On the 29th January we visited The Hepworth Wakefield to coincide with the final day of Clare Woods’ exhibition, The Unquiet Head. I was determined not to miss this exhibition, as the paintings have been inspired in part by the landscape around Brimham Rocks, a stunning collection of natural rock formations in North Yorkshire, which is a few miles down the road from our house. And having offered to do some communications volunteering for the National Trust about Brimham Rocks I thought this would be a useful field trip.
The children love visiting Brimham Rocks: we’ve been several times since we have been back in the UK. The amazing rock formations, worn away by erosion over thousands of years, are a natural playground, with shapes, steps, crevices, caves, towers, hidden paths just asking to be explored. It’s a genuinely wonderful and original place, but it’s true that having visited so often with young children, where most of my time is spent clambering desperately to keep up with small people, I have not had the opportunity to take the time to explore the emotions and impressions that the landscape can evoke when alone, or in a more contemplative mood.
Clare Woods visited Brimham to research her paintings and describes a sense of anxiety, in particular when visiting alone, early in the morning. She explains, “it’s not a relaxing place: it’s not about, look at this beautiful view, or this wonderful panorama” (BBC News report, October 2011). The rich cultural history associated with the site – from Victorian myths about Druids and fairies, to the names affectionately given to individual rocks (The Druids’ Writing Desk, The Dancing Bear, The Smartie Tube) – gives a sense of the sheer inventiveness of human imagination when applied to this odd quirk of geology.
relationship between the paintings and the rocks intrigued me from the outset. Some paintings clearly ‘are’ certain rocks (even are recognisable). As we walked in, I overheard a woman coming out saying “They’re supposed to be Brimham Rocks, I think.” Supposed to be? I suspected that this was missing the point on a catastrophic scale.
The BBC news report is even less ambiguous about the connection. Woods’ exhibition is captioned, ‘the work depicting Brimham Rocks’. “Having just come from Brimham Rocks, I completely recognise them. There they are!” enthuses the journalist at the end of the video report.
It has somehow done Clare Woods a disservice to associate The Unquiet Head too closely to the landscape at Brimham, which makes the question “which rock is it supposed to be?” crowd out the other impressions and inspirations the paintings evoke. The exhibition leaflet states that “Woods continues a tradition of British landscape painting characterised by artists such as Paul Nash, John Piper and Graham Sutherland”, but I’d be tempted to look further back into the stylistic history of abstraction – a characterisation of Woods as a landscape artist threatens to negate the strong and vibrant nod to predecessors in genres such as abstract expressionism, and the compelling abstract colour work, for me a major part of the appeal of these pieces, strongly evocative of some parts of the Colour Fields movement.
Because they are moving, stunning paintings in their own right. Two things struck me upon first walking into the main room (where the two large murals, Mistaken Point and The Intended, are displayed): the sheer scale of the paintings, and their glorious physicality, in the boldness of colour and glossy liquidity of the surfaces. The murals face each other across the room: one bolder with red and black hues, the rock forms looming and swaying above the viewer’s heads; the other softer, more fluid, with a palette of pinks and natural tones. They are placed opposite each other as if offering two different interpretations, or two different attitudes or emotions.
I can’t help wondering if the titles of both works are a hint that all is not what it seems. Both titles refer to intention and reception, with perhaps a hint that the artist is tantalising the viewer with the point, the intention, deliberately set aside to elude us.
The other thing which makes a visit to see the originals in the gallery (rather than a print or photograph) so compelling is the difference between the distant and the close-up view. This is touched on in the BBC documentary. I actually preferred coming in close to the paintings, enjoying the gorgeousness of the paint and texture and letting the shapes and blocks of colour smear and weave between each other, without coalescing into a rock or other shape. Some of the close-up textures are also fascinating.
Apart from the two vast horizontal murals, there are other immense works along the ‘rocks’ theme, but also smaller, more intimate works, some clearly implying faces or heads, others suggesting natural forms, perhaps nests or wood. On the day we visited, the stunning Ligeti string quartet was playing in one of the rooms, in which were displayed three vast paintings. The music had been chosen to suggest the unsettling and dark nature of the paintings. My 6 and 2 year old sat silently and watchfully through a ten minute piece by Nicola de Fanu. I’m not sure what they thought, but I do think the haunting atmosphere affected them and kept their attention. When the piece was finished, I decided to take pity on them, and took them for a drink in the café. I hope the quartet didn’t take it personally when we left (I’d have sat there for hours).
I’m very much hoping the exhibition travels to another gallery, as I caught it too late to be able to recommend it. But I think I’d definitely suggest disassociating the paintings from the rocks. They are not paintings ‘of’ rock formations. Instead they are a luxuriously crafted and compelling glance at the thoughts, passions and emotions of an artist with a gifted eye for colour. Next time I visit Brimham Rocks, perhaps the relationship will work in the other direction, and the reds, roses, blacks, taupes, oranges and greys from Clare Woods’ visions might stay with us, when we are exploring the infinity of browns, greys and greens dreamt up by the Yorkshire countryside.