“We find ourselves on increasingly shaky ground – trapped as we are in an unstable present, with an uncertain past behind us, and a precarious future ahead”.
Jonathan Alibone is a UK born artist based in Northampton, England, and is currently a resident at The Sanctuary studios.
His practice articulates contemporary social, cultural, and environmental anxieties through the conventions of the landscape and Romantic traditions in Western art. By referencing geology and archaeological methodology, Alibone explores myths of origin and national identity within the present (and historical) context of uncertainty and rupture.
He has exhibited widely, including at last year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and his work features in collections throughout Europe, Russia and USA.
Alibone has co-curated several exhibitions, and has collaborated on many projects, working in a variety of media, such as video, installation, and sound.
‘Landscape (With Angular Unconformity)’, watercolour on paper, (2020)
Where are you based?
My studio is a large space on the ground floor of a former Victorian shoe factory in Northampton. It is one studio among a dozen that comprise ‘The Artist Sanctuary’, located on two floors in the building.
The Sanctuary is a not-for-profit organisation, the creation of Mark Walman, whose hard work and determination has ensured its survival over the years. I am currently acting as treasurer, and have been involved since almost the very beginning.
Although I am the sole occupant of my studio, in the past I have had the opportunity to share with a number of wonderful artists. Most recently, with Milton Keynes based Annabelle Shelton, and some time before that with both Luke and Jessica Harby (who is no doubt familiar to the CVAN community). Northampton has in the past found itself unfairly celebrated more for its proximity to other places than for its own merits. It has nonetheless produced and nurtured some considerable talent.
Describe your practice for us
“A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” James Baldwin, ‘The Creative Process’
My practice is a meditation on the conflict between nature and culture, between the deep geological past and a profoundly uncertain future. It invokes current geopolitical realities, specifically our precarious relationship with the natural world, with our environment and our history, signifying upheaval and destructive activities that alter and transform the landscape.
Since 2016, my work has predominantly relied upon dioramas made in the studio. Constructed from torn scraps of corrugated cardboard and cement powder, these crude and provisional structures then become the subjects of paintings and drawings. The subsequent works are evocations of abandoned industrial or archaeological activity, the ruined fragments of past endeavour, surrendered to or overwhelmed by natural forces; faults and fissures lay bare the substrata of debris and waste, exposing layers of compressed rubbish and signification. The impermanent and fragmentary nature of the materials articulate not only their own inherent fragility and disintegration, but also that of the strange, unstable and fugitive world they comprise. Our ‘throwaway’ culture is implicated: the cement – although a vital component in the construction of our futures – in the raw, powdered state, represents not just the beginning, but the pulverised dust of a distant end. By using these materials, I’m able to ‘landscape’ worlds in miniature, and enact a transformation, making and unmaking, creating and destroying, where the timeless and unchanging Edenic or Arcadian worlds are nowhere visible here.
These assemblages and resulting artworks seek to critically engage with the landscape tradition in Western Art, and the trope of the aestheticised ruin. The landscape in art should be understood as not simply a view, but as a symbol and ideological construct, revealing hidden structures of power and wealth, and perpetuating socioeconomic conditions and hierarchies. Moreover, the resurgence of the landscape in contemporary art signifies responses to local, national and global discord, crises and disunity. Critical contemporary responses express anxieties, and problematize both notions of national identity and the continued mythologizing of the past. In this context, the landscape can articulate existential threats: to a nation’s values, ideas, myths and narratives (the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the emergence of Isis, Trump, and the continuing drama of ‘Brexit’, for example); and the immanent catastrophe of humanity’s impact on the natural world (climate change, for example, under the rubric of the Anthropocene, the widely accepted name for the current geological epoch). The ruin in the landscape thus speaks not only of past defeats or failures, but projects into the future as dire warning or prediction. The landscape then is dialectical, constituted by oppositions of nature and culture, the past and the future: the ruin, a decaying remnant, sits precariously between the two.
