I could question whether painting is an effective means to start a conversation about the social and historical significance of our landscapes. Perhaps not, except that Painting has long held landscape as an established territory, and painting has been mobilised in the service of nationalism perhaps as reliably as the landscape has.

While navigating the links between different historical events and groups of people in the past and present, I think about ‘networked painting’ and how I’m using that model in a very literal sense in the mind map which indexes these texts.

In the paintings themselves, too, I embrace David Joselit’s recognition that the object can ‘never be fully stilled’1, with the motifs I have chosen to include. I do not intend for any of the imagery - a protester dressed as Robin Hood, a smartly dressed woman sketching on a portable easel, a migrant worker picking fruit, a holidaymaker, a hop oast - to have a circumscribed meaning. They are linked, of course, by the central idea of the countryside, but I haven’t set out to construct a strict narrative around them. I have layered elements from different decades and locations and want to visualise all the potential interactions these histories might have.

It is easier than ever to see that these motifs (and therefore the painting as a whole) are ‘never fully stilled’ in the turbulent political backdrop on which British national identity is being played out. About a year after I began using the motif of the ‘white cliffs’, most usually associated with Dover, an anti-immigrant patrol of Samphire Hoe beach in Kent by vigilante nationalists from the group ‘Britain First’ came to light in local news. They titled their stunt ‘Operation White Cliffs’2. Now the motif in my painting meant something other than an enduring landmark of the south of England which is sometimes associated with the happy return of soldiers after WWII3. It also meant nationalist predation of the most vulnerable, people so desperate that they will risk their lives on small boats crossing the busiest shipping lane in the world. In fact, catching up on the endless stream of think-pieces being written about Brexit, from journalists home and abroad, I found that these cliffs had quickly become a ‘blank canvas on which competing narratives are projected’4. The White Cliffs of Dover are a perfect illustration of the weaponisation of landscapes.

Ultimately, however, the shift in meaning allows me to recognise that no matter what image I choose to put into a painting, it will go on to have a life of its own. A living image sounds better than a dead one.


Writers on painting, even those who wish to position the work they discuss as absolutely part of the contemporary dialogue, still feel the need to specifically address the medium, even though as Isabelle Graw states, ‘since the late 1990s, the media-aesthetic insight has become widely accepted that no artistic medium, not even painting, is problematic in and of itself’5. Here networked painting becomes a useful concept. As explained by Isabelle Graw in ‘The Love of Painting’, it allows critics to interpret paintings as visualising networks, and it ‘does away once and for all with the modernist ideal of a clearly delimitable sphere of pure painting’, independent of the material aspects of the work. This makes it possible to suppose that figurative painting would much more effectively ‘do away with […] pure painting’6 than abstraction - the references to the network can be that much more explicit.

Graw is otherwise critical of the idea of network painting, however, pointing out that it tends to ‘overemphasise frictionless connectivity and to underestimate the significance of social hierarchies, relations of power, and inequalities.’7 According to Graw it levels everything, regarding each relationship equally and ignoring the role of power. This is perhaps a result of the art world’s mutating of network theory to be primarily about social networks, which has the other worrying effect of making it ever easier for our social relations to be converted into economic potential.

I am not entirely in control of the network of my paintings through my material decisions. For example, I am making quite large paintings, canvas on stretchers, and I am a woman. I’m regularly asked why I am making large paintings, which I suspect I wouldn’t hear so frequently if I were male. This makes the scale of the paintings mean something which is dependent on me. I am also painting figuratively in what could be described as an illustrative style, rather than in, say, a neo-expressionist manner, which will again be read in the context of my being a woman. Graw describes Lucy McKenzie and Avery Singer making decisions to work figuratively as ‘a useful alternative to gestural painting especially for women in the arts, foregrounding gender neutral skills and discouraging attempts to discern subjective expression and reductive notions about hallmarks of ‘femininity’. […] In other words, by leading the focus away from the artist’s gender this technique prevents the artwork from getting reduced to it’8. Anything that looks like ‘expression’ is still a risk for a woman artist, in a way that it is not for a man.

I can’t say that I decided to paint figuratively for the same reason as McKenzie or Singer, but I do have a sense of wanting to avoid certain interpretations of my work, while deliberately dealing with some areas (e.g. depiction of children and childhood) that I know could be both seen as less serious, and also read alongside my gender in a way I can’t control. It’s a catch 22 - how to avoid my gender being foregrounded in a reading of my work, while not wanting to perpetuate a gendered hierarchy of subjects and material forms? I feel that even now the realm of painting contains more conservative voices. I suspect they are attracted to the medium because of dated cultural ideas, not because the medium itself is conducive to a conservative worldview. Nevertheless, I am haunted by Audre Lorde’s famous declaration:

‘For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.’9

I hope this doesn’t have to be true for painting. If, following Lorde, we could make better houses for ourselves by using different tools, maybe we can make better paintings by using different paintbrushes ways of thinking about painting.

Bob Nickas, writing about Jutta Koether, sums it up quite well when he says “painting remains on so many levels within the realm of men; a realm understood in the old-world sense.”10
1. David Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself” in October, 130, Autumn 2009, p132

2. Sam Lennon, “Britain First start beach patrols for migrants in Dover”, Kent Online, 18 September 2019 <https://www.kentonline.co.uk/dover/news/far-right-group-patrols-beaches-for-migrants-212472/> [accessed 9 March 2020]

3. This nostalgic view of the ‘white cliffs’ already predisposes them to nationalist instrumentalisation

4. Samuel Earle, “The White Cliffs of Brexit” in The New Republic Online, 22 October 2019, <https://newrepublic.com/article/155456/white-cliffs-brexit> [Accessed 9 March 2020]

5. Isabelle Graw, The Love of Painting, (Sternberg Press, Berlin: 2018), p264

6. Ibid, p265

7. Ibid, p265

8. Ibid, p272

9. Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House” in Sister Outsider, (Crossing Press: C1984). Available online at: <https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/lordedismantle.html> [Accessed 14 March 2020]

10. Bob Nickas, “How to write about Jutta Koether”, Afterall Spring/Summer 2003