Onya McCausland

Jan 8, 2019 11:03AM

Onya McCausland in her London studio, September 2018

‘Landscapes’ is the second solo exhibition at Anima-Mundi by the London-based artist and academic Onya McCausland (b. UK, 1971). ‘Landscapes’ will extend across all three floors of the gallery and focus on McCausland’s recent collection of paintings in varying scales and applications, guiding the viewer through three specific and creatively significant landscapes : Saltburn (floor 1), Cuthill (floor 2), Tan-y-Garn (floor 2) and Deerplay Hill (floor 3).

McCausland’s multi-layered, minimalist paintings and wall installations are made from ‘waste ochres’, produced as a result of the mining industry, and each floor of the exhibition will pay homage to the origin of the materials used, recording the aesthetic intensity and unique quality of each landscape. McCausland’s research (in collaboration with the coal authority and UCL) has led to the creation of high-quality artist pigments in a range of rich, earthy ochres (ranging from primrose yellow to burnt terracotta) giving new purpose to an otherwise redundant and environmentally damaging material.


Exhibition essay by Isobelle Bucklow, 201

Type the coordinates 54°34 07.37 N 0°57 42.87 into google earth and you will dive down into a pool of red: ‘Saltburn Mine Water Treatment scheme’. I say dive into, however this virtual free fall halts just before you reach ground level; a jittering curser hovering directly above. From this aerial perspective the landscape is levelled out. Conventional sight lines are rearranged, with the horizons lumps airbrushed and flattened. Saltburn’s Mine Water Treatment pools lose their rippling variation and the distinct areas of colour are isolated, as if neatly fitting into a hardware store wall paint colour chart. A hardware aesthetic created by a piece of computer software. It is as Italo Calvino said; ‘software cannot exercise its powers of lightness except through the weight of hardware. But it is the software that gives the orders […] The iron machines still exist, but they obey the orders of weightless bits’. These google map screenshots expose their digital creator; the treatment sites in their rigid geometry have the inhuman appearance of computer integrated circuit chips.

Perhaps the treatment site itself is still something of Calvino’s ‘iron machine’, obeying the demands of almost weightless particles (a mineralisation process unlocks pyrite which is then oxidised into the insoluble ferric form and precipitates particles of ochre pigment). This dynamic eco system is not evident from the static monochrome found on google earth. Whilst the dizzying descent into coordinates gives the impression of rattling through the macro to access the micro it is ultimately disappointing. We remain so far away, suspended in this unnatural aerial vacuum there are no faithful timekeepers; not the drum beat in my chest, nor the lilt and sway of breath, no august chorus of insect chatter clicking in the clammy night. These natural rhythms are autotuned to obey the same frequency, so we access digitals images without presence. We see monochromes without organs.

The map is not the territory, nor is it a simple ‘birds eye view’. With new features like ‘angled’ and ‘street’ views multiple perspectives are amalgamated to produce a multifocal image. Where are we experiencing this from?

Where is our place in this landscape? The nature of our human experience is our inability to master all fields of vision. Phenomenology, the study of consciousness experienced from the first-person point of view, understands totalising accounts to be impossible. Our perception is constrained by what is in front or behind, above or below, only rectified by physically changing position. Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued that ‘experience is [...] lived by me from a certain point of view; I am not the spectator, I am involved’.

McCausland does not halt at surface, rather she plunges into the depths of terrain entering into a dialogue with that which the earth provides.

The titles of her works reflect this engagement that occurs both above and beneath ground. ‘Cuthill’ references the depth of the mine, using the vertical reference system: Ordinance Datum Newlyn - which establishes a reliable bench mark measurement system underground whilst The Google Earth images by contrast are titled according to the distance from above the ground. Passing through the earth’s membrane she facilitates an interplay between above and beneath, light and shade. Not only does McCausland’s practice re-orientate the physical axis of our engagement with landscape. She scrutinises our conceptual axis with regard to how we approach and understand ‘waste’.

McCausland’s colour is the waste product of a decanting process. ‘Waste’ is often considered contaminated or hybridised and, if no adequate nutrient retrieval systems exist, then its use value is voided. In 2014, between 4 and 5 thousand tons of ochre were being sent to landfill every year because an economically viable use could not be found and landfill was the cheapest option. By reusing this otherwise redundant material in her work McCausland has demonstrated the uniqueness and cultural value of these colours and their landscape contexts. Her practice re-energises the discarded matter bestowing it with new life-force as artists’ pigment. There is no useless matter. if something seems useless, we should not discard the thing itself but reassess the frame in which we have trapped it. These muddy pools are rather fonts abundant with blood red pigment.

