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A meeting of minds

Reflections on a conversation with Dr Richard Davey at Benjamin Rhodes Arts on Wednesday 24th May, 6.30-8pm

What do we need to talk about?

RD listed four areas of discussion he wanted to cover:

  • Materiality
  • Colour
  • Phenomenology, the relationship of perception and our embodied being and the mind and thought
  • and love

For weeks prior to this, the key word for me (RKW) was history. My history with Benjamin started at The Royal Overseas League exhibition in 1985 whilst I was in my second year on the Royal College of Art Painting MA, and then Richard from my third Benjamin show in 1992. Before I start, I want to draw attention to what I said just now, about finding that key word, about locating how and where to start by finding the spark I needed.

Background

RD called me the day after our conversation whilst I was at a private view in St Saviours Hall in the Barbican, Plymouth. Very appropriately, I was standing in Robert Lenkiewicz’s (1941-2002) studio, currently a gallery space for one of my talented MA painting students. The name Lenkiewicz goes deep into Plymouth art history, so this was an appropriately thin place to make connections. I had texted Richard earlier about our discussion on the concept of wonder and RD had referred to a book he had recommended years ago, but it has always left me non-plussed.

It was a different matter when I read Luce Irigaray on the ethics of sexual difference and her thoughts on wonder. It was pure electricity, sparking a multitude of thoughts. RD had suddenly understood that what inspired me about these philosophical readings was the way it all connected with my vision and quest for otherness but was not tangled up with discussions about art. The philosophy I read and am drawn to is by writers such as Levinas and Irigaray who do not really discuss art or aesthetics. When I read philosophers who try to describe the practice or nature of art, I’m always frustrated because they are often so wrong. I take these ideas, which resonate with how I see the world and then respond to them visually. What RD realised is that he is interested in the philosophy that emerges from my art – a visual philosophy. I read philosophy to think, and from my thinking I create work which moves into something visual but that is not illustrating my thinking. RD starts with the visual in order to think and we find our meeting point in the work, and this is what inspires new thoughts for both of us. I mention this because this rewarding out-scaping of thinking is why we meet often and have remained such close friends. At the event in Benjamin Rhodes Arts, an audience member thanked us for our insights and recommended I read Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction. Very importantly, I understand that this philosopher’s closest thought-friend was C.S. Lewis.

Our conversation

I need to explain that my train to London sat at Plymouth Station for just under two hours because of signal failure, meaning I could only attend on Zoom. Although frustrating, any academic after Covid sees the world quite differently and is not fazed by such an event. Hence, a large-scale discussion in my kitchen followed.

After RD gave me his list of subjects to cover, I felt we were missing the key to understanding me as the painter of the exhibition – that I am a teacher. They are one and the same like the ebb and flow of the tide. This brought us onto place, the ocean and coming to Plymouth to lead the painting degree. For me, this has been like coming home. My grandparents moved to Chichester Harbour in 1964 and my parents followed in 1977. My life has been immersed in this boundary world of the sea, chaos and order. Both my parents were keen sailors, so I lived and breathed it deeply into my psyche. I have no escape from the poetry of the sea and its unconscious associations and meanings. What is more, Richard’s father had been a vicar at West Wittering where he grew up. This was also where my grandmother lived for many years. It’s strange to think that we may have passed each other on the lane. I mention this because the same place is significant to us both and links us into a history that is informed by the sea and an inner sense of tidal flow and energy.

Why a manifesto of painting?

Benjamin asked me to tell everyone why I am making this Manifesto of Painting, or feel a need to make it, and why painting is a language outside of words? The writer Sean Worrall had disagreed (in his recent article in Organ Thing, a kind and generous critique of my show), that painting could not be called ‘subversive’, being such an ancient human language. I agree wholeheartedly Sean. However, as a teacher and advocate for the subject, my painting-centred philosophy has been classed as ‘wrong’ and relentlessly undermined. Both in our Universities and Art Schools, there has been outright war over the last twenty-five years, with so many attempts to kill painting by those in fine art courses who see the visual arts as something more conceptually driven and less material. And yet, painting survives because it is needed as a human expression. Arts University Plymouth where I now work is an institution that embraces and supports the growth of painting. I can finally draw a line and lay out my vision for painting, promoting this important human language for the next generation.

This manifesto is but a part of a lifetime of work dedicated to answering the question I hit head-on when I taught at the Slade (1989-2005): is colour a language, and if so, how can one become literate in it and therefore teach it? What started in 1998 has led me to the colour green 25 years down the line, discussing my manifesto. For me, the colour red is for concepts of creating, the colour orange is for listening and the colour yellow is for thought. I also explored the three contrasts of warm-cold, equal saturation and finally light-dark, where I spent ten years in conversation with the greatest light-dark epic poem of the English language, Paradise Lost.

Painting is a language worth fighting for

I am frequently told by academics that I am too passionate, that I feel too deeply and I’m too personally attached to painting. It is a language that has been assailed. For me, it’s worth fighting for. Just like a composer or a musician or a dancer, this is a language outside of words. I will always search and share my quest to understand colour as pigment. There are huge rewards for humanity, especially in this digital age. As Patrick Heron said in 1962, we haven’t even begun to understand colour. To understand colour, we need to understand paint. There are no short cuts.

Exhibition continues until 24th June.

Please join us for drinks and an evening viewing at Benjamin Rhodes Arts on Wednesday 14th June 6-8pm. For further information, please contact Benjamin Rhodes:

benjamin@benjaminrhodes.co.uk or 44 (0) 7768 398428