Notes (In no particular order as they say in the X Factor)

 

I spent most of my early working life in weaving factories - that was at a time when we still had a linen trade.

If you have never walked into a large working loom shop then you cannot imagine the overwhelming noise - an assault of overheated sound that tries to force the body backwards and out the door - a dark cataract that is built up from the clacking of hundreds of individual shuttles - each striking out its metronomic rhythm as it slams, left-right-left-right, into the shuttle box at each end of the slay ...

… and no one who has not worked full days and years in a loom shop can really appreciate how, with familiarity, the sound becomes an enveloping silence - where you hear neither footstep nor voice - where even the clacking of the loom you are working at is muted to a whisper against the background of a now silent roar ...

… and then there are the Jacquard harnesses that transfer and translate the pattern from punched cards to warp threads - hanging like a jungle of regular geometric skeins or veils of laminated cords that serve to further isolate the worker - visually this time - into a world where no one else but the weavers further up the row can be seen - and they far enough away to be almost in a different world.


Some aspects of the work in this show can be traced to my experience as a worker in such damask shops - the regular interlaced straight lines of the jacquard harnesses - the mysterious translation from mechanical patterns of holes punched in cards into the natural images of traditional damask ornament - the emergence at the leading edge of cloth, line by line, of flowers and plants, all picked out in the natural monochrome of unbleached linen - created from the weaving of a single thread of weft yarn into the parallel strands of warp to form the web of the fabric...


... all of this provided me with the luxury of a private world of thought and imagination into which I could retreat when the looms were working well and I did not need to tend their needs.


This was the period of life when my interest in the nature of reality grew into an itch that to this day still hasn’t been scratched away - so there, in the silence of the looms, when I wasn’t fantasising about girls or listening to rock music in my mind, I was thinking about metaphysics (although at the time I didn’t recognise that was what I was doing).


Two books published around that time could serve to encapsulate the themes of this show. The first was The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra and the other - by Jacques Monod - was Chance and Necessity. They are both popular science books but there the similarity ends - Capra connects physics with mysticism whereas Monod concentrates on a more physical and scientistic description of our existence. Although I have borrowed Monod’s title I am intuitively much more drawn to Capra’s viewpoint - because ...


... Scientism (reductionist fundamentalism - radical physicalism) is an impoverished worldview – it is insufficient as a description of lived life - and it is dangerously incomplete, falling short of wisdom due to the very assumptions and methods that divide and isolate aspects of the world to give science its great power of creation and destruction.


At the bottom of all, scientism assumes that everything that exists is generated and sustained by rules - or is at least reducible to rules - and in fact that is one of the ideas I am interested in - the image and idea of rule-based pattern emerging from chaos - as in cellular automata like Conway’s ‘Life’


In the scientistic view of the world the uber-rules are called laws of nature - but they are actually the laws of science - for nature is broader and deeper than can be accommodated by rules. Science looks towards causal connections - ‘if this happens then that follows’ - but nature looks also towards willed connections - ‘if you do that then I will do this’

 

One thing I intuitively grasp is that reality cannot be split into matter and spirit - matter and spirit are profoundly unified in each person - nor can we separate it into chaos and pattern - the patterns, and therefore the rules, are already there in the chaos, as potential.


Emergence is the realisation of potential

There is no hard border between creation and discovery - knowledge and wisdom emerge through the hard work and insight of individuals - when knowledge emerges in terms of generalised laws and rules then it feels like discovery - when it emerges as part of an individual’s vision it feels like creation. In the practice of drawing we can explore both types of emergence through mark making.


When I think of mark making it goes like this:

When the ground – from top to bottom – edge to edge – is covered with marks that do not prompt figuration – like the steady visual hiss of white noise after the end of programming on an early television – or like a crowd seen from ten thousand feet on the screen of a drone operator – a flowing density of close-packed marks with no hint of individuality ... when any patterning – any separation of one region from another – any seeing of shape or content – is a matter of pure projection on the part of the viewer …

… then this is texturing.

 

When the ground is divided into distinct regions – when we can point and say ‘that shape’ or ‘that row’ or ‘that node’ – when our imagination is seduced towards merging shapes and shades into a picture that is afforded by the drawing but not forced – like staring into the embers of a fire or up at a bank of cumulous cloud – or when a crystalline structure forms the visual ground into distinct facets – or when curves and arabesques twist the space of a drawing into visual knots…

… this is patterning

 

And finally, when the drawing gives us stand-out parts that each display a distinct identity – areas that are so clearly salient that the drawing separates into figure and ground  …

… then we have figuration.

