Since the beginning of this year, Luke Elwes has been working on a series of paintings based on the experience of travelling by boat along a stretch of the river Ganges. The Ganga paintings draw on the power of this sacred river flowing through the precarious lives of the people and cultures that have thrived throughout history on its banks. His method of working gives rise, he says, to a mood of reverie. Thinking about climate change, water shortages or floods, the power of the river to give and to take, he makes his gentle marks with rich colours and areas of emptiness. These he dissolves and floats, sometimes with river water or oil paint thinners which he allows to trickle or flow across his paper or canvas. The results seem to reflect light, inviting us to look into them quietly as if they were pools of water. There, nothing is permanent but everything is connected.
This image - suggesting both a springing forth and a seasonal shift - is derived from a large oak tree that sits by the water’s edge on the east coast: a totemic presence, at once resisting and shaped by the elemental force of tides and weather. What appears at ground level to be silhouetted branches rising up into a bright blue expanse of sky and water might also be viewed from above as an intricate web of lines recalling the branching tributaries of a river. It is a territory punctuated with yellow markings, scattered fragments of sunlight that also suggest an eruption of spring growth.
My studio in Vermont, located in the Wolf Kahn building beside the Gihon river. March - April 2013
Thanks to the Vermont Studio Center, I‘ve been able to spend a month exploring and responding to the beautiful terrain of the Green Mountains, working each day by the flowing waters and cascading rapids of the Gihon river. The month began in heavy snow and ended with the first signs of spring, as the ice flows slowly dissolved and the rivers rose up with the roar and rush of melt water.
Arriving from London with two rolls of paper and a few drawing materials I set out to find a way of recording this parcel of time by interacting with the river’s alchemy, pacing out the days - sometimes icily cold, sometimes warm and wet as the season changed - with images made both with the water and of the water.
Responding to its vibrant sounds, both its pulsing rush and gentle whisper, was a way to reconcile its irresistible force and glittering surface with the mutating course of its submerged history. The resulting series of images, each made in one continuous sitting, developed their own non-verbal language: a kind of writing on water, in water.
Johnson Vermont USA: International Artists residency, March 30th - April 26th 2013.
‘I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place…’
And so Robert Macfarlane’s journey proceeds, on foot, in words, through time, territory and collective memory. He and I have quite often followed the same tracks, in the wake of others who have recorded the mind in movement; and for me the ghosts of Chatwin, Deakin, and Sebald travel still.
When I think of some of the work by artists and writers I most admire I find, more often than not, that it is linked in my mind to a certain place and time, or else drawn from a particular territory they have somehow come to make their own.
Thus, in no particular order, I find myself returning to:
Richard Diebenkorn in Ocean Park,
Antoni Tapies in Barcelona,
Frank Auerbach on Primrose Hill,
Anselm Kiefer in Barjac,
Monet in the 1920s in Giverny,
Matisse in Paris in 1917,
Cy Twombly in Rome in 1961,
Giorgio Morandi in Bologna,
Clifford Possum in the Central Australian desert,
Francesco Clemente on Mount Abu,
Zoran Music in Dalmatia,
Sean Scully in Mexico,
Vija Celmins by the sea, and
Richard Long in the desert.
As well as:
W.G.Sebald in East Anglia,
Roger Deakin in Suffolk,
Ryszard Kapuscinski in Africa,
Bruce Chatwin in Australia,
John Berger in Lisbon,
Octavio Paz in Mexico & India, and
Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul.
Sometimes a picture conceived in one context assumes an unexpected meaning in another, as when an author finds his own particular imagery reflected in the painted surface.
‘ Come with me,’ says the old man at last. He helps Kit to his feet and leads him to the other parapet, where he points far upstream. ‘Look over there.’
Kit follows the line of his arm and sees that the river below them emerges from a delta where seven other rivers have come together. They could, he thinks, be described as lesser rivers; yet each is so mighty in its own right that the word is inappropriate. They seem at once to flow down from the sky and break from beneath the earth, rushing vigorously, glinting in the sun..
‘These are the rivers,’ says Kit’s great-grandfather, ‘that flow between heaven and earth, and between earth and heaven.’
‘Where do they begin?’ Kit asks.
‘They begin at the fountain of life, and they end in the ocean of eternity; but the fountain is never exhausted, and the ocean is never full. And when they reach that delta, they mingle with each other and with springs you cannot see to form the river of life, encompassing everything men know and imagine and what they have yet to imagine. In its waters are mingled past and present and future, actuality and possibility.’
Extract from Anthony Gardner's new book 'The Rivers of Heaven', published this month. Find on Amazon
Returning to Paris, to show my work there for the first time in a decade, is a way of also returning to other times and places.
The ten paintings, made in the last five years, not only illuminate particular journeys (to North Africa, Tibet and Central America) but also reveal a recurring impulse, to excavate the ‘geographical unconscious’ and explore the many layers of history buried beneath the surface matter of these places. Brought together in one place, and viewed at a certain physical and emotional distance (that is, away from the self and the studio, in another space and another city), the paintings display a kind of circular narrative, about the life that feeds the painting that feeds the life to come.
Luke Elwes, Peintures récentes. Galerie hotel Le Marceau-Bastille, Paris. 30 April – 30 September 2009
These two small images spring from recollected moments on a month long journey through the remote Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. In both of them the imprint of memory becomes visible in the act of printing on paper.
The first recalls a stop on the journey, one of many in which a traveller pauses, as though on the threshold of the future, to both reflect on and measure out the days of walking that lie ahead. From within the darkened space of this passage or gateway (the kind of place which often represents a state of transition in this pilgrimage territory), the eye moves away into the distance, across the arid wind swept hills towards the luminous mountain peak that reaches up into the deep blue above.
This nebulous blue expanse forms the starting point for the second print. Prayer flags rise through falling snow into a sky that, at this altitude, seems close enough to reach out and touch. The spectral image formed by these lines of bright coloured cloth, frayed by time and the constant winds as they stretch out across a star - flecked field, reveal something of the sensation experienced in this thin atmosphere, of the permeable boundary between one world and another.
Portal. Lithograph, 13x13cm, printed in an edition of 100 by the Curwen Press, 2009
Prayer. Lithograph, 15x20cm, printed in an edition of 50 by the Curwen Press, 2009 (commissioned by the Curwen Press as part of their 50th anniversary portfolio)
After a long day at the Hermitage, intoxicated by its profusion of treasures, and exhausted by the endless procession of gilded and mirrored chambers, which now and then catch the dazzling white light of the frozen city outside the palace windows, I found this painting..
.. and it feels like the end of a long journey, a place of luminous warmth and welcome simplicity. It is an empty room that pulses with a deep and silent charge in which two figures, one standing and one sitting, turn to gaze at each other across an open window. A moment of life - theirs and yours - stilled and contained in a saturated field of the bluest of blue paint(which for Matisse was the colour of dreams). The ‘conversation’ of the title is not made of words but of what comes between them: a silent communion or, maybe, a poignant isolation. A moment of stasis in which their impenetrable gaze seems both to invite and exclude your own. You look deeply one last time, caught up in this wordless moment, and yearn to break through into the limpid green air beyond. It is a painting that continues to reverberate elsewhere, an image that recurs for example in extended film frames which have consciously or otherwise drawn on its formal clarity and silent suspense; you can see just such a scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and another also in the recently released Still Life(2007)