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Why being an abstract painter makes sense in the context of the Cornish Art Scene
I donít know if its living in Cornwall thatís done it, but since returning here from London Iíve been happy making abstract art.
The thing thatís difficult about making abstract art of whatever kind is that as the artist you canít put much of yourself in the work, except in a very tangential and elusive way.
What I mean by this is you cant put much humour in, or deep psychological or political content. (The exception is when you come to title the work: Howard Hodgkin once called one of his paintings ĎSmall but my owní, which I think is hilarious). Itís taken me a while to restrain myself like this, and let me tell you itís been hard, but Iíve finally achieved it, and Iím glad about that.
In fact Iím proud to announce: as an artist I have Ďnothingí to say.
The reality is that abstract art is about Ďnothingí and how nothing relates to being. This kind of thinking is mystical and Heidiggerian in a good way, and I find it endlessly nourishing. A stone Ďisí. It has being, but not much else, and that is what is miraculous about it.
Buddhists talk of the state of Ďno-mindí. My understanding of this is that it is a state we enter into as humans when we are no longer striving, when we are calm and our minds are resting and empty. The self dissolves away, and we are left with our sense of being in the universe, an object or being amongst others. No different to blades of grass or rocks on the shoreline.
It might sound sentimental, but actually itís the thing people in Cornwall value about living here. We have more opportunity to reach a psychological state of tranquility. Imagine youíre walking alone on an empty beach. Itís not sunny or raining: just a non-descript grey day. The sea washes in, in relentless waves, and your mind, hypnotised by the sound, becomes calm, and empties.
At those times we glimpse what Ďbeingí is. It is those times that we value most, and it why so many of us would never swap the bars and boutiques of the metropolis for our simpler, humbler lives down here.
Zen Buddhism was a big influence on West Coast minimalist artists like Agnes Martin, where being is glimpsed in the form of stillness and subtle cosmic vibrations. But there are also some great Cornish abstract artists like Feiler, Frost and Blow who tap the same rich vein albeit in a lighter and more funky way.
And it makes sense to make this kind of work down here. People talk about the quality of light. Too obvious. They talk about the visual impact of the landscape. Too superficial. Actually I think Cornwall exerts a special effect on the psyche. Surrounded by the sea on all sides (nearly) we have a constant reminder of the sublime and of how small human beings are in the grand cosmic order. It is this psychological fact that makes for inspiring abstract art. Abstract art provides a way of contemplating and approaching the cosmos, and provides a bridge to being itself.
Itís therefore no accident that the Cornish art scene was at its peak in the 50s. It was then that abstract art as a world art movement was at its strongest. Inevitably Cornwall became less influential when Pop Art came along. Suddenly metropolitan artists could, once again, make art about the city around them and about the welter of advertising codes and sexualised imagery that goes with them. Fantastic. (The corollary of this is that it doesnít make much sense being a figurative artist down here, and in my view the Cornish figurative artist runs the risk of being a bit middle of the road, for some of the reasons I have outlined).
But obviously that is just an opinion, and I know of some notable exceptions. Also you may question the value of aspiring to a state of calm and Ďno-mindí. In fact you might just want to use art to party with. Well thatís OK, but other art-forms fulfill that function for me. Talking of which have you heard Roy Ayres?ÖÖ.
RW May 2006