London Painters in Italy 2017

Gli Amici Pittori Di Londra

Extract from catalogue essay by Catherine Lampert  May 2017

A few months ago, Lino Mannocci organised a dinner at the Chelsea Arts Club in London, creating a rare occasion for collective sociability, and confirmation that the Galleria Ceribelli would host a sequel to ‘Gli amici pittori di Londra’, the exhibition held exactly ten years ago. After the decision to place May 20th in the diary as the opening date, ideas were floated, for example, the insertion of portraits of each other, or self-portraits, into the mix of four pictures each artist would send to Bergamo. This would extend to the three artists no longer living. Greatly admiring Lino’s initiative in making this bridge between artists of such exceptional integrity and between England and Bergamo, I agreed to try to weave words the artists would send into a single text. Although I am familiar with their practices, in only a few cases have I seen the actual pictures, so the collective and singular impressions of what these artists have in common is somewhat invented. When the paragraphs arrived, they reminded me how increasingly private these artists’ lives have become and how intangible their intentions and themes.  The source material is frequently autobiographical and abstracted from lived experience, sometimes this might be a continuation from their previous art, or indeed refer to the art and literature of others... 

... Once artists pass fifty inevitably they are less inclined to spare time to meet, argue and make explicit their ambitions. Efforts are directed to impossible tasks, like Luke Elwes’s ‘Picturing Time’. ‘If the image is grounded in, begins with, a particular place and moment, it is also refracted through the memory of previous encounters. What resurfaces of an experience in paint (that is, registered in the process of walking, travelling or simply “being” in a place) is also informed by – and perhaps inevitably filtered through – the imperfect recollection of previous paintings and encounters. The image exists in the fluid boundaries of past and present, between what is buried and retrieved, and how it resolves in paint on canvas is itself a process of distilling, erasing and recovering layers of time.’

Then he went on to link this statement to his painting Daybreak 2016. ‘What was originally observed and recorded when passing through a seemingly unfamiliar territory has become an exploration not only of my transient presence in the world but also of the restless elemental forces that shape it. The historical record (both of this place and its subsequent representation) becomes unstable as its material residue is subsumed by weather and pigment, with the result that the image appears to be suspended between resolution and dissolution.’

Luke Elwes at the Albers Foundation 2015

The Albers Foundation 2015  (An elemental studio) – Letter from Connecticut by Luke Elwes

   

 

 

“I’m standing in a beautiful studio with a huge four-meter square north facing window and a wide deck on the south side overlooking a rolling expanse of Connecticut woodland. One of two simple studio houses designed by a student of Joseph Albers for visiting artists (who in the past have included Ian Davenport, Ian McKeever and Rebecca Salter from the UK) it lies at the end of a forested trail, about half a mile beyond the Albers Foundation, a latter day shrine both to the Bauhaus and to the man who combined a lifetime’s homage to the square with firing up generations of American artists at Black Mountain College and Yale. Today this temple to modernism is a place of Zen-like calm, secluded in a wilderness of trees and water. 

During the space of time that I’ve been here I’ve set out each morning from my solitary hut in the woods in one direction or another to explore the territory and to observe the visible world move day by day from the cool luminosity and dry stillness of late winter to the explosive growth and iridescent colours of early summer.

As the light and temperature has changed so what I’ve been able to achieve by rapidly combining coloured inks, pigment and water on paper has also changed, and when eventually the stark outlines of the trees silhouetted in the crisp morning light gave way to an enveloping world of dense greenery and deepening shadows I took to the water – using a small rowing boat as my floating studio – to capture the constantly shifting patterns and sparkling reflections on the lake’s surface.

Working outside through the lengthening hours of daylight has been a wonderful way to record the passage of time by immersing myself (along with whatever materials come to hand) in this mutable parcel of earth and water, with results that are unpredictable and full of surprise in a way that the austere arrangement of space in Albers’ carefully calibrated squares can never be. Where his world is temperature controlled, held in timeless suspension, the world outside is simultaneously textured with age and the pulsing rhythm of life, a dynamic realm made up of birdsong, animal tracks, glacial rocks and thunderstorms.

There is no weather in the archive: a marked contrast to Jackson Pollock’s studio, which I went to see on Long Island. The place where he infused European abstraction with raw American energy may be close by but it is a world away from the Bauhaus laboratory; his studio floor, spattered with gobs & flecks of paint, resembles the wilderness outside, as if so many wind blown leaves and a sudden downpour had just swept through.

The tension between elemental energy and rhythmic structure, the interplay of vertical lines and floating forms, at once rising & dissolving, material and mercurial, is what I hope emerges from this new body of work, shown here much as it was when first made and put together on the studio walls in Connecticut.”

Luke Elwes was artist in residence at the Albers Foundation during April & May 2015

Historical note (taken from the Foundation website http://albersfoundation.org/):Josef and Anni Albers, lifelong artistic adventurers, were among the leading pioneers of twentieth-century modernism. The couple met in Weimar, Germany in 1922 at the Bauhaus. Josef Albers (1888–1976) was an influential teacher, writer, painter, and color theorist—now best known for the Homages to the Square he painted between 1950 and 1976 and for his innovative 1963 publication Interaction of Color.

Est Interview 2014

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On a day when you are heading out to create a piece of work in the countryside, what's the process? What time do you set out? What equipment do you take? What are your painting clothes? What do you take to eat and drink?

It largely depends on the conditions on any given day and, if I’m by the water, on the nature of the tides. The decision about when and where to go is more instinctive than planned, and for me this is a deliberate part of the working process, to allow continually for the unexpected. The only constant is that the work will be made outside in the open and executed in one continuous sitting. Often this means working without a break for two or three hours at a time.

Sometimes I begin the day by walking along the water’s edge in Landermere or when the tide is out by retracing new or familiar routes across the meandering tracks over the tidal marshes.  When the morning tide is rising I might row further out into the maze of creeks and inlets, to find some hidden corner of the backwaters. This could be soon after sunrise when the light is clear and the stillness is broken only by the sound of birds, or, on cold winter mornings, when the silent landscape is shrouded in a sea mist. Or it could be late afternoon, when the wind drops and vivid reflections play on the water’s surface, a time (often during the golden hour) when shadows throw the shapes of the land into relief or the low winter sun creates dark silhouettes in the silvery light. And occasionally I might continue on into the night, guided by the soft moonlight and working simply by feel and memory.

When I head out I carry only what is essential with me: a sheet of thick hand made paper taped onto a board and a shoulder bag with water and a box of materials, as well as some kind of waterproof and a plastic sheet, either for sitting on (where the ground is soft or wet) or for use as a makeshift windbreak, or for covering work in a sudden downpour. On colder days I use fingerless gloves to stop my hands freezing too quickly. At times, in an open boat or out on the marshes, I get very wet but that’s just part of the elemental engagement I’m looking for. In Vermont last year for example I would often set out for the day in snow boots and mountain jacket with a roll of paper and specially cut lengths of plywood tied with improvised rope handles that could be carried from place to place along the icy river banks.

Can you describe a typical day when you're working in this way? Again, what's the process?

There isn’t really a typical day, although at times I find myself concentrating on a particular patch of ground, a location that might be long familiar to me but which I want to revisit under new conditions as a way of extending the conversation between past and present, between what resides in memory and what emerges in the present moment.

Sometimes I work continuously over a period of days, rapidly making and remaking a series of smaller images, only some of which I will keep. At other times I will work on one large image from the beginning to the end of the day, recording the shifting weather and light as well as the constantly mutating shapes that rise and fall in the tidal waters. There is also a solitary oak tree by the water’s edge that I return to at different times of the year, continually recording its passage through the seasons from the spare intricacy of its winter outlines to the unfurling growth of spring and the dense verdancy of summer.

Often I will work on smaller pieces at an old wooden table that faces out onto the creek in front of the King’s Head in Landermere, or if it’s going to be a larger piece I’ll cut a two meter length of paper and fix it to an old wooden door that lies on the ground. The paper is then saturated in rain or river water before being marked and stained with pens, crayons, coloured ink and gouache. Often I combine these with mud or other organic matter found on site, and in order to keep the image fluid and malleable I will then allow the rising tide to wash over and even submerge the picture surface during the working process. In this way I can continue to work without pause for many hours, allowing the various pigments to float, drip and run over an absorbent surface, before they eventually begin to settle and dry on the paper. Often the result is surprising and unpredictable, with earlier markings resurfacing through transparent overlays or delicately mapped out areas fading away beneath opaque washes. Only when the image has completely dried out, which can take some days (particularly if the atmosphere is damp), can I then see how the assorted natural and man made elements have combined and whether I feel it has succeeded or failed as a picture. 

