I will soar, then, beyond this power of my nature also, still rising by degrees toward him who made me. And I enter the fields and spacious halls of memory, where are stored as treasures the countless images that have been brought into them from all manner of things by the senses. There, in the memory, is likewise stored what we cogitate, either by enlarging or reducing our perceptions, or by altering one way or another those things which the senses have made contact with; and everything else that has been entrusted to it and stored up in it
St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 10 Chapter viii
In Peter Stiles’ painting Sand Lane 3, a loose arrangement of coloured planes float around each other and leaves dance in dynamic confusion. The flatness of the canvas is destabilized by a powerful sense of spatial depth. The eye cannot settle as it follows the paintings restless, turning structure, but keeps returning to the small bird in the bottom left-hand corner. This discrete creature snags our attention. The scene resolves from dreamy abstraction into a half-remembered landscape and we are compelled into and through the hollow lane, out towards the sea and the open horizon.
Peter has lived and painted in a remote and distinctive part of North Devon since 1980. Often painting directly from nature, he has immersed himself in the landscape. In this way, not only has he honed his faculty for close observation, but has come to embody the landscape. Peter inhabits this landscape, he has come to identify himself with it, to find himself in it, to experience it as continuous with his sensual, emotional and intellectual life. Heidegger formulated the notion of ‘dwelling’ as a more active alternative to ‘being’. The idea evokes our relation to physical space and suggests habitation in the world. To be capable of dwelling, he suggests, we must be attentive to the complexity that exists between human introspection, the human capacity for imaginative projection and our interconnectedness, both to each other and to the natural world. In Heidegger’s terms, Peter ‘dwells’ in North Devon. And now he continues to paint, mostly from memory, returning repeatedly in his imagination to the same sites, Sand Lane, Fisherman’s Rock and the waterfalls near his home, drawing on his accumulated storehouse of experience.
Peter is a scholarly artist whose work can easily be discussed and understood in terms of art history, of technique and effect. There is a rich language of colour and composition that draws on Peter’s deep knowledge and his open intellectual curiosity. Art historical references, compositional devices and colour are present in the work. Peter is interested in the optical effects created by the medieval cathedral builders, which allowed their creations to appear at times weightless, to transcend their earthbound materiality; the liveliness of Matisse’s paper cut-outs, such as The Sadness of the King; the tension between the preordained structures of the frame and the serpentine rhythms in Romanesque art. All of these elements are available to Peter in his spacious halls of memory, his store of image schema, along with the landscape of North Devon. But the works transcend the mechanics of their origin and production. They present themselves quite modestly, their effects invisible, beguiling, subtly magical and delightful. These paintings oscillate between reason and imagination, abstraction and depiction. They seem to be at once rooted in a deep sense of place and to transcend their origin to stand for something general.
Peter’s individual concerns, painterly, intellectual, sensual, emotional and spiritual, are precise and transparent in the work, and yet it seems that the more intimate, personal and specific the world that he creates, the more reciprocal it becomes – it seems to represent something held in common. We are pulled into Peter’s landscapes and are drawn into sharing his experience; whilst at the same time our own memories and imaginations are awakened.
In his paintings Peter relates, in extraordinary poetic detail, the landscape and events of his own world. There is something in the intimacy of this telling that, paradoxically, lifts it out of the particular. It speaks vividly to us and to our own experience, which is, of course, different to his. We are drawn into Peter’s world through his paintings, a world that is highly specific, both in its physical location and in its subjectivity. Peter is quietly present in his work, but what we find there is always ourselves.
maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
E. E. Cummings