Investigating the life of things across space and time
A walk in the woods
This conversation between Sarah Gillett and the writer Amy Lay-Pettifer digs deeper into the artist's relationship with Paolo Uccello’s painting The Hunt in the Forest (1470) and her wider art practice.
Amy Lay-Pettifer (ALP): Can you remember the first time you saw Uccello’s The Hunt in the Forest? What were your first thoughts about it?
Sarah Gillett (SG): I came across the Uccello really by accident, I’d gone to the Ashmolean (1) to see The Forest Fire (2) by Piero di Cosimo and it was on the adjacent wall. There was immediately this nice relationship between the two. They’re both about a forest obviously but the Uccello is a very internalised landscape while The Forest Fire is seen from a distance. A transformation happens between the two paintings in the liminal space (3) where you stand as a viewer. It became this quite exciting encounter.
ALP: I can see that similar energy in both works – that carnivalesque feeling where everything is in its natural habitat but there’s a sense of chaos erupting…
SG: Yes, and both paintings are about an event but are both quite strange in subject matter for their time. There’s something unique and unidentifiable about them; they are both telling some kind of story that we’re not part of – so that draws you in. In The Hunt In the Forest the event is taking place in that dark space beyond the theatrical quality of the characters… beyond what we can see. We don’t see the violence of the kill, there is nothing threatening and the dogs are playful and joyful – it seems more like a dance. In The Forest Fire, something has happened to start the fire, the event, but we’re too late, too far away.
ALP: The work for this show has come from a process of close looking at the Uccello painting, what new things did you notice?
SG: The process of the way the painting was made became important, directly and obliquely to my work. For a start the original painting was done on wood (4) and I liked the idea that it was both on wood and depicted wood within it. A lot of the work that I make is very much about the material having some correlation with the thing being made, and working with a material get as much from it as you can. All the work that goes in at each stage is there as a layer in the final work. So I was really interested in looking beyond that final image – at the x-ray scans of the Uccello that revealed his preparatory lines and the ways in which he built up darkness and light (5). More so than the figures I was interested in the shapes he created through the use of perspective – there’s a lot of repetition in it. The trees became to me a single tree repeated over and over to create this almost architectural space of columns. And then there’s the shape of the underside of the horses and the backs of the dogs… there’s a lot of bridging shapes within it that I brought into my work through arches and vaults.
ALP: In these new works you’ve expanded your printmaking into use of collage and needlepoint and both those mediums seem to be about creating layers and looking at texture.
SG: For me the idea of printmaking is about stories and about how when we experience something, we carry those stories in our head. If you and I have the same experience then the way we retell that story – to ourselves and to other people – is different. We carry pictures of that experience in our heads that can be brought back to life by a touch, a colour, a sound. So you have the original and then multiple ways of revisiting and retelling that story from the same material. The idea that the shapes and different components of the story can be reused multiple times in different ways is the way that I approach printmaking. Collage is another way to piece a story together, or take it apart and reassemble it into a different form. I think the way I use collage is about how the stories we tell ourselves change all the time – it gives that lightness to something but it’s also a moveable element. The stitching is much more about the process of making a very deliberate mark that takes a long time and often follows a pattern. In needlepoint you go in one hole and out of another, you can’t go anywhere else and I really like the idea of making these new places appear within a fixed grid.
ALP: In etching and lino cutting – these very traditional modes of printmaking, which you have previously used in your work – it’s a process of removing areas of the surface of your material to reveal an image or suggest areas of light and shade. Can you talk about how that same process of removal has manifested in the needlepoint and tapestry works? It’s quite counter-intuitive to that medium isn’t it?
SG: Yes, unpicking takes even longer than stitching, but the interruption of a narrative, whether through the addition of something or by removing a component of a story completely changes how we understand what’s happening and that’s what I’m trying to do. When I first started working with needlepoint I was buying old tapestries from eBay that had already been completed and then unpicking and sewing new elements into them (6). They were domestic kits with an image printed on linen and I liked the idea of the pattern or the story already being there for you. You were on a journey and knew where you were going, so the idea of undoing that narrative, quite literally, to change it into something else I found really interesting.
