Robert Woolner               biography

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Robert Woolner was born in Jamaica in 1946 and was trained at Camberwell School of Art. He lives and works at Vanners Studio in North Dorset. 


My concern is centred around making complete autonomous entities, worlds through which the viewer is invited to explore and experience not just composition and referential elements, but their physical presence.


I like to revisit themes I have used and usually work in series, endlessly fascinated by the possibilities contained in a small piece of information.  My references currently include windows, grids, plans, surfaces, natural and found objects, often of uncertain origin.  These obsessions may imply concealment, but also act as a framework for making objects that aspire to be quiet and contemplative.



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The paintings collected on this website were made by Robert Woolner between 2000 and 2016 in his studio in  North Dorset and from 2017 at Chantry Studio near the Dorset ridgeway. The geographical specificity seems important. These works are not directly figurative but they are, nonetheless, clearly grounded in a deep engagement with the artist’s physical environment: a textured and worked landscape of limestone, clay, greensand, water, and the accumulated scars and scratchings that millennia of human and animal habitation have inscribed onto the surface of the earth. To visit Woolner’s studio is to understand how much of his work is built up in the same organic way, and even out of the same materials. Bits of bone, rusted metal, wire, fossils, seashells lie around the light-filled room, a former farm building whose use might have changed but whose function as a working space has not. Paintings in various stages of completion are hanging on the walls or stacked against them. The smaller constructions or assemblages in low relief that he refers to as ‘boxes’ are laid out neatly on tables, alongside some of the studies from which they are derived. 

 

‘This is where it starts,” he says, opening a drawer of sketchbooks, their pages filled with pencil drawings, photographs, written words, cuttings. He draws constantly, testing compositions, refining details and working out the interpenetration of abstract geometry and organic form that is at the heart of his creative practice. ‘They’re sometimes observed things I’ve photographed or drawn, sometimes notions of how paintings might be, or they may just be notes I might have written about something.’ To flick through the pages is to see how his drawings are constantly evolving into new variants and giving birth to fresh ideas, some of which crystallise into paintings. Drawing, for Woolner, is an integral part of picture-making; his sketchbooks are records of a continuous process of thinking about the possibilities of pictorial construction. ‘I don’t differentiate between painting and drawing. For me, painting is just a richer form of drawing " there isn’t a point where my drawing stops and suddenly becomes painting.’ He points to an unfinished painting on an easel: a network of scored lines on a silvery-grey glimmering surface which seems to weave and trap the light. It‘s a piece he's been working on for some time, developing and reworking an initial drawing. ‘I don‘t know where it will go, but suddenly I‘m getting quite interested in another form of mark-making, almost like scoring the surface of pieces of stone, or bark.‘ 

 

Colour is used sparingly in these recent works. Sometimes a painting will have a preponderantly warm or cool temperature. with shades of terracotta or pale blue coming through as a kind of background glow (‘colour must start to create the atmosphere I want in the painting’). More often nowadays it will be in subdued tonalities of grey though, as he points out, ‘to make grey you need every colour on the palette”. Perhaps an accent of pigment or embedded matter in a more intense colour will stand out, acting as what Barthes called a punctum, a vivid detail that provides a point of entry into the artwork, establishing a direct, visceral relationship between the viewer and the object. Either way; the colour is all the more effective for being so restrained — or, to describe the matter more accurately, for being treated with so much respect. ‘Colour is dangerous,“ he explains; 'I’m wary of it. When you go to big mixed exhibitions you can’t bear it, there’s all this noise that cancels itself out, so that you end up being unable to see the paintings. I’m trying to make something calm and quiet. I’m not saying you can’t do that with a lot of colour —Mark Rothko could do that - but I’m trying to do it not so much with colour as with the physical reaction to a surface.’ One is reminded of what the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies said of seeing the abstract expressionists at the height of their fame, when he first went to New York: ‘They were wrestling with canvases, using violent colours and huge brush strokes. I arrived with grey, silent, sober, suppressed paintings. One critic said they were paintings that thought.’ 

 

Tàpies (1923—2012) is one artist whom Woolner is happy to acknowledge as an enduring influence. (‘I’Ve never felt that being influenced by someone is bad,’ he says, ‘if their work means something to you and you use what is relevant to you.’) Very different though his paintings are, there are detectable similarities between the two artists in their shared fascination with the expressive possibilities of mark-making, and in their fondness for building up the surfaces of canvases by mixing sand and other materials into the pigments. Among older contemporaries, Cy Twombly (1928—201 1) is another ‘master of the mark’ whom Woolner admires. Twombly’s large canvases, with their highly gestural, graffiti-like scrawls and dribbles of paint, may seem to have even less in common than those of Tàpies with the works illustrated in this book; but the American’s magisterial use of pattern and texture to evoke the accumulated sediment of meaning attached to a place, with its myths and histories, finds a deep echo, I think, in Woolner’s artistic practice. Other names, too, come to mind. As a marked contrast, or perhaps antidote, to Twombly’s expressionistic painting, dripping with rich colour, Woolner cites the delicate and evocative pencil-drawn grids of Agnes Martin (1912—2004) in connection with the lines and lattices that articulate the surfaces of his own recent paintings, catching fugitive effects of light and space in their nets.

