The artist and psychotherapist Robert Downes on his upcoming exhibition ‘A Small Corner of the World’ at SPS London. In conversation with Kate Holford.
Here at Stillpoint Spaces London we are celebrating an ongoing conversation between the oft-divided worlds of Psychology and the Arts, with a whole range of events and engagements throughout the Autumn. Part of this has been the development of our first exhibition of artworks, by artist, psychotherapist, and friend of SPS Robert Downes. Robert has been making art alongside practising as a psychotherapist for several years, and as a result has been the perfect person to introduce our Lab space as a gallery, and as a place to contemplate the psyche through the visual arts. While this season sees a real focus on the Arts, we are passionate about keeping Stillpoint a place for collaboration and cross-disciplinary work, and our community is built on this notion of inclusivity and thoughtful exploration.
In anticipation of Robert’s exhibition opening at the end of September, I asked him some questions about his practice, his current plans for pieces to be shown at Stillpoint, and what has influenced his work up until now.
(Part way through this exchange, I asked Robert about his interest in, and love of, Rebecca Solnit’s writing. Robert replied with an extended answer, which deserved to be shown in it’s own right as a reflective essay on the contemporary philosopher, and her influence on his work. This appeared later as a separate post on the Stillpoint Spaces blog.)
K: Firstly Robert, a very intriguing question for me: you trained and practice as a psychotherapist, and your main career has been within the psychology world, so, what is it that originally drew you to the idea of making visual works? Or has it always been something you have done throughout your life?
R: Minor White, a US photographer, writer and educator speaks to what I have come to understand about why I make visual work: “Any man working with the medium soon or later impinges, merges into, fuses with the fringes of mysticism. Camera Vision deliberately aims at the outermost reaches that any medium can hope for” (Minor White).
For me making pictures is a pleasure, a place of reflection and contemplation, a wandering and a wondering. It can also be a refuge and respite from harsh realities, so I can also think of it as a self-regulatory practice. It can be delightful and touch the depths of my soul as well as offer the simple pleasures of finding the world and experience hinted at and represented in intriguing ways with ink and paper – this is something of why I make images. Maybe we need to abstract places and experiences in some way to know them and ourselves more deeply, after all, seeing can be thought of as an abstraction of the environment. Somewhere along the road I wanted to make objects and images that speak to particular inner experience of being in a place and of being in this particular life. It seems we need to make meaning and do so in all sorts of ways.
Images as a child were sites of refuge, alternate learning and pleasure. I collected pictures, covered my walls with them and filled boxes with the overflow. They spoke of experience and places, internally and externally that were not necessarily being tended to in the environment that I was being raised within. Image making became something that I wanted to do born of desire and frustration, that kind of frustration that says, “I want to make that”. It was not enough for me to look at the work of others, I had to make too and making consistently took a while to get to – hence the need for therapy.
“Maybe we need to abstract places and experiences in some way to know them and ourselves more deeply, after all, seeing can be thought of as an abstraction of the environment.”
My father had a 35mm SLR camera that I took to Ireland with me as a teen and this is where I recall my love of the land began to be transmitted onto photographic paper. I wasn’t reliant on drawing or painting skills to take away something of the environment that had touched me. I could photograph it. In a simple sense, making an image of a place visited is an attempt to capture something of the experience of being in that place. Of course, the image cannot capture all that experience; I guess I like the evocation that is possible with an image. It is a trace of a place and an experience, and sometimes that can be plenty, a trace.
K: How then, would you describe the world that you create through your images?
R: I tend to make images that are a response to the physical environment which speaks to the Small Corner of the World project, some of which will be shown at SPS. This really is my record of visiting places, primarily the west coast of Ireland, and how they have affected me at the time. Making images of those moments become evocations of those places and the transcendent states that I experience when I am in amongst what we call ‘nature’.
The images I make I think of as being a dialectic that embraces the external environment, as well as conscious and unconscious elements that are shaped by my particular vision. This interacts with the technology I use, be it the camera or cyanotype chemistry, for example. I relate to much of the imagery I make as visual poems, sites of potential contemplation and reflection in response to the environment that I am in, something that evokes a state of mind in response to the light, atmosphere and physicality of a place. These images often speak of space and openness to the potentials of stillness and depth that can be evoked away from the built-up environment of London where I live. Being on the west coast of Ireland where I make a lot of photographs has a particular impact on me. The stillness and beauty I find there is probably the subject of much of my work alongside the impact the spectacle and magic of nature can have on us. The work invites a contemplation on the planet and our dependency upon it whilst there is such a reckless disregard for it.
“I want to make a refuge from some of those realities for a moment, to take in something of the sublime that existence offers us.”
