He rebelled against the orthodox view of a painted landscape as a classical ideal of balanced arrangements and compositional conceits.
In a sense, he interrogated the image as it was known around 1800. Constable, who had grown up in Suffolk, subverted the convention and captured the radiance of a summer day; light fell in his pictures where it did in nature. Painters, therefore, have form when it comes to seeing differently what others are used to seeing.

Rob and Nick Carter, indeed, update Jacob van Ruisdael for the present century when the digital movie screen has supplanted the static canvas as the surface on which we encounter images. If Dutch seventeenth-century art was about sustained observation, then careful looking is what this husband-and-wife team’s animated version of a drawing from 1648-50 of a landscape with windmills. In the course of the 24-hour loop, leaves flutter gently and clouds float by – or seem to – and the inevitable temptation of making the windmills’ sails rotate has been succumbed to. A drawn or painted image is, by its nature, artificial: illusion is a visual trick artists use to imitate reality. With super new tools to fire the imagination, is virtual technology taking us even further away from the original sensory experience of nature itself? And what does the Carters’ manoeuvre say about authorship when the image they depict and manipulate has not existed in that form for nearly 400 years and was anyway seen not by them but by an observer they never met or could ever know.

A similar paradox interests Dan Hays. His landscape, Monkey Island (2014), comes not from setting up easel and canvas in a rural location. Instead, he remains indoors and pulls a low-quality image off the internet. He has no personal association with the location and its atmosphere, nor does the piece emit or arouse emotion. The scene is a convenient image, the means rather than the end. Because Hays paints the shimmering pixels, the building blocks of coded information, and rebuilds the original picture in the tactile brush marks of the ancient handmade technology of painting. That passage from screen to canvas highlights a dichotomy between contrasting methods and experiences. Between analogue and digital, what is gained and lost?


Alex Gene Morrison, Yellow Sun, 2023, acrylic on panel, 150 x 200 mm

The terrain that Redruth-born Canadian artist Alex Gene Morrison depicts returns landscape to a solid and comforting ideal. Curvy forms that could correspond with land or a train, or whatever, pass under the sun in storybook yellow beside pastry-cut silhouettes that might be clouds or smoke puffing out of stout chimney. Morrison’s vision recedes into a Telly Tubbies setting, oblong-framed like the TV screen or a maquette for the wallpaper design of a child’s suburban bedroom. Do we have slightly infantile expectations of landscape as havens of beauty and safety rather as sites of change for the sake of utility?

Morrison’s cosy style masks persistent probing while Michael Landy asks us to examine about our notion of beauty. Weeds are regarded as ‘nature in the wrong place’ and are plucked as nuisances from paths and grass verges. Except, that is, by Landy who collected, potted and tended examples in his studio before making delicate, life-sized studies of their leaves, stems and roots. With St Francis-like dedication to emphasise their worth, he calls these marginalised and mongrel growths ‘street flowers’, investing with value what others prefer to control and eradicate.

Amikam Toren is fascinated by how art solidifies that allegory of nature’s perfection. For several years he has made what he calls his ‘Armchair Paintings’. The raw material is the type of countryside imagery we might have in our home that is good to look at, induces calm and a makes us think of landscape as a retreat from the busy world. Rather like Hays, Toren finds these pictures readymade – in his case in charity shops, available to recycle from somebody else’s homes. Then he cuts out of the surface a phrase like ‘to be honest with you’. The result is a jolt to our daydreams. What has he to be honest about? Indeed, sometimes the phrases he imports are offensive, like an argument overheard in the street, borrowed language that punctures the illusion and disrupts our leisure.

Words also intrude on Roger Thorpe’s immersive landscape as if to project a fuller picture. Images slowly emerge on film before evaporating as if to suggest the finite nature of things. Words appear in shadowy form on screen (relating to land fought over in war) and enter the viewer’s space through the soundtrack which recites the war poetry of Wilfred Owen. ‘But nothing happens,’ the voice repeats when, ironically, the poem implies that something irrevocable does.