 

Even to mention those great names of contemporary art, all from the generation older than Woolner, is to underscore the breadth of his terms of artistic reference. Rooted though it is in the Dorsetshire soil, his work is produced in full consciousness of the endeavours of some of the most significant artists who came to international prominence in the late twentieth century - and precisely those who best succeeded in giving the lie to premature announcements of ‘the death of painting’ as an art form capable of embodying serious thought. Should Woolner be considered, like them, an abstract painter? In one sense, even in his earlier, more figurative paintings, he always has been. ‘When you construct a painting, you’re trying to make sense of the pattern in front of you, whether it’s a wall two feet away or whether it’s five field systems. You’re trying to look at it in an abstract way, so in a sense all painting is abstract. You look at a painting by, say, Piero della Francesca, and it’s a joy to study the geometry of the Baptism because it’s so perfect. So I’ve always been interested in the business of picture-making and the precision of picture-making. That geometry, that space you create is vital. It gives the painting its tension.’ He resists the label of abstract painter, however. ‘I don’t think of my paintings as being abstract particularly To me they’re like very real landscapes.’ He admits never to have fallen out of love with the ‘delicious crepuscular melancholy’ of the English romantic landscape tradition; and at certain times in his career it has not been difficult to see his work in the context of an artist like Paul Nash,  focusing on the elemental features of the countryside, such as iron-age hill forts, and distilling their primal qualities into an almost symbolic grandeur. Even now, when any figurative cues have been, sublimated to the extent that they are no longer recognisable, his starting point is still the world, experienced through the senses (‘You can’t escape it. I’m not trying to create pure geometry - I’m much too sensuous for that’). Nevertheless, around the turn of the twenty-first century the balance shifted  in Woolner’s work. The landscapes illustrated here (let us call them that) are non- figurative, yet it would be wrong to say they were wholly abstract. Their particular resonance seems to come from the tension between two states: the concrete and the abstract, the sensual and the conceptual, the specific and the universal. 

 

Looking at the paintings in these pages, a selection from a very substantial body of work over fifteen years or so, it is evident that this, the latest phase of Woolner’s long engagement with the relationship between landscape and pictorial form, is a significant breakthrough. The step from primarily figurative to non-figurative painting was a liberating one. Its seeds were always there in his work (indeed, his first exhibited works were abstract), but his recent late abstraction has been hard won, after a lifetime of looking at, and thinking about, the landscape. Key works include Touching Light (Page 17) and Hambledon Hill , both made in 2000. In the first, he found a way of combining tone and texture so as to capture fleeting effects of luminosity in a way that transcended description or anecdote: light and darkness are seemingly welded into the mysteriously ridged and gashed surface of the painting. In the second, the topographical reference preserved in the title allows just enough of a handhold for the viewer to grasp that we are, being invited to share in a meditation on human habitation and path-making, on history and geography - but above all on the capacity of worked paint to evoke, not the appearance of a landscape, but the experience of being in it, of moving through it.