At present, my work references archaeological methods and terminology, and can be understood as an exploration of retreat from our uncertain times, suggesting the nostalgic longing for the consolations offered by the past. Allusions to excavations and dig sites thus connote an attempt to both recover lost narratives, and to reconnect to a sense of place. To this end, I re-enact archaeological strategies: objects and materials found in the studio are incorporated, embedded in cement, the detritus forms the sediment of future dioramas, repeatedly buried and lost, only to be again rediscovered. A determination to unearth, to delve down through layers of material, and to retrieve long buried archaeology, becomes a literal and metaphorical journey into the past, a search for ‘wholeness’, origins, continuity and solid foundations, and to erect or locate a bulwark against the fracture and upheaval of the present.
Diorama – cardboard and cement
How long have you been practising and by what route did you come to your practice?
I moved into my first studio way back in 2003 – although I was working and exhibiting before then, I regard this date as truly marking the beginning of my practice.
The route to reach this point was typical in that it followed from the completion of a degree. What perhaps wasn’t typical, however, was that the BA included History, alongside Art. This represented a happy compromise, reflecting the two competing passions and preoccupations that have been with me for as long as I can remember.
Tell us more about the significance of “artifice and transformation” in your practice.
‘Painting is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see’. (Philip Guston)
‘I don’t want a picture to look like something it isn’t. I want it to look like something it is’. (Robert Rauschenberg)
Artifice and transformation are implicit in Western art traditions and practices.
There has always been an element of the magician – conjuring something from nothing – or of the alchemist, taking the most base and unexpected materials, and then producing something astounding.
I use artifice – not in the sense to trick or deceive – but rather as a device that allows me to introduce ambiguity, and make possible the transformation enacted in my work. In short, to establish the conceptual space for an artwork to be understood as an image and as an object, and as both artwork and document.
This is best illustrated by a series of charcoal drawings I made based on the architectural ‘folly’, a series that neatly summarises the themes and preoccupations of my art. Follies were more than ornamental additions to a landowner’s estate: a picturesque ruin invoked ancestral heritage, symbolised lineage and continuity, and helped legitimise ownership and status.
The drawings stylistically ape Romantic landscape conventions, and explicitly make clear the connection between the folly as a sham, conceit or indulgence, and that of my drawings of cardboard structures. Neither are what they appear, but whereas one pretends to be something it is not, the other (the cardboard) declares its artifice, and the material of construction: they are “dreamlike stories built out of fragments of truth and fiction”.
The interplay between art and artefact is explored further in a current body of work, in which I imitate 18th century topographic drawings and engravings, but only to insert cardboard structures into the landscapes. In this way I am able to co-opt the historical and cultural associations, and transform something utterly worthless into an eloquent and (almost) noble material, where the one is elevated at the expense of the other.
‘Two Antiquarians Speculate on the Origin of A Ruin’, Indian ink and watercolour on paper, (2020)
Your work is often disquieting, with scenes absent of context and ambiguous as to their meaning. Are you curious as to the interpretation by your audience that the work is open to once it has let your studio?
Always. Locked away in the studio, you develop tunnel-vision and objectivity disappears. Time and distance help restore some of this: encountering your work again on a gallery wall allows you to see it afresh. To approach it as though for the first time however is impossible, and so the response from an audience can be said both to further and constitute its meaning, and even perhaps to complete it. You as the artist must relinquish control, and are happier for it – the work is allowed to breathe, to achieve a life of its own, evolving with the viewer’s own experiences and perceptions. There can be a gap between what you the artist see and think the work means, and what it may represent to an audience. It is in this gap, this space, that a work can breathe, and unexpected meanings and interpretations emerge.
As an artist I don’t claim to own a monopoly on a work’s meaning – this is something that not only may reveal itself with time, but may change also. The viewer can bring unexpected insight, or an even more profound understanding of my art. It is often surprising, and gratifying, to hear interpretations that hadn’t occurred to me, yet are no less valid or appropriate (or even more so), adding to the texture, substance and life of the work. The journey that first began in the studio, continues far beyond it.
