9 June 2011

I’ve finally finished preparing for my talk tomorrow at York University’s Archaeology Department. Here is another section from it.


(Antler Head dress discovered at Star Carr, North Yorkshire, now kept at the British Museum)


I am not an artist whose primary aim is to express how I feel about something, although inevitably what I feel will come through in what I make.  The intuitive part of my work moves alongside a bank of knowledge that I try to build up as I research the area I’m involved with.  I see my work as an informed response that leads to a probing of the boundaries of the visible world.  So as an artist, I see myself agreeing with the American abstract painter Barnett Newman who said:

 “The present painter is concerned not with his own feelings or with the mystery of his own personality but with the penetration into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extent his art is concerned with the sublime.”   ( ‘The Plasmic Image’)

 That phrase “the world mystery” is one which stirs up a great sense of wonder in me, and from my perspective, is one of the main motivators for making art.

 How did I start developing my own particular approach?

I started by isolating three elements that represented for me an archaeological interest in the world: the circle, the stalactite (which sometimes reduces down to parallel lines), and the contour line, which sometimes becomes a series of ribbons.  This was largely influenced by Albrecht Durer, who used a ribbon kind of motif often in his engravings and drawings to separate the seen world from the unseen world.  I was looking at Durer’s work in particular to study the range and delicacy of the marks that he used in his compositions, to help me with ideas for my own graphic range.

I began to make compositions from the three elements I had chosen, building the paintings up in sequences of separate layers.  These three elements were a reference to the universal and to mapmaking and therefore landscape, with allusions to cave art, and therefore artistic imagination of the oldest possible kind.  My aim is to begin to develop a visual archaeological language of my own.

It was at this point that I started to think in terms of an archaeological imagination, and what that might mean in terms of a practice in visual art.  As a starting point, I think this involves a willingness to expect and accommodate the unexpected, and an interest in disassembling something in order to put it back together again, possibly with a different outcome.  As you can see, I haven’t got very far with this line of thought yet, but it is a topic I expect to think about for quite a long time to come.  In passing, if you would like to read something that examines this idea but more from the point of view of literature, I recommend a book called ‘Digging the Dirt’ by Jennifer Wallace.

Moving on from experimenting with three basic forms, I realised that the land itself is an important element of things, so I began to see things in terms of landscape, and to see that walking on the landscape must be the right starting point for new work.  I chose a place very near where I live as a place to experiment with, the Castle Headland at Scarborough, because there is evidence that there was once a Neolithic settlement there.  I walked from my house to the headland, and made a series of quick sketches on the way.  Back in the studio I developed these sketches into finished abstract drawings, starting with A4, and then going on to make a drawing 8’ long, seeking to develop a vocabulary of marks with cartographic references, and using the grey of graphite to reference rock and stone.  From all these drawings, a particular form distilled, which I then used as a basis for a painting.  I projected the expressive line that interested me onto the canvas and built the painting around it.  This became the painting ‘Headland:Scarborough’. 

It was Barbara Hepworth who had a lot of interesting things to say about landscape, including this particular comment which really caught my imagination

“Landscape is strong – it has bones and flesh and skin and hair.  It has age and history and a principle behind its evolution.”

 It strikes me that this demonstrates a very archaeological approach to what she saw around her.  No doubt something from this will filter into my definition of an archaeological imagination in the fullness of time.


Carmen Mills





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