At first I was sewing new things in and then I got to the point of removing something from the image, of covering the pattern that was there so that we don’t know what was expected or intended. It becomes a more open space because of that, and in that space of removal you can imagine something else. I think the process is about trying to get to a point where the story is open enough for it to still be interesting. Like in a book where you don’t quite know what the end is going to be and the not knowing is the most intriguing part of it. The moment in the fairy story before you know what the monster looks like is much more frightening than the bit where you see the picture of it (7). The not knowing, what we do in our minds with an amount of information, is something that I’m trying to get to.
ALP: In all of your work there’s that tendency towards eeriness or an unreality; the point at which recognisable things bleed over into a more dreamlike or fantastical space. You’ve spoken about being interested in the theatrical, flat quality of the Uccello, how it appears like a stage or a dance. What is it that draws you to subjects or scenes that share that sense of unreality?
SG: I think it’s interesting to explore the idea of ‘the stage’ as a space for events or encounters to take place. Events happen every day in our lives and sometimes when we witness them, whether it’s 9/11 on the TV or something very ordinary, they can become very unreal and stage-like. Although they are in domestic settings, the thing that is happening is so extraordinary that it becomes unreal. A stage is a place where you can explore a whole range of experiences and be quite clear about the framework. I think playing with where you are as an audience is a very interesting thing for me. I always try to respond to where the work is being shown as well to create a complete environment.
ALP: Yes I wanted to ask you to talk about how the exhibition space might be transformed by the addition of your works – it becomes a landscape itself almost. That was definitely the case with Drawloom (8), as a viewer you were within the work as well as witness to it.
SG: The Brocket Gallery space is really interesting because it has peculiarities; you’re underground and light enters the space through a grate from the shop above and from glass tiles in the pavement. So the idea of the work itself depicting an underground space is very deliberate. I’ve also included a sound piece to add to the atmosphere.
ALP: Can you tell me about the sound work?
SG: I wanted to get the feel partly of being in a forest at night, because these strange creatures that I have in my work are perhaps more present for us at night time. So the piece includes dogs fighting and chewing bones; rain in an English wood with birds calling, which is a recording I made in the wood in Brinscall (9); and then the sound of someone snoring. I know that’s what it is but it’s strange when you hear it; when everything is mixed together it just become a strange growly, snuffly thing that’s happening. That brings it back to the creatures and to the idea that snoring is this physical truth about someone being in two spaces at the same time (10). When they’re snoring you know they are alive, real, but they may also be dreaming. In that dream, are they running for their life or chasing after something, whilst lying next to you in bed?
ALP: That dualism is interesting because often in your work, the bodies we see are two things at once too. They’re half animal, or half object – it looks like there’s a metamorphosis that’s on-going. Here the huntsmen, dogs and horses are replaced with creatures that have vestiges of humanness but spliced with the stuff of the forest or the sea. What’s at the root of that tendency to skew the human body into something more fluid and changeable?
SG: In the mix of creatures I often think about my influences; some of the animation work I’ve made is a cross between Bagpuss (11) and Jan Švankmajer (12), again it’s about how a material can be strange and familiar at the same time. I think the way that the creatures have a human quality is through their character. It might be an orchid for a head and a rock for a body but it’s the angle of the orchid that makes us see something human (13). We do that all the time with dolls and pets, we name bits of landscape after ourselves. It’s a very human thing to do isn’t it? To try and carve more of ourselves out of the landscape and the world around us.
It’s unsettling that in fairy tales, the landscape in which all these strange creatures exist in daylight, we don’t know what Sleeping Beauty dreamt of for those 100 years, or Snow White. We don’t know what those people dreamt about because the creatures that we imagine in dreams and nightmares are present in their day to day.
ALP: Perhaps they dream of accountants and supermarkets….
SG: Exactly! All of these things, the forest, the night and the fairy tales are so entwined, because we imagine things crawling, watching us with their night vision, or following us in a hoodie with a knife, and we are vulnerable, frightened.
ALP: Can you talk about the importance of language in your work? You have titled the show Quarry which has all these interesting meanings within it. But it suggests a chipping away at something. Is that a process you often undertake? Digging through words to bring you to ideas?
