Jack Whitefield – Furze

Let’s begin with a statement of fact: I’m presented with a small, pale yellow, staple bound book of sorts. I say of sorts, as it may, in fact, be a pamphlet, or a booklet, or a type of zine or even an instruction manual. Classifications tend to defy me, so I’m not quite sure. Curiously, I don’t think it minds one way or the other. Whatever the category, it’s economic and unassuming. I’m charmed by the lightness of it, by the ease and spontaneity it induces. It’s not a fussy object, that’s for sure. It’s approachable and, as a book ought to be, a pleasure to read.  

Furze is the latest in a long line of offerings from Cornwall-based artist Jack Whitefield, and publisher Tarmac Press (UK). The book considers the nature of earthworks, and initially, appears direct in its intent: a study of charred gorse on paper. A subject  temptingly ephemeral whilst remaining firm enough to grasp. Large sheets of paper, scarred and marked by fields of burnt gorse, are covered with erratic gestures, resembling a series of worn blackboards, chalked, inverted, and printed in ink. They do not, as you might expect, resemble a landscape translated onto paper; nor do they seem to be botanical specimens. They exist on a different register: one which builds meaning through the land, and unfolds with each passing page. 

These marks are more like scuffs, scrapes and sweeps; the type of mark only made through duration and continuous movement. A considered mark then, a conscientious one, neither abrupt or borne through violence (like a scratch, or a pierce); there’s no brutality here; it’s more seductive than that. As I turn, my eyes dance, tracking their edges and depths, as if staggering for a foothold, or a reference point. I do so with the expectation that these marks may soon assemble, cross over or diverge, at any one moment, to form a language. Some pages read as pictograms, others, as maps or sketches, and there are some, in a drunken formation, which verge on letters, and what I sense, may even be words. They come slurring over the landscape, over the page, stumbling and fatigued. Is Whitefield drawing, writing or translating? He tempts us with alchemy, appearing to fuse the three. A cross-bred language is conjured on the sculptural page; rich, fertile and remade continually, subject to pressure, chance and redirection—the page performs, and begins itself anew. 

Temporally, we oscillate. In fact, there are only occasional markers to the present—boots, jeans,  jumpers, firemen—whose absence would almost certainly leave us anchorless. Images which paradoxically record, interpret and produce reality, find themselves alongside those impressed, or imprinted by the landscape, sequenced randomly and out of order. Documentary  images, like those found in 1960s Land Art performance, splice our viewing too, acting as notes, pointing towards materials, steps and procedures involved in the activity. But in its totality, there’s no real start, and there’s no real end. We begin with marks, and we end with marks. The landscape, the terrain and the page, function as an in-between, it is time reconfigured, looped and curled. But it’s not an in-between which acts like a void: a place where nothing is, or appears. It’s a place active and filled with presence. You arrive suddenly, unsure of the direction from where you came. Or perhaps, it is time on the run, fossilised by smoke and fire. Again, I’m not quite sure.  

In any case, it seems rather odd then—doesn’t it?—that we position Furze within photography,  and not in the category of experimental drawing? Then again, you could argue that photography, classically, is seen as a kind of hybrid drawing. You need only visit Fox Talbot’s The  Pencil of Nature (1844), to see this narrative expressed. Within the realities of drawing and photography, you find the same manner of capture; a sharpness, a blurriness, a crisp flowing line that leads, as a path, to dissolution and erasure—ultimately, both attempt a stoppage. Their fundamental materials are light and shadow, black and white—they deal with opposition and duality, continuously. Both originate from minerals, and rely on time, whether a fraction, or a continuous length, to translate the three-dimensional, into a two-dimensional surface. Even the invention of the graphite pencil is almost simultaneous with the birth of Talbot. They are a result of a type of gesture, and neither are truly faithful to what they see. As I study Furze, I ask myself, is it a drawing of a drawing? It may very well be.

from Drawings of my camera and other items (2018)

Whitefield’s earlier work, Drawings of my camera and other items (2018), is comprised of quick 15 minute sketches, and aims, as the artist states, “to force a genuine unmediated outcome”. Instinct seems to be at the heart of Whitefield’s art. Alongside an embrace of both contemporary and historic processes: drawing, writing, analog photography, photogravure, performance, film (16mm) and of course, bookmaking. And although the work often ranges across a myriad of subjects, there is a kinship between them all. This fascinates not for what it shows, but for what it suggests as a way of working, for being with the land, as if in communion, to enrich ourselves, and our methodology, by pure exposure. There’s an inescapable Romanticism associated with this idea of the artist, as a solitary figure, traversing the landscape in pursuit of the work. It draws me in. And arguably, it’s embedded, and timeless, as drawing itself. 

The grease from my fingers and ink from the page has begun to mark the cover and the reverse.  Tarnishing the pale yellow, with soot like imprints of a human kind. A result, I expect, of my  enthusiasm in leafing through these pages. As charred gorse on paper, the book too feels like it  exists in time, and for time. Marked with each returned visit, and by the reader themselves.  

Jack Whitefield/Tarmac Press 2020

All Rights Reserved: Text © Alexander Mourant; Images © Jack Whitefield/Tarmac Press; book spreads © Eugenie Shinkle