Elizabeth Ogilvie on As Coastline is to Ocean
David Cass, Robert Callender, Joseph Calleja | An Talla Solais, Ullapool
Opening Words | 19.7.19
‘The land retains an identity of it's own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know. Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard. To try to sense the range and variety of its expression – its weather and colours and animals. To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there.’
Here, in this remarkable location, we can clearly understand what one of my cherished authors – Barry Lopez – was referring to in this beautiful passage in his award-winning book Arctic Dreams. And likewise, through their intimacy of seeing, Robert Callender, David Cass and Joseph Calleja – three exceptional voices – have been influenced by both their internal and outer landscape, to produce work which is deeply thoughtful and reflective and speaks of the now.
In the now, however, we sit at a spot between a progressive landscape of deep history and the creation of an uncertain future, within the context of climate change. Post-post-modern existence is an age that is beset with issues concerning the limits of human understanding and we require solutions to the great global crises: be they ecological, social, political or economic. In other words, we face the problem of an inability to deal with the extent of challenges now threatening us.
Still, we remain positive – seeking to do our utmost in the face of adversity – as is human nature. We as individuals do take personal responsibility for our own impacts on the environment. Most harm to the natural world, though, is caused by corporations: states, business leaders, policies. They continue to repudiate any form of politically inconvenient science while we live with the urgency, alarm and unease about the ongoing impact of climate change, now releasing the unknowable forces of nature on mankind.
Consequently, we artists are answering collective cultural needs and seeking to point – but obliquely – to issues right at the top of the global agenda and involving highlighting the world’s most challenging problems and developing practical roles in environmental and social matters.
Scotland itself – a northern nation – offers so much to us artists. The legacy of great intellectuals such as scientist Patrick Geddes, geologist James Hutton (founder of modern geology) and environmental philosopher John Muir. Forerunners of modern Green politics have all acted as a catalyst for our thinking and philosophy and without a doubt this landscape in Scotland has compelled our imaginations and shaped our psyche.
A century after the Scottish Enlightenment, Patrick Geddes made clear the complex and inter-related relationships between humans and their environment. His thinking is particularly relevant today in discussion about sustainable societies. Geddes – a scientist, botanist and urban planner – understood even then that industrial development – if left unchecked – would damage the air, water and land upon which all life relies. In his words, ‘care of Mother Earth’ is the prime task of man. His abiding interest in eastern philosophy – which he believed more readily conceived of life as a whole – is very much in accord with my Inuit colleagues perceptions of the environment as a revered partner.
Geddes’ philosophy (dating back to the late 1800s) is also skillfully reflected – without moralising – in the works of Callender and Cass, while Calleja’s art is given form by his acute perception of both our inner and outer world.
Robert Callender raises reality to a higher level in his work Plastic Beach (half of which is on exhibit in As Coastline is to Ocean). His work on plastic waste dates from 2003–2008, making him a man very much ahead of his time. Environmental activism and science has only recently begun to realise the mass of this material within the world’s oceans.
Quoting an extract from Andrew Patrizio’s excellent text from A2B: An Artist’s Journey, ‘it is beguiling that Callender evokes this terrible ecological thought through paper-based materials that are as benign and vulnerable as plastic is dangerous and near-permanent.’
And in this wasteful world, it is a great achievement by these three artists, that they all use recycled materials to create their art. An art with special illuminating powers. I am full of admiration for what they have achieved and with such modest means.
So, public visiting this exhibition can really appreciate that art does not aspire to entertain. It aspires to converse. Their work truly reflects our times and poses important questions at the same time as offering so many possibilities and a positive outlook.
Thanks go to An Talla Solais, a key player in cultural life in the north of Scotland. Their programme and public engagement embodies a philosophy which we all endorse.
Quotes from Barry Lopez and Andrew Patrizio
Horizonte, Horizontes, Horizonten
Two Essays by Ian McKay | Art North Blog (2019)
Horizonte, horizontes, horizonten? In German, Spanish, and Dutch respectively, these are the plural forms of the English word ‘horizon’, and all have as their etymological root the Latin word horízōn (from the Greek noun ὁρίζων, itself related to ὅρος meaning boundary or border). The English word ‘horizon’ (singular) is furthermore spelt the same both in French and Dutch, while the Latin root has also given us Horizont (in German), orizzonte (in Italian), horizonte (Portuguese), orizont (Romanian), and gorizont / горизон (Russian). Additionally, in Finnish we have horisontti, in Latvian horizonts, in Norwegian horisont, and Polish horyzont. Among the Slavic languages the form is pretty much the same throughout the Balkans and travelling north into Mitteleuropa, also. Speak the word in English and in most European languages you will be understood fairly well, therefore.
