Some articles relating to my work
Chris Wilson “Small Islands” The Doorway Gallery, Dublin, November 2014.
Opening speech by Dr Yvonne Scott, Director, Triarc (Trinity College Irish Art Resource Centre)
Edited transcript of recorded speech.
I first became aware of Chris’s work some 8 or 9 years ago and it is exciting to follow the journey of an artist and to see the changes and developments that take place in the work, to see what is familiar and to see what has changed. Familiar themes include the interconnections between architecture and the landscape and what is interesting is to see the subtle changes in these habitations or spaces….to see what is different.
The earlier work, interiors of buildings, churches and houses were dark spaces, abandoned and silent, where shafts of light filtered through windows to illuminate the interior…. I can almost see the dust motes floating in these shafts of light. These interior spaces felt enclosed and sealed, the windows allowed light in, but one could not see out. These earlier works were constructed from maps and the sharp contrast between light and dark illuminated areas of map, creating connections to the exterior world.
The next phase of his work still included the use of maps as a material, but the subjects had moved to exterior spaces….to landscape with human habitations. These houses were devoid of windows, hermetically sealed and there was something inscrutable about them….no links to the interior, to a way inside. Windows are the eyes of a house and their absence prevented any link between the interior and the exterior.
One is drawn to these buildings, perched in the landscape….on the edge. They also had a depth of landscape that included evidence of the mapping impulse…. raised viewpoints, creating links to aerial perspectives, but without a literal connection to maps. They seem to speak of roads and pathways, of boundaries and divisions….enclosed spaces, borders of defined space.
Maps are symbolic landscapes….we have two types of maps, the physical landscape map and the political map of symbols and man-made objects that represent power and control, the map makers creating for the map users and selecting elements for power reasons.
The current work departs from the literal representations of maps but includes elements of their origins. The layers of these landscapes, of folds and strata speak of cyclical time…ancient, they also speak of a shorter cycle of time, the small houses and buildings connect with human timeframes. The use of colour is restricted to a tonal range of soft greys through to deep black and as one reads across the surfaces of these paintings and follows the folds of strata….on the one hand you follow the folds of the weight of stone and this leads one to the folds of paper, one moves from enormous weight and depth to the fragility of paper. The small houses perched above or below, on the edge, or under this weight of stone and granite speak of fragility and vulnerability.
Chris Wilson, Dwelling Place, The Oriel Gallery, Antrim Castle Gardens, 28 January – 5th March 2016
Chris Wilson, Dwelling Place, The Oriel Gallery, Antrim Castle Gardens, 28 January – 5th March 2016
Posted on March 16, 2016 by Slavka Sverakova
Wilson Chris untitled 1985029
Untitled, 1985, Map and conte on panel
Belfast street map, standardised small houses (he made those as metal objects/sculptures earlier) black abstraction – those are three stable characteristics of Wilson’s early work. The transformatory power of what is legible and what is erased forges a metamorphosis: the houses became church furniture, the street map evokes patterned stone floor leading the main altar (not visible) , the vaults turn into a steep roof of a pointed spire. But first there is the black void in the centre, easily understood simile for the troubled society. Turning the the visual thought – although the black conte used is the same, imposing similarities on all the voids, its spatial messages are not uniform. On both sides of the white outline – my eye reads some black as receding, some as pushing forward in front of the organic, uneven middle which contains the street map. The shapes in the middle are not geometric, right angled, instead they are voluminous like a human heart during an open heart surgery, or lungs on an x- ray image. A life moment between two beats, losing its identity to a grotesque black diagram cutting into the narrow part of the spire. Both in and out – that space is depraved of its orientation. In contrast to the lower part composed in the one point perspective, the top prefers to turn into a question. The image becomes visually unsettling and busy – oscillating between meanings, each equally insecure, but still fleetingly commanding attention. Religion divides and religion offers support – it is a tool how to control many by the few, successfully promising eternity, but failing to cope with the earth bounded conflicts. The obedient rows of houses determine the forbidding access both into the homes and exits into the streets. they are no doors or windows. The houses adopt the street map as their walls and gables both insisting to be real part of the city, and a small model becoming an empty toy. In all, the image fragments itself into oscillating visual substories, whose tenor is abandoned world, empty streets, broken faith.
Silent world. Yet, the contrasts of light and dark, of closed forms hiding space, introduces a pulse – as if recovering from a nightmare.
Chris Wilson , break-in-the-clouds-2012-58-5-x-58-5-cm
Chris Wilson , Break in the clouds, 2012,58-5-x-58-5-cm
I first saw Wilson’s new type of work at the Mullan Gallery some time after his residency at Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland during the summer 2002. Majority of paintings since then shares the subject and style. The small “closed”, blind houses, fairly inaccessible, or accessible to some chosen people only, speak of enclosure, this time in rural landscape. The symbolic role of the spire in the earlier work – turns the sharp angled black shapes into cracks, as if in the frozen ground, issuing strong uncertainty. In situ, the eye reads little details, like the edges reminiscent of torn paper, a motive sometimes strengthened by folding a corner forward…
Wilson Chris carrach II (c)
Carach II, 2015
or by juxtaposition of recognisable sheets of paper or cloth…
Wilson Chris Some Day You
Some day you will be one of those who lived long ago, 2009
The paintings register time directly when Wilson modulates the greys in seemingly endless shades with undeniable conviction of certainty.
Night Drawn Darkness
Night drawn darkness, 20a4
The viewer is persuaded to read abstraction as having defined power of description and spatial co-ordinates. It is not an endless universe – it is this landscape around you- even when you see those are thin sheets of matter light as a golden leaf – easily pierced, thus vulnerable. The careful brushwork paints respect for the landscape whether observed or imagined. And, yes, there are dreamy elements lodged between the shades of grey. This small acrylic was not exhibited at this time.
Chris Wilson, Winter, Acrylic on canvas, 18x18cm
Winter, Acrylic on canvas, 18x18cm
Wilson Chris Displacement II
Displacement II, 2016
This one was there. Easily, the eye engages with the characteristics of Wilson’s post- newfoundland -style. Here, perhaps more robustly and openly presented. It offers numerous simple yet poetic passages, for the eye to cherish and the mind to enrich itself with – like a set of sonnets.
Wall Street International
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN ART CULTURE ECONOMY
Chris Wilson. Small Islands
6 Nov-4 Dec 2014 at The Doorway Gallery, 24 South Frederick St, Dublin 2, Ireland
The Doorway Gallery is delighted to host an exhibition by Chris Wilson called 'Small Islands'
on Thursday, November 6th between 6-8pm on 24 South Frederick Street. The exhibition
will run until December 4th.
"The works in the exhibition 'Small Islands', aim to celebrate 'place*. They extract the textures
and surfaces of sections of ground, often a coastal rock form, capturing the lines and patterns
of the land that one literally stands upon and transforms this intimate space into the idea of a
much larger landscape. The paintings are created through painted layers of subtle marks,
each layer slightly obscured by the next. In places the layers representing these hidden
histories of mark making are more visible. The surface becomes a canvas of lines and borders
with shifting patterns of strata suggesting boundaries, but also movement and a landscape of
changing and multiple viewpoints.
