Skimming the Surface

Essay by Chloe Johnson

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The Vickers Award was established to support a rising artist to produce new work in response to the landscape, heritage and people of Derbyshire. In 2007-8 the theme underpinning the biennial residency was a ‘sense of place’. This term carries connotations of historical landmarks and traditional scenes. For Natalie Dowse, winner of the award, investigating the theme involved getting to know Derbyshire, an area which was entirely new to her.

Dowse’s previous work had prepared her for this experience. In 2006 she had participated in a six-week residency in Riga, Latvia which led her to develop a means of documenting her responses to an alien environment through photography and painting. In Riga, Dowse became fascinated by the ways in which human beings respond to what she has described as ‘the confusion of unfamiliar surroundings’, seeking out recognisable elements in an effort to establish a personal ‘sense of place’. The work produced there focused on corporate logos, signage and landmarks. Her technique, combining two seemingly opposing media: oil paint and the moving digital image, informed the work she produced during the Vickers Award residency. It is a contemporary mix; at once overtly painterly yet rooted in the popular technology of low resolution digital photography, both carefully structured and unreservedly random.

Moving to Derby to take up the Vickers Award residency Dowse again found herself in a place where she was a stranger. Relishing the unfamiliarity she spent the first fortnight pacing the streets and recording the city on her tiny digital camera fixed on the movie setting. The camera, held in Dowse’s hand as she walked, recorded unselected footage of an ordinary day on the streets of the city. Dowse’s decisions about where to roam influenced the footage she collected, but the material was otherwise entirely random. Those caught on film for a few seconds were not aware of the unobtrusive camera. There is a degree of subterfuge in this method, but it also reminds us that surveillance is something to which city dwellers have become almost immune. There are currently over 4 million close circuit television cameras in public areas of the UK and each day these cameras film our everyday activities. Dowse’s method also has its roots in the nineteenth century urban creation, the ‘flaneur’, or intellectual observer of the city streets.

‘Constellation’ painting installation

The recordings Dowse made in these initial days became the basis of Constellation, an installation of 54 small, postcard-sized, canvases arranged in an informal grid-like structure which echoes the coordinates on a map or town plan. The arrangement is aesthetic, but also reveals Dowse’s attempt to impose order on what she found around her. Each canvas is a tiny portrait painted in a monochrome blue / grey which echoes the dull tones of surveillance camera footage. Standing back from the wall the canvases appear like printed stills from a CCTV film, but on closer inspection the painterly qualities are revealed. Painted at speed, the tones blur into one another, the brushstrokes drawn rapidly across the surface replicating the movement of the camera as it skims past its moving subject.

To describe these images as portraits is to ascribe to them a permanent quality which is patently absent. Traditionally a portrait would be expected to capture the essence of the model or sitter, or perhaps reveal hidden personality traits. Unlike such portraits, these canvases appear deliberately transient. They ‘skim the surface’ of the person who happens to be depicted, transforming each figure into an anonymous ‘type’. Even the small image of the artist herself is barely distinguishable within the crowd of strangers. Constellation suggests a certain ambivalence about the existence of a ‘sense of place’. The figures in Dowse’s constellation were captured in Derby but could inhabit any town or city. Despite this temporal quality, these images, which challenge the traditional oil painted portrait and the classically composed black and white photograph, do have a universal appeal. It is human instinct to make visual connections, to try to identify with the figures depicted. It is difficult not to imagine that we see ourselves or recognise people we know within this ‘constellation’ of city dwellers.

At the same time, the randomness of this work triggers anxiety. Surveillance cameras are intended to curb criminal behaviour so CCTV footage has become associated with illicit activity. The term ‘Big Brother’ might now be more associated with Channel Four’s reality TV show than the society chillingly imagined by George Orwell in his novel 1984, but both play on the human nervousness about the potential loss of privacy, independence and a sense of self. This fear is explored in One in a Million a canvas onto which the image of one figure (apparently randomly selected) has been enlarged. The painting was originally created as an exercise in technique. Using large brushes to cover the canvas, Dowse had to work quickly to replicate the technique of the smaller paintings. Each mark and brushstroke is exaggerated when working on such a monumental scale and the painterly surface is tactile and beguiling. However, like the paintings of Gerhard Richter which reproduce the qualities associated with photography in oil paint, this expansive painting both delights and frustrates the viewer. Just as the detail in a photograph remains indistinct when it is enlarged, here the thickly applied paint on the canvas acts like a physical barrier between the viewer and the subject. The viewer is left with an alarming sense that the individual qualities of the person depicted may be irretrievable.

One in a Million, oil on canvas, 125cm x 125cm, 2008 (Jonathan Vickers Collection)

This peculiar combination of beauty and unease is also evident in Through the Trees, a series of monochrome paintings which replicate the dappling of sunlight on a riverside path near the city centre. The eight paintings create a sense of rippling movement when displayed together. This imagery has also been exploited in a short digital film Breathe, repeating on a loop creating the impression of slow, regular movement. As in Constellation the meditative beauty of these images are undermined by a sense of unease.