Whether the word horizon is derived from Latin or not, in almost all languages it refers to ‘the limit’, ‘the line’, and to what is ‘over there’; at the furthest stretch of both our travels and our imagination. When Caspar David Friedrich painted his Monk by the Sea (1808-1810), or John Constable his Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (1827), those artists were not working with a mere topographical or meteorological subject matter, but – each in their own way – a hugely personal subject matter, too. Stand at that point where dry land meets the ocean, and the distant horizon becomes the limit case for our understanding of our smallness (or conversely, the bigness of the natural world, whether it be the dark horizon of Friedrich’s work or the menacing cloud wrack of Constable’s study).
Set sail in a vessel across the ocean, meanwhile, and though climatic conditions may well vary and change, what the horizon represents to us is a constant that remains much the same; at least until we reach landfall. Turn to see where you have just come from and there the horizon is again, though – that constant that has been there for millennia, stirring the imagination of humankind.
If I may – a personal digression for a moment, and one that at first may seem somewhat trivial: In the late-1980s, as a young cub critic working in London where rarely one has a real chance to take in any natural horizon line that is not intersected with some aspect of the built environment, a regular place to meet in Soho if one didn’t have much money was a certain pizzeria where on the menu was something called Pizza Venezia (the ingredients of which I cannot recall now). What I do recall is the information appended beneath the ingredients listed on the menu, though, informing customers that if they ordered a Pizza Venezia, twenty pence (£0.20p) from the bill would be donated to a fund set up to ‘Save Venice’: a city that was, and remains, in perilous danger from the threat of the sea. It’s such a tiny thing to recall after all these years, but looking back, it offers a fair indication of just how far we have come. Venice was in peril! And of course it still is. But back then, Venice was over there! Venice was beyond the horizon of the mind for most diners, I’m sure. Saving it, one thought, might be achieved with a paltry contribution, or so some kidded themselves when eating a pizza, and so donating to ‘a fund’. Today there are bigger asks that befall us, and they don’t really involve dining.
You obviously know what I allude to here. Today we have quite a different idea of what faces us all and, in a sense, we no longer Stand with Venice (in the parlance of social media). Instead, what was the plight of that city has become the plight of us all as projections of sea-level rises over the coming decades promise to shake us from our complacency with very real threats that cannot be placed upon one single far-off place or location. Even the very idea that a small fund might save a city is such a bizarre idea today, particularly when confronted with the reality of climate change, and yet… well, why do I mention this? The focus has shifted now, that’s why, and the naiveté of those times has gone, for good. Those that accept climate change for what it is are not naive in their thinking and, make no mistake, climate change deniers are not ignorant of the choices they make either – they are informed choices that they make, and let us not forget that, for it is a common mistake to think otherwise. Such choices are not born of ignorance, in fact quite the contrary. To put it bluntly, they are born of a mindset where, being appraised of some salient points and basic facts, an individual or organisation decides that it is not in their personal or business interests to give a shit.
It is partly for this reason that I have been so captivated by the work of David Cass since I first started to look at what lay beneath his art and the concerns that it embodies, for clearly Cass does give a shit. In his paintings of the horizon where sea and sky meet, many of which are soon to be brought together in his upcoming exhibition at The Scottish Gallery titled Rising Horizon, David Cass has also completely reconfigured what I see when I look at that Constable painting, or Friedrich’s Monk alone on the shoreline. While there are many things I have seen in my life that I would like to unsee, and there are some states of ignorance I still hanker for, if I’m honest, too, the things I’d like to unsee were events, and they had a natural beginning, middle, and end. In the case of Cass’s interests, there is no neat beginning, middle, or end that we can assemble as a story and pack away once told. We, ourselves, are part of the very process of that story that his work addresses. Instead, we stand, perhaps like Friedrich’s monk on the shoreline, directly in the middle of a catastrophe for which we may not see ‘the end’, but about which we know pretty well what the projections mean for those who will.
Looking at paintings [such as Horizon 48% by David Cass], I view it now through a new lens, therefore, fully cognizant of what it is I am encouraged to consider, beyond the handling of the paint or the scene presented in front of me. But what does it mean if we take from Cass’s work a sense of pleasure and enjoyment, of an aesthetic nature, that is? Are we involved in a form of cognitive dissonance as we at once take enjoyment from his handling of paint on a surface, the design of the work, its composition or the materials of which it comprises, and, at the same time, also read the environmental backstory that is central to his concerns too? I think the answer to this question has something to do with how we might believe change can take place. On the one hand, there are those who, when confronted with an imminent crisis or catastrophe, want to arrive at a point of resolution by the fastest route possible. Others, while knowing that ‘something needs to be done’, understand that that ‘something’ will only come into play through a process of consciousness-raising in all areas of life, and that art should be considered no exception to that process of consciousness-raising, too – indeed the arts and culture generally can often be the spearhead for change, and frequently have been, whether by grandiose or quite modest means.
