Richard Nott 'Ecdysis' by Dr Ian Massey

Apr 14, 2017 7:54AM

Dr Ian Massey examines the enigmatic paintings of Richard Nott from his solo exhibition 'Ecdysis' at Anima-Mundi

Richard Nott in his studio with 'Baetylus 1'

In recent years much of Richard Nott’s work has assumed a status that is  as close to that of sculpture as it is to painting. The change often  appears dramatic when compared to the artist’s earlier work, for some of  his paintings now protrude from the wall in much deeper relief, their  textured surfaces teeming with organic incident. This development was  first seen to powerful effect in his last show at Anima-Mundi, 2014’s  ‘Histolysis’, and continues here in series of new works that are equally  remarkable. It in fact forms a natural progression, given that Nott  initially trained as a sculptor. He graduated in 1982 at a time when  what came to be labelled New British Sculpture was pre-eminent, its  practitioners – amongst them Bill Woodrow and Tony Cragg – making work  from a catholic range of stuff encompassing urban detritus and other  easily sourced materials. Both as a student and in the early stages of  his career, Nott’s work was influenced by such approaches as much as by  pragmatic economic necessity. He established an aesthetic sensibility  based upon the deployment of certain materials, finding what he needed  in what were to become constant components of his art: amongst them  emulsion paint, resin, and bitumen.

Crucially, all of Nott’s work is anchored in a foundational geometry of  strict horizontals and verticals; a structural basis he describes as  adhering to the same principles as those involved in making a chair or a  building. He works in series, moving from one piece to the other,  forming within them interrelationships of mark, texture and tone, and  always allowing for chance and serendipity as he prompts each towards  some kind of individual and collective resolution. Many of his processes  are intensely physical: the list of methods employed includes pouring,  wiping, sponging, blotting, dragging, scraping, gouging, sanding,  burning and peeling. The artist describes lots of reaction between the  oiliness of bitumen and the water-based paints he utilises: these  chemical reactions are fundamental to the work and its effects. He often  uses a blowtorch on his paintings, scorching or setting light to their  surfaces, sometimes flooding them with water, occasionally putting them  out in the open for a time to contend with the elements. The work is  rooted in oppositional forces: Nott describes his studio as the setting  of ‘a small war’, in which he undertakes protracted battle with the  tensions between control and chaos, structure and flux, subsumation and  exhumation. Much of his time is spent in both applying and then removing  paint, allowing for residual glimpses and traces of what lies beneath  to come forth. Process and meaning are inextricable in Nott’s work. In  discussion he often uses the word ‘history’, in reference to the  accretion of time within the layers of his paintings. He makes an  analogy of digging into the earth; of how as one digs deeper it becomes  blacker, and of how in his work he aims for its converse, a form of  archaeological retrieval, or the gradual achievement of equipoise in  which ‘things go from dark to light.’ Central is the idea of experience  and energy accumulated and contained within matter, both literally and  metaphorically. In all of this the artist is keen to stress the  fundamentally abstract nature of his work, and concerned to promote  readings that are intuitive and allusive rather than literal.

The title of this show, ‘Ecdysis’* has both personal meaning for the  artist whilst relating also to the largest works here, ‘Baetylus 1-3’,  three imposing and blackly oleaginous square panels, each of them pretty  much a man’s height. The paintings were worked on intermittently over a  four-year period, during which they remained in constant material flux.  One of the early stages of development involved laying down resin,  which was then burnt and subsequently scraped off in strips like flayed  flesh. Later this debris was glued back on, in thick strips and shards  pressed onto the surface, where they were then subjected to further  treatment; gouged or burnt away so that their edges fused with  bituminous residues and the greys of the underlying substrate. The  resultant paintings are immensely tactile, somehow both primeval  and sensual.