Fiona Banner’s paintings infer a full stop of a different type. Her route to a conceptual outcome also takes her in pursuit of thrift-shop canvases – with ships at sea her preferred backdrop to an act of modification. The ship is enclosed with an odd black shape, which observers of this artist’s career know to interpret as a hugely oversized punctuation mark. But not a deash or comma that facilitates meaning in a phrase but one that actively blocks comprehension and hampers communication with the viewer who is left, well, all at sea.

Kirsty Harris, Hardtack Juniper, 2021, oil on unstretched linen, 2540 x 1650mm

Parody is a tool that asks some serious questions with a light touch. Rising above the ground in Kirsty Harris’s unstretched oil paintings, for instance, is the caustic beauty of the mushroom cloud that follows the rapid release of energy from a high-speed nuclear reaction. Observers have described the sight as sublime in spite of knowing that this wholly natural physical phenomenon is engineered by man to cause cataclysmic, future-changing destruction. Her images are also appropriated from existing sources, in this case documentation of the last nuclear detonation on the Bikini Atoll in 1958. Hirst calibrates the dimensions of her landscape to the quantity of TNT used in each detonation she re-presents.

Superior forces are implied by Gordon Cheung’s broad vistas and, as in the real world, they exercise their control from the background. Cheung depicts a mountain range and expansive sky in heightened colours that float over a darker prospect, a major infrastructural development unfolding across the width of his image. He works in a style reminiscent of Chinese painting and what he shows brings to mind the immense growth of urban conurbations in China in recent decades as the country’s economy has expanded rapidly. So, the underlying structure is telling: Cheung paints over a layer of pink newsprint on which the market pages of the Financial Times are published. The tight column layout of global share data seems to give rise to the grid of streets in Cheung’s megacity.


Hugh Mendes, Obituary: Ana Mendieta, oil on linen, 350 x 250 mm

The land has different meanings for different people. For several years Hugh Mendes has channelled the visual memorial of dead artists through the serial format of the obituary page of the Guardian newspaper. The layout becomes an objective portal to the subjects and their artistic style. Two examples are Americans Ana Mendieta and Nancy Holt whose work incorporated spiritual and personal perspectives on the land. So, landscape occurs in these images, literally drawn from photo-documentation of well-known examples of each artist’s work. They could be said to represent those artists as ‘signature’ pieces and, thus, ‘portraits’ of sorts. Holt saw systems that connected man and nature through the sun, a belief similar to that of Cornwall’s ancient inhabitants who constructed stone circles. Mendieta, a Cuban exile, invoked the symbiosis between place and body found in indigenous American religions. Seasonal renewal was expressed as a female force in her performances, drawings and installations.

For Liane Lang the land constitutes a monument to earlier generations who worked at extracting its resources. Traces remain in the ground decades after work ceased as the only physical evidence of that labour. Lang looks for them in redundant mines and quarries because these unearthed objects are markers of past time. So, she refashions scraps of machinery into odd curios; modern-day counterparts of medieval reliquaries, they contain an image of time itself instead of bones.


(Background) Lucy Willow, Threshold, charcoal on paper, 1650 x 1500 mm, with (foreground) work by Gordon Cheung

Lucy Willow graduates from considering the visible to imagining the unseen landscape, albeit one she was physically in the vicinity of. When she looked into an ancient well she discovered obscured from view by roots in Lamorna, she could not see beyond the entrance. But the black void beyond was explored with ultrasound from which a sonar picture emerged. An artist who researches grief in her work, Willow saw parallels in this experience with legends of the underworld and the deep, dark tunnel that bereavement burrows into the emotions of mourners.

A comparable stillness and mystery surrounds Andrew Grassie’s above-ground images. The diffused grey light and subtle blush of pink on the surface, achieved with meticulous technique, are as disorienting as a heavy mist, capturing a moment in time that might have been real or was merely remembered, or even first seen in a photograph because it feels timeless now. The dense charcoal treatment in Reece Jones’s monochrome work is also unnerving, throwing natural scenery into silhouette. The black monolith that appears centre-stage in his Drone series images projects unease because its source is unexplained. The towering black machines of Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series come to mind, the creations of unseen extraterrestrial presences. Yet, at the same time, Jones seems to play with the viewer’s known experience of night-time visions when all the coordinates of daylight disappear and even the familiar can appear sinister.


