Sunday, 16 July 2017

Chris Otley AIR 2017

I have a long-held fascination with the 18th century anatomical drawings of George Stubbs. Their pristine and clinical presentation of isolated natural history specimens give no hint at all of the environmental conditions in which the artist presumably made his observations—the maggot-ridden horrors of farmyard barn turned dissection lab. My own drawings take on similar subject matter, but have been produced in a very clean, warm, dry and well-lit studio in the middle of Oxford. I was drawn to working at Outlandia to confront this distance between subject and outcome, and be embedded in a wilder setting. 

The daily plod up the steep hillside to the field station treehouse was punctuated by stops to photograph the flora and fauna: fat-headed golden-ringed dragonflies; purple-pink foxgloves; the vibrant green of ferns putting out new growth; cuckoo-spit in the undergrowth; beetles; skittish small birds. On the first day, within minutes of arriving at the treehouse, I saw the brief flash of a red squirrel in a nearby tree (sadly not repeated). Bats have taken to roosting in the interior of the walls of the structure, and could be heard scrabbling about during the day. 

Initially, I found it hard to settle. The view was fantastically distracting, and my decision to lock myself in isolation against inquisitive occasional visitors proved to have the opposite effect – about once an hour, people would aggressively try to force the door or shake the structure as much as they could (later in the week, leaving the door ajar led to brief, polite interruptions from walkers every couple of hours, their curiosity quickly satisfied and the conversation increasingly welcomed). I also felt under pressure to deliver exciting or unusual work, and to experiment more than my usual practice tends to encourage, and this resulted in a series of quickly-abandoned pieces with underdeveloped (or simply bad) ideas. I became frustrated at my own impatience, and despite the anonymity of the residency, felt constricted by a perceived need to publically perform. I retreated to research reading, making notes, and planning larger drawings in sketch form. Now, with distance, those abandoned experiments already look more satisfying, and I will definitely return to resolve them back at my own studio in Oxford. 

I eventually settled back into drawing beached jellyfish, which I’ve been focusing on in recent weeks. There seemed something wonderfully perverse about drawing this subject matter high up in the glen, and I began to find local, craggy, geological forms in their twisting jellies as I drew. I then spent an afternoon photographing an array of mushrooms and toadstools (the jellyfish of the forest?) in the surrounding woodland, including the scrambled-egg bright-yellow of a slime mold known as fuligo septica, known in Scandinavia as the vomit of troll cats, and in Finland, said to be used by witches: rich material for later work. 

All photography by Chris Otley

Outlandia was at its best when it poured with rain; the skylight became a diffuse James Turrell installation, and mist poured off Ben Nevis down into the treeline, turning the woodland into an even more atmospheric setting. The week was challenging and inspiring, and reinvigorated by the experience, I’m now excited to develop the ideas and sketches stimulated by such a unique environment.