A recent visitor to the Visual Arts department at West Dean College was British artist Rebecca Salter, who discussed her work with the full-time students. In a fascinating talk focusing mainly on the importance of particular materials in her practice, Rebecca also described the processes of creative research and was keen to talk about failures as much as successes – always underlining the importance of finding ways to deal with obstacles and dead-ends.
After graduating from Bristol Polytechnic in the late 1970s, Rebecca visited Kyoto as part of a Leverhulme Scholarship. She would stay in Japan for six years. This period would have a huge influence on her life and work, although the nature of that influence would shift. As Rebecca pointed out, a sustained period living outside of one’s culture provides its own fundamental insights, particularly in relation to a specific practice like painting, art history in general or recognition of the prevalence of Western culture across the globe. More specific aspects of Japanese and Korean culture would make themselves felt as time went on. Trained as a ceramicist – specialising in Raku ware when in Japan, as well as calligraphy and woodblock printing – Rebecca soon began to make ceramic pieces in which panels of clay became increasingly thin, delicate and paper-like – always with the intention of providing a surface upon which painted marks could be made. This use of such thin clay soon became unsustainable, however, and the sought surface was sought in alternative media and supports. This led to a shift from ceramic pieces to two-dimensional works but, in Rebecca’s use of traditional Japanese paper, the flatness of the substrate was not quite straightforward. The most important quality of this paper was its ability to absorb moisture, as any applied liquid and pigment could fully penetrate its internal structure. Most Western paper, made up of short fibres that are for the most part uniformly arranged, has a smooth surface with little foundational strength. Japanese paper, by contrast, is constructed with much longer fibres, agitated together in a gelatinous medium, which results in a much stronger interlocked structure. As a result, the matted texture is less surface than textile, much more like a three-dimensional physical object that its relatively insubstantial Western counterpart.
The use of both sides of this kind of paper became a central part of Rebecca’s approach, embracing and emphasising the support as object, as well as playing with its qualities of opacity, transparency, layering and the bringing together of torn edges. Rebecca’s work involved an increasing experimentation with materials, not only paper but other substances central to Japanese tradition – an example being a pigmented waterproofing agent extracted from crushed persimmons which, depending on its strength, dries to a luminescent orange-ochre. As well as specific materials and supports, broader Japanese aesthetic concerns were also influential, such as approaches to composition and pictorial space (間 ‘Ma’) where flattened representations of perspective, devoid of the Western-style vanishing points, operates ‘vertically’, with depth building up the picture plane from bottom to top. Further inspiration came from the deployment of space in Japanese gardens, architecture and domestic interiors (for example, moveable and semi-transparent walls, the eye being directed by subtle signifiers of changing texture), to the sets of Noh theatre and the manner in which actors would linger in their disappearance from the stage.
A difficult period of transition followed Rebecca’s return to the UK. She began to develop ways in which to incorporate her experiences of Japan into an entirely different context, mixing up established methods with new materials and techniques, trying to find a visual language that took the work somewhere new. Experiments ensued with the use of acrylic paint and gouache, red chalk and graphite, alternative supports such as Somerset paper and linen. New opportunities were often found in the combination of traditions, such as bringing together the use of unprimed canvas and sumi-e ink – the latter often soaked through the former. During the presentation, Rebecca touched briefly on the complex technical history of compressed sumi-e ink blocks, often made with pine soot and rapeseed oil, and how the quality of materials was central to their usage. Intriguingly, a breakthrough came following a trip to the Lake District, during which a series of works were developed engaging with the movement within the landscape, fragmenting observational drawings, breaking a continuum into a series of geometric units across the surface. If there was a suggestion of cinematic narrative in these incremental series, Rebecca put this into an interesting context in relation to the tradition of calligraphy and its relation to time and duration.
The calligraphic line, so closely associated with writing, is always drawn with the brush in Japan. It is also possible, for the trained eye, to trace the history of the calligraphic mark, identifying its initial point of contact and its removal: each line contains the physical gesture used to draw it out and the informed viewer can read its direction. Crucially, the calligraphic line has no need to appeal to any represented object and can be sustained by its own presence, existing simply as itself: a live line that embodies the physical gesture of the painter, their whole body and breath contained. An appeal to this kind of durational presence is fragmented in Rebecca’s canvases, bringing in complex overlays of rhythm and repetition. The series of works that followed – although clearly not disconnected from the developments in Western abstraction, monochrome painting and Minimalism – were, Rebecca insisted, “not an obsession with the grid”. Rather, she suggested, what was being encouraged to emerge over the extended period of making such pieces – which involve systematic processes where countless layers are built up, processes of erasure and reduction, scraping away almost as much paint as was applied, using bright colour but then going through systematic processes to ‘pacify’ it, washing the support through and letting it dry out, working back into it, embracing found marks, drawing out tactile surface qualities, applying countless washes until the surface begins to take on a cumulative luminosity – is the creation of ‘place’ within a piece of work: a form of receptivity inherent to the material presence of the object-surface of each painting.