I am not suggesting for a minute that Cass’s current body of work is a form of agitprop environmentalism or a call to arms (though I would have no problem if it were). What I am suggesting is that now, perhaps more than ever, we need artists such as Cass. Artists, that is, who can at once present us with moments of pleasure when looking upon their work, and yet at the same time offer us reference points for understanding the environmental catastrophe that our own actions represent for the very environment that supports and currently sustains us. That the two can co-exist at one and the same time in any single work (or the body of work as a whole), is commendable, I believe. Where once it was possible to ‘take in’ such art from a position of passivity or non-involvement with the wider backstory that often underpins the work, perhaps we should no longer see this as an option, nor a privilege that is wholly relevant for our times.
Like a Whisper in Your Ear
The Personal is Political
Ian McKay | Art North Blog (2019)
There are some of us, of a certain age, who remember the impact that the quarterly magazine Modern Painters had on the visual arts in Britain. Founded by the late art critic Peter Fuller in the mid-1980s, Modern Painters did much to bring a certain kind of art to the attention of a wide public, and some of the work Fuller did in this respect was commendable, for sure. Personally I owe much to Peter Fuller for him giving me my first real break in writing on the visual arts in the second issue of his magazine that had quickly captured the imagination of many who felt marginalised by the internationalist trend at that time. Though Fuller was to tragically die in a road accident on the M4 motorway in 1990, his influence was still felt for a while following his death, though it waned. Some were glad of that, and others not, for he was certainly very good at dividing opinion.
Fuller divided opinion in a way that was often fascinating, and at time infuriating, though. In 1988 he was quick to warn against the ignorance or xenophobia yet argued passionately for an “informed provincialism in art, which looks for immediate meaning in local forms, and finds its larger sense through affiliation to a national tradition” (Seeing Through Berger, 1988). I remember writing around that time, that Peter Fuller’s ‘take’ on art was similar to that of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. As far back as 1942, Vaughan Williams had warned (long before the European Union was conceived, and long before it faced the current threat of disintegration), that when “the United States of Europe becomes a fact, each nation must have something to bring to the common stock of good.” Opposed to a Europe populated by “good Europeans, sharing a universal language in the arts”, Vaughan Williams had asserted, “what we have to offer must derive essentially from our own life. It must not be a bad imitation of what other nations do better” (National Music and Other Essays, 1963).
For some, Peter Fuller, represented a similar position with regard fine art in the 1980s. The composer David Mathews has said of Vaughan Williams that his “understanding of […] musical tradition and his love of his native landscape came together at a particular moment during the Second World War when everything he most cherished was under threat of destruction” (in: Towards a New Landscape, 1993). Fuller, meanwhile, became most vocal about a traditional aesthetic in the visual arts during a period remarkable for the emergence of a brash materialism that was a signature of life in the financial sector prior to the economic crisis of 1987. In such a pre-crash climate, Fuller perceived a different kind of destructive influence: “the Young Turks with their Saatchi-style values and trans-atlantic air-tickets” were, as he put it, “taking over the Parthenon,” (Interview with Matthew Collings: 'Onward Christian Soldiers', Artscribe No.52). They were, eroding traditional values to such an extent that our culture was becoming “so warped it could sustain no widely shared artistic language, nor give rise to a style that was any more deep-rooted than a passing fashion” (in Images of God, 1990)
The Problem for many was that Fuller was a Tub-Thumping Little Englander, propagandising in method and (in the latter part of his life) deliberately divisive in his tactics. It is important to clarify that Fuller, like Vaughan Williams, was pleading a case for an informed provincialism which avoided at all costs what was once the art historian Kenneth Clark's worst fear: as Clark had argued, provincial artists are often “complacent” and “out of mere ignorance […] refuse to look beyond the circle of their fellow mediocrities” (Moments of Vision, 1981). Vaughan Williams believed that he avoided such traits in seeking a political internationalism and a personal individualism, but the jury may still be out on Fuller’s agenda, for following his death his contribution was rather quickly erased, and the magazine he had founded soon withered and morphed into something quite other (ironically, yet another organ of a brash materialism in the art world). To the surprise of many, his legacy did prove quite short lived, therefore.
