Art on its own account

John Haldane muses on artist David Tremlett's ability to take on a space and transform it into something living, in a compelling affirmation of the essential domesticity of the creative act

September 2, 2010

Before I was a philosopher I was an artist, or at least before I studied philosophy I studied art for five years, and taught it for three more; and I have never lost that original interest. Sometimes I think of returning to the business of art-making, and occasionally I sketch out ideas for projects that I may one day pursue; but in the meantime I continue to follow art and write about it in the form of interviews with artists, and reviews of art books and exhibitions.

As a student I was lucky to join the company of a number of highly creative artists, two of whom (Tony Cragg and Richard Long) went on to be Turner Prize winners (in 1988 and 1989), while others, such as Bill Woodrow, were Turner finalists. The presiding spirit of the group was Roger Ackling, and like those named, and others including Hamish Fulton, several of his works are in the Tate collection. These bright spirits were inspiring figures, and people I continue to admire.

Art is no stranger to philosophy. They meet at one point in the subject of aesthetics, and at another in the more pretentious forms of conceptualism. My interest in art, however, is not that of a practitioner of philosophical aesthetics. Meanwhile, even at the age of 18 when I began fine-art studies, 10 years of Jesuit schooling had provided me with enough knowledge to see that the idea-artists' efforts at philosophy were generally inflated and uncomprehending; and that remains true of later generations even to the present day.

What first engaged me in my teens and engages me still is the power of art to fill one's senses and imagination with its own images and forms, enchanting or challenging, familiar or strange. Yet they also have to meet the standard of compelling intelligibility and delight. I can illustrate this now by talking about another artist whose work I first came to know in the 1970s and who I think is long overdue for full honour in his native land.

The art of David Tremlett defies easy categorisation. At times it is associative, alluding to places, structures and processes; and even semi-narrative, telling of things seen and done. At other times it is essentially formal, arranging point and line, colour and shape to purely visual effect without reference to origin and connotations. Sometimes it is expressive, celebrating delight in the pure experience of hue and texture; but on other occasions the emotional aspect recedes, leaving geometrical studies in which design is explored and honoured on its own account, without specific regard to affective quality.

If the mode of Tremlett's work resists simple classification, so too does its type. Having involved performance and site-specificity, he can be connected to arte povera. Through the role of travel and documentation, he can be related to certain strands of "land" and "journey" art. The favouring of the wall and book as primary locations, together with the use of text, suggests associations with the American visual conceptualists, Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner. The dominance of dynamically arranged planes of single colours recalls both Russian constructivism and mid-Second World War English abstraction.

Tremlett also defeats attempts at cultural identification. An Englishman of West Country origins, his father and paternal grandmother were romantic adventurers drawn to Africa and Australia, about which they published memoirs; and he is similarly a citizen of more than country or continent: travelling, finding inspiration, creating work and making friendships across nations, frontiers and oceans.

At ease in Africa, Asia, Australia and America, he has a marked liking for Continental Europe, an affection that is enthusiastically reciprocated especially in France and Italy. At the same time he has a pragmatic common-sense approach to art-making and a feeling for craftsmanship that are both recognisably British.

At times radical in setting aside conventional distinctions between performance and product, between drawing, painting and sculpture, and between image and text, Tremlett is also conservative in recognising the objectivity of value and in celebrating excellence in the achievement of it.

What to make of this collection of seemingly diverse and contrasting attributes? In Orthodoxy (1908), G.K. Chesterton introduces the allegory of the mariner who set sail in search of uncharted lands, but ends up unknowingly landing on his own shores. "He proudly planted the flag, claiming his very own homeland on behalf of the same. Ironically, he was quite pleased when he discovered his mistake, for he had experienced all the thrill of discovery without sacrificing the familiarity. This is what we seek: a life which is both secure and poetically picturesque - one part fairy tale and one part fireside."

The fireside is not an image easily attached to contemporary art. Yet in Tremlett there is a rare and unsentimental conjoining of the abstract and the concrete, the strange and the familiar, the foreign and the domestic; with these conjunctions tending in the direction of the second of each pair. This judgement will strike some readers as implausible, as they enter a gallery and look at a spare display of rectangles and arcs, trapeziums and chevrons, floating circles and waving lines. In this image it is easy enough to locate the avant-garde, but hard to see the familiar and the domestic.

Like Orpheus in Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets, whose "music, ever new, from trembling stones, builds her divine home in useless space", one may speak of Tremlett's play of pure colours and shapes; of images that go softly forth; and of drawing, which ever-new from massaged pigment builds its joyful home in useless space.

In both cases the point of speaking of "uselessness" is not to denigrate a place as unused, let alone as unusable, but to elevate art as having a value other than utility. In this sense the most revered human spaces, including the sanctuary and the cemetery, are "useless", being set apart from productive labour for something else.

