There are other reasons why I find archaeological sites such a springboard for making art. For example, it makes me see landscape with different eyes. The fact that the same physical space can have so many layers of meaning belonging to it is fascinating. Is it true of us as individuals? The space that we occupy, whether physical or metaphysical, is it one which presents a multi-layered appearance, or are those layers only visible as we dig deeper? And are those layers the record of significant times and events, laid down in their chronological sequence, or is the recording of them based on criteria other than time? Are the layers that we are conscious of a matter of individual manipulation? Or do we build up layers unconsciously, as a natural consequence of life experiences? Perhaps I’m straying into the realm of psychology here, but then, isn’t one of the most fundamental questions that we ask to do with the nature of our own being, with what tells me who I am? Somehow, being in a particular landscape, experiencing a connectivity with human beings who occupied the same physical space but in completely different circumstances, captures this sense of stratification. Which is what urges me to seek visual form through painting and drawing to begin some kind of dialogue about these kinds of questions.
And here I must show you some work by a very underrated and under exposed British artist, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham.
Glacier Crystal Grindewald, 1950, oil on canvas, 51.4 x 60.9 cms
Along with ‘Upper Glacier’, painted in 1950, and ‘Glacier Vortex’, painted in 1951, WBG conveys a real sense of layers, and the prospect of these layers being more complex than a mere physical stratification. I must admit that I find ice exciting, and possibly why Star Carr is important to me, in that it came into existence just after the end of the last mini ice age, and therefore poses all kinds of questions about human interaction in such a demanding environment. WBG for me captures something of the fascination of ice in her wonderful paintings.
Glacier Study , offset on paper (?) , 1950
Her drawings are equally evocative:
Glacier Knot, 1978, ink on card
Perhaps it’s no surprise to find that she is conscious of a fusion of the outward and the inward as she makes her paintings and drawings. To quote Lynne Green in her wonderfully comprehensive monograph on WBG:
“While Barns-Graham continues to draw inspiration from the landscape and from her great love of the natural world, she is at pains to point out that much of her work is driven by the ample resource of her unconscious. This has been the case, in fact, since her first essays in abstraction, Her practice in recent years of laying down a brushstroke and then setting the painting aside, allows a period of gestation before she returns to it: the mark then ‘tells me what to do- much of it is very deep, not just about looking out of the window, it’s also about what goes on inside.’ ” (‘W. Barns-Graham, a Studio Life’)
There are so many more images that I would like to show you, but perhaps it would be better for you to look them up for yourself. I particularly like the paintings she made about ice in the 1980s called ‘Variation on a Theme.’ And her drawings of volcanic rock on Lanzarote made in 1990 are quite beautiful.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham ‘Lava Forms’, 1992, chalk on black paper.
It encourages me to think that it is possible to find a visual language to talk about these issues of identity affected by stratification and excavation. Thank you, WBG. If you hadn’t been working in the same group as more prominent male artists, I’m sure you would have had the recognition that you deserve. So a ‘thank you’ also goes to Lynne Green for fighting her corner.