In contrast to what is often a torturous and lengthy process, working on  paper allows Nott to make changes at a faster pace, to be less precious  and more open to chance. A series of these smaller paintings usually  begins with him stretching around thirty sheets of paper. In common with  all of his work, he first imposes an underlying structure, by scoring a  grid into each sheet with a knife or the edge of a metal tool,  sometimes allowing its spacing to be asymmetric, whilst making others as  regular as a sheet of graph paper. Across this structural armature Nott  drags swathes of emulsion, forming unpredictable smears and blockages  as it catches within the grid’s indentations. Later the grid might be  re-established, redrawn or partially revealed by lightly sanding back  the surface, and perhaps then existing only as a faint shadow, as though  ghosted. As with his larger works, the artist often sets fire to the  works on paper, the flame of the blowtorch ‘pitting the surface’ and  ‘releasing what lies beneath’. He tends to keep them in the studio for  some time, a kind of incubation period during which they might be  subjected to accidental scuffs and stray spatters, before then finally  being reassessed and resuscitated, ‘brought back to preciousness’. The  linear structuring of Nott’s paintings on paper suggests pages of  fragmentary eroded text. They invoke something of the transience of  memory and time, and the fundamental role of language; retained,  remembered, hidden or forgotten. They seem also about a yet more  abstract language, one that is related to the spiritual in man and  nature. There is a small white-on-white work on paper here, ‘Codex 1’,  its delicate relief akin to Braille awaiting human touch. Others contain  hundreds of tiny spore-like marks, some of them partially washed away,  whilst others appear as though rusted or corroded. All of the smaller  paintings act in subtle counterpoint to the ostensibly greater drama of  the artist’s more substantial panel paintings. Of the latter, shown here  are a series of eight white reliefs entitled ‘Ecdysis 1-8’, along with  three substantially larger ones in grey, ‘Eolith 1-3’, and ‘Ecdysial 1  and 2’ that are larger still, all of their surfaces claggy and deeply  encrusted. Like everything Nott produces, they result from what he  describes as a ‘transformation’ of material, a brand of alchemical  artifice here involving repetitive excavation and accumulation. The  greys appear volcanic; coagulated and pockmarked, they are inflected  here and there with a carboniferous sheen, whilst the whites are matt  and bone-like, the delicacy of their edges frangible in appearance. A  subtle play of light across these paintings gently activates their  intricacies and emphasises their powerfully sensory nature: touch is  fundamental in all of Nott’s work.

Nott utilises a limited palette, of what might be defined ‘non-colour’,  formed from whites and greys mixed from emulsion paints, with blacks,  browns and ochres from various consistencies of bitumen thinned with  white spirit. Within these limits, the artist carefully mediates hue and  tone, summoning a multiplicity of effects of mood and atmosphere from  pale yellow infusions and earth tones, his whites, greys and blacks  suggesting the impalpability of light, smoke or mist. He is fully  conversant with the power of restraint. Amongst his pantheon of greatly  admired painters are the minimalists Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, and  he has also cited Giorgio Morandi as an artist who achieved poetic  resonance within the steadfast limitations of his still life subjects  and restrained tonal palette.

Restraint extends also to Nott’s titles, each painting and drawing  identified with just one carefully selected word, words that often evoke  metamorphosis and transformation of the physical or spiritual in land  and body. Questioned about the metaphorical aspect of his work Nott  refers to the inherent vulnerability of its materials and its immersive  qualities, through which it derives its contemplative and meditative  nature. Out of the highly physical processes he enacts through  often-intense struggle, gradually and by stealth he achieves a form of  agreement with the work, a point at which he recognises something of  himself in it, and in which stasis and quietude prevail.

Dr Ian Massey, 2017

Dr Ian Massey is an art historian, writer and curator. His publications  include major monographs on the artists Patrick Procktor and Keith  Vaughan. He is currently writing a book about the St. Ives sculptor John  Milne.

* From Collins dictionary : ‘Ecdysis’ is the process of shedding the old  skin in reptiles or the outer cuticle in insects and other arthropods

To view the exhibition online visit :

ECDYSIS 1  .    mixed media on panel  .  60 x 60 x 12 cm

EOLITH 1  .    mixed media on panel  .  90 x 90 x 12 cm

CODEX 3  .     mixed media on paper  .  67 x 67 cm

   BAETYLUS 1  .    mixed media on panel  .  184 x 184 cm