The small bonzes juxtapose these opposing viewpoints in a single form. Casts of rocks taken
from formations along the north Antrim coast where I live, provide the solid structure that
supports the small buildings on the surface. The fissures and lines of the rocks are
transformed into a mountain side, a valley or headland through the placing of the small
buildings. The rock castings and the paintings play with an aerial perspective that is
combined with a traditional linear pictorial perspective to create landscapes that explore an
attachment to place." - Chris Wilson
Chris Wilson has had many successful shows over the years and a lot of public pieces can be
found around Ireland. His work is in collections such as: Sport NI, Tollymore National
Outdoor Centre; Newtownabbey Borough Council; Department of Foreign Affairs, Dublin:
Down District Council: Banbridge District Council: Antrim Borough Council: Translink,
Belfast: MacNamara Foundation, Maine, USA; Art Gallery of Newfoundland & Labrador;
Arts Council of England; Arts Council of Northern Ireland; Arts Council of Ireland; British
Telecom; Bombardier, Montreal; Shorts Aerospace, Belfast; Irish Life, Dublin; AerRianta,
Dublin; Antrim Borough Council: Fingal County Council; Donegal County Council; Queens
University, Belfast; Limerick University; Office of Public Works, Dublin; University of
Alabama; Peter Moores Foundation, Liverpool; Department of the Environment for Northern
Ireland; Driver & Vehicle Testing Agency; The Causeway Hospital, Coleraine; EHSSB;
Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
Make Straight for the Shore – an exhibition of Irish art. Strule Arts Centre, 2008.
During the late 1980’s Chris Wilson explored ideas about the nature of place, and identity within a very specific political, religious and geographical context.
‘Coastlines’ 2002, is an example of how he has continued to deepen and develop this exploration of place, in this case the shores of North Antrim, Derry and Donegal. Wilson has used ordnance survey maps as a ground from which to work. He has blackened out the land and has thus highlighted a spider veined network of roads which at once link and visually separate tracts of land. The underlying map is glimpsed in mottled fragments of colour which take the appearance of links in a chain.
…in addition to maps which have been a crucial visual element of his work, ‘Coastal Tracings’ (2007) incorporates a profile view of the North Antrim headland with lightly painted images of the landscape, overlaying the lower part of the canvas with the illusion of tracing paper, superimposed to create yet another layer of knowledge.
In most relief models, the land is built up and rivers lowered but in Wilson’s ‘River’ (2006) the profile of the river is raised slightly. The river changes shape as it moves from the narrower softened, natural contours of the countryside to the widened harsh angular edges of the populated areas. Its shape is created by embedding lead into the board on top of a map of the area. A blue grey paint wash has been applied and finally the surface has been burnished with graphite. The resulting metallic sheen serves to accentuate and highlight the shape and direction of the river. The use of lead here is interesting and Wilson himself has explained that the decision to use it came about from his observations of the dull leaden sheen of the water surface on dark days. In the use of lead, he also raises concerns about the toxic nature of some of our waterways.
Terry Sweeney, 2008.
Land Marks. Strule Arts Centre, 2011. Catalogue essay by Terry Sweeney.
Chris Wilson likes to know where he stands – or, more precisely, where he is standing. He seems compelled to seek and find certainty about what is under his feet, what is to the right, to the left and what is above him. Sensitive observation of land, sea and air, careful probing of the inside and outside of objects and buildings in the city and in rural settings has helped him gain some degree of certainty, knowledge and understanding about his place in
a geographical, historical and cultural sense. For Chris Wilson there is not just one parameter or just one horizon. For him there are many constantly shifting local and global
perspectives. This retrospective is therefore a natural moment for him, literally and metaphorically, to locate his position in the continuum of a personal artistic journey.
Chris Wilson has long been engaged in a visual excavation of the world around him and he has realised the outcome of his contemplation in works that were initially intense
and measured and are now increasingly lyrical and nuanced. Described variously by art critics and writers as possessing the creative skills and crafting sensibilities of a carpenter
and stonemason, Glengormley born Chris Wilson began his artistic training in the Foundation course at Jordanstown in 1978. While at school, he studied Geology at A level and his enduring love of drawing was nurtured in his A level Art classes by teacher Michael Baird. The discipline, rigour and objectivity established in analytical drawing formed the
basis of his clear-sighted observation, accurate recording and skilfully refined interpretative techniques. Wilson completed a degree in Fine Art at Brighton College of Art specialising in sculpture during some of the worst years of the conflict in his native Northern Ireland.
Physically removed from his home ground, he was free to enthusiastically embrace the pervading ‘truth to materials’ philosophy at Brighton. Its liberating atmosphere coaxed
the young Wilson into a relentless exploration of a wide variety of materials, techniques and processes. A visit to see the exhibition, ‘Picasso’s Picassos’, in the Hayward Gallery in London in 1982 had a similar liberating effect. The exhibition contained many mixed media collages and assemblages. The practice of employing multiple perspectives in pictorial composition and Cubist engagement with theories such as the fourth dimension presented Wilson with energising possibilities. Linear perspective, though disciplined was also
constraining and finding the visual alternatives presented by these Cubist works was a revelatory experience and it has informed many aspects of Chris Wilson’s practice ever since. The Brighton experience was in some ways a rarefied one. At such a remove, Wilson’s work in the early years of his studies bore little relationship to the violent events in his
home place. The submerged effects of that conflict appeared quite un-self consciously and emanated from a rather humdrum event. In 1982 Wilson received a parcel from home which he unwrapped in his studio. He covered the wrapping paper with glue and began to manipulate and form the crumpled material not quite knowing what the final outcome would be. Subliminally and almost as a surprise to himself two figures emerged. The upright figure loomed over one which was prone. Wilson later surrounded the contorted figures with a darkened backdrop and in doing so created a sinister and menacing context which
recalled the aggressors and victims of the countless murders in dark alley ways and country roads in Northern Ireland. It was a work which was uncharacteristically emotional, perhaps indicating the deep seated fears of an exile who had listened to the fearful personal experiences of friends and relations in Northern Ireland and received snippets of information from newspaper and television images.
