Beyond the mark
14.75 x 14.75
inches oil on paper
Oil paint, Matthew Lanyon tells me, can take as long as ninety years to dry fully. Ninety years during which a painting goes on quietly changing of its own accord, becoming itself, learning to be looked at by new eyes.
Will artists be using oil paints at all in the year 2104? I am glad that Matthew Lanyon still does, because to me the smell that haunts the door to his studio on a warm June afternoon – linseed oil, turps, the indefinable earthy-flowery backnote of pigment – is the smell of art. Art in its living state, that is, caught in the act of being made. Which in practice means being destroyed and begun again, often innumerable times.
On a surface to one side of the painting area, a slew of Stanley knife blades lies like spilled treasure. Their edges are gobbed with bright scrapings of cadmium red, Naples yellow, burnt sienna – lethal evidence of the artist’s second, or fifth, or fiftieth thoughts about a work in progress. Lanyon has a craftsman’s feel for tools and materials that are good to handle. With this go certain useful rules of engagement, such as ‘if you’re prepared to scrape a painting back, then it’s really begun.’
42.5 x 42.5
inches oil on board
And he means it: really as in fasten your seatbelts. Once begun, once the knife is out, a painting can play hard to get. It can suggest one solution while demanding another. It can enthral and infuriate, conceal its strengths and flaunt its weaknesses. Lanyon has another rule: that in the final analysis, as his artist father put it, a painting ‘only adds up one way’.
But how does Lanyon decide which way? Typically in his paintings, there’s a lot of action around the edges. Whatever is going on in the centre, there is the possibility of a peripheral journey, a kind of coast path around the painting that could start or end on any one of its four sides. The route is often marked by topographic ciphers. If you’re familiar with Lanyon’s work, you quickly recognise ‘the usual suspects’. ‘Abstract’ is a word you could use in this context only with caution and qualification. At your peril, I would say.
Holding the Very
7 feet x 5
oil on canvas
Take Holding the Very. If you start at top left, you can follow the beam of Godrevy Lighthouse as it sharpens to a point, below which a fiery spot denotes the midsummer sunset viewed from Gwithian. Track upwards to the right, and the triangular shape signifies Perranporth airfield. The journey continues under a blue moon, down the right side to the lights on the communications mast above Camborne. The clockwise traveller then passes through at least three more sunrises, large and small, to reach, at lower left, an area resembling a misty long-barrow – firm ground under the sea, with a figure-of-eight ship’s propeller turning above.
Within such frames of reference, particular narratives take shape – stories, as often as not, that speak of wild pursuits and unmapped regions. In 2010–11 Lanyon produced a series of paintings informed by the myth of Europa, the girl carried out to sea by Zeus in the shape of a bull. Horns or breasts, cliffs or coves: the shapes oscillate between associations. In the present show, Holding the Very contains references to figures of an ancient Greek kore, a midwife bending her partner’s leg, and, bearing John the Baptist’s head on a platter at centre-left, the now-you-see-her-now-you-don’t presence of Salome. With Lanyon’s larger works especially, narrative allusion in the title is not – as is often the case with abstract art – a loosely connected identifier but a clue to the work’s formation. And ‘Once you read it, you’ve got lock-on.’
Artists through history have developed different ways of tricking a painting into showing what it’s made of. Leonardo da Vinci advised placing a mirror in the studio, to view your work back-to-front. Sandra Blow had an internal spyhole at roof level in her studio, from which she liked to ‘catch a painting unawares’. Lanyon’s technique for getting a painting to ‘talk back’ is best understood from the top of a stepladder – the vantage point he adopts to see whether or not it ‘adds up’. He has installed a small horizontal wheel, like a potter’s wheel, which can support even large canvases attached to a backboard. Viewed this way, through a series of rotations, paintings are shaken up to reveal imbalances or false terms in the visual equation, to allow Lanyon to pinpoint at each stage of a work’s evolution ‘the species of failure that drives an artist on’.
71 x37 inches
oil and acrylic on canvas
Though the wheel helps, there are no short cuts between a blank canvas and a painting that adds up. ‘Painters have to invent themselves every time,’ Lanyon insists, giving this axiom – which all serious artists recognise – a chastening evolutionary turn: ‘It’s having to start again as a cephalopod.’ A risky business, then; but ‘Without risk, it’s just entertainment.’ Looking down from the ladder as Lanyon demonstrates how the wheel works, I don't want Seventh Lap to stop turning. The spinning and dislocation of the image replicate in a few moments the art-induced vertigo that more usually comes after long looking, as the eye moves constantly between tiny details, like Holding the Very’s Gwithian sunset, and the framing or animating forms within which such details live as though for themselves alone.
49.25 x 55.25
inches acrylic on canvas
What I like and look for in a painting, I realise, is this feeling of something that goes on being made, that survives any number of assaults, and – even once it has left the studio and started a calmer phase of existence, in which the worst it may suffer is an unsympathetic stare – goes on becoming. Like aircraft fuel, gunpowder or wind off the sea, the smell of oil paint is a heady summons, leading the painter and the viewer towards a terra incognita. The stories and map-like journeying are part of this process too. For all the sensory pleasure to be had from the materiality of paint, from the pressure and momentum of a brushstroke or knife-scrape, ‘It’s imperative’ (Lanyon cites his father once more) ‘to go beyond the mark.’
© Michael Bird July 2014
Michael Bird is a writer and art historian. His books include monographs on Sandra Blow, Bryan Wynter and Lynn Chadwick, and The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Place and Time.