Friday, 8 May 2015

Why I Am Not a Painter by Kate Miller

COVER IMAGE Christopher Le Brun, Neither White, nor Warm, nor Cold (2013); oil on canvas, 210 x 420 cm (detail); reproduced with permission of the artist 

Frank O'Hara
I've often wondered what Frank O'Hara felt he’d missed by not being a painter. The hard physical graft? The mess? The long periods of waiting, watching and revisions before a composition comes right, years sometimes between attempts to finish a piece of work? Is there a difference between the artist’s process of mark-making and erasure, and the writer’s – similar, but less gestural - in the shaping of content?

Elizabeth Bishop
In The Observances, which opens with a series of meditations on looking, distance and detachment have become preoccupations but they are not subjects in themselves. They are part of the content, factors inherent in the way I report or remember landscape, weather and atmosphere and what takes place in time and place. Just as the horizon is at the limit of seeing, but can be extended by lifting your eye level, there’s a permeable limit on memory and recall. John Berger says “The relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled.” And since in language we are not so actually enmeshed in the visual and spatial we can have an element of not seeing, or missing: allowing gaps where ties are broken by distance. The separateness and smallness of the figure in landscape is nowhere more keenly sensed, or depicted, than at the ocean (“the roaring alongside” Elizabeth Bishop’s Sandpiper), beside the sea or even a tidal river, where sky and moving water dominate the view, shifting the eye and feet away from firm ground.

While artists have colour and shape for the eye to connect and collect, writers have sound at their
Water Lilies and the Japanese Bridge, 1897-99
Claude Monet
disposal, diction’s energy and rhythms (witness the great English lexicon of weather words Robert MacFarlane has amassed) and a kind of fact-condensed shorthand that readers can decode or google to suggest a certain type of place, the lie of its land and detail of its microclimate and native plants – what French winegrowers call 
terroir. With what economy of means a writer can define the time of day, even to some extent the date and certainly the season, compared to, say, the painter Monet, who as he works, must move on from one canvas to the next and change palette too (keeping several on the go) as the light changes and falls differently over Rouen’s west front or a haystack’s compact presence. The painter’s job is to stick it out, time passing, heat and cold taking its toll of his/her endurance because it is a physically demanding way of working, mark-making, erasing, more mark-making ... decision after decision.

Fishermen at Sea, 1796
J.M.W. Turner
Traditionally in painting distance is gauged, perspective applied (not always) and scale established in relation to the human figure. Western artists rarely figured in their finished paintings. But in many landscape studies, the onlooker may discover a little chap who provides the key, like Turner (almost cartoony) or a Dutch painter absorbed in making rapid notes of the scene that will be magnified and dramatised in the studio.

Practices have changed but artists still incline towards protracted
Jorie Graham
feats of assembling material and rendering grandeur. Take the photographs and lists of sculptor Richard Long, charting his treks through wild places, or the creation of a labyrinth of observatories in a desert crater by the American, James Turrell. They are engaged in a lifetime’s work of calibrating enormous masses and spaces and presenting them as both concept and document. Few poets (Anne Carson, Jorie Graham) venture into such big abstract regions.

In sculpture, and I prefer the sort which was always meant to be seen in the open air, ancient or modern, distance can be overcome by the onlooker.  Walk right up to a piece, discover it is your size or much bigger, as you guessed perhaps when you started walking. Because it is a real thing, you moved forward to close up the distance. You reached it. This is not easy to do in a poem.

I take my cue for writing about moving through landscape from Elizabeth Bishop because she has a particular way of letting place recover the past and invest/enrich her life experience. Read her walk by the sea at Duxbury, a late poem titled “The End of March”. The walk – along a beach deserted in unpropitious weather - becomes a way of viewing a new life for herself in late middle age. A shack in the distance starts to house dreams of a bookish solitude first dreamed of, we know from her letters, as a young woman when, staying on the same coastline at a friend’s cabin, she had sailed and walked alone for days, a self-sufficient Crusoe.

Bishop liked to watch sea-going ships – especially when she lived in waterside apartments in Rio and later Boston – with or without binoculars: she had very good eyesight. For me, wanting to be an artist started with a habit of staring: I was always at the window or on a rampart, and because I grew up in the harbour city of Portsmouth, I was watching tugs, boats, ferries, naval ships come and go. And of course the weather in all its English maritime inconstancy.

Developed by the training I've had in the visual arts, both as art historian and artist, this watchfulness has paid off now: I have done the exercises. I have the notes and drawings. Things I learned about paint and pigments, the materials and history of painting and sculpture, what I retain of craft skills, improved at St Martins when I stopped painting and began on a series of ephemeral installations for open-air sites: these are ingredients and experiences that underpin my practice as an observer and maker.

I am not a painter. But I am very pleased to have part of a magnificent painting by Christopher Le Brun on the cover of The Observances. It has everything in it I wanted to combine, a hybrid of scribble and weave, cloud and water, atmosphere and ambiguous surface and depth, all done with mark-making, erasure ... watch, wait ... less, more. 

Kate Miller grew up in Hampshire and now lives in London. She has received a number of awards including the Edwin Morgan International Poetry Prize in 2008. Selected for the 2011 and 2013 Salt Best British Poetry anthologies, her poems have appeared in journals including Poetry ReviewThe RialtoThe SHOpWarwick Review and the Times Literary Supplement.

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