Fuller – always so fond of absolutes – also got it wrong quite often. At his home in Stowlangtoft shortly before his death, I once asked him about a Turner Society lecture he had delivered at London’s ICA, at which he had announced to the assembled audience that the Tate Gallery was, “attempting to impose the taste of an arid and bankrupt aesthetic” in the guise of the Turner Prize. Perhaps there was something in that but Fuller, for those who remember his thoughts on the art of those times, will no doubt recall his belief that any support for the Turner Prize revealed a paucity of critical perspicacity, and artists he had once championed he later shunned when they became Turner Prize nominees (a notable case being the painter Thérèse Oulton). He was, in short, ferociously opposed to what he perennially referred to as BICCA (an acronym he had invented that referred to what he thought of as Biennale International Club Class Art) but those he shunned did not always deserve to be thrown into the camp he had devised for them.
Many of us back then could be forgiven for losing count of just how many times Fuller was heard to argue that we should not confuse the bombastic bigness of German painting (a favourite bête noire in his propagandising mission) with the greatness of smaller pictures emanating from what he thought of as a ‘British Tradition’. As Fuller argued with regard to those who took their lead from the wider European scene back then, they were sliding down a slope towards cultural pluralism, the corollary of which would be a homogenous European art that is corrupt and bland. Of course he was wrong, but not because his critics and adversaries were necessarily right. Fuller was very much of his time, as I have noted. He was obsessed with the international art market and, although not without a sense of humour at times, always keen to polarise opinion on this if he could. His reputation rested on it to some degree, after all. He was good TV. He wrote compellingly, too, and could drum up an audience for sure, and yet ultimately his influence, with the benefit of hindsight now, was ultimately destructive.
Of Fuller’s tendency to argue his case via the discourse of propaganda, Julian Stallabrass has alluded to what he calls Fuller’s moral McCarthyism, in which the critic could often be seen to condemn those that stood in his way with accusations that they had no affection for either their nation, its people, its traditions, its customs, or its landscape – sometimes all of these things at once. Stallabrass has also (I think convincingly), shown that Fuller’s essays often followed a format that depended upon the techniques of propaganda to establish his own moral rectitude, and then wear his readers down by sheer repetitive output too. If you read Fuller through a Stallabrassian lens, this makes perfect sense. The fact is, however, that he was so much of his time, and his death came so early (he was in his early forties when he died) that in a tragic twist of fate, he was thus deprived of seeing art that he may have approved of, or may even have changed his sometimes Stalinist position on what did and did not represent good art.
That painters of the kind he ordinarily approved of could produce work that revealed a new form of post-conceptual painterly aesthetic, would have perhaps been unthinkable to him. Who can tell what he would have made of it? I don’t know. Looking at Fuller’s criticism today is rather like looking through a telescope from the wrong end. It has become diminished and so, so small, and yet at the time he was writing it seemed so huge. There is obviously a cruel irony to this. While Fuller championed artists such as John Bellany and Arthur Boyd for their imaginative transformation of materials into hard-won, high-calibre works deserving of wide attention, he missed out on a new generation of artists who today paint with great economy and equal conviction to elucidate their thoughts on pressing matters that were only just entering the public consciousness at the time Fuller died.
Take, for example, this single work. Of what does it comprise? It is titled Arctic and is a painting in oil on a pill tin attached to a thread spool. It measures just 10cm by 4cm. And yet, look at it! Cass too seems to be asking us to look through the wrong end of a telescope here too, but what he depicts is not diminished. In some strange way it seems magnified.
While so many artists who express their ‘environmentalist’ concerns do indeed force their argument in bold gestures that could easily be mistaken for confusing bigness with greatness, Cass instead seems to unassumingly (though no less importantly) offer us the antidote to that – by which I mean, he appears to present an urgent request to come in close, quietly, personally, and in our own time, to consider just what it is that he is addressing. Here is an art that is truly intimate. It asks big questions, yes, but it asks them of the individual, drawn in close by the diminutive size of the work.
It seems to me that this work (one of several from a series) asks each of us who encounters it; look at me, attend to me, I am here for your personal attention. This work is is, above all, discrete. It certainly does not shout. It is not tub-thumping in its attempt to make a statement. With great economy on the part of its maker, it puts a question to us; one that demands our attention in a way that far bigger statements often fail to do (and maybe there is something in this that Fuller did get right). In a dozen or so deft marks in oil paint, we see the future – or at least an allusion to it – albeit in the wider context of Cass’s larger works, as well. While there are much larger works in Cass’s exhibition Rising Horizon, this single work titled Arctic is no less important for its size.