I have always enjoyed the academic discipline and analytical process demanded by the study of history, and the interpretative approach to documents and source material. The love of research and investigation has remained with me, and continues to be an influence and mainstay of my practice.
‘Preservation by Record’, watercolour on paper, (2020)
You work in oils, but also in charcoal and watercolour. What does working in these mediums afford you, or informs your choice?
The least surprising factor is the imposition of practical constraints, where I am forced to put aside oils in favour of more manageable and less toxic mediums. This was certainly the case prompting my return to charcoal and watercolour.
The move from oils to charcoal was initially marred by persistent doubts concerning a drawing’s worth in comparison to painting. Such is the weight of tradition and the perceived ‘seriousness’ attached to oils, that other mediums appeared trivial, frivolous, or reduced only to supporting roles. Their proven versatility and unique qualities, however, soon dispelled the doubts.
There is an immediacy to charcoal which, without the distraction of colour, lends itself powerfully to drama and expressive subjects: it delivers a charge, a jolt of instant contrast, moving from the softest nuance to the greatest violence, and then back again. It has rapidly become a favoured medium of mine.
Working away from my studio during lockdown was the catalyst I needed to dig out the watercolours – something I’d been meaning to do for a while. It presented the ideal opportunity to experiment, and to fully get to grips with the medium. This in turn further informed my use of charcoal, extending the possibilities by brushing water into drawings, or mixing with powdered charcoal to make washes.
To begin with, my use of watercolours and charcoal was simply a continuation of works made in the studio. In a very short time, however, this led down different paths, suggesting new avenues to explore. By investing the time to look beyond oils, I was able to broaden my practice, encourage new ideas, learn and progress.
‘Folly (Contrived Ruin #1)’, charcoal on paper, 2019
What is important to you in maintaining and motivating your practice?
An answer to this perhaps would be to explain why we do the things we do: why be an artist when it can seem so absurd and self-indulgent? Why keep persevering despite the costs, time and effort, the frustrations and failures? But for as long as I can remember, I have always had the urge to draw, to fill an empty page: a compulsion that would make me restless, even feel a little lost, without release. It can appear more like a compulsion, an itch to scratch over and over again.
On a practical level, I would struggle to get anything done without routine and discipline; from these I believe the space and time for the work is allowed to flow.
Day to day, what drives my practice is the current project or deadline – these become all-consuming in terms of time and energy. For the most part, I make work in series, over a relatively short time scale. Working with this level of intensity means I am better able to maintain focus and enthusiasm, stopping when it has reached a natural conclusion, and only then taking a step back to reflect on the completed works. I’ve long ago accepted that I’m most productive working in cycles, resting for a short time between each, before embarking on the next.
Should my practice stall, I’ve found that revisiting older work may hold the key to the next step, whether the subject, forms, palette or handling of abandoned or exhausted works can provide the necessary shot in the arm, or the fertile ground to ensure things keep moving forward.
Maintaining contact with other artists is vital, whether discussing ideas or sharing thoughts. This has been forcibly demonstrated during the Covid pandemic when we witnessed our worlds abruptly contract, and opportunities, exhibitions, projects were cancelled, postponed or disappeared. Social media has only grown in importance in their absence, enabling artists to continue to reach audiences, begin dialogues, create opportunities and make sales.
But whatever the circumstances, a fundamental objective of my practice is to get my work out there, to join the conversation, to contribute and be part of something, of that world outside the studio. Alongside visiting exhibitions and engaging with other artists’ work, these are activities crucial to reinvigorate my work, and re-enthuse my practice during those inevitable dips and low points that come along to test your self-belief.
‘Promise and Ruin’, exhibition view.
What have been your biggest achievements since establishing your practice?
The condition of the artist is always to have no sooner reached one summit, then to go looking for the next hill to climb – to be always restless, groping for something just out of reach. Any achievement or success leads to fleeting contentment or satisfaction – this I suppose is just the nature of the beast, both its curse and reward.
It almost becomes redundant to talk of achievements when it’s the present and future accomplishments that propel you: each is superseded or eclipsed by the next.
