Show me all the transformations of the sign.
It could be that I find my name among them.
There is always a correlation between society's trends and the art it produces. Postmodernist culture has largely reversed the values of traditional societies. Individualism, commercialism and secularism are at its core and for most there is a denial of the sacred. Art has lost its moral authority, for there is no longer a framework or consensus in which that authority can exist. Rather it has become the object of commercial exchange, with artists often seemingly more interested in their reputations than in their art. Yet there are those who do manage to integrate a personal spiritual vision within their practice. Eileen Lawrence is one such artist.
As a child she invented codes, some which could be deciphered, others that made sense only to her. Automatic writing has always played a part in her visual imagery, leading, in the '90s, to marks that resembled oriental scripts. It was as if she was exploring what Carl Jung described as "The origin (of collective symbols) . . . buried in the mystery of the past". In these totemic, exotic works, Lawrence used grass, twigs and feathers interspersed with text to create 'prayer sticks'; objects of contemplation inspired by the Buddhist prayer flags that fly from remote Tibetan hilltops. These works implied hieroglyphs or sacred manuscripts that
could be decoded if only we had the key.
More recently she has abandoned this technique and the use of handmade paper for imagery that is sparer, more minimal. She has always considered the script she used to be essentially abstract but her work is moving, for the moment at least, towards a greater simplicity. This does not mean a dilution of intensity, but rather, as with the homeopath's dose, strength through distillation. Journeys and walks, when objects are collected en route, are still central to her working process. Eggs, twigs and feathers, which evoke the particularity and uniqueness of a place, act as aide-mémoires and when they eventually find their way into her paintings resonate like ciphers or signs. Her inventory of gathered objects evokes the Victorian botanist's love of lists and cataloguing, whilst her muted melancholy palette suggests the process of aging and withering. In this sense she constantly brings us up close to the natural cycles of procreation, death and decay.
Her most recent journeys have taken her to the Swiss Alps and to the forests of her native Scotland. The first, the result of a residency in Basel, involved trips to the Engelberg and Lauterbrunnen Valleys. Here Lawrence was struck, not only by the awesome beauty of the mountains, but also by the different atmospheres of each valley; the Lauterbrunnen dark and brooding, the Engelberg lighter and airier in feel. These new works are a response to these dramatic landscapes etched by avalanches and landslides. Her white on white watercolour washes echo the traces left on snow and the ever-changing light on the angular walls of the mountains that at one moment were bathed in sun and the next covered in dark, ominous shadow. It is almost as if her layered marks mirror the alluvial deposits and accretions, the very history of the geological formations secreted by millennia of slow weathering, replicating the process in a palimpsest of signs and emotive non-verbal language. The little villages precariously clinging to the face of the mountains also struck a cord with Eileen Lawrence who saw them as symbols of both fragility and strength. This duality is reflected in her delicate and closely observed use of seeds, shells and especially eggs, metaphors for the unpredictability and fragility of nature. Unusually for Lawrence there is the suggestion, in some of these works, of a shadowy figure, influenced by the edgy nervous sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, which she saw whilst in Switzerland.
The works made in the woodlands of Scotland use a stronger palette. Pine needles, and their markings create abstract sections. Lawrence was anxious to capture the ever-changing atmosphere affected by the dramatic shifts in weather. Feathers from a pheasant or a curlew are signs, which she uses with the precision of a tracker able to read the language of the forest. Every work is rooted in actual observation; in crows seen resting in a tall tree, or a pigeon's feather found out walking on a path. Each twig, blade of grass or egg is painted with the objectivity of the scientist. Like Gaston Bachelard, in his luminary Poetics of Space, she delights in both the miniature and in the sense of containment and nurture that objects like eggs imply. Her freckled shells and nodular twigs demonstrate the intricate variation and patterning to be found in the natural world, where each object is unique and reflects what the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins called "All things counter, original, spare, strange".
In her use of watercolour Eileen Lawrence pays homage to traditional English landscape painting. But she does not paint en plein air or even from notes. Rather she works in the studio using the objects collected in the outer world to feed her imagination. By retreating to the reflective space of the studio she is able to meditate on the spirit of place. Her works, like haiku, evoke by association. As she removes herself into the quiet of her working environment she relies on the unconscious to deliver up memories. For like prayer and meditation, she knows that truly to paint an object requires concentration and stillness. Only through contemplation is it possible to discover its essence, that quality that Hopkins described when he wrote:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves - goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
Sue Hubbard is a freelance critic and award-winning poet. Her first novel Depth of Field is published by Dewi Lewis.