The paintings collected here no longer function as an Al'bertian window on the world, limiting us to a fixed viewpoint or a specific location. Instead of looking through the frame to a depicted scene ‘beyond’, as if the picture plane were transparent, our eyes are held by what the frame contains. ‘Containment as an idea fascinates me”, he says. ‘What makes a painting special is the fact that it is a container, in which one is striving to make something quite balanced and right and perfect.” Rather than relying on perspectival illusion, the paintings convey a sense of space and depth through the accretion of strata, their surfaces fissured and scored to allow glimpses of earlier states, of things half-seen: a palimpsest, to use a key word in his critical lexicon. ‘The whole history of what I do is in the layers”, he explains. ‘lt’s held within the palimpsest. That mirrors what happens in the landscape.’ He has started to use metal more — lead, bronze, brass, copper wire, rusted iron dug out of the ground or picked up from the beach, objets trouvé’s —which he embeds into his paintings, or fires into porcelain, and works on, scores and paints until it achieves the ‘rightness’ he is aiming at. These pictures positively insist that your eyes linger on the surface, arrested by its sheer presence as matter. This is more than an aesthetic choice; it is an ethical stance against the constant flow of disembodied and ultimately meaningless images that surround us all. ‘I think we need texture, we need leather, stone, glass, paper, canvas, paint, lead we need all these things to keep us sane, it can’t all be some digital blur, somewhere out on an i-cloud.‘ He smiles. ‘I like it when I scrape my arm on a painting, and as a painter I‘ve always enjoyed the business of paint, and the surface of a sculpture. You react to surface. you touch with your eyes.” Yet however tactile these works may be, their painterly qualities remain paramount — and what they depict, above all, is light, created through tone. It is light, gleaming from the painted surfaces or glowing through their latticed veils, that fuels these pictures from within and gives them their haunting beauty. They breathe a lived experience of the physical environment: the feel of earth and bone between the fingers, the lustre of moonlight on a stone wall, the memory of a chill mist rising off a pond. But what imbues them with their special power is the precise observation and rigorous thought that go into their making, so that they touch us not as records of a landscape but as works of art. ‘In a sense all I’m doing is trying to make calm contemplative objects”, says Woolner. ‘There’s that lovely line that Chirico wrote about the quiet melancholy, the light and dark to be found in a gateway, a street corner the surface of a table or between the sides of a box — those unexpected corners where one has a moment of revelation. I spend all my days staring at these images and trying to order them to achieve a kind of rightness and stability and calm. That’s what I’m aiming at, and if at some stage a person looks at them and stops and feels the same thing I’ve succeeded, I’ve communicated what I want to communicate. In the end all I really want to do is to stop time and visual experience to that moment of quiet contemplation.’ 

 

John Renner, February 2016 

 


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Robert Woolner’s paintings are familiar to and loved and collected by many in the Dorset area and beyond.  In this new body of work he is particularly concerned with the contemplative and abstract, with an austerity and harmony of composition in which precision of scale, proportion and size are key.


Earlier concerns in his work have included the horse as almost a totemic force within the landscape, and the dorset landscape with its richness of motifs.  Now he is moving towards a more pure abstraction, both in terms of subject and emotion.  “Precision of composition” is key and he works with contained edges, openings and closures, often beginning a painting with a rectangular mark or using a cross a a compositional hub or element.  Harmony is achieved within each painting with a juggling of disparate and complex parts and materials.  In speaking of a recent visit to India, he mentions being intrigued by the variety of windows in the architecture of the old palaces:  openings suggestive of inner and outer space.  The distillation of all the paradoxical experience of India is another challenge.  His painting itself has become more architectural with a newly found geometric quietness and austerity.


The recent large scale contemplative works are nearly monochrome using the full richness of blacks and greys to brilliant effect.  Woolner talks of the Japanese / oriental delight in the vibrancy of black as containing all colour, and his persistent interest in tone and the subtleties and sudden contrasts of light that this use of blacks and greys allows.  For many years, Woolner has incorporated wire, card, grit and other materials into his acrylic and oil paint:  now he is beginning to push this further and is experimenting with incorporating bronze relief, mainly to create a more sensuous surface texture.  He paints a series of works over a long period of time, moving from one to another, and builds up the layers, both eraseing and adding marks and materials so that each individual painting is about layers of time, a beginning and ending.


Suzanne Marston, from a conversation with Robert Woolner, August 2007



The purpose of good painting is to reveal what has not been seen before, which is why this new work by Robert Woolner is so important, his search continues to break fresh ground, and is an illuminating testament to the mysterious condition of painting.  There is an enduring stillness in the series of paintings that explore the finely balanced interaction of light and dark across the picture plane.  Through veils of light, and the subdued use of warm and cool tones, works such as “touching air” produce an ethereal state of intense calm.  These planes act as shutters between interior and exterior worlds, through which you may step if you dare.


Much of the work is about containment, atmosphere within and the view from without, and geometry of fear connects works like ancient ley lines;  there are signals for us to pick up like radio waves.  In his exploration of surface texture, and the mixed use of pigment, glue, card, marble dust and scrim, where colour is kept strictly at bay, are a series of paintings that seem to rediscover the earth’s crust like an aerial photograph, plans of protective enclosures, as ancient as man’s first settlement, apparently stitched together like a computer motherboard.  Hardly surprising that one such painting is entitled “Safe Inside”, several others are quite small works that have the dominance of fortifications.


In Woolner’s restless search for simplification we are presented with a concentrated residue of this enquiry:  in our complicated modern lives it is all and everything we need to know.


Nicholas Collier   Alpha House catalogue, August 2003


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Woolner’s paintings over the last twenty years have shifted from an accent on realism towards abstraction.  Today his work is more about incident and experience than the specific and figurative.  However, he still retains strong ties to the land and is particularly affected by the strong forms found in the landscape of Dorset.  Forms such as hill forts: “wonderful, powerful, moving forms in the earth which give one a very strong starting point.”


