The Brewhouse Gallery Taunton Somerset
A conversation between Peter Stiles and Tom Trevor
25 July 2007, 9.30am
TT Lets talk about your interest in Coleridge and how that’s fed into your work for this exhibition.
PS I’ve always had an interest in romanticism.When I was a teenager I liked Palmer, Nash and Blake.As I grew older, my attachment to such work faded. A few years ago, someone told me that my work was romantic and I agreed, although on reflection, I realised that I didn’t really know what the word “romantic” meant. Reading Coleridge’s prose was part of a process of trying to find out what romanticism was.
TT So in a sense your focus on Coleridge is about rigour?
PS When I read Coleridge’s distinction between symbol and allegory: allegory being a pictorial representation of abstract ideas as opposed to a symbol which “partakes of the unity that it represents,” I began to see how his ideas could help me with my painting.
TT You mean that a symbol goes beyond purely representation and becomes an embodied, living thing?
PS It jumps into the flow.
TT You call the show liberté, égalité, fraternité. My understanding is that when Coleridge moved out of the city into the countryside, he was disillusioned by the French revolution and his engagement with politics.
PS He still believed in what had initially attracted him about the French Revolution.It was a salvage operation.The ship had gone down, there was precious cargo aboard the ship and he wanted to bring it ashore. Living in the 21st century,we are very aware of the consequences of utopian idealism.We try to keep ideals alive – while closing down the path that leads to horror. Coleridge was appalled by how quickly the revolution had degenerated into bloodshed. For Coleridge the symbol of Nature became both a proof of the ideals that he wished to rescue and a way of showing that those ideals can’t be imposed through violence.
TT In a sense, idealism becomes mixed up with experience. It’s very easy to think of idealism and utopian idealism within a rationalist framework but my understanding is that you saw Coleridge’s journey from the city to the countryside as a way of bringing those ideals into being, to translate them into something experienced rather than something purely mental.
PS I think that the key to romanticism is a focus on our unselfconscious ability to construct consciousness, the primary imagination. Coleridge used the word imagination to describe both this activity and our ability to extend that process into creative action and thought. Nature isn’t just landscape.The symbol of Nature includes the imagination.Coleridge found the ideals he sought within the capacity and qualities of the natural process of the imagination. So the title of the show refers to Coleridge’s view of the ideals of the French revolution and the means by which he tried to secure them. Although he refined and developed his ideas throughout his life, I think his youthful reaction to the failure of the revolution continued to play an important part in shaping his work. Coleridge felt that although imagination co-exists with the conscious will, it can’t be circumscribed or wholly controlled by it.You can characterise the French revolution as rationalist but Rousseau’s ideas (which Coleridge later repudiated), about the natural benevolence of the “child of nature” were very important. In this context, Coleridge was trying to sift out the things that were worthwhile from the things he felt would lead to disaster, such as a certain kind of mechanical rationalism. In another of his definitions he thought that we shouldn’t impress a predetermined form on any given material, which didn’t arise out of the properties of that material and contrasted this approach with organic form which “grows from within.”
TT The 20th century was full of utopian disasters that sought to use nature as a kind of legitimisation – naturalising a narrative of power.
PS It’s another way of saying God is on my side so I am right. Hitler used Darwinism to justify his actions – even to the extent of saying that if he lost the war it was because the Germans were a weaker species and therefore deserved to perish.There was a very strong back to nature movement within the third Reich that was bound up with an ideology of power.
TT The birth of the ‘individual’ in that moment of Romanticism is very different to the kind of naturalisation of social order, which took place in the 20th century. It would be interesting to talk about the idea of the individual walking out of the city,out of urban society,to find a place in nature. That’s still a social,or a cultural idea. It’s not escaping the domain of the cultural.
PS One of the things to say about the Early Romantics is that they weren’t rejecting society. They didn’t want the conscious will to be overthrown and nature to take over. Coleridge felt that the balance had been lost i.e. between individual and society, and that it needed to be readjusted to give more weight to the individual. But when the balance was restored – there would be a switchback.
TT So we’ve mistakenly thought of Romanticism as ‘individualist’, in the contemporary sense?
PS Coleridge’s definition of the individual can’t be divorced from his concept of the primary imagination, a shared process that cuts across race and class and even although, as a Christian, he was very nervous about this, extends into the animal kingdom – all animated nature. The value he put on this shared process fed into his politics – the work he did as an abolitionist. The primary imagination, which dwarfs the capacity of the conscious will becomes bound up with a justification of human rights.
