Burning beyond the logical lake
Dominic Shepherd in conversation with Tom Hicks
TH: Width of a Circle is an interesting project in that it doesn’t appear to have a didactive manifesto. From a personal point of view, I only get involved in projects where there is a collective aim but one that allows individual freedom. What drew you to the idea?
DP: When I heard about Width of Circle, I knew it was a good thing to be part of. The questions it raises have been floating in the ether for some time but recent zeitgeist changes, both in the UK and globally, make this very timely. There is also the location of WOC, in the Black Country, at the heart of England both historically and geographically. It feels right, the centre of a circle.
Your work draws upon nature but also a strong interest in magic, the elements and the unseen. I’m particularly interested in your ideas around creating work with intent
This interest very much started when I produced the work for the exhibition ‘Bare Foot Prophet’ that was held at Charlie Smith London in 2015. I had just seen the exhibition ‘Artists and prophets: A secret history of modern art’ at Frankfurt Kunsthalle which looked at 20th century German artists/visionaries who acted as prophets, such as Gustav Nagel and Hundertwasser .
At the same time when making the work in my studio the ancient woodland that I am surrounded by was being ‘managed’. I painted to the sound of chainsaws, that sound was the harbinger of change. I created the work in response to this, with an intent that the works act as a spell though both imagery and within the act of making; using prediction techniques to decide on figurative elements of the work and acknowledging the intuitive zone within the act of painting. Strangely I realised and others noted that the political turmoil that the UK fell into is reflected in the images created.
Magic, occult workings, in practice is the manipulation of reality through will. A bit like art.
Recently, I’ve been making work about the act of contemplating water. In the woods where I live there are a lot of bodies of water, puddles, streams, lakes, weirs, storm drains. The act of water-gazing serving as an oracular/ clairvoyant mirror. Water surfaces also have a metaphor for painting: there’s the matter of surface, the reflection to the viewer but then through changing one’s focus there’s the depths. As above, so below.
Alchemy, witchcraft and the occult have long held a fascination for artists, both as subject matter but also or personal revelation/inspiration – I’m thinking in particular of artists/filmmakers such as Ithell Colquhoun, Kenneth Anger and Derek Jarman. These unknown/arcane areas of knowledge are generally mispresented as being dark or evil
Nazi occultists, Aleister Crowley and black metal have definitely made their mark. There is a danger in falling into simplistic categories. Magic is a force, there’s dark, there’s light. As with art, the occult isn’t ethical, people are ethical. As with needing a gun to shoot the bad guy, beware of putting yourself on the side of what one perceives as ‘good’.
That said, the occult has been a major force in changes within our society. The heralding of modernist approaches to western occultism in the late 19th century was very much in conjunction with the birth of female emancipation; paganism has strong links with environmentalism. Last year I was joined by the artist Jesse Bransford for a panel discussion at NY Volta titled “Alternative Myths’ where we explored progressive forms of magical thought as a form of resistance against the nationalistic myths of the far right.
Your project ‘Black Mirror’ is a wider examination of magic and the unkown
Black Mirror is very much my academic hat. It is a research network that explores magic and occults relationship with modern and contemporary art. Co-coordinate by Judith Noble of Plymouth College of Art, Robert Ansell of Fulgur press, Jesse Bransford of New York University and myself at Arts University Bournemouth. We promote exhibitions and events, (I curated Black Mirror: Magic in Art last year) conferences (one this week on Ithell Colquhoun, Seeking the Marvellous at PCA) and have been publishing a series of volumes (the third edition Black Mirror: Elsewhere is being launched later this year). It’s very much opened up debate, when Judith and I first formed Black Mirror we were initially were faced with scepticism in some quarters but that rapidly changed. Serendipity, in the truly magical sense, has been at work but more so a burgeoning interest in both the academic and artistic spheres.
There seems to be a storytelling element in your work that allows the viewer to both examine your methods but also to ponder the overall message/narrative. Do you prefer to leave your work open to interpretation?
