He grew up making fantasy art. He now sells ‘fantasy’ landscapes. But there can be few artists who cleave to the tradition of painting like David Wightman. Nevermind that he says of his mountainous scenes: “They’re fictions. They’re not real places.”
Visiting his studio, I was struck by the minimal clutter in his space. Daylight bulbs gave the room a perfect brightness. A finished work and one unfinished hung on opposite walls. There was a concise bookshelf of art tomes and a cluster of art postcards on another white wall. In crates near the door are rolls of cheap white wallpaper, the found object of choice for this artist.
Wightman himself is youthful, genial and keen to explain his genre, his use of media, and the process he goes through to create each of his alien yet seductive mountain vistas. You might guess he spends a lot of time defending his practice to peers whose work is less stubborn and shackled to art history: “What I do has more to do with the history of painting over the last 2,000 years and less to do with the last 100 years.”
But reverence was not always a quality in the work. When still at school in Stockport, Wightman considered that: “Art was something that happened a long time ago and I didn’t really think artists existed anymore in the same way I didn’t think witches existed any more”. Instead, his visual response to schooldays was drawing “barbarian warriors fighting each other with axes”.
He moved onto painting after an imaginative stepmother took him to visit Manchester Art Gallery and then went on to art school with the support of an inspirational art teacher. It could have all been so different. The future he imagined for himself was illustration for genre literature. As things stand he is a successful fine artist on the roster of Halcyon Gallery, preparing for second solo show there, working title Arcadia.
Now he can look back and say, “The more I have looked into the history of landscapes, the more I’ve realised that I actually am part of that tradition, whereas before I thought I was removed from it.” It turns out that fantasy and serious art have a longstanding and fruitful relationship.
“What I do isn’t really that unique. Making made-up landscape, that’s always been done,” he points out. Realism in scenic art is only as old as impressionism, it seems, and even then the colours are unreal. Wightman can also reel of a list of precedents for what he now does, including Caspar David Friedrich, Poussin, Claude, even Turner and Constable. “Some of them purport to be real places and others are completely mythical or fantastical. There’s an element of fantasy to all of them.”
A typical Wightman scene will include a mountain lake, a snowy peak or two, perhaps a chalet but with an absence of figures. He’ll refuse to disclose the whereabouts of his source material, but will admit his quietly psychedelic scenes are more likely to reflect the landscapes of the Alps, Rockies or Himalayas rather than the Peak District close to his childhood home. The very next thing you will notice is the subtle relief that pervades the entire canvas.
It is, after all, 2013 and even traditional artists must break with tradition. Wightman’s trademark innovation is to paint onto raised wallpaper and collage the results to give his work a fake impasto texture. The process is laborious, precise, and time consuming, to do with the craft of marquetry as much as painting. “Most of what I do is drawing and tracing and cutting and collaging and recutting,” he tells me. “80 percent of my time in the studio is doing that and 20 percent of the time is actually painting.”
The artist’s accomplishments are quite clear from a close examination of the work. The paintwork is flawless, as if untouched by human hand. The colourfields interlock with millimetre-tight precision. The overall effect is one of balance, even as the colours have tended in recent times to move towards abstraction. None of this could be achieved without a careful system.
To this end, Wightman works in similar stages to a master of old. He plans each painting by making a sketch, he blows these up to draft the finished work and he keeps good records of the end result. And aware of the risk of being called pretentious, he is happy to call these sketches by their Italian names: modello, cartoon and ricordo. (Even though much of this working out takes place a Sony laptop.) He also shares his colour charts in which he puts together swatches and matches tones with care.
“People come to the studio, they think the whole swatch thing is remarkable, and it’s like, that’s what painters do and I’ve come to it to solve a problem.” Wightman insists he never set out to ape a prolific notebook author like Leonardo da Vinci: “I did it because I wanted to solve a problem in my studio and then I’ve learned that’s what other painters do as well”. Having a collector accidentally damage a finished work, this artist has learned the hard way that the old ways can be best.
“All painting’s technical. All painters have a system,” the artist says with just a hint of defensiveness, “Maybe Julian Schnabel doesn’t have a system but he’s the exception.” Just back from a trip to New York, Wightman is also critical of what he sees as Andy Warhol’s arbitrary use of colour.
“[Colour] wasn’t something I cared about at college,” he continues. “You weren’t allowed to care about it. It was a bit geeky, and that’s something that amateurs care about. It’s another reason why I’m far more interested in calling myself a painter.” Now he says of his methodical practice: “The colour is actually the hard part because it’s far more intuitive. In a way it’s getting harder the more I think about colour.”
So with each new work, Wightman still has a mountain to climb. But what a view.
Here’s a link to David Wightman’s website
To stand facing this piece by David Wightman is, at a certain time of the day, to stand facing the sun as it sets behind Brighton’s much photographed West Pier.
Indeed, Wightman has given us a landscape every bit as sugary as the canvases for sale down on the sea front in what has been called the city’s Artist Quarter.
