Close to the Ground

RWA Art 05, Summer 2011
"Close to the Ground"

Typically Porter activates the ground of his painting, whether on canvas or paper, by pouring paint on to the awaiting rectangular surface, sometimes placing objects under the base layer, causing the expanse of paint to flow over and through the surface as if it were a relief map.

While the paint is still fluid he has the unorthodox tendency to incorporate oil paint alongside the initial acrylic paint layer, and, later, to even use gouache paint on top. The interaction of these different fluids causes conjunctions that emulate those effects found in nature when different mobile substances have come together, whether anciently or recently. Porter’s knowledge and understanding of the intrinsic qualities of paint therefore serves him well in cajoling his media into equivalents for natural processes and elements. As he says: “I don’t paint paintings, I make paintings.” Furthermore, he has even “been making bits of painting that are on plastic sheeting, and then peeling them off this plastic sheeting and putting them down on the surface”, almost like a collage made of paint itself.

Having composed this painterly space through the pouring and cajoling of his media, Porter now has a ready backdrop equivalent to the locale of his initial experience – a context for his climactic moves. He then proceeds to bring the painting to a conclusion by placing a realistically painted image of a small natural object out of the landscape, such as a leaf, a stone, a shell, a feather, even a butterfly, as a focal point in the painting. If one such object is portrayed it is generally close to the centre of the work, but he will, on occasion, paint several small objects in a realistic manner, and distribute them across the painting. Sometimes these painted objects, though sharply delineated, effectively melt into the ground, since their relationship, as in nature, is sometimes close to the condition of camouflage. Smaller paintings, however, often provoke the notion that they stand for portraits of some of those disparate objects that commonly exist on the surface of the land.

Porter’s memory of the site of his original experience is reinforced back in the studio by photographs that were taken at the time. These are often stuck on the emerging paintings themselves during the working process and are used as a way of analysing the subject. “They can be scrutinised over and over again. They are a record of a split second in time, just as the paintings are frozen images in time.”

The images have more than one function, for as well as being documentary records or source material, they can also very often be self-sufficient works. Indeed, photography is not only very important to the artist in recording locations and the forms of objects in the landscape; it is also an autonomous allied art form. Then again, while his photographs have been exhibited in their own right, Porter also uses photographs – and photograms – as the basis for new works that incorporate painted additions to make a new composite image.

Porter’s painterly skills are exceptional, and varied. If one compares two recent paintings: Coastal Path 08–01-08, and Coastal Path 05–02-11, the former has an extraordinarily beautiful ‘under- painting’, with sensuous colours and a tactile surface that uses paint to mimic the original environment rather than to depict it literally. This space is then teased into a more complex total image by means of the more realistically painted plant tendrils, flowers, and dying leaves that spread out across the ground. However, in the case of Coastal Path 05–02-11, there is more drama in the ‘under-painting’. Black shapes overlay rivulets of blue paint on a white ground, while themselves being overlaid with layers of paint created separately on plastic sheeting before being collaged to the ground. In this case the leaves and plant tendrils are a much more discreet presence among the forces evident in the under-painting.

These paintings are beautiful by anyone’s standards, but very often in an encounter with a new work by Porter its beauty is not immediately disclosed; indeed, many of his paintings are difficult. But as Wittgenstein said, it is only if a text demands close reading, only if it is difficult, that it can be interpreted. Where we understand something straight off, there is no room for interpretation. Difficulty demands a careful reading. Porter has firm views on beauty: “Beauty now seems to be a derogatory term.

But for me, if a thing is beautiful, it’s fine; if a thing is ugly, it’s fine. I’d like to make beautiful paintings but I don’t want to start with beauty. A work can be purposefully badly made and still be beautiful. It’s like you look at a Francis Bacon painting – lots of people see them as ugly paintings, but they’re very beautiful; they’re rightly constructed.” Porter is also acquainted with Picasso’s observation that beautiful passages in an unfinished painting may have to be destroyed for the good of the final conception.

Recently Porter began a new series of paintings exemplified by The Death of Nature 27–12-10. It is immediately evident that the wide range of colour common to his other paintings has been bundled aside. This is a near-monochrome painting, and what is more, black predominates. This particular painting, as has become customary, also contains a depiction of a natural object at its focal point, in this case a small white feather only slowly distinguishable from its under-painting. Porter states that the series, already taking form in large paintings as well as this smaller one, is “…a comment on society. I think we’ve lost our way. Nobody seems to work together. We see all these countries fighting one another at the same time that religions are fighting one another for supremacy”. In the face of all this negativity, there stands just a small, fragile, delicate white feather that might be said to represent almost a struggle for life against dark forces. The echoes of an oil-spill in the painting, and in its surface, are surely not coincidental.

Thus, these paintings of the land – from the land – carry the weight of contemporary issues without embodying slogans. They relate to specific places and experiences, but also stand as metaphors for the individual’s experience in society. While artists can be ‘reflective intuitive organisms’, that does not therefore deny them their place in the natural world, and they can still reach out beyond it to show the real significance of their lived experience. Porter sees his work as part of a cultural awareness that also embraces the work of Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Delius, as well as in Thoreau, Whitman and Heaney.

If we were also to connect painters in the English tradition to Porter’s work we would inevitably include Constable, Turner and Palmer, and such twentieth-century artists as Paul Nash and Sutherland, but Porter himself would include an artist such as Richard Dadd. This choice may seem surprising at first, but, on reflection, the incredible organic detail in Dadd’s famous painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, certainly connects with the depictions of the objects that punctuate Porter’s recent paintings. Porter is not, however, attuned only to an English tradition, for he appreciates and learns from such significant contemporary painters as Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer. But even with this wider perspective, and acknowledging his intimate involvement with the landscape of France and the United States, it is clear that his work and achievement has become a milestone in English landscape painting.

Michael Porter at the Maas Gallery

Maas Gallery 17–28 April 2023

The Maas Gallery

Royal Academy Magazine, April 2023

Close to the Ground

RWA Art 05, Summer 2011

Review: Michael Porter

Cornwall Today, Summer 2011

An English Artist Finds Inspiration on the Rocks

The Boston Globe, September 22 2004

Rock Chic South of the River

Financial Times, Tuesday January 25 2000
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