Finding the Way 1: 1977-83
The child is father of the man (William Wordsworth, ‘My Heart Leaps Up’ (1802))
I’m presently converting 35mm slide transparencies of artworks that I’d made on my BA (Hons) and MA fine art degree schemes into digital images. Eventually, these (along with reproductions of artworks from subsequent periods in my development) will be uploaded to an online open-access archive of my visual art practice. In so doing, the project also aims to preserve the artworks’ photographic record through media-migration. Film positives have a shelf-life; ‘moth and rust doth corrupt, and … thieves break through and steal’. Mine are still as good as the day they were taken, over forty years ago in some cases. However, much of the artwork from which they were derived has either deteriorated with age or been lost, destroyed, and stolen (in a few cases). Digitisation preserves, albeit as a second-generation copy, the originals intact.
As undergraduate painters at the Faculty of Art and Design, Newport, Gwent (1977-81), my peers and I arranged for a technician to photograph our studio work every term. (He was a grandmaster of the light meter.) Thus, at the end of our education, each of us had a professional record of everything that we’d made. None of the tutors told us to do this; it just seemed like the committed and sensible thing to do. We took the initiative, in other words.
I’ve no intention of digitising my entire collection; the aim, rather, is to publicise a cross section representative of those formative years, to serve as milestones along the way to where I’m presently. The early paintings and drawings embody advice, directions, ideas in the offing, and the wisdom of hindsight, that I’m now passing from my younger to my older self. That said, part of me would like to go back and give that boy — fresh out of his teens — a piece of my mind: ‘Get off the fence!’; ‘Stick with one thing long enough to make a breakthrough!’; ‘Stop majoring in minors!’; ‘Look to as much to your heritage as to art!’; ‘Integrate! Consolidate!’; Be braver!’; ‘Analogy and metaphor … art is all about creating analogies and metaphors!’; And, don’t give up playing the guitar!’
However, it was the meanderings, failures of nerve, and all the other deficits, defeats, and discouragements associated with his past efforts, that edged him towards the way. Perhaps he wouldn’t have found it without them. Not that John would have listened to me back then in any case. My 20-year old self had been nurtured on an art school education that stressed self-reliance in the face of difficulties. Tutors would never wade-in with solutions to a your problems. When they saw you drowning in the sea of unknowing, rather than throw you a life-ring they’d calmly advise from the shoreline: ‘Maybe this would be a good time to learn how to swim!’
At the close of my BA studies, in 1981, the subject matter of the artwork was the industrial landscape of the South Wales valleys (where I’d grown up) and typewriters, principally. (There was a connection between the two.) At the beginning of my MA studies, in 1982, the artworks were based upon the landscape of Aberystwyth and typewriters (once again). On occasion, making art is not unlike knitting: you take it up from where you left off.
Sheet after sheet of slides are held up to the light for scrutiny. Each has an image of at least one salient work that anticipated the path I’d take. For example, during that first year of postgraduate study (the second was devoted to writing an art history thesis), I adopted an assemblage or collagist approach to making artworks. It arose from a fascination with Picasso’s cubist sculptures of guitars, which he made between 1912 and 1914. Landscape and still life were my point of departure, as they had been for the early cubists. The modus operandi I engaged involved dismantling and reconstructing the object of inquiry to create a new whole that simultaneously corresponded to, but remained independent of, the object.
This particular characteristic of ‘the way’ has remained a constant in my work. It underlay the visual artwork that I produced after I’d graduated, and endured the two most significant and radical transitions in my art practice: firstly, from object-based to text-based subject matter and, secondly, from a visual to an acoustic orientation. When, in 2009, I returned to making sound works (after a 32-year hiatus), my process of sonic composition was and remains, fundamentally, one of putting together discrete elements of sound … to create a new whole.
Music, in one form or another, has contributed to my visual art since the second year of my first degree. For example, I disassembled the score of Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839-81) Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) to produce collages analogous to an electronic circuit board and electricity substation; made drawings and paintings of an upright piano’s interior; and built a wooden gramophone record player inspired by Picasso’s synthetic cubist sculptures. Unbeknown to me at the time, those preoccupations were signposts pointing towards the way I’d be headed much later on in my development.