Towards the latter part of his degree course Wilson’s work became self consciously concerned for a deeper level of understanding of the underlying causes of events in
Northern Ireland. Potato Table 1982 from this time was an exploration of myth and symbols which many have seen as being at the kernel of a troubled and conflicted people. Wilson dissected several potatoes and burrowed into their cores scraping out the flesh and mixing it with thick, melted animal fat. He then used the potato and fat mixture to cover a metal armature in the shape of a table. He reassembled the outer skin of the hollow potatoes by
stitching the seams with linen thread and then he presented the offering of potatoes onto his newly formed table. It is a strong work with deep and complex resonances. Using the potato on the quasi religious altar table perhaps may have indicated the beginning of
Wilson’s search to unearth and lay bare the perceived underlying sources of communal tension in Northern Ireland. Plantation and settlement, uprooting and dispossession, famine, trust in religion and religious distrust are just some of the issues which one might see in this sculpture and which in one form or another has appeared in Wilson’s subsequent work. When he completed his degree, Chris Wilson went for a brief sojourn to the Scottish sculpture workshop returning eventually to Northern Ireland. In 1983, along with artists
such as Micky Donnelly, Anne Carlisle and Colin McGookin he began working in the newly established Queen’s Street Studio in Belfast. This city centre location and environment proved to be a rich source of interaction and intellectual stimulus. These young artists were surrounded by a city and its people that were going through an extraordinary period of fraught political relationships and extreme violence with bombs, shootings and loss of life
occurring on an almost daily basis. In 1984 he embarked on a Masters Degree in Fine Art at
the University of Ulster again developing his sculptural work. An architectural motif of churches and houses was developed during these years. These two building forms were selected perhaps to highlight religious, secular, political and personal tensions and anxieties. In the work entitled, In My Father’s House ll 1985, the form of an upturned schoolhouse is balanced precariously on the spire of a church. Around the dominant church is a scattering of smaller houses, each grey sheet steel form being hermetically sealed. These closed forms without doors or windows present an enigma – a seemingly impenetrable conundrum, a sense of hopeless isolation, a protective siege mentality generated by mutual distrust and exacerbated by interdependent institutional dominance. Wilson continued to explore the architectural motif when he became the artist in residence at the Crescent Art Centre
in Belfast in 1986. A consequence of this move however was a reduction in large-scale sculptures. Chris Wilson did not consciously set aside his sculptural works. They became
smaller in scale for a time and today he continues to produce private and public sculpture of varying scale and in a range of materials. The themes of these sculptures for example Treelines, 2007 commissioned by Omagh District Council – which stands outside the Strule Arts Centre parallel the main concerns in his picture making. The natural progression from his concentration on closed sculptural forms was to break the surface again as he did with potatoes and observe that which was within the forms he encountered. Using ordnance survey maps, Chris Wilson made his way around Belfast exploring the interiors of
abandoned and empty houses, industrial spaces and churches. He made drawings, paying attention to architectural form and details and to the way in which light intruded into the darkened spaces. The maps that he used to find his way around Belfast then became used as an integral part of his mixed media collage compositions. Ostensibly designed to establish and communicate scale, location and networks, the maps in Wilson’s compositions are variously used to subtly define architectural details and spatial planes. More importantly they also serve to draw our attention to concepts of ownership and territory, a sense
of belonging and of alienation and division. In A Quiet Influence 1986 (page 8) from this series of works, a crosslike cast shadow of a window frame slants menacingly, flaglike
across an interior the walls and floor of which are described with maps. An incongruous house-like structure depicted on the map-covered floor is perhaps a reference to the contractual arrangements pertaining to the Plantation of Ulster in 17th century where, in order to cement the plantation, planters were contractually bound to build a well defended house. The Plantation of Ulster has historically been the source of contested claim and
counter claim, grievance and justification by competing interpretations which have been coloured by conflicting religious and socio-political ideologies. Colonisation and colonialism and the relationship between the “guest” and “host” are deeply rooted themes in Northern Ireland but they have a wider resonance on a universal level – man’s relationship to his fellow man and man’s relationship with planet earth. In the latter part of the 1980s when the conflict in Northern Ireland was at its most violent, Wilson’s work became darker and gloomier in tone with an increased sense of hollow emptiness and abandonment. There are
fewer intrusions of strong light, shadows are heavier and interiors more cavernous and oppressive. From the Growth of the Soil 1989 (page 11) presents a church interior with
a stoutly sculptural void. Feeble light from small windows falls on the impoverished frames of two young trees. The thick-set wall structure of the church with its heavily ribbed wooden roof bears down on the desolate space below and offers little hope of survival. The spindly young trees however have come to rely on limited light and their own innate resources. Their fallen leaves have provided nourishment as their roots strengthen and reach further
down below the church floor into the natural earth. The glimmer of hope is that their branches will stand a better chance of breaking the constraints imposed by their stifling environment. The bleak, claustrophobic images from this time have a sense of foreboding and in some ways may reflect a personal restlessness in Chris Wilson’s life. In the early
nineties he took the opportunity to become curator of the Glebe Gallery at the former home of painter Derek Hill (1916-2000). The Glebe gallery is set in a sparsely populated rural part of County Donegal and the contrast in experience with city life was marked. During the
summer he had periods of intense work, planning and organizing an exhibitions programme and during the winter months he continued with his own practice taking opportunities to work as a visiting lecturer in USA and England. This new way of life opened wider horizons for Wilson and it soon was evidenced in his work. New World 1990 (inside cover) from this period has greater clarity and breadth of vision. An expansive map of the world has been rolled out and has been unevenly washed over with blue dye. Continental land masses and
expanses of sea come into focus and fade in a hazy blue cloud. In the foreground, vibrant blades of shimmering grass catch the light as they cut upwards. While the first appearance of the work is light and refreshing, like Flemish still life it flatters to deceive. In using blue dye to shroud the world map and by using lead to depict the grass, Wilson is perhaps drawing attention to the toxic fumes and noxious substances which threaten to engulf
and suffocate the earth. The intensity of night time darkness in the rural Donegal setting had a marked effect on Wilson’s work. This was particularly so when electric light shone from windows and doors at night and allowed illuminating beams to form strong independent and contrasting shapes. While maps still featured strongly during these years, the treatment is more graphic with areas of intense blacks created by flooding areas of the picture plane with a dense black conté crayon. Blanking the context and highlighting the maps which appear as shafts of light falling from single window frames as in Distant Night 1995 (page 14) seems to imply a sharp clarity of vision and yet the juxtaposition of the extreme contrasts creates an ambiguity of solid and void, substance and shadow. This
development of extreme contrasts made Wilson’s work become increasingly abstract to the point where some works were almost entirely black. In CoastLines, 2002 (page 19), Wilson has used ordnance survey maps of the shores of North Antrim, Derry and Donegal as a ground from which to work. He has blackened out the land, highlighting a filigree network of roads which at once link and visually separate tracts of land. The underlying map is glimpsed in mottled fragments of colour which take the appearance of thread like human veins or links in a chain – at once suggesting vulnerability and strength.
Vulnerability and strength in relation to man’s presence on this planet emerged again as a growing theme in his work in 2002. Wilson had moved from Donegal to live in north Antrim and was able to realise an ambition to make a return visit to Newfoundland. He had visited Newfoundland for the first time in 1994 in his job as curator at the Glebe gallery. The artistic work he encountered at that time and the physical geography of the place had made an impact on him and he looked for an opportunity to return. Eight years later he took up a residency programme at the World Heritage Site, Gros Mourne National Park. The vast
domineering scale of the geological features of the landscape set against dwarfed human presence was of immediate impact. Wilson made several drawings which reflected observations of the unique geological features which included two geological time periods and part of an ocean floor pushed up onto the surface to form the Tablelands. (Insert Curzon Village 11 graphite sketch) The transience of human habitation and the constantly evolving and shifting earth were aspects which were brought into sharp focus in the Newfoundland experience. In Land 2002 (page 18) a cluster of houses are seen from a low viewpoint picked out against a jet black background and foreground. A shaft of light illuminates gables, roofs and the land which in turn has been depicted using amber coloured maps. The low angled viewpoint and strong beam of light in some way confers a form of heroism on this human habitation. The location of the houses on a ledge appears precarious, yet tenacious. Vulnerability and impermanence is further exaggerated by blackened map lines which look like volatile fault lines and fractures in the rocky landscape.
A consequence of a second residency opportunity, this time in Maine in 2003 was the development of a layering process in which Wilson uses gesso and acrylic with graphite to
create layers of marks and painted surfaces. In Headland 2006 we can see the result of these new methodologies. Using trompe l’oeil layering and multiple perspectives he
blocks and exposes different features of the land. In doing so he creates a history of mark making, echoing to some degree, the history of man’s efforts to make sense of his transient guest presence on the earth. In this work, shifting light sources, the constant movement of the sea, shifting sands and vaporous sea spray on the air play an additional elemental compositional role. These North Antrim landscapes are increasingly subtle and poetic
compositions and maps, once so strongly highlighted, are becoming increasingly faint tracings.
The ephemeral nature of human existence is further explored in Winter Fields 2007 (front cover) and parallels with Northern Romanticism have been suggested. However the introspection, spiritual intensity and mysticism inherent in for example the work of Caspar
David Friedrich (1774-1840) are not so apparent. Wilson has pared away maps and the layers of human interventions and like a tenacious and rigorous archaeologist brings us face to face with the vulnerable fissures below our feet. Beneath man-made hedges,
borders and boundaries, a brittle and volatile earth tenuously supports all the faint visible signs of human habitation and the ghostly greys and multi layered tonalities in this composition serve to compound the sense of uneasy fragility and transience.
