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Art inspired by Golding – Martin Bennett

Martin Bennett discusses here his current exhibition at Birch Contemporary in Toronto, and explains how Golding’s novels, in particular, Pincher Martin, have inspired his work.

I suppose the simplest explanation for my interest in William Golding and his writing is just to say that my dad was a student of his in the 1950’s. My dad, Keith, was born in Bungay, Suffolk in 1943, but grew up in Salisbury, living in a small terraced house on Farley Road and attended Bishop Wordsworth’s School. He would have been about 12 years old when William Golding was his teacher. One of his memories is of his class doing a word count for what appeared to be one of Golding’s manuscripts. Growing up in Medicine Hat, Canada we talked quite often about William Golding and his writing, and whenever my siblings and I studied Lord of the Flies at school my dad would come and talk to the class about William Golding, the book, and Bishop Wordsworth’s. Though my dad worked several different jobs when I was young, he spent the 20 years prior to retirement working as a schoolteacher. He has always been fond of referring to William Golding as ‘Scruff’ and I think he’s taken this to heart in his own appearance – his students nicknamed him ‘Grizzly Adams’. Just a few days ago, and spurred on by your email, he and I spent a good portion of the nearly 500km drive from Medicine Hat to Saskatoon (where I now live) talking about William Golding and Salisbury. I enjoyed reading in the John Carey biography the episode with the elk near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and think about how near he came to Medicine Hat. Had he continued on by car from Moose Jaw to Calgary – instead of flying from Regina – he would have passed through Medicine Hat (Rudyard Kipling once stopped in Medicine Hat and said that it had ‘all hell for a basement’). Somehow his being in Canada in 1985 did not make the local newspaper, as I’m sure that had it, we would have made the trip to Calgary to hear his reading – it is unfortunate that it was in the days before we had the internet and social media to keep us in the loop.

I first read Pincher Martin in 1998. I had just moved to London and was living in a rented room in Ealing. Each day I would take the Underground to the centre of town, hop on a bus heading out to one of various boroughs, and stayed on it for the entire route with the intention of finding a neighbourhood where I thought I could live. Each night when I returned to Ealing I would read a chapter of the book. What held my attention the first time I read the book was Christopher Martin’s exploration of the rock; I thought the expanding description of the rock, making the unknown transparent, made an interesting parallel to my bus trips through a city I was experiencing for the first time and becoming a place I was determined to live. In 2006 I was living in Rome and was out for a walk around the pond at Villa Borghese when I saw a large rock jutting out of the water with a turtle sitting on top and I thought that’s Pincher Martin! I took a few photographs, but they didn’t translate very well into a painting. However, still thinking about Pincher Martin, I took another set of photographs of a turtle from a different area of the pond and it was from this sequence of shots that I had the image that formed the basis of the show at Birch Contemporary.

The exhibition title, When I Can No Longer Give Air To Fire, is a carry-over from titles used for paintings from a previous show with the gallery. When I was planning the exhibition I was thinking about this title and also thinking about the turtle, and since I had been thinking about the turtle as Pincher Martin I decided to read the book again. This time I thought a lot more about his drowning and the descriptions of his hallucinations and internal struggles. I made notations from passages where Golding refers to ‘fire’ and quoted some of these to accompany my text for the exhibition. Other images I selected to paint expanded this theme. Images of a cat on a tomb near Percy Bysshe Shelley’s grave in Rome got me thinking about his death by drowning and cremation on the beach; it got me thinking more about the Prometheus myth and it’s use in Pincher Martin. For one of my paintings I use the image of a crow as a replacement for the eagle – William Golding makes it a sea gull, I think. There is a folly of a temple at the pond of Villa Borghese and this is one of the things that attracted me to the park. The painting of the goose is from the Villa Borghese pond. The cat paintings are all from the cemetery in Rome where Shelley’s ashes and Keats are buried. I suppose I think about the romantic and unromantic notions of a life lived and carry this over to how I think about painting.

 

The images of the rabbit and the starling were both taken near Stonehenge. In 2007 my wife and I were visiting my grandmother in Salisbury and decided to go and see Stonehenge. I’ve been to Stonehenge a few times – a particularly fond memory is an early childhood visit when you could picnic amongst the stones – so when we got there and my wife saw that it was fenced off, and she decided that that view was enough for her, we spent the afternoon exploring the barrows in the fields on the opposite side of the road instead. This is where I came across the dead rabbit. The starling was photographed in the parking lot as we were waiting for the bus to pick us up for the return trip to Salisbury. I have enjoyed reading William Golding’s descriptions of himself as an amateur archeologist and thought about it in relation to this part of Wiltshire. I also think about this in relation to how I gather the images from which I will make paintings.

