In the studio with Arthur Lanyon.

Words by

James Ambrose

In the studio with Arthur Lanyon.

Your show 'Arcade Laundry' opened at Anima Mundi recently, the title conjures imagery of illumination, nostalgia, and youth. What was the concept behind the show?

I ended up using my own introduction for the exhibition but the writer David Northedge came up with a great twist on my text that also explains things;

Everything is to be gained from specifying the sites of thought and making them more numerous – Jean Dubuffet

“Lanyon experienced an episode of scintillating scotoma in the launderette. It came on whilst the machine spun cavernous white linen punctuated by the occasional colour burst of an errant novelty sock.

The scotoma is a visual processing anomaly, a glitch in the physiological system that has the artist reaching for either oils and sketchbook or water and Nurofen. In this instance it was self induced, nurtured in the video game arcade across the street where Lanyon had earlier revisited a boyhood Atari dreamscape. The cabinets 80’s deluxe artwork was airbrushed and lurid, yet the graphics on screen were blunt and innocent. In-game play resembled animated Crayola drawings: Flawless Klein blue skies on Road Rash and boxy Judd red Ferraris on Outrun. The fluorescent relics didn’t accept tokens; you had to Insert Imagination to Play.

If Jean Dubuffet had been a gamer he would have been a vintage Capcom or Konami man, eschewing contemporary immersive VR environments for primitive Donkey Kong joystick bashing. The Art Brut founder said: visual memory is more vivid than merely cognitive memory. For Lanyon, who was born in 1985, this arcade seemed an extension of the box of childhood drawings he references in his mature work, transplanting areas of the poster paint daubs into rigorous formal compositions. Archaic pixels and pigment shift when viewed through the dual lens of memory association and imagination. In this metaphysical environment it is possible to smell the Testarossa’s Pirellis burning as you race along a palm fringed boulevard through a heat shimmer scotoma.

At an adjacent booth in the arcade two girls were playing Street Fighter. They’d both selected the Chun Li character; Self vs. Self beat ‘em up differentiated by pink and blue qipaos. Philip Guston said: “When you’re in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you – your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics … and one by one if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting YOU walk out.”

If a member of the entourage refuses to leave politely they may be forcibly removed with a whip of the turps rag or, in extreme cases, offered a cup of studio coffee. To evict the Self, to reach the point of fluent and automatic painting, the process is much harder. It needn’t be as brutal as administering a self-inflicted hundred-hand face slap, but the Self must be defeated by the manifestation of diametrical tension: Intuition vs. reason, directing vs. responding and adding vs. erasing until a state of fluid reciprocation is achieved and the paintings take over.

Sifting through the ‘noise’ the artist brings to the studio is what you could reasonably define an art practice as being. Lanyon’s paintings are the physical manifestation of this process, artefacts of a mark making discourse not created linearly but rather captured by distilment.

Chun Li’s psychosis was unfolding at Morning Mist Bay on the Taiwanese stage. In the scenic background, beyond the confetti of blood and teeth reside the forested karst peaks of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, where the Paradise Cave is located. The vast subterranean space and its content of geological formations are defined by a passage of time that all painting mimics on a microcosmic level. Within the pictorial environment of Lanyon’s work we also find echoes of the cave’s interior. Many of his compositions resemble monochromatic chambers illuminated by incendiary bursts of primary colour.

A work is produced in the studio by painterly exploration, the quest for an obscured pinnacle eventually surmounted via a range of mark making pathways. As a painting nears completion Lanyon deploys a reoccurring black spider of a motif he calls ‘seilschaft’ (a climbing term that translates from German as ‘rope-team’). Charcoal is applied and burnished in ‘ropes’ across the paintings surface, binding the composition in a network of anchor points that fix the piece together in a kind of high risk embalmment process. High risk, because the seilschaft always occurs at the pinnacle of a work where whole compositions have been known to fall into unsighted crevasses. The artist has to make the final call, to specify the site by planting a flag and stepping back to admire the view … only then will they see if the painting made the High Score leaderboard.”

Futile Escape, oil, oil bar, oil primer, spray paint, charcoal powder on linen 190 x 200cm

It is perhaps the most comprehensive showcase of your work to date, how long did it take to put together?

I made it all in two years. During this time I exhibited in Miami and Mexico City and somewhere along the line my paintings became more vivid. And then my son was born and there was less time to make big paintings so I worked at night on paper prepared with a veneer like skin which can be scratched into. The technique is so seductive I’d carve out these images within an hour and roll out the titles; Token Man, Rattle, Giants Head, Little Boxer, Calipo Wings, Doors that Bind, The Muskats Mother. I also found a very heavy, rough-hewn handmade paper from India which suits my way of working very well. If the paint gets too chewy I can gnaw the surface right back to a clean fluffy cotton rag finish.

You are very isolated from the outside world here in rural Cornwall, your surroundings are extremely tranquil. Is this type of environment important to your practice?

I like the silence, I drift off, but in an all or nothing kind of way painting turns me on. I’ve been through quite a few studios now; a caravan, where I'd stoke the fire and dream of Bacon. Then a tiny unventilated room with a view over St Michael’s Mount - a giant rock sitting cross-legged in the ocean with a castle-like crown on top. I bust my knee working cross-legged on the floor for two years on tiny birch ply panels over and over in a slick and slimy post-apocalyptic cartoon strip creeping away from Francis Bacon. And I played ping pong to beat back two phrases which hindered me since Wales; “remember the importance of space on a large scale” and “beware the connotations the scratched line has with Picasso”. Some teachers think they’re helping with these neat little phrases of advice and warning, but there should be a warning with that advice. After that things got big when I moved to this dusty floored lofty Barn and built these 4 x 5 meter faux viewing walls at either end. I started standing and my knee got better and the pain of the little paintings eased with the ambitious scale. But now I'm in this glorified polytunnel that amplifies rain and captures heat. It has a comparatively arched, low ceiling so feels like I've chopped my head off. A studio for making paintings that focus more on the idea of digestion I think.