What is it about East Anglian landscapes that attract you – and how do you decide on specific locations?

The specific locations are incidental, it’s more to do with their proximity to water. The estuarine and coastal landscapes of East Anglia often seem on the verge of dissolution, of melting away into an empty expanse of sea and sky. Beyond the tideline they have an unfixed quality, marginal and uncultivated - a wilderness of reflecting light and shifting patterns. Robert Macfarlane describes in his essay ‘Silt’ this soft bluish silvery haze that causes the elements to ‘blend and interfuse’, producing a ‘new country’ that is ‘neither earth nor sea’.

When I first saw the Blackwater estuary on a silent winter’s day fifteen years ago, the glistening expanse of mud and silt reminded me of the desert. One of the islands in this luminous tidal realm - Osea Island - seemed to float like a mirage on the horizon. Only accessible at low water via an old Roman causeway, it was otherwise completely cut off, a self contained parcel of space and time, and the sense I had that day (and the many that followed over a seven year period) of being alternately connected and isolated was very appealing. The place moved to its own rhythm, a vessel of ancient history whose fragile lineaments were constantly being broken up and recomposed by the surrounding waters.

I stayed on the island for periods throughout the year, recording on paper its ever-changing liminal quality while enjoying (in contrast to the extended journeys across unfamiliar terrain which have often informed my painting process) the sense of sitting in one place and watching nature’s myriad forms pass me by. And beneath the surface, there was the constant pull of the past, of glimpsing in the mud and creeks fragments of the island’s history - old tracks, boat carcasses, shell banks and oyster beds - as well as those transient signs of more recent use, the remnants of a Victorian pier and empty concrete bunkers.

The layers of the past buried in the soft ground of the East Anglian coast have entered literature and my reading of Great Expectations as well as W.G.Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and Roger Deakin’s essays have also played a part in my work. About eight years ago, when we left the island and moved further north along the Essex coastline to a location at the end of a rutted farm track that now sits precariously on the edge of Landermere creek in the Walton backwaters, I was fascinated to discover that Arthur Ransom had based his book Secret Water on the surrounding maze of islands, channels and inlets. Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose was also filmed here.

There is in these low lying landscapes a hidden quality, places of silence and occasional abandonment, where nature rises and falls, where things appear and disappear in the cycle of tides, and the passage of other lives drift to the sound of birds and waves – an often floating world where the mind slows down and reflects.

How does the weather on the day affect, influence and guide the creative process. Have there been any extreme examples of this? When and where were they?

The elements are an essential part of it, and with the work on paper done here in East Anglia it is the weather’s unpredictability that guides the process, preventing the easy repetition of familiar motifs or any certain knowledge of the outcome. I can begin working on a clear day and suddenly what I’m seeing vanishes into a fog or rolling storm clouds. The shapes I’m drawing start to merge and dissolve while rain spatters and dapples the coloured surface, and sometimes washes it away entirely. In wintertime the north easterly winds can make it hard to work at all, while on a dry summer’s day I often have to work much faster, before the crayons I’m using become too soft or the pigments too dry, leaving the paper’s surface frustratingly static and unresponsive. But there have also been times when I’ve felt I’m wrestling with rather than responding to the weather. Making watercolour drawings in the dawn light on the Tibetan plateau was complicated by the water turning into ice on my brush, a problem I also encountered in Vermont when trying to wash the surface of a large picture in a mountain stream and then watching as icy particles formed all over it. In these extreme environments, snow can also fall rapidly, carpeting the ground where I’m working, and when it melts, as it did later on in the month I spent by the Gihon river, the snow and ice floods the landscape and tears away trees and vegetation from the banks. At the other extreme I’ve worked in arid desert locations where I’ve had to be very sparing with the water I ‘m carrying so there’s enough left to drink as well as to mix paints. And when it finally ran out on one occasion I had to fall back on a can of coke to finish the picture.

It seems like there is a complex, symbiotic, relationship of creativity within the process, where nature is shaping the work as much as you are 'shaping' nature by fixing it, however loosely, on paper/canvas. Is that right? Could you elucidate on that at all?

Yes, I think that’s a good way of putting it. Explaining this relationship in another article I said that ‘the final image belongs as much to the elements as the artist who began it’. This applies particularly to the work on paper but relates equally to my paintings which although much longer in gestation are also a record of process and time. Some years ago I did a series of paintings based on a journey to the Himalayas where I wanted to represent the way the natural minerals and pigments, found locally in the earth and rocks, are used to paint man made surfaces with vibrant symbolic colours and how, through the corrosive action of wind and water, they eventually dissolve back into the ground.  Andrew Lambirth said of these works at the time: ‘everything is reduced to dust eventually by the elements, but in the meantime we may enjoy the trace of their being’.

If the paintings are a meditation on this process, often done from memory in the studio, the work on paper has a more immediate and visceral relationship to the natural world; they are both about, and shaped by, the place where they’re made. Perhaps this is best elucidated if I describe the way the process might begin: by registering marks, things that catch the eye - a passing bird, a blossom, a cloud, tracks in the mud, bits of flora and fauna. An accumulation of phenomena, both distant and close at hand, that creates a kind of equivalence, a response on a particular day to a place. It appears familiar but remains strange, a mutable scene that is never quite the same as the days blur and seasons shift, where streams alter their course, swelling and diminishing over time, and where mud flats that were previously sparkling black and silver are now softly carpeted in pale grass and wild flowers. What forms is a series of recorded moments, a diary of days composed of sequential memories (recalling the last time I was here) and sensory stimuli of the most immediate and fragile kind. It is a way of proceeding that is openly receptive, avoiding correction or revision while keeping the elements continually in play. The materials I use dictate this process, so a picture of the water is made with the water, the scattered marks and colours running in a way that directly mirrors the tidal flow that surrounds it or the rain that sweeps over it. The writer Robert Macfarlane put it this way in a letter he sent a while ago:

‘I might try to articulate what I find so unusual and compelling about the work: its localism, for a start. But also the hover between encryption and archetype (enigma and fabulous openness).  As you hold on to a leaf, a shell, feather or pebble before returning it to its microcosmos, you learn to see not the names of things but the things themselves. Absolutely. We are both collectors, but not in the possessive sense of that word; quite the opposite. Surrenderers of sorts.’ NB. Robert Macfarlane is the author of The Wild Places (Granta, 2008) and The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Penguin 2012)

A sense of place feels like a starting point, but perhaps not an end point, for your work. If they are landscapes, or maps, then they would seem to record internal worlds as much as topographical ones. Similarly, they could be seen as recording time, duration – as much as place. Of course, time and duration are needed if we are dealing with concepts of flux, transience etc. Is this part of what you are exploring?

A sense of place is the essential starting point, as is the experience of journeying through it, responding as Richard Long described it, ‘to the earth moving beneath your feet’.  But the work is also about memory and time as much as what is seen – the memory of what was once there, as well as the memory of previous work done in same place. The paintings become a way of examining my own transient presence as well as the changing nature of the landscape itself. By way of example, when walking along a mountain trail you can see the path travelled yesterday stretching behind you and the day to come running ahead of you. In this sense time and space become synonymous.

The pictures record not only those ephemeral moments of personal submersion but also chart a deeper history, tracing out those often barely discernible fragments and stories (whose signs are often lost or barely discernible) that make up a place, the invisible yet palpable layers which lie within and beneath the surface. The rushing mountain stream I worked beside for a month in Vermont for example, was called the ‘Gihon’ (named after one of the four mythical rivers of Eden) and seemed to contain within its flow the quiet language of the past.As with my earlier desert paintings they combine the mapping out in space, on paper and canvas, of a physical journey with a kind of cultural excavation that speaks of duration, time passing. This experience was especially acute in Vermont where I set out to create a visual diary by making one picture a day in one place over the course of a month as winter turned to spring.  Despite these differing approaches and locations there is in all the work a sense of the present erasing the past, something physically manifest in the shadow lines left in the residue of coloured ink or the evidence of earlier drawings occasionally glimpsed through subsequent layers of paint. For the critic Nicholas Usherwood, writing about the work in 2009, it speaks of ‘a continuous process of loss and recovery’.

Finally – and quite a vague and encompassing question: can you give me some thoughts on the use of abstraction in landscape painting?

