'And with some memory of the sky' - Essay from studio visit and conversation with artist Janie George.
‘- I thought of Nature’s loveliest scenes,
And with Memory I was there.’
Should I start above, below, or in between? With the blackened stones; minerals that float like falling leaves; a flower’s withering and waving shadow; bonnets stiffened by embroidery and framed by ribbon and lace; gloves patiently awaiting an owner; figurines and folktales; vessels and vases; seedpods, shells, and jelly moulds – a list of objects which resist existence to varying degrees within artist Janie George’s work.
Spending time with her work feels akin to the gentle sifting of soil of an archaeological excavation, setting aside objects and recording each layer in the hope of establishing time and place. But her practice often eludes reconstruction in this manner, so shifting are the layers within which she buries each fragment. Clues as to the where and why sit between the sediment, stretching across centuries and continents, out of time and out of place.
The shape-shifting form of memory (George’s and our own) suggests another way into the work as it gently reminds us of the pleasing curves of a pebble found washed up on the shore, a treasured leaf placed upon a shelf, or the glimmer of gold adorning a favourite statuette, seen only through the glass-glare of a cabinet door. The work is steeped in these acts of remembrance, attempts to catalogue, and put things into place. However, it is this very ‘ordering’ that it also appears to resist, revealing instead only half-truths, which hide amongst the shadows and behind veils. Paintings are layered upon paintings, which are often later removed lest they start to make some sense. Tensions ripple between stillness and flux, solidity and fragility, and absence and presence, as George moves from the paper’s edge or the flat painting plane to three-dimensional forms, shifting the surface to which our attention is drawn so that nothing ever feels truly permanent.
When we talk, she refers to writers (nearly all women) who have influenced her life and art, laying claim to those who have concretised in words the sense of ‘wonder’ with which George admits to seeing the world. It is both theirs and her own memories of ‘the loveliest scenes’ that she attempts to lay down in pigment and clay, moving back and forth across the years, turning the curled and yellowed pages of a shared history. But, despite this deep, literary love, her work also resists narrative, preferring to take us on journeys back and forth between multiple series – interestingly she hesitates in dating works. Chronology can therefore suddenly feel redundant, and instead it is through untangling the many memories, and revisiting the recurring cast of objects (catalogued here both above and below), with which the work yields and rewards our looking.
In the 1990s George came across a manuscript of Yoga Art by Ajit Mookerjee, which recorded 108 black stones, each individually tumbled, washed, and worn into shape by the river. The river being the mighty Ganges that flows from the heights of the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, and home to one of George’s earliest childhood memories in rural Bangladesh. These black stones (that in Hindu mythology are thought of as seeds, or the germ or sperm of creativity), are scattered across a number of works, appearing in both painted and ceramic form.
In Black Stones: Obsidian the stones are carefully arranged and silhouetted against a mottled bronze background that seeps through from below, relieving them of their solidity. In Earthworks they lie buried beneath stark-white outlines (like mysterious chalk drawings found upon the landscape). In Black Stones they are composed in neat rows like a lunar cycle. They float across a background of washed-out grey and inky shadows that intermingle leaving tidelines and watermarks upon the surface. Their curved outer edges are smudged and softened as if seen from behind the grey mist of a threatening raincloud. Despite their eponymous titles the stones somehow avoid being truly present, ready to be washed away by the current, or buried beneath the mud.
Mud and clay
George’s first memory of clay is intertwined with her early childhood, spent in the floodplains of the Ganges. She recalls digging up mud and clay from the riverbank and rolling the silty substance between her fingers. The uneven balls were then lain out in the sweltering sun to bake, before being painted and given away to family and friends. This memory came flooding back when George first began working with ceramics as an adult, remembering the obliging feel of the river mud and following her teacher’s guidance to allow the material its freedom.
George suggests that ceramics began life as a source of escape from the frustration of the flat surface – a space where ‘mistakes were harder to reverse’ – but over the years a rich relationship appears to have formed between her two- and three-dimensional practice. Works often begin life in another dimension, such as the miscellaneous list of objects found in the monochromatic Museum Drawings, which began as a pictorial ‘to do’ list.
It can also be seen in her approach to glazing, whether the matt-black of various organic forms, which mirror the smooth stones found in the riverbed, or the ghostly paleness of contrasting vessels. Created by applying a white slip over terracotta, the outer layer wears down over time. Much like the process of viewing her paintings (which invite and reward patience), the bare clay revealed beneath is as pleasing as its outer shell. It is easy to see how this lack of control over the finished object is appealing to George. And the uncertainty too of the kiln is an obvious draw, allowing chance to decide what will come into being and what will remain forgotten.
