Thomas Joshua Cooper
An Interview with David Bellingham - February 1998
DB: In a recent review (of your Exhibition Where The Rivers Flow at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh) in the Independent Tom Lubbock suggests that the actual sense of place, in your images of oceans and rivers, is weak. "You rarely feel that here is offered an impressive sight you might see yourself". He goes on to say: "His sea is treated abstractly, visionarily, but in a way very objectively, It's the same thing, with the sea, abstract and concrete, subjective and objective are one." In earlier work, the various pieces that constituted the Dreaming The Godstadt project for example there is a different relationship to site, many of the pictures are of places which are dramatic in themselves, could you say something about this change of approach?
TJC: All of my work is made in the rural outdoors, it has always been made outdoors. For whatever reason the work has shifted from having a very particular relationship with place, and the particular objects that make up that place (rocks, trees, branches, leaves, etc.), to a more open ended relationship to theme and subject in these outdoor places.
It took the better part of twenty years for me to learn how to make a very simple kind of picture. The locations that provided for the discovery of these pictures were often quarries or canyons - intimate and private places. Clearly the inclination in choosing this type of place (The San Jose Canyon and Nesscliffe suites) was lead by a series of ongoing concerns which included how both physical and emotional aspects of place, that were highly interiorised in their physical surround and emotionally charged in the gestural conditions of their object matter (grass, rocks, leafless-branches, etc.), helped me to recognise and then picture the 'symbolic field' that was and still is important to me. This 'symbolic field' was entirely made up of the gestural and tonal conditions of the various objects that made up the picture plane. It was through the understanding, that I came to have, that all picture planes possess 'symbolic fields' that I finally learned how to draw with the camera, to the extent that groups of entwined white twigs or the single branch, tree or rock became signature elements in almost all my early pictures. I hope it is clear that the 'symbolic field' in all of these pictures was entirely object constructed and concluded.
These remarks preface my response to what is essentially the development of my work over the last ten years. I have been primarily concerned with sea and river pictures during most of this time. These pictures are open, generally empty of object matter, and in many ways might be seen as oppositional to the first twenty years of my work, whilst this observation might be seen to be the case, I do not feel it to be so at all.
I want to do away with the idea of the view in these pictures. Whenever possible it is my intent to remove the obviousness of object matter from the plane of these pictures, While consciously removing the traditional elements that allow for a recognition of place, I am trying to intensify what is now an abstracted 'symbolic field' for visual reference and location. My particular approach to this 'symbolic field' is to recognise and emphasise final gesture and tone as the emotional release for the information contained here, thus simultaneously creating both a subjective and objective field of view.
DB: Do you see your images of the sea operating differently than your images of rivers?
TJC: Early in the sea and river project I realised that to work with both expansions of natural water, the immense and the immediate, allowed me greater access to a wider range of emotional experience.
DB: Language has always had an important role in your work. In most pieces it is used to locate the work geographically, but you also use titles to suggest mood and intention. (An Indication, A Quality Of Dancing, Ritual Ground, A Premonitional Work, Remembering Magellan) How do you see the relationship between image and text operating?
TJC: As the work has developed both my interest in and my need for language based references within the work has changed. It struck me the kind of picture I was making early on, whilst striving to be simple, was really rather complex. Consequently I seemed to gravitate towards what seemed to me to be, an equally complex, though some might say convoluted, language base to title and reference the work. It was always my intent that this use of language, with reference to: Indication, Ritual, Premonitional, etc, would indicate both a relationship to a philosophy of participation in the landscape and to a very deep interest in a certain kind of poetry. It could be observed that where my earlier pictures were concrete and their textural references somewhat oblique, that now the reverse might seen to be the case. The sea pictures like The Swelling Of The Sea, The World's Edge and From Where The Rivers Flow reference through their condition as messages historical figures as diverse as Magellan, Timothy O'Sullivan, Robert Adams and Boetti.
DB: Would you consider yourself a Romantic artist, if so what does this mean to you?
TJC: It is often suggested with some discomfort that I am an artist in the romantic tradition, I have never understood the discomfort around this observation. Whether it is Turner to CY Twombly, Edward Weston to Morris Graves or Robert Adams to Hamish Fulton, if these artists can be perceived to be part of the romantic tradition in art then I gleefully and joyfully agree to join them. I am interested in making an intelligent art of high emotion with a specific cultural purpose. There are issues of the spirit which involve longing and belonging which reverberate through all of the work, I approach this lyric tradition through gazing, duration is an essential condition of gazing, it infuses all of the pictures that I make.
DB: You have always had a commitment to teaching, How do you feel this parallel career has influenced your practice as an artist?
TJC: You raise as a final question observations about my long term parallel relationship between teaching and my practice as an artist, and what any thoughts about teaching might be at this point in my life. In part the observations have to begin by quoting my friend Roger Ackling who said when he was beginning his life as a creative person he only ever wanted to be two things. He said he wanted to be both of them at the same time - Ackling, said he only ever wanted to be both a teacher and an artist, the same is true for myself.
I have been privileged to be a teacher for nearly thirty years, It has been one of the most enduring and rewarding experiences of my life. Teaching has allowed me to fulfil a deep need for constructive social service. The pleasure of being around creative colleagues and students has been the most positive and educationally informative aspect of my public life. The continual learning as a teacher fundamentally validates the continual effort. Happily, if ironically, I have finally begun to learn some of the lessons I have been hammering home to my students over all these years. I am finally learning how to be an artist, Now I want more time to be, and to do, this thing that it has taken me so long to understand.