I rarely see sunsets in London in the way I can on the west coast of Ireland. There are millions of sunsets for us to view on line. Penelope Umbrico made an interesting project from images she found on line of sunsets. Here is one of mine – some of us want to make our own sunset images despite how many are already out there. Through such image making I am seeing and showing the world I see. We all see differing worlds and the world differently; that is quite a thing to contemplate. I tend towards making abstractions of what I encounter because the abstraction evokes something less literal and something of the impact of a place on my being. They are images that may also then impact on others in their own unique ways.
The notion of image as refuge arises here. I don’t depict the atrocities that are occurring in the world nor the poisoning and destruction of the planet that we see in Edward Burtynsky’s work. I want to make a refuge from some of those realities for a moment, to take in something of the sublime that existence offers us. This isn’t an apolitical avoidant strategy, it is an attempt at balance given that most days I expose myself to the harsh realities when I engage with the news, manifest some form of activism as well as work in my work with my psychotherapy clients.
Having said that, I do make other images in response to the urban environment and current realities. This image below is of a faded KFC ad on the side of a phone box in West Croydon. I came across it on the way to an employment tribunal with friends. It speaks to the desire for neo-liberal corporate hegemony to fade globally, and in this instance, of corporate injustice involving my friends.
K: If you could step into one of your landscape pictures, do you know which one it would be? (Or does it feel as though they are all the same wild landscape, and so synonymous with each other?)
R: I remember wanting to step into an Ansel Adams image of Yosemite Valley. I don’t recall where or when I first saw the image, it might have been on a card or calendar in the 80s. I found a book of his work when I was studying for my A levels in the college library. I think I still have that book. This particular image captivated me because of the spectacle of the place as well as how it had been photographed. I fell in love with this image and imagined visiting, concluding that I would never be able to afford to go. I guess I kept the book to make this place mine in some way. In 1991 I did venture to California and Yosemite and sat at this very spot surveying the scene. It was a very different place – animated, in full summer colour and busy with others who wanted to visit this scene made famous. I recognised then that the Adams photograph of the valley in winter was very specific to his experience of the place in that moment. The photograph becomes a place in itself. I like that he allowed the image to be used on a coffee can for a while.
There is a place I went to as a child that I continue to return to in County Kerry called the Gap of Dunloe. Like Yosemite there is the sense of a protected land surrounded by mountains and it is this protective and impressive space that feels safe and wondrous at the same time that touches me. I wonder about the disconnect from our environment and each other that makes profit more attractive than what is here already.
K: Who else’s work do you find inspirational, perhaps also in terms of artists or photographers?
R: I am inspired and touched by so much work, the list is endless. I will mention some current company. I’ve recently been looking at Antony Gormley’s drawings in books that I have as well as on his web site where he has an impressive page dedicated to his drawings. I love his sculptural work but always come back to the drawings of his body which is also our human form that is he dedicated to exploring.
Instagram is quite inspiring for me at times. I follow a lot of photographic artists and artists working in other mediums and there is so much to see and lots to enjoy, and be inspired by. My current experiments with cyanotypes are informed by the work of several people on Instagram who have been working with cyanotypes for a good while. I learn from their experience and pick up tips.
I have been drawn to Minor White and the photographers he came into contact with in California. Minor White was a photographer, writer and educator who joined Ansel Adams in the photography department at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. White’s development of the course resulted in an inspiring teaching practice and course. He took photography to be both an expression of the subjectivity of each photographer as well as an expression of something more transpersonal. Rose Mandel was one of the students at the school whose work I came across. She had left Europe, fleeing the Nazis having studied child psychology with Piaget in Switzerland. She ended up on the West Coast studying with Ansel Adams and she barely exhibited. Her work is subtle and intimate and I felt a connection with her work having worked with adolescents, and ventured into photography myself. Another photographer I came across was Marjorie Content. She didn’t make a lot of work, her images were simple observations of light, line and surface beautifully composed and rarely printed larger than 3 by 4 inches. They are precious intimate objects. I do like the ‘thingness’ of a photograph.
“Abstractions offer a site of non-conceptual contemplation, a kind of meditation where we might also notice the habits of the mind to seek certainty through knowing and definition.”
Masao Yamamoto is one of my favourite photographers. He is a skilful printer as well as photographic artist. He dyes, tones and paints upon his images which tend to be small intimate objects. He installs his work in beautiful configurations and makes simple and evocative images that are small enough to go in your pocket. He sometimes does that and rubs his own tears into the images.