But where am I going with this? To return to Peter Fuller for a moment, what occupied much of his concern as a critic was not the art he liked, but the art he didn’t like. Certainly what raised his ire most was the frequent dismissal of painting as irrelevant for our age (or at least the age in which he was writing) and I understand why. Not long after Fuller’s death, I once found myself proposing an article for the pages of Art Monthly to that magazine’s editor, Patricia Bickers. The work in question, I put to her, owed much to a tradition that stretched back through the School of London to Sickert, but was thoroughly contemporary in its ‘post-conceptual’ execution (Oh! how critics so loved style labels back then). Without seeing the work or asking to, however, my proposal was dismissed with Bickers simply announcing, “I’m sorry Ian, but Art Monthly doesn’t really cover painting any more”! Such an editorial policy, to me at least, seemed ludicrous, and it still does, for it was just as Stalinist in outlook as Peter Fuller ever was.
More than that, though, today it seems all the more ludicrous because I don’t give a fig about the medium, it is the message I’m concerned with. Things have moved on. We are no longer living in a world in which the threat of a pluralist aesthetic can result in a bland homogenous art (or at least that no longer feels like a pressing concern that requires much of our attention). Give me film, video, painting, sculpture, land art, whatever it may be, and from wherever it arises – geographically and/or theoretically – and attribute to it whatever style label you like. Only give it to me straight and make sure that it addresses the most pressing issues of our day. While I am not averse to losing myself in art that offers me just that (the losing of self, a moment for escape, for we all need that) I also need to feel the sharp end of life as it is experienced today, too.
Most of all, though, I need to see it addressed to me personally, and asking me what am I going to do? How will I respond to this work? I want to see it asking every other person who approaches that same work, what are they going to do, too. How will they respond? I’m done with big gestures and propagandising art that is often just as divisive and overbearing as anything Fuller ever wrote. Art (and the culture industries generally – as I have previously written in this series of posts), can play an important part in forming opinion and galvanising an audience; equipping them for what was is to come and the part they may choose to play if the will is there. Cass may be a maker of works that deploy a variety of media, but his work has a message, also; although it would be foolish to reduce it to a one-dimensional argument concerning our rapidly changing climate and all that goes with that.
Nonetheless, in this one work by David Cass that I have selected, above, this time it seems it is personal. The debate has shifted. What were concerns for art criticism in the 1980s may still remain and for some sound reasons, but the times that we are now living through (particularly with regard the state of the planet and our failed stewardship of it) has become a pressing subject for our arts, and not least Cass himself. The argument is no longer about the threat of internationalism, or an “informed provincialism in art, which looks for immediate meaning in local forms, and finds its larger sense through affiliation to a national tradition.” Instead it has become for some of us about how we can reach out internationally and forge links around issues such as climate change, leaving behind us the partisan squabbling over the threats posed by pluralism and internationalist ‘trends’.
Perhaps I am wrongheaded in extracting Arctic from the series of which it is a part, but, to co-opt that maxim of late-1960s Feminism… The Personal is Political… and although I’m not sure if David Cass would agree with me, I can’t help but feel that in his dozen or so painted marks upon a single pill tin that is attached to a thread spool, we find an intimate form of didactic art for our times – a ‘thing’, that is, that shows rather than tells, drawing the viewer in and asking a few very simple, personal questions: You see this here? This minute glimpse of the horizon far to the north of you, as if you are looking through the wrong end of a telescope? How do you relate to that? Can you? Will you? This is for you, like a whisper in your ear, and it is beautiful – Don’t you think?
Ian McKay | Editor Art North Magazine
Duncan Macmillan on Pelàda
David Cass's art becomes a metaphor for the unstable balance of fragility and permanence that is Venice in his exhibition Pelàda. The Scotsman: January 2017 ****
Over the coming year, The Scottish Gallery's programme will give a sense of the range of its activities and a sample of the range of art and artists it supports and it begins the year with the oldest and the youngest. James Morrison [who is also showing] first exhibited in the Scottish Gallery in 1959. This is his 26th exhibition in a long and fruitful relationship that spans almost a third of the gallery’s life.
This is typical of the way it has supported its artists. More than a century ago William McTaggart enjoyed a similar partnership. Meanwhile however, to represent the youngest and show that it has never only handled safe, blue chip art, the gallery is also showing David Cass, a recent graduate from Edinburgh College of Art.
There is continuity there too however, not just in the way that the gallery has always been prepared to take on young artists, but because Cass has taken Venice as his theme and it is one that he shares with a good many of the gallery’s artists past and present.
If you take Titian as the start (and I do), Venice is the home of modern painting and artists have been drawn to it ever since. What Cass records, however, in a body of beautiful, mostly small paintings of signs, inscriptions and grafitti, is something of the modern city, or at least the most recent layer in the palimpsest that is the city. For Venice is covered in signs, not intrusive ones, but small, often extemporised inscriptions. Cass records many of them in a way that also captures their informality and the way they have become part of the texture of the city.
