Approached by my friend, Tim Grosvenor, to write an introduction to this, his latest work, I was first anxious to ascertain from Tim himself some of the personal background to the pieces on show here; by ‘personal’ I mean the thought processes that he as an artist brought to their development rather than any particular autobiographical associations which may be present in them; even though it may be rightly assumed that the two are often, if not always, inextricably linked. From his reply I was immediately struck by the importance he attached to questions of method, process, and sensibility, that for him, constitute the authentic ‘voice’ of an artist. Here is a part of what he has to say on the subject:
“Painting in itself is not enough for me. There has to be an original voice speaking and, of course, it must be my voice. This voice comes from a subtle and immensely time consuming process of understanding the particular sensibilities that, to be blunt, “turn me on”. It is like going through the bands on a radio until you tune in to what is entirely to your liking. I am not an autodidact and have a reasonable knowledge of contemporary art; it is important for me to ‘distill’ this knowledge but not pastiche it.”
For some, it may seem that Tim is here speaking on matters of ‘style’ or, more basically the visual appearance or ‘look’ of these pieces, which arguably constitutes the most obvious expression of an artist’s ‘voice’. Indeed he goes on to discuss at some length the method he has developed which he feels best expresses his own personal, authentic voice as an artist. But an artist’s style in and of itself can also be a trap. As Picasso said, “Style — that’s often something which imprisons the painter within the same vision, within the same technique, within the same formula for years on end, sometimes for a whole lifetime. One recognises it instantly, but it’s always the same suit or the same cut of suit.” But Picasso was the artist/chameleon par excellence; most artists understandably prefer the comfort zone of a recognisable personal style. On the other hand, some artists, though possessed of an instantly recognisable style or ‘look’, seek a completely ‘impersonal’ method like, say, Roy Lichtenstein who asserted, “I want to hide the record of my hand.”
While acknowledging the importance (for him at least) of method and process, Tim sees the question of ‘style’ as a marriage of method and sensibility. And the latter as by far the most important aspect. In this, the method he employs is no mere affectation but precisely the one he feels most ‘fit for purpose’ in order to express that true voice he speaks of. At the same time he makes no attempt to “hide the record of his hand” either. These pieces indicate an artist who is finally comfortable in his own artistic ‘skin’. It is this that has allowed the artist to neatly sidestep the afore mentioned ‘style trap’, which is to say the trap of style without substance. This brings us to the question of content. In short, what are these pieces about? What and how can they mean?
But first, it will no doubt be of interest for the viewer to be informed of some of the details of Tim’s method and process. This task is best left to the artist himself. Here is how he has described it:
“In order to pursue the journey I had to reject many of the conventional tools of the painter… notably colour. I started with an exploration of very simple geometric forms. This allowed me to experiment with the techniques I was developing without the obvious confusion of content. It did produce some interesting images but I was far from satisfied. The mark was there but not the gesture. It was the connection between the gesture and the intent that I was seeking.”
”To be honest I do not in any sense consider myself to be a painter. I draw; I draw in paint. The line that I have been seeking has been a huge part of the process of discovery. Drawing is for me the basis of all art. Mastery of drawing is as important to the conceptual as to the figurative. It is the origin of the creative visual process.”
”These paintings are, in fact, a form of engraving; the painting is literally cut from the material. In a way it is intaglio — only in paint. The image is at one point completely black (or dark, to be precise). The knife I use (which happens to be a swiss army knife) then cuts into the paint to reveal what is behind, the painting underneath is uncovered, an archeologist revealing the layer beneath. The light is revealed not applied. I take away, not add.”
