ZAPPATORE - DEREK HORTON
EC, Sue Kennington and Vincent Hawkins each make work that shares considerable common ground. Given the exhibition title, Zappatore, I use that particular figure of speech deliberately – zappare in Italian is to hoe, the work of ground weeding and breaking up soil. In their different ways each of these three Zappatore artists constantly dig over and work away at the potentials of abstract image making. Their engagement with their materials is a very physical one, it sifts and shakes out possibilities repeatedly, returning over and over to the same ground, but making it ever more productive through constant attempts to weed out anything that doesn’t encourage vitality. This work is never done. The process is always in flux and repeatedly breaks up the surface of things to regenerate them with freshly turned ideas. Hawkins and EC in particular share an approach to collage based in fragmenting and reconstituting elements of their own making, finding newly fertile visual ideas by sifting through the detritus of their studios or recombining abandoned fragments of earlier work. Although without the material reconstruction particular to collage, Kennington too works in a similar way, returning to motifs, forms and particular colour juxtapositions, constantly reintroducing them, aesthetically reconstituted, into new work. Never finished or complete, the process is not consoling or comforting, but vital and dynamic in its constant reconfigurations.
One of the reasons painting remains a viable and vital practice for 21st century artists is its capacity to remind us of the materiality of our world and the physicality of our engagement with it. All three of these artists work with both the materiality of paint and the language of painting in different but related ways: the physicality of thickly-layered collaged surface and household paint in EC’s constructed paintings; the lightness of Hawkins’ gouaches with their folded and scrubbed away layers of colour; Kennington’s mingling of spontaneous gesture with an underlying geometry and systematic approach to colour relationships. Their shared inclination to improvise and to respond intuitively involves also, inevitably, a willingness to embrace the possibility of failure. A painting as a created, made thing, involves the conscious interaction of mind and body in manipulating a physical surface. So what is embodied in the individual paintings’ material surface are the artists’ decisions, some more or less conscious than others, but all having the capacity for success or failure and truth or illusion. A painting, or any art object for that matter, is never really able to compete on equal terms with the rich sensations of the rest of the world around us. But actually it is precisely their failure to do so that creates the interesting and rewarding imaginative leap that connects the thing we perceive with our direct sensual experience of the physical world. That is the sense in which it might be said that ”the author is dead” or that “the audience completes the work”.
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” asked T. S. Eliot in 1934 in his poem, The Rock. These three Zappatore artists recognise the wisdom and value of sometimes forsaking knowledge, of not always knowing what one is doing. Abandoning certainty for experimentation and planning for improvisation, their work foregrounds impulse, action and process. They emphasise physicality, recognising that any actions we make, including of course the actions involved in their kind of image-making, are necessarily made from a position of being embodied; all such actions are part of the performativity of human existence and everyday life.
Elliot follows that line in The Rock with another question, remarkably prescient eighty years later in the internet age, where constant information flows are too often mistaken for knowledge: “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” We are “distracted from distraction by distraction, filled with fancies and empty of meaning”; Elliot writes in another prescient phrase a year later in one of his Four Quartets. To be surrounded by information is not necessarily to know much. Knowledge too can be physical, as these painters know well, and so too the humble labourer with his hoe. “Out of the slimy mud of words, out of the sleet and hail of verbal imprecisions, approximate thoughts and feelings, words that have taken the place of thoughts and feelings, there spring the perfect order of speech, and the beauty of incantation.” (Elliot in The Rock again.) And later in the same poem, in a line that could have been written to describe the art of EC, Kennington and Hawkins, “out of the meaningless practical shapes of all that is living or lifeless, joined with the artist's eye, spring new life, new form, new colour”.
Derek Horton is an artist, writer, curator and teacher. After working on adventure playgrounds and community arts projects in the 1970’s, he spent many years teaching undergraduate and postgraduate art students. He co-founded the online magazines ‘/seconds’ with Peter Lewis in 2005 and ‘Soanyway’ with Lisa Stansbie in 2009. He is now co-director of &Model, an international contemporary art gallery in Leeds, and Visiting Professor of Contemporary Art at the School of Art, Birmingham City University