Mary Lloyd-Jones: Lliwio’ Gair / The Colour of Saying
Aberystwyth Arts Centre – May 2001
In two previous reviews (Carol Bove and Shani Rhys James) that were written some time after viewing their respective exhibitions I had indulged in the unexpected relief, a mild catharsis perhaps, of being ‘better late than never’. After writing the Rhys James piece I recalled the second review I had ever written, which had not been published at all. This was in response to Mary Lloyd-Jones’ ‘The Colour of Saying’ at Aberystwth Arts Centre in 2001. I was an avid reader of Modern Painters magazine at the time and had submitted the review in the hope that Lloyd-Jones would receive some well deserved recognition in a major publication. Alas, the piece was not accepted, but as the review had been word processed I retained a copy that migrated from computer to computer. On a hunch I searched for it and found it almost immediately. So, if one can write about an exhibition a year or two after the event why not publish a review written 20 years ago?
I have not changed anything in the original text, except to split one lengthy paragraph into two. It was tempting to re-write some of the passages, but I resisted the urge. It is also worth noting that, in this time of the Covid pandemic, an uncanny atmosphere of absence was prevalent on road journeys. Hence a reference to MAFF – the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In 2001 there was a widespread outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK and access to public rights of way across land were closed. This severely affected the tourist industry and people travelled far less than normal. The journey west from Shrewsbury, where I had been staying with my brother, was therefore very quiet as this is a well-travelled route to the Welsh coast.
The Colour of Saying
Travelling on a near empty A458 between Shrewsbury and Welshpool the warning signs about foot and mouth disease lend an eerie feel to an otherwise pleasant journey. The kind of journey one makes to escape from the hustle and bustle of life, at work or play, in the towns and cities of England. Thankfully, for now at least, the MAFF signs slowly disappear as the roads of mid-Wales wind gently up and down towards the coast on a bright April day. Making a small detour via Machynlleth for its near deserted craft shops (tourists are few and far between these days) I am reminded of a treasured watercolour hanging in my Sussex home. The colours and shapes of the painting in my mind become the actual landscape that surrounds me. I have arrived, in the land of Mary Lloyd-Jones.
The work of many landscape painters have become associated with the regions in which they operated and in Britain it is Constable’s Suffolk that will first spring to mind. Moving west to ancient Celtic lands, in Peter Lanyon’s West Penwith, the landscape fuses inextricably with the man. In Chris Stephens’ study of the Cornish artist, At The Edge Of Landscape, he quotes Lanyon – “I paint places but always the Placeness of them.” This claim could also be applied to Lloyd-Jones’ paintings currently on display in the new and spacious Gallery 1 at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Many, though not all, of the works are representative of locations around Aberystwyth – Pontarfynach (Devil’s Bridge), Ystumtuen, and Cwmystwyth in the Rheidol Valley and other areas of Ceredigion. Although place names, or significant features such as lead mines or spoil tips, are regularly used for the titles in her paintings, the sense of a place or location adds up to far more than a picturesque view. These places are immersed in history and the collective rural memory – and in these paintings Lloyd-Jones reveals and interprets more than the purely scenic facts. Indeed many of these locations would only be known locally, for the visitor on his travels may pass them by en-route to more well known tourist destinations. Knowledge of these lesser known places – disused quarries, remote hillsides – may invite more visitors to this sparsely populated area of Wales; but in a Neo-Romantic spirit perhaps they are best left to poets and painters to explore and re-discover.
The gallery is large, light and spacious, and the architect, Peter Roberts, has integrated an inverted barrel vaulted ceiling to control what could have been an overwhelming space. The carefully arranged paintings, of various sizes, create a comfortable intimacy and envelope the viewer with walls of colour-filled landscape images. Suspended down the central axis of the gallery an avenue of acrylic-stained canvas pieces hang, inviting the viewer to stand between these great walls of colour and script, and to move from one to another transcending the conventional one-to-one relationship with an image. It is this installation that demands the viewer’s attention on entering the gallery.