Frequently there is a hint of exasperation in them. On a particular corner where no doubt wretched tourists always lose their way, someone fed up with the effort of trying to explain where they are to people who speak no Italian and understand less, will have painted a notice with an arrow pointing to the station, or to San Marco.
Elsewhere with a hint of downright anger, and more than once, people have written up “No Grandi Navi” (“No big boats”), conjuring an image of big swanky boats infuriating the locals by mooring in inappropriate places, an obstruction and worse to those trying to pursue their ordinary lives. Another improvised sign points to the Scuola San Rocco and the paintings of Tintoretto. It is a reminder both of how deep the layers are of the city’s palimpsest and how rich, but also of the difficulty of living with a heritage that everyone wants to share.
So Cass captures a hint of the desperation of Venice’s rapidly shrinking population trying to carry on their lives between the twin flood tides of tourism and the overflowing Lagoon. In other paintings, however, he looks down from the collage of the walls to the place where they meet the water, but this is not in a sharp dividing line.
Venice is a city of reflections and so if you look at the walls you see the reflected light from the water and if you look at the water you see the reflected walls. Thus his art becomes a metaphor for the unstable balance of fragility and permanence that is one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
Duncan Macmillan | The Scotsman
Patricia Emison on David Cass
Written at the time of Cass' Florence in flood project (2016—2017)
What could be more basic than water and wood, or more redolent of time's passage? Both feature organic patterns, images of endless repetitions with infinite variations. Wood grain and water - whether the water of rivers, of seas, or of pools - visually connote both continuity and endless change. As we observe the ebb of a period in which, for the past hundred years, it has been expected that visual art be resolutely modern or contemporary in aspect - in other words, have the shine of the new about it, David Cass's art turns in a novel way to recoup or garner material from the past, not so much the art historical past nor the politics of the past but the past, simply put. Without nostalgia, he seeks to honor the general sense of ongoing loss. His subject is found in the lapping of water on a shore, erasing and eroding as it repeats the endless process, or like wood, at once permanent, the stuff of the cedars of Lebanon and the California Redwoods, old as the Roman Empire in some cases, and yet subject to damp and drought, to rot, to abrasion, their cycle of leafing and shedding the most immediately obvious marker of the seasons, and those seasons easily connoting stages of a life. He often favors wooden drawers or the sides of boxes on which to paint, the flotsam and jetsam of antique shops and attics, seasoned with years of service as well as years of neglect - though also reminiscent of the wooden cradles on which Renaissance panel paintings were made, basic pallets for paint with orthogonal struts for reinforcement against the variations in temperature and humidity in the centuries to come. Trees and water are highly mythical entities, rendered in Cass's art prosaic and unpretentious, evocative without being symbolic. His sculptural assemblages similarly are studies in roughness finessed, in disorderly orderliness: microcosms of his studio.
He first visited Florence as the result of an award from the Royal Scottish Academy. The Arno, like a little Thames or Clyde, divides the respectable main bulk of the city from the traditionally less prestigious southern bank. Not a mighty river, but instead often low and mud-colored, it must have caught Cass' imagination as a force of transfiguration, as it had suddenly become one November a raging torrent of destruction that threatened not only the modern city and its people, but also what at the time might have been unreservedly (if somewhat irresponsibly) claimed as the richest repository of art in the world. Striving to recall a time well before he was born, a time housed in myriad dissolving personal memories, increasingly fragile, of decades ago, Cass made himself the visual chronicler of that which was archaically preserved in black and white photographs, those sparser, more mysterious and laconic photographs of a pre-digital era. Part of the project is the realization of how much our sense of visual record has changed since 1966. Using photographs and histories, some of them fictional, working in a way vaguely analogous to Renaissance artists who used their interest in antiquity combined with their ignorance of antiquity to make an imaginative space in which they could freely roam, David Cass began to imagine that brown water everywhere, rising up and staining the art objects - heads by Filippino Lippi and Bronzino, as well as Michelangelo's David - embedded in our cultural memory. Starting often from the imagery of period postcards or news-cuttings, the flood project has been made exclusively on old papers, and appropriately enough, given that Renaissance artists benefitted from the first easy access to paper on which to draw and experiment.
