The English language is rich in sea-words. I refer here to the signs passed from weary lips to fascinated ears across Britain’s long history of maritime labour. The world lived on water is a world unto itself, but when a place is so defined by its coasts, those words find usage in the interior, blown in with talk of wars and trade. Words like ‘groggy’, ‘chock-a-block’, ‘junk’, and phrases like ‘a square meal’ and ‘under the weather’ -- the language of the sea is spat and caroused and leaves an indelible mark on our present speech that survives separation from past seafaring fortunes.
Any experience of the sea teaches foundational lessons in the deeply ordered separations that govern our perception; the ocean is turbid and unrelenting, the land certain and managed. And yet the life of a sailor aboard ship is regimented and ordered, the interaction between vessels governed by a language of flags and manouveurs. Stories of sailors struggling with the confusions of land life who yearn for the deeply ordered chaos of the seas are familiar. In this way life alongside seas abound with many ironies, shifting meanings that were retrieved like pearls by the Romantic poets and painters. The image of a sailboat evokes both clarity and courage but also trepidation and vulnerability.
What then of painting which takes as its subject the sea, and the life that touches it? Does it keep the messy language down in the brig, and show a still ocean seen from a distant shore, or does it allow turbidity to break against it? In his new paintings and drawings on show at Sim Smith the painter Tim Garwood breaks from his previous language of abstract assemblage (his land language?) to direct us along two bearings, into memory and biography, and toward uncertain waters.
The smallest works provide a route into the exhibition, photographs drawn from boating holidays are cropped with coloured oil paint, reducing the image to a play of characteristic shapes and namesake signs. The addition of colour both celebrates and obscures, suggesting the quality of memory itself. This boat then goes through a transformation, interpreted through insouciant drawing and mark making into the cross-cutting marks of a simplified sailboat. Two triangular sails combine to form a broad based pyramid, from which a mast grows down into the irregular shape of a hull. We see it as a boat, but in the sea of the painting it is an anchor, a wayfaring point where the eye is held. Over and over the boat is repeated, the half-dozen or so marks that make it up solving the dilemma of painting, the search for a subject. Painting becomes like writing, the boat like a word.
Garwood paints as someone who is clearly engaged with a history of painting, particularly 20th century painting, and demonstrates a concern with the formal questions of surface, flatness, and the activation of the rectangle. In an array of medium sized works on paper he integrates collage and found materials to create irregular shapes that resemble some kind of cartographic exercise, in which mnemonic images are hooked onto tightly coiling lines like fish. Royal Mail Stamps index the past in their nostalgic imagery while simultaneously suggesting the sending and receiving of messages, speedy gestural marks in oil and graphite hint at some dirty chaotic business in the abstract. Sometimes the boat is accompanied by a box motif, perhaps suggestive of a kite, and elsewhere it is annotated ‘bungalow’. Are these memories, stripped down to shape and line, that steer the expressive life of the work?
In the largest paintings, a swathe of raw canvas records two kinds of activity. Across the surface the trampling of feet carries paint in every direction, sometimes softened by swabbed spills of liquid colour. This overall effect counterpoints the more conscious language of artistically legible gestures, a delineated form, a mark made with something resembling a mop or brush. The image of a canal lock floats in a cosmos of coloured marks, the words MOON FLEET hovering overhead. Where are we when we look at these paintings? Abroad from earth we find not only the sea, but outer (and inner) space. These paintings navigate through the subject of painting itself, speedily churning and stirring the water as they go. Garwood’s glimmering murk of colour and deconstructed motifs bring to mind the words of Georges Bataille, who noted, “[a]fter a certain point there’s a need for sensibility to call up disturbance. No one is really touched emotionally unless there’s some disturbance involved.”
— David Surman, January 2020.