‘Carboretum’: a collection of ten works
Edward Chell. In conversation with Stephen McNeilly
29th March 2007
Stephen McNeilly: Ed, let me begin with an observation. My first impression of these recent works is that they can be viewed on several levels.
To begin with, we can view them as paintings. And as paintings we might find associations of an immanent engagement with ‘Nature’, an evocation of the English tradition of the artist roaming the landscape drawing inspiration directly from source. Against this however, and via the brass plaques in which the picture plane is disrupted, we are also encouraged to see them as ‘objects’, or as something other than paintings. In this they draw on various Post Enlightenment narratives, in particular of a concern with classification, of the need to objectify and control ‘otherness’ through codification. We might also find beyond this other narratives and discourses…
Edward Chell: Yes, you are right: the works are about images and objects. They are about the way in which images are stored within objects and the interplay between the two, of painting being neither specifically the one nor the other.
Likewise, and with regard to what you say about Enlightenment discourses and the philosophy of nature, i.e., the idea of nature being tamed or controlled or somehow possessed and made sense of, they might also be seen as ‘little plaques’, the sort of thing you would see in a museum, for instance. And this would also include the trope of ‘Latin titles’, and italicising. They might be seen as ‘samples’, or ‘wrapping’, or ‘presents’, or even bits of furniture (they are actually going to be placed in a chest of drawers, and in this sense they are very much, specifically, objects).
So the work is about classification, containment, of making sense through systems. They are also about auto-response and observation: each painting is taken from a drawing. The trees depicted through these abstract marks are real trees observed, so they are, at one and the same time, illustrations, images, diagrams and objects.
SM: With regard to this question of classification, or the concern with listing, can you tell us something about the process behind the selection of the trees listed here?
EC: The selection of the trees came out of a chance observation. I was walking in Dulwich Park and I came across a magnificent tree, a Turkey Oak, [Quercus cerris] with a little plaque. I went closer, to have a look, and it said: ‘The London Tree Forum. Named Trees of London’, followed by, ‘Sponsored by Esso UK, PLC’. I thought this was really weird. We have this magnificent tree being sponsored by a petrochemical company, and, immediately, it set me thinking: it just didn’t seem right. It seemed like a greening of something that is potentially dodgy, i.e. Esso or Exxon being a world polluter, a bit like the ‘Exxon Valdeze’.
I saw an interesting narrative here, or a conflict of narratives—what Roland Barthes might have called a discourse, i.e. marrying different narratives together—between green issues and the trees themselves, which could include the whole historicity of landscape, or the association of landscape on the one hand and the petrochemical industry on the other. Again, I thought this is an interesting conjunction of conflicting narratives from which I could make some work. This work is just part of it, and I think lots of work will come out of it.
SM: Speaking of a conflict of narratives, I wonder if I might draw attention to a further uncertain or indeterminate relation between the image and object in the separate yellow plaque, quercus, which is simultaneously independent of, but nevertheless connected to, the paintings.
Is this something you might elaborate on?
EC: The idea of the plaque is a spin off from the paintings. The whole notion for the work started with the plaque spotted in the park, and in fact, we see plaques every where, so why not use them?. And hence the number plate piece, to which you are alluding.
This piece draws attention to the vernacular signs of car numbering, which we see all the time. It is also about looking, i.e. when we are driving a car, we tend to look at the rear number plates of the car in front, which are mostly yellow. And there’s a sense in which one can draw upon that whole visual infrastructure, and make art out of it. Guy Debord described this sense of reverie from the windscreen in his book ‘Society of the Spectacle’. It is a visual metaphor alluding to mass car driving culture and how that contrasts with a notion of trees.
The word quercus, of course, is the Latin for oak, and one might make allusions in that to ‘This is an Oak Tree’ by Michael Craig Martin or Bruce Nauman’s ‘A Rose has no Teeth’. It is a questioning or putting into perspective the Kantian notion of knowledge, or of Shakespeare’s idea of ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’. In sense it is saying ‘well actually, that notion itself has no teeth’…
SM: …yes, and I like this idea of a notion without teeth…one might also add that in a broader sense, within our tradition of western thought, there is an underlying assumption that objects are only objects once they are classified. Or, rather, to reverse the emphasis, there is an inherent demand placed upon objects to be classified as if it were the responsibility of the object itself. As a consequence we are often confused or shy when confronted with ambiguous classifications.
So if we bring together what you were saying just a moment ago, and with regard to your use of the plaque as a label and the earlier reference to a clash of narratives, these works not only operate in the uncertain space between ‘objects’ and ‘paintings’, they also encourage a uncertain tension between classification and meaning. I mean these works are not eco-paintings…
EC:…without a doubt these are not eco-paintings. They are not about being a ‘green’ artist, and this is really important to realise from the outset. And however much I might believe in that, and I think it important, after all, I have a child and I think of his future…this is not driving the art. What is driving the art is the very interesting and complex cultural dialogue, like you said, between objects and images, through the systems in which they are placed, and the way objects and images are given authenticity.