The images hang in Bardic procession – the poetic reference is apt – for integrated with the strongly coloured banners are inscribed words from a variety of sources. From the earliest times the magical power of the word has been made concrete, the audible made visible, through mark and alphabetical system. To all but the most learned visitor these ancient inscriptions are without obvious meaning and we have to rely on the accompanying publication, that gives its title to this exhibition, for explanation. However, we are brought up to date by the use of quotations from contemporary poets, including Janet Dubé and Gillian Clarke. Lines by R.S.Thomas also appear and it was he, arguably the most important Welsh poet after Dylan Thomas, who found much inspiration from the environs of his native north Wales. Yet, as a Welshman who had to express and deliver his poetic vision in the ‘foreign’ English language, a dialectical tension would be present throughout his life’s work as a poet – where authentic pessimism jostled with spiritual redemption.
Painting, however, speaks a more universal language – the visual language of colour, shape, gesture and texture. Of the Bard, Mary Sara explains in her essay in The Colour of Saying:
“It is an ancient role which began with the member of the tribe who lifted his or her eyes from the task of survival and said Look! or asked Why? How? What if? – then shaped with their hands or said, or sang, a celebration or proposed an answer.”
In Lloyd-Jones’ paintings she re-affirms the task of the artist to communicate and show us those things, feelings and experiences worth having and knowing. There is great optimism and we see commensurate skills in the handling of oil, acrylic and watercolour. In the most recent works, for example, in ‘Rhosdir’, colour is both localised to earth, rock and field colours and enhanced by stronger, vibrant colours – the hues of interpretation and transformation. The viewer’s eye moves with these colours as paint is carefully applied in smooth, opaque layers or thin washes of semi-transparent colour. Oil paint is used with the consistency of watercolour with supreme confidence. In this composition there is a palpable sense of movement in space. Zigs and zags that relate to the characteristics of streams, trees, fences, posts, sheep paths – they allude also to the calligraphic script of words. The visual features are both fixed and rhythmical. Natural and abstract signs and symbols are derived from the landscape.
In ‘Iaith Cofio’, one senses, again, a personal colour palette derived from the artist’s predilection for strong colour, and from the richly coloured landscape of her homeland. She employs this intuitive and carefully observed use of colour to interpret and transform the subjects captured in her sensitive scanning of the Ceredigion landscape. For this is an image distilled from the whole area, from a landscape memory (‘iaith cofio’), not from a particular location. Integrating and superimposing the Bardic Alphabet and remnants of the Ogham script (an ancient alphabet found on stone monuments that could be used by the Celts for passing coded messages) this painting suggests an aerial view of a landscape delineated by stone walls, natural fissures or the scars of industrial activity. The word is imprinted in the land – as if to impress on the viewer the fact, for better or worse, of the cultivated, industrialised and ‘cultured’ environment that is inextricably linked to the ‘natural’ world.
However, Lloyd-Jones’ work is not reliant on a narrative tradition in literature or painting. Nor is it ‘insular’, for her work is clearly related, and indebted, to European (and North American) Modernism. One senses the intuitive spirit of Kandinsky in her use of colour on the brush; and another influence may derive, both technically and inspirationally, from Helen Frankenthaler’s stained and gesturally configured works. But in Lloyd-Jones’ work we are not presented with a limited and shallow Greenbergian expressionism – because here the content of the human and cultural place of landscape is signified. At first glance her paintings are expressionist – in style and temperament. One is aware of the act of the painted mark forged in the shapes and passages of colour on the canvas surface. These echo the patchwork of medieval field systems that, in topographic features, re-shape and define the land.
In another impressive painting, ‘Can Wyllt (Wild Sound)’, the title prompts the viewer’s memory to re-call the mixture of aural, vibrating and flowing qualities of the landscape. The painting’s aeriformed weaving and flurry of colour-shapes and blue-purple improvised layers, winding and scurrying as if in flight, takes the eye on a journey within the painting’s glowing and atmospheric space. This disembodies the viewer and takes the ground from our feet. To such a painting as this we bring our own memories and experiences – albeit unconsciously – and ‘Can Wyllt’ reciprocates by returning the human experience of exposure to the elements.
