The roads (going home)

Essay by Ed Woodroffe

What’s in store for me in the direction I don’t take? – Jack Kerouac, On the Road 1957

Road 6 (going home), 80cm x 60cm, oil on panel, 2011 (Private Collection)

Driving in the Opposite Direction
I am driving down the road. It is on the opposite side to the viewer of these paintings. I am coming towards you and you are driving past me. We are on separate roads that meet in the middle. We may wave at each other or ignore each other and keep on going. It matters not. We both have a destination.

The tarmac road; icon of the industrial age, keeper of dreams, desires, aspirations and the need to search further for something that may ultimately have been right in front of you all the time. The endless road: It is a road that takes us home, or it takes us on a journey when we have lost our home. 

Road 2 (going home), 24cm x 18cm, oil on panel, 2011 (Private Collection)

When I see Natalie Dowse’s series of road paintings I am struck with familiarity. It’s a familiarity of long drives with the windscreen wipers splashing across the glass in front of me or of squinting for signposts ahead that will lead me to a Cafe or Service Station. There is also the essence of the unfamiliarity of roads in these paintings. The fear of losing one’s way by taking a wrong turn or the fear of dangerous strangers that the traveller might encounter while on the road (although significantly there are no pedestrians in these paintings). Few of these paintings show urbanisation and very few in the series reveal the presence of other people. When they do, these others, these strangers, are both shielded and hidden from view by the armour and protection of either their vehicles or their houses. There are no face-to-face encounters on these roads. Each Woman/Man is an Island. This is a solitary journey surrounded by only hints and suspicions of other lives.

When I first saw these paintings I felt that I recognised one of the locations from my travels. I was delighted to find out from Natalie that it was indeed the same stretch of road in Cornwall that I knew well. I am not driving home from Cornwall though. It is ten years ago and I am driving to Cornwall to get away from London.

Road 7 (going home), 150cm x 120cm, oil on canvas, 2014

The further you drive, the longer the road is, the more you travel, the more the person you once were becomes a stranger to you. I have music playing in the car. It’s a John Hiatt album called Bring the Family and it says everything I feel right now on these Cornish Roads. Everything is focussed here. Everything is equilibrium. The horizon is a linear perspective of converging kerb lines.

Seeing Natalie’s paintings took me right back to that moment in my life. I can feel the rainwater splashing up from the road onto the underside of the car. I can see the haze hovering over the moors, and I can see those endless skies that seem to stretch forever that I have never seen in London except on Primrose Hill. At that point it was exactly what I wanted and nothing more. No beginning and no end. 

The road as a metaphor for both choosing pathways in life is a very particular creative construct. It is exemplified in the ‘road movie’ genre and what else is the road movie but rites of passage?

Apocalypse Now is a road movie as much as Y Tu Mama Tambien is. They are both journeys from birth to death and death to re-birth. Like the journey undertaken in Heart of Darkness from which Apocalypse Now was drawn, we only find a circle. No beginning and no end. In both the death of Kurtz becomes a rebirth of something new. These paintings are not dissimilar to that metaphor.

I am thinking of the act of driving when looking at these paintings but that is because of the personal experience that I am privileging and impressing upon the artwork. In fact, they are as an inaccurate and nebulous assessment as Manet’s Il bar delle Folies-Bergere is in relating the position of the viewer to the space between the painting on the wall and the tip of the viewer’s nose and that is not a bad thing at all. 

There is no car bonnet in these road paintings. Only some of the paintings suggest motion blur on the white line or the kerbside hedgerows and rails. We could actually be standing in the road looking into the horizon and waiting for a car to hit us from behind. There is something both frightening and liberating in this stance. It puts the viewer on a precipice. 

We are on a journey to a destination and it is fraught with danger and mortality everywhere we look. Let’s turn back and see what happens… Let’s go in the same direction as the paintings which means going in the same direction as Natalie; homeward. Back to the place it began. We will go away from the unfamiliar and back to the familiar, or rather the familiar but not as we once knew it because that is what home becomes when you leave it to travel under cloud-laden skies.

Road 5 (going home), 24cm x 18cm, oil on panel, 2011 (Private Collection)

Driving in the Same Direction
We are going home. It is going to be a journey through the medium of paint and canvas. This time we will be following the route of the painter. There are puddles and strips of tarmac banding in the road that Natalie has dipped onto the canvas; some look like blood from a cut and others look like falling tears. The skies are not bright and sunny. They are overcast and by the time we reach the traffic lights near the town they are stormy. There are only three paintings in the series that allow us to turn off the road (although in one of these we have already made our choice and are moving past the turning). The painting of the traffic lights on the outskirts of the suburban sprawl is one of them. This means that the end of the journey is also a choice about which way to go to see what lies beyond. We can still detour from our journey home to seek new discoveries.

Going home can mean a return to familiar surroundings, to the juxtaposition of family or romantic needs and personal needs if one shares a home. Maybe it is a return to a domesticated communal space within which one’s own personal space must be made and sometimes fought for, with parents or siblings or partners or housemates. It may be a place of burden and responsibility but it may also be a solitary or lonely sphere in which one lives alone. Like cars flashing by in the opposite direction, we can sense other people but there is no contact and no pleasure in mutual communication.

These roads are lonely. The notion of the domestic space is only hinted at in the paintings series title. If it were not for that, we would be travelling to an undecided destination.  

I like the fact that they are detached from personal communication. It puts the viewer on a journey with the painter’s solitude. There is no dashboard stuffed with maps or sweet wrappers. There is no rear view mirror to see what is behind. These paintings are in the main strangely silent and free of the swishing noises of wheels on tarmac, even when we are positioned in the road looking at the departing rear end of a blue Land Rover Freelander. 

These paintings whisper thoughts and secrets. They challenge you to define their purpose. White lines in a road are lines that are built to separate, to keep people speeding towards one another from colliding head on. Verges and kerbs are built to confine one to agreed pathways and to keep people from crashing into the verge. Roads are pathways but like the construct of home as a notion of domestic space, they have boundaries to personal freedoms, rules, and carefully designed and defined borders. You ignore them at your peril.    

Follow these paintings home. Go back to where they began. See how far you are willing to deviate from their kerbside boundaries. The road heading into the distance is an icon. Think of Robert Frank’s roads in The Americans. There is a tiny hint of Gerhard Richter in the brushwork of these paintings. There is a lot more of Natalie Dowse here and the road is not finished yet.

Ed Woodroffe, February 2013

Road 9 (going home), 40cm x 30cm, oil on panel, 2012 (Private Collection)

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