New Paintings 2006-2007; Visual Ecologies of Remote Cultures, Lennox Dunbar, Edinburgh, Open Eye Gallery.
The recent paintings are intimate and complex at the same time; in fact, intimate and complex in an overtly three-dimensional way to the extent that the label ‘painting’ seems not to fit easily. These are all small works, yes, relics of something, or devotional works of a kind, but they have an expansive dimension within the perimeter of the field; they share a depth of inquiry which is belied by the outer dimensions. Small and two-dimensional, but sculpted, formed, worked within the frame by additive, accumulative – and sometimes reductive – processes.
This is paradoxical, because it is this additive process which is employed to reveal the archaeological aspects of the work, in other words, layers are added before the ‘relic’ or ‘dig discovery’ is located.
Aesthetically these pieces behave like paintings, with discreet formal concerns being met, or not, by meticulous and studied technique as well as by experimental and untested method: conceptually, these paintings operate across a number of extra-formal territories, ranging from ecology and archaeology to philosophy and music.
One of the most stimulating and intriguing aspects of the above is the archaeological theme – although certainly not to the exclusion of others. What is surprising is that the motif in sections of the paintings, the iconic form, the dominant element – call it what you will – can be read as an embedded treasure, as said -a ‘discovery’, but this motif is the product of the additive process – the working of the field into a structured and layered materiality – which might suggest that the painter, the artist, can work to reveal things by adding and not ‘unearthing’. (There is direct connection here to Wittgensteinean philosophy, and hence a whole range of case-studies in the history of images, which maintains that ‘truths’ are to be found by a constructive process and not by a reductive one.
Ecology is invoked by the ongoing studio process of Dunbar which sees works and sketches appear, reappear, configure and reconfigure. Objects can be worked over years, decades even, towards no likely end, which immediately informs us of a lack of preciousness, but also a lifelong interest in art forms as models of a wider ‘ecology of necessity’, particularly evident in a rural environment, a context which has, naturally, been referenced before in the light of the works. But although there is a visible link to natural forms, the landscape, the found object, the unearthed motif, the recycled motif as an ecological agenda, the overriding characteristic I think is an artistic one – that the artist works in a studio ecology which, when vibrant and non-formulaic, requires an ongoing sense of restlessness, non-preciousness and impermanence of a kind, which ensures a vitality which cannot be achieved by fixed and finished aesthetic objects. With this idea in mind, you might say that, in common with many other artists, the whole oeuvre, the extent of the body of work to date, is a performed, creative ecology, which could throw up in this critical context some very interesting research headings, and connect to many substantive examples from British and International art.
This ecology of the studio points to the temporality at work in the paintings. That one work might become another at a later point in time, challenges quite deliberately the monolithic notion of the artist’s body of work developing anthropomorphically – from immaturity to maturity. Here Dunbar operates one his anti-conventional themes, scotching conventional chronology and therefore scotching some of the niceties of the Scottish tradition in painting and in art history. The paintings when successful, it seems, are redolent of the immanent alteration which will render them impermanent and which will bring about another ahistorical progression within the studio ecology.
The multi-disciplinarity encompasses Dunbar’s training in both printmaking and painting, and what is striking here is that as an artist he is not concerned with the stereotypically High Modernist pursuit of perfection of discreet media. The techniques and strategies of painting, and the techniques and strategies of printmaking, are used as tools to lay bare (paradoxically as noted by way of this constructive process) the creative ecology which all of his work addresses whatever the nominal visible subject matter. So certain techniques and certain strategies become paintbrushes or burnishing tools, components of a creative project larger than technical, formal puzzles and larger than any ongoing national painterly investigations.
The works make clear that, although they are, of course, products of a studio method, they are not a means to a complacent end, where the artist would relax having a achieved a ‘formula’ for the making of the works, for the solving of a formal problem. One of the guiding principles here is that each of the works must have an anti-formulaic aspect which subtly implies its own transience and ultimate reconfiguration. These are not pieces which set out to sign and seal formal investigations – these are paintings which are about balancing a ‘finished’ but not formulaic aesthetic object with the ‘borrowed time’ concept of impermanence and evolution. There is an obvious non-preciousness about fine art discipline territories – the painted in these paintings results from a very three-dimensional layering, and paring away, and the works, historically, can be subjected to the most transformative interventions by the artist with no precious respect for nostalgia or for permanence.