The certainties which Chris Wilson seems to have been seeking through his work have resulted in the discovery of more uncertainty and the challenge of perspectives and
dimensions yet to be pursued, explored and reconciled. Celebrated Ulster poet John Hewitt (1907-1987), who devised a literary journey towards a personal sense of place and belonging, seems to echo some of Chris Wilson’s visual discoveries in the words:
from ‘Conacre’, John Hewitt
This is my home and my country. Later on
perhaps I’ll find this nation is my own;
but here and now it is enough to love
this faulted ledge, this map of cloud above,
and the great sea that beats against the west
swamp the sun.
John Hewitt, The Selected Poems of John Hewitt, ed. Michael Longley
& Frank Ormsby (Blackstaff Press, 2007) reproduced by permission
of Blackstaff Press on behalf of the Estate of John Hewitt.
Irish Geographies – Six Contemporary Artists. 1997. Djanogly Art Gallery, University of Nottingham.
Irish Geographies is a consideration of how it may be possible to envisage a category of cultural identity between the idea of the homogenous national identity and individual subjectivity. Curated and written by Dr Catherine Nash.
The maps in Chris Wilson’s work represent places which echo other places and perspectives. In his focus on the light, shadow and geometry of architectural forms as well as the growth and decay of organic matter, Chris Wilson draws on the themes and aesthetics of Northern Romanticism. Yet his mixed media images are also a kind of partial atlas of a local, regional and global geography. Taking the interior and exterior forms of buildings – churches or houses – he works with the division between the interior and the exterior as a conceptual and spatial category. The maps inlaid in window frames or on church pews both depict particular places while evoking other places and other spatial scales. This sense of simultaneously considering the place itself and its location with the local area, region or globe, or finding references to other places in map fragments, seems to speak of a geographical imagination in which a sense of place does not rely on an inward looking sense of value and a defensive notion of outside threats to cultural or ethnic purity. The multiple perspectives and spatial scale of his work offer a way of relating to place which neither focuses relentlessly on division nor celebrates places through looking to a pure and authentic past which must be protected. Definitions of purity always entail defining others as alien and polluting. In his work, however, place is produced through shifting interconnections with other places, and vision moves between the local and the global. In ‘Shadows of Light’ a map forms the bright façade of the buildings against a dark sky of leaves and branches whose lines echo the branching lines of road. The fact that this is a bilingual map of the region produced by the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland is coincidental for the artist, yet it evokes the politics of language and cartography in Ireland as well as the history and contemporary attitudes which have led to the bilingual map-making policy in Northern Ireland. But his maps are not simply references to colonial mapping and its legacies.
Many of Chris Wilson’s images imply a sense of multiple location, different and shifting viewing positions and a sense of geography which continuously brings together different places and different spatial scales. In many of his images the viewer cannot simply take up the traditional fixed imaginary viewing position standing to see the view according to conventional horizontal perspective. Whether skies are composed of the leaves of woodland floors, the imaginary viewing position is then just above the ground surface. Another shift in cognition and the sky is the sky again, or the patterns of branches look like road networks. The map façade depicts light on a building but the map also evokes the region. The outline of the continents can be found in the fallen leaves. This multi-perspectival sense of location or multi-locational sense of belonging offers a way of representing places, in this case in Northern Ireland, which neither ignores nor relies upon the pull of attachment or the political dimensions of place but keeps both in tension.
Dr Catherine Nash. 1997.
2011 Irish Arts Review, Vol 28 No.1. March-Spring
Landmarks - Chris Wilson's use of cartography in his multimedia works is examined by Sarah Downey, ahead of his retrospective at Strule Arts Centre, Omagh in April.
The power of a map cannot be underestimated – the delineation of land and territory has always evoked strong feelings. Growing up in Glengormley, a few miles outside of Belfast, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Chris Wilson’s appropriation of cartography in his multimedia works is unsurprising. The dominant themes of Wilson’s work – division of land, space, the Church – have remained constant since the 1980’s with his first major exhibition at The Crescent Arts Centre (1985), The Orchard Gallery (1986), the Fenderesky Gallery (1986) and the Project Arts Centre (1987). “Landmarks”, Wilson’s retrospective at Strule Arts Centre, recounts the journey of Wilson’s works throughout the course of his career, mapping the constant themes and displaying their evolution as the landscape of his practice advances.
Interior World from 1987 is rife with symbolism and metaphor. A shadow is cast on the remains of a church, seen from the inside. Amongst a leaf-strewn floor, a map becomes apparent, leading the viewer through a door to a never-ending map. Given the date of its creation, at a basic level Interior World can be seen as a metaphor for the insularity of Northern Ireland contrasted with the big wide world, but the barring of the ornate window also references prison bars and a personal as well as public sense of isolation.
The Church and the tree are recurrent symbols in Wilson’s 1989 work From the Growth of the Soil, with bare trees breaking through the floor of a deserted church. As the curving branches stretch towards the windows, maps herald the way and suggest that knowledge lies not with the roots of the tree, but with the wonders of the outside world.
Throughout the twenty-five year’s worth of work displayed in the exhibition, Wilson has continued to be fascinated with place, landscape and the maps that attempt to depict them. Trees are consistently used as a metaphor for the lines on a map, and windows, houses and churches suggest a person or people looking out, though Wilson rarely chooses to include figurative elements. While only two-dimensional works are on view, Wilson’s public artworks are represented by documentation, and his work that Omagh Council commissioned for Strule, Tree Lines, is located outside the centre.
This piece, and other public sculpted works, such as Ocean’s Edge in Ardglass (2008) and Landmarks, commissioned for Tollymore Mountain Centre, Bryansford in 2009, represent a shift in media, though not in content. Wilson’s first major public art commission was in 2004 by Translink, making a metal and neon drawing of urban development’s between Belfast and Dublin. The smooth and glossy surfaces of the bronze and metals used in his sculptures is carried into later graphic works, such as Horizon with its sharp lines and cubist blocks suggesting cold metal sheets. Sharp edges are overlapped with worn angles, all connected by the meandering lines of a map. Winter Fields from 2006, with its cutaway trees, appears a premonition of Tree Lines, the 2007 stainless steel sculpture that dominates the exterior of Strule Arts Centre.
Wilson credits a residency at Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland in 2002 and another at the Robert M. MacNamara Foundation, Maine in 2003 with the shift in his later works. In an interview with Slavka Sverakova, Wilson discusses adopting new materials, such as gesso and graphite and combining them with perspectives formed on the residencies: ‘once I related these methods to multiple viewpoints and shifting perspectives, my landscape painting developed into a kind of synthesis of my previous concepts and the new look.’
As a retrospective, ‘Landmarks’ demonstrates the strength of Wilson’s focus and presents a rare instance where an artist’s public works are presented as an integral part of his practice. In Wilson’s own words, ‘The public artworks are often thematically linked to the ideas embedded in the paintings, manipulating view points, opposing scales and perspectives. The sculptures occupy a physical space and allow for different experiences of scale’. Wilson’s works are the juxtaposition of the interior and the exterior, the public and the private and the exhibition evidences how perfectly his practice encapsulates this.
Sarah Downey is a freelance curator and writer.
