The Tent resides within a series of small-scale oil paintings on wood that have occupied me for the past five years. Completed in 2013, it formed part of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2015, where it hung in the landscape room in Burlington House, curated by Jock McFadyen. For this and a companion piece, The Hill, I was the recipient of a British Institution Award. The Tent is currently on loan to Dean Clough, from a private collection. The paintings in this series are almost all landscapes and share a concern for a singular location or place, at once familiar or commonplace. The image-aspect of a painting resides within the surface, and its accessibility – outward facing, static and open – acts as the way in. Only then, when an acquaintance has been made can the painting begin its work.
This work can be seen as a drawing together and disclosure of painterly possibilities, residual references and processes of making: as duration, intimation and desire. For it is in being a painting that a painting keeps itself busy, and in being The Tent, such busyness is necessarily circumscribed. The painting is small, rough, shiny and framed; its image of tent and cloud ‘fashioned from’ not ‘inscribed upon’ its surface, fusing form and content together. I consider the processes of painting to be a journey where both origin and destination are undetermined in advance of an engagement in the act of making.
I draw from memory, allowing the material, manual aspects of the work to inaugur, extend and fashion the stuff of paint into a formal arrangement…into a representation. This arrangement of brush marks, of colour and tone, takes up where memory falters or fabricates, continuing the journey as the process evolves. At points in time the relationship between leader and follower – between memory and the possibilities set in motion by the image – reverses, leaving me in doubt as to the identity of the author of the final arrangement.
The memory concerned is both voluntary and involuntary, with conscious and unconscious drivers. The result, however, is not arbitrary, though the processes whereby a painting becomes determined and complete remain mysterious, reassuring me of painting’s propensity for seemingly continual regeneration. To misquote Mark Twain…rumours of painting’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, and for a long time. Its disposition to infinite extension combined with a rootedness in the past serve to situate it firmly in a perpetual present.
With The Tent I knew only that there was a clear intent to work within the confines of the landscape genre, in oils, on oak, and to a small scale. I’d set out my stall in a new studio in Barkston House, Leeds, with an optimism that accompanies such beginnings. The studio was a dwelling, carefully furnished and ready to provide the conditions of practice: a clearing within which works could emerge.
I cannot be sure if the idea of a tent preceded its arrival as motif on the surface of the wooden panel by a significant distance, but it likely circled among other possibilities in future arrangements, taking physical form, when its turn came, as a result of a long process of trial and error. Lots had been tried and lots painted out, as the surface built gradually, heaving and rippling, containing and encasing all that the painting had been.
When eventually the tent appeared, silhouetted in the bottom right side of the painting on top of the light horizontal section behind it, I knew that I had the rest of the work within my reach. From then the painting appeared to determine itself, as I layered the dark area, adding to the central lightness to allow what became a loud cloud to poke through, sit on top of, and blend into, the surrounding sky.
When camping, the sky is huge. In a tent you feel close to the ground, so it seemed right to have the tent’s ground sheet level with the bottom of the painting. I love the expansiveness of Vincent Van Gogh’s wonderfully inventive Starry Night, 1889, and the singularity of the moment in Samuel Palmer’s magical The Bright Cloud, 1834. I have borrowed from both, with the latter directly responsible for the cloud, though manifestly less bright in my work.
I’d recently camped in Snowdonia, which almost certainly brought the motif of the tent to the fore, making it part of my thinking and experience. Yet the painting is a composite of elements, a moment in a story: an event. An illuminated windbreak describes the tent’s insides, and two bodies, together clinging. The sky, as physical, material presence, extends to the front of the painting on the right of the tent and to a mound of earthy greyness on the left. An indeterminate dark lengthens vertically above the cloud, which hangs and waits.
Tom Palin, 2015