2014 - by John MacLean
Artists’ biographies frequently concur on one point: their subjects first awaken to the idea that they may be able to make art when they encounter the work of an established artist. That is, most artists are converted to art by art itself. This first creative affiliation encourages the fledgling artist’s latent ambition and bolsters their self-belief; it may then be supplemented with others, forming a network of mentors-by-proxy within which the burgeoning artist begins to articulate their voice.
Peruse the book collection of anyone with a serious interest in art and you will find a similar network here too — an inner circle of ‘desert island artists’ represented by the most-thumbed books on the shelf. Whilst a prevailing aesthetic may be evident, any suggestion that the relationship between the viewer, the image and the artist is just a mutual appreciation of formal values is to deny that artists are able to tap into something that runs much deeper.
One could speculate that good artists act as conduits, putting the experiences of their lives into their work. Great artists are able to put something of themselves into it as well. These are underlying qualities, but they can often be recognised by the viewer, whether consciously or not. So if art can explain the artist, I would suggest that the art we surround ourselves with explains something about who we are, too. The qualities we admire in an artist, which we ‘know’ through the emotive function of their work, are the qualities we value, or aspire to, in ourselves. If paths run through people as surely as they run through places, the art we revere represents a crossing of the artist’s paths with ours.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, if the developing artist becomes aware of a stylistic junction with their mentor, their instinct is often to cover their tracks rather than explore the common ground. This is the ‘anxiety of influence’ that has created avant-garde movements in art, most apparent in Modernism’s ‘fear of contamination’. If the quest of the artist at this crossroads is for a truly innocent gaze, it will always be out of reach: motifs in art exist throughout human history and across cultures, supporting the concept that we are born with a foundation of shared images — a collective unconscious of archetypes.
Artists evolve by absorbing what they need at any given time, from any given place. They collect and refract into their art a spectrum of influences through their own prism of insights and limitations, eccentricities and obsessions, certainties and vulnerabilities. To take one example, Peter Fraser does not flinch from the creative influence of William Eggleston, nor Eggleston from Cartier-Bresson, nor Cartier-Bresson from Degas, nor Degas from Manet. In each case the artist has an innate personal vision strong enough to prevent their art from being inundated with influence, but equally knows that embracing its intertextuality prevents their art from stagnating. They absorb existing ideas, re-energize them, make them new, and pass them on. Artistic influences may be amplified or compressed as they pass through artists, but their passage through history is recorded in the open-ended volume we call tradition. Every image is constructed through inheritance and reciprocity; every image bears a lineage from previous images, and every artist a lineage from previous artists. Paradoxically, whilst the creative desire is always to look forwards, ‘original’ art is always, at least in part, an encoding of work from the past.
Hometowns takes a reflexive look at this process of encoding. It began life as a line in my notebook: ‘Photograph the hometowns of your heroes’ — an idea for a layered investigation into the places which influenced those artists whose work has coloured my own. Two years later, that line has become a sixty-five-image, photo-homage to a unique group of artists who have been my own mentors-by-proxy, and an endeavour to untangle the strands which connect me to their work.
In total, I have travelled to twenty-five towns and cities — the environments where ‘my’ artists each spent their formative years. Every trip was preceded by a period of biographical research, which inevitably refreshed my memory of the photographs, paintings and sculptures that emerged (at least partially) from these neighbourhoods. Important artworks had persuaded me to travel to these locations so, unavoidably perhaps, I photographed each hometown through their afterimage. But each place provoked an individual response, and I found myself swimming with and against those currents.
Paying tribute to the spirit in which each artist worked was a central concern, but intrinsically this meant making my own imprint too. After all, to make works that were mere genuflections would have been an artistic betrayal. The key seemed to lie in the paradox of this series: that these photographs have been formed by a process of unravelling. So I have tried to find opportunities where I can add ‘twists and turns’ of my own to the photo-mechanism of re-braiding. Overall, I hope they have an underlying quality that reflects the ambivalence experienced by every artist: both the anxiety and ecstasy of influence.