Catalogue essay for the exhibition, Graham Chorlton Bristol Road, The Rotunda Gallery, University of Birmingham
“Yet makes an imagery” Leslie Scalapino
The first layer is a wash of colour. Here is the founding superfluity of paint, upon which the image will float and draw. The image; now this one, now that one, thrilled to win, momentarily, in this risk terrain. The scene; a building, a tree, two trees, two gatherings of buildings – immanence posing as a view. 1
Graham Chorlton’s 15 paintings based upon views of the Bristol Road in Birmingham, chart a journey from the former premises of the art college to the gradually imposing Birmingham University buildings that nestle in greenery at the bottom of the hill. The journey is recorded in a series of views, like many journeys are, and in this these paintings make reference to the ubiquity of tourist photographs and postcards, and the role of the ‘set-piece’ image in how we mediate and consume the world around us.
Influenced by Utugawa Hiroshige’s C19th prints of the Tokaido road in Japan, this discreet series of paintings offer to our view, as Hiroshige’s prints once did to the thousands of C19th Japanese travellers beginning to venture out beyond the limits of Edo (Tokyo), a set of apparently simple and modest depictions of some ‘sites of interest’ along this road. Chorlton’s ‘sites’ are not however celebrated vistas, they are simply the everyday buildings that line the route. Clearly visible is the old caff, the student pub, the railway bridge that follows it, a garage and the University clock tower seen across hedges and through trees, (or copied from aeriel views of it shortly after its construction). The declarative ordinariness of the scenes described is at first reassuring, stabilising even – we are somewhere familiar, somewhere we could have been before – but the experience quickly becomes disarming. Why view such ordinariness? And why paint it? One becomes aware that to view these paintings as just such a set of ‘records’ is to miss their point entirely. Because around and through each figured element enthuses a succinct ebullience of painterliness that denies the view as something static and ‘over there’ and instead calls viewing to account for experience. Experience; a complexity that swells out the gap. These images then, as paintings (for they are paintings more than anything else) reappropriate the consuming and neutralising distance of the ‘tourist view’ to turn it into a distance of ‘withness’ , a reminder that life is there – obdurate, equivocal, expectant – sometimes huddled, sometimes declarative, but continuously present and immanent . 2
This quality is partly achieved by the extreme sensitivity with which Chorlton handles paint. In conversation with Thomas Clark about Hiroshige’s work, Julian Opie talks about a tendency within some Japanese artists to a kind of hardness, a hardness that Hiroshige’s work avoids. ‘..a distance is what I mean by hardness’ 3 he says . And in Chorlton’s work too the hardness of distance (of view) is undercut by the haptic brush and soak of pigment on a surface.
Chorlton’s paintings are made from fast, light layers of graced-in paint. The effect is by turns shimmery and draining, pigment flows across and sinks into the canvas, often like a stain, achieving in paint something similar to the Bokashi 4 technique of Japanese prints or the inkiness of old hand-tinted postcards. Colours throb through each other, each translucent layer enriching another, producing colours that are “resonant yet unnameable”. 5 Image and background tousle and vie, the one never quite conceding its position to the other, but all the time, ghostly, definitive scenes appear. A block of flats, a lorry on a tree-lined road, a petrol station at night. In all of them a remote viewing point surveys a proffered but separated scene. This could be read as melancholic but I think this would be a mistake. For the urban freight of these paintings is more ballast than load. It is the necessary differential that keeps the work from any kind of abstract elevation, from losing sight of its place in the world of real things. And throughout, pools of light glow out from under shadowy architectures, bringing the ‘withness’ of Chorlton’s painting style to meet the view, no longer distant but conjoined; both softly registering the hum of a persistent yet implacable animation.
