Painting shadows by Charlotte Mullins
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour
From William Blake Auguries of Innocence
Rebecca Salter's paintings are paradoxes. They appear tranquil, yet are full of movement; they seem monochrome but are made up of myriad colours; they have delicate surfaces woven in skeins of acrylic and ink yet your eye plunges through into unfathomable depths. They appear empty, but rarely are paintings so full.
One of Salters' favourite Japanese writers, Junichiro Tanizaki, wrote of differing perceptions of emptiness in In Praise of Shadows (1933), when he described the beauty of a Japanese room as depending on "a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows - it has nothing else. Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament. Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows." Salter has translated this subtle Eastern aesthetic into paint, so that through painting many layers, each one veiling its predecessors, she ends up with a surface that at first glance looks "bereft of ornament", yet shimmers with the shadows and secrets that lie just beneath, waiting to be discovered.
To appreciate the complexities of her work takes time, and a certain state of mind. You can only sense her paintings fully if you are not scrutinising them, but let them infiltrate your body and mind, rather like ghosts. Only then can you start to feel your way through the surface, into the depths created by up to 40 layers of paint.
The surface geometry and oblique references to the landscape used in her earlier work have disappeared now, and these new works have a sense of the sublime. She may not be painting raging waterfalls or avalanches, but a similar sense of awe, of unfathomable scale, is present. There's a feeling of looking at something close up and yet simultaneously far away - here is Blake's infinity in the palm of your hand.
The paintings' delicate surfaces veil hidden depths, rather like Tanizaki's description of traditional lacquerware having "a depth and richness like that of a still, dark pond". Salter wraps her painted surfaces over the edges of the stretcher so the image extends beyond the picture plane - you still know that in reality paintings are flat surfaces, but somehow her work bypasses your reason and plays with your emotions instead, seducing you into seeing the depths hidden in them like Narnia in Lucy's old wardrobe.
The sublime is intrinsically linked to the spiritual, which is itself evoked in her latest work. Salter repeatedly returns to the diptych format, perhaps alluding to panels for private worship such as the Wilton Diptych, updating it with an ethereal abstract spirituality for today's worshippers.
Despite her European interests in exploring the inner self and capturing the spiritual sublime, Salter also has a kinship with Japanese beliefs of a subdued aesthetic and an interest in surface and craftsmanship. It is not surprising - she studied Japanese scroll paintings at college, and was awarded a scholarship to study in Japan shortly after graduating, staying six years. She had looked to the East even before living there, but it had been through the eyes of a ceramicist. It was only during her time in Japan that she began to experiment with painting. Having studied calligraphy, and been fascinated by its control of light and dark through the black brushstrokes on the white paper, she initially started experimenting with inks on Japanese paper.
On her return to England in 1985 she began to make rapid watercolour sketches of the landscape. After the rigorous control of Japanese art, she enjoyed these little sketches for their vitality. They were full of movement, something she was keen to capture in her work. So she took her large abstracted landscapes and cut them up. To cut up a finished work takes a great deal of courage, but Salter was convinced that the only way to invigorate these larger works was to alter their harmony, to move around the original patterns and create new dynamics. Cutting each work up into squares, she would move them around like a puzzle, fracturing the original lines and creating new relationships, like tree rings in a log that has cracked as it dries, or tectonic plates shifting then settling. They were still whole, comprised of the same matter, but they had been irrevocably altered. Where the squares touched, tension points were created, which fixed your eye firmly on the surface, making it dance along the lines to a new tune.
At this time she favoured a move to working on canvas, the paper making all her work take on a softness she associated with the overtly decorative traditions of Japanese art. Elements of nature continued to provide loose patterns for subject matter throughout the 1990s - in 1996 swooping arcs appeared like great solar rings or fast-flowing streams. As with all her work, these paintings were covered in flickering lines which followed the curve of the arc like iron filings under the control of a magnetic force.
More recently Salter has pared her work down. She had continued to work on paper as well as canvas, and many of her 1999 drawings appear no more specific than evoking driving rain running down a window pane, or the swirling mists of dawn. In her new work it is the colours alone that share natural associations - the blue of the deepest sea; the grey of a stormy sky; the brown clods of the earth.
Towards the end of the 1990s Salter stopped cutting up her canvases. If it was a bold move to start cutting, then it was bolder to stop, as reputations are often built on continuity. But she felt that the internal edges caused by the cuts were restricting the eye from entering the work, like the black grids of Mondrian, or the flat perspectives of Japanese prints.