TT In his early twenties he was very politically active, giving lectures and fighting for the abolition of the Slave Trade. Do you think that through his journey away from the city he believed he was going to find a better vehicle for disseminating those politics?
PS People are able to trace aspects of the slave trade within a poem like “The Ancient Mariner”. His friend Southey, who was a far less subtle poet, wrote a poem after “The Ancient Mariner” was published, with the same metre, in which the sin is not that a mariner kills an albatross but that a sailor kills a slave.At the time,it was an effective poeand carried some weight within the abolition movement. But the mariner who kills the albatross is a symbol which will endure as something that’s open to infinite interpretation.
TT The symbolism of the poem lives in a different place. Its ideas can be applied through lived experience. In our mass media culture we are so used to superficial instrumental language, but the stuff that you dream with, and that emotions are built up on, are the real source of subjective reality.
PS Coleridge’s poetry is almost an incantation. In “Kubla Khan” and “The Ancient Mariner” there’s a thrumming underneath the language which lulls you into a state of reverie where things become far more fluid – thoughts and emotions flow into each other.I’m interested in that sense of fluidity.Water is a recurring theme in my work. One of the things I used to think about when I was a child, was that water was one body, that when you turned on the taps – this water was the same water as the oceans and the rain, a common fluid running through everything that reforms and reshapes.
TT Thinking of the sea, let’s talk about North Devon in relation to your paintings. In a sense, you made your own journey from the city to the country when you left London in 1980.
PS But I came down to North Devon when I was at the Slade, for three months, and painted on the beach in the winter.
TT That was in the late seventies, and then you made the decision in 1980 to move to this very rural, wild stretch of North Devon coast,which I can’t help feeling echoes something of Coleridge’s journey. Was this in a sense,stepping out of the social world?
PS These things are quite complicated. You look back and there are all sorts of motivations that you can trace, there’s a different story each time you tell it. I remember that when I first came down to North Devon, painting on the beach in the winter, I had an odd sense that I was part of the punk thing. I remember travelling down a road in a mini and there were five old farmers in it, including a 70 year old sat on my lap – the car was too small for all of us – and though having come from a small town and having had my first taste of meeting people who came from wealthy backgrounds in London, I realised that, for me, the car ride was more glamorous than anything I would find in London. Although the landscape drew me initially,it was the people who kept me there.
TT So the ‘glamour’ was an anti-conformist rejection of the social hierarchies of a metropolitan life? Although one automatically assumes that in London you are constantly surrounded by people and so the epitome of society, in somewhere like Welcombe, the village where you came to live, it’s a very close knit social world. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing. It’s almost more intense than the metropolitan model.
PS I liked that concentration, that feeling of being on an island. I wanted my primary audience to be within the village, so when I was putting on shows in the village hall, it was more important that people from the village should turn up, rather than trying to attract people from further afield.
TT It’s very different from the idea of an anonymous public coming to view an exhibition.You’re talking about a set of particular relationships in a specific context. Your paintings are representational on one level, and you always seem to choose Welcombe as your subject?
PS I have tried to paint other areas, but it didn’t work. Even though I’ve moved away from Welcombe, I still go back to paint. There is an accumulation of experience,of memory and emotion which, although I’m not doing it self-consciously – not trying to conjure up a particular emotion connected with a particular place – makes painting a better picture possible. Experience doesn’t just disappear. There’s a weird story about a dog’s tooth that is thought to be the tooth of a saint – so it is venerated.In the end it begins to glow with holiness. The effect of people worshipping it makes it a genuinely holy item.
TT So you are investing your emotion and spiritual energy in this familiar landscape. To return to the process of making paintings.You are suspicious about their form. It’s almost as if, when they feel too accomplished by virtue of their technique – you have to rework them to find a deeper relationship to the subject.
PS Sometimes I shouldn’t. One of the fascinating things about sensation is its fluidity and evanescence; how direct experience immediately becomes a memory, or a dream. Sometimes when I’m painting I make sense of the composition in a direct unselfconscious way but within ten minutes I want something that makes sense on a more formal, self conscious level with less rough edges, less awkwardness. So something which ten minutes before seemed to be an integral part of making sense of a lattice work of form and colour, becomes something that disrupts the smooth flow of the eye around the canvas. In crossing it out I jump away from experience into an intellectual abstraction.