I find both ‘abstract’ and ‘landscape’ somewhat limiting terms - I’m more interested in working at the edge, or on the margins of both. There is always a fixed starting point in time and place, a relation to the exterior world of phenomena that allows for a dialogue with an interior space of recollection and feeling, but this is less to do with ‘taking in’ a landscape as the idea of ‘landscape’ itself and what this means in relation to other times and cultures. Early on I was fascinated by the desert paintings of aboriginal Australians, images that were read at the time by a western audience as abstract patterns but which in fact directly recounted their experience of walking over ancestral ground. They did not paint the horizon because they could not touch it.  My aim likewise is to be as receptive to the surface of the visual field I’m moving across as what lies unseen beneath it. The paintings grow out of particular encounters with places both distant and near, and the subsequent marks deployed on canvas and paper can be read as hieroglyphic texts - or even as maps of the ‘geographical unconscious’ – that set out to evoke both the trail of our presence and the passage of time.  They place, as Odilon Redon once put it, ‘the logic of the visible in the service of the invisible’. (‘La logique du visible au service de l’invisible’.)

 

Luke Elwes exhibition review 2014

Luke Elwes

Adam Gallery, 67 Mortimer Street, W1 | John Street, Bath, until 28 March | 29 March until 16 April 2014

By way of spiritual respite, I would like to mention an exhibition of the latest paintings on paper by Luke Elwes (born 1961). These are being shown in the Adam Gallery’s new London premises, whereupon they will transfer to the gallery’s Bath headquarters. Over recent years, Elwes has been developing a language of near-abstract touches of floating colour in shifting patterns, shattered and elliptical, like confetti on a cobbled pavement that is also a river. (If you’re looking for comparisons, the nearest I can come is to the American painter associated with the Abstract Expressionists, Mark Tobey.)

This flexible and evocative language has reached a new peak in a series of paintings made in Vermont during a month’s residency last year, exploring the wild landscape of the Green Mountains and the Gihon River that flows through it. The style and technique (a mixed-media secret closely guarded from his many would-be followers) is admirably suited to depicting the reflective and troubled surface of moving water, and Elwes puts all his skills to good effect in this magnificent new series. A source of contemplation in turbulent times: recommended.

Andrew Lambirth  29 March 2014

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 March 2014

Writing on Water 2014

Art review: a watery world

Painter Luke Elwes brings Writing on Water to a central London gallery

One of the best contemporary British painters I know of – a man fascinated by the physical environment he lives in and the effect that people have on it - is Luke Elwes. Naturally enough for an artist who draws his inspiration from the low-lying flatlands of Essex (which, over thousands of years, are slowly sinking into the sea like the rest of England’s east coast, while the western coast equally slowly rises) the subject he paints is water. His latest work – a series of 24 subtle evocations of a river, entitled Luke Elwes: Writing on Water - is currently exhibited at the Adam Gallery in central London.

Elwes’s water paintings, while always decorative and delicately painterly in their finish, have something disturbing about them too. The water whose ebb and flow he charts so poetically often swirls around abandoned doors and buildings – marks of human attempts to conquer the tides that have been abandoned. The blues, greens, greys and pinks of moving liquid ease smoothly around the sharp red-and-brown lines of the remnants of mankind's failures.

Water wasn’t always this artist’s subject. His early years were spent in Iran, where the light and space of the desert were a formative influence. After training as an artist in London, a meeting with the writer Bruce Chatwin took him to the central Australian desert to explore the landscape and its use in aboriginal storytelling and art forms (if you read Chatwin’s book, The Songlines, about how the purpose of aboriginal walkabouts is to retrace traditional paths across ancestral lands, singing old songs handed down through the generations so as to "sing the lands back into existence", you’ll understand the connection).

 From land to water

The water theme came to the fore after 2000, when Elwes started spending a lot of time on Osea Island, off the Essex coast, and watching the interaction of water and land. These days his Essex observation point has moved to some damp if lovely rooms looking out over water a little further down the coast. This is at the top of a former smugglers’ inn on a remote creek that – on good days – is just above water level. Once the holiday home of several members of the Bloomsbury set, the mouldy books on the shelves belong to them. Water is always on visitors’ minds. Boats, many also looking as though they might have been left behind by someone in the Bloomsbury era, lie around outside, with greenish tidelines, and neighbours dropping by as Elwes paints bring stories of the water breaking through such-and-such a defence, or spreading into a new field.

 The current exhibition arose out of a month spent in America, painting in the Green Mountains near Vermont, and, Elwes says, “working each day by the flowing waters and cascading rapids of the Gihon river. It was a month that 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 meltwater.”

“Arriving from London with two large rolls of paper and a few drawing materials I set out to find a way of recording this parcel of time and space 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 this fluid encounter, as well as to its vibrant sounds, both its pulsing rush and gentle whisper, was a way to reconcile (through marks on paper) the river’s dark mercurial force and glittering surface with the mutating course of its submerged history.”

I went to the exhibition rather hoping that the flimsy nature of the materials might mean that I could afford to buy one of this collection of mixed-media works on paper. (Most of Elwes’ oils are well outside my price bracket these days - I missed my chance to buy one before he became too famous). Sadly that was not to be, and none of the pictures will be coming home with me (though the profusion of red dots suggests they’ll be going somewhere). But they are very lovely, a little frightening, and well worth a look.

The Luke Elwes: Writing on Water exhibition is at the Adam Gallery, 67 Mortimer Street, London W1W 7SE until 28 March, then moves to the Adam Gallery at 13 John Street, Bath from 31 March to 16 April.

By Vanora Bennett  21 March 2014

 

Constellation 2012

Constellation

This new series of works on paper are the result of the fluid interaction of natural and man made materials. They are executed under an open sky, at dawn or dusk, sometimes in the rain or late at night, and they remain close to the ground or the water, where the shifting light radiates across the salt marshes and the tides move back and forth through the delicate maze of creeks and channels. They reveal chance encounters with a myriad of visual stimuli: passing birds, rolling mist, scattered flora, wind blown leaves or drifting shapes, floating on, reflected in, the passing streams. They are a fragile record of process and time, the uncertain result of a particular moment of elemental engagement, made without correction in one sitting. The location provides just a beginning, a way of collecting particles of colour and light and a way of observing the play of prevailing conditions on a paper surface which, once it is scattered with incidental markings and stained with coloured inks and organic matter, is then allowed to become saturated by the surrounding waters.

In an extract from a letter to the artist, Robert Macfarlane writes: ‘ I might try to articulate what I find so unusual and compelling about the work: its localism, for a start. But also the hover between encryption and archetype (enigma and fabulous openness).  “ As you hold on to a leaf, a shell, feather or pebble before returning it to its microcosmos, you learn to see not the names of things but the things themselves”. Absolutely. We are both collectors, but not in the possessive sense of that word; quite the opposite. Surrenderers of sorts.’

Robert Macfarlane is the author of The Wild Places (Granta, 2008) and The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Penguin 2012)

 

'Every painting is a veil, though given that many abstract painters have sought to vanquish the inherent illusionism of the medium, perhaps we should say, potentially so. The paintings shown here are characteristic, in their layering of diluted, stained and poured oil paint. Ostensibly abstract, in the sense that they are flat, dispersed in structure and without figural content, they manifestly suggest liquid, flowing, reflective surfaces. That which they enact, then, they also configure. Elwes has a migrant past, having lived for part of his childhood in Iran, and he is attracted by remote and desert regions. While the desert, in its aridity, might seem the opposite of these apparently liquid formations, there is an underlying affinity between water and sand, and a liaison between both and the wind: sand is formed and moved by the wind, and flows like water, forming waves and ripples. Elwes intends his paintings to form themselves correspondingly, in a microcosmic recapitulation of these natural processes of flow and inundation.'

(Brendan Prendeville, Goldsmiths College; extract on Luke Elwes from ‘Another Country’, an essay for the Estorick Collection, London 2010)

Silent Kingdom 2011

Silent kingdom 2011

Constable spoke of landscape painting as a branch of natural philosophy, and there is a case for the otherworldly landscapes of Luke Elwes to be seen as a branch of philosophical enquiry. Elwes explores the landscape of memory, the history and spirit of places, but at the same time evokes the journey into self, which is not about the indulgences of autobiography or self-expression, but primarily concerned with the intermingled layering of time and experience. He takes a particular path, chooses to follow certain threads, and spins out his indefinite painterly narratives in imagery of a delicacy that seems to contradict its formal robustness. He works with trace rather than statement, with suggestion rather than description. He aims to capture atmosphere and the ephemeral effect, but also the underlying truths which hold the key to the pattern.

