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In recent years much of Richard Nott’s work has assumed a status that is as close to that of sculpture as it is to painting. The change often appears dramatic when compared to the artist’s earlier work, for some of his paintings now protrude from the wall in much deeper relief, their textured surfaces teeming with organic incident. This development was first seen to powerful effect in his last show at Anima-Mundi, 2014’s ‘Histolysis’, and continues here in series of new works that are equally remarkable. It in fact forms a natural progression, given that Nott initially trained as a sculptor. He graduated in 1982 at a time when what came to be labelled New British Sculpture was pre-eminent, its practitioners – amongst them Bill Woodrow and Tony Cragg – making work from a catholic range of stuff encompassing urban detritus and other easily sourced materials. Both as a student and in the early stages of his career, Nott’s work was influenced by such approaches as much as by pragmatic economic necessity. He established an aesthetic sensibility based upon the deployment of certain materials, finding what he needed in what were to become constant components of his art: amongst them emulsion paint, resin, and bitumen.

Crucially, all of Nott’s work is anchored in a foundational geometry of strict horizontals and verticals; a structural basis he describes as adhering to the same principles as those involved in making a chair or a building. He works in series, moving from one piece to the other, forming within them interrelationships of mark, texture and tone, and always allowing for chance and serendipity as he prompts each towards some kind of individual and collective resolution. Many of his processes are intensely physical: the list of methods employed includes pouring, wiping, sponging, blotting, dragging, scraping, gouging, sanding, burning and peeling. The artist describes lots of reaction between the oiliness of bitumen and the water-based paints he utilises: these chemical reactions are fundamental to the work and its effects. He often uses a blowtorch on his paintings, scorching or setting light to their surfaces, sometimes flooding them with water, occasionally putting them out in the open for a time to contend with the elements. The work is rooted in oppositional forces: Nott describes his studio as the setting of ‘a small war’, in which he undertakes protracted battle with the tensions between control and chaos, structure and flux, subsumation and exhumation. Much of his time is spent in both applying and then removing paint, allowing for residual glimpses and traces of what lies beneath to come forth. Process and meaning are inextricable in Nott’s work. In discussion he often uses the word ‘history’, in reference to the accretion of time within the layers of his paintings. He makes an analogy of digging into the earth; of how as one digs deeper it becomes blacker, and of how in his work he aims for its converse, a form of archaeological retrieval, or the gradual achievement of equipoise in which ‘things go from dark to light.’ Central is the idea of experience and energy accumulated and contained within matter, both literally and metaphorically. In all of this the artist is keen to stress the fundamentally abstract nature of his work, and concerned to promote readings that are intuitive and allusive rather than literal.

The title of this show, ‘Ecdysis’* has both personal meaning for the artist whilst relating also to the largest works here, ‘Baetylus 1-3’, three imposing and blackly oleaginous square panels, each of them pretty much a man’s height. The paintings were worked on intermittently over a four-year period, during which they remained in constant material flux. One of the early stages of development involved laying down resin, which was then burnt and subsequently scraped off in strips like flayed flesh. Later this debris was glued back on, in thick strips and shards pressed onto the surface, where they were then subjected to further treatment; gouged or burnt away so that their edges fused with bituminous residues and the greys of the underlying substrate. The resultant paintings are immensely tactile, somehow both primeval and sensual.

In contrast to what is often a torturous and lengthy process, working on paper allows Nott to make changes at a faster pace, to be less precious and more open to chance. A series of these smaller paintings usually begins with him stretching around thirty sheets of paper. In common with all of his work, he first imposes an underlying structure, by scoring a grid into each sheet with a knife or the edge of a metal tool, sometimes allowing its spacing to be asymmetric, whilst making others as regular as a sheet of graph paper. Across this structural armature Nott drags swathes of emulsion, forming unpredictable smears and blockages as it catches within the grid’s indentations. Later the grid might be re-established, redrawn or partially revealed by lightly sanding back the surface, and perhaps then existing only as a faint shadow, as though ghosted. As with his larger works, the artist often sets fire to the works on paper, the flame of the blowtorch ‘pitting the surface’ and ‘releasing what lies beneath’. He tends to keep them in the studio for some time, a kind of incubation period during which they might be subjected to accidental scuffs and stray spatters, before then finally being reassessed and resuscitated, ‘brought back to preciousness’. The linear structuring of Nott’s paintings on paper suggests pages of fragmentary eroded text. They invoke something of the transience of memory and time, and the fundamental role of language; retained, remembered, hidden or forgotten. They seem also about a yet more abstract language, one that is related to the spiritual in man and nature. There is a small white-on-white work on paper here, ‘Codex 1’, its delicate relief akin to Braille awaiting human touch. Others contain hundreds of tiny spore-like marks, some of them partially washed away, whilst others appear as though rusted or corroded. All of the smaller paintings act in subtle counterpoint to the ostensibly greater drama of the artist’s more substantial panel paintings. Of the latter, shown here are a series of eight white reliefs entitled ‘Ecdysis 1-8’, along with three substantially larger ones in grey, ‘Eolith 1-3’, and ‘Ecdysial 1 and 2’ that are larger still, all of their surfaces claggy and deeply encrusted. Like everything Nott produces, they result from what he describes as a ‘transformation’ of material, a brand of alchemical artifice here involving repetitive excavation and accumulation. The greys appear volcanic; coagulated and pockmarked, they are inflected here and there with a carboniferous sheen, whilst the whites are matt and bone-like, the delicacy of their edges frangible in appearance. A subtle play of light across these paintings gently activates their intricacies and emphasises their powerfully sensory nature: touch is fundamental in all of Nott’s work.

Nott utilises a limited palette, of what might be defined ‘non-colour’, formed from whites and greys mixed from emulsion paints, with blacks, browns and ochres from various consistencies of bitumen thinned with white spirit. Within these limits, the artist carefully mediates hue and tone, summoning a multiplicity of effects of mood and atmosphere from pale yellow infusions and earth tones, his whites, greys and blacks suggesting the impalpability of light, smoke or mist. He is fully conversant with the power of restraint. Amongst his pantheon of greatly admired painters are the minimalists Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, and he has also cited Giorgio Morandi as an artist who achieved poetic resonance within the steadfast limitations of his still life subjects and restrained tonal palette.

Restraint extends also to Nott’s titles, each painting and drawing identified with just one carefully selected word, words that often evoke metamorphosis and transformation of the physical or spiritual in land and body. Questioned about the metaphorical aspect of his work Nott refers to the inherent vulnerability of its materials and its immersive qualities, through which it derives its contemplative and meditative nature. Out of the highly physical processes he enacts through often-intense struggle, gradually and by stealth he achieves a form of agreement with the work, a point at which he recognises something of himself in it, and in which stasis and quietude prevail.

Dr Ian Massey, 2017

Dr Ian Massey is an art historian, writer and curator. His publications include major monographs on the artists Patrick Procktor and Keith Vaughan. He is currently writing a book about the St. Ives sculptor John Milne.

* From Collins dictionary : ‘Ecdysis’ is the process of shedding the old skin in reptiles or the outer cuticle in insects and other arthropods.