1st-10th March 2013, Index Gallery
‘The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Colin Glen makes paintings that look like they’re drawings. They form a series, in which the largest, Confusion to Clarity, is ten by eight feet, with four progressively smaller versions, down to one which is two by one-and-a-half inches. Each shows the shadows that are cast by a length of electrical cable – wire that the artist had rolled up into a ball, thrown into a skip, and then, changing his mind, fished out again.
Technically these paintings are unusual – they’re made using ground-up graphite as a pigment, in a medium of linseed oil. Glen places very little on the brush at a time, so that he makes only a little addition with every brushstroke. Having experimented with graphite sticks to achieve the same effect, he says that, paradoxically, ‘to make something on a large scale that looks like it’s been drawn, you can’t draw it, you have to paint it.’
Compared to painting, drawing might seem to be intimate and informal. But by ‘drawing’ on a much larger scale, many of these qualities change. For all that they look like they’re quick studies, created with a few strokes of a pencil, these are anything but. They are painstakingly constructed, monumental in scale, and as you look at them you can come to feel smaller, as you become aware of your physical relationship to the bigger ones.
And it’s not just the line between drawing and painting that seems to be blurred by these works: there’s photography in there too. Rather than working directly from his original ball of wire, Glen generally used photographs of previous studies that he’d made, as he scaled-up his images, and went from a representation of the whole ball of wire to just a few loops of it, and the shadows that they cast. Really then, these are paintings that look like drawings that look like photographs – they have a certain flatness to them, which they wouldn’t if they were drawn directly from the wire.
Glen is interested in the ‘pentimenti’ in the drawings of the Old Masters – the little marks that are left in them, that show where the artist had changed his mind, and altered an outline. The great crucifixion drawings of Michelangelo, say, often have several different lines around the body of Christ, so that he seems to writhe on the cross.
Look closely at the edges of the wire and shadows in Glen’s paintings and you’ll see that they, too, have a number of alternative outlines. For Glen, though, by building up these pentimenti, rather than trying to find a single ‘true’ line, you create something that actually looks truer to the eye. ‘Pentimenti are all mistakes,’ he says, ‘but as you accumulate them you make the painting feel more “right” even than a photo.’
For Glen, too, the gradual accumulation of tones in painting a shadow has a curious tipping point, at which the image suddenly seems more real than a photograph. ‘I start with the light tones, then the mid-tones and then the darks,’ he says. ‘When you add the darkest tones, suddenly the image starts to feel alive – it has a presence’.
Painting in this way runs counter to the idea of the artist as some sort of genius, creating a single inspired line, through a perfect gesture or stroke of the brush. And by leaving in your marks of altered thinking, by showing alternatives for where the edge of the wire or its shadow is, in a sense you’re leaving it to the spectator to complete the image. This is an art of suggestiveness, of indeterminate lines that the mind has to choose between: it is an art that appeals to the imagination.
If there’s a philosophy behind these images of curves and shadows, it is perhaps something to do with significance and insignificance. Anything can take on a monumental quality, they seem to say – even the shadows cast by a ball of rusty old wire, if we give it sufficient attention. It’s an effect of scale, too – how important something seems depends on how close we are to it, and how big it is, relative to us. Implicit in Glen’s work is a training in how to look – a noticing of what might otherwise seem unworthy of our attention: it might make us, too, think twice about the wire in the skip.
It’s the shadows that are the real subject of these paintings, though, not so much the thing that casts them. Rather than seeing the shadow as the inanimate thing, Glen says, ‘I see the material object as the thing that’s past, and the shadow as the living thing – the thing that survives.’ That would make Glen’s paintings the shadow of a shadow; the thing that survives the longest.
Working at such a big scale, Glen says, often means working through intuition, especially when it comes to painting shadows. ‘When you’re close to the canvas, you just have to sense where the edge of the shadow is, and gradually build up the tones, before standing back to see if it looks right.’ Each mark he makes is like an act of faith, then, or an educated guess.
But then, Glen believes that you don’t always produce the best representation of a shadow when you copy ‘straight’ from what you can see. ‘In the studios of the Old Masters,’ he says, ‘they often didn’t paint by looking at anything. Sometimes looking too closely at the thing in front of you produces something that’s dead – the most literal representation isn’t always the best one.’ Glen talks about the little moments of epiphany, when his work is going well, and all his little intuitive marks, made close to the canvas, come together to make something that looks real from a distance.
These are very intense artefacts, then – painstakingly worked over and thought about. They’re about as far from the free, expressionist gesture, the spontaneous mark of the ‘genius’ artist, as it’s possible to get. They are beautiful objects, made with humility and care.
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With thanks to Index Gallery, TJ Boulting and Matt Shinn for the exhibition text and images.