What is landscape?
Such a simple question brings to mind two patently obvious answers. First, places-the particular landscapes of accumulated subjective experience. Those images that show the shape of the world, held in memory. Take for example the walk to school, little legs transport you, your eyes and ears check in with familiar landmarks. The dirt road, the shop on the corner, the fenced-off wood, your best friend's house, the green school door. Such memories belong to each of us, each differently emphatic of the worlds we live in. This is landscape as a relative opinion, a point of view that takes shape as we move through the world. We might furnish such descriptions with proper geographical words, valley, underpass, forest-the names of places, Elm Street, Pendle Hill-but such precision does not bring us closer to a general understanding of landscape.
Alternatively, we can answer that landscape is a genre, a more-or-less stable category of artistic production, primarily in painting and drawing but also photography, sufficiently formulaic that the 18th century painter Alexander Cozens formulated a method by which a landscape could be effectively suggested from a tactical placement of ink blots. If a landscape can be evoked by a few brushstrokes as Cozens (and Bob Ross) demonstrated, then perhaps we can speak of landscapeness, a Platonic, transcendent form present in all landscapes but never fully realised in their particulars. Are there little happy trees and mountains on the metaphysical plane? Aspiring to an idealised landscapeness, art has long imagined how such a form might look, from the Edenic arrangements of the early Renaissance to the Arcadian patterns of the Romantic period and the cascading hills of the Daoist painters. Trees over here, a mountain over there, a temple nestled in at the foot, figures placed at various distances-what are the characteristics of landscapeness?
The British geographer Jay Appleton developed his 'habitat theory' through observation of animals and later humans and their actions in the physical landscape. Whether instinctually or rationally, living creatures ventured into the wilderness and interpreted it in search of certain final causes-water, food, shelter, discretion. This impetus to find safety and security he called 'refuge'. Such a place would be ideally suited if it provided a vantage point from which to survey, to anticipate dangers or 'hazards', and to seize upon opportunities-this he called 'prospect'. Such evaluations of the landscape have existed for as long as there have been humans, and pre-humans. As such Appleton goes further, what if our aesthetic senses that we exercise in our secular modern lives are, in fact, rooted in ingrained animal behaviours responding to landscape, that transcend individual experience? Are forms of prospect and refuge in play when we look at a painting, not just a landscape but any painting, or for that matter when we watch a film or play a videogame?
Contemporary epigenetic studies and behavioural science have returned us to something of the Platonic view that our understanding of forms is not learned but rather recollected. Landscapeness is not something we simply discover in the course of life, but something recollected. As Agnès Varda said in her film Beaches of Agnès (2008), "If we opened people up, we'd find landscapes." Appleton's prospect and refuge are transcendent forms in their own right with a myriad of particular examples that aspire to an ideal manifestation. Our response to light, colour, space finds its root in the ingrained responses to the physical world. And so landscape is not reducible to the naïve realism of particular views represented, but an evolutionary shape imposing form on our vision. We experience the difference between red and green insofar as we need to differentiate the unripe from the ripe when picking fruit on the ancient coasts of southeastern Africa. The idealised form of things may well be in some other metaphysical dimension, but it is also in us, in the deep time of our pangenetic being. Accumulated in this species-history are sensations of prospect, refuge and hazard that have implications for our apprehension of art, media and the world of today.
II: Prospect and Refuge
In this exhibition I have selected works that speak to our innate sense of human and physical geography, to the form of landscapeness, expressed through the subsidiary forms of prospect, refuge and hazard. In the paintings of Bendix Harms, the creatures of his world are painted with a contradictory appeal, at once both hazardous and seductive-his surfaces communicate his touch while also issuing a friendly warning, like sharp stones. Mamon the cat is a household guardian and colossal presence, a living landscape. By contrast the abstract paintings of Callum Green suggest the striated, folded contours of land as shaped by water and wind, full of prospective pleasure and inviting complexity. Each painting is a colour and gesture event that conjures a powerful sense of space and movement. In the realm of human experience, Kate Groobey shows us the quotidian everyday, of figures seemingly at ease in their world, declaring domestic bliss, and all the while sharp grated cheese project out and scissors snip at optimistic flowers-with each moment of prospective happiness, hazard and the need for refuge is never far away. The hat and sunglasses stay resolutely on.
In the large-scale watercolours of Richard Ayodeji Ikhide the presence of prospect, refuge and hazard are almost foregrounded. His depictions are of communities of figures, craftspeople, elders, mothers and children, in settings of intimate village life. There is a feeling of spiritual and social integration that is both future-orientated and nostalgic. The spiritual world, the world of family and the world of work cohere into an idealised form-his protagonists are akin to philosopher-kings and queens, gnostic travellers who cleave to their inner landscapes. In contrast to Ikhide's baroque world, Ian Gouldstone's vivid computer simulations dare to make a case for simplicity counter to the prevailing use of computational power. By exploiting the unique ability of the simulation to present unpredictable changes in time, his work draws our attention to the predilections of our vision, our compulsion to yearn for certain kinds of resolution, predictability and order.
The ceramic sculptures of Carl Anderson play with our rational interpretive sense, by depicting objects with historically violent functions in meticulously-made ceramic. From barbed wire to mediaeval bascinet helmets, our sense of hazard is crosscut with an appreciation of fragility and strangeness. His objects signify the symbolic structures of human landscape, aspirations to protect the vulnerable body, demarcations of private space, the defensive and the offensive. Armour in ceramic, the refuge becomes the hazard. Finally, Jonathan McCree adapts the forms, lines and arabesques of furniture into monumental minimalist sculpture that both point to the world of interior and exterior life. Evoking the leg of a chair or table, we're suddenly in the position of a miniature Alice. The contrast of sharp and curved shapes rendered in block colour recalls the 'takete-maluma' experiments of gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler who aspired to understand the underlying psychological structures of human perception in much the same way as Jay Appleton. In these examples of prospect and refuge we can see that 'landscapeness' transcends mere landscapes, but is rather a place within us, subtly mapped in our art.
- David Surman, 2022
Appleton, Jay. The Experience of Landscape. London: Wiley, 1975. Print.