At studio1.1 in the last weekend in May of last year we showed ‘Made in Lempa’, forty-eight drawings Marcus Cope had produced in an intense burst of activity during a month spent in Cyprus. Drawings that ‘obsessively go back over the same subject-matter: canvases, paintings, paint tins, walls. A painter’s world.’ A painter’s reduced world, that would have to be, condensed down to the raw materials of his practice, standing directly in front of him or occupying his mind, there in peripheral vision. The subject-matter is rarely confronted head-on, is much more likely to be half-glimpsed, flicked on to the paper, two angled lines becoming the corner of a canvas, while the setting is no more than set up with indexical clues: a paint tin, a blank background that has become a piece of wall. Signs that point to some activity off-stage, rather than the action itself.
Like a prologue before the curtains open and the action starts, those drawings have now expanded into the paintings that make up the full-scale show ‘All the Chairs are Broken’. The same references to an artist’s daily life are there, we’re still in the studio; but the obsession has changed significantly, deepening and becoming a good deal more resonant. Where before the recurrent motifs could be seen as purely generic, work traces of the Unknown Artist, now a particular set of memories and objects from the real world combine in the logic of a dream, where things that either matter or don’t matter can coexist. The artist’s baby daughter or a chair left out in the street.
A recurring dream, too, the revenge of the materials, the obsession as a symptom not so much of neurosis (one supposes) as of the artist’s urge to do it over, fail better, get it right (Maybe this time). Returning again and again to these wooden steps, that rickety table, the tins, the image seen and re-seen, moved on from and come back to.
The artist’s studio, the artist’s world… while the artist collects images and detritus from the outside world to create a new one inside the studio, the paraphernalia (the paraphenomena) of the studio itself intrude naturally into this new vision. And vision in the strongest poets and painters, however narrowly focussed is nevertheless frameless, always admitting the world outside it. (A can of paint sits outside the frame as daringly as the elbow of Titian’s ‘Man with a Quilted Sleeve’.) Thus a painting (this very one at some point) leans up against a wall, asserting its own reality and potential. It exists within this other painting just as much as things seen on the street corner. (The bison may have been conjured into the cave but the child’s handprint fixes them there). Reality, that is, but potential as well. Paint cans repeat the formal questions, cone, cylinder, circle. The paintbrush stirs up an unanswerable one – how did that get there? And how did it get there again?
Soberly seen, this reverts to being paint on canvas, and paint in a subdued tonal register, at that. The walls, the paint tins and the canvases assert their formal qualities, lose their figurative meaning, exist as tokens, configurations of the sharp and the blurred. As they become familiar to us they cease to be declarative. Unlike a traditional still life, (those very flowers on that particular day), these tins and brushes show us a world which never existed, but still might. They take on a very particular mood; these are paintings in the subjunctive.
It’s worth listening to the artist himself:
“…a painting of a painting leaning. Self circular, the items in the foreground, the jar of turps and brushes, the paint tube, the sketchbook were sitting like that on my studio floor in front of the painting as I was painting them, and then within the picture within the picture they are there separated, and painted as preparatory drawings pinned to the wall. The painting on the right in contrast, drawn out. Featuring two more paintings, the painter showing up for the only time in any of these pictures, it is me of course, but headless, or somehow my head lost in the cloud in the painting behind.
Sickert said ‘One day, something happens’ when talking about painting as a daily routine, painting a portrait waiting for that ‘something to happen’. I suppose it’s like a magic wand, and I think painters feel this strongly, some days it does feel as though the brush is just not working properly, it’s so hard to explain it. This and being made from a piece of stick used to stir some white paint.”
Say it, no ideas but in things–
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident–
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained–
secret–into the body of the light!
William Carlos Williams, from ‘Paterson, book 1’.
(At the Cyprus College of Art all the chairs are broken…)