Rebecca Salter: the bliss of solitude by Anna Moszynska
Nov - Dec 2006
Rebecca Salter's recent work conveys as ever a quietness and repose that provides welcome respite to what she has expressively referred to as our 'digitally-rich and time-poor culture'. In the muted colour cadences and detailed surfaces there is encouragement to linger, absorb and to ponder difference. New materials (the use of aluminium as a support) and new techniques (involving the partial but deliberate rubbing out of the painted surface) are brought to bear creating subtle shifts and new departures from earlier practice. In essence however, the main shift in this body of work lies in its abstracted view of nature or of an emotion stemming from it, which is reflected upon later.
This development is not surprising in itself as much of the exhibited work derives from being made or inspired by experiences which took place far from London. In the autumn of 2003, the artist enjoyed a three-month residency in the depths of the New England countryside at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut. Ensconced in a high, simply-equipped, wooden lakeside studio with a wall of square-paned windows overlooking a spinney, the artist lived and worked in solitary seclusion, committing herself to the task of drawing. Surrounded by a flood of light, with the changing autumnal landscape and trees shedding leaves immediately beyond the window, the unusual degree of isolation and the tranquil but naturally wild setting had a direct impact on the artist and her work. An horizon line appears for the first time, effectively rendering the spatial organisation of the paintings more landscape-based than the vertical diptych and triptych arrangements common to previous panels. Sinuous, thin, upright elements also start to appear in some of the drawings, as if reflecting her view from the windows of the branches waving in the wind or of the slender reeds seen on her lakeside walks. In paintings such as HH29 (2005), for instance, the delicate vertical lines picked out in blue and brown suggest the movements of reeds rustling against a background stretch of water and sky. A oneness with nature - or at least the artist's recalled emotion of being there - are subtly evoked.
The range of controlled yet flowing compositions made during and after the New England residency reflect the benefits of the "free and easy wandering" of the holiday mind remarked upon by the Tao sage, Chuang Tzu. Separation from the workaday and immersion in the quiet reflection that comes from self-elected isolation in nature leads to a particular mental state that can allow for new approaches. The lines themselves are allowed to live. Like the Oriental calligraphic masters, Salter trusts her intuition, preventing the mark from becoming mannered, in her case by experimenting with her left hand. Freedom and spontaneity are found through the use of Chinese ink stick. The sumi ink traces in JJ25 (2006) compulsively traverse the gesso-grounded paper like so many smudged or obliterated lines of writing which seek to void themselves of any meaning other than their own infinite repetition. In other drawings, leaves and twigs are used in lieu of brushes or pens. This immediacy of approach is translated in the paintings where the mixing of acrylic and ink exhibits a similar verve and lightness of touch, as seen in HH29 (2006). Like Wordsworth's Wanderer in his "spot of hidden beauty", Salter found freedom from the pull of man- made or material things in New England, and came away with the awareness that art can be made with very little, with whatever comes to hand in nature.
While the aluminium paintings and many of the drawings are the direct result of the artist working in seclusion in nature, the linen paintings (produced later in the London studio) are made in a tranquil recollection of that state. Like Wordsworth, Salter seems to have uncovered "that inward eye that is the bliss of solitude" and having found it, is readily able to return to it, despite being separated from the original impetus . The recollection of peace found in isolation in nature leads to a revived state of inner calm and reflection, even when external conditions, such as living in the midst of the city's hubbub, may not be so conducive.
Inner emotional peace may be sensed particularly in HH30 (2005) - a large painting of glowing whiteness which took the artist a third of a year to complete. Although the circumstances leading to the work were concerned with enormous personal loss (the death of a parent), the delicate, repeated markings and the glowing radiance of the light contained within suggest a calm transcendence. Three separate panels are unified into one work as the art historical and Christian implications of the triptych format are reconciled with the endless all-over repetition of the east.
The emotional effect of Salter's light-infused work generally recollects a dictum of the American abstract artist, Agnes Martin, who in writing about her own painting endeavours and of her sense of unity with nature stated, "My paintings…are about light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form. You wouldn't think of form by the ocean. You can go in if you don't encounter anything". Salter is a great admirer of Martin and this idea of conveying atmosphere and boundless space is found in her own work where dissolves, shifts and overall fracturing leave the viewer without the unitary viewing position that provides an ego-bound sense of control. Instead, a fusing of self (viewer) and work takes place, as in Martin's paintings, where the encounter renders the experience ego-less. Salter might well share Martin's own reflection that "My work is about emotion…not personal emotion, abstract emotion. It's about those subtle moments of happiness we all experience." Significantly, both share an interest in transcendent Asian philosophies and in the workings of the inner mind.