 

In making and seeing pictures I am fascinated by the movement from texture, through pattern, to figuration – back and forth – up and down through levels of meaning – or possibilities of meaning – and I am drawn to explore the borderlands – the marches between texture and pattern, between pattern and figuration.

 

Borderlands are the most interesting regions of mind and world - places where we can face a particular view of the world then turn away to face a completely different view. The beach is a borderland of a very particular kind - a constantly changing strip of territory that succumbs to the rhythm of the sun and moon - alternating between land and sea. As land-dwellers we think of things washed up on land as freely given - but all that is given to the land is lost to the sea.


What makes anything a ‘thing’ - what distinguishes a segment or aspect of the world and gathers it together in contrast to its environment, its background?

 

It can be a border or a skin - like the membrane round a living cell that defines what is inside the cell and what is not - or it can be an attractor - like the gravity well of the sun that defines the solar system as a thing that includes any object that is held in orbit - or it can be a sub-network - like the system of tightly coupled linkages of energy exchange and predation that form an ecosystem.


Our categories work something like this, some categories are corralled by clear criteria - the ‘singly necessary and jointly sufficient’ conditions that define classical categories and concepts - others are held together by prototypical exemplars that act as attractors drawing other, less typical examples into the orbit of inclusion - and some grow like networks of nodes where the connecting lines represent bundles of common features.


This show is a bit like the third kind.


Our world takes on the shape of our categories just as the flesh of a whelk takes on the shape of its shell - and our categories are shaped in turn by the history of individual lives and of collective life unfolding in the real world - just as the shell is shaped by the process of the whelk’s growth in its environment.

 

Our categories are the web with which we trap from the noumenon that which can be possibly be caught - those things which, by chance, come our way and which will stick and hold still long enough for us to draw them into ourselves.


Our world is layered - We can hold on to what we catch in two basic ways - by defining and naming parts - by considering things in relation to other things that they are part of (what the philosophers call mereology) - or by defining and naming aspects  - we switch aspects to experience the same thing in different ways - thus we create layers and facets of experience.


The whelks (I met a guy down by the sea who told me they were called ‘buck whelks’) - I picked up a couple of hundred on Ballyholme beach over the last three years or so.

 

I was struck by the underlying commonality of the shells - a commonality provided by the rules of growth encoded in the shared genome of the whelks - and also struck by the extreme individuality created through the accidents of  wear and colonisation. Here was this unliving armour that had once moulded and protected soft molluscular flesh - laid down by a steady algorithm of growth by accretion - and then partially wiped out and occluded by impact, friction and overlay.

 

Neurophysiologists have a term for the physical and chemical traces of memory - they call them ‘engrams’ - I have often thought that the scars that mark our flesh, and the distortions of bone and muscle that we carry as a result of living imperfect lives in an imperfect world, could also be thought of as mute engrams - traces of the physical impact of living.

 

And so with the buck whelks - each shell bears the necessary engram of its growth - a spiral that while not perfect is certainly predictable in its general form -  an organic geometry that is overlaid with the chancy engrams that record wear and damage as it is tumbled among the rocks in tide and wave - and the marks of its colonisation by other living forms.


Beautiful husks - If our souls could leave behind physical husks to be fossilised in the depths of time I suppose they could be something like the whelk shells.


‘No man is an island, entire of itself’ says John Donne in his seventeenth meditation - but archipelagos are communities of islands - each island a seismic birthing - pushed into the air through the surface of the ocean - with the surface as an event horizon sealing off the noumenal depths from the phenomenal air. Each of us is an island at the moment of death - sinking back into the waters from which we were expelled.


Fire and Water. Burning is inherently chancy - and fast - much faster than the equally chancy but more gradual process of disintegration that reduces parchment and papyrus to dust and fragments. Water is also chancy - in how it flows and settles into cockled paper - and when mixed with pigment it leaves an engram of its settling - in the patterns of colours on the page.


Computer generated patterns can look chancy - but they never are (unless they reach into the real world to sample randomness) - computer algorithms need to be predictable - they need to generate the same outcome every time as long as the inputs are the same. They can give the appearance of chance - even the appearance of life - but at best they are only beautiful rules.