His paintings can resemble veils, with vertical bands of colour emerging through them, a little like faded banners, the vertical frequently played off against a horizontal element or axis. (The horizon line or division of sky and earth is another principal means of apportioning the picture space.) A marker pole appears in a current of light, of water, of cloud. There might be a suggestion of a window or doorway, a rectangle of darkness, or an opening through a surface – which might be a wall – onto other light, a featureless prospect or perhaps one full of invisible potential, like the future. The laden atmosphere is filled with motes, of dust, of memories. The past helps to shape the present before it metamorphoses once again into the future. Elwes investigates the relationship of parts.

In a very literal sense, it’s all about placement, spatial conjunctions, the dispersal and articulation of related elements. In the oils on canvas, the objects painted, such as they are, are often of an architectural nature, and have the appearance of presenting abraded surfaces, weather-worn and aged, witness surely to countless events and histories. But are they actually eroded, these partially-stated surfaces? Are they really losing their detail? Perhaps in fact they are seen only dimly, as through a haze or a clouded lens. Sometimes the focus pulls away so much that we appear to be off-Earth, viewing the planet from afar. But then the subtly non-spherical shape on the picture plane suggests we are actually looking at a snowy hill resembling the Earth. Certainly we are looking at the edge of something, a rim, a dividing point and threshold. This liminal quality, which is also allied to his fascination for maps, is an abiding theme of Elwes’ work.

If the paintings in the main derive from the artist’s travels abroad, the works on paper deal with a subject much closer to home: the stretch of land and water at Landermere in Essex. Here Elwes spends time in the marginal territory of rivers and tributaries, marsh-land for the most part, where water is a way of life. The effects of light on water, so easily (and lazily) reduced to an optical dazzle, are carefully analyzed and re-formulated in watercolours of great subtlety and considerable seduction. The works on paper are decidedly crisper in their distinctions than the oils – their areas of “thing” and “no-thing”, the pattern of white which emerges through the delicate skeins of paint, the insistent linearity and the subtle layering of colour. Occasionally the particles are distributed across the picture plane like autumn leaves in an aerial ballet, or fragments of vegetation floating on a placid lake. The patterns gather and writhe into new configurations: the root system of a tree, the crow’s-foot spread of a river into a delta, the eddy and swirl of clearly-observed moving water carrying a cargo of flotsam. Occasionally it is as if we are looking through a faded and torn fabric onto some brightly-coloured spectacle beyond, revealed only in tantalizing glimpses.

Other associations reach into the mind: reflections of the winter branches of trees threshing the wind; a landscape seen at dawn or dusk, in moments of swift extremity and flux; shadows breaking up into their constituents of coloured light; weather charts exquisitely detailed with temperature-colour variations. The incidents of colour on a softly modulated ground suggest medal ribbons at a parade or the bright plumage of small birds on an autumn day. One cannot escape the feeling that Elwes portrays this finest of filigrees  – his net or mesh in which to catch experiences  – so often because, having identified it, he wants to explore the utter permeability of our world, and its state of constant change due to influence. How, in effect, everything influences and affects everything else, touches it, touches us, and whether we like it or not, we are moulded by our environment.

He is also casting a net of connectedness over what he sees, reaffirming his recognition of man’s place in the story – which is properly one of co-operation and co-existence rather than dominion. There is a wonderful equality of attention to these paintings, an all-over-ness which helps to account for their surprisingly assured appeal. Elwes makes a kind of celestial confetti, a serene fusion of light and the motes dancing in it. He might also be painting a million million prayers, written on multi-coloured scraps of paper and scattered to the ends of the earth, falling alike on fallow ground or fertile, but all heard by God. Whatever its cause, there is a quiet joy to his meditations, which chimes well with the understated beauty of his images.

Catalogue text by Andrew Lambirth(published by Adam Gallery, London & Bath, 2011)

Another Country, Estorick 2010

ANOTHER COUNTRY: London Painters in dialogue with Italian art

Introductory essay by Brendan Prendeville

Painting knows no frontiers. Of all the arts, it is the most immediate, the most ready of access. Of all the arts, it is the least constrained by cultural difference. Literature is tied to its particular language, music to a set of conventions that bind it within its cultural limits more than is the case with painting. It is in painting that the transforming power of art is most evident, for it can draw on what we might - if we follow Richard Wollheim – regard as a natural and universal human faculty for seeing something as other than it is. Wollheim called it ‘seeing-in’, and Leonardo was the first to describe it when he advised painters that they could stimulate the imagination by looking at stained surfaces and seeing in them whatever scenes they wished. We cannot know what the prehistoric cave paintings at Altamira meant to those who made them, but in so far as we see as they saw, we may see what they saw: animals and men, in traces of coloured pigment. All painting is alike in this respect.

            And yet painting is at the same time the most territorial of the arts, the only one bounded by a perimeter, its very own frontier: its surface, its frame. It is in painting, too, that limes of cultural demarcation have been most evident, often egregiously so: the bias to gender or class. Painting is also, like the other plastic arts, material, concrete and tied to the specific: the materials the cave painters used were of necessity those found locally. It is through its narrowness and particularity, then, that painting opens to the world, and opens up a world. It offers a frontier in order that we should cross it.

            The present exhibition has a transnational theme, and it proposes a dialogue across frontiers. The ten London painters shown here have long sustained a dialogue amongst themselves, feeling affinities, respecting differences – or, rather, responding to the stimulus of difference. They have exhibited together previously, in Italy, and while two of them – Mannocci and di Stefano – are Italian by birth or parentage, the general basis for this present conversation with Italian art has to do not with any such particular connection but rather with a certain commonality of approach, one that makes a group exhibition at the Estorick Collection apposite. Of course, like any artists working today, these painters draw on sources diverse in origin and date, but the common element we might regard as ‘Italian’ may be found in their particular investment in precisely that transformative capacity in painting Wollheim named ‘seeing-in’. Accepting that this potential in painting is universal, we might encapsulate its ‘Italian’ realisation in an aphorism: painting takes us into another country....

            Every painting is a veil, though given that many abstract painters have sought to vanquish the inherent illusionism of the medium, perhaps we should say, potentially so. It is a potential each of these painters accepts, none of them more explicitly than Luke Elwes. The paintings shown here are characteristic, in their layering of diluted, stained and poured oil paint. Ostensibly abstract, in the sense that they are flat, dispersed in structure and without figural content, they manifestly suggest liquid, flowing, reflective surfaces. That which they enact, then, they also configure. Zoran Music, Elwes’s chosen artist, was not Italian by birth, though he did spend most of his working life in Italy, moving just across the border from his native Slovenia to live and work in Venice. There is evident identification here, for Elwes himself has a migrant past, having lived for part of his childhood in Iran, and, like Music, he is attracted by remote and desert regions. While the desert, in its aridity, might seem the opposite of these apparently liquid formations, there is an underlying affinity between water and sand, and a liaison between both and the wind: sand is formed and moved by the wind, and flows like water, forming waves and ripples. Elwes intends his paintings to form themselves correspondingly, in a microcosmic recapitulation of these natural processes of flow and inundation. Beneath Refuge we may see the traces of the free, impulsive drawing over which flow the layers of dilute paint. Each painting has such transparency, with crisscrossing paint flows forming lattices through which appear regular, vertical formations in three of the paintings. In all the paintings, in differing ways, regular elements confine or cut across the liquid flows: either submerged and washed over, or intrusive, like the black vertical in Passage. The limit reveals the unbounded.

Copyright Brendan Prendeville 2010

Critics Choice London 2010

Curated by Andrew Lambirth

Glancing through the pages of past catalogues dedicated to the work of Luke Elwes, a strong sense of continuity emerges. Elwes paints the concept of travel: he is a pilgrim in search of identity – his own as much as the spirit of the place through which he journeys. His paintings have a particularity which is emotionally sensitive yet formally tough, as he focuses on the traces left by mankind in his passage through time and the world. Elwes puts us in perspective. He has travelled widely, and one of his most consistently inspiring journeys has been to the Himalayas, where he was much struck by the earth and mineral colours splashed on walls. In his new paintings he revisits Nepal through the prism of more recent experiences in the backwaters of Essex, and the reflections of foliage and sky. ‘Passage’ proposes a spatial arrangement of black pillars to articulate the warm pinks and blues of its aetherial context.  ‘Portal’ explores the threshold between inside and outside, a vista of hallucinatory blue bringing the outside firmly into the picture. In ‘Refuge’ the dark doorway and window seem to offer a sanctuary from the piercing light. Vague columns of intermittent colour are embedded in the swirling patterns of Elwes’ canvases.  Everything is reduced to dust eventually by the elements, but in the meantime we may enjoy the trace of their being.