The light is pink, the waters turquoise. This is what many people expect from art, a real life scene with an exaggeration of light effects and a strange beauty.
But Wightman’s scene is not real life. It is a composite or a chimera. He takes postcards and begins to invent. He draws cartoons in the classical sense and works up monumental paintings.
Except nor are they paintings. His works are made from highly textured, precision cut wallpaper. They might be called collage, but only to the degree that a late Matisse would be a collage.
Brighton’s HOUSE Festival celebrates art with a relation to domestic space. And the wallpaper does indeed tame this sublime and fictionalised landscape.
And yet you would need a big wall to host Hero. It dominates the small glass pavilion in which it finds itself and is presented several inches from the far wall, giving emphasis to its materiality.
This is not what people really want from a landscapes above the fireplace. And indeed the artist points out he has more in common with Bridget Riley than John Constable.
His acid colours and fragmentary shapes play with abstraction. But at the end of the day, we are too familiar with picture postcards to avoid the representational trappings.
Mountains and cabins and tarns and snowfall: these are all tokens of beauty. We bring them indoors as pieces of art and, in the light of Wightman’s giant pieces of décor, that is a strange convention.
Hero can be seen in Brighton’s HOUSE Festival until May 26. See housefestival.org for more details.
Interlocking plywood is not the stuff of classical sculpture. It is too rough and ready. It puts one in mind of model making kits or, here, a model of a stage set. You might use it to build a mock up or something provisional.
But Anna Parkina confounds this expectation. Her components are cut, punched out and assembled with insistent craft, and yet the chilly arabesques point towards nothing. This is a model without an apparent referent, a mock up without a purpose.
The title of the work is also opaque. According to Google, this sculpture is the only Cockleshell Garage out there. Of all architectural forms, the garage the least evocative. ‘Raskushka’ offers little more clues, to a non Russian speaker at least.
Although this does resemble is an abstract collage, and there is plenty of that by the same artist on the walls of this current show. Perhaps then it is a model of a medium. It sets the stage for simply putting one layer on top of another.
And if there is one thing all models represent it is labour and the business of their own construction. That is where you might start taking Parkina’s work apart.
Here are my visual arts picks from around the UK for March. Written for Culture24.
Richard Hamilton – Modern Moral Matters, Serpentine Gallery, London
60 years after his first solo show, Richard Hamilton is still making loaded images. His show at Serpentine is a mixed media commentary on conflict in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and Vietnam. It’s not a retrospective so much as a political demo.
Jordan Baseman – The Most Powerful Weapon in this World, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead
Taking candid interviews as his starting point, Jordan Baseman makes video art sound as compelling as it looks. Three pieces comprise this show by the American-born artist with themes ranging from gangsterism to gay rights via herb collecting.
Nicholas Hedges – Mine the Mountain, Surface Gallery, Nottingham
This show may serve as an introduction to the term ‘dark tourist’, as Nicholas Hedges visits sites of genocide and massacre. His search for a personal connections leads him to the Welsh mines, where he pays tribute to the fallen of the First World War.
Sonia Boyce: Like Love – Parts One & Two, the Bluecoat, Liverpool
Making work around the theme of care has meant working with those most in need of it for artist Sonia Boyce. A residency with young parents and a collaboration with adults who have learning disabilities both result in an inspirational show.
But what of Frances Stark, standing by itself, a naked name, bare as a ghost to whom one would like to lend a sheet?, CCA: Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow
Here’s a first chance for artlovers in Scotland to check out LA-based artist Frances Stark. White collages, which often take performance as a theme, also feature text by writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson and Mark E. Smith from the Fall. Be intrigued.
Imogen Stidworthy, Arnolfini, Bristol
These four recent works by Imogen Stidworthy have one thing in common, the human voice. Language is a social space in her multimedia show which listens to accent (scouse) speech therapy and a blackmarket slang known as backslang.
Exhibition: Ian Breakwell – The Elusive State of Happiness, QUAD Gallery, Derby, February 13 – April 18 2010
Ian Breakwell led a well-recorded life. Between the 1960s and his death in 2005 he captured many of its details in a largely unpublished visual diary.
Some is typed, some handwritten. There are drawings, photos and collages. It is a masterwork which slowly evolves over the decades. Every page is a finished piece.
Most artists would have found time for little else, but Breakwell was prolific. The organisers of his first major retrospective will have had a lot of work to choose from.
“He was an incredible, diverse artist,” says Curator Louise Clements, “We are excited with the show and to be able to offer audiences a full exploration of his life’s work, from diaries, audioworks, moving image, expanded-cinema to text, drawings and photo-collage.”
Large-scale works on show include the 32-part Estate, the 27-part Walserings, plus the artist’s last important work, BC/AD, dealing with his fatal battle with cancer.
Breakwell was born in Derby and studied at Derby College of Art. He spent much of his working life in London and his work is now to be found in the Tate, the V&A and New York’s MoMA.
International renown came from an ability to tease out the extraordinary from the ordinary. If that is not a good reason for keeping a diary, what is?
Written for Culture24.