Those that stand out, however, do so less for the prestigious occasion, award or venue, but more for the obstacles and challenges overcome to bring a work or project to fruition.
In 2013 The Sanctuary celebrated its 10-year anniversary – the occasion was marked with an exhibition and an accompanying publication. Although my contribution was significant, I was one of several people working hard to put it together. The curation, organisation, exhibition hang, the managing of resources and negotiating various individuals’ expectations, presented many challenges and frustrations. Each problem solved or little battle won was immensely satisfying: and the whole collaborative process was ultimately very rewarding – that was a great sense of achievement.
For similar reasons, I consider my solo exhibition ‘Promise and Ruin’ at NN Contemporary in 2019 a source of great pride in that, despite time constraints and the install’s ambitious concept, all came right. Again, the satisfaction was in the overcoming of a myriad of difficulties. And again, it was only possible thanks to the tireless efforts of several dedicated individuals, in this case the NN staff.
It is often the case that producing the art is the easy part. Moreover, each success is the culmination of not just your own efforts, but of the support and assistance from colleagues, loved ones, family and friends – they may not have held a paint brush or screwdriver, but they were integral to making things happen, and seldom get the recognition they deserve.
‘Promise and Ruin’, exhibition view.
What have been the biggest challenges to your practice?
Undoubtedly time, or rather the lack of it. Alongside my practice, I am in full-time employment – which means forced changes to my work patterns, with the adoption of strategies and routines to absorb all the additional pressures. As a result, I may be unable to visit the studio for several consecutive days, which disrupts rhythm and can lead to disjointed and irregular hours at the studio.
With the UK currently in its third lockdown, and in line with government restrictions, The Sanctuary and my studio were forced to close. This is the first time in over a decade that I have been without access to studio space.
The sudden limitations and lack of materials have meant a dramatic change to my practice. While this change was – and continues to be – challenging, it nonetheless proves that my practice is resilient enough to withstand upheaval.
What is the most interesting or inspiring thing you’ve seen or attended recently, and why?
The last physical exhibition I attended was the Bruce Nauman retrospective at Tate Modern in the Autumn of last year, sandwiched between the lockdowns.
To see so much of Nauman’s work in one place was a revelation – as though to awaken from a somnambulist’s dream.
Work spanning over 50 years was on display, including video, installation, neon sculptures, and sonic cacophonies from Beckettian shouting clowns and disembodied heads. Nauman’s chutzpah and obsessive preoccupations succeed in teasing great art from inauspicious origins. Given his work’s exploration of physical discomfort and emotional duress, and of repetition and confinement, Nauman’s retrospective undoubtedly makes an ideal accompaniment to the events of the past year. With the capacity to thrill and disturb, Nauman always pushes the limits of what art can be, and to those places it may be uncomfortable to follow.
We are in the third lockdown as I write this, and it is with grim irony that, given my work turns from the real in favour of the miniature, our own world too has contracted and shrunk in response to the pandemic. Our reduced circumstances have meant an abrupt retreat into, and fascination with, our immediate environments – the restrictive conditions have given rise to a celebration of the local and the overlooked. When the first lockdown was introduced in the Spring of 2020, the restrictions forced a visible change in people’s behaviour. In the park near my home, with the passing weeks, evidence of this involuntary change became increasingly obvious: a new path worn in the landscape, emblematic of repetitive and daily routines. Looking for all the world like Richard Long’s ‘A Line Made By Walking’, this straight and narrow path was a formal response by visitors to the park, pacing the parameters of their abruptly restricted world, redefining the limits of their freedom: a transient record of movement and time, and a physical expression of our present lived reality.
‘Landscape (With Cultural Fragment)’, oil on canvas (2017)
Which other artists’ work do you admire, and why?
Four artists spring immediately to mind because it is the memory of their work that lingers long after I first encountered them – it might be surprising to find there are no painters among them. The work of Katie Paterson, Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell and Mat Collishaw have made a lasting impression, and represent the qualities I admire and are drawn toward the most: a demonstration of the rich and varied possibilities of visual art, its potential to enchant, mesmerise and delight. Embracing new technologies, each explores the common ground between art and science, with concepts that are as sophisticated as they are simple. Inventive, ambitious, playful, they open new vistas of wonder and experience.
