STATEMENT 2008: Scarborough

As a young artist in the 1970s I often felt oppressed by the history of art.  Everything I made, which for the first four or five years was mainly paintings, seemed to look too much like someone else’s work.  I couldn’t think how to discover my own voice; the work seemed stillborn under the dead weight of my knowledge of art, even while it was still just an idea.  In fact part of the problem was that the work was dependent on discrete ideas, rather than being the result of an ongoing working process.

I have always been interested in animals, and images of animals.  As a child I was fascinated by natural history seen in illustrations, diagrams and glass cases.  I realised that the visual language of zoological museums and natural history books could be utilised for philosophical and aesthetic purposes.  It has a strange richness that often passes unnoticed because it is masked by the information being communicated.  If this type of message is absent, the medium becomes more visible.  When I decided that I could make use of this existing language, from outside art, the burden of art history disappeared.  The problems of what to make and how to work disappeared with it.  In effect, the content of the work determined the form.

The collages in the exhibition are three of about 25 similar expressions of the same thought, executed between March 1984 and June 1987.  They were made partly in response to frustration with not finishing anything.  I needed a form that would allow me to produce something while I continued to work on the more labour-intensive display cabinets, using images, words and objects, that I was making concurrently.

This visual language had other advantages.  It allowed me to use humour and absurdity because it had a surface appearance of truth.  The language of science has more authority than the language of advertising, for example.  Information can be perceived as being true or factual partly because of the manner of its presentation.  Anyone who finds the work funny has some understanding of it.  Very few of these works were easily conceived; they were the result of anxious concentration on avoiding unwanted meanings, associations and implications.  The apparent lack of meaning of these works is a kind of metaphor for the senseless beauty of the world.

Eventually, around 1987, I became dissatisfied with the degree of formal invention required by this type of work.  Every piece required some new composition, or perhaps some new constructed form.  I had to think too hard about issues not connected enough with what I was really interested in.  I wanted to work with a given physical form, such as painting.  Having sidestepped the “history of art” problem, I felt ready to take on painting again from a different angle.  The beginnings of this can be seen in one of the collages in the exhibition, which has a painted area on the right-hand side. The two later collages of the three on show perhaps use the visual language more freely, less consciously tied to zoological sources, than the earlier one.

However, I have never been a pure painter, before or since I made these collages - I have always seen paintings as flat objects, not just a surface.  Recently I have moved towards making objects that are less like paintings.

 Nick Martin
14 May 2008