Adam Dix, What Lies Between, 2022, oil glaze on panel, 800 x 600 mm

A science fiction dimension is detectable in Adam Dix’s outdoor scene of people gathered around a pool-like enclosure. While small groups have formed on its perimeter to talk, no alarm appears to cross their faces at the curious pixelation that has befallen their surroundings. With its washed-out colour, the image resembles an uneven exercise in data transmission. Indeed, time might have undergone a strange curvature when communicating this scene to today’s recipients, combining figures dressed in 50s fashion with a digital phenomenon belonging to a time decades in their future. Is this an imagined reality or a re-run of a ’fifties television show?

Lee Maelzer’s vision of a location composed of fragments and tangled threads might be post-apocalyptic. She delves into an environment that has been destroyed, abandoned or neglected so that we wonder what has occurred to leave it looking this way. Closer to home, maybe as close as our own backyards, is the scene photographed by painter Jesse Leroy Smith of discarded bottles littering the foreground of a view to mountains. The image is neutral but the inferences are weighted. The unique capacity of humans among the earth’s creatures to mess up the natural order with their waste is one interpretation. There will be others, but in this case – as in that of Kirsty Harris’s painting – human behaviour is subverting the landscape rather than the artist. He is there to observe it.


Lee Maelzer, Metal, 2014, oil and oil pastel on canvas, 1965 x 1455 mm


Brought to the foreground in Metal (2014), Maelzer’s complex chicane of work, is the act of painting. sparked by the task of depicting her individual choice of subject-matter in pigment and mark. The same impulse seems present in Kiera Bennett’s evocation of the land that we approach through painting itself. The sensory qualities rather than figurative elements are uppermost to the extent that Bennett does not deal with location. Instead, the idea of landscape tips into abstraction with boldly brushed linear arrangements that carry colour, mood and energy. The impression of landscape remains, rather in the way Cézanne responded to it.

The show succeeds in ushering the viewer into a range of provocative and thoughtful propositions. There are few mishits in pursuit of its theme, and when they occur, more digging reveals a reason to be here. The processes of reduction and remaking at work in the Cornwall-based Alistair and Fleur Mackie’s enigmatic Complex System 27 and 28 (2016) at first appear coolly abstract, then suggest being part of a larger whole as if a bigger story ensues – like a cog might stand for the wheel it belongs to. Information seems encoded here, too, waiting for the mental key to unlock a succession of connections. As in reality, the relationship between material and form, origin and meaning is masked and hard to decipher.

James Turrell, Winter Aqua Oscura, 2015, polymer gravure etching, paper size: 845 x 1195 m, image size: 730 x 1090 mm

James Turrell’s large-scale polymer print Winter Acqua Oscura (2015) is striking by being the least subversive in the field. One of a series with each image recording a different season, the contrast between dark and light, perception and space lies at the heart of this image, as in all Turrell’s output. This work reveals a canopy of trees and were made at Tremenheere using one of Turrell’s two remarkable installations in the gardens. The process is unconventional but hardly unknown: the lens as drawing instrument is the basis of photography and from its inception in the 1840s, nature has been a favoured subject. Turrell’s acqua oscura, placed in the disused water tank, channels light from outside into the dark chamber through a lens-like oculus in the roof so that an image of outside us projected onto a wall inside and underground, materially registering a natural phenomenon present in sight. Having transferred the real-time image of the trees, light effectively rewrites on the underground wall. The print implants it on paper. But just as Mendes says, Turrell‘s viewpoint is from below – indeed, from below ground – and perhaps that is its subversive credential.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, in the era of JMW Turner, landscape was the source of shock and awe. That was the period of the ‘sublime’. Except for the tamest and most cultivated aspects of nature, the literature of the time described uninhabited terrain with unmixed horror. That was when man was particularly conscious of his own dignity, and when the wild forces of nature constituted a threat which he could not disregard. With the advent of the climate crisis and the spectre of war on European soil, are today’s artists leading us back to more critical and inquisitive attitudes to the land that surrounds us?



The Subversive Landscape took place at Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, 29 April - 27 May 2023 https://gallery.tremenheere.co.uk/exhibition/the-subversive-landscape/

All images © the artists.

© Martin Holman, 2 May 2023