All Ireland Group Show, Gordon Gallery, Derry, 2013. By Jenny Cathcart
By Jenny Cathcart Derry~Londonderry is looking dapper in the dusk as I walk across the Diamond and up Pump Street to the Gordon Gallery. Here, the All Ireland Group Show is the first in the gallery’s calendar of events during the UK City of Culture 2013 year. On show are 90 works by 54 artists, 23 of whom are Aosdana, Royal Hibernian Academy or Royal Ulster Academy members. Many have exhibited before in this gallery or that of Richard Gordon’s father, Nat Gordon, who owned an Art Shop in Bishop Street. Ephraim Gordon set up the Empire Picture Frame Works in Newmarket Street around 1860. All of the featured artists were either born in Ireland or live and work here. Some are Irish but have settled in France, Spain or Holland. Some are ‘blow-ins’ from as far away as India, Malta or South Korea. Apart from this international aspect there is a sense that this is also a family affair. As such there are contributions from Mavis Thomson and her daughter Marion; Graham Gingles and his daughter Lisa; Jim Allen, his Armenian wife Sophie Aghajanian and their daughter Neisha; husband and wife Brian and Denise Ferran. And Derry is well represented too by Orla McLaughlin, Eamonn McAteer, John Kerr and Malachy McGonagle, all of whom teach art in the city’s schools. Some of the pieces, which range from mixed media installations to seascapes, landscapes, still life and abstract paintings are hot off the easel. One is drawn in by the drama of Brian Bourke’s poignant ‘Day of the Eclipse’, with its muted colours and windswept trees and shrubs. It was painted by the artist in memory of his brother Fergus who died in his garden at Pollough. Chris Wilson’s contemporary approach to landscape echoes his interest in ordinance survey maps. The stark outline of cliff top houses and sky, delineated in distinctive black and grey acrylic paints and graphite, make ‘Evening Light’ (pictured above, and cropped) one of the most arresting pictures in the exhibition.
Slavka Sverakova interviews Chris Wilson by e-mail, February 2008
Slavka Sverakova interviews Chris Wilson by e-mail, February 2008 SS: The paintings I saw at the Mullan Gallery in 2007 were different from your previous dark images drawn over multicoloured maps. You have mentioned a residency that inspired that departure. What contributed to that change? Chris Wilson: Winter fields , 2006, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 100 x 122; private collection; courtesy the artist CW: There were two residencies that proved important for enabling the development of the work that formed the basis for the Mullan Gallery show in 2007. The first was a residency at Gros Morne National Park in 2002. I had previously been to Newfoundland and was determined to return for a longer period and work there. The Gros Morne programme was run jointly by Parks Canada and the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador at Memorial University. For me the unique geological landscape of this area combined with the elements of human habitation were of great interest, I was focusing my responses towards the landscape in terms of scale, distance and the vulnerable presence of small dwellings and harbours. Chris Wilson: Gros Morne sketch, Woody Point , 2002, pencil on paper; courtesy the artist The landscape has many unique features including no less than the physical evidence for two geological time periods, also a part of the ocean floor pushed up onto the surface to form the Tablelands. Chris Wilson: Gros Morne sketch: Woody Point from Tablelands @ 500 metres , 2002; courtesy the artist For six weeks I walked and recorded vistas and panoramas and only towards the end of my time did I reflect on the fact that most of my vision had been directed towards horizons whereas it was really the ground and rocks over which I walked that held the key. For several years my 'map works' had played with relationships between shifting viewpoints and multiple perspectives. Chris Wilson: In October Light , 1985, map and conté on panel, 76 x 76 cm; private collection; courtesy the artist Cubism was a very early interest. Once I started to re-examine these ideas in combination with my Gros Morne experience, I began to visualise pathways that were at the core of how to deal with landscape in the many ways in which we now experience it, ie from the normal linear perspective and also from an aerial perspective. The Newfoundland experience had opened up a number of thought patterns that I wanted to explore but the materials that I had been using up till then did not allow me to realise the ideas immediately. Chris Wilson: Coastlines , 2002, map and conté on panel, 70 x 127 cm; courtesy the artist Works like Coastlines evolved at this time, where I was drawing with conté over the real Ordnance Survey maps so much that I blacked out the information between the roads and left only connections between places. I made a series of these pictures that were almost completely black but for a fine filigree of networks. But I still had not got to the core of what I was after. It was during the second residency at the Robert M MacNamara Foundation in Maine in 2003 that I finally developed new methodologies through using gesso and acrylic with graphite to create layers of marks and painted surfaces which allowed me to expose and hide different layers, thereby creating a history of mark-making, some quite strong, others barely visible. Once I related these methods to multiple viewpoints and shifting perspectives, my landscape painting developed into a kind of synthesis of my previous concepts and the new look. Chris Wilson: Landscape - hillside , 2006, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 76 x 127 cm; courtesy the artist SS: It illustrates the role of new experience nourishing an older paradigm, changing it a bit. However, there is a consistency in your work despite some apparent twists. I recall your MFA exhibition of a group of small metal houses, the grey tonality and volume would appear later in the newest paintings. What led you to subdue your interest in sculpture? During 1988 you made collages and sculpture, for example, for the Clear Focus exhibition at the Narrow Water Gallery. Sean McCrum observed then that your work was inspired by abandoned interiors and by sequences obtained by photography. Chris Wilson: From my father's house II , 1985, installation shot, Orchard Gallery, Derry, sheet steel, approximately 140 x 140 x 200 cm; courtesy the artist CW: There was never a conscious decision to subdue my involvement with sculpture. Those sculptures had employed the symbolism of closed forms, no doors or windows, a stage that introduced to me a question how to get inside. Around 1986 - 87 I began to explore it by transforming the Ordnance Survey map of Belfast. Both the sheet-steel sculptures and the map works involved transformation of flat material: in case of the sculpture the flat plate formed the three-dimensional house, in the case of the map the pictorial space offered an illusion of three dimensions. Chris Wilson: From the growth of the soil , 1989, map, gold leaf and conté on panel, 82 x 82 cm; private collection; courtesy the artist Chris Wilson: Interior - Narrow Water , 1991, map and conté on panel, 76 x 122 cm; private collection; courtesy the artist The map constructions allowed me inside the enclosed spaces. At a particular junction this material provided access to explore the psychology of enclosure and isolation, which was connected to the wider political and social environment of the city at that time. All of my production has been an exploration of materials and the specific history trails of particular materials: steel is industrial and carries a history; the maps referred to borders and boundaries; while the interiors of houses or churches created connections to private individual thoughts and feelings. I never added any colour to either method of working but rather allowed the material to be the primary driver, akin to minimalism; even with the maps the colours were part of the printed surface, my additions and transformations only involved using black conté which I could rub into the surface with my fingers. I very much considered the 'map works' as constructed spaces. Chris Wilson: Interior World , 1987, map and conté on panel, 122 x 76 cm; collection Arts Council of England; courtesy the artist With the early 'map works' I often used abandoned industrial spaces or church interiors when unoccupied; also I would gain access to an empty house on the market. At that time in the 1980s, some estate agents would just lend a key and allow you to view the property by yourself. Chris Wilson: Church Interior - Passage East , 1987, map and conté on panel, 122 x 76 cm; private collection; courtesy the artist I would spend time drawing the interior, how the light would enter a window and fall across the floor; this gathering of detail often found its way into compositions that took place in the studio. SS: You have described a fluent development of your art practice from actual three dimensions to a pictorial one, from steel to maps, to gesso, from history to private thoughts. During the 1990s you worked as a visiting lecturer in the USA and England. You also became the director of the Glebe Gallery. How, if at all, have these experiences facilitated, or not, your own art work and exhibitions? CW: My time at the Glebe Gallery was punctuated with periods of intense work organising exhibitions in the summer months, but the winter was a time when I could develop my own practice; that and the lecturing gave me some financial security, which was important at that time, it allowed me to develop new ideas and strategies. Up until the move to the Glebe I was becoming restless; I needed a change and a new landscape outside of the city. This turned out in retrospect to contribute enormously to a simplification of the interior compositions, almost an abstraction where light falling through single window frames and illuminating recesses would be used to focus the viewer more on the actual map material rather than so much on the structure. I now think that these developments were a response