SG: I think my use of language is about going back, back, back, getting deeper and rawer and more abstract as the meaning and understanding of words changes. The world expands the more you understand about a word and it leads you down other avenues; initially I was thinking about the word quarry in relation to prey, and hunting, but then that led me to thinking about the quarry in Brinscall (14) and how for much of my childhood it was closed and full of water, it was very dangerous and we were told never to go there. I never understood why this water was worse than any other water. It was very cold and dark and deeper than you could imagine…it was always this present thing. And this led me to think about these dark spaces underneath your legs, and the shape of the underbelly of the dogs in The Hunt, which took me back to the time we had greyhounds sleeping in the British Pavilion in Venice (15) – dogs in the basement and the rain falling, the water rising. Language leads you into strange places; there are only a finite number of words unless you make them up – and I do sometimes – but we rearrange words like a collage to mean an infinite number of things.
There’s a work in the show called Query, because when you look up the word ‘quarry’ on Wikipedia it says “if you’re looking for query….” which I found funny. In that work there’s stitching that looks like a kind of language, and it came from how Uccello carved things into the surface of the wood as a reference so he could see where various elements appeared within the painting. He cut marks into the wood but I’ve stitched them so they become like scars, or the repairing of a wound (16). The scar and the stitching is always raised and present, it can never be inside. It shows something has happened that you’ve had to mend. A dog bite perhaps…
ALP: It’s so interesting because in fairy tales or in that idea of the carnivalesque, there is often this mirroring or inversion and that seems very present in the works you’ve made. Like trees reflected on water – what starts as a canopy in physical space becomes something submerged and abstracted. You’ve used that contrast of dark and light so interestingly too. Some of the pieces are very sparse and then others are shadowy in a way that could be deep water or night sky.
SG: When you quarry something you have all this stuff left over and in When much had been forgotten, the biggest work in the show, I look at the idea of relics. A lot of the work is made from the discarded pieces left over from when I’ve cut something out to make a piece of collage, and then those pieces become multiples that are repeated. So all the material is quarried and used in some way. But when that’s done, what are you left with? Just the pit and these relics of something that has gone before. It’s a theme that runs through my work generally, monuments in landscapes and the passing of time through ruin – you can see it in Trace, the ruined arches. They represent something that we no longer understand, like Easter Island or Stonehenge. The left overs become something else, something more representational than they were in the beginning, just by me presenting them as a greater focus for attention. They are really just incidental things, but here these are the things that are on the stage. Clues and ghosts.
Footnotes 1 The Ashmolean is the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archeology, founded in 1683. 2 Renowned for his originality and inventiveness, Piero di Cosimo often depicted scenes from literature. Dating from c.1505 this work may have been one of a series painted for Francesco del Pugliese. Two other panels of The Hunt and The Return from the Hunt, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, are thematically related but seem to have been painted in the 1490s. All three are concerned with the history of early man, inspired by passages from Book 5 of De Rerum Natura by Lucretius (98-c.55BC), who traces the origins of life on earth and the birth of community. 3 The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word limens, which means, “threshold.” Richard Rohr describes “…It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.” 4 Specifically cedar wood, of the type often used to line cabinets of woollens and other valuables. This specific use is mentioned in The Iliad (Book 24), referring to the cedar-lined storage chamber where Priam goes to fetch treasures to be used as ransom. 5 Uccello treated the wood with gesso and then drew his lines of perspective as a guide. He then painted everything out in black apart from the figures which he kept white. The forest is painted back into being and the figures appear brightly in the foreground. 6 For her 2014 solo exhibition The Loomings at The Margate Gallery, Gillett exhibited a series of tapestries depicting bucolic landscapes beset by oncoming meteorites. 7 The King in Yellow (1895), a book of short stories by Robert W. Chambers, hinges on fragments of a mysterious, fictional play of the same name, rumoured to drive the reader mad with “irresistible” revealed truths. Even seeing the first page of the second act is enough to draw the reader in: “If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it […]” (“The Repairer of Reputations”). 8 Drawloom (Diagram for an Artwork) was Gillett’s Royal Collage MA Printmaking final show in 2015. The space was transformed by dimensional landscape elements built from fragments of needlepoint tapestries, scanned at high resolution and printed onto canvas. 9