Tania Rutland: Chip of flint – fragment of chalk
Window Gallery, Phoenix Art Space, Brighton
2 – 24 November 2019
‘Crowding the solitude’, ‘Ghost white path’, ‘Night’s first light’, ‘Silent reach’ and ‘Restless lane’ might be headings in a list of poems from a collection that constituted a volume of landscape inspired verse, but they are selected from the titles of drawings and prints from Tania Rutland’s exhibition at the Phoenix Art Space.
Another title, ‘Chip of flint – fragment of chalk’, makes reference to commonplace Sussex downland geological material that could have been gathered from her visits to Iron age Mount Caburn and Neolithic Cissbury Ring in East and West Sussex and is the intriguing title of this exhibition.
The very idea of a ‘chip’ or a ‘flint’ suggests the collection of a memento, a physical token from a walk, picked up to place on a shelf when home. Such an item might be revered as a memory of a time and place spent in solitude or with a partner or friends from a Sunday walk. The cultural pursuit of walking might be a form of escape from everyday life, most especially the ‘working week’. A leisurely stroll or demanding hike, especially in the countryside, can be rejuvenating and refreshing. It might also be consoling during a time of stress. A walk is healthy for both mind and body; and for a landscape artist a place for research, inspiration and hard work.
Though superficially a landscape exhibition, on reflexion, ‘Chip of flint – fragment of chalk’ is loaded with speculative and thought provoking possibilities enabling the visitor to take away the non-physical souvenir: not to be placed on the mantelpiece but constituted in the form of ideas to consider and discuss further and, ultimately, leading to environmentally focussed action.
From the very start of the corridor space Window Gallery, making a de facto antechamber, two wall-mounted assemblies of small, unframed, preparatory drawings make it clear that drawing is at the core of Rutland’s practice. As an introductory display, sufficient in itself as a stand-alone exhibition, the 28 studies make an implied proposition that drawing is still of paramount importance towards painting, especially in landscape art. Whilst an en plein air approach is also possible, the drawing in advance of the essential schema for a final painting, even without colour content, provides the opportunity for intense consideration of composition and content; and for revision of the essential rectangular format. Rutland’s methodical approach also develops the initial ‘sketch’ to a more ‘finished’ state and therefore requires a more prolonged period of execution. In this respect, the lengthening of time to make what might simply become no more than a preliminary part of production, adds to the inherent conceptual aspect of Rutland’s greater project, namely that of time and duration.
Annotated on half a dozen of these relatively intense drawings are more titles, including: ‘Ghost lines’, ‘Eroded slope’, ‘Frozen light’ and ‘Fatigue of early light’. Without mounts, but with clearly measured and demarcated perimeters for consequent development into paintings, these studies may have come straight from the studio wall in her Phoenix studio. This informality in presentation might have initially diminished an observer’s attentive reaction to these works, but throughout the opening evening many visitors could be seen both standing back to view each of the two groupings of drawings and then be observed stepping closer to scrutinise each image as if through a magnifying glass. In relation to time a second aspect, that of concentrated visual observation of various locations, loaded with evidence of human interaction in and on the land (and sea), also implied itself in the bigger project.
Continuing into the main display space the biggest piece in the show first greets the visitor in contrast to the small studies just encountered. The pencil and graphite ‘Ghost white path’ impresses not just by size alone (200x150cm), but also by a display of controlled elegance in mark making and an example of compositional skill in which the viewer might literally fall into this Downland vista. As a completed drawing, ‘Ghost white path’ is as consummate and exhaustive as a painting might be and therefore expands the notion of drawing as going beyond the supportive role that it often takes.
In this significant work the viewer will certainly gain a sense of the past and the present day in one hit. In the bright distance, where the intense light dissolves the sea from sight, the Rampion wind farm turbines that now dominate the view from the Sussex coast have been recorded. Whether these technological structures please the viewer or not, like the telegraph poles we may barely notice anymore, or the electricity masts that cannot always be buried beneath the ground, we will inevitably have to become accustomed to this burgeoning technology for generations to come.
The past and present (an ancient landscape and an off-shore development) combine in one monumental vista so that a viewer has to contemplate a challenging and controversial journey to the future in this era of climate change awareness and necessary proactive behaviour.
