Perception and Construction
It is a mistake to assume questions always precede answers in either art or science. The seventeenth century work by Johannes Kepler on the laws of planetary motion is an old example to the contrary, and the invention of the laser is a new one. When the laser first appeared as the optical maser in 1953, it was a solution without a problem. Parallel with this, research programmes involving international co-operation have reached declared objectives. One well-known example is the unravelling of the genetic code. Although opposites, both these approaches are normal, and so are most of the others in between. Whereas in some cases experimental activity cannot continue without complete understanding, others can proceed reasonably well, and it is into this category that early work by artists often falls.
My earliest drawing and painting was heavily influenced by reality, perhaps because, as well as other things, I believed accuracy could capture whatever it was I found so dramatic and exciting about seeing, and what seemed to evade me in my work. It was not until 1958 that I realised that it was the transparent volume of space to which I was responding, and I could not see a way traditional media could say anything important about it.
To find that as a medium in its own right, space was hardly even treated seriously within the tradition of art was something of a negative experience. This would not have been so had I realised the opportunities it implied, but this sort of naiveté seems to be a part of discovery. Of course work did exist in 1958 (Ernest, Hill, the Martins, Pasmore and Gabo) which had I known about it, would have given strong clues about possible directions, but I did not, so the work which seemed the closest approach in attitude was that of Mondrian. I began to make three-dimensional reconstructions of the most structural paintings using sheets of glass and wooden blocks, and almost at once this evolved into the production of objects in their own right.
The following year I became a student, and in 1960 met John Ernest who was to have the most important single influence on my work. In addition to the stimulus of his critical criteria and interest, he was able to introduce me to the
work of others involved in similar activities within a tradition other than painting, with which I could feel involved. It was both exciting and disappointing to become aware of so much that was so relevant all at once. Disappointing because until then I had believed I was the sole possessor of a special idea, but exciting to think there were others who believed in the values I believed in. The two years that followed were divided almost equally into an initial period producing work generated by mathematics, followed by an important change to making objects which tried to respond to the challenge of understanding what excited me about space and vision.
The artist with space-enhancing glasses
Two practical but significant new factors were introduced into my work at this point. The first was perception theory, and the second the use of machines to make my work. Two books, Art and Visual Perception by Arnheim, and The Perception of the Visual World by Gibson helped me to understand and test different ways of working with space. It also occurred to me at this time that if the amount of space I could see, was for the most part determined by the fact my eyes were 3 inches apart, a greater separation would let me see more.
I arranged some mirrors to achieve this and it worked. The device was however so awkward no one else could use it and it was a long time before I was able to demonstrate the phenomenon. This was followed by another instrument which turned space back to front. This means that the surface against which an object is seen becomes the transparency through which it is seen. Reflections behave like shadows and perspective is reversed. These experimental spectacles are useful for my own research and in teaching, but it took a while to make them in such a way, that with the exception of someone with a vision defect, the three-dimensional equivalent of colour blindness, they are easy to use and work for anyone.
There is an important rapport between ideas, materials and techniques. They refine each other in unpredictable ways, and the use of machines to make my work was a revelation. This was so, not only because until then I had never used anything more sophisticated than a hand-saw, but also because it brought with it the possibility of making the work so well that it might conceal its own making. I was to discover this kind of finish is almost always achieved by hand, but machines can give certain kinds of accuracy which are essential. The reason for an anonymous surface was not mere pleasure in skills, but to make an object which contained a record of its origins, not a confession of them, to have a window so clear it could be seen through without itself being seen.
My present work, like my earliest drawing and painting, is an attempt to understand our image of reality, but in contrast is self-conscious in its attempt to analyse and restructure visual stimuli to perform new perceptual functions. The reality these objects present is made of elements distilled from nature, and the finished works are intended to be a coherent presentation of previously separate elements, creating their own reality.
Space Improvisation Drawing No.1 ‘XI’ 1961
1941: Born in England. 1958: Began making constructions. 1959-62: Studied at Bath Academy of Art. 1962-3: Royal Netherlands Government Scholarship. 1974: Arts Council Award. 1976: Arts Council Award. 1977: British Council Award / now doing research and teaching at Reading University and visits to the painting department at Chelsea School of Art and the Slade Postgraduate School.
1962: The Midland Group Gallery, Nottingham. 1963-5: Penwith Gallery, St Ives. 1966: Constructions, Axiom Gallery. 1967: Constructions, Unit-Series. Progression, Arts Council Gallery, Cambridge. 1969: Summer show, Lucy Milton Gallery / Institute of Contemporary Arts. 1974: Space Constructions (individual exhibition), Lucy Milton Gallery. 1976: Space, Abbot Hall Gallery, Kendal (Longson, Morland, Pope). 1977: Visual Objectives, Harlow Playhouse / TELIC Constructionist Exhibition, Kansas City, USA. 1978: Constructive Rationale, Polytechnic of Central London / The Constructive Context, Warehouse Gallery Arts et Informatique, UNESCO, Paris.
Publications by the artist:
Perception and Construction, Structure Series 6 – 2,1964 / Survey of English Relief Artists, The Structurist, 1978.
Arts Council of Great Britain / Cornwall Education Committee / Abbot Hall Museum.