Back in the fifth form at my secondary school, everyone had to go on a week long camping trip to the Isle of Purbeck. It was hell on earth, but my memories of it are sharp and nostalgic. We peeled off each day into our GCSE groups to do outdoor learning.
One art session saw us filing onto Nine Barrow Down to reluctantly sketch nature. As usual our teacher briefed us without emotion, as though art were a branch of science, analytical and dispassionate.
‘Ensure you choose a composition that draws the eye,’ he droned. ‘There should be something in the foreground, a rock or a branch. Then find a feature that pulls your eye through the landscape, something in the middle distance. A building or a pylon.’
That sketching trip was the first time I really contemplated and considered the spread of nature. I recognised that even in this most rural area of Dorset, there was no such thing as a truly unspoilt place. Those buildings and pylons which so neatly constituted the ‘visual interest’ in our sketches represented the reach of man, and his footprint was everywhere, from crisp packets in the bracken at our feet to the dinky houses of Corfe below us. In Southern England, nature is tame. It’s impossible to really get lost, you’re never more than a few miles from a farmhouse or a village or a roadway. Nature is safe and not really very wild at all.
The sea is our exception. I’ve lived on the south coast for most of my life, and I’ve often contemplated the majestic pull of the sea on my heartstrings. There’s nothing quite like standing where the mighty ocean gives up its struggle on the lip of the beach. Allowing that grey-green cataract to swamp your vision and letting the wind nag away at your face. I think it represents a place where language, time and place cease to matter, a literal no-mans-land on the edge of our rational thought. It connects us with the experience of the present moment and reminds us that, really and truly, mankind is master of nothing.
John Virtue’s exhibition of monumental gestural sea paintings at the Towner gallery, Eastbourne, seems to hold an awareness of this fact. Colour is immaterial (Virtue hasn’t used it since the 70s anyway), and so are locations. These stretches of coast are anonymous by choice. Gallery-goers love to label things and I confess that I’m no different. As I wandered around these giant acrylic paintings, I felt a little alienated and my first desire was to fix them in my mind – are they English coastlines? Couldn’t he at least tell me what county they are in?
Over in the second room a surprise awaited, as I found a glass case containing Virtue’s real source material – his sketchbooks. They are presented in such a way as to suggest that they are truly working notebooks – scattered randomly in the vitrine without any of the usual curatorial veneration reserved for delicate works on paper. They look as if the artist has cast them aside after finishing with them.
Virtue bases his large paintings, always made indoors, on notes taken on location in these books. They contain some compositional information but also, and perhaps more importantly, sensory data – as these gestures record how the artist felt. Each sketch is a wordless dialogue between endless nature and the hand which interprets it, and perhaps it’s for this reason the sketches look a lot like calligraphic writing.
It’s hard to dispel the notion that the contents of this glass case are just the tip of the iceberg in Virtue’s sketching odyssey. If the pages all look incredibly similar, this comes from the rather disconcerting fact that on the figurative level, the artist is recording very little. It’s the sea, just the sea, always the sea – no roadsigns or pylons or any of those handy visual interest points that my art teacher seemed sure were the ABCs of art. Stripped of these, what are we left with? The notebooks remind me somehow of the scene in The Shining when Shelley Duvall finally reads her husband’s novel and is horrified to learn that the enormous typescript is filled with just one sentence, endlessly repeated.
Yet these books form the backbone of this show, and they also help to explain the paintings. I realize they don’t need a location. They’re about something more eternal, to which we can never affix a label. To ask ‘where is this?’ is missing the point. They’re about the feeling of looking at the sea, and their powerful gestures evoke these emotions in a way that photos probably never could.
This show also got me thinking about other artists who’ve approached this singular and somewhat extreme subject matter. Only since Romanticism have we had any kind of artistic awareness of the ocean as a thing somehow separate to ourselves, a thing which limits and forbids human existence. The classic defining statement of this is Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Monk by the Sea’. X ray analysis has shown that Friedrich originally included boats in this picture before painting them out. They aren’t needed compositionally and their absence emphasises the lonely solitude of the monk, the fragility and temporary nature of both his presence and his time on earth. This picture is about life and by extension death as well. It can be comforting or depressing depending on how you look at it.
Few artists, even those most associated with the sea, ever seem willing to just depict it without including something, anything, to place it – a buoy, a boat, a lighthouse, a recognizable coastline. Turner was obsessed by the sea, famously lashing himself to a ship’s mast to get close to its essence – but there are surprisingly few paintings by him (aside from watercolour studies) which just show us the sea. Even a seascape like ‘Waves Breaking Against The Wind’ from 1840, which looks at first glance like a painting of pure elemental rage, turns out to feintly contain the man made lighthouse and sea wall of Margate, to remind us of the possibility of safety and rescue.
Lowry’s seascapes offer us a very different but quite unsettling vision of the ocean. His waters are calm and flat, and they go on as far as the eye can see without ship or shore – jarring by contrast with his more celebrated, busy scenes crammed with urban life, factories, families and homes. I think they’re two sides of the same coin however. Lowry has said that loneliness is the common thread to his work – and in the large industrial landscapes a veritable sea of his famed ‘matchstick men’ swarm like ants around factories and houses, constructing a world that Lowry is destined only ever to observe, never to join in with. Crowds swirl round at a safe remove, impenetrable and rather unfriendly. His seascapes are quieter and more peaceful, perhaps giving him personal solace from the crowd scene set-pieces – but they still possess this same melancholy isolation and ominous grey chill. These aren’t seas you’d want to swim in. They are calm and tranquil, but so cold they could kill you in minutes.
The Lowry seas call to mind a very different body of work – a series of photos by Hiroshi Sugimoto depicting oceans. This long running sequence (unfortunately perhaps now forever associated with the U2 song and album they inspired, ‘No Line on the Horizon’) takes us far far away from the expressive, felt realities of Virtue’s nameless seascapes. Sugimoto’s photographs are clearly titled with the name of each ocean. They are calm, flat waters which always meet in the very centre of the frame. Despite such economy of expression, each body of water has a different feel – different light, different skies. The water is the same, it’s the world that changes. And even as the titles fix each unique photo within the human world of place names (‘Indian Ocean’, ‘North Atlantic Ocean’), we can’t help seeing how little these names really matter, how downright weird and futile it is for any of these oceans to have a name or a category in the first place.
With Sugimoto, even more so than with Virtue, we find ourselves too in the slightly odd zone where abstract really does meet figurative. Is a picture of a scene untouched by man, in the middle of nowhere and with no defining landmarks to locate it in time and space, really a representation? A representation of what? How differently ought we to approach a Sugimoto sea versus a late black and grey Rothko?
Abstract meets figurative, too, in the seascapes of Vija Celmins. Awe-inspiring levels of time and energy have been poured into her lithographs and graphite drawings. Like Virtue her seas are monochrome and unlabeled, but hers are not expressionistic documents of an emotional response. They are dispassionate to the point of disengaging entirely from the source material – which is kind of the whole purpose, I think. Scrutinized to this powerful degree, with neither horizon line nor shore in frame, the mind can be forgiven for an occasional double take. What are we looking at – could this be an aerial view of a mind-bogglingly vast mountain range, or perhaps a landscape from some alien planet? It can’t be a coincidence Celmins has also created similar works based on photos of lunar landscapes. The moon, with its power over the tides, is connected to these drawings somehow – literally and figuratively. The sea, divorced entirely from all the signs of human existence and interference lies, with abstraction, beyond our feeble attempts at description in language. We can only observe and feel.
The Sea by John Virtue is at Eastbourne Towner Gallery til April 12th. Admission Free