Hambledon, Duncliffe and Hod Hill are for Woolner central occurrences in the landscape.  He knows them well through spending time drawing there.  “Up at the top there is a feeling of enclosed space.  They are heavily charged environments.  They’ve escaped… they haven’t been disturbed too much; they are condensers of history.  They have a tremendous atmosphere which can vary as much as the light.”


Woolner’s work is concerned not only with ancient sites in Dorset but also with the more general topography of his part of the county.  Being familiar with the land in North Dorset he is attuned to small changes as well as “special times --- when it snows or storms.”  Often when beginning a painting it is from a detail in the landscape that an idea emerges.  “It might be just the way two thick trees come together in a field or the meeting point between two fields, or clouds passing behind a tree.”  Woolner needs very little to start with.  He enjoys the challenge of “taking a small piece of information and turning it on its head.”


Woolner studied at Camberwell School of Art for four years.  As a student of the Sixties he was excited by the avant-garde work which was coming out of America;  the work of Abstract Expressionists such as Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning.  At that time the idea of working on a large scale was particularly exciting as “the Camberwell of the Sixties was very much Euston Road and William Coldstream.”The EustonSchool of Painting was formal and sombre, in contrast to the colourful, gestural style of the Americans.


At Camberwell, Woolner’s teachers included Frank Auerbach and Euan Uglow. He remembers Auerbach working with “tons of paint” and Uglow being “a very, very tough draughtsman.”  Both drew a great deal from direct observation and from paintings of Old Masters.  Drawing was part of their core practice.  For Uglow it was an indispensible discipline, while for Auerbach  it offered a way to recall and capture the sense of a place.


While at Camberwell, Woolner learnt to draw from observation and today he still continues to do so.  Some years ago he completed some very big, long drawings of hedges.  “I took a section of hedge and drew the whole thing, in order to create an impression of an overwhelming quantity, a romantic feeling of immersion, wildness. I also took photographs as a kind of aid.”  Today, if he uses a camera, it is for taking photographs which are interesting in themselves rather than for any relevance to painting.  “If I’m walking up on Win Green, taking a photograph doesn’t give me any information about the light, the space, the immensity of it all.  Those things have to be confined to some kind of notation in a book as an aid to memory.”


Sometimes, when drawing, Woolner will deliberately “convert” a landscape;  re-align it with an aerial perspective.  “It just changes the way you see the landscape.  Painting of course is a flat two-dimensional process, but its flatness is its great excitement.  Whatever you do, you create illusions of space.”


In the 1990s Woolner began to work in monochrome as an aside to his colour paintings.  He has always been intrigued by black as a colour, not in the European sense of it being a colour associated with death, but in the Eastern sense.  As he says;  “the Japanese feel that black is the most beautiful of all colours and I tend to agree, because you immediately start to play with light when it hits black.  Painting is really about contrasts:  light and dark, warm and cool, hot and cold, rough and smooth, sharp and blunt.  Painting as a visua;l language is entirely centred around contrasts.  How much colour does one need in a picture?”


Woolner’s Crow series of paintings, which includes Crow’s Field (1999) , are the brown, black and relief whites of earth.  They take their inspiration from The Life and Songs of the Crow by Ted Hughes.  They are perhaps his darkest and bleakest monochromatic works to date.  They dismiss the image of a cosy countryside,  and in alliance with Hughes speak of a place where there is destruction as well as life, cruelty as well as sanctuary, and despair as well as joy.


Today the colours that Woolner uses are warmer and more suffuse; indeed light itself has become the subject of his of his latest series of work.  There is an architectural quality to many of these paintings, with their stepped corridors, planes and shadows of shifting light (Folding Light 2001).  In their alchemic colours they connect with the patinas of bronze artifacts and archaeological finds.  Others, such as Light Cut (2001) and Deep Cut (2001) combine aerial perspective with a sliced core-view of Earth’s geology.


Since the Crow series, Woolner’s work has become increasingly textural.  Torn and cut paper, sand and other materials are embedded in emulsion and acrylic before any colour is applied.  Overlapped shapes and ridges become organic forms out of which other things grow.  He believes that the torn edge of a piece of paper can be as expressive as a brush mark.  In his way of working with mixed media there comes a balance between control and chance, which is part of the excitement.


Woolner rarely throws a work away, and sometimes he will come back to a painting long set aside.  Collage elements may be stripped off but any resulting distressed marks become new areas of challenge to work with.  “One of the important parts of my work landscape is the layers that happen in painting.  The underlying layers can often surprise you.  They give the painting a history.  I think the thing abiut layers is that like the landscape they trap time.  That’s something that fascinates me.  It isn’t an instant process.  Painting is about layers of time.  A close examination of the landscape shows that it offers up its secrets, layer by layer."



Extracts from Re-inventing the Landscape by Vivienne Light