to the surrounding landscape where the intense blacks of the night would be punctuated with the light from an open door or window. Eventually this strategy developed to a point where I was making almost completely black compositions. Chris Wilson: Distant night , 1995, map and conté on panel, 76 x 122 cm; courtesy the artist SS: After you moved to North Antrim, comments on your paintings, for these are now paintings, linked you to 'northern romanticism', to 'multiple interconnectivity' and to the mood known from high-contrast photographs. Do you recognise any of this, on reflection, as salient points? I have in mind exhibitions in Dublin and Belfast. Chris Wilson: North coast , photograph; courtesy the artist CW: When I moved to the north Antrim coast it was some time before the landscape became fully integrated into the work. I had started to record aspects of the cliffs and coastline with a view to developing ideas related to the boundary between land and sea. These were not necessarily new ideas; I still incorporated shifting perspectives and multiple viewpoints. These compositions, which I continue to develop, refer to changing landscapes, the layers and different perspectives, to push and pull, making it difficult for a viewer to establish a fixed viewpoint. The form is still rooted in the 'map works'; however, I pursue now more complicated compositions, which reflect concerns about landscape and people's impact on it. Chris Wilson: Valley , 2008, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 60 x 120 cm; courtesy the artist I suppose in many ways any interest in landscape is romantic and certainly early influences included Friedrich's Monk by the sea . S:I perceive yoSur oeuvre so far as a story of light and dark. Both in the optical and psychological sense. The grey paintings tell me of some sort of peaceful agreement between the two. I remember an image with pale blue windows high up promising that kind of change. The light intrigues me also in those images where you use black - is it ink? - to draw the trunks of the trees over a multicoloured map. How do you achieve the gradation here? The shadows? CW: For me it is interesting that you mention this sense of agreement, I have never been aware of any fracture in periods of work but rather that my focus shifts along new pathways revealed by previous developments. In the early map works, including the interiors and urban parks with the focus on trees, I used only conté, which I rubbed into the surface. Chris Wilson: Landscape , 2001, map and conté on panel, 99 x 128 cm; courtesy the artist The tree pictures were created by cutting out from maps hundreds of individual leaves and building a uniform surface which was given shape and form by creating shadows around the leaves, almost like standing in a wood looking down onto the ground below one's feet; this was really an aerial perspective which was often complicated by imposing a linear perspective, shadows from trees, the form of surrounding houses, etc. All of these surfaces were created by using the black conté and rubbing, tearing and sanding the surfaces to create textures and depth. SS: I see your point about the continuity, when you say that the tree pictures evoked "standing in a wood looking down" and the Gros Morne drawings were of "ground and rocks over which I walked." Also the layering, be it of cut-outs or of paint, supports that. Nevertheless, there are differences between the steel houses, the 'map works' and the gesso paintings that, for me, parallel the myth of coming out of the darkness of sorts. The recent paintings, in their subtle variants of greys, present an agreement between light and dark, between being in isolation and out in the natural world. I note a celebratory tones there too. Chris Wilson: Landscape (triptych ), 2008, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 58 x 175 cm; courtesy the artist; courtesy the artist Slavka Sverakova is a writer on art.
Art in America, April 1996. Vol.4
Art from the Edge (Part II) by Judith Higgins.
There are no people in Chris Wilson's collages of Belfast streets and interiors. This "Absence of Presence", as a Wilson collage is titled, makes the conditions that people have lived under in Northern Ireland - isolation, surveillance, intimidation, menace and threat of sudden death - all the more palpable.
Returning to Belfast after a spell at art school in England, Wilson was struck by the city's particular mix of psychological tension and preoccupation with territory and boundaries. Looking out over Belfast from his top-floor studio, Wilson began making collages from materials imbued with personal and local meaning, such as the brown wrapping paper he remembers using to cover his schoolbooks. Wilson turns to pale Belfast street maps for the windows and shafts of light that penetrate his umber worlds of abandoned church and classroom interiors; they also let in the public city, with all its threats and divisions.. In the work of the early 90's, the natural world repossesses Wilson's deserted churches and schools. Leaves are strewn over the coffinlike pews, a harvest of potatoes on the floor sprouts eyes and slender, gilded trees have pushed up through the floorboards. In a World Within (1991), a dark street of terraced houses constructed from Belfast street maps has opened itself up to an exuberant sky. Above, leaves cut from a map of Africa, Europe and the Americas swirl up and beyond the picture frame, as full of curving movement as the houses below are static and angular.
Time Out, No.1072, May 6-13, 1991.
In A State, Project Press, 1991. ISBN 1872493033.
The Great Book of Ireland, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 1991.
A Special Place, Arts Council of Ireland, 1989. ISBN 0906627257
COE -90, Claremorris Open Exhibition, 1990.
Gateway To Art, Aer Rianta, Dublin, 1992.
The Silent Ground, published by ACNI, essay by Damian Smyth, 1991.
The Silent Ground. 1991. Arts Council of Northern Ireland solo touring exhibition. Chris Wilson – An Introduction by Damian Smyth, 1991. Chris Wilson’s art is of the kind which demands and rewards close attention. It is demanding because the themes which preoccupy him in the works are complex and often disturbing though rarely in an explicit or crude way; rewarding, because in discovering the subtleties of image and technique, there is a joy to be had which one feels is akin to the experience of the artist. Indeed, with Wilson’s careful overlapping and unpeeling of layers, the viewer is invited inside the works to follow the contours where the processes of making and re-making and unmaking are played out again. Wilson stakes a claim to a language of art on behalf of an Irish perspective which has often either reneged upon it or been denied access to it. In so doing, however, he performs a liberating and generous service for it. One of the exhilarating features of his work is that, in spite of (or perhaps because of it) the initial impression of austerity, there is a real strength of sensual pleasure, and a satisfaction with substance, in his imagination – he gives to the interiors of his churches in particular, and to the solidity of things in general, a glow of tangibility and of sheer presence which, in its context, is almost sinful. Inhabiting an ambiguity somewhere between sculpture and collage, his images straddle, too, themes of contrast and opposition and, in his best work, this resolves into a conception of the dignity of difference. The tensions between urban and rural life are magnified into those between culture and nature and find their symbols among the debris of city maps and decaying leaves – a particularly powerful and oppressive vision of such tension is “Autumnal Earth”, where the air is thick with leaves, the outlines of houses struggling for visibility, piercing the solid sky and drowned by it. This marks an extreme in Wilson’s work in recent years – a total image, where there is no space except that carved out by the contours of the work itself. Similarly, the separation between interior and exterior is interrogated and transformed in “Separate Night” where organic stalks grow up from the unlikely floor of a church. It is worth registering here the quietness of Wilson’s intense political concern. It is no accident or convenience that the imaginative and literal foundations of his art are laid down on the topography of the city of Belfast but he refuses the gimmickry of the topical by physically removing the references as far as possible from the obvious while keeping them still within the range of visibility. “Shadows of Light” ( a title which contains ambiguity), one of his advanced and authoritative recent works, has church and house alive with the blazing shades of a bilingual map, the branches of the sky continuing the directions of the veined lines of the roads, the inter-involvement of opposites expressed vividly without simple-minded resolution. Political, yes; but Wilson does not replace one set of dogmatics only to replace them with another of his own making. His works, careful, rigorous and marked with integrity, are continuously open, through his quite brilliant use of the oldest artistic convention – the play of light and darkness. For me, Wilson’s best work to date is included in this show. It seems that the concerns of the last three or four years have begun to coalesce into an impressively mature vision which has grown into a repertoire of already sophisticated and accomplished techniques. The magnificent “A World Within” epitomises the expanding range of his imagination: a map of the world is broken up on a grid of leaves; a street of Belfast-mapped houses opens up to receive the arrow-head of the multi-coloured, fantastic, overpowering sky; three white trees, barely alive, reach up to the exuberant heavens. Here the fundamental power of an artist to reorganise and reordain the truth is made evident – applying no artificial colouring, Wilson re-composes the world in a marvellous image which stimulates the mind with its variety of levels and manages to be visually engaging at the same time. The works on show confirm Chris Wilson as one of the very few of the best younger Irish artists. Damian Smyth, 1991.