Quietly radical, Cass's art incorporates the activity of collecting into the process of making, so that the function of the artist for once utterly displaces the Romantic prototype of the wildman with the bravura brush, and becomes instead a sort of everyman, a Robinson Crusoe scavenging in order to build a new and stripped down life, an aesthetically curious Claude Lévi-Strauss walking through an apparently disordered landscape and finding structure there, an Erasmus, a citizen of the world who can be at home wherever there is water, wood, and weakening memory. In Florence in particular, that memory pings with images of busts and portraits, of buildings, doorways and piazzas, the treasured cultural memories of generations recently past, a time when visiting Italy was a rarer commodity and the art there promised to answer the question: what is high culture in a commercial society? Cass's art is neither universal nor individual in its foundation, but less stably based on the shifting sands of cultural memory, on a sense of self that is shared but has ever-changing boundaries. He paints and draws on old wooden functional objects, on garage doors, on antique post cards and used envelopes. The support is never neutral; the paint is never brash. Those varied yet constant patterns of shimmering waves, a sight resolutely resistant to photography, make a series of abstract surfaces that need not remind us of Canaletto, who both in paint and line studied wavelets with comparable intensity and sensitivity. They need not remind us of Vija Celmins, whose studies of sea surfaces similarly tackled the glories of a consistency that yields ever-changing variation. In Cass's case the task is more abstractly accomplished and the traditional hierarchical distinction between support surface and paint is startlingly absent. Not only do the wood surfaces have their own histories, their own objecthood, but even the paints in some cases are inherited and so similarly come with a sense of other, only partially known, only partially shareable experience.
David Cass's work offers us not a renaissance, but an excavation into what is near enough to be remembered and far enough to be forgotten. That historical distance of forgetting and remembering, that great gulf in every person's identity, is his enduring subject. His is an art that remembers what relics are but takes no interest in the preciousness of reliquaries, an art that refers to loss and yet utterly avoids sentimentality. This new art is camouflaged as vintage; it is suggestive of accumulated experience, like the earth itself. Although not overtly political, an art made of non-precious, natural materials, an art in which the motif of wavelets of water is studied to the point of insistence, suffices in our days to induce any viewer to bring to mind contemporary concerns about climate change and habitat destruction. The flood in Florence, initially thought of as an extraordinary event, a freak accident of nature, has been rendered by hindsight something of a harbinger of troubles that have followed, weather extremes of all sorts, increasingly frequent floods among them. It marks the historical hinge between the decades of utmost worry about nuclear holocaust and the subsequent focus on potentially equally devastating damage to the environment, measured in part by the ravages of flood and deforestation. Water and wood have become tokens of nature in all its vulnerability, that reconceptualization of nature as endangered being one of the great shifts in post-Renaissance history.
Fifty years ago, Florence was terribly threatened. Both the city and the world have since been transformed by a multitude of changes, while memory of the flood becomes increasingly remote. David Cass's Flood Project, the work of someone for whom the flood is purely historical, offers us the opportunity to meditate on the passage of time, on cultural memory, on that middle ground between the personal and the universal, on our sense of vulnerability, and on the consoling beauty of wood, water, watercolor and paper.
Playing with Boundaries
Between Tension & Harmony
Roger Rotmann | Interim Director at Centre Pompidou’s Cultural Development Department
David Cass’ rapport with nature and matter is at once deep and yet deliberately distanced: he has established the capacity to observe from not too far away. Cass has situated himself in the ideal position to describe balance: with tact, without over-indulgence, without grandiloquence.
One could say that Cass possesses the mad ambition to decant the sea - into a box of matches perhaps - or to send it to you, sealed & folded, painted upon the plane of a simple postcard. Yet it would be wrong to use these examples of his practice to describe the whole. A versatile artist, his output ranges from less than 10cm² to well over 10m².
In order to comprehend the true core of his work (the tension, the voltage that runs through it), one must observe it in the flesh. At one pole we are presented with the harshness, the humility of the materials he uses. On the other - the magnificence of nature, the fluidity of the sea and his scrupulous description of its perpetual motion, whilst carefully balancing literal depiction with abstraction.
Cass plays with this tension with bonheur, and an innate sense of material which is undoubtedly his own brand. Far from stopping there, he wisely expands his practice through research: into the history of modern and contemporary art, setting and acknowledging milestones along his conquest of new territories.
David Cass just turned 30. Already his work has enjoyed significant recognition in the United Kingdom - where he has worked on both solo and group exhibitions. Cass is recognized as one of the most promising young artists of his generation. This is in part thanks to the works he has thus far created, but also thanks to a practice rich in promise, new potential.
David Cass: jouer avec les limites
Entre tension & harmonie
Département du Développement Culturel
David Cass entretient avec la nature et la matière un rapport tout à la fois profond et distancié qui est le propre de ceux qui ont eu la chance ou le mérite de ne pas trop s’en éloigner. Ainsi, est-il en mesure de choisir la meilleure position afin de mieux les ressaisir et l’une et l’autre, avec tact, sans grandiloquence et sans pathos.