CRITICS CHOICE, BROWSE & DARBY, LONDON  14 APRIL - 7 MAY 2010

Luke Elwes Paris 2009

LUKE ELWES: PEINTURES RECENTES

GALERIE MARCEAU BASTILLE, PARIS

30 APRIL - 30 SEPTEMBER 2009

In his paintings Luke Elwes explores the landscape of memory. As well as recording particular journeys (to North Africa, Tibet and central America), the paintings reveal, like a hieroglyphic text, the many layers of history buried beneath the surfaces of these places. They become maps of the ‘geographical unconscious’, suggesting both the trail of our presence and the passage of time.  As Odilon Redon put it, they place ‘the logic of the visible in the service of the invisible’.
Luke Elwes exhibits regularly with Art First Contemporary Art in London and New York, as well as, more recently, with Galleria Ceribelli in Bergamo Italy. The paintings in this exhibition have been selected by the artist from the recent Refugia series and it represents the first opportunity to see his recent work in Paris since 2001.

A travers ses peintures Luke Elwes explore le paysage de la mémoire.
Ses œuvres sont la trace des voyages de l’artiste, en Afrique de Nord, au Tibet et en Amérique Centrale. Elles révèlent, tel des Hiéroglyphes, les différentes couches de l’histoire enfouies sous  ces paysages. Chaque  tableau  est une carte de la « géographie inconsciente », il  révèle les traces laissées par notre présence et par le passage du temps.  Selon la citation d’Odilon Redon :« La logique du visible au service de l’invisible »

Luke Elwes vit et travaille à Londres. Il est régulièrement exposé à la Galerie Art First Contemporary Art à Londres et à New-York, ainsi que plus récemment à la Galleria Ceribelli à Bergame en Italie. Les peintures exposées viennent de sa récente série « Refugia ». Elles ont été choisies par L’artiste qui n’a pas exposé à Paris depuis 2001.

5 London Painters 2009

5 London Painters, Leeds 2009

Curated by Nicholas Usherwood, with exhibition text, October 2009

Unlike many curated shows of the present moment, this selection of work is not dominated by an intellectual scheme but rather by the selectors’ long-standing interest in, and admiration for, the work of the artists concerned (none of whom, remarkably enough, has ever shown substantially in the city before, even Leeds-born Christopher P. Wood). Thus Maurice Cockrill RA (b 1936), the most senior figure here and a painter always much admired by other artists nationally and internationally, has developed his painterly abstraction to a point where the subject and form of his painting emerges from the free flow of gesture and the encouragement of chance. Stephen Chambers RA (b.1960), like Maurice Cockrill, is a Royal Academician but of a rather younger generation, his paintings, rich with precise drawing and luminous decorative colour, transforms the familiar and everyday, delivering to us a world of great beauty and exotic mystery. Lino Mannocci (b1945) was born in Italy but has lived and worked in London since graduating from the Slade in 1975. Since then he has shown all over the world though principally in London and Italy. His paintings, with their characteristically limited pallet of sophisticated whites and muted earths create scenes of seemingly infinite quietude and poetry.

Luke Elwes (b1961) came to prominence in the early 1990s with a series of remarkable exhibitions that developed out of his exploratory travels to a wide range of different landscapes worldwide and are, in some sense, a reminiscence, or distillation, of that experience. He seeks to document the inner experience of his journeys by exploring the memories which surface through the act of painting, a process which for Elwes, is ‘a continuous process of loss and recovery.’  Christopher Wood (b1961), though born in Leeds, where he continues to live and work, graduated from Chelsea in 1986 and it is through a succession of solo exhibitions in London that he has established his reputation as a painter of great imaginative vision, an explorer of the inner world, weaving together imagery drawn from a huge variety of sources in a rich painterly fabric of dream-like character.

Five artists then with apparently rather different concerns yet, all of them, in one way or another, drawn to the power of paint as a means to transform and heighten our understanding of the world and its innate, imaginative richness.

London Painters in Italy 2007

London Painters in Italy 2007

Gli Amici Pittori di Londra, curated by Lino Mannocci (published by Galleria Ceribelli & Lubrina Editions, Italy 2007)

With Luke Elwes I recognize and in some ways share his manner of working: the desire to contain the sign language behind the magical surfaces he creates. During his many travels Elwes has immersed himself completely in the new realities he perceives and has absorbed to saturation point the dominant aspects, often related intimately to sacred objects or beliefs in their various forms. It is only after his return home that he works through the records he has created to yield a distillation of what he has experienced. His work demonstrates how he resolves these influences in canvases devoid of grandiose gestures but perfectly controlled. They are canvases that seem to have been born divinely inspired, as it were with helmet and armour in place.

There is in England a long tradition of travelling painters who, armed with easel, canvas and brush, scour the world for subjects to paint. This is not Luke Elwes’s way of working. When he travels, Luke involves himself with all his being, seeking the new realities by total immersion in them. It is only afterwards, the voyage over, on the return to London, in the seclusion of his studio, that he embarks on the process of distillation and synthesis. It is as though this displacement of time and space is the necessary filter for recovering the essence of the experiences he has lived through.

Elwes frequently starts a picture by scribbling on the canvas, making signs, as with typescript. These marks are then covered with a thin film of paint which in turn may be removed by dripping on to the new surface thus created a diluting agent  such as turpentine. It is difficult to predict the effect on the canvas of these drops and trickles. The danger of losing the image completely is an essential part of the creative process, involving a degree of excitement stimulated by the risk involved in this process. In his newer paintings Elwes achieves thinner surfaces resulting in more complex effects; notwithstanding the inherently random effects of the process the painter is increasingly drawn to these techniques.

Refugia Art First 2007

Art First 2007

Catalogue text by Anthony Fawcett (published by Art First, London & New York,2007)

The timing of this exhibition seems strange but appropriate. As I write the sound of musicians are ringing out across the globe in honor of Live Earth.  It seems to symbolize a challenge which is now building with breathless urgency. My immediate response to your work was raw – it seemed to take me back to the Pilgrim series and then to re-evoke the feelings of pain which I experienced when I tried to engage with it back in 1997.  The contemplative calm which permeates the work seems too transcendental to me.  Damn it, I say to myself, I had enough of this stuff with Catholicism and now my friend is back doing his bloody moon walk again – who needs it?  Well, clearly me for a start – art is supposed to challenge us in exactly this way.  When I first saw the images of earth beamed back at us from space during our childhood I was full of wonder.  I still am.  But when I try to live my daily life it can just feel too damned hard.  The pain we all have to face…bereavement, sickness, old age, death, the need to earn a daily crust, the difficulty of anger, the need for love, the weight of responsibility…what are we doing here?  None of us know the answer to this. However, we do know that through millennia we keep creating art.  Our ancestors descend to paint on the walls of caves.  The need for food and shelter is interrupted.  Something sacred stirs.  A new dimension emerges in our relationship to the world and to each other.  Thousands of years later Chaim Soutine hangs a rotting carcass in a Parisian apartment and starts to paint with venom and fire.  A new century sounds which produces two such barbaric wars that there can be few whom we know whose family did not lose loved ones.  On the wall of my apartment I have a photograph of my grandmother’s family in New Zealand.  It still seems heartbreaking to me that the two eldest boys were dead within five years of it being taken.  If we are this poor at getting along with each other then how on earth (on earth indeed….) are we supposed to save the planet into the bargain….

So, what are you up to, my friend? What would Chaim Soutine have made of your work?  If he were me then he would have howled in frustration and chucked your CD at the wall and then realized first, that this need for ascent is essential – probably as important now as at any point in our history - and that, secondly, his/my own considerably less patient and more fiery temperament could do with the occasional reminder of the need for belief and inspiration, that beauty can be a refuge and that the world can still enchant.  Whatever we are up to, transcendence seems to me to imply a recognition that the self centered rush of our everyday lives needs context and that the context extends to horizons which we cannot see but which we must preserve. This work is full of transcendence.  Even when you are not evoking the nature of the globe itself (Locus, Corpus) you’re still giving us aerial views (Cross, Blue Passage, Trail).  Jeez, kid, you are so bloody high that you give me vertigo.  I find it irritatingly cerebral and polished but it is certainly provocative and breathtakingly beautiful.