Four monochromatic etchings are displayed next, including ‘Mound duskily glowing’, a title merging topography with time and light, which again suggests a poetic counterpart (a haiku perhaps) that may one day be written. In ‘Silent reach’, telegraph poles located in a flattened mid-grey rhombus in the central area of the composition leads the eye from foreground to mid-distance. The poles could be traversing alongside a coastal area, or trace a communications route a few miles inland, leading to the next village or town. Very few regions of this relatively small island will be without such evidence of human habitation, as if such evidence of technology was as natural a phenomenon as the trees.
With a change of process and medium Rutland allows a weathered, washed-out look in the thinned ink layers transferred from the surface of the metal that she has etched with. For example, in ‘Selvedge edge’ the distant hills are visually subject to mist dissolving form, whilst rain falls as weather conditions change appearances. In the bottom section of the image fence posts create a small enclosure, a signifier of order and land ownership. A telegraph pole, like a crucifix, in middle ground, merges at its base into foliage. Dark parallel lines in the foreground, perhaps suggesting the selvedge edge of fabric for the title, foretell the flint seams in the set of the four ‘Flint Seam’ drawings that are to follow.
These more minimalist compositions, ‘Flint seam 1, 2, 3 and 4’, are placed at the centre of the show. They are undoubtedly complete in themselves but may well hold the prospect for further development as abstract paintings. Each is placed behind a clear acrylic sheet, rather than mounted in a conventional frame. Like its counterparts, ‘Flint seam 2’ is composed of a series of vertically placed horizontal bands of smudgy, burnished graphite drawn on to a gesso (i.e. chalky) coated, paper ground. Within these thin, dark, cloud-like strata are more defined linear marks suggesting a compressed handwriting with a slightly nervous, quivering organic edge.
These often flat and smooth, mark-like shadow shapes are found in split flint nodules originating from sedimentary chalk that litter the farmland in Sussex and have been used as building materials for walls and buildings since the Roman era. Further back in time flint was fashioned as a Stone Age tool. But way beyond any human presence on earth they are a literal compression of geological time and materiality that seems beyond comprehension and may well suggest a natural kind of drawing. Dark and wave-like, these markings made from the chalk seabed reveal fissures of implied energy. As a form of visual poetics, the past is metaphysically now in these teasingly simple, but thought provoking and elegant drawings.
At what appears to be the end of the display, a group of five framed drawings (including the title piece of the exhibition) are presented in suitably mounted and framed studies that, like the etchings, read as ‘finished’ works. They include ‘Crowding the solitude’ which is a similar composition to the aforementioned ‘White ghost path’. In the mid-ground the land builds steeply to two bulbous hills; to the right on the implied horizon are the perspectival rows of 14 vertical masts from the Wind farm out at sea. In the space between the hillocks, and particularly on the left hand feature, is a meandering configuration of chalky pathways. The closer foreground is patterned by a gentle arrangement of subtle tones that visually pock mark the paper surface. The notion of the landscape as corporeal and libidinous is difficult to deny.
The last of these five drawings is titled ‘Flint’. Initially it could be a drawing that goes unnoticed, such is the insistent or subtle presence of so many of the other works. One feature, however, hooks the gaze as one might head for the coffee bar and the prospect of seeing a painting from Tania Rutland. Within this rendering of what may be a recently ploughed and almost featureless field, a tiny but visually dominant grid-like structure interrupts the shallow curve of the land, just before the dark masses of a thicket of trees on the close horizon, revealed contre-jour, emphasising a sense of infinite space beyond. Its identity is a mystery: could it be a wooden or metal framework? From the bottom right-hand corner of the drawing a purposely trodden pathway leads to the unknown construction and it could be that the track across the field has been rendered into the surface by either animals or humans.
Outside of the Window Gallery, but in a suitable display space that extends all of the exhibitions, one of Rutland’s oil paintings, ‘Remote dwellings’ is presented on a dark grey wall. This provides an example for those who do not already know her work and is now interestingly and more than adequately informed from seeing the drawings and prints. One painting is probably just enough exposure in this context and holds out the prospect of seeing a future exhibition of Rutland’s paintings.
Significantly, this work in the more ecologically minded attitudes of society today is made more potent by its combined references to the past, present and future. The human conquest of the environment is, of course, aided and abetted by the genius of technologies, open to interpretation and revision. The drawings and prints presented in ‘Chip of flint – fragment of chalk’ not only record and reflect the history of particularly special locations, but provoke the observer to contemplate the future too.
Geoff Hands (November 2019)
All images © Tania Rutland
Tania Rutland’s website – http://www.taniarutland.com
Phoenix Art Space – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org/events/tania-rutland/
Rampion Wind Farm article from The Guardian –