On pourrait dire que David Cass nourrit la folle ambition de mettre la mer en boite (d’allumettes) ou de vous l’envoyer sous pli ouvert avec comme support une simple carte postale. Mais, ce serait bien à tort prendre la partie pour le tout puisque le format de ses œuvres peut aller de moins de 10cm² à plus de 10 m².
La vérité de son travail il faut aller la découvrir dans la tension qui le traverse. À un pole, la rudesse et l’humilité des matériaux qu’il utilise, à l’autre la magnificence de la nature, la fluidité de cette mer dont il décrit avec scrupule le perpétuel recommencement, tout en tutoyant les limites de l’abstraction.
David Cass joue de cette tension avec bonheur grâce à son sens inné de la matière qui est sans doute sa marque propre. Loin de s’en tenir là, il étend avec discernement le champ de ses expériences et de sa pratique recherchant dans l’histoire de l’art moderne et contemporain des points d’appui qui seront autant des jalons dans sa conquête de nouveaux territoires.
David Cass vient d’avoir 30 ans. D'ores et déjà ses travaux ont bénéficié d'une reconnaissance très significative au Royaume Uni où il a réalisé de nombreuses expositions personnelles ou de groupe. Il s’affirme aujourd’hui comme un des jeunes artistes les plus prometteurs de sa génération. Avec des œuvres déjà et un travail riche de nouvelles promesses.
A Layered Language
David Cass' Painting, Photography and Working-Method by Ian Tromp
David Cass returns from his journeys out to find the supports and substance of his works, carrying table tops, wooden drawers, bundles of ancient postcards, bags of matchboxes into his workspace. The studio becomes a refuge, its intimate, closed space set against the openness of distances travelled, the vastness of Cass's photographs of landscapes and painted seascapes. Its hearth-place anchors his journeying into the world. It is a trope of return, as the countryside and moorland around where Cass grew up, narrated in his writings with the ease and familiarity - 'Parking the car up tyre tracks I knew were there' - of a sleepwalker who crosses his home without incident, each object's place and heft so intimately known as to pose no risk.
Gathered in that studio space, the lives of these objects - discarded, discovered, haggled-over, hard-won - continue. They are reborn from one way of being into another. Their substance, dignified by age and use - surfaces scratched, worn by work and love and neglect, all the ordinary abrasions of time passing - are trans-formed, their form carried across into another life.
One might think of this as a collaboration with time and materials. His works are formed by the history that particular things have enjoyed and endured, and individual pieces are underwritten by their past. Knowing that a painting is made on the rear of a framed painting dating from the 1700's alters what we see. That the more recent layer depicts a seascape reminds the viewer of the sea's endurance. Today, as then, the waves come and go, the water's surface is crossed by winds, creased by currents. Then there is the aspect of the ribbon-like strands of Cass's seas relating to the grain of the wood, so that his paintings become a weaving of art and circumstance. The ground or surface, with its imperfections and the rhythms of its natural form and substance, resonates with the overlay of paint. There is a dialogue set up between art and matter, and another between past and present. In fact, since Cass describes his paintings as 'snapshot[s] from my memory', there is a further overlay. The final works are physically overlaid - paint on surfaces - but they also are overlays of memory: the memory and history of the object overlaid with the recollections of the artist.
Risk and happenstance: this work relies on the right materials being found. If not right, then right enough. The need for sympathetic surfaces, for objects that have had one life and are now ready for another. Sourcing these objects in the manner he does, of course Cass risks missing things constantly. There might be the perfect tabletop at a market somewhere near Ealing - it will likely not find its way into his studio, and so never be transfigured. But there is no preciousness here: it's not about finding the ideal object, but rather exactly about the ordinariness of what is found and worked with.
His photographs take different risks: using out-of-date film means Cass never can be sure what will come of his images - colours bleed, fade - and working with aged and damaged cameras means light leaks, lenses are scratched, mechanisms might prove unreliable at critical moments. These textures, artefacts, expected but unpredictable, anchor the scene (the seen) in the everyday, the ordinariness of life.
These new photographs on old film effect another curious folding of time. They have a quality of age, so that today looks like a postcard from years before. As the paintings enact an encounter of solid things, lodged in time and place, with endlessness and timelessness - the momentary glimpses of memory, the seascapes' unending motion, represented on particular objects with particular histories - so the camera's lens opens, and now is captured on film that dates from then.
Cass's forays into the world, wandering the flea markets of Brussels in the early morning, hunting London and Edinburgh's antique shops and barns, end in return. There is a motif of journeying and standing still, represented in a number of his photographs - views from the edges of roads and paths, double glances of the way ahead and the rear-view mirror's recall of the ground already covered, sea-photographs' beckoning openness and distance. And there is the warm interior of the studio, objects slant-lit, gathered in their taxonomies, bundled, piled, and at rest.