Rebbecca Salter by Anna Moszynska
'The bamboo-shadows move over the stone steps
as if to sweep them, but no dust is stirred;
The moon is reflected deep in the pool, but the
Water shows no trace of its penetration' (Zendo poem)
There is an oriental quality to Rebecca Salter's paintings, which as in the case of a Japanese poem, invites quiet contemplation. What at first appears almost empty (the canvas expunged of external references) is actually surprisingly full. Closely observed, the surfaces reveal a wealth of incident. A morass of intricate lines, invisible to the camera, incise and texture the surface, not unlike the raked rills of gravel in a Zen garden. Sequences of drips, suggesting the traced patterns left by the trajectory of a shower, run in formation, horizontally, vertically or diagonally beneath and between the various layers of paint which sit on the canvas, thin as veils. Two techniques and traditions are brought together, East meeting West: the calligraphic - in the sense that the drips are formed from Japanese ink diluted with water, and the painted - in that the various layers are composed from acrylic, a substance artistically born in American stain-painting art. It is not surprising to find that the artist spent six years living and working in Japan. Yet who would guess that hidden below the subtle tones and minimal colouring of these delicate paintings lurk monochrome hues as violent and bold as orange, red and bright purple? Salter's work then, involves a covering up - a gradual working over what was towards what will become - a process which inevitably encompasses movement from one state to another over a slow passage of time.
It follows that the making of these works is highly labour intensive, requiring patient dedication to the many, often repeated, stages which lead to their completion: incising, painting, dripping. Trying to follow set deadlines or rush the work at any point is futile - each part of the activity flows from the unconscious and must be left to run its own pace. Underscoring this idea is the artist's empathy with the oriental belief that you can't actually do anything unless you're at one with what you're doing. And you can really only do that when you reach a certain state of absorption. 2 Body and mind are both engaged in the pursuit, working together to tap resources beyond the conscious. Interestingly, the state of mind of a Zen master when engaged in his own working process is known as Mushin - 'no-mind' - a similar condition to that described. Salter's own painting progresses intuitively, is not pre-planned, and develops from within. The calm and inner poise required for the making is palpably revealed in the final result, but the effort of time involved may not come easily to an audience geared to the more immediate, visceral power of the 'big hit'.
In this respect, Salter's work fits into a tradition of Western abstract painting that has long held sympathy with the quieter, less ego-driven aesthetic of the East. It finds an accord, for example, in the so-called 'white writing' paintings of the American artist, Mark Tobey who spent time consolidating his earlier interest in Eastern ideas on his travels to Shanghai and Japan in 1934. Commenting that his own work was a kind of self-contained contemplation, Tobey found that the Japanese approach helped him to combine simplicity, directness, and profundity as well as teaching him the meaning of abstraction, concentration and dedication - concepts which Salter herself often comes back to in discussion.
As was the case with the Japanese scroll painters and calligraphers who sat down to work with the paper stretched out in front of them, Salter works her canvases flat, eye and hand engaging simultaneously with the horizontal. This type of working also allows for a different engagement with space - a sort of reverse perspective, belonging to an Eastern tradition of seeing, and thinking, about the world. The painter, Ad Reinhardt, who empathised with this tradition himself, described such effects in a comment he made about Zen painting in 1954: The eastern perspective begins with an awareness of the 'immeasurable vastness' and 'endlessness of things' out there, as things get smaller as they get closer, the viewer ends up by losing (finding?) himself in his own mind'. The absence of horizon in Salter's work also means that the suggestion of space can be interpreted as an indefinite space. The spatial gaps between the individual markings in her paintings are as significant as the marks themselves - a concept which parallels the almost untranslatable Zen notion of Ma (roughly meaning both time and space but also interval, as in the space between brushstrokes). In oriental culture, the monumental is in the miniature, the detail is what counts - a point which can just as easily be applied to the painstaking approach Salter takes in creating her own form of abstract painting.
Despite her interest in Eastern ideas, Salter's work still retains concerns relating both to the London locale in which she works and to recent British art. She uses her own body as a reference point for the scale and proportions of her work which ties in with the concerns of other contemporary painters. In this current series, for example, she uses a ratio taken from measurements of her own height and breadth, exploiting this proportion as a set of rules to work with. Although totally different in terms of intention and effect, this has something in common with the more process-based approach of other British painters, some of whom also base the measure of their work on their own scale or physical reach. Furthermore, the hues of her work suggest something of the urban setting in which they were made and indicate something more concrete than merely 'mental space'. The colours and also the tones of the work intriguingly offer no hint of the green park visible outside the studio windows. Instead, something of the luminescence of the city sky, with its characteristic even greyness and twilight semi-darkness going into night, can be sensed in the colour range of the current paintings. The tonal subtleties that are created provide variations and reverberations within the vertical subdivisions of each individual work and also across the group as a whole when installed and seen as a series.
Ultimately, perceptions which suggest a sense of the here and now and the everyday are also part of a Zen way of relating to the world. This new exhibition of Rebecca Salter's work shows how she manages, once again, quietly and successfully, to ride the two traditions, East and West, in tandem.