Victor Willis – Chris Wilson, Duncan Campbell Contemporary Art, London. 1991.
Shocks To The System, 1991
published by The South Bank Centre & Arts Council of England, 1991. ISBN 1853320706.
Gateway To Art, Aer Rianta, Dublin, 1991.
Gateway To Art, Aer Rianta, Dublin, 1990.
Living Landscape’90. West Cork Arts Centre, 1990.
Chris Wilson – An Introduction by Damian Smyth, Narrow Water Gallery, 1990.
Chris Wilson – An Introduction. Narrow Water Gallery catalogue essay for solo exhibition in 1990.
Chris Wilson’s work involves the imagining not so much of an image as of an environment: a carefully structured creative space within which anomalous energies surprise the eye. His gift resides in being able to repay attention at every level – the church interiors of his recent work attract through an overpoweringly sombre visual rigour in execution, exerting a fascination which deepens when the grainy textures of the work differentiate themselves on closer inspection. The final relationship with those interiors is one determined by their resolute ambiguity – but an enriching ambiguity of meaning in several layers which is the result of a willingness on the artist’s part to pursue the unforeseen and varied consequences of a very definite purpose. Hence, the starved Beckettian trees, church-bound and fingering sunlight that only reaches them through the toxic filter of a Belfast Street map, in “From the Growth of the Soil” (1989), manage to express the terminal decay of a spiritual and sociological order while, at the same time, affirming qualities of survival and new, if impoverished, fecundity in their wiry, naked resilience. Here, as so often with Wilson, is a work aesthetically pleasing, sensually stimulating and intellectually complex.
Establishing itself at the interstices of apparently conflicting dualities – those of nature and culture, interior and exterior, the organic and the synthetic, the urban and the rural, the spiritual and the religious – Wilson articulates the relationships in a very real way, with no easy juxta-positions of received imagery or totems borrowed from prevailing ideology. Rather, there are originally evocative symbols the borders of which elide into one another; thus, ominous interiors enclosing soil and trees are revealed themselves as fashioned of rough wood while “wooden” trees are transfigured in gold leaf. Things clash, conform, slide off each other, moving in an intensely realised space where the air itself is heavy with the fabric of the art.
But if each work is an environment it is equally an anatomy, with its own bodily thickness and a skin peeled back in places to display the network of veins and arteries – a city, or a building, like a body, is a locale which invites movement as an evidence of life, even if it is only the movement of a gaze from one point to another. In this regard, Wilson’s new work is dense with habitation: the anachronistic exterior claustrophobia of “Autumnal Earth” overwhelms house which yet retain the form of places to live; the ironic “The Green House” inverts the expected, by having plants tower over featureless and solid buildings whose human angles resist stubbornly the huge grip of nature; and in the very powerful “The Absence of Presence”, human abandonment is everywhere, in the rigid curtains, the encroachment of natural decay and in the submerged, illuminated manuscript that is Belfast.
Wilson’s are painstakingly constructed pieces, without a gesture surplus to meaning and with an invigorating, though not distracting, relish on the artist’s part in his own imaginative and physical activity, expressed most beautifully in the distribution of tactile shadow and the judicious exposure of the sinew of maps.
What delights one most in the development of Chris Wilson’s art is the increasing refinement in the uses of his technical and stylistic discoveries. There is an awareness of the distinction between metaphor and symbol – that the latter enhances the variety of possible responses to visual images and that the former tends to restrict the imagination to certain pre-ordained conclusions. The techniques Wilson has unearthed are now firmly rooted in the intelligence of symbol while retaining the giddy flair of invention. For this reason, he is sufficiently still to absorb the intransigences of his themes and sufficiently flexible to register their unlikely nuances. For this reason, too, he is already an extremely vibrant presence among the handful of the best Irish artists.
Damian Smyth, 1990.
Images Of Mourne, Narrow Water Gallery, essay by Sean McCrum, 1989.
Chris Wilson - From The Growth Of The Soil published by ACNI, 1989.
Chris Wilson. From the Growth of the Soil, Arts Council Gallery, Belfast, 1989.
Catalogue essay by Angela Kingston, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.
Chris Wilson has a workmanlike approach to making pictures. Grafting together richly pencilled paper surfaces and pieces cut from maps, he works methodically and painstakingly. It is as if he identifies with the carpenter or stonemason as he carefully constructs his church interiors. Constantly measuring and deliberating, he will add layer upon layer of paper, drawing onto each of them; he might then sand it all down vigorously and set to work again. When he draws the bare earth, it is as though he is a farmer working a piece of land, attending to the matter at hand with a pleasurable respect. At each stage of his work, he seems to be striving to substantiate the ground he is working on – paper can seem so ephemeral – whilst at the same time gaining a practical knowledge of the fabric of the world.
It follows that Chris Wilson’s depictions of things have a highly literal quality. His images invite an instant recognition and this was used to great effect in an earlier series of works in which he made disarmingly direct statements about repressive institutions. In “Untitled” 1985, window-less houses and a severe looking church were drawn onto sections cut from street maps of Belfast, dramatising the profound influence that experiences of family and religion have on feelings of territory and identity. Other work depicted regimented schoolrooms and piles of books in conjunction with maps, and commented on the insidious effects of education. The clarity of the artist’s early work supported the most forthright ideas.
While he has continued to refine his artistry and depictive skills in recent work, his pictures now convey a much less certain view of the world. “Harvest”, completed earlier this year, shows a mound of potatoes which someone has left in the aisle of a disused church. Where previously the dramas were centred on the impersonal power of institutions, here is evidence of a highly individual human action taking place in an institution. A recognition of what might be meant by the event which has taken place comes more slowly, is more searching, and requires a very personal involvement with the image. There are memories, perhaps, of churches and chapels overflowing with produce at harvest time, and packed congregations singing rousing hymns: does the spilling of potatoes in an empty, echoing church represent a moment of mournful longing for values, faith and community? Or was that dull thudding, as the sack was upturned, about futility and anger in the face of change?
Chris Wilson has said that his interest in the image stems, in part at least, from the idea that the offering of produce to celebrate harvest is a gesture which pre-dates Christian times. He is intrigued by the idea of this taking place, quietly, in a neglected church. A profoundly held belief and a rich continuity of experience live on through a highly compulsive action.
