08 October 2017:
I usually work in series. I choose a theme (or the theme chooses me – it is not always clear which way round) and explore it for a while until I reach an obvious end point or (more often than not) it evolves into something else. Thus “Wild Garden” evolved into “Vertical Gardens” and into “Green Thoughts”.
There are also recurrent themes, so over the years crows and Buddhas have often appeared in prints and photographs (although never yet together!) and at various times I have sought to capture reflections in water.
But sometimes I give up too easily. And later a voice from the past calls me to return to an unfinished project. This is where I find myself now in relation to a project from four years ago that never really got off the ground. This is the ambitious idea of creating 64 paintings (using liquid watercolour) to illustrate each of the hexagrams of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese “book of changes”. I started with plenty of enthusiasm and was pleased by the initial results. But after producing about a dozen works, the project fell by the wayside.
With hindsight, I can see what went wrong. This project emerged out of some earlier watercolours – “Liquid Geometries”, which explored geometric forms and fluid colour in a way that combined pure abstraction with something much more expressionist. I took this idea, adopted the squares and triangles to represent the yin and yang of the I Ching hexagrams, and then got down to work.
Inspired by the nature of the I Ching itself – a source of wisdom that is consulted by casting coins or (more traditionally) yarrow stalks – and heavily under the influence of the composer and artist John Cage, I set about using chance procedures to determine various elements of the pictures: the size of the shapes, their position on the paper, the colours, and so on.
At first this was fine. But as I added more and more elements to this process, the works became very dependent on these aleatoric procedures and there was less expression and interpretation of the relevant I Ching texts. Everything became too cerebral and something essential was lost. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I then lost interest and put the project to one side.
Having looked at these paintings again during the summer, I realise that it is now time to return to this project. Not to complete what was started back in 2014, but to start all over again. I will use liquid watercolours again and stick to the square format which seems just right for this work. But the Cageian aleatoric procedures – which worked well for Cage in his printmaking as well as his music – is something that I will not include in my repertoire.
As the 24th hexagram of the I Ching (“Return”) says: “Return is successful. Strength comes back, moving with harmonious action […] To return is to see the heart of heaven and earth.” *
* From Chih-hsu Ou-i (translated by Thomas Cleary), The Buddhist I Ching, Shambhala, Boston & London, 2001