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Ancestral voices

Words by Martin Holman

How Jonathan Michael Ray makes history the new contemporary.

For artist Jonathan Michael Ray, materials have always been his starting point. House bricks, several types of slate and granite, serpentine stone, glass and lead make up a quick tally of the media in his current show at Tate St Ives, in which his work is paired with paintings and drawings about landscape by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, one of the leading figures in post-war painting in St Ives. To that list can be added chalk, limestone, windfall oak, wax, seashells and discarded objects found on the Thames foreshore since they feature in other works not included in the exhibition.

The thread that connects them is direct experience of land, sea and air; most of these materials derive from nature. Only the techniques Ray uses to incorporate them into his art – photography, film, engraving, cutting – are man-made. Some materials he finds by chance or seeks out in reclamation yards and repair studios. Others are specifically ordered from suppliers who will dress pieces to the dimensions he wants. Ray is happy to involve others in the search. But the job of transforming the material by grinding, polishing, sanding and incising is his alone.

Within the dense, tactile solidity of stone, Ray perceives a multitude of stories. Handling the slab of granite in ‘Following the Seam (no. 20)’ (2019) unravelled a stream of associations about the rock that dominates the geology of Cornwall. He finds that the colour, texture, weight and shape, and where the rock is quarried, narrate to him the passage of time and the remorseless forces that modelled their physical properties over millennia deep below the surface.Equally important for Ray is the age-old interaction between humans and their natural surroundings. Generations have earned their livelihoods from the minerals and sediments running in seams far underground. Granite was the backbone of the county’s existence, generating perils and profit.

Because the material contains that heritage, the granite rock in this work is mounted on the wall, where pictures are traditionally placed. The grainy grey photograph fixed to its surface depicts Botallack mine, from which shafts were sunk into the bedrock to reach the copper and tin deposits under the sea. Like the slab, the image has layers: multiple viewpoints of the mine are compacted one upon another in translucent strata as if trying to pull together the experience of time passing or, perhaps, the jarring impact of wind and rain on the mine’s exposed cliff-top setting. The fluid lattice of lines that course in shallow gold rivulets below, incised into the skin of the slab, invoke the subterranean channels that were cut into during a long history of human excavation.

The artist’s heightened sensitivity to landscape dates back to childhood. Growing up in Buckinghamshire, he recalls playing in woodland and fields around Downley Common, where banks and ditches delineate ancient patterns of ownership and land usage. An appreciation of nature and its diversity was nurtured by his mother, a florist and keen gardener, and holidays were spent walking and hiking in the Chilterns or the Lake District, locations endowed with a strong sense of place.

A family vacation introduced him to Cornwall. Years later, after completing his postgraduate study at London’s Slade School of Fine Art in 2016, he returned with his wife to settle in Penwith. At that point, he had two goals: to be part of a thriving artistic community and to engage in his work with the reality, history and traditions of the landscape. He had just been awarded a year’s residency at St Ives’ Porthmeor Studios, where Barns-Graham had worked 50 years earlier alongside Ben Nicholson and Patrick Heron. Meeting artists Nina Royle and Abigail Reynolds, who had established careers with national scope in the region, was instrumental in his move west.

Unlike most artists of Barns-Graham’s generation in St Ives, Ray does not paint. But the processes his materials undergo are almost as numerous as the materials themselves. Occupying the centre floorspace in the Tate exhibition is a rug with a shallow pile. It measures 300 centimetres (almost ten feet) in length and almost as wide, so visitors have to walk round it to reach the other exhibits. Continuous across its expanse is a realistic design of wild green undergrowth in which images of yellow flowers can be picked out from time to time. Unlike a conventional rug, however, the surface undulates unevenly like a miniature landscape, perhaps one upon which architects might model a future town. This facsimile sward is even divided into a grid resembling numerous adjacent plots of ground. Visible at the edges, where the canopy lifts off its temporary plinth, are the profiles of used bricks as if literally swept out of sight. Outside the gallery, that would look neither remarkable nor out of place. Shrouded mounds just like it are often seen on building sites or abandoned land; they contain rubble and look forlornly redundant, maybe harbouring puddles in which birds wash. Bringing the ensemble inside the museum amplifies both its incongruity and its unsuspected multivalence. There the visitor’s mind fills with associations, prompting thoughts about texture, shape and colour – artistic thoughts – but most of all about urban neglect and nature’s ability to harmonise the disruption, taking back what man once snatched from it.

