Standing inside the amphitheatrical atrium of Tate St Ives feels like being inside the heart of a giant seashell. The entrance path whorls up concentrically from the waterfront. Look up – here’s a siphon hole to the sky. Framed by the clean Art Deco lines is the expanse of Porthmeor Beach, devoid of tourists, a smattering of surfers catching the last warmth of the autumnal Atlantic waves. Listen – here’s the sea sound reverberated, amplified, almost abstracted to the resonant shush of a conch held to the ear. Today I am a hermit crab, scuttling around in this shell that’s far too big for me, scavenging on the dead meat of art and place.
At first, wandering around the Peter Lanyon retrospective exhibition, I fail to see the connection between his artwork and the places they are inspired by. I am reminded of school paintings that went wrong, a vomit of colours swirled when inspiration sickened and died. Yet this is what St Ives is famous for, this school of art taking its cues from the Modern and Abstract movements, inspired by and projecting Nature and Place.
I come to a room with sculptures – or Constructions – in addition to baffling paintings. I like the textures, densities, transparencies mixed and layered, synthetic and natural: this, to me, speaks of landscape. The tactility speaks the feel of place – both in the sense of touch and emotion. Burnt out polystyrene laid over wood transfixes me for a moment. A tissue of polymer strings: petrified spume. The construction for Lost Mine transcends its Perspex components to become a window into landscape wounded. It is a valid artistic re-presentation of the nature of the place, a zeelandscap capturing the surface, the under-storey, the human conflict of their influence on the land, and the consequences of nature’s retaliation. On one level mining and art could not be further apart. But perhaps that is why I connected with this conceptual bridging of the interdisciplinary gap. Having always struggled with my own placelessness as an interdisciplinary scholar, here was something I could identify with almost as a visual representation of myself and where I had come from. As Lanyon himself said of first seeing a Perspex construction at Gabo’s house:
‘I don’t think I had ever seen an object which was so obviously right in every way, and full of poetry.’
Mining is a dissection of place in a very physical sense, engaging with the very structure of the land, hollowing out the corporeal fabric from which Place is materially assembled. Miners get beneath the skin of a place and deconstruct it on the most basic level, from the inside out. Painting place, I was discovering, required something different, something more than a direct depiction of the visual landscape. Something absurdly akin to mining in its requirement of the artist’s engagement with that from which the place is formed, the subsequent deconstruction of it, and the excavation of the most significant parts. Later, I read that Lanyon described his own work on similar terms:
‘My work contains the whole constructive process which I illustrate as follows: The miner extracts inside the earth; his trolleyings in the galleries a shuttling within the earth and his laborious incisions are eventually brought to grass. Here the change continues by controlled processes in the furnaces and eventually the product has no resemblance to the rock ore. That is the mechanics of it. But the mine is also hollow and men have their being therein and the miner also comes up to grass and that is what I hope for in my painting.’
I felt, in looking at Lost Mine, a comprehension that this interdisciplinariness inherent to landscape, nature and place was something that would require a writing as aesthetic as visual art, yet as explorative and exploitative – perhaps even as explosive – as mineral extraction.
Or rather, I ceased to look, and began to perceive.