My favorites are Maya and Ascent. Maya because it reminds me of my two trips to Mount Kailash – the mountain seems to loom in the background, suggestive rather than literal; a single square beckons – an opening into another way for a weary pilgrim short of breath on the roof of the world – an evocation of the notion that we must travel into the heart of the mountain as well as around it.  I see the mist which would so often lie on the Himalayan mountains when I first caught the morning light; and the sense that spiritual truth is not something which can be explained but only experienced. Ascent is interesting because it is a painting in which the perspective does not seem as obviously elevated as most of the others (its title therefore intrigues me).  It is more suggestive to me of charting a course through a channel, feeling our way forward into an unmapped sea, reminding me of the great myths of the Mediterranean: Odysseus or Jason.  So that is where I will end – interesting that the sense of ascent leads me to a sea-bound journey. But finishing with the sea seems appropriate – a reminder of your years on Osea, a counterpoint to your own love of the desert - and, of course, when photographed from space the earth is not the green of the environmental activists but the blue of the great folk tradition of the American south.

Anthony Fawcett (New York, July 2007)

Reclaiming the Landscape of our Lives 2007

Crossing, Reclaiming the Landscape of our Lives

(Mark Barrett, Darton Longman & Todd, London 2001, new edition 2007)

The title of this book, Crossing, is borrowed from that of a painting by the contemporary artist Luke Elwes. The painting is reproduced on the cover. Crossing is an abstract landscape, at once the earth from space, a m ap of innumerable root-like pathways across a desert and a patterning of light and colour. The painting combines meandering lines, paths which unfold across its surface, with innumerable tiny crosses that mark the way – the very warp and woof of the brushwork. At the same time, the overall shape of the painting seems to lead us through a movement of  light and dark that is both a single day and the pattern of a lifetime. This is a painting that invites us to become travellers in the landscape of our own lives. As the artist himself says:‘The lines are the paths of our own life, and the meandering course of all life, of branches, trees, roots and riverbeds. In their uninterrupted movement lies the search for markers, the signposts we need if we are to draw our own maps’.  From this painting arises the theme I shall be exploring in the chapters that follow...

Flowing Ground 2005

LUKE ELWES: FLOWING GROUND

BROADBENT LONDON   21 JUNE - 23 JULY 2005

This new series has grown out of a twin impulse, the wish to explore the visual field with the most direct means available - minerals, matter, water and paper - and to do it by taking one patch of ground, a small island, and looking at it deeply, again and again, to see what it yields.It is also a private and radical response to a larger problem - namely, how to picture the world and what media to adopt as the most valid vehicle for its exploration?  This question has become more complicated as the range of technical possibilities open to artists both expands and becomes more rapidly obsolete, and as the language and terms of one method - painting, photography, digital media - is infiltrated and overturned by another. 

Painting especially seems to have lost ground in this accelerating process, increasingly prone to critical judgements which signal its demise on one day and its new ‘triumph’ on the next. 
So to return to drawing at this juncture - the impulse that lies at the root of so many visual systems - is also to return to first principles, to start over with the simplest contact between hand and eye, as an unencumbered way to locate and map out the subtle complexities of our response to the transient nature of the seen world.  It is a matter not only of acting, but of receiving.  As my deepening experience of one place - Osea Island in the Blackwater estuary -  is overlayed with new responses, so the need to work directly in the territory I am exploring has grown.  The island has become an extension of the studio, a space where thought, memory and action arise simultaneously.  As this series has grown over the last two years, so the distance between the world outside and the world in the studio has all but vanished.

The island is a contained world, a parcel of earth illuminated by sky and water and shaped by tide and wind.  Its interior is a wilderness that mutates with the seasons, the vibrant buzz and fecund bloom of summer fields disappearing beneath the stark silhouettes and white mists of wintertime;  while at its margins, a potent liminal space arises from the constant tension between liquidity and solidity.  On some days the fractured tracery and meandering lines of its soft boundaries spill outwards into glistening black space;  on others, the water rises up to meet the sky, dissolving the surface into a vast expanse of blue and silver light.  Being there, moving through it, is to become progressively immersed in its elemental rhythms, the drawings  a natural  result of this engagement.  A sheet of paper is worked on - sometimes urgently, sometimes with measured slowness - using pens, crayon, ink and pigment, but also  river water, mud, dust, grass and rain.  The mental picture  instinctively combines with the random event.  The drawing is both a representation of, and an intense submersion in the moment.  It hovers between the thing seen and the sensation evoked.

The marks on the paper slide in and out of recognition, acting both as rapid transcriptions and abstract notations.  They combine near and far, exploring the surface while also touching  the distant space above and beneath it.  The specifics of the visual world are unpicked and reassembled, the resulting images covering a spectrum of possiblities as they arise: some drawings returning to the closely observed,  others drifting through non - specific passages of light and dark, evoking a less tangible space, often less seen than felt.
The drawings mark the beginning of a process but also the process itself.  How they evolve is as much about the materials used and how the medium works on any given day as about a specific visual starting point.  Whether a reflective reacquaintance with familiar ground or an instinctive response to some unexpected stimulus ( a shell, butterfly, blossom), they are about the significance of looking,  remaining alive to the transience and mutability of that act of perception.  They travel not so much widely as deeply, absorbing and probing the natural flow of phenomena and the passage of time.  From the lines, marks and washes emerges a landscape where much of ‘what is essential is invisible to the eye.’ 

Luke Elwes
April 2005

Compass 2004

Luke Elwes at Art First 2004

The (London) Independent, Sep 21, 2004  by Sue Hubbard

THE MAP has become for many a modern painter and poet a metaphorical, almost sacred object. In a secular world it exerts a fascination; the empty spaces and the unknown territories beckon. To travel has become synonymous with the pilgrim's journey into the heart of darkness. It is to lay oneself open to new experiences, to new ways of seeing the world. The place between "here" and "somewhere else" may be the very place that must be traversed in order to reach "there", to know, as Eliot said, "the place for the first time".

The Christian pilgrimage was both an actual journey and a voyage to the centre of the self, while psychoanalysis is often described in terms of travel in an unknown land. To be a true pilgrim requires that one is watchful, observant, aware of subtle shifts and changes - both in the external landscape through which one travels as well as in the internal. In the silence of the wilderness we are able to rediscover the language of memory and our links with what is ancient; the stars, the sea, the wind.

Over the past decade, the painter Luke Elwes has made journeys to the tablelands of the Hopi Indians in New Mexico, the central Australian desert, the Great Rift Valley in East Africa, and to the Buddhist sacred mountain Mount Kailash in the Tibetan plateau. The result has been a series of landscapes that not only captures something of the physicality of these sacred places but which also speaks of the empty loneliness that is at the spiritual core of much creativity.

"Compass" is Elwes's fourth exhibition at the London gallery Art First. The mixed-media paintings on paper, created by subtle layers of washes and marks, signal a shift of emphasis, while also revisiting the concerns of his series "Pilgrim" (based on the expedition to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar in Tibet), "Sanctuary" (which grew from a journey to the caves of Cappadocia) and "Osea" (inspired by an island only a couple of hours from London).

His oils on linen deal with the contrast between dark and light, space and edges. Compass, a monochromatic ellipse, might be read as a sacred eye, whilst also suggesting something of a medieval Mappa Mundi, created around a central sacred place such as Jerusalem or Rome. Although implicitly abstract, the physical world is never far away in these paintings; they suggest the expansive horizons of sea or the sky breaking from night into dawn. Light emanates from beyond the edge of a fecund semi-circle in Gaze (above), again suggesting the pupil of an eye or the edge of a planet revolving in deep space.

Elwes's territory is both familiar and strange, distant and yet somehow known. As the French philosopher-poet Gaston Bachelard wrote in Poetics of Space, "We cover the universe with drawings we have lived." The thinly layered surfaces echo patterns of weather and erosion; marks are made then washed away or erased. Ancient pathways across plains, deserts or fields are suggested to create, as Elwes has said, "spaces which are mapped by belief rather than measured by science". These pathways are markers in the emptiness of the canvas, making sense of the space as they also attempt to make sense of the world.

Osea Paintings 2002

LUKE ELWES: THE OSEA PAINTINGS

Chardin might have been speaking for all painters when he said of painting that, "it was an island whose shore I have skirted". In a series of large abstract paintings that emerge directly out of his two-year long investigation of the landscape of Osea island Luke Elwes takes Chardin's evocative metaphor and gives it shimmering new resonances. A few hours' drive from London, Osea's wild, flat marshlands and empty, windswept skies have become for the artist a point of departure and a place of return. Dore Ashton wrote of Robert Motherwell, "He travels abroad and in doing so returns to his own source."