Such apparently rigorous and precise a method would appear to be no barrier to a sense of a free and lyrical expression of deeply held feeling and emotion. It should come as no surprise that it is only, and precisely, with a mastery of technique that the artist acquires the freedom to truly express his or her self. But what emotions, feelings do these pieces express? Or is the artist here concerned only with purely formal issues? It so happens that Tim and I share much of the same artistic sensibility, and I know that he is deeply concerned with concepts of form, content and meaning. Indeed he has said that he sees himself as a ‘conceptual painter’, in much the same way as Gerhard Richter, an artist we share a great admiration for (though possibly for different reasons), has (at least from time to time) described himself. However, with Tim, as with Richter, one needs to be careful to not confuse the term ‘conceptual’ as used here with ‘Conceptual Art’. Typical ‘Conceptual Artists’ like Sol LeWitt, say, or Joseph Kosuth care little for appearance, technique or indeed process. Style or “voice” mean little enough to them. In fact such notions could be seen as anathema to them. What they are concerned with, however, is meaning. By which I mean so much so as to be at great pains to closely document and explain the concepts, the thinking that in many cases is practically all their work consists of. By contrast, Tim’s work certainly appears to be deeply felt too — it looks as if it has deep personal associations for the artist. And so it may be. But how are we, as viewers, to, as it were, read these pieces? What do they really represent and/or mean? So far the artist himself remains essentially silent on this issue.
This of course, in general, raises perennial questions for any consideration of abstract or non-figurative art. There is a constant tension between the artist’s intent, sometimes stated, often, as here, not, and what the viewer actually sees, both literally and imaginatively. And too, just how much of an artist’s intent is actually communicable in purely visual terms? And here I don’t just mean in the case of non-figurative art. Does it even matter if any meaning that a viewer may find may not coincide with the intent of the artist? Make no mistake, though, most viewers will find meaning even in the most abstract of pieces. As the writer Suri Husvedt observes, “The mind is a glutton for meaning, for making sense of things that may escape it, for resisting ambiguity, for naming.” So maybe the expressive qualities of these pieces derive from the moment when first viewed, and are based on the viewer’s own subjective imagination.
Still we may look for clues about what the artist may intend us, as viewers, to see, if not feel. The artist’s words again:
“In terms of the visual stimulus for the work, my pre-occupations do not arise from the middle ground. What I define as the middle ground is not the obvious. What I mean is that I am excited by the micro and macro worlds, the very small to the very big and of course the similarities that lie within.”
What is, for me, most striking about this is that the pieces themselves offer virtually no indication of scale. What we are viewing could be a microcosm, a macrocosm or, indeed, the cosmos itself. Nevertheless the viewer is drawn inexorably into whatever space is depicted here. Unlike a photographic image which can never quite escape an awareness of its inherent flatness these pieces have a depth that, irrespective of any perceived scale, feels limitless. This is the same negative space that the artist speaks of removing to reveal what lies beneath. Reveal in order that what is revealed may then miraculously advance to seemingly float above the dark void. The result is like a murky pool into which the viewer may wade and explore. Or perhaps ‘wade’ is an inappropriate metaphor here given the feeling of a kind of weightlessness these pieces induce. And, too, I’m tempted to use the word ‘miasma’ here. Or am I the only one who feels a slight sense of a toxic or threatening environment I am being drawn into? Other viewers may indeed find the experience a more wholly joyous one. Perhaps it is just me. Or maybe a clue to the artist’s intent? Maybe I should just ask him.
When first asked by Tim to write a ‘critical appraisal’ of these pieces I must admit I felt flattered but also a little apprehensive. As a friend I could say “Of course I love Tim’s work”. But that is to damn with faint praise. The very phrase “I just love this work” can too often betray a certain superficiality, a lack of close attention. In short the throwaway line of the casual viewer as their glance fast forwards to the next piece of visual stimulation, the next piece of ‘eye candy’. And, indeed, Tim’s work is beguiling, sumptuous; one could say — and many have — ‘mesmerising’. A desirable attribute in any piece of visual art to be sure. Yet these are pieces that reward lengthy concentration. These are pieces that, in fact, demand it. Just as any artist worth his or her salt must develop the ability to ‘speak’ with their own individual voice, so must the serious viewer attune their ‘ear’ to be receptive to the artist’s voice. This is what I think the art critic and historian Ernst Gombrich meant by his notion of the ‘beholder’s share’. It requires a willingness on the part of the viewer to devote some, not inconsiderable, time to the task. Such a commitment can, however, as is most definitely the case with the work of Tim Grosvenor, bring with it rich rewards.
© Ian Talbot 2011