SM: Is this further enhanced, do you think, in that these works will also be encased in a box and subjected to a different process and context altogether, i.e., a different critique is suggested regarding their status as objects?
EC: In the sense that they are displayed here, I mean you see them as a loose grid on the studio wall, … but yes, the way they are displayed is variable. They could, for instance, be displayed as a block of nine, with one on its own perhaps; they might also be displayed as one long line or say, in two rows of five; and if you notice, some of them are painted in different ways. Some are painted in small tiny marks whilst others are much more processed based…so there are all sorts of vernaculars and processes being described.
But yes, they are all going to come out of a chest as well, a bit like a Mark Dion piece perhaps, but these things are not just found objects which have been classified, they are made already classified in a sense, a very self conscious classification.
SM: Does this process of pre-classification, via the plaques, mirror your own relation to the paintings as objects and of painting as a process?
EC: In a way…I mean it is a bit like what Barthes would have called a ‘sliding signifier’, where as soon as something is signified it slips out of reach. They look like paintings but at the same time they are objects, interrupted by the brass. Brass, of course, has material sensations of its own, and brass plates can be found on park benches, they are associated with ‘in memoriam’ and they are inscribed in Latin, which, of course, is a dead language (although still spoken in Finland, apparently, and in some meetings of the European union which they recently chaired).
SM: On this question of the brass, and the Latin names of the trees, what made you decide upon these particular trees, or these particular names?
EC: As I said, I discovered the first one in Dulwich Park and I realised that there were going to be more of them, because Esso UK PLC had sponsored this tree, and I undertook some web searching and eventually found them listed on the London Tree Forum. I contacted the Forum, and eventually found out that all these trees, – The Named Trees of London, existed and most of them have plaques.
So I decided to just go and draw all of these trees. I live in South London. So I visited the ones in Charlton, Richmond and Greenwich Park, and one, a sad case, which is a Nettle Tree (Celtis occidentalist), which had been chopped down because it had been damaged in a recent storm so we just have a kind of blurred image from a stump…I went and drew these trees. I travelled out there, sat there and recorded them, a bit like ‘nature’s engraver’, as I think Jenny Uglow described Thomas Bewick the artist. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I was very much conscious of the English landscape tradition.
The drawings are a form of recording. They are diagrams, a starting point for the paintings in which there is also contained a memory: an association of place, a memory of place, and this is an important part of these works. They are a part of that English, and I say English not British, landscape tradition, while at the same time questioning that tradition because it is no longer just an English landscape. Again we are talking about post Enlightenment ideas where such traditions are themselves thrown into question. They are concerned, in this sense, with the rise of a museum culture, and with things like Darwinism, and if you like, of a loss of faith in ‘natural orders’ which Ruskin was to articulate as the ‘pathetic fallacy’ in which things became more and more fragmented and put into boxes and segmented.
In a sense, these works are a reflection of that whole process which, I think is still going on today, and people are increasingly aware of this because it is happening much more quickly now, with the internet and our speeded up culture. People are increasingly fascinated by history, I mean you’ve got Andreas Huyssen writing Twilight Memories, really obsessing about history, and Anselm Kiefer, etc,. For us [the English] it is also very much a national characteristic. For instance when the Public Record Office data base opened up on January 2nd 2002, with the 1901 Census, it crashed because so many people wanted access; it just couldn’t cope. So of course, the 1901 Census, and history programmes show peoples interest, often having higher ratings than soaps like Eastenders, and Brookside for example.
SM: There is something else I would like to draw attention to here. In relation/continuation to your previous work, there appears a particular concern or consideration with scale, i.e. the previous paintings are human scale…
EC: …it is interesting you should say this because of the scale of my previous big paintings are actually to do with my stretching reach so they are concerned with my own scale…
SM: …and these new works, obviously, are smaller…
EC: …they are a scale that can be contained, controlled. They are a scale that can be put in a box. It became very apparent when talking to Charlotte [Moth] that it was a small exhibition space and it seemed that works on this scale would be more pertinent to a space, measuring 5 metres by 3 metres with one other artist showing in there.
SM: …and another thing that strikes me as interesting, and perhaps amusing, is that there is a kind of invasion going on, of a certain type of Englishness descending on Amsterdam…
EC: …well of course the trees themselves aren’t specific to national boundaries, there is a Lebanese Cedar for instance…but this notion of invasion might be linked with the different colours used. The colours are actually to do with car colours, with ICI autocolour car pigmentations, serial numbers and names. In a sense, these colours, in the names they are given, are playing on the notion of naturalness, but you can’t imagine anything more unnatural than car spray.