Natalie’s existence as an alien in Derby was relatively shortlived. Naturally gregarious, she soon began to make friends with the strangers in the vicinity and learnt her way around. But the changing nature of the city meant that even as she got to know it, it began to evolve. Building work has been a feature of Derby town centre over the past few years with the re-development of the city centre and the construction of new buildings.

In October 2007 the Westfield shopping centre, in the heart of Derby city centre, opened its doors to the public. Its arrival was the subject of fierce local debate, perceived by some as enhancing the area, by others as imposing an undesirable uniformity on the town centre. Once inside, shoppers will find the same high street brands, the same coffee shops and the same items for sale as they might in any city across the UK.

Dowse gathered over 200 photographs of the interior of Westfield, becoming particularly fascinated by the double escalator installed to transport shoppers from one floor to the next. Her animation Steps to Heaven, created from time-lapse photography, depicts shoppers clutching their purchases as they move up and down the escalators in an eternal state of flux. Like the figures in Constellation, these shoppers have a universalappeal and anonymity.

Dowse does not make an explicit judgement about the impact of urban development on its environment – indeed she is clearly fascinated and energised by the dynamism of the modern city. However, her work does raise the issue about the current validity of the phrase a ‘sense of place’. In Work in Progress, a series of semi-abstract canvases which depict men at work near the shopping centre, harsh orange streaks and spray paint glares out among the lush natural greens of the trees and foliage. The sound of a road drill is almost audible and the colours are familiar to a modern onlooker whose view of nature is rarely undisturbed by road signs and neon graffiti. As the city develops and grows, there is a suggestion that its ‘sense of place’ is being gradually eroded.

Market Hall Corner (5 panels)

This sense of erosion is also apparent in Market Hall Corner. On first glance the painting appears to be a 360 degree view of Derby taking in the Guildhall, Market Hall and the hoardings around the newly constructed arts centre Quad. It is only on closer inspection that it becomes clear that the views do not match up. The painting is made up of five parts, structured in a way which echoes panels of an altarpiece or room design. The inclusion of the two domed buildings appears to be a reference to the eighteenth century cityscapes painted by artists such as Canaletto for the aristocratic tourists visiting Europe. The carefully manipulated viewpoints echo the canvases known as ‘capriccios’, which attempted to amalgamate as many landmarks as possible into a single scene. Dowse’s use of the digital camera, beloved by the tourist, is made explicit by the visible lens flare which cuts across the canvas. The heightened colours and glossy paint echo the brilliant tones of holiday snaps. Here though the popular landmarks, the normal focus of a tourist snapshot, are either obscured or not present at all. The scene is of an ordinary day and the central canvas largely consists of a brightly coloured and loosely painted sky. Rather than offering a classic view of central Derby this painting deliberately denies the viewer the experience they might expect and instead makes the painterly surface of the canvas the subject of the work.

This challenge to the viewer is also present in Dowse’s canvases depicting the cable cars at Matlock Bath which scale the craggy landscape of the Peak District commonly known as the ‘Heights of Abraham’, an area popular with tourists. Each summer visitors flock to take the cable cars to see, and photograph, the spectacular views across the limestone gorge at Masson Country Park. However, it was not the views that fascinated Dowse. Instead she chose to depict the squat machines traversing the landscape, the heavy cables that support them dominating the canvases and obscuring the dramatic scenery. Again, the machine and human intervention has scarred the landscape, transforming a site of natural beauty into a tourist haven.

Heaven’s Above and Heights of Abraham (Jonathan Vickers Collection)

Dowse’s efforts to pin down a ‘sense of place’ raise questions about the twenty first century meaning of the term. Traditional views linking it to heritage and homecoming no longer seem appropriate in a world which has adopted an international and nomadic culture. Dowse’s work resists any attempt to establish a fixed notion of a ‘sense of place’. The digital movie camera skims across its subjects, indiscriminately recording what it finds, while the painted canvas refuses to yield further clues about the subjects depicted. The painterly surface, with its sense of durability, underlines the temporal qualities of the digital images, fixing them in a permanent state of unrest. By combining these two apparently disparate techniques Dowse poses questions about what a ‘sense of place’ means to a twenty-first century artist and audience. Is it a geographical term, an idea attached to historical landmarks, heritage and tourist attractions, or is it a more personal notion linked to individual identity?

In her refusal to offer a traditional notion of a ‘sense of place’ Dowse proposes a positive alternative. She celebrates the dynamism of the modern city and revels in the quirkiness of the Peak District cable cars. She uses the oil paint associated with a more traditional approach with as much relish as she exploits contemporary digital technology. Her own reaction to Derby has also been a positive one. Although she began as a stranger to the area she is now considering becoming a permanent resident. By ‘skimming the surface’ she has succeeded in overturning traditional assumptions and has created her own, more durable, ‘sense of place’.

Chloe Johnson, May 2008

Chloe Johnson is the Curatorial Officer at the Leamington Spa Art Galleryand Museum and has recently completed her PhD.

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