This weekend my wife bought a copy of the Guardian, a rare event nowadays…we get most of our news online…and she must have been prescient for it was with great delight that the review section revealed an extract from a new collection of essays by W.G. Sebald. I came to him quite late in life through a colleague on my Masters course at DMU in Leicester only five years ago and had one of those wonderful, rare moments when you discover something that simply has to be a cultural touchstone (rare that is in later life I think) for your view of what the world comprises, how it operates and what on earth it means for us to be briefly a part of it. If you don’t know his work I would urge you to drop everything and go find one of the four great prose works (Austerlitz, The Emigrants, Vertigo and the simply sublime The Rings Of Saturn) and sit and read it. In one of four commentaries on the published extract (the book of four essays is being published in the UK on 2nd May I think) it is suggested that nowadays it is impossible to write about place and memory without being in a sense ‘Sebaldian’, and I’d share that view about the making of artworks, certainly those that retain some vestige of the idea of narrative or the use of indexicality in its most evanescent form (most often, though not exclusively, through Photography) and that draw upon ideas and images from history.
Of course for someone whose core activity and interest is in abstract painting all this might seem a long distance to travel and I guess that, perhaps, one’s being drawn into such a literary context suggests a certain failure of focus (most of those artists for whom Sebald holds the greatest fascination have tended to be more ‘literary’ in their chosen forms of expression – you might want to look at the book Searching For Sebald for superb examples of how much influence he has had on photography, drawing, installation etc.) and a desire to move towards a more discursive and loaded form of art making than that which non-figurative painting offers. I’ve mused on this before – and it might well be the accounting of why my own practice has oscillated wildly over the years – and yet always come back to thinking that some way has to be found that can encompass these thoughts and ideas and yet remain both resolutely abstract in conception and also have both formal and material integrity as a painting. I suspect however that I’ll not find a way, but maybe others will…I’ve yet to see works that I am totally convinced have taken on the task and completely succeeded though the works of my artist friend David Ainley make a pretty good fist of trying.
Sebald was very fond of simple, modest, b&w images that acted as visual interruptions as much as anything else to his texts…so I’ve chosen one of the many small photographs that get taken (nowadays on the mobile of course) as I go about the place myself. This one was taken on a trip out to Calke Abbey, a place I visit pretty regularly and for which I have a great affection, that is both a fairly typical English Country House and surrounding lands and at the same time a curious and eccentric ‘one off’. Part of the charm of it comes from the fact that time was, in a sense, ‘stilled’ for several generations before it became a part of the National Trust and as a consequence (and through the Trust’s good sense) there are many examples of things that reflect the passing of time, the enduring quality of the landscape through decay and renewal and the ways in which objects can speak to us through the years…all things that Sebald’s genius and legacy brings back to us time and again.