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Art for Artists' Sake
Process and the value of creating
A couple of weeks ago I went to see an exhibition of new work by the abstract painter Maryanne Hawes. It was one of the loveliest Saturday afternoons I have spent in a while. The show was at a gallery in rural South Wales and afterwards, as I drove back home through the beautiful Welsh countryside towards Bristol, I was wondering how I would write about the art I’d seen.
Sometimes when people ask Maryanne what her paintings are about she describes them as ‘sort of landscapes’ inspired by ideas of the sublime in nature, Deep Time and rocks. It’s the easiest explanation, she says. So I could perhaps talk about her work in relation to ideas about the environment and climate change in our current moment; how important it is for visual artists like Maryanne to communicate complex ideas that implicate us as viewers, rouse us from our indifference and show us why we should care about the destruction of the natural world. And perhaps I could talk about the way her art makes us feel when we look at it, about the different perspectives it provides, the nuances and the subtleties of human experience that art can communicate in language that is beyond words.
That moment of clarity, connection with others and understanding that art gives us as viewers is hugely valuable. But I’m going to skip past all that for now because I want to reflect on the value of art for the maker, what goes on for the person who creates it. Sometimes I wonder whether that is actually the most valuable thing about art.
Over the last year or so Maryanne and I have had several conversations about her work. The first time I spoke to her I asked her to explain her practice, and her response was really interesting. She immediately started to talk about it as an enquiry, as a journey, and as a process of research. For her it’s about much more than what goes on in the studio when she is applying paint to canvas. In fact, a great deal of her practice happens outside of the studio. The paintings are the evidence and end result of her fundamental work, which is about understanding herself better through the creative process. Here’s the first conversation we had:
She really got me thinking more about the difference in the meaning and value of art for the maker and the viewer.
Maryanne started making art later in her career, just as she was about to turn 50. It was a time of personal crisis in her life, and she began taking long walks in the countryside as a form of meditation and a way of managing overwhelming feelings. When she got back to the studio she found herself reflecting on some of the thoughts, emotions, and memories that had emerged during these walks, and tried to capture them in paint on canvas.
The process of walking and then painting has now become integral to her practice. She uses this method to understand the distance between her internal and external realities, describing it as a ‘constant creative struggle… the push/pull of the raw versus the pretty; the authentic version versus the public face’. It has allowed her to mine what’s underneath the surface, and to perceive herself in new ways. As she walks Maryanne listens to her mind and her body, clocking what she thinks, sees, feels: colours, structures, textures, memories, sensations in her body, ideas she’s reading about, things she’s listening to and conversations she’s had. All the while she makes voice notes, scribbles things down, takes photos. She builds an archive which is like a mash-up of mind, body and nature.
This process of gathering deepens Maryanne’s engagement and connection with the landscape at that particular moment in time. Later — sometimes weeks afterwards — she looks back at this archive in the studio, and as it passes through the filter of her memory and combines with her thoughts in the present, Maryanne begins painting. What she creates is like a compression of herself over time and space in layers and gestures of paint. In this sense her artworks are psychological landscapes; they are representations of the messy, non-sequential accumulation of self-knowledge.
But they are also a record of the way in which we use nature to access a deeper sense of self, to sort through our minds, and to cope with the craziness of the world. In contrast to the idea that we can exist separately from nature, Maryanne’s paintings demonstrate our absolute interconnectedness and reliance on it; we are part of the natural world, not divorced from it. Her work speaks of the unity that exists between the external world and the internal realm of human consciousness, and how contemplation of nature can trigger personal memories and emotions that shape our identities; it demonstrates the slippage between our minds and bodies and the environments we move through.
This is something that the Swedish artist Anna Bjerger has talked about. She walks in nature every day as part of her practice, as a way of sifting through her subconscious mind before she goes into the studio. Bjerger is a figurative artist who paints from old photographs she finds in out-of-print books, travel brochures and vintage magazines as a way of ‘rescuing’ images and bringing them from one context into another. For her the value of art is in the process, which she describes as being so all-consuming that it’s ‘like magic’. It’s a journey where the destination is unknown, an instinctive call and response that compels her to explore without knowing where she’s going. She says:
I can’t try and put any intellectual thought into what I’m doing, that would totally kill it. I want to know what happens. It’s exciting, and if I knew what I wanted from the painting it would be pointless, like an exercise. The painting moves me forward and I follow.
This is learning to problem-solve by asking questions, being open and willing to explore, and it’s why in my opinion the visual arts should be prioritised alongside English, maths and science in the school curriculum. This is a subject I’ve written about before. The process of making art trains the mind in close observation and focus, in identifying patterns and structures, thinking about scale and perspective, in being curious, imagining, trying things out, analysing, adapting.
The British artist Jenny Saville describes her creative process in similar terms — of ‘laying down a problem’, destroying and rebuilding, until something that doesn’t at first make sense starts to make sense. Saville paints what we recognise as the human body, but her work starts from the abstract and builds out from that. For her there’s a fight in that process of creation, a tension between the abstract and the figurative.
In the painting Fugue (2022), for example, she has attempted to capture the extension of her sense of self that she felt when she was breastfeeding her children. For her the experience was like being on remote control from somewhere beyond your own body. It depicts a naked pregnant woman saturated with blue and orange, with coloured lines that sweep out from the body as if extending her somehow; but rectangular panels attached to the surface of the painting seem to hold the wholeness of the female form in place. Saville describes her work as an investigation into what reality is — her reality at any rate — and her paintings reveal the journey of problem-solving that she undertakes during this process.
When I talk to artists about the meanings in their work, there are of course always different underlying themes and concerns. But what I consistently hear is something about the tension between this and that, the problem that the artist is tussling with, and the process of figuring it out. The thing that compels many makers to keep on creating day after day is what the conceptual artist Ryan Gander calls ‘the journey in the taxi rather than the taxi receipt’. The artwork is the receipt and record that the journey took place.
Viewers can only get value from the receipt, but makers get value from the journey too. It is not just a representation of a body for Jenny Saville, or a landscape for Maryanne Hawes, or a lost photograph transformed into something else for Anna Bjerger; it’s also a record of self-knowledge and discovery learnt over time through deep enquiry and the process of creating. Art is a gift for the gifted.
As always I’d love to know your thoughts on any of these artists and ideas so please click on the comment button below to leave a message.
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