McCausland’s recognition of the potential of the overlooked is embodied by Baudelaire’s rag picker who ‘in the muddy maze of some old neighbourhood, Often, where the street lamp gleams like blood’ catalogues and collates the annals of intemperance. In this figure the locating and repurposing of foraged scraps becomes an extended metaphor for the poetic method. Both ragman and poet are concerned with the disregarded and refused. The ragman found an accomplice in the Avant Garde artist of the 20th century. From Dada Collages to Rauschenberg’s accumulation, artists used the flatbed picture plane as an adhesive surface upon which all manner of residue could gather. The act of retrieval and assemblage, rather than composition of painting proper, results in an openness, a negation of ego in favour of object agency. These practices did not turn their back on the world but were occupied by it. When Picasso made his collages, he said he wanted the real offal of human life, the dirty, poor and despised. These moves motivated by the desire to muddy the sheen of the commodity and circumvent the economy of the art market reached parodic status when Piero Manzoni canned his own shit and sold on par with the value of gold. This act epitomises Freud’s belief that artworks always have an overdetermined relationship to faeces. But so do all systems, be them bodily, aesthetic, economic. Everything participates in the impulsive and uncontrollable drives of ingestion and excretion. I note we began this essay soaring above, trapped in a slick sealed computer programme, we have now plunged into the base, where all is soiled and pigment is belched out of the belly of the earth.

McCausland’s recognition of the interrelation between waste matter and art matter follows in the footsteps of Baudelaire’s’ ragman and Manzoni’s Freudian jester persona. But it also follows the economic theories of Bataille for whom the output of one system served as input for another system. Whilst the treatment sites attempt to control and contain the ‘waste’ material, its life does not end there. it is as Bataille said; ‘rather than the excretion of the foreign body removing the foreign body it actually liberates it, and liberates it to a heterogeneity that is out of control’. Sensitivity to matter’s vibrant potential facilitates transference from one perspective to another. The waste is energised as the fuel for a business endeavour; as commercially available pigment. The landscape is ecologically and economically fertile; producing ochre, generating an income for the local econmy and creating high-quality pigment for artists. Nietzsche commented; ‘the world exists - it is not something that becomes, not something that passes away, or rather, it becomes, it passes away, but it has never begun to become and never ceases from passing away – it maintains itself in both – it lives on itself; its excrements are its food’.

The artists’ picture plane is emblematic of the porosity between ingestion and excretion. When applying the pigment McCausland notes how when the second wet coat met with the first dry coat it was immediately sucked into the dry ochre, like parched soil that gulps down fresh water. Colour consumes colour, allowing it to become healthy and ‘full bodied’ in tone. Colour also absorbs light and alters accordingly; expanding and contracting its mass, weight and volume.

Each pigment has distinct behavioural properties just as each mine site has its own method of water treatment, its own lexicon, creating an entirely unique ochre pigment. ‘Tan-y-garn’ site uses limestone and mushroom compost to reduce the acidity of the water and make a full bodied reddish brown. At ‘Saltburn’, the water from an iron stone mine becomes a light yellow ochre. Even within one pigment there are multiple potentialities, it can be a milky tangerine when raw and a dense syrupy russet when cooked. The capacity to receive and repel colour and light alters depending on whether the pigment is wet or dry, raw or cooked. Onya has titled some works with reference to the cooking process; ‘Iron oxide pigment from Cuthill Mine Water Treatment Scheme (2016) burnt at 600° mixed in oil on gessoed canvas’

This is a quantitative title that entails qualitative engagements with surface and ground.

The passage from raw to cooked is found in most mythic narratives and is commonly emblematic of the passage from death to life. At the Palaeolithic Terra Amata site in Nice, archaeologists retrieved 75 ochre pieces ranging in shades from yellow to red and red-brown, with many intermediate and irregular ones attributable to different thermal influences. It is understood that the transformation of yellow stone into red was interpreted by the Early Acheulian hunter-gatherers as a magic, life affirming process. Through the addition of heat a sickly yellow stone could be revived and made bulbous with red blood. Ochre is used in the mortuary rituals of many Mousterian sites, Palaeo-Indians and Late Archaic populations in North America where red pigment would be smothered on the flesh of the dead or placed in bowls beside the body. These practices recall the Maori legend of a woman who, in the nether world, came upon a bowl of ochre, she ingested the colour and was returned to life. These burial practices coat the skin with pigment enabling the pores to ‘ingest’ the substance with hope that the body is sustained beyond the grave. McCausland feeds surfaces with ochre, and as the canvas consumes the colour it gains more agency. This is nowhere more apparent than in ‘Cuthill watercolour (drop)’. Experimenting with how the pigment responds to contact with different surfaces McCausland placed paper in a horizontal water tank and poured the pigment on top. Left overnight in the dark, the ochre blindly feels its way toward the bottom of the container and joins with the paper. Interestingly its fall forms softly curving hills of dusty red; recalling the shape of the land from which it was born (we are forever on our way home).

The ochre forms on paper also recall the derelict heaps of red shale known as John Latham’s ‘bings’. In 1975, the Scottish Development agency contacted artist John Latham for an urban renewal project. Concerned that these heaps of burnt and oxidised oil shale constituted an ‘eyesore’ in the landscape what was really required was a new outlook. Let us recall; If something seems useless we should not discard the thing itself but reassess the frame in which we have trapped it. Latham re-conceptualised the mounds of waste as ‘process sculptures’. They were named as landmarks and with that given a new identity and impetus. In Room 2, McCausland provides a map that shows the seams of coal mines, and four shards of shale from one of Latham’s bings, weigh down the map’s four corners.