While Turrell’s ‘Skyspaces’ could be said to bring the distant heavens down to within our reach, Paterson propels our imaginations out to the furthest reaches of space. Collishaw’s work is immersed in the traditions of Renaissance art: it promises the sacred, but earthly torment is the only reward. His ‘Zoetropes’ are an exemplar, returning the viewer to a childlike sense of wonder, and unashamedly seducing with theatre and magic, while the innocence is corrupted by savagery and decay.
Finally, there is the elemental beauty and thrill of Eliasson’s sculptures and installations, whose ideas appear of such lightness, yet carry so much weight – they satisfy and nourish needs neglected elsewhere.
‘Untitled (Substrata, Exposed)’, oil on canvas, 25x35cm (2017)
Where do you see your work in the next 5 years?
It is impossible to predict – 2020 has demonstrated that. But what I can say is that one simple innovation, idea or change has led to significant transformation of my practice – new avenues, direction and opportunities have presented themselves, and I anticipate similar developments within the next five years.
Based on my current work, and ideas percolating away, I strongly feel that photography will assume greater significance. At present, digital photos constitute more of a tool or prompt – a means to an end rather than the end itself. But over the past year, and particularly during lockdowns, I have grown increasingly reliant on photography to both document the environment, and provide a more unmediated response to events and surroundings. Whether as a record or artwork, the photographic image I suspect will loom large in the future of my practice.
That said, I’m far from done with cardboard and cement – materials that will continue to characterise my practice for a good while yet.
‘Field Study’ nos 1-4, oil on canvas (2019)
Who would you most like to have visit your studio?
I’ve chosen three luminaries – giants in their fields – who without doubt reflect my most fundamental interests and instincts. They embody disciplines that over the years have helped weave the fabric and texture of both my formative years and my practice.
The first is Nick Cave – singer, songwriter, author, composer. His music has accompanied me during many long hours in the studio, through the day and deep into the night. I’d be fascinated to learn whether Nick is able to detect any influence of his music in my art…
Second, I would invite the British historian Simon Schama. His erudition, eloquence and humanity would make him a welcome and engaging visitor to my studio. Schama’s expertise in the Western landscape tradition would offer invaluable perspectives in relation to my own practice.
And thirdly, Maggi Hambling, irascible and uncompromising, straight-talking, whisky-drinking painter – although I suspect I’ll have to put a sock over the smoke-detector. Hambling’s meditations on mortality, loss and environmental destruction chime with my own concerns, and share common cause with both Cave and Schama.
The events of the last year (‘The Lost Year’?) would make for a fascinating discussion, rich and rewarding, and with maybe a singalong at the end.
Diorama – cardboard, cork and cement
Where can we see your work? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, events or projects?
The Covid pandemic has meant so many cancellations and postponements, and put the brakes on or derailed projects, that my practice was forced almost into hibernation. However, with the Spring of 2021 comes promise of a return to something like normality.
In April/May, I will be participating in a group show in London’s ‘Cello Factory’; postponed because of lockdown, this exhibition will finally open, and will include artists whose work features, or relies upon, the use of models or maquettes. There are some great artists involved, so I’m really thrilled and excited to be among them.
And then in June, my work can be seen as part of ‘Without Borders’ – a project inspired by issues raised by the pandemic and featuring works on paper. It will open in the UK before beginning an international tour of several countries, including Japan and the USA.
Dates and information for both shows will be on my website and social media pages just as soon as they become available.
Lastly, I intend to publish a number of books that will provide both an overview of work made since 2016, and an opportunity to process and explore through my practice the events of the last 12 months. Moreover, they will allow me to develop ideas and themes that originally came about before Covid, and show their progress and evolution through the subsequent year. In terms of my practice and experience, I believe these volumes will not only form an artistic record, but also a visual document of my personal journey.
Jonathan was interviewed in February 2021.
All images are by and courtesy of the artist.