One more current favourite. I travelled to Zurich earlier this year to see an exhibition of Jungjin Lee. I have several of her books which are beautiful objects in themselves. She constructs stunning images by exposing her negatives on to large pieces of handmade rice paper made sensitive by liquid light. She made a series of works called ‘Thing’ which are still life images of everyday objects simply and evocatively shot. On seeing her work, I recalled Pablo Neruda’s poem Ode to Things where he declared his love of things:
I have a crazy, crazy love of things. I like pliers…
this ocean is yours,
This inspired me to think and write about some of my abstract images and I began to think of them as ‘No Thing’, an opportunity to be free of conceptualisation for a moment. This can provide a chance for the mind to not know a thing and to be relieved of needing to define and know a thing – for a moment at least, given the nature of this challenge for the habitual mind. Abstractions offer a site of non-conceptual contemplation, a kind of meditation where we might also notice the habits of the mind to seek certainty through knowing and definition. Yet we have things and see things and love things as Neruda reminds us.
K: I recently saw Rebecca Solnit describe writers as “solitaries by vocation and necessity”; your occupations and practices are in many ways solitary – how do you feel solitude and isolation influence the work you make? All your images are absent of people or figures, for example.
R: I am coming to understand the necessity of solitary time and space to create. Most of my photography and mark making I do alone. It is a personally private affair that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am alone. There may well be ‘others’ in my mind: writers, poets, philosophers, artists, friends, images, music, my history and psyche all of which informs an inner dialogue or company. So I would say I need to be alone with others in mind in the making of my work.
I also need contact with others, to come out of solitary wandering and making to dialogue and discovery with others. It is the going back and forth from contact with others and contact with self alone that feels to be a creative and generative process.
The video piece ‘Small Moments of the World’ that will be shown at SPS is made up of moments where my eye has lingered for a while. Being solitary supports the capacity to notice, to take in and to settle so that more of the nature of reality can be taken in and responded to. The literary critic James Wood in The Nearest Thing to Life speaks of writers as being practiced in ‘careful noticing’. I apply this notion to the kind of careful noticing that is required in making photographs as well as in my work as a therapist.
I used to take a lot of portraits and that practice has faded for some reason. I imagine it might return but for now, I think the Small Corner of the World project has me gripped.
“I am a fan of revelation and have discovered plenty about myself, the world, and others through texts and engagement with various other cultural practices that Stillpoint embraces: film, teaching, discussion, psychotherapy.”
K: Several of the works you are planning on showing at Stillpoint are made specifically with the space in mind. What is it about Stillpoint, and environment of The Lab, that you found important to consider when making these pieces?
R: Stillpoint is a space which invites knowledge from various traditions and practices to meet in dialogue. I am a fan of revelation and have discovered plenty about myself, the world and others through texts and engagement with various other cultural practices that Stillpoint embraces: film, teaching, discussion, psychotherapy.
When I visited to talk about displaying work I didn’t envisage that I might be inspired by the environment to make new work. When I saw the books on the shelves of the Stillpoint Spaces library, I was drawn to the amount of ink that has been used over the centuries for this mark making we call text. I began to see gallons of ink and the thoughts of many that have been transmitted onto paper to inform other minds. I noted a gratitude for this medium of ink and a recognition of the company that books have provided me and many others with over the years.
This lead to a recognition that ink is a three letter word that resides in thinking, and from there I began to make work with ink, venturing away from the photographic to make a body of work called thINKing that speaks to the history of mark making, knowledge transmission, and the companionship of books and writers.
I invited my writer friend Foluke Taylor to write in response to the works that are being presented. I didn’t offer any parameters other than to respond. I guess that is what I am interested in when I view other people’s work, and they mine – what is the response? Again, this is what makes us interesting as human beings, our unique subjectivities and the potential responses.
Foluke has written stories and prose in response to the work that offers something more, and extends the work. We are both very involved in each other’s creative output and this opportunity at Stillpoint offered an opportunity to work together and to bring together the word and the image. I think they can be more potent in the company of one another.
K: Finally, where will you go from here? Do you know what the future may bring for your creative output?
R: I will keep making and experimenting with other materials and modes of printing. I would like to do more book making. I love etchings, particularly those of Norman Ackroyd, Ross Loveday and Jason Hicklin. I recently started to experiment with photopolymer etchings, a method of transporting photographic images on to plates that etchings can be printed from. I will continue to play with and work with cyanotypes which is such a satisfying adventure with paper, light and photosensitive chemicals. I imagine that I will spend more time on the west coast of Ireland wandering and gathering images and impressions that will be transformed in various ways involving ink and paper.
Robert’s exhibition will open on 30th September with a celebratory evening, which will include an introduction to his work, and the reading of written responses to the works on show from writer Foluke Taylor. For details on this, and other events in the Stillpoint London calendar, head to the SPS London Lab website here, or find us on facebook.