Yet in some ways, the etched lines and meticulous repeated marks in Salter's latest paintings suggest something too of the effect of stitched surfaces of needlework or of textured fabric that underpins the calligraphic notations which are a legacy of her previous work. It is not surprising then to discover that while in New England, Salter became increasingly attracted to the exhibited textiles of Anni Albers in addition to the paintings of her more well known husband, Josef, which were obviously also available for study. In effect, Anni's weaving had broken free from the confines of a more mathematical-abstract approach to composition. Her densely wrought, deceptively simple modernist designs for casement covers and the like have a certain affinity to the intricate traceries of HH27 (2005), sharing a similar, slightly uneven, stitched quality in terms of surface organisation. While the cross hatchings and needlework-like quality may be in danger of leading to a density of surface and an impacted look in painting, Salter's new work, on the contrary, continues to be infused by a luminosity that comes from behind the markings. The thin washes of white paint applied over the sized brown linen create a lightness that seems to breathe, as in the large painting, HH14 (2005). Remembered experiences of water and light infuse the surface with a pulsating quality, made all the more evident by the thin strip of linen left showing at the four edges of the quadrilateral.
If this sounds Romantic, it is worth reflecting that Salter's technique has also been affected by her discovery of the work of another 19th century figure fascinated by nature, the watercolourist and contemporary of Turner and Ruskin, Alfred William Hunt (1830-96). Interest in his work came from an encounter with an exhibition of his watercolours at Yale (later seen in Britain at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford in 2004). What Salter found fascinating was the way in which having completed a work on paper, Hunt would then scrub or scratch out a large part of it. According to his daughter, Violet, his technique involved sponging the sheet into submission, scraping it "into rawness and a fresh state of smarting receptivity". Salter follows Hunt's set of potentially "murderous 'processes" by now sanding half her own compositions after they are made and removing the upper layers of paint until a lighter part appears, most often below, rather than above (as one might expect) the horizon line. While the hard, resilient surface of aluminium was the starting point in New England, this approach was soon transferred to heavyweight paper for the watercolours and later, to the linen paintings. Hence in a work such as HH10 (2005), the linen is sanded back on the lower half to create a different azure tone to the section above and the whole is unified and finished by the incised, scratched pattern on the surface. Hunt's watercolours often depict wide stretches of water as in his atmospheric view of Coniston in the Lake District - offering a further possible link to Salter and certainly to Wordsworth whose lyrical poetry was so affected by the vastness of nature he found there.
Yet while Hunt's landscapes are clearly within an English nineteenth-century tradition, Salter's approach to nature is more informed by a combination of eastern and western approaches. The Eastern inflection stems particularly from an earlier six year stint spent living in Japan. After encountering this country, recently, the sculptor Antony Gormley noted, among other things, the Japanese love of texture, of nature (both the constructed & artificial and also the truly wild & impenetrable); of stillness; of the idea of deep time (also as substance, and in the way in which it affects materials); an alertness to the way things are (the material reality of things); avoidance of assertive ego; the benefits of the meditational and a concern with things unaffected by human presence. Salter too has recognised these elements at the root of Japanese culture which inform her work. As well as empathising with the view that the transcendent is more important than the quotidian, she also believes that the Japanese sensibility is more attuned to the workings of the inner voice and less embarrassed about dealing with it. (The Japanese language is far better equipped than the English to find ways of expressing abstract ideas without the hazy, sometimes pejorative implications implied by our stock phrase for the "spiritual", for example.) Yet in essence, the response to nature that we find in Salter's work combines the best of both traditions. We find the meditative, transcendent approach of the east negotiated though a western romantic trajectory that lauds the benefits of isolation to recollect thoughts imbued through direct contact with nature.
The result of this admixture makes for paintings of exquisite sensitivity and depth. Without the obvious imagery of landscape painting, these works make one aware of how we really need to look. Perhaps as Agnes Martin suggested, looking at art should inspire the same response as looking at the ocean: "You just go there and sit and look" . This simplicity of approach pays out an equally rich reward in the case of Rebecca Salter's work.