In ‘Mwyn Plwm (Lead Ore)’, a recent and memorable painting, the handling of oil paint is light and refined, proving that with maturity the best painters continue to improve. The skill of painting is hard-won, crafted, and controlled with the focused devotion that this timeless medium demands. However, for me, the most outstanding painting of the exhibition is, ‘Olion(Remains)’. In her catalogue essay Gillian Clarke refers to the transformative experience of a car journey made through Wales that reminded her of R.S.Thomas’ poem, Bright Field. Lloyd-Jones’ ‘Olion’ is, essentially, an indigo-blue and purple composition, incorporating flying orange ribbons to provide a complementary counterpoint to the mass of earth and rock that commands the centre of the image. Within its atmospheric boundaries it holds a green field or escarpment that also reminds one of Thomas’ account of this, literally, illuminating experience:
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it …
This seemingly spot lit feature sits alongside a disused lead mine, an image retrieved from an industrial past. The painting contains the cartographers’ signs for various topographical features, incorporating both a bird’s-eye view and a multi-perspectival rendering of space, and is accompanied by an understated graffito of Bardic signs. As in the poem, this painting re-presents the image to be given freely to those who take the time to look. This commanding, delightful and sensuous canvas becomes a precious object to contemplate too.
A profound interest in the transformative powers of colour is reflected in the artist’s interest in India. In the accompanying publication Lloyd-Jones explains that her “… aim in visiting India was to immerse myself in a culture where the use of colour is fluent, spontaneous and sophisticated.” Thus, a large and exuberant patchwork of mini-colourfields is presented in ‘Jaipur’ III’, painted after one such visit to India. Pictorial space is more up-front and shallower than in the landscape work, suggesting a more spatially enclosed, claustrophobic, urban environment. It is interesting to note that the colour scheme is essentially the same as in the Welsh images – as if there is a cross-cultural link between Jaipur and west Wales. I sense this in the almost uninhibited and joyous use of colour found in Indian culture and echoed in the proletarian evidence of the colourfully rendered houses and cottages of west Wales. This dominance of colour also suggests a singular vision for painting that comes from this artist who imposes her visual language, her way of seeing, wherever she is – carrying a visual accent, or filter, to a foreign land.
This prompts the question – what is meant by foreign? Other peoples, another land, a different culture. In what sense is Wales foreign – particularly to the industrialised Welsh communities in the north and south who are essentially English speakers? What, and where, is their cultural identity? But Welsh art is a European and a British art too. In Lloyd-Jones’ work we see an unmistakably Welsh identity that is self-confident, undivided, and specifically related to the tradition of painting. She contributes to a living landscape tradition born out of her authentic rural experience and enriched by a European trans-national humanism. Landscape is proven to be a positive subject for contemporary painting. It is not an anachronistic genre but can deal with the here and now. In this instance contemporary, relevant, overtly political and wonderfully sensual and visual – from a geology over 400 million years old.
There are various dichotomies that can be distilled from the scope of this exhibition: of the relationship between Wales and Britain (England?); in the vestiges of ancient cultures in ‘modern’ day society – embedded especially in the Welsh oral tradition; and in the autonomous visual and literary expressive arts that sometimes link to enhance each other. Such questions are not necessarily intended to be answered here but a demand is made for reflection on such matters.
Lloyd-Jones’ work is, ultimately, a celebration. It is nationalistic in a positive and proud sense – it explores a collective identity, of a culture, a people through the landscape genre. We see to such powerful visual effect, the use of ancient and modern written languages linked to a heightened sensibility for employing colour with the language of abstraction. In her work and on her travels Lloyd-Jones becomes one with the genius loci – the spirit of a place. The landscape is transformed and interpreted in human terms – and we are invited to play a major role as viewers to verify her findings.
In conversation with Julia Brown, Helen Frankenthaler commented that, “True artistic creation of any kind is a very lonely process, a totally selfish act, and a totally necessary one that can become a gift to others. That’s when the painting finds its audience…” Mary Lloyd-Jones’ audience has grown steadily in the past few years and it is time that due recognition was given to her achievements by a broader public and on a truly national scale beyond the Welsh Borders. This exhibition in Aberystwyth is well worth the distance travelled.
‘Lliwio’r Gair/The Colour of Saying’ until 12 May 2001, at Aberystwyth Arts Centre.
Touring to Wrexham Arts Centre, 7 July to 18 August 2001.
Catalogue: ‘The Colour of Saying’ (Gomer Press, Llandysul, Ceredigion), £19.95.
Mary Lloyd-Jones also exhibits at the Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff in September 2001.
The images for this review have been scanned from ‘The Colour of Saying’, with the exception of the Banners which appear in ‘Delweddau O’r Ymylon’ by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan (pub. Y Lolfa, Talybont).
‘The Colour of Saying’, edited by Eve Ropek (Gomer Press with Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 2001) was the first major publication on Mary-Lloyd Jones.
Martin Tinney Gallery – Mary Lloyd-Jones profile page