Hugh Stoddart

Catalogue essay
“Meridiano de Greenwich” Madrid / London May 2002

Noel Forster settled on a particular strategy in painting 35 years ago and he’s been happy to continue with it since. It might be said that it’s always the same, but that is a view only possible if one remains stood back from the work and declining to observe it with attention or understanding. It is noteworthy, incidentally, that Forster himself accepts with a simple grace this may be true of some people: evangelism is not his style.

The variations achieved within that strategy are, as with anything, endless. Chaos theory teaches us that the answer to the simple question “How long is the coastline of an island?” is “Infinity” because you can go on magnifying the indentations indefinitely. Any system of measurement is based on approximations and any set of results from a scientific experiment is based on agreement to set aside a certain degree of variation and to accept that a certain number of repetitions constitutes proof. The line drawn on the graph never exactly fits the points previously plotted. It is a collusion which makes for the myth of constancy and objectivity. I remember my surprise on first setting eyes on a late Mondrian painting. The precision I had inferred from reproductions was simply not there. Relating back to the analogy of that island coastline, the camera lens and the reproductive process are the equivalent of looking down on the coast from a considerable height: the rough becomes smooth, the mark of the hand vanishes. Experienced in the world as objects, Mondrian’s paintings were organic, “felt.”

Forster has said of his own method of working and how he arrived at it: “I saw that a consistent swing developed in which an error developed over a number of lines. I decided to let this go on and began to believe that error can be creative and in certain conditions should not be governed out but allowed to build up.” Nothing is measured. “The body makes these decisions” he says. The edge of the painting “has to be found” - that is to say, the point where the paint stops and where that is in relation to the edge of the canvas is arrived at empirically, as is everything in his work. Nothing is drawn out first.

The object versus the image, then - a dichotomy which I’ve referred to already - is one which goes to the heart of Forster’s work. He speaks of the sensuous experience which the painting process is for him, of the overpainting which goes on as he builds towards a finished work. It is only when one encounters the paintings as objects in the world that they “work.”

The paintings now often contain horizon lines. One is applied (by flicking a string loaded with paint or chalk) and this serves as a referential line for a set of arcs. The canvas is turned through 120 degrees and another horizon added and this in turn serves to set off another set of arcs. The painting is then turned again. Forster thinks of his work as being about “nets” and he refers to the decorative elements in Celtic illustrated manuscripts (the Book of Kells, for example.) He has observed how the sources of the patterning lie in the technologies of the time such as weaving or metal-working and in his own work, I feel, he embraces the rhythm of artisan endeavour - Forster reminds us that until relatively recently, few things were measured against an absolute, an agreed calibration. Builders built and all associate trades created their work by plumb line, by chalk line, by arcs and by eye. Rather as Carl Andre does in embracing the rhythm of tiles laid side by side, the rhythms of engineering with which he grew up, so with Forster it is an embrace and a farewell: the interest for the artist lies not in the consistency of mark-making, of regularity - but in the points of departure from it. It is chance which seduces.

Forster, writing about his work as long ago as 1975, said that his work was made “with a single touch repeated over and over. This was a non-referential activity and it caused my behaviour to achieve a degree of anonymity towards style in painting. The decision as to where a mark should be made was taken over by conventions of layout associated with the act of writing on a page.” He went on “I would describe this behaviour as ordinary. Although slow and careful it has a natural flow and there is no magic about it. It is not as skilled as writing as there are no shapes or even intervals to make. It is of the same order as walking, requiring more persistence than skill.”

He uses both hands: the action emanates from the whole body, and so resists the loading towards one side which applies to most of us by virtue of being left or right handed. Typically, there are three “nets” laid the one over the other and then a process of “filling in” follows where the weighting of the various colours is adjusted: the artist himself has said he aims to make these weightings equal, something he thinks of as rendering the work “democratic.” If sometimes we don’t quite perceive them this way, this may well be due to quite subjective factors which lead one of us to see one colour as predominant whereas another person might not.

Forster has painted the windows of his studio, using the characteristic sweeping arcs of colour one would expect, creating therefore a lattice through which the light is glimpsed coming through from outside. His canvases sometimes involve the application of paint directly on to bare linen, which again is glimpsed through the completed lattice of brush strokes. When this consists of a single colour I am reminded of a ball of string and as well I am reminded of something which has been wrapped, the identity of which can only be glimpsed through the binding. Marshall McLuhan, long gone guru, famously likened a TV image to a fishnet stocking. He analysed a TV image as being constructed as a kind of net (the earliest images were made from a mere 405 lines) and made from a kind of electronic shuttle moving at subliminal speed to make up (or rather, to weave) the image. It is not a continuous and completed surface and it draws the viewer in because the eye is compelled to fill in the gaps. Forster’s paintings are intensely concerned with light; he has said that “We do our best with painting to make something which emits light.” They remind me sometimes of stained glass: and, again, there are gaps in a stained glass image - our eye has to fill in where the lead lines run.

Sometimes the artist uses stretched fabric and sometimes the fabric is hung directly on the wall. This causes these (sometimes huge) paintings to engage directly with the room in which they are in. Describing how such pieces have been made in the studio, Forster has said “They were made with as intimate a relation to the wall as possible - they were stuck to it. After a few months, when the oil paint was sufficiently dried out, they were taken off and rolled, as always with the paint to the outside.” Re-presented in a gallery, they become attached to it, part of it, and so change it. The experience of that painting is thus unique to that situation.

The artist talks about “the private iconographies” which he has evolved. Certain colours and combinations of colours have symbolic values which reside in his work. He talks about the various “spectra” of colours which he enjoys - these might be found in the urban environment or they might be taken from landscape but they provide the raw materials for his art. The particular colours of a particular landscape sometimes may become an iconography, returned to again and again. As with Blacklock, the work is at least in some sense a repository of experience, of a life lived.

Looking at Forster’s work I find myself recalling a couple of fragments from T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets , taken from the poet’s long disquisition on the passing of time.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered …

Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stare down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?
Fingers of yew be curled
Down on us? After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.