When creating these works I do not wish to know why I make choices. Intuition is a very important part of the seeming narrative. The narrative appears by osmosis, the subconscious message appears through the act of creating the work. Painting is a language that goes beyond what is depicted. I only begin to understand and title works when they’re finished, the narrative appears after the event. A bit like life.
An area that I’m interested in psychogeography and how it can be used to spark artistic practice. What role does place play in your work?
The English landscape is weighted with its past like an albatross. Part of an island that hasn’t been invaded for nearly a thousand years, built upon a history of both blood-soaked hypocrisy and yet also enlightenment and anti-authoritarianism. It’s a paradox.
The subconscious layers of place are very real to me. The cottage and woods where I live are part of a feudal estate in Dorset, still owned by the same family for half a millennium. The current incumbent is a fairly right-wing member of parliament for the conservative party. My immediate environment is a mirror, I search for signs; clues in tree stump rings, patterns of dappled light, wind on dew ponds and interlacing branches.
As well as featuring figurative work, one aim of Width of a Circle is to explore landscape. You draw upon the wood in which you live and presumably the surrounding countryside. Would you enjoy the challenge of a new environment - perhaps even an urban setting?
The hermit nature of my existence allowed for a complete immersion which I wanted when I initially left London the year of the millennium. As part of a family I’ve been bringing up children in the woods. I like them, they populate the work. However, they are now becoming adults. I’ve been invited next year to do an artist’s residency at Sichuan School of Fine Arts in Chongqing in China, a very different place. From remote Dorset woodland to a brand-new city of 30 million is a big change, let’s see what happens.
Is each work created in a specific place or do you create hybrids based on memory and imagination?
Place, memory, imagination and time are inseparable. The place is these woods, where my mind stops and woods begin I’m not sure.
We talked about the role of music in your working practice
I was young in the late 70s and was acutely aware that I had missed something momentous. Brought up in Bournemouth, then sinking under genteel empire decay, it was the progressive rock of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, Black Sabbath’s first album and Genesis’s Supper’s Ready that cleaned my doors of perception.
I shared this awakening with my best friend who went to Cambridge to study philosophy of mathematics and ended up a chronic alcoholic. We used to bow down at the gate of Tolkien’s bungalow. I remember white doves. The dangers of romanticism.
My collection of vinyl still grows and feed into my work. Music is a hauntology, it crushes time and allows one to emotionally experience different possibilities. That possibility of alternative futures and counter culture utopias bled into my practice. I would incorporate imagery from gatefold sleeves, ecstatic faces from this golden age. A bit like a séance, conjuring up ghosts amongst the dystopian ruins.
An early Black Mirror experiential production was ‘Absolute Elsewhere’. Myself and musician Matthew Shaw curated an evening of aural and visual experiences at Shelley Manor. In honour of the occult science of Frankenstein and Bournemouth’s esoteric links we gathered musicians including English Heretic, Heather Leigh, Alexander Tucker and Urthona with artists Mark Titchner, Graham Gussin and Cult of Rammellzee for a night of esoteric immersion.
Finally, could you talk about the work you are showing in the Width of a Circle show
I made this work, ‘The Beast’, last spring. It’s starting point was William Blake’s ‘Nebuchadnezzar’, an image of a king as he is transformed into a wolf before wandering in the wilderness. I took myself to the brook that runs behind my studio and crawled naked downstream. It was cold. The work came out of that.
The Beast had connotations to Crowley and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, those were my initial thoughts towards it. As 2017 progressed the work also took on an aspect of ‘la Bête’, the wild man who is only tamed (like Nebuchadnezzar) by female ministrations. In the current climate white, middle aged men are being taken to task, and rightly so. But being one, it hurts. So, I crawl naked down the stream, in both atonement and resentment.
Dominic Shepherd is a painter and an Associate Professor of Fine Art at Arts University Bournemouth. He is represented by Charlie Smith London and is Co-ordinator of Black Mirror: fulgur.co.uk/black-mirror
Tom Hicks is a writer, academic librarian and artist. He is a founder member of The Wolverhampton Psychogeographical Bureau (WPB): instagram.com/blackcountrytype