The works remain comprised of hundreds, thousands, of lines. They no longer arc or squiggle across the surface, but are loosely parallel to the edges of the canvas. Each canvas begins unstretched, stapled taut to a board, and is covered in broad vigorous brushstrokes. The colours for these initial marks are surprising - hot orange, lurid pink, deep purple, colours she admits to loathing. The rest of her time on the painting is spent covering them up, using "off-colours" as she calls them - sable and khaki and marine blue, all mixed by her in the studio. It's odd to start with colours she dislikes; it is as if the wild expressionist in her pops out while she's not looking, and she spends the rest of her time hiding the fact, painting in earthy colours, hoping no-one will notice. But it's also like archaeology in reverse - a shiny bauble that she has buried deep beneath the ground, only a sliver showing on the surface, a small clue as to what lies beneath.
What this garish base colour offers is a coherence, an underlying colour that glows through the subsequent thin veils of paint until enough layers have been added to leave only the merest hint of the original. (It's interesting to note that work produced directly after a trip to Yemen in 1998 and Mexico in 2001 is brighter, with less veils applied to restrain the initial colour.)
As she paints layer upon layer of acrylic, intercut with ink washes and occasionally watercolour, almost as much paint is taken off as put on. On the windowsill in her studio, which is flooded with light from north-east facing windows, is a row of glass-shaped solids, like the jars of coloured sand you can buy at the seaside, colours delicately layered to create a picture. Each one of these solid forms is made from the pigment residue that she scratches, rubs and lifts off the surface during each painting's creation. In one painting, delicate white lines waver in vertical stripes, created by a broad brush that she loaded with paint, pulled down the canvas then rubbed away while still wet - only the edges, which had already dried, remain. In another the surface is scored by fine indentations all following the same route like synchronized swimmers, the result of dragging a Yemeni sweeping brush across the canvas; in yet another hard pencil strokes have scratched the paint away, leaving shiny graphite trails. Other works appear additive - one work has wavy lines running down it, slightly darker than the surrounding blue, caused by the overlap as her hand went from left to right with her brush, covering the surface. Another has drips of glossy ink that have trickled over previous layers and are now partly hidden by subsequent ones. She enjoys the serendipity of working in this manner, allowing the paint to dictate its own pattern, or using a range of tools to mark the surface in often unexpected ways.
Many of Salter's recent works have a surface that appears criss-crossed with paint, like skeins of muted thread woven across the canvas. Ironically Salter is evangelical about losing all sense of the canvas's own weave before she begins. If there is to be a surface texture - which there almost inevitably is, sadly never captured in photographs - she wants to have caused it. Seeing the weave of the canvas would highlight the flatness of the painting, it would shatter the illusion of depth - her own marks are generous enough for the eye to be able to wander between them, and enter the intriguing space she alludes to below.
Many of her recent works are diptychs, but those that have been painted as a single canvas also have divisions - like spinal cords, lines run vertically through the works. They are often just off-centre, just as the panels and canvases themselves are never quite square - a tension created by subtle asymmetry that again feels like the legacy of her ceramics training in Japan (imperfection is inherent and acceptable, and each work grows from the last mistake). This line - and the diptych's cleft - controls the canvases, holding tonal changes at bay, operating like two sides of a body, or a personality, or perhaps conscious and subconscious thought. Sometimes the lines have been masked off early on, highlighting their presence by their paleness; other times they indicate how far she can stretch a single brushstroke, the lines created naturally as her paint dries.
Salter's sense of scale has always been based on the human measure - how far she can stretch, the size of the arc she can manage with one wrist movement while painting a line. Her recent large-scale works are her height and breadth, tall slim paintings that reflect the physicality of making the work. She has also started exploring rhomboid canvases, corner panels and different-height diptychs, each providing a new scale of surface to mark, new boundaries to explore.
Salter's paintings are not pithy one-liners, things that give you an instant hit in group shows or art fairs. These works take time to develop, and are best served by living with them, experiencing them on a daily basis. Unlike the one-liners, they continue to grow and develop day by day, taking on your moods, tempting you to linger and contemplate them just that little bit longer. And the longer you look, the more gratifying the experience: "I think there is a correlation between the time it takes me to do them and you to find everything in them," Salter says, "that's what I hope for. I think to really do that, its a physical thing, you need to let your eye muscles relax and you actually stop looking and see instead, which is a different activity.
Charlotte Mullins is a writer, editor and broadcaster. A former editor of Art Review, she has recently completed a series on contemporary portraiture for Radio 4 and written a monograph on David Blackburn. She is contributing editor at Modern Painters and editorial adviser for various arts organizations including Axis and the Contemporary Art Society. She writes for the Independent on Sunday and regularly appears on Radio 4's Front Row.