The artist’s long standing antipathy towards church dogma finds simultaneous expression, however. The potato tubers are sending out tender shoots in this dimly lit church, with no possibility for sustenance here: “some seed fell on stony ground”. The fact that the crop being offered up is potato is ominous, too: as the highly insecure staple food of Ireland for centuries, potatoes carry anxious associations of poverty and famine. The apparently simple conjunction of potato and church is highly poignant: one symbolises the oppressed, the other the oppressor; one represents worldly sustenance, the other food for the soul.
In “From the Growth of the Soil”, young trees are sprouting inside an empty church; this time there is sustensnce, if only because the roots have forced themselves below the floorboards. Leaves have fallen from the trees and more have blown in from outside: a hummus is beginning to form and perhaps the trees will break through the church roof one day. It is sunny outside – is a new Eden waiting for us out there? The church is not, however, so casually expendable: its arched structures are like the branches of the trees, and made from the same fabric, after all. Perhaps, like a tree, the church is in a cycle of growth and decay – should we wait and hope?
The significance of Chris Wilson’s recent work shifts from moment to moment, and this is as a result of the risks he takes when he is working. He will put an idea on paper without any certainty about what will result – like the person leaving potatoes in an empty church, perhaps – and then work on it until he has a sense of its implications. Understandably, such a process will not always give results, and the artist often discards or completely reworks a picture. But what he aims for, and achieves, in works like “Harvest” and “From the Growth of the Soil”, is the possibility of pursuing productive ambiguities. This is an intuitive, speculative approach which is consistent with his doubts as to whether certainty – political or otherwise – is what we need at the moment.
Chris Wilson’s pleasure in, and knowledge of, the fabric of the world continues unshaken. What has changed is that his carefully wrought images are now used with a challenging incongruity, and the scope of his work has expanded beyond measure.
The 2nd Open Exhibition Competition of Works On Paper, The Fenderesky Gallery, 1988.
Open Futures, 1988
curated by Angela Kingston, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 1988. ISBN 0907594166.
Athena Art Awards, Barbican Centre, London. 1988
– works on paper by 7 artists from Northern Ireland published by the British Council & Fung Ping Shan Museum, University of Hong Kong, 1987.
A Line Of Country, essay by Christopher Coppock, Cornerhouse Gallery, Manchester, 1987.
A Line Of Country. Three artists from Northern Ireland.
Cornerhouse, Manchester, 1987.
….Chris Wilson offers a less didactic assimilation of form and content. Narrative is a significant force in his sculptural work, but it vies with the formal aesthetic of objecthood. It is as important for Chris Wilson to exact precise spatial relationships between his steel-skinned boxes and forms as it is for them to collectively provide a representation of a local urban scenario. The potency of the narrative is only released and the pure aesthetic qualified when the centrepiece of the work, as in “When the Shadow Threatened” an all embracing cross, is strategically placed to punctuate the scene. In a relatively minimal gesture, Wilson alludes to non-secular Northern Irish society; the place of worship dominates and predominates. It is a simple juxtaposition speaking volumes. Pursuing this theme, his recent map and brown paper drawings eloquently combine two dimensional actuality with three dimensional illusionism. The maps of Belfast become the sites for the study of internal and external space, and in the process pull the multi-media images from dislocated aestheticism to the claustrophobia of the mental space of Belfast. Here is an assertion of the power of parochialism to mould and circumscribe perceptions.
Christopher Coppock. 1987
3 Critics – 3 Artists, Fenderesky Gallery cat, 1987.
Chris Wilson – Project Arts Centre publishing, 1987.
Fenderesky Gallery Open Exhibition Competition, 1987.
Belfast/Cardiff – Cardiff/Belfast. Published by Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff & ACNI, 1987.
Two Generations of Northern Ireland Sculptors, Orchard Gallery publications, ISBN 0907797237. 1986.
Cover page, North Magazine, issue 5/6, 1985.
Fenderesky Gallery, Belfast. CIRCA Art Magazine No.27, 1986.
Review by Joan Fowler
Chris Wilson’s drawings are much bigger in concept, in fact these attempt to embrace the universal. In his catalogue statement Wilson quotes Stephen Spender: “Different living is not living in… Different places but creating in… The mind a map”
The ideas evolve around an installation piece, ‘From My Father’s House’ which Wilson has included in previous exhibitions. Only two of the drawings actually refer to this directly – From My Father’s House, Drawings I and II – but all are thematically connected. Because of this an implied narrative is all the more present and indeed if the drawings were viewed in isolation from one another much of the impact would be lost. However, the drawings were not hung in any sequential order and there is no evidence to suggest that Wilson conceived the series as a story. There is a strong sense in which each drawing was devised without reference to the others beyond their basic materials.
The recurrent comprehendable subject is of a house, the kind of representation of a house as would feature in children’s literature or games – a house with a front door, two windows to either side, a sloping roof with a chimney – though the features are not altogether consistent throughout the thirteen drawings. The house is then cast into various landscape locations in four of the drawings and in the remainder the house, which has the dimensions of a doll’s house, is shown within a house of normal proportions, these are, of course, illusions. The spectator is also taken inside this normal size house. The house is therefore a notional idea of a home, actual and metaphoric; it is swamped by the vastness of both the landscape and the interior rooms where the viewer is situated. In his statement, Wilson says that he uses “maps as a means of creating ‘Surface’; to represent the surface of the earth and the walls within which we live”. The surface of each drawing is a map. Metaphorically the map is a journey, a journey which stretches from the very localised Belfast environs through Europe to the world. At times the existence of the map is simply the blue that represents the sea and the grid of latitude and longitude, and often it is obliterated completely by a secondary surface which is brown-bag paper used to represent in more opaque form both the earth’s surface and the surface of interior walls. His statement does not account for the symbolic, or otherwise, role of the house which is portrayed as an object rather than as an impenetrable and seemingly infinite surface represented by the map and brown paper – lines and plans which will eventually join to form a continuous line.
Yet the journey is not only a journey across the surface of the world but a journey downwards into the earth’s crust. In the landscape drawings the earth is shown deeply furrowed and in ‘Scorched Earth’ these cuts into the surface are made by burning into the map. In ‘Between Air and Stone’ the house is placed at the top of the drawing and beneath are layers and layers of the earth’s strata, each represented by varying the chalk marks. The curving lines of these drawings are transformed into the straight lines and flat surfaces of the drawings of the house interior. These are cast in light and shade and often they show or reflect a window which indicates the light of a world outside. The map is dominant in these areas of light whereas the brown paper takes over in areas of shadow. Such motifs are typified in ‘An Interior World’ where we are shown the ledge of a window and we look down on the room which is lit up by the light streaming through the window and onto the floor. There is a church-like quality in the way the walls of the interior cut out the world outside with an intimation of a beyond through a door or window but which is not within our reach; in fact aspects of church architecture are used in two of the drawings which emphasise a difference between inside and outside.
Wilson’s drawings are on the one hand quite austere technically and conceptually but they also strive towards a poetic statement about the human condition. In this series the house can be said to represent an open-ended idea of a personal or private place which can exist anywhere, physically or mentally. This is implying something profound but not naming it. As such, there is a link with modernist literature: the work is about absence rather than presence, an intimation of meaning about a lack of meaning. Wilson seems to be influenced by these literary models and parallel to this it is worth remembering that the use of maps was forefronted by modernist, minimalist-conceptualist artists of the ‘sixties and seventies’. Wilson seems to have developed from these precedents. There is therefore an element of the modernist with a ‘post’ tagged on because there is poetic imagery to add spice to the minimalism. But this is only to allude to Wilson’s lineage: in this he may be on firmer ground than his illustrious contemporaries who engage in much less restrained and less thoughtful ideas.
Joan Fowler, 1986.