For most of Luke Elwes' artistic career he has travelled and painted. But he is no travel painter. His extensive journeys, and through them his exposure to the culture, beliefs, and landscape of others, have acted as a catalyst for his own line of enquiry into the nature of our relationship to the world. This exploration can be traced back to the artist's decisive encounter with the desert at the start of the 1990s. After a decade of journeys to distant parts of the world ­ the Central Australian Desert, East Africa's Great Rift Valley, New Mexico, Mount Kailash in Tibet and Cappadocia in Turkey ­ there is implicit in the new work a sense of homecoming.

The artist's acute observation of the physical world, his preoccupation with the flow of time and matter as it is manifested on Osea, rewards us with canvases suffused with ambient light and the colours of water where it breaks and dissolves into earth. Luke's paintings brim with the luminous silence of an intimacy that approaches awe and derives from a kind of looking that has been described as tenderness towards experience. It is this quality of felt intimacy that draws us so compelling into the paintings' sphere, holds and instructs us there.

In the summer of 2002 Luke will continue his investigation of islands when he visits a wild, coniferous-forested granite island off Maine's rugged coast. Ospreys are the guardians of this far-flung piece of wilderness. Osea and Osprey Islands will both feature in Luke's first exhibition with Art First New York in October 2002.

Clare Cooper and Fiona Donnelly

ART FIRST LONDON 10 APRIL - 9 MAY 2002

ART FIRST NEW YORK 16 OCTOBER - 15 NOVEMBER 2002

Water's Edge 2002

Luke Elwes at Art First 2002 

Exhibition text byAndrew Lambirth. London, May 2002

Luke Elwes (b. 1961) is a painter-traveller, making pictures which are at once about the particular places he has visited and a record of that journey into self which is the lot of the true contemplative. In his recent evocations of Osea Island off the Essex coast, Elwes maps the almost-submerged land where earth and sea not only meet but mingle intimately. He writes of the making of these elusive paintings (apparently empty yet full of detail) as encompassing 'the pursuit of silence, a balance between something and nothing, that holds the eye and stills the impulse to literal transcription'. The map is nearly erased, a distressed palimpsest; it's difficult to decipher a single clear meaning. The viewer must, like a scryer, read the signs and interpret accordingly.

Sanctuary 2000

Luke Elwes: Sanctuary

“When we enter the landscape to learn something we are obligated, I think, to pay attention rather than constantly pose questions. To approach the land as we would a person, by opening an intelligent conversation. And to stay in one place, to make of that one long observation a fully dilated experience. We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more then we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language.” - Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America

Art is first of all a question of private passions, passions that only finally, connect with a wider audience through the sensuous instincts of the artist. For Luke Elwes, over the last decade, that obsession has been with the sacred landscape. His journeys to the dry tablelands of the Hopi Indians in New Mexico, the Central Australian Desert of the Australian Aborigines, the Great Rift Valley in East Africa (the first landscape consciously known to human eyes) and, more recently, to the Buddhist sacred mountain, Mt. Kailash in the Tibetan Plateau, are all part of an intense need to confront and give form to the inner loneliness of our existence – those same “desert places” that so haunted the imagination of the poet Robert Frost. And, on each of these journeys it has been the quietness and steadiness of his attention to the landscape, his willingness to let the complex language of the land shape his experience of it, that has resulted in such a consistently rich and rewarding body of paintings over this period.

Yet, it should be stressed, it has also been part of an intelligent conversation, one to which Elwes has, in the most open-minded way, brought both his own knowledge as well as a desire to understand. The resulting paintings have not been driven by an overriding desire for a new form that the landscape might provide, but on the contrary have led to the discovery of the physical and spiritual correspondences between apparently diverse geographies. In this new series, derived from his latest journey to the astonishing cave complexes of Cappadocia in Central Turkey that gave home, and literally shelter and protection to the very earliest Christian communities, Elwes has produced paintings that bear close kinship with the work in his Storyline exhibition some seven years ago, which resulted from his travels among the American Pueblo Indians and in the East African Rift Valley.

This is immediately apparent above all in the dark hard edged rectangular openings that form such a dominant visual element of both groups of paintings and landscapes. On the one hand is the similarly punctuated surface, in the Cappadocian paintings representing the apertures hewn out of the rock itself, and marking the entrances to the countless literal spaces of the hermetic cells, chapels and tombs of the Early Christian fathers that honeycomb these extraordinary rock formations. On the other is the remarkable spiritual/geographical coincidence of their east facing entrances, so constructed by the Pueblo Indians that they might “watch the sun being reborn out of the earth’s womb each day, bringing light and lifeback to the silent skin of the earth”. Geologically remarkable in themselves, quite apart from these moving outward evidences of human belief that seem at times almost to float across their surfaces, they are too, as Elwes himself observes, visual metaphors, “suggestive both of individual lives and the connectedness of all Life”.

And, like the landscape of Mt. Kailash in Tibet which provided the inspiration for his last exhibition (Pilgrim, 1998 Art First), this is a landscape filled with visual reminders of belief. “The scenery of early Christendom lay all around us”, Patrick Leigh Fermor observed of Cappadocia, although in its long abandoned and distinctly melancholy uninhabited present state this once populous landscape is not one of continuing belief but instead a potent reminder of an existence and belief largely lost, as our Western/Christian civilisation has become more complex and less innocent. This was very much part of what attracted and absorbed Elwes’ attention. Also the strong sense, nonetheless, that the life and belief that existed in these peaks and valleys was always rooted firmly in the earth, a fact forcibly brought home to him one day when, walking by one of the streams that feed the lush valleys that once provided the hermits’ livelihood, a strange clattering noise in the grass brought him to a group of rutting male tortoises, the descendants of those painted 1500 years earlier and still to be seen decorating cell and chapel walls alongside images of the cross and stars in the sky. As the artist observes, “even the doves stillcircle and return to innumerable dovecotes. The simple wonder of being at one with the earth, the sky, the rocks, the seasons, with all of life, has faded”.

That sense he has of a faith deeply bound to the earth feels unfamiliar in the context of a Christian/Western belief that has, in the intervening period, intentionally distanced itself from what it sees as pagan, naturebound cults, and depicted the earth as of little or no importance spiritually. This tendency has had disastrous consequences, environmentally and emotionally for the human race as a whole as we simultaneously destroy the earth and lose our sense of place within it. For, as Paul Devereux has written in Revisioning the Earth, “Place is not passive. It interacts with our consciousness in a dynamic way. It contains its own memory of events and its own mythic nature, its ‘genius loci’ or spirit of place”. It can bring things to the fore, into awareness, that were until then existing in the unconscious mind. Place can therefore illuminate us and provide mythic imaginings within us”.

All this might sound like a heavy agenda to superimpose on these paintings, and it is a measure of Elwes’ subtlety and command as a painter now that he can find so surely the technical ways and means to translate these apprehensions into a series of visual images that are at the same time direct and yet resonant with feeling. Beneath the great washes of colour that drift across some of the large canvases one senses, unmistakably, the traces and gleamings of the decorations that fill the walls of those underground/overground chapels, while the layers of paint surface upon paint surface in themselves provide a potent metaphor for the tantalising, obscuring effects of time and history on our understanding. They suggest too.the layering of memory. The poet Kathleen Raine complaining of our present education as “a language without a memory”, observed that “the language of poets is a language of images upon which meanings are built, in metaphors and symbols which never lose their link with light and darkness, tree and flower, animals and rivers and mountains and stars and winds and the elements of earth, air, fire and water. The language of poetry in the language of nature”. In a culture that is becoming increasingly amnesiac, our attention spans ever shorter, these paintings have the effect of engaging our attention with that same quality of quietude and passion that Luke Elwes first experienced in the Cappadocia landscapes.

Nicholas Usherwood
February 2000

Pilgrim 1998

Luke Elwes: Psychological Geodesist

As a boy I used to look of maps, / was … obsessed with maps, the white areas most of all. They denote those places of which we know nothing, dark spots in the universe that exert a… savage attraction. That is why / went to sea. / had to visit those places. So one travels and travels, through Asia, through South America, up the river Congo, and it is… it is … a journey into one’s self, the drawing up of a vast mop. One becomes a …psychological geodesist.  Journey into a Dark Heart by Peter Hoeg

Geodesy is earth measurement on a large scale, or surveying with allowance for the earth’s curvature. It seems to me that this is what Luke Elwes does – in both literal terms, and in a more personal, metaphorical but generally accessible way. His principal subject is landscape and our relationship with it, our journey through it, our response to it. Elwes has spent much of his painting career exploring alternative ways of looking at the world, and of how to depict the experience of being in it. Man within the universe, rather than controller of it. His new paintings are meditative and calm, conjuring an arena of dreamy speculation: they proffer the refuge of silence in a cluttered, hectic world.