 

My process for making the image-based paintings is to work from a photograph I have taken (usually when I’m out for a long walk). I make a photocopy of the photograph, then a slide of the photocopy and I then project the slide onto the canvas and fill it in with oil paint; when the paint is dry I sand the surface of the painting with an electric sander. The sander creates its own marks and reveals the grain of the canvas. Through this process nothing is manipulated or invented within the framework of the original photograph; the projected image acts as a template that dictates where the paint goes, and it is my hand that moves the brush and places the paint. This painted activity is then muted through the sanding process. It is the sanding process that completes the painting by unifying the image and the paint. In relation to Pincher Martin I think about the exploration and discovery within the boundaries of the projected image – the painting is ‘now’, but the image/picture/gesture is a memory. I consider the static nature of the painting and hope that I have created a technique that can trigger a feeling for the viewer that is related more to their own experiences and memories than trying to decipher the content of the painting as it relates to me – they are meant to be contemplative. Regardless of my personal connections to the work, and the finite nature of the process, I think of my paintings as neutral sites where anything can happen. The abstract paintings work similarly, but they are paintings that are either pushing away from being representative of something or are trying to draw this out of the materials that make up the painting – they are best when they can’t be resolved either way. When I’m working, I’m happy for any type of thought that flashes from making the painting and try to follow as many of the threads as possible. I like the coincidences that come from this type of learning. A very simple example is that I learned that there is a Shelley’s starling, named after Percy Bysshe Shelley’s nephew, who was an ornithologist – this is the result of painting the cat in the cemetery in Rome and the starling at Stonehenge and putting them together for the same show. When talking with my dad as I was in the process of making the show and mentioning to him that I considered Pincher Martin a starting point, he reminded me of the passage in the Carey biography about the ‘drowning’ experiences of the physics teacher Vivian Trewhella. He told me that Trewhella had been his physics teacher at Bishop Wordsworth’s and said that he always seemed gaunt and haunted. Recently, I showed my dad the cropped school photo on the William Golding Official Instagram page and he pointed out Trewhella for me (my dad would be in the far right of the cropped-out portion of the photo).

Of the five images that I considered for the painting that specifically mentions Pincher Martin, the one that I chose had an oddness that the other four didn’t have. What I found was that when I projected the image to the size that I would paint it, and considered the crop of the photo and the gaze of the turtle, the shoreline of the pond resembled a torso and the rocks and foliage at the top of the painting resembled a head with the face responding to the gaze of the turtle. Not many people I have mentioned this to see the figure, but for me it was a trigger that solidified the painting’s relationship to the novel. The dark area on the right hand side of the painting is the pond and there appears to be a strange creature in the top right hand corner. I think of this side of the painting as an abyss that the figure is still partially submerged in and from which the turtle emerges, and that this abyss relates to all the flashbacks and nightmarish thoughts and visions had by Pincher Martin. Once I decided that the shoreline depicted ‘the drowned’ Christopher Martin then I had to reconsider the role of the turtle. If, for me, the shoreline is a torso, then the turtle seems to be standing about where a person’s liver would be – so, the turtle is not Pincher Martin/Prometheus, the turtle is the eagle!

Coincidently, my brother is named Christopher.

I find William Golding’s novels and essays very stimulating. I like the style of his writing. It seems that no matter what I read of his there is so much that relates to how I think about painting. I have made reading his work an important part of my preparations for exhibitions. I have an exhibition later this year in Los Angeles and am re-reading Free Fall as an accompaniment to the work. Likewise, I have a show next year in Calgary where an essay from The Hot Gates has been helpful. In 2007, I quoted the opening to Rites of Passage for an exhibition in Toronto at the Clint Roenisch Gallery and titled the show The Geometry Of All Four Seasons. As an exhibiting artist at Feature Art Fair, Toronto in 2014, I was asked by the Esker Foundation to recommend a book for their library project – I chose Pincher Martin.

I find Pincher Martin a difficult book to discuss with someone who hasn’t read it, because once you have, it seems nearly impossible to discuss it properly without revealing the ending. I like that it is a book that does this, because it reminds me that discussing a painting without considering how someone else might experience it kills the experience of the painting.

I think Pincher Martin relates very well to the pictures I have put together for the show at Birch Contemporary, but I wouldn’t want the show to be thought of as an interpretation of the novel. I don’t think of my paintings as illustrations. I think of the photos that become source images for the paintings as ‘ordinary, but not impersonal’, because they are taken near my home, or when I am out walking in the various places that I have lived, or continue to visit because of friends, family and family histories. I have many experiences connected to these paintings, and it is important that I do not diminish these experiences, but the painting’s potential rests solely with the viewer. I think of the abstract paintings as rudimentary, but as a result of the sanding process, they become like reproductions and the basic gestures for applying the paint becomes elevated. It is my hope that they express an elegance that can hold the viewer’s gaze because they seem so close to becoming something known. Generally, I try not to describe the paintings in ways that would seem to dictate how the paintings should be read. I have focused mostly on describing the source images in literal terms and explain only the formal structures, or how the paintings are made – I want them to remain open. However, I am now being much more personal in my written descriptions of the origins of the work, influences on the work and how I interpret them. One of the things my dad would focus on when discussing Lord of the Flies was the interpretation of the symbols and metaphors in the novel, especially things like the grey colour of the school uniform, the snake clasp belt and the fact that the boys discarded their clothes to swim naked. He would tell us that grey was just the colour of the school uniform at Bishop Wordsworth’s, that the snake clasp belt was merely standard and that swimming naked in the river near the school was just something they did. He liked to reference an interview he remembered William Golding giving where Golding tried to create some distance from the over-interpretation of some of the symbols in the novel, and though my dad may have taken this literalness to extremes I think of this conversation as one of the key early influences to how I think about the content of my work and the potential meaning for subject matter that is, at its core, both literal and very personal.