The artist’s own experience is the origin of the work. Titled ‘Underdeveloped Reconstruction (Made in China)’ (2017), it was made during a residency in Hong Kong. Next to the studio he occupied was a vacant patch of ground, itself a rare occurrence in that sprawling city of towering glass and steel. Fascinated and moved by its survival, Ray recorded the unlikely florescence of haphazard organic beauty in a patchwork of scans in as big a format as his handheld equipment allowed. These he sewed together digitally into a new, portable experience of the scene. Handing the composition to a manufacturer in mainland China, a printer with fine ink jets then precisely sprayed the image of verdant vegetation onto a sheet of synthetic felt, the antithesis of nature. The result makes a profound point with poetic brevity about volatile boundaries in the modern world – between open space and dense habitation, and between the contrasting encroachments of nature and technology, between the real thing and the artificial.

This artist is constantly struck by barely noticed evidence of how change over time destroys as well as builds. He delights in collecting graffiti because it contains words and symbols with intimate meanings that outsiders cannot know. They have accumulated over centuries and the inscriptions that crowd ‘Three Thousand Years’ (2021) give glimpses of dates from 1652 to 2012. Ray brings disparate examples together in one place, a block of dark Delabole slate quarried in Cornwall on which he incised with gilt lettering the inscriptions he has faithfully copied onto five sides of a single standing object, a kind of roadside milestone through time that points nowhere. But it gives mute voice to a population’s ancestors. Touring churchyards to find those scripts, he discovered overlooked examples of unpredictable change that he had never believed permissible. Salvaged remains of stained glass had been reconstructed after some catastrophe – a fire, for instance, or bomb damage during the last world war – had blown asunder both the sacred figures once depicted in glass and the stories or commemorations the windows had once visualised. Pieced together in a random, abstract fashion, windows that once envisioned heavenly glory in triumphantly coloured light now unwittingly projected the very picture of disorder.

Delighted by this realisation, Ray embraced the same accidental aesthetic. Purchasing from dealers and warehouses discarded glass panels, dating back centuries, he constructed his own ‘windows of dystopia’. Shuffling segments from unconnected eras and sources, he improvises new designs that imitate the method he had admired in the rebuilt churches. ‘Golden Vortex’ (2022) can be legitimately interpreted as elaborately decorative. The painted curls and flourishes imitate sculpted stone and are optically dynamic, like multiple facets reflected in a kaleidoscope that might rotate into new configurations at any instant. They please and confuse the eye at the same moment. Simultaneously, however, Ray’s repurposed stained glass engages the imagination in seeking out the meaning the dislocated details yearn to convey. The key to interpretation is nowhere to be found, leaving the search among the mute symbols to intuition.

Like many artists, literary science fiction is an influence on his approach. A favourite is Riddley Walker, the 1980 novel by expatriate American writer Russell Hoban, in which a futuristic, post-Apocalyptic community stumbles on evidence of the previous civilisation wiped out by conflict, while lacking the key to understanding its surviving relics. So myths arise based on imagination and misapprehension which, Ray implies, unleashes new creativity. His own route to creativity did not take the conventional path. Lacking direction after completing his undergraduate art degree in Nottingham, Ray entered the fashion industry, initially in print design at Paul Smith before becoming a pattern cutter with Roland Mouret in London’s Mayfair where he developed the technical precision required in constructing high-end bespoke garments.

Art played no further part in his career until he moved to Montréal in Canada and became studio assistant to the sculptor Michel de Broin. “My real education as an artist started there,” he says. “I learned from Michel what it meant to live and work as an artist – about structuring my day, building a studio practice and how to deal with failure. I learned that being an artist was possible and not a fanciful dream.”De Broin also provided a model for a career spread across numerous media. Active in video, performance, photography, drawing and found objects, his range foreshadowed the multidisciplinary approach Ray adopted when, with his mentor’s encouragement, he enrolled at the Slade in 2014. Ray is captivated by the beauty of craftsmanship; its survival reassures him. His remarkable composition on slate, ‘Ere long done do does did’ (2021), appropriates ornate designs emblazoned on 17th century headstones in West Country graveyards. With its title quoting Morrissey’s song, ‘Cemetry Gates’, about the vagaries of artistic inspiration, the gold-filled inscriptions reflect on the enduring power for remembrance of lettering on stone. Despite the modern ubiquity of easily accessed digital formats, this ancient custom continues to represent permanence.

The exhibition, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Jonathan Michael Ray, continues at Tate St Ives until 2nd October 2022.


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