Q&A with Liz Elton about my solo show FOREST MEMORY, as published in the exhibition catalogue, September 2017.
The works in this show reference various places that you have visited; a Finnish forest, the constructed Eden Project in Cornwall and the man-made oasis of Las Vegas. In considering the vegetation of each one how does the research influence the finished work?
For the ‘Circles in the Woods’ series, I spent a late winter month at Arteles art residency in Hämeenkyrö, Finland. The studio was just on the edge of the woods, which I walked through every day and could watch the cycles of the snowfall and melt, and how the same forest was in a constant state of change from one day to the next. I made the drawings back indoors. I think working in such close proximity to the forest and for an extended time contributed to an immediacy in the marks, and sense of space within the work.
I camped near the Eden Project for a few days last summer, while gathering material for the work about tropical forests. I was able to spend the time drawing in the rainforest biome between taking many photographs – both on film and digital. I think the time there brought something to the mood of the work I subsequently made back in London. I remember the humidity, which I think you get a sense of in the more out-of-focus paintings.
Vegas on the other hand – I just about ran through the casinos and hotels in The Strip over the course of a few hours one evening. My time there was brief and voyeuristic. I was observing, not participating. Perhaps there is a coolness, and disbelief in the illusion of it all that comes through in the thinness of the paint and reduced palette.
You were brought up in South Africa, and have spent more than half your life there. None of the works in this show references that landscape, but does that experience feed into your work in general?
There is an incredibly rich heritage of a mythical and sacred relationship to land and nature within many indigenous African traditions, though tragically much of it has been suppressed or lost through rapid modernization. I’ve always carried a real sense of enchantment within nature and the elements – growing up with strong winds and cold seas, with rocky mountains and shorelines for playgrounds as well as all kinds of forests. It took moving abroad to actually get some global perspective on the impact we are having on our planet. Climate change, in all its complexities, is one of the most pressing calls of our time, and so my work began to respond to that.
You have discussed in the past how your process involves uncertainty, how you wash away marks of initial drawings so that the resulting work is on the edge of abstraction, and of not knowing what the end result of the painting process will be. In this show you include paintings and prints on a range of surfaces, all resulting in a sense of the landscape slipping away to varying degrees. Could you talk about your choices of materials and the relationships between mark and surface?
I’m interested in how paint responds to different surfaces. While I enjoy experimenting with the same imagery across different media, certain themes can lend themselves to a specific medium, so at times I’ll limit my material choices for a particular series.
I’m fascinated by the marks achieved through water based monotypes – where watercolour is applied to a plastic surface, left to dry and then transferred onto damp cotton paper by being run through a heavy press. When applying the watercolour, it slides around on the surface; it’s not very well behaved and won’t do what you want it to. It dries in a particular way – in fine crisp pools, and translucent glassy drips.
This show includes paintings made on canvas and linen – both primed and un-primed, and aluminium panels coated in gesso. Each surface receives the paint in a different way, and evokes a different mark. The gesso surfaces are opaque, matt and intimidatingly pristine. It has a hard yet papery quality that makes it very absorbent and it stains with the lightest touch so seems to need a very direct application. I find it challenging to work on, but rewarding in the way that the subtlest impressions stand out in high contrast.
One of your photographs will feature in the National Maritime Museum’s new Polar Worlds Gallery opening next year, and you use photography quite extensively in your practice. How does your use of the two media, painting and photography, compare? Is there a cross over point where they inform each other?
Typically, I begin a painting with a photographic image as a reference. Where possible, I draw from my personal archive. I take a lot of photographs, or snapshots. In a way, this is often where the process of the painting begins: observing something, thinking about light, contrast, composition, playing with movement or blurring a form – all the considerations which can go into the process of painting as well. Depending on the content I am exploring at the time, I also draw from found media imagery. For example, press clippings or stills from news footage or documentaries.
While the reference image serves as a compositional and/or conceptual starting point, I’m not interested in creating an imitation, and despite my clearest intentions, will often have little idea of how the painting will unfold or reach completion. Rather, I enjoy working with what is unpredictable and fluid about paint, responding to the course of the work from moment to moment. And inviting the process and mark making to shift the image – to break it open, even undermine it, and bring something new to the narrative. And on a good day, perhaps begin to communicate more about how I feel about the subject. Increasingly, much of the starting image will have fallen away by the time the painting is completed.
It’s a while since I have used a photographic image as the completed work itself. I shot the Polar images whilst sailing on the west coast of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle. What made the series interesting for me is that I worked with an analogue rangefinder, and often exposed the negative multiple times. It’s a much slower process than working digitally and I had less control over what I was doing, which like painting can bring about exciting unpredictable outcomes. The multiple exposed images have the layered feeling of painting, and similarly evoke a sense of the transience of the experience or of the landscape dissolving.
Is there another landscape you would like to experience? How important is it for you to physically experience the environment you are referencing, and how do you feel about the inherent conflict of travel being part of the problem in the destruction of our environment?
I’ve thought about this a lot. A direct experience of somewhere undoubtedly changes the work – you gain a deeper and subtler understanding of things, but I don’t believe it is always essential. It’s certainly not always feasible, and of course there is the conundrum of the transport footprint. For my recent series Imagining the Amazon, I relied on visits to local constructions of rainforest environments, anecdotal material, documentaries, etc.
Wendell Berry once noted how we are implicated in the things we protest: ‘We’re all complicit in a broken system, and a broken world.’1 Sometimes one can hardly get through the day without questioning the ethics and repercussions of every act. It is so important that we do keep questioning and trying to make the choices that can contribute to the changes we want to see in that system, but at the same time we still have to function in that system. I try to find a middle ground.
I feel very fortunate to have experienced some exceptional and extreme landscapes, and have a lot of material that I am still working on. So perhaps only once I’ve made my way through that, I can think about another adventure. In the meantime, I’ve discovered immense joy and inspiration from growing vegetables, so there’s a lot to keep me excited about in my back garden!
The title of the show, ‘Forest Memory’ seems to underpin a two way process; our memory of something that belonged to the past, and the possibility that the forest itself might harbour its own memory. I am trying to consider whether there is a sense of threat here, of the painting looking back at us, of the trees having eyes?
This is really the emphasis of the title for me. What memory do the rocks and trees hold? Take London – do you think there is memory held within the land of what was here before? Landscapes hold physical traces of passing time and plants evolve through memory by responding to their environment. They have an intelligence in this way. I love your suggestion of the painting looking back at us. I think there is a lot we don’t understand about the world around us – and we can forget to acknowledge plants, and the planet as a whole, as beings themselves.
Concerns regarding the future of our environment hang heavy on us now. You have talked of your painting practice as a seed, of a place of potential in which you try to make sense of the world around you. Tell us more.
I find painting a mysterious process. When you bring an idea to a work, it’s really only the seed of something, and it’s through the making that more is revealed to you. Making a painting holds the same wonder for me as watching an unfamiliar plant growing for the first time. You don’t know what strange shape is going to pop out from where, next.
Maybe from my perception this series serves as both an homage to the extraordinary wonder of our plant world, and at the same time acknowledges our role in its destruction. But I don’t want to limit the experience of the work, so instead – to further the analogy – I hope rather to offer it as just the seed of a conversation which could open up in any direction and that allows the exploratory process to continue.
1 npr, Weekend Edition Sunday, The Gospel According To Wendell Berry, On Screen. Online. 24 April 2016.
Liz Elton is a landscape painter. Together with Rebecca Byrne she formed PaintUnion, organising talks about contemporary painting and curating shows including ‘Pool’ in 2016, and the forthcoming ‘Control to Collapse’ later this year.