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02:04 James Ferguson-Rose: Thockrington Crag

Working from walks, journeying through the hills and valleys of the countryside, James Ferguson-Rose imaginatively re-invents and re-records rural walks through drawing, abstraction and memory. Creating invented spaces, imbued with a definitive sense of place. Our eyes are lead through these landscapes via a network of colour, line and texture. 

Back in May, our very own Oliver Hoffmeister spoke with recent RCA graduate, James Ferguson-Rose’s in his Battersea studio. Speaking openly, James maps out his practice, from how he transcribes walks into drawings to the layering of memory in his work.

Oliver Hoffmesiter
Artist and co-founder of Minutes.

OH: Hi James. What's the piece called?

JFR: I think the painting is called Thockrington Crag. However, this might change as it's still settling. I've finished this painting but I’m not quite sure what it’s called yet.

OH: I know you work from walks out in the countryside. I can see this large drawing in your studio, I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about how you make these drawings and then how you translate them into paintings.

JFR: Yeah, of course. These are drawings made in long concertina books, which means that it's possible to walk and draw at the same time and maintain a continuous flow across the whole long journey with this long page. Of course, when you are walking and drawing at the same time, there’s a limit to how much it's possible to record.

So, as things appear and come back, perhaps returning at different scales - or with things that are really fleeting, it's really hard to record them, so they tend to end up being a suggestion or sometimes barely even that. These often layer up in different fashions and these ones here (pointing at the drawing) have got 3 different colours, which is the bare minimum. Dark, light and blue, which each serve to record parts of space, in a way.

A couple of years ago, I was taking lots of photographs before I started doing these drawings. These photographs flatten the space and flatten the sky against what you're looking at on the ground, or in the landscape. I think once you start to draw things, you realise how much things are framed and how much they move and how much your own movement across the landscape changes the way you draw and what you register. Some things are below and some things are above.


OH: I was going to say that these have a real sense of not only topography, but also movement. It feels almost like a complete parallax as it were, it feels like I've moved through this landscape.

JFR: That's what's really happening - I think there is some sense of perspective that reoccurs. I think the far end of this one, (points to another drawing) where there's the impression of 3 lanes, is because I’m just walking down a straight road. So there's not necessarily that much drawn but you still get this straight long lane, as that's all you can see at that point in time. So that's what you record and they kind of layer on top of each other.

OH: Would you go and record a walk with the intention of becoming a painting, or do you conglomerate different walks in your paintings?

JFR: I would definitely sort of mix them up. So there are parts of things, sort of compositional devices that appear that I find really useful. This fracturing of above and below and I think in another drawing that's not here, there are some patchwork fields - Sometimes these appear below or above and depending on how the page is going, you'll sometimes have the sky underneath the fields because you've gone up and down and over a hill. Which is a curious thing.

I think these linear things feed into making a structure for the painting, and there are some parts that you tend to begin with. So this painting started out with a plough, a kind of ‘opening move’ I suppose. I painted a big, red, solid plough on it as a way into making the form originally and then I sort of interpolated the drawing into that. This forms a sort of a structure that ties into the places I’ve been, but also detaches a little bit.

Because these places seem so innocuous, but in a way you could say that they are politicised. There are enclosures and things keeping you out, keeping you in. It’s a really interesting thing to think about all these boundaries and routes around, and how these spaces relate to a map. This is a map in a sense. However, It’s not a map from above.

OH: I was going to say, it's not diagrammatic in the way that somebody that's a cartographer would draw it. It seems much more felt.

JFR: Yes, that’s absolutely right. So there are some parts that feel much more squishy. I think the feeling of the terrain is something you can’t get from just looking at a traditional map. You might plan where you're gonna go with those maps, but it's just lines. It's just a linear structure. There's something kind of interesting about building up a structure, like a support for this memory to be hung on.

OH: Do find that all of the paintings come from that structure? I went to see the OHSH show that you are in currently (Post-Post War) and the paintings of yours in that show; the stretchers already had these fractures in them. I’m also noticing a few other paintings behind you where you have stuck things on top of other things and where you have drawn over the top and written over previous layers. I don't know whether this structure and layering is an iterative process or if it’s pure intuition. Whether some elements are one-and-done and if you don't like it, you just erase it.

JFR: There's a mixture of the two. Its more of a back and forth. I think the paintings you saw in the show had stitched canvas. That was kind of a pragmatic decision, saving on waste, but also thinking about how to section off space as well. So, using that has a practical purpose, to reuse material as it’s expensive, and also to think about how you approach the space of the canvas, which is a ready made constraint. But it’s also an opportunity to think about how you're gonna build up a painting because in those kind of terms, some things are already there on the canvas.

OH: Yeah, I was going to say, because these works are obviously from the walks, which is a very definitive space, that you have then felt out through these drawings. And then you are almost reinventing a space from those drawings. It's a space that doesn't necessarily exist, as it were, but is more indicative of an environment than it was of the exact walks.

JFR: That's true. I would like to think that we are going the bottom up towards the top and then following these kinds of boundaries or roots. Whether they're holding parts of the paintings together or allowing movement along them, or keeping things out, or delineating various forms. I think there's not so much picture in here. There aren’t so many deliberate things occurring in this painting. It's much more about thinking around structure, and a thing that can hold together that journey and also pull together the form in terms of painting.