Again, it is the idea of utopia/dystopia, the idea of a post-enlightenment state of tension. Cars have given us access to the country, they have opened up the countryside but at the same time they are polluting it and in the same way that caravanning and camping are a great pastime, and are about enjoying the rural idyll, they are also destroying this idyll…and the colours are given such weird grand names i.e. woodland green, English green, verde ulivio etc,…
SM: …and with regard to this use of green paint, and the concern for the process of painting, there is also a particular attention being paid here to the visceral or tactile presence of the work.
EC: Yes, I mean they are definitely paintings. They are process led. And what I found out in making these—and they are all oil paintings on shellac— is that when I left the shellac visible, an interesting visual tension was created between the oil and the shellac, and when seen together appear to visually vibrate. From this first painting [title], I then made another, and so forth, and each one is slightly different. And rather than brushing the paint out like a process, with a smooth finish, I made these quite diagrammatic images, which again, begin to look less like paintings and more like graphic images, or symbols, though not necessarily recognisable as trees. I mean if you go to the van Gogh museum you can see his drawings, which look like dots, commas or morse code types of marks, manic and small. And these marks inhabit the drawings. This is true also of the Pier and Ocean series of drawings by Mondrian…so there is a kind of connection with Dutch artists, who made drawings with a strong graphic component.
But speaking of sliding signifiers, these works do not just allude to other artists, they also allude to other things altogether, for instance, dead leaves or leaf skeletons. In fact, this is an element of the work. They begin to look like things other than what they are…and this variation is something I find interesting. A bit like Gerhard Richter’s grey paintings. Whatever reason Richter had for making those paintings, which apparently were all done the same way, and I have seen quite a few of them, they are all profoundly different. Or those colour chart paintings of Richter, the colour swatches.
In a sense, these works are a sort of equivalent to Richter’s colour swatch paintings. They are all done in the same way, but they all look different. And that is ok for me, because in a sense, the idea of decoration, the idea of something not absolutely like painting with a capital ‘P’, means I can allow for anything.
SM: So, I wonder if I might say that, via this indeterminacy or openess, there is an attempt to encourage the viewer to navigate the work, and not simply read it.
EC: Yes, I mean there are different discourses within the work, and different ways of looking at them. And I think this point can be highlighted by the titles.
These works have obscure titles. They are named after trees. Some titles can be so explicit in that they block entry to the work, they tell you what a thing is and then leave no motive for going into the work. Anselm Kiefer once said that he didn’t put figures into his painting because they introduced a particular narrative, telling you what to look at…and in a way, he wanted people to assert their imagination, to go into the work and then come out again… These different discourses at work here, while they connect, they are not intended to close off the work…The paintings are neither one thing nor another. And I am not saying that I don’t have a position but I am interested in making things which one can navigate around and make connections, and the connections are not final, they might lead to third and fourth positions and so on…they are about openness…
SM: …the opposite, in a sense, to the process of classification found in books or museums i.e. a title is intended to place the object, a priori, within a type or genus, or some other association, which is often one dimensional or descriptive. Here, in these works, and in addition to the abstract form and images of the work, of the surface i.e., the plaque, the paint, the association of trees, the titles explain nothing. They form a new layer or a point of entry into the work…
EC: …yes, you think you are being pulled into something that might reveal all, but it doesn’t…
SM: …and a different or alternative space is opened, neither entirely visual nor conceptual but ambiguous, in which one encounters a play of readings.
EC: Not only that, if you consider the fact that painting on gesso, on board, goes way back to the 13th and 14th century, and through the use of the brass which itself doesn’t really act like a colour but interferes (metals do not really act like colours), a further tension is evoked: a sensation of tradition and obtuseness at the same time. The placing of the brass plaques on the work is also quite considered. Placing them in the middle would have been too obtuse, and not have looked right.
SM: …placed in the middle, the work would also have been about the plaque…
EC: …yes, and not the image. Also, had I placed them too far down, the space below would have been made redundant.
SM: Ed, I wonder if I might conclude with an observation regarding the box containing the yellow plaque quercus, and the chest within which the paintings are to be carried and placed. There appears to be a relationship here with death, entombment, the box as casket or coffin.
This is also mirrored in the brass plaques, which in general, are usually used to denote something past, deceased or dissected…
EC: …yes, you are right actually, I’ve never thought of it in that way.
The boxes are important to the works, they are intrinsic to the way the work exists, it seemed right to put it in a box…but it is funny how you have alluded to it being like a tomb…it’s an interesting thought…something more to ponder on.