White flowers and lace gloves
George’s earlier works contain bonnets, gloves, and antique clothing, which hover and float. They appear to hang by invisible threads ready to fall at any moment or drift out of view like the sacred rose petals balanced in oil and clay that floated past her out of reach upon the river as a child.
The bonnets in particular seem to discourage the act of looking. They are often positioned at an angle so as to avoid revealing their empty shells, like a flower closing its petals at night when encircled by the cool air. Their luminescence against dark green and black backdrops reminds me of George’s fascination with moths. It is easy to imagine these twilight creatures being drawn to the ‘white flowers’ like the lull of a flame.
The heavy creases worn into the antique fabrics in her ‘history paintings’ also suggest emptiness, or rather a bodily absence. References in conversation to clothing and bodies from literature – Mrs Forrester’s lace collar, Austen’s bonnet, and a waistcoat belonging to the poet Dorothy Wordsworth – attempt to fill the void. But like so many suggestions given by George they only serve to entangle us further, imbuing the work with multiple times and places belonging to lives long lost.
I ask, why paint gloves or a Grecian gown? She responds that ‘They are the things we are left with’. Yet, like so many ‘things’ found within George’s work they have not been left so much as deliberately gathered together, or pulled closer. Just like her paintings, George’s studio also boasts an array of ‘collections’: decorative gloves into which another’s hand has worn down the soft patches of leather between finger and thumb; a beaten case of singular shoes, missing their pair as well as their owner.
This sense of loss can be found throughout, lingering in tactile surfaces. Such as the embroidered flowers planted by needle and thread within the stiff fabric of The French Indoor Bonnet, the smooth texture of clay, or the chalky outlines in the Museum Drawings, which so easily could brush-off the paper’s edge. These material remains so often serve as a reminder of a body no longer there.
Curiosities and collections
In the Museum Drawings – recent works on paper made up of multiple sheets – George brings together a vast array of shapes and objects, shadowy spectres that overlap and jostle for space. Ink, conté, and chalk are applied upon flattened charcoal and thirstily absorbed by the surface so that it becomes hard to see in what order each mark has been applied. Beginning life as drawings left behind by George’s students, these densely populated ‘lists’ became a plan for her ceramics, some of which can already be seen completed in her studio, such as the cool curves cast from Victorian jelly moulds, which sit neatly within the palm.
Within these drawings, outlines of seedpods, pilgrim badges, and a terracotta statue from the Louvre sit-by-side like a cabinet of curiosities. This is in many ways an apt description for George’s work, which shares a similar approach to time and place in which ‘wondrous stones, fossils, [and] stuffed animals’ intermingle in miniature museums, before being lost for good. This museological method of collation and display (popular in the eighteenth century) predates the use of chronology or narrative with which to order objects. It reminds me of George’s suggestion that perhaps her approach to collecting ‘curiosities’ is a way to confront loss. Moving from Bangladesh at the age of six to rural Somerset, George found herself transplanted into both a world of wonder (transfixed by wildflowers and woodland finds), and a place in which she did not belong. A sense of loss and dislocation that she recalls was invisible to her English parents.
Over the last two centuries, museums – which can be defined as places of preservation – have moved away from curious spectacle to embrace an array of approaches to both collecting and cataloguing (from storytelling to phenomenology). When talking about her approach to painting George reflected upon a tendency to notice and focus in upon the parts of paintings that often go un-noticed – like the rocky outcrops in the landscape behind the Mona Lisa (I had to look again). This reminded me of Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the periphery in which our knowledge of the thing we look at is informed by the objects that surround it. Perhaps George deliberately misplaces objects.
Her inclination towards the periphery underlines a trans-historical approach in which she is naturally drawn to interruptions and rupture. An effect that is achieved in the Museum Drawings through a process of layering, so that not only do miscellaneous objects sit shoulder to shoulder, but they are also placed directly on top of one another, like in Lilies where charcoal and chalk interweave. Or Offering in which closer attention reveals figures buried beneath the surface (interlopers also frequently found within her paintings).
The multiplicity of layers in George’s work – which she describes as a difficulty in knowing where to end – also reflects her interest in liminal states; the night hour haunted by moths, the spaces between drawing and object, and the floating realms in which her bonnets exist. Interestingly, liminality has long been associated with the ritual space of the museum in which time is stopped and ‘suspended’ and objects attain power. Maybe it is this disconnected state, which allows George’s objects to make sense, inviting our own suspension of time and place.
