The experience of the painter

It is the mountain itself which from out there makes itself seen by the painter; it is the mountain that he interrogates with his gaze. What exactly does he ask of it? To unveil the means, visible and not otherwise, by which it makes itself a mountain before our eyes. Light, lighting, shadows, reflections, colour, all the objects of his quest are not altogether real objects; like ghosts, they have only visual existence.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1961, pp 11-12)

Imagine a geographic expanse of land; picture the depressions of valleys and the crests of mountain tops. Glide gracefully over undulating hills and spin around an expanse of rock to gain a sense of its depth, its volume, its solidity, its immense weight.

Perhaps it is an obvious thing to point out, but these images are based upon our experience of representations of the landscape. It is important to remember that such images are derived from aerial photographs and computer generated imagery, stories and fantasies; they are based upon what you learnt in school about space; they reflect concepts that are proper to cartography but which are not derived from being in the landscape.

The distinction between images based on systems of representation and the actual experience of landscape is at the heart of Andrew’s work. But we must be clear – as Andrew is when speaking about his practice – that neither way of thinking about landscape is any more or less ‘real’ than the other. As Merleau-Ponty highlighted, as we walk, that distant mountain only reaches us through our sense of sight– it is always something of a spectre. And as we walk we do so in order to change where we are and therefore to change what we can see, so that the landscape is something that is constantly remade by us in our experience of it. As a painter, Andrew works to reveal the problems of trying to deal with experience visually, but also reminds himself through field trips he makes of what it feels like to touch objects and be amongst them.

A recurrent motif in Andrew’s work is the abstract geometric structure placed on top of an image of a landscape (And we have to say ‘on top of’ rather than ‘in front of’ because even though these geometric forms are unbroken by the landscape, we cannot really be sure that foreground and background conventions are in play). These abstract structures evoke modern ways of representing and building in space. And Tim Ingold, in his work dedicated to the history of lines, has highlighted at length the ideology embedded in straight lines:

The relentlessly dichotomising dialectic of modern thought has, at one time or another, associated straightness with mind as against matter, with rational thought as against sensory perception, with intellect as against intuition, with science as against traditional knowledge, with male as against female, with civilization as against primitiveness, and – on the most general level – with culture as against nature. (Ingold 2007, p152)

In the context of Andrew’s work, these straight lines are held in suspension against a landscape that they ultimately fail to contain. Waterfalls, those amorphous entities made from moving liquids, spill over edges and trees proffer a tangle of bifurcating branches, strewn like loose threads, in contempt of the flat surface of the picture plane. Andrew doesn’t allow the ideology of the straight line to exert control. They hover and float, and like many images derived from systems of representation have an abstract sense of permanence about them, but they do not delineate or section off.

The new silverpoint drawings on paper have the quality of afterimages left on the retina. Within them certain forms are simply hollows; where other forms are shadows. The white of the hollows becomes a kind of space into which our own afterimages might reveal themselves and where we might project imaginary forms. Shadows, as we know, are areas from which no light escapes, meaning that we also only see them in their absence. They speak of that uncertainty which is in attendance when we perceive the world, sense it by intuition, but cannot yet recognise and understand it.

Andrew’s practice taken as a whole is bound to a sense of duration, always looking forwards. When Andrew is out in the field, touching objects, writing, drawing and photographing, he has a sense of things to come. The fragments he gathers become elements that crowd the studio walls. The sketches, notes and photographs extract small structural forms that can be repeated, reused and recombined. And through this process Andrew tries to get back to experience, back to the sensations of being. Experience, which this process is woven through, has everything to do with our connection to a world that is still to be determined, still coming into being.

In the language of phenomenology, that branch of philosophy practiced by thinkers also trying to get back to experience, “The perceived thing is not an ideal unity in the possession of the intellect, like a geometrical notion, for example, it is rather a totality open to a horizon of an indefinite number of perspectival views which blend with one another according to a given style, which defines the object in question.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964, p.439) In other words, with Andrew’s work to guide us, in experience we understand any object or idea as something that we could encounter again from a different perspective. We cannot get at the ‘essence’ of landscape when we can possibly see it in different lights later on, in different weather conditions, different moods; when we can always discover new things about it. “The idea of going straight to the essence of things is an inconsistent idea if one thinks about it. What is given is a route, an experience which gradually clarifies itself, which gradually rectifies itself and proceeds by dialogue with itself and with others.” (Ibid, p443). Andrew’s works hold together in a way that allows us to move through categorically different layers, checking one against another, reminded of the process of their making and accumulation. It is in this way that following the life blood of those shadow-branches, we are passed between systems of representation, which then gently guide us back to lived experience.

Ingold, Tim (2007) Lines: A Brief History. London; Routledge.
Merleau-Ponty, M (1961) Eye and Mind in Joseph D. Parry (ed.) (2011) Art and Phenomenology. London; Routledge.
Merleau-Ponty, M (1964) The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays in Moran, Dermot and Timothy Mooney (2002) The Phenomenology Reader. London; Routledge.
Moran, Dermot and Timothy Mooney (2002) The Phenomenology Reader. London; Routledge.
James Clegg is a freelance writer and a curator at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh. His writing has regularly been published in Art Review, Art Monthly and The Drouth, whilst also featuring in artist books and catalogues. Working across academic and fiction genres, he has lectured for the University of Edinburgh and participated in performance art events.