Many of Chorlton’s paintings image modernist housing blocks, or their less idealistic antecedents, city flats. Though rarely peopled these are consistently images of a built and inhabited world. In all the work there is a sense of the public realm. The private is happening, but it is not the artist’s concern. His concern is with a unique urban quality, the ability to be both in place and distant from it at the same time, to be both participant and spectator. In the mid C19th when Baudelaire was writing with fervour about the new modern city, this spectatorial fluidity was celebrated, now however it is a tyranny that outstrips the real. But in Chorlton’s work something of that visual optimism is returned. The work seems to suggest, despite the lack of a crowd, that by simply walking and witnessing, one can open to the city’s, and by inference, life’s, flux and verify experience’s present tense.
The paintings are similar then to how Peter Schjeldahl writes about Manet’s last paintings “Each of Manet’s paintings raises its subject into a present time that forgets the past and ignores the future. Each is a lesson about dying: don’t. Only be alive.” 6
Chorlton paints from photographs but the work has none of photography’s performative seizure, nor does it critique the photograph’s cultural role in the construction and mediation of private and public memory. Instead the photographic is firstly a pragmatic shorthand for Chorlton, and secondly a kind of footnote, a reminder that these paintings exist in the register of things and places seen. They are not entirely imaginary or abstract separations from the world. They are dwelled in states of the partly seen and partly felt – experiences that collapse time and compound reference, until all is fizzy now sweated out in the ‘unphotograph’ of a painting.
In an essay on Victorian Fairy paintings Schjeldahl writes that “…all paintings are fairy paintings…Even the starkest abstract painting maintains in its rectangle a rule of sorcery by which appearance trumps logic and imagination is common sense.” 7 The idea of appearance trumping logic is surely at the heart of how painted or drawn images work. There is really no tree there, yet I can see one. These are just blobs, streaks, stains of pigment on canvas, yet in combination they are a roof, a bridge, a window. When you see Chorlton’s works in his studio, piled, stacked, hanging, leaning, dozens of paintings of all sizes, brimming, iterating, interpolating, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by the magic (yes, magic) of representing. The studio makes clear that despite each single painting’s hold on an image, the work of representing is an endless game of chase. As Hans Rudolf Reust writes of the work of Michaël Borremans “Every image remains fixed in its own inherent state of latency, as if there were no end to the painting process.” 8 And the finished paintings too lose none of that marvel. Instead they use it to catalyse the everyday, the ordinary, into something not merely seen (as in the tourist photo) but imbibed. Drank down. Tested out in the pit of the stomach. As you view the paintings you move across them and in and out from them, at times encountering the brink of the image, which brings with it a vertiginous rush, a slight terror even, that one might fall out of representation, into some kind of tangerine, sage or ink black Chora, 9 from which one might never re-emerge.
But re-emerge one does and the history of painting is the history of this game, between the logic or the fact of paint and the will of a mark to become an image. It found its endgame in the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt. But a generation of painters that followed abstraction in all its forms, found a way to return to the image without losing that painterly desire. Painters such as Luc Tuymans, Gerhard Richter and Vija Celmins, through their varying critiques of the photographic image, have returned to painterly gesture the capacity to mean, to refer to the banal and to function as a kind of realness.
Chorlton’s work however, though part of their legacy does not share with their historical attitude, neither in scale nor outlook. His work shares more with the dreamy marinated stare of Peter Doig’s recent work, or the totemic starkness of Dirk Skreber’s everyday gaze. But even then Chorlton’s work stands apart from these in its resolute lack of drama. It views instead, almost, just almost, what is just there. And what is there? Everything but just.