Gardens and nests
Not all of George’s microcosmic worlds exist within the museum’s contextual walls. Some are ringed with the flora and fauna of hedgerows and flowerbeds, returning us to the tensions that lie between the unfettered wildness of nature and the domesticity of the garden. As a child (newly acquainted with the English countryside) George revelled in the organic forms found upon shorelines and under foot within field and forest. She recalls the careful transportation of an abandoned bird’s nest from home to school, where she positioned it with pride amongst the nature table’s jumble of riches. The table has now grown, spreading out across the studio walls upon which a changing array of assemblages now sit: a small painting of a cloud – or is it a flower or the outlines of another mould – balanced upon two white planks currently home to a pale-coloured stone and a stem of seeds flanked by dried-out undergrowth which dangles upside down from nails. Alongside these ‘displays’ a windowsill heaves with natural and man-made treasures.
As a child her finds were placed within a wooden box, after careful identification in treasured tomes such as Gaston Bonnier’s Name this Flower (1936) – a way of collecting and containing nature. A newly completed work upon the studio wall suggests that George has not strayed far from this process, although here nature is contained within pigment and paint. One new painting is dominated by a rich yellow hue, reminiscent of Dorothy Wordsworth’s daffodils which are described in the diaries and journals which George listens to on repeat: ‘I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew about the mossy stones… some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness, and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake.’
In George’s painting she plants flowers that weave their way upward as petals and leaves gently fall between. The hazy figure of a woman, full skirted and bowed head, walks amongst the flora, shaded beneath the flower’s bulbous florets. The effect is that of a garden contained between the canvas edges, although with daubs of fluorescent pink and purple it is perhaps more fantastical than Wordsworth’s creation. There is a sense of safety that abides within the work, a dream-like notion of an imagined place, a quality also found in several other works in progress. For example, in one, mussels and clams float both in and outside the outline of a large scallop – reminiscent of the empty bonnets in earlier works.
Places and spaces of rest and shelter are explored in The Poetics of Space, in which Gaston Bachelard looks at ‘such spaces of intimacy, memory, and dreams, as houses, rooms, nests, shelters, and corners’. Gardens have often been discussed in this context too, with their ‘interplay of within and without’ and references to ‘the meanings of real and implied boundaries.’ Like Wordsworth, one senses George is planting borders and maintaining the edges in a bid to create a sense of home, although her resistance to putting down roots means for her these little worlds are often fleeting.
Another gardener (of sorts) who appears throughout conversation with George is the poet Alice Oswald who momentarily followed in her mother’s horticultural footsteps before deciding instead to sew words. Oswald, known for often quoting her poems by heart, has instructed audiences to ‘Forget the fixed text, because I like the idea of poems being these melting ice shapes that vanish and are only there in a moment.’ This suggestion, or the idea that it is good ‘to remember how to forget’, feels like a similar space to that which George’s work is occupying, a place where impermanence and absence create their own tether, a space in which we can look both forwards and back whilst still affording us ‘some memory of the sky’.
1 Dorothy Wordsworth, Thoughts on My Sick-bed, 1832, in which she ‘takes comfort from walking in memory’.
2 Reminiscent of the display of objects in George’s favourite room at the British Museum where golden hordes float in space under dim spotlights.
3 David Carrier, ‘Remembering the Past: Art Museums as Memory Theatres’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol.61, No.1, Winter, Wiley, p61
4 Carrier discusses these phenomenological ideas with reference to both Merleau-Ponty and Edmund Husserl, Ibid., p62
5 Carol Duncan quoting Louvre curator and art historian Germain Bazin who suggested that an art museum is ‘a temple where time seems suspended’ in ‘The Art Museum as Ritual’, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, (Routledge: Abingdon, 1995), p11
6 Judith W. Page, ‘Dorothy Wordsworth’s “gratitude to insensate things”: gardening in The Grasmere Journals’, in The Wordsworth Circle, Volume 39, Number 1-2, Winter-Spring 2008, The Chicago Press Journals
7 Page quoting Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Ibid., p19
8 Page quoting John Dixon Hunts’ Greater Perfections: The Practice of Garden, Ibid., p19
9 Alice Oswald: ‘I like the way that the death of one thing is the beginning of something else’, interview by Claire Armistead, Guardian, Friday 22 July 2016
10 Duncan, Ibid., p13
Images © Janie George.