OH: It feels very monumental but also transient at the same time. It’s got a feeling of definitive but also of looseness, which I really enjoyed myself.

JFR: Yeah, there's something about this. It's a sort of relative departure. Having this sort of form enclosed by, in a way, a solid colour.

But delineating that solid block has been something more novel. I think some of the paintings you saw at the OHSH show, were in more parts in a way. They were pieced together, almost collaged together as pieces from a journey that was assembled. Whereas, I think this is an assembly of much more abstracted things that maybe think more loosely about issues that come up when you experience a space. I think this is a bit more vague in a way. It's a bit more towards painting rather than transcribing the walk.

It's like, one step further in that sense.

OH: Well, I think your paintings are very spatial and indicative of a lot of countryside spaces -which are spaces that I grew up around. And even if somebody isn't necessarily aware of that when they look at them, they are incredibly strong paintings just as they are. You seem to have a real grasp of the material. Like the way in which you're able to change the viscosities of paints, to be able to show previous layers and then put thicker layers over the top. I guess its further showcasing the structure and the fractures you create. It feels like it comes very naturally to you.

JFR: Yeah. There’s a fair amount of nerdery going on because I’m learning how mediums work and learning how to modulate paint; such that it becomes really sticky, really chalky, really wet or really dry and mixing those things together to see what they do. Especially when you do things that you're not really supposed to. I think that's quite exciting.

And also making things dry quicker. Accelerating that process so that paint can be built up quicker, means that you can make decisions slightly quicker than a much more traditional Impasto painting that can go on for months and months and months. There is something about this challenge of scraping things back as well, with them drying so fast. When they're painted with a varnish they become really quite glassy and it takes a much stronger action to scrape it back, which is visible I think. Especially the one I've been playing with today, just pulling off chunks of paint, not wiping off wet, pliable paint with a rag. It is quite a harsh process, but something that allows for making some really interesting textures and a really good depth along with a variety of mark.

OH: I wanted to say the variety of marks is mad. Did you work on this how it is here? You said it was going to be hung vertically but is that how you started working on it?

JFR:  I did work on it landscape for quite a long time. I think once or twice I turned it round, but sometimes a painting tells you that it needs to be one way up.

OH: I agree.

JFR: Yeah, you can fight against it all you like, but sometimes they just tell you. No, no, no, no. This is how I want to be. (imitates rotating a painting)

OH: It happens a lot. I’ve noticed sometimes in my work, that you start doing something and you flip it and you realise that's the way it was meant to be. I was working upside down the entire time.

JFR: I think painting like that sometimes adds quite a nice dynamic because your strokes are all going in the direction they have been, because you are painting in one orientation. But then as soon as you flip things over and add a few last remarks, it can become something really dynamic because you've been playing with it the whole time, turning it around and around.

I mean, it's a shame in this studio that I haven't had a space to lay things down or really get into twisting things up because it's very difficult to turn a large painting in here.

OH: I think given the constraints, you've worked really well and it’s shown in the work. It all has that dynamism of mark making that you’re talking about. With every painting that I'm looking at you really have invented a space.

I’m quite interested in the one behind me that has writing on it. Just before this you were saying that you started doing some writing. Is that from the walks or is that separate?

JFR: I think they are coming from a similar place. So, the writing is often a transcription of the walk, whether that’s from looking at the drawing and writing down according to what the drawing is, with an added hint of memory. In a way it abstracts it further. Sometimes they are from memories of things further back, where I haven't been drawing.

But the writing often happens as a way of starting the day or starting painting and it’s sometimes a way of defacing what was there before. Often I write a passage down over a painting and then the paint seems defaced, so that I can think about it afresh and not necessarily cling onto things that are behind that writing. It enables a bit more freedom to play with what is actually on the canvas, so there's less preciousness by doing it. It also embeds another layer of memory in a way.

And there's this one, with this pink. (gesturing towards another smaller painting) There's a hint of the writing left below the surface. But because we can't see the rest of it and because my writing is quite curved cursive, they just become marks at that point. They carry something but they don't carry the text. They’re just marks that form part of the composition at that point.

OH: That’s interesting. This idea of defacing.

When you talk about flipping things around and working on it differently. Do you think there is always an element of defacing and this adding to the idea of memory. You've got the memory from the walks, and you're also talking about the layers of memory on the canvas itself.

JFR: Yeah. I think you have these layers of memory that happen in painting, but also when you walk, you can see these layers of time in the landscape. Places that look like a normal rural bog-standard landscape, with dry stone walls and fields, there are hints within those places that suggest much more ancient things. So, you get some lumps and bumps, ridges and furrows from medieval farming, even cup and ring marks, which are hints of the Stone Age.

And they're scattered around but they are all living together as if in some form of palimpsest. So it's really, really exciting to know that people have been where you've been but in a completely different way. And it was completely different to them at the time. That layering of time is something quite special. 

OH: I agree. I think that's a good place to leave it.

JFR: Cool.

Recording Ends