Finding the Way 2: 1986-96

From 1986 to 1990 I undertook a full-time PhD Art History degree at, what was then, the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. A year after it’d begun, my mother died and I developed Myalgic Encephalitis (ME). The following year, I got married. Thus, in all these ways, my life changed immeasurably. In order to complete the doctorate (for which I was fortunate to have secured a full scholarship) in just over three years, I determined to remain focussed upon the task. A strict abstinence from the production of visual artwork was observed until the final year of research. Whenever I’ve returned from intervals of practice-based inactivity, it has always been through observational drawing. My mind, eyes, and hand need, first, to relearn how to see and render in unison. During that final year, I periodically took a break from writing-up my thesis and sat in front of my lounge window to draw the houses on the opposite side of the road. I conceived of the prospect before me as a still life rather than as a landscape.

Two Houses, Caradoc Road (1990) pencil, 39.9 x 38 cm & Caradoc Road: Caemelyn (1990) pencil, 42.9 x 27.7 cm

Once I’d submitted by thesis, painting returned to the centre of my interests once more. Through it, I re-engaged with the landscape of the Ebbw Fach valley, where I’d grown up. The earlier drawings had nurtured a sensibility for breaking-up the subject of representation and construction into discrete shapes, colours, and surfaces locked together to form a pictorial unity. The paintings were small-scale and intimate — like the visual and emotional experiences that’d inspired them. Increasingly, the implied space behind the picture plane diminished, following the tradition of planar composition established by Cézanne, Picasso, and Braque. However, the artworks, while representing an extension to my own visual ‘language’, were not pushing any boundaries in terms of established conceptions of how landscape (either observed or remembered) might be conveyed. The paintings appeared to be so reassuringly safe as to contain the seeds of their own inevitable demise. At the time I was also troubled by what, to my mind, was a developing and cloying attachment to predictable, sentimental, and conservative notions of ‘Welsh landscape art’, on the part of artists and public alike.

Tabernacle (July 1976) (1990) acrylic on cardboard, 24 x 24 cm & Berea I (1990) acrylic on cardboard, 24 x 24 cm

My way of escape was to abandon many of the pictorial conventions associated with landscape painting — the rectilinear boundary, for one — reintroduce space literally (through a constructive process) rather than illusionistically, and remove many of the recognisable iconographic elements associated with landscape. In so doing, I revisited a method of abstraction, assembly, and painting that’d emerged at the close of my MA Visual Art degree. The Attic series recalled the first studio that I worked in after graduating from my BA Fine Art studies in 1981. My father and an uncle had worked tirelessly to convert the attic of my parents’ pine-end terraced house in Abertillery into an additional room. Unfortunately this ‘garret’ had no windows, which meant that I worked under artificial light only and the space became unbearably hot during the summer. The painted constructions that I produced in the mid-1990s were re-imaginings of a world — to which I’d been blind — that had lain immediately beyond and below the studio roof. Over the next three years, the constructive process was used to articulate my response to scenes outside my house and around Aberystwyth where, from 1992 to 1995, I was employed as Lecturer in Art at the, then, Department of Art.

Attic IV (1992) acrylic on plyboard, 21 x 27 x 6 cm & Attic I (1992) acrylic on plyboard, 21 x 27 x 6 cm

In 1995, a hybrid form combining figurative drawing (transcribed from linear renderings made in situ) and abstract painting emerged, alongside larger scale architectonic constructions based upon places and chapels in Aberystwyth and Abertillery.

Abertillery I (1995) oil and pencil on cardboard, 36 x 40.5 cm & Pen Dinas: Trefechan (1995) oil and pencil on cardboard, 29.2 x 58.4 cm
Abertillery (1995) acrylic on plyboard, 40.5 x 60 x 8.5 cm & Bethel I (1995) acrylic and wood stain on plyboard, 44 x 58.7 x 12 cm

That year, I published my first book: The Art Of Piety: The Visual Culture of Welsh Nonconformity. The following year, I held a one-person exhibition at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth of work derived from the previous decade’s endeavours, entitled Abertillery Aberystwyth: Landscape Languages. It presented a broad range of painterly, constructed, collaged, printed, and drawn responses to the two places with which I’d an enduring spiritual and emotional connection. I was, then, 37 years of age and a father. The exhibition represented the endpoint of a nineteen-year period of visual inquiry and technical development that’d begun in September 1977, when I enrolled on the Foundation Studies course at Gwent College of Higher Education, in Newport. Following the exhibition, I observed a hiatus from picture-making. This was not only my choice but also a necessity that arose from within the corpus of the artwork and the competing demand to establish a reputation as an art historian. For the next three years, I focussed on completing my second book — Image of the Invisible: The Visualization of Religion in the Welsh Nonconformist Tradition (1999) — and settling into my new roles as Professor of Art and Head of the School of Art at Aberystwyth University.

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