Luke Elwes spent his earliest years in Tehran and grew up in the luminous spaces and under the big skies of Persia. Later, living in Britain, when he came to paint landscape it was a natural progression to move from the softness of Connemara and Wessex to the greater aridity of Spain, before he succumbed to the lure of the desert. (“The desert is the purest landscape, where the soul breathes; the place where we first came to touch the surface, and sense the forces moving beneath it.” Elwes 1991 .) His Australian paintings were fed by the example of the Aboriginal desert artists, by the writings of Bruce Chatwin, and by an awareness of two modern painters – Fred Williams and Alan Davie. But this group of pictures nevertheless remains an individual and remarkable contemporary response to journeying in the wilderness. Elwes confronted himself as much as the unfamiliar landscape, and recorded their dynamic interaction.

Why the desert? Not just for its purity, though very great is the need to escape the trappings of civilisation in order to think. Humanity has hardly left a mark on the shifting sands of the Sahara, yet nature is still very much in evidence. At night, or after rainfall, a whole host of plants and animals appear as if by magic. Beneath the apparently dead surface of the sand, the pulse of life continues unabated. All is there in potential. And it’s a refreshing alternative to the man-dominated environment. Elwes has wandered through the dry tablelands of New Mexico observing the Hopi Indians, he has visited the Chalbi desert and the Great Rift Valley in East Africa, which was probably the first landscape to register on human eyes. In his desire to see the world and our relationship with it afresh, Elwes is drawn ineluctably to first things and to last things – to the elemental.

What luck then to be invited at the end of 1996 to join an expedition to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar on the high Tibetan plateau. This is one of the world’s most sacred places, and, like Delphi, is thought to be the centre of the world, its omphalos, or navel. Mount Kailash is identified in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology as the World Pillar and the Pathway to the Stars. The mountain is also identified as the abode of Shiva, from whose hair the life-giving waters of the Ganges descend to earth. Meanwhile Lake Manasarovar, known to the Buddhists as the “green-gemmed mandala”, is believed to have sprung from the mind of the Brahma. A sacred site, inaccessible and isolated, but the focus of concerted pilgrimage; such is the potency of the place that to walk a single circuit of the mountain is said to be sufficient to erase the sins of a lifetime. The circular route is a month’s pilgrimage. Elwes speaks of the redemptive powers of the magic mountain. It is a 50 kilometre walk around the base (only Buddha ever went up the mountain itself), and not everyone who undertakes it can complete the course. Material offerings, or ex votos, are scattered over the foothills and blown about, making it look a little like a rubbish dump. (The profane has its place in the scheme of things.) The way is strewn with carved and inscribed stones to mark the passage of previous pilgrims. To Elwes, sensitive as he is to the genius loci or spirit of place, it was like being on the roof of the world, with the sky close enough to touch.

Elwes took the unusual experience of the pilgrimage as a spur to his previous ideas, as a way of deepening his own enquiry. The mountain itself doesn’t feature in this series of new pictures. True there’s a small study of an idealised mountain shape, but aside from that, it is an unseen though pervasive presence. The holy river valley is on the other hand a favourite motif. The river’s source is at the base of Mount Kailash, and its flood forms a beautiful turquoise thread of water down the valley. Elwes, for the sake of pictorial and spiritual simplicity, in Fall, reduces the river to a ribbon of blue, intermittent on the canvas. This resembles the cut-outs or arabesques of Matisse, but also the prayer flags or paper prayers drifting on the wind around the holy mountain. As Matissean marks it exists as a flat pattern floating on the surface of the canvas. As a depiction, however schematised, of the descent of a river, it works within the picture space. The strength of it is that it can and does have both functions.

On the trek, Elwes made colour notations and naturalistic sketches in watercolour, as well as taking photographs. Back in his North London studio he picked up the traces of his previous work and sought to incorporate his newly-garnered information. Again, external influences played their part in the generation of new images. Elwes had been looking at the great waterfalls in Hiroshige’s prints, and the economic way the Japanese artist captures the sheer drop of water. (Interestingly, it appears often like a column.) Once again, simple shapes. Elwes had already begun to experiment with layered surfaces fractured like fretwork, the patina crisply broken-up into tiny windows, here and there revealing hidden depths excavated. He began to take this technique further. He might commence by scribbling across the surface of the canvas, making marks almost like automatic writing. Various layers of underpainting and undermarking would then be covered up by a thin wash of paint. This again might be partly removed by running turps over the new surface. It’s difficult to predict quite what will happen when another wash is flooded over the canvas, or even trickled on. The possibility of losing the surface altogether, clogging up the tooth of the canvas, simply by running too many washes over it, is an essential part of the process – it’s the yeast of risk. In these new paintings, Elwes achieves thinner surfaces than before and yet more complex layering; despite the aleatory nature of this part of his practice, he has grown increasingly adept in its manipulation.

Chords and echoes sound through the work as a whole. Certain themes recur. In 1992, Elwes, an acute commentator and historian of his own work, wrote: ‘In these paintings, two images have emerged, the meandering line and the divided surface. The lines are the paths of our own life, and the meandering course of all life, of branches, trees, roots and riverbeds. In their uninterrupted movement lies the search for markers, the signposts we need if we are to draw our own maps.” To take a specific example, the 1992 painting entitled Source displays profound kinship to Skin of five years later. There is a recognisable continuity of interests, combined with unflagging technical exploration. The group of paintings which feature a globe (see Arc, Navel, Roof and Breath) take a longer perspective on the same issues. Whether they refer to molecular, bodily or global structure, their analytical/emotional thrust is constant. The surfaces are even further worked, densely explored but not fussily. If we decide to interpret the image as a map, the scatterings of fields and dwellings should also be read simply as mark-making. The pictures are just as much about abstract ideas: divisions, boundaries, the edges of things. One of the key aspects of this group is a balance of power played out between light and dark. The arc of darkness encroaches on the lighted world, or the fruitful belly of the earth squashes night into a corner.

Elwes likes to keep his references multiple. He told me, for example, that Aboriginal desert paintings are also family trees. This is an important back-echo to the work, a formative influence. Likewise, there is the medieval belief that the earth was flat, that you could fall over the edge of it, and that the celestial canopy which was the sky, was held up on poles at its four corners. The stars were the holes in the canopy. For Elwes’ pictures, this is an important point of reference. Again, look to the maps made long ago, with their assumptions of knowledge and their admissions of ignorance. Perhaps with their inventions and blank areas (terra incognita) they were more humanly truthful than anything we can attempt today with our far superior technological resources. (We who can’t see the wood for the trees.)

These 4 foot by 8 foot canvases are the largest that Elwes has worked on. The double square format provides an appropriate horizontal spread for the journey and its alternative routes, though the first of the group, Navel is in fact vertical. A friend looked at it and said that it reminded her of what it felt like to be pregnant. Interestingly, Elwes is not only mapping space, but also the passage of time. The map-points and references have various layers of meaning. At sporadic intervals in the net of veining, branching lines (everything is connected) a cross appears. Is this a kind of hallmark or stamp of approval? (A sign of spiritual weight?) Crosses also simply mark unspecified points of importance on the map. Yet at every crossroads there is choice, and the possibility of new spiritual horizons. This is important. These are paintings which are both map or aerial view, and yet also suggest a horizon line. Now the focus has pulled out, and we see the earth from afar, as if from a satellite in space, yet the detailing is often distinct. Near and far are reconciled. The map floats in and out of focus at the margins, and then comes into clarity at the centre, just as the eye sees. The blue all-seeing metaphoric eye of the holy lake in Skin appears to be both navel and nipple, the circular journey around it tracing the aureola. The pinky-ochre desert of Tibet seems very like the actual derma (in animal terms) of the earth. In the same way rocks can become flesh.

Elwes is attempting to deal with the unseen. As from any patterning, however random (even damp stains on a wall), figurative images will emerge, so here and there a profile face materialises from the map lines. There are many fine shades to meaning, and a range of truths not immediately perceptible. Many fine shades to meaning, and a range of truths not immediately perceptible. Meditation on the pure yet ambiguous forms of Elwes’ paintings may reveal more. (Remark the benignant smile of Strand.) As Redon put it: “The logic of the visible in the service of the invisible.” These paintings also have the character of a palimpsest – an ancient document, that has had many stories written over it, some of which are partially erased, and others more legible. In the simple yet complex new paintings of Luke Elwes lie both stimulus and refreshment for the soul.

Andrew Lambirth (catalogue text for Pilgrim, Art First 1998)