Following Latham’s approach, McCausland is campaigning for the mine water treatment sites themselves be renamed as monuments. This move to name the sites does not untether the perspective I have been weaving (for this perspective is something of an ever cycling mobeius loop). I have so far stressed how McCausland relinquishes the role of artist as someone who controls and contains colour to adopt the role of gleaner who liberates the voice of the discarded. Consequently, the idea ‘trademarking’ may seem the antithesis of a sensitive approach. Sticking words to things always entails some form of capture. but McCausland’s naming follows the sympathetic leanings of Walt Whitman who was so attuned to the murmurings of matter that his poetry is a seismograph of its song. His elemental words, as he defined them, do not overwrite but ‘accord’ with the earth, and ‘are in the air, they are in you’. Pregnant with multiple temporalities, words are not static in definition and fixed to the page but are ‘lispings of the future’. Again returning to the notion of the passage from raw to cooked, Whitman’s song of the rolling earth proclaims ‘amelioration is the blood that runs through the body of the universe’. As in Early Acheulian ritual where burnt ochre was saturated with this vital red life force, Whitman’s poetic form warms words until they throb with energy. Words, like the earth, possess something underneath, that something is meaning and that something is colour. McCausland taps into Whitman’s seismograph. Rather than hybridising and contaminating the colour with metaphor she amplifies what has been silenced. Naming the colour as it obdurately exists in its environment. Mary Douglas wrote how dirt is not dangerous so long as it without a name. In naming the pigment after the site McCausland unleashes its vibrant agency. Much like the methods of Manzoni, Picasso and Rauschenberg; the refuse is realised.

Through the act of naming, landscape is socially and historically experienced; it becomes a collective event. The experience of viewing these works within the gallery setting is also a collective event where we are in dialogue with space, colour, time, light, one another, etc. The structure of the architecture entails each gallery space be stacked vertically, creating a kind of geological strata in which the works, like worms, can create their own environment. The viewer journeys through lightness and darkness, penetrating each zone and consequently becoming aware of a distinct materiality of the space. Whilst each room draws attention to a different Mine Water Treatment scheme and thus a different pigment, there is a binding relationship between them. The layout of the exhibition behaves much like the systems I have outlined. McCausland’s project recognises that nothing can be understood in isolation; waste is in a dialectical relationship with wealth, just as there is porosity between raw and cooked. Rather than a hierarchical linear narrative, everything participates in a cyclical system. It makes sense then that none of McCausland’s work exists as a singularity but is extended and environmental, operating in part to whole relations. One plane is but the crop of a harvest of pigment. A horizon line is but a bend in a vertical. A straight line the fragment of a curve. Upon viewing, we too must be the ragman, the archaeologist, gleaning and excavating the matter before us to piece together a whole of ecological influx and efflux.

Standing before McCausland’s works, time is not a container but a component, where all is in process, all is in song. Walt Whitman extolled ‘the masters know the earth’s words and use them more than audible words’. McCausland is exploring the earth’s vocabulary.

Isabelle Bucklow, 2018


Onya McCausland is a British artist born in Zennor, Cornwall in 1971. She currently lives and works in London.

McCausland’s practice consists of minimalist paintings, murals, installation and land art. Her work is concerned with how specific materials and processes can be used as a conduit to open up interconnected underlying ideas that draw upon the changing economic and environmental conditions underway in the contemporary landscape. This is expressed in a current body of work that examines new uses for waste materials found in ex-coal mining regions across the UK.

McCausland is collaborating with the Coal Authority and UCL to generate new uses for mine water waste ‘ochres’ as usable coloured pigment for paint. Her research repositions this ‘waste’ ochre as significant cultural material that can be used to change perceptions of post-industrial landscape sites.

In 2014, between 4 and 5 thousand tones of ochre were being sent to landfill every year because an economically viable use could not be found and landfill was the cheapest option. By reusing this otherwise redundant material in her work McCausland has demonstrated the uniqueness and cultural value of these colours and their landscape contexts.

The landscapes are perceived through the vehicle of the earth materials forming at their site. The medium of painting is used in its widest sense, drawing on the history of minimalist and post-minimalist aesthetics, and landart to examine the proximities between the idea of ‘ground’ and surface, where surface is used to join geographic, geological and painterly realms.

In collaboration with the Coal Authority, McCausland is working to designate five selected Mine Water Treatment Schemes as living paintings that perform the production of ochre, while generating an income for the local economy and producing high-quality pigment for artists.

McCausland is currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Researcher based at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London working on her project : “From Coal Mine Waste to Landscape Painting - New British Earths” Recent exhibitions have been supported by Camden Arts Centre on London, Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and the Delfina Foundation in London. She was also supported by the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust and has received funding from the Arts Council, British Council. the Arts and Humanities Research Council. She has also been shortlisted for the prestigious Wollaston Award at the Royal Academy and the John Moores Painting Prize. She has exhibited her work internationally and has work in numerous private and public collections. Onya McCausland is represented by Anima-Mundi.