Tremlett's art has a strength of design that flows from a confidence to take on a space and transform it into something living. That capacity is the product of experience and continuous creative effort. Like the best musicians, dancers and writers, the best artists work all the time. No day is without preparation, performance or criticism. The works they make are distillations in a continuous process of creation; the visible flowers on the furthermost points of deep-rooted plantings.

The ordinary can be made extraordinary by the exercise of artistic imagination, and this is a form of skilled practice. What, though, of the claim that it also tends to the domestic? The Latin domesticus, from which the English "domestic", the Italian "domestico" and the French "domestique" all derive, comes from the root domus, meaning house. Over the years Tremlett has produced a number of wall-drawings in private houses, including those of the Duke of Westminster, but in speaking of his art as "domestic" I have something more fundamental in mind.

Archaeologists on the Southern Cape coast of South Africa have found thousands of pieces of ochre, many rubbed smooth, probably from having been ground to make pigment. Among these are two pieces along which parallel lines had been inscribed with further cross-hatching. These provide evidence of intended abstraction: extracting patterns from the detail of experience and repeating them carefully.

The date of these productions is 70,000 years ago and their location was a cave, which is to say a home. The earliest European paintings are half as old, but again they are found in caves in modern-day France and Spain. Because of the absence of signs of habitation some of these sites are taken to have been non-domestic, but the inescapable fact is that art began, and for most of its history has remained, "at home", not merely ornamenting but defining the spaces within which we human beings have lived.

It is in this sense that Tremlett's art is domestic. It is drawing inscribed on the skin of social life. To be in the space enclosed by a set of Tremlett wall drawings is to live, however briefly, in a new domestic space. Some fortunate few can retain this indefinitely; but whether in a public or private place, Tremlett is engaged in a rather special form of "home-making".

In saying this it is again necessary to caution against superficial understandings of the domestic. There is nothing dainty or decorous, petite or precious about Tremlett's art. It is full-bloodedly and unapologetically modernist, taking hold of a surface and enlivening it with line and colour. Even so, there is no attack upon, or subversion of, the viewer's sensibility.

On the contrary, the surfaces are like jazz renditions of familiar melodies, inviting us to identify a theme and follow through with the artist's improvisation. Tremlett's art may be highly imaginative and even exotic but it tends towards the concrete, the familiar and the domestic, and that is its strength, for it appeals to the desire for lively delight.

In early days he combined image-making and sculpture with elements of performance and documentation that were in tune with the international "conceptualism" of the time. But even then he could not resist putting pencil to paper, and crayon to wall. I recall while at art school seeing some graphite drawings at the Chelsea gallery of the late, and much missed, Nigel Greenwood, with whom Tremlett published his first artist's book Some Places to Visit (1974). Looking at that publication now, the most conspicuous feature of what was a sort of process-cum-performance project is that it resulted in a set of pencil drawings of undulating lines representing the landscapes of various locations.

Tremlett has been a prolific artist working at a pace and to an extent that reminds me of Tony Cragg, with whom he collaborated on work for the British Embassy in Berlin in 2000. Both knew early on that to be an artist is not to speculate about the historical origins, social purposes, economic role or political potential of art, but to engage directly in making it. I cannot imagine many days in which Tremlett is not conjuring imagery, at least in his imagination if not on paper or wall.

Beyond pieces made temporarily or permanently in galleries or homes, he has also worked in public buildings such as hotels, offices and churches. Then there are the many artists' books transposing and transforming images for the printed page. The common theme is the wall drawing. This has become the principal form of Tremlett's art-making, for even when he is working on paper he is generally creating images for possible future wall-works.

Looking through the pages of one of his book-works or catalogues, one cannot fail to be struck by the diversity of settings for which work has been made - from Gothic church to domestic palace, to community prison, to clinically minimalist gallery, to inhabited home. Some of these locations, most especially contemporary galleries, impose little in the way of aesthetic or physical constraints. In others, however, a major part of the task was devising a mode of "conversation" between existing forms and the elements of Tremlett's settled style of composition.

I cannot think of any British artist of Tremlett's generation who has produced architectural engagements to rival his. It is now 40 years since Tremlett had his first solo exhibition in London. Over that period there has been change but also continuity. For while he may no longer be constructing physical forms, he is still deploying shape across three dimensions with the intended effect of transforming one's experience of space. To that extent he remains a sculptor.

Tremlett is an artist whose work is strong in conception, design and implementation; strong in appearance; and strong in evoking responses to it. Likewise there are strengths in the artist himself: resolution, determination and stamina. Of themselves these qualities are not sufficient for the practice of art-making, but without them it tends to regress to dilettantism.

In combination with visual imagination, intellectual curiosity and self-discipline, however, such character traits make it possible to live and work as a creative artist: ever looking to make visual forms, ever seeing sources of imagery, ever wondering how to engage a space or surface, ever seeking new challenges.

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