TT That seems to be the condition of your experience – a suspicion of the surface and the search for essence, how to find a symbolic language to represent direct experience and compose this in the form of painting. Composition is incredibly important for you but is there a sense that you think that the seductive surface of the painting can be rather superficial?
PS Well it is and it isn’t.When Hazlitt,Coleridge’s contemporary,talks about gusto in painting as the ability to summon up one sense by means of another, he contrasts Lorrain, who he thinks is a very visual painter, with Titian, who binds up the visual with physicality;the body hitting the ground or flesh in contact with other flesh.This distinction is a way of defining one aspect of romanticism: binding together different sensations into experience.
TT Your painting always remains representational even though it often verges on abstraction. In modernism, painting became more about experience,within the terms of painting itself.Abstract painting did not need to refer to a reality beyond itself.
PS I adore some abstract art and I like work that isn’t painting. Perhaps sticking to representation has something to do with the fact that I’ve chosen to paint the same place over and over again.When you paint a picture,you are remembering all the other pictures you’ve ever painted.
TT When you were talking about Titian, what you were saying in terms of embodied experience, can also be applied to Rothko, for example, and perhaps the ideology of abstract expressionism, was not to have the distraction of representation but to deal with the stuff of paint itself. It almost feels that, with your very self critical approach, that the idealism of modernism becomes a diversion.
PS When you look at modernism, particularly at its birth and the major figures, Matisse and Picasso, despite their huge ability to theorise, there was a huge distrust of theory. Matisse made this statement: to be a painter you must first cut out your tongue, which in one way is absurd in relation to how articulate he was. But this mistrust of language and theory is pretty central in terms of what lay at the core of modernism. A lot of the discussion around modernism is a discussion of the theories that modernism generated and the uses to which it was put. When Coleridge is talking about the role of the primary imagination this relates to Matisse talking about his formal concerns with space and form. Matisse isn’t talking about a mathematical geometrically defined space, he’s talking about consciousness: living, breathing, feeling, but as soon as he starts talking about space and form, its possible to extend his argument into a reductive formal theory.
TT Some people say that you are not an artist unless you are contributing to the discourse. It’s a kind of Catch 22. On the one hand you’re very conscious of your relationship with the discourse and yet incredibly suspicious of it’s social hierarchy. It’s a double bind, that agonising “in” and “out” of the art world.
PS Well I think that’s fine. I don’t seek for a great unity in that sense. I think there are different modes of thought, which can be mutually beneficial.Things become destructive when one area impinges upon the other. Although the ability to enter into the discourse is good, if that ability over extends itself, it can lead to people getting too self conscious about the work that they do and that work can become very thin. Equally, if you are so unselfconscious and so unconnected with the discourse, then you can get completely lost in the fog; you become self absorbed.
TT We started off talking about Coleridge walking out of the city as a way of getting closer to his own truth, but as a social animal as well as a living being experiencing the phenomenal world. The way that you’ve talked about consciousness as a multi layering of different forms of knowledge, a knowledge of the senses as much as a knowledge of the intellect, seems to be quite fundamental to your making meaning in painting.Your ideas around consciousness as a kind of filtering process are interesting.
PS The universe generates the multiplicity of information you receive every second of your life and you make these extraordinary decisions about what information you are going to use.You build great constructs – I can’t remember how many times per second it is that you do it, but everybody from whatever class or race is constantly building the equivalent of Chartres Cathedral, tearing it down and building another one. This extraordinary process is happening every moment and the ability to do that is something that we can’t ever be outside of. I can use a simile such as “like building Chartres Cathedral” but this implies that I’m able to step outside this process and describe what’s happening, but I can’t. When you read scientists talking about consciousness – what’s fascinating is the care with which they begin to address the subject. So Tononi and Edelman talk about the fact that they can’t tacitly remove themselves as conscious observers as they do when studying other scientific domains.They describe the kind of consciousness they are using in putting together a scientific theory; make a distinction between an object and its description, a hurricane and a description of a hurricane.
TT I think that contemporary art is obsessed with reflexivity, critically reflecting upon the processes of representation, but it’s strange you choose science almost as a more honest arena to look at that process of deconstruction and the eternal return of using language to unpack language. It seems that you are suspicious of your home territory.
PS I am suspicious.There is a limit to the amount of self reflection you can do. It’s always myth making,you’re always telling yourself another story.
The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events, it struggles to idealise and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.
FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with but fixities and definites. The fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from that order of time and space; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with ordinary memory it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biographia Literaria 1817 Ch. 13