FR: I came across the Robbe-Grillet short story in the seventies and was captivated by it because of the slow unfolding of the narrative and the way that phrases are repeated, almost like a recitative in music. The parallels with musical form are intriguing particularly the slowly paced rhythm and the constant returning to phrases, which become almost a central melody. There is a continual sense of movement, a movement forward in time as well as the physical movement of the children, the birds and the water. Yet the observer remains in the same position. The sounds too gradually increase in significance from the pulling back of the gravel from the waves which appears in the first part of the story to the final, sixth part of the story where the bell sounds and the children’s’ voices are heard. It is this sense of a developing taking possession of the narrative, which resonates with me and when it reaches its climax it is not thunderously dramatic but subtle and quietly powerful. The reader, listener takes something away with them.
The genesis of my large drawings involves a slow process of prising open an idea. The initial impetus is invariably visual which then, through endless repetitions of line and tone, dozens of drawings, each one inching forward into a slightly different exposé, starts to involve other influences such as something I have read or music that I have listened too. None of these influences are overt; they just gradually seep into the work and become part of what it is. I think this is what I mean by the slow unfolding process. But also I want to send people away with something that they will continue to think about and that will also bring them back to look for more.
KJ: So the narrative is internalised? The drawings are abstract, the marks dominated by intersecting lines, but there is a topographical element which hints at the narrative you're suggesting.
FR:I am not sure that I want to use the word narrative in direct relationship to the drawings. Certainly the thought processes are internalised and there is an awful lot of long looking and thinking involved in the making of each work. They are abstract, but of a type of abstraction which is suggestive. When I find a motif that I like, like the closely knit vertical lines which could be seen as suggestive of the neck of a stringed instrument, I will continue to use it regardless until I have completely resolved that idea and I am ready to move on and away from it. The topographical element is clearly present in the initial observational drawings, which are made on site in the landscape, but once the works reach their final stages any topographical element is really incidental and not intentional.
KJ: I'm intrigued that the musical references are not only to sounds but also to instruments. It points to the density of process that has become sharpened, shaped on the paper. The compositional scores of Cage, for example, whose music you also reference, were considerably focused, directional, ‘graphic’ entry points to his free-ranging experimentalism. Likewise, that graphic sense is a starting point for your examination, and the ideas, sounds, topology you explore become parallels - sometimes literally parallel lines, in a connection that is paradoxical but not contradictory.
FR: The Musical references have always been there in my work but I think they are move overt in these particular drawings. The idea of notation be it musical, dance notation or text has always hovered at the edges of all my visual work. In the eighties I made a piece of work for the Northcurrent Project which was a very long thin installation of drawings, each section of which was drawn as if it was a line of text. It was called Written on the Land. In 2005 I also made a two metre high drawing, Once Upon a Time… which consisted of fifteen rows of drawn hedgerows and was a response to the ripping up of hedgerows in rural France. It really did look like a huge sheet of music. Cage I think is very interesting because of the crossover between music and visual art. Sometimes there is a sense that he doesn't actually fit into either category. However there is more to do with listening to Cage's music in my work than looking at his notation which must, incidentally, be phenomenally difficult for a musician to follow. Last summer, 2011, I did a series of twenty drawings in ink on small 20 cm square very heavy Kadhi paper. Whilst making them I listened exclusively to Cage's music and the drawings themselves were made by soaking strings in black ink and plucking them so that they snapped onto the paper creating both sound and lines which overlapped and smudged. They were very difficult to control but it was these plucked string drawings which led directly into the Soundscape and Nocturnedrawings. I should say that I normally listen to string music and piano music whilst I am working. This act of listening, going back to your earlier question, which is part of my working process is one of the reasons I thought about recording the story and playing it in the gallery with the drawings. The story itself is immensely visual but there also cadences which come alive when the text is read out loud. Here I have used the English Text but would also like to do a recording using the French text which would add a completely different dimension because of the mellifluous quality of the French Language. Aware of the specific sounds which Robbe-Grillet mentions in his text, gravel and waves, I went down to Chesil Beach at Abbotsbury in Dorset where I live and made an on location recording there which picks up the very distinctive sounds of water and gravel on that part of the coast. The reading is recorded over these sounds, but softly so that it merges and murmurs almost at times becoming part of the aural setting. I like this idea of fusing foreground and background that also, in the fusing of foreground, i.e. line and background ie. Support, in this case paper, happens in my drawings.
KJ: Can you introduce your Elegy drawing? You've mentioned an interest in the durational experience of history, and I think this is explored through traces, literally residues left in the cracks in pavements.
FR: The large Elegy drawing was an amalgam of a number of very small drawings which I did whilst I was in Ballycastle, the home village of the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Co. Mayo. I only discovered after I was offered the Fellowship that my Great Great Uncle, who was a member of the First Irish Parliament in the 1920s, was buried in Ballycastle. A Doctor, he was a prominent member of that community and there is a monument to him in the town. I met people who knew his family, went to school with his daughters and was shown around his house at the top of the town. Walking up and down that street every day I started drawing the wonderful lines of cracks in the pavements, aware that he and my cousins would have walked up and down those same pavements. The whole experience created a very strong sense of history and poignancy too. It was something that happened unexpectedly and it took me by surprise. I suppose in part Elegy is a lament for those lives which are gradually forgotten. By the time the third generation comes along earlier members of a family are no longer known and knowledge of them is often lost.
KJ: And so the formal element controls the presentation of these ideas? There are paintings and drawings in this show - how do you decide on the materials?
FR: There are paintings and drawings in this group of work but this show consists exclusively of drawing. The decision to do this was partly to retain coherence in the exhibition, to keep it simple, so that there was a very clear link between the drawing and the ideas, but also because there seemed something very appropriate in using drawing in relationship to the short story. There has been a gradual reduction in my use of colour i.e. pigment in the last few years. In paint I have reduced my palette to ultramarine blue, Naples yellow and raw umber with zinc white to concentrate on colour greys. The logical progression seemed to reduce it still further with charcoals, graphite and white chalk so that very subtle colour is emerging. It appears to change constantly, creating a sense of movement in the lines depending on the light and the position of the viewer. I increasingly feel that I wanted to be very rigorous in my analysis of the ideas I am exploring. I want to pare down the formal elements to the very minimum, which on this occasion meant using monochrome and working on paper. I do feel that drawing is a very immediate, very raw, art form and the progression from thought to eye to hand to drawing creates this immediacy, which is something that painting has to a lesser extent. The advantage for me was that I was not distracted by the seductive qualities of paint and or colour. Though to be fair I find the materials I use in my drawing just as seductive as paint on canvas! Whilst working in the studios at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation I became obsessed with using white chalk with both graphite and charcoal and with what happens when you pull those materials across the surface of the paper. I had done that on canvas before but using paint. The chalk creates wonderfully subtle greys. I also started using wax, which I had used previously on canvas and it added a richness and depth to the layers of the drawing as well as providing me with the very deepest of blacks.
The initial sketchbook drawings of the horizon developed into the Unstable Horizon paintings that also referenced the instability of the viewpoint distabilised by the motion of the sea. Once the lines started to tip up all reference to horizons was left behind. It was at this point that they moved towards a relationship to music and seemed much more abstract, solely about how the lines and the materials I was using behaved on the paper and within the composition. The Discords drawings where there are two or more panels, which almost grate against each other have a feeling of seismic shock. They are struggling for supremacy, struggling to establish which part of the drawing is in the foreground and which further back. I really like this tension. It is very evident in these drawings and it is something that I want to explore further.