Being born into a family of artists with such a rich history, how has painting shaped your life?  

Do you think in words or pictures? I’ve absorbed their life’s work. Shaping something or working with the shape of something is addictive. Art starts with catharsis and expression. People become houses, rooms with different pictures. I’m in the kitchen trying not to paint myself into a corner.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I just kept at it in blind faith and grew up seeing these highly aestheticised objects, even now when I close my eyes. So I'm trying to get away with this by making work that is aggressively stupid on one level.

Spin City, oil, oil stick, oil primer, spray paint, charcoal powder on linen 260 x 170cm

I know you make use of a wide range of source material. From the drawings you made at a very young age all the way to contemporary found (sometimes digital) imagery, is there a process for the compilation of this material and the filtering of what you use?

Many of the images I keep stand for something more than just formal flair. Like the importance of the African ‘Grebo Mask’ on the latter synthetic stage of cubism; simple interchangeable strength - such a useful tool to efficiently signify proverbial space. Other images like childhood drawings are representative of playful behaviour where intention is to understand by looking at the start of things, and so awareness must follow action. The most recent find was on a boat by the quayside. Fibreglass resin paste had been palette knifed over an elongated but beautifully proportioned spider crack in the gelcoat. Genuine artifice or not, this great slab of action looked like a very good Paul Klee animal drawing.

Certain shapes and motifs also appear, disappear and reappear within your work, what brings you back again and again to a certain image?

Sometimes words and phrases light things up from the beginning and go full circle. I have these two drawings; one from childhood of a simplified monster truck with huge spiky sun wheels and the other from a Bauhaus experimental drawing book where someone very quickly depicted two jealous curs in an intense stand-off. The parts of these drawings are all interchangeable, one has speed and conflict, the other has character and comic reverence. So I reference them a lot. In the write-up for the show I speak about how some paintings share similar dense and chunky ‘seilschaft’ motifs. I drew this anomaly one day with no precedent or memory of how it came about. It’s a simple thing like the crack on the boat and I've gambled it four or five times to unify big long paintings like ‘Spin City’.

Vibrant, incandescent pockets of primary colour are constantly prevalent and often form the focal point in your painting, why are these colours so important to you?

It was this particular question that formed the title of the show ‘Arcade Laundry’. It’s the manifestation of the visual patina that is prevalent within a scintillating scotoma - a sort of painless migraine. In short this is a field of vision that becomes distorted by a dense and expanding blind spot which in turn starts to flicker with activity. A sort of ‘dazzle painting’ ablaze with crystal faced primary colours that zigzag around black and white cracked molten seas of pattern. It’s thought that these tessellated fractals are perhaps mirroring the inner architecture of the human brain itself. So that must be why I'm drawn to paintings of this nature.

How do you title your work?

Take for example ‘Clay Thurch’ a big painting in the show that’s been reworked from 2017. It was previously called ‘Playing in the Tracks’ and was a requiem painting I made after my father died, and was full of good bones. It rested for a few years but seemed too carefully gardened and meant something more to ditch the groundwork and build it up again. When I was done it just slipped into the glove of this title from a comic book dictionary. The writer Paul Carey-Kent wrote of the painting; “This particular melding of busynesses looks typo-titled, especially when you spot the collage element shaped like a church. But ‘thurch’ is an onomatopoeic slang term for the sounds of clay in an artist’s hands, making this a witty way to bring sculpture into painting and equate the slap of clay with the splosh of paint”.

Clay Thurch, oil, oil stick, oil primer on linen 217 x 190cm

You utilise a plethora of mediums in your practice, what influences your decision on what to use and when? Are there any constants?

Technically I always pay close attention to things like; matt, shine, drying time, mediums, wax, oils, alkyds, xylene, primers, pigments, plasticity, compatibility, linen grades, sanding, solvents, degreasing, how to remove, add and supersede over time. I give myself as many options as possible in oil paint without turning to acrylic. The constants are; a pestle and mortar for grinding charcoal, one kind of linen or birch ply panel, three types of black paint, three types of white and three primary oil sticks; red, yellow, blue.

What does a normal day in the studio look like?

A lazy period of finding motivation over by the bookshelves precedes a very physical bout of paint removal outside with power tools and then big decisions inside that aren't easily undone. Sometimes I use red lensed glasses to unify my vision and cut out some kind of faculty. If I get into drawing mode I'll always face east for some reason. My tendency is to fixate on finishing which is a prolific problem. So leaving the studio is either desperate, calm, crying or smiling. It's very childish at times. I should really have my own mood swing in the garden.

After experiencing your studio environment and learning about the processes you employ, it is clear you are deeply connected to your practice. How do you feel when a finished painting leaves? Are there some works that you won't let go of?

I keep hold of the odd ones because they’ll inform everything else years later. In 2008 the artist Mauro Bonacina came to my studio in Cardiff and praised this little painting I'd done called ‘Quartz Crash’. It had a mid-tone greyish background and a white sofa pig shape hovering off-centre. From this photo of a 1940’s car crash I used both hands to paint into the wet sofa as if it was an open book. It had an autonomous strength I suppose. I didn't really know what I was doing but Mauro said he could “see it in a London Gallery”. That was the biggest kept me going for years.

Why do you love painting?

The pursuit, the personal quest, the therapy is such a good teacher. I’m an advocate for painting as forgotten knowledge that’s propped up by our own aptitude - our natural ability to do something.

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