At home on my wall I have one of Chorlton’s paintings. It is of a turquoise cherry tree. This small painting on paper is exquisite. Exquisite in that intangible way that exquisite things are. When I first saw the work I was immediately drawn to the intransigent simplicity and vivacity of the strangely coloured cherry tree. Since then I’ve seen many other of Chorlton’s paintings and cherry trees often figure in them. I kept wondering what is it about these trees that draws him. Certainly they are a clue or signpost to his love of Japanese prints, and they are also deft substitutes for figurative presence, but there was more to them than that, I felt. And then it hit me. In the painting I have, a shaft of pale turquoise blue cuts its way through the inky dark green background, slides behind the slim trunk of the tree and spills out over the end of the image. For all its wonderful painterliness it also then is a kind of road. Or street. And, of course, cherry trees are street trees! They are the trees in people’s back gardens, on their pavements, outside their schools and offices. They are those delights of nature along ragged city geometries. Never too tall, but often ample, never productive (few ever have cherries) but instead happily decorative; these trees are the city’s bloom. And they somehow seem emblematic to me of Chorlton’s approach to painting: to transcend appearance but not to be transcendent; to figure life without need of the figure; to not shirk from beauty; to show us that we build places and that they pre-exist us; to be bold and subtle and quiet and ardent.
1. Edward S Casey writes in his book ‘Representing Place…’ about the ancient Chinese relationship to nature and its difference from that of a Western relationship to nature. In a Western context nature is there to be conquered and subdued, it is always other to culture, separate and wild. For the ancient Chinese however, nature is neither outside us nor within us, but everywhere coincident to us “equally so and at all times…nature (lowercase) no longer transcendent, wholly other, or altogether wild.”Nature, landscape is simply with us. And he writes “..the ‘withness of nature’ is what is most at stake, both in everyday experience and in art.”…“The natural world”, he continues, “has always already made its appearance, and our task (and preeminently the task of painters) is to convey this pregiven immanence..” For me this concept of ‘withness’ can be applied to Chorlton’s work, whether he is representing natural or man-made elements, because they are all equally charged with this ‘pre-given immanence’ – a strange kind of aliveness that demands us to participate and to share (to be with) its modest optimism. See Casey, Edward S. Representing Place. Landscape Painting & Maps, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis/London, 2002, p. 95
2. My thinking around ideas of immanence and my use of term ‘life’ to describe it is influenced by one of Giles Deleuze’s last essays ‘Immanence: A life’ which he wrote shortly before he died. In this essay Deleuze writes about a transcendental field that is pure immanence. He gives this immanence the term ‘a life’. This is not ‘the’ life of an individual, but a life that underpins all consciousness. He writes “A life is everywhere, in all the moments that a given living subject goes through and that are measured by given lived objects: an immanent life carrying with it the events or singularities that are merely actualised in subjects and objects. This indefinite life does not itself have moments, close as they may be one to another, but only between-times, between-moments; it doesn’t just come about or come after but offers the immensity of an empty time where one sees the event yet to come and already happened, in the absolute of an immediate consciousness.” My use of the term life in this essay is both everyday lived daily ‘life’ and immanent life as Deleuze describes here. See Deleuze, Giles, Pure Immanence, Essays on A Life, Zone Books, New York 2001 p. 29
3. Julian Opie in Utagawa Hiroshige exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery and The British Museum, 2008 p.26
4. Bokashi; a Japanese printing technique where ink is carefully wiped off the block to create a graded band of colour. Often found at the top and bottom edges of prints.
5. Briony Fer on Alison Turnbull in Houses Into Flats, Alison Turnbull exhibition catalogue, Milton Keynes Gallery, 2000 p. 16
6. Schjeldahl, Peter, Let’s See, Writings on Art from The New Yorker, Thames & Hudson 2008. p 100
7. Ibid p.245
8. Hans Rudolf Reust on Michaël Borremans from Michaël Borremans, The Performance exhibition catalogue, SMAK Gent, Parasol Unit, London, Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin. Published by Hatje Cantz 2005, p. 54
9. Chora’ is a term taken from Plato’s Timaeus and used by psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva to refer to a pre-symbolic state. Originally from the Greek and relating to ideas of space, Chora in Kristeva’s terms is a state, of the subject, that precedes language, figuration and representation. It is a rhythmic ‘motility’ that holds energy and drive without any recourse to a symbolic realm. See Kristeva, Julia, Revolution in Poetic Language, Columbia University Press, New York, 1984 (1974).