The Clearing in the Forest by Richard Dyer
In his current series of large format and sometimes multi-panelled charcoal drawings, Control Test, Reece Jones continues and expands his exploration of the ‘psychological landscape’. With multiple references – from monumental land art, such as Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, and City1 to the paintings of Mark Rothko (1903–1970) and Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) – Jones creates mythic visions of the forest ruptured by the surreal presence of an uncanny rectangle of light. Like James Turrell’s light and colour installations Jones’s drawings exploit the notion of light as a transformative vector of experience, a sensorial input overload capable of causing an altered state of consciousness. In Windbreak 1 (2011), the rectangle of light appears as though sliced into the middle of a hill; in the eerily illuminated night-time scene a row of footprints is seen to disappear into the light, making graphically explicit the notion of the glowing rectangle as a doorway to another realm.
Central to Martin Heidegger’s meditations on ‘being’ was the notion of the ‘clearing’ in the forest, a glade of light – the German for clearing is Lichtung, literally lighting. He conceived of it as an ‘opening’ through which non-human entities could enter our world, made visible by a process of ‘coming to light’, in the presence of the human form of being which he termed Dasein. The clearing is of course a metaphor, as is the notion of non-human entities; they are all that is in the world apart from ourselves, all that is strange because it is not us.
The rectangle of light hovers in the centre of the pictures, like a ghost of the blank paper before a single mark is made. Optically the intervention of the luminous shape operates as a doorway through the space of the sublime landscape. Doorways, gateways, archways, are transitional spaces, liminal thresholds between one order of existence and another, here abstracted to a featureless geometric shape; the space to which the threshold opens up is free to be populated by the speculative imagination of the viewer. It is at once an opening into a void and a solid object or barrier; it dominates the landscape, an almost sentient presence, like an inversion of the black rectangular ‘sentinel’ in2001: A Space Odyssey.2 Science fiction references are subtly evoked, but never explicitly stated; there is a distinctly extraterrestrial atmosphere invoked by the incongruous presence of the ‘gateway’. Light is often deployed in Sci-Fi films to denote the presence of the unknown alien ‘other’: think of the blinding brilliance as the spaceship door opens and alien beings emerge in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.3
Jones’s core technique of building up layers of charcoal – essentially carbon dust – and then abrading the surface of the work with sand-paper to modulate the dusty deposit, often sanding back to the white of the paper, has the advantage of eliminating the personal trace of the gestural mark, allowing the work to operate on the level of image, rather than mark-making. By screening out the loaded notion of the artist’s ‘touch’ Jones foregrounds the imagistic richness of the cinematically orientated subject matter, allowing us to focus on the art rather than the artist.
Paradoxically this inherently violent methodology; scraping, erasing, re-layering, erasing once more, serves to actually soften and unify the surface into an homogeneous velvety field. In Derek Jarman’s film Blue (1993), a rich and varied narrative, part poetry, part auto/biography and philosophy, is played out over an unchanging saturated blue screen devoid of all imagery.4 This monochrome Ganzfeld serves as a chromatically and sensorially uniform field for the projection of the viewer’s associations to the images and narratives of the soundtrack.5 Similarly in Jones’s work the blank screen refers to the centrality of the cinematic to our contemporary decoding of culture. This is thematically echoed in a series of work by the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, which feature blank cinema screens, illuminated by the projector but without any trace of imagery, as if at the beginning or end of an unknown film. Mark Wallinger also exploited the poignancy and power of the blank screen in his video work The Lark Assending (2004).6
This contemporary focus on the emptied-out rectangle of the cinema screen or the blank canvas is not so much a continued meditation on the legacy of minimalism as a reaction to the over saturation of our environment and psyche with an abundance of imagery and visual information in the twenty-first century. In one of the artist’s most recent drawings, This is not a Love Song (2011), a wind-warped tree, surrounded by a cluster of vertical poles, buckles in front of a ghostly white screen in the middle of a desolate landscape. The artificiality of the screen is counterpointed by the evocation of nature; an uneasy confrontation between what ‘belongs’ and what does not. This uncanny intrusion, which recalls a still from the filming of The Sacrifice by Tarkovsky in which a large white rectangle of fabric, used to reflect light, appears next to a lone tree,7 visually jolts the notion of the sublime landscape, confronting it with an alien geometry, causing an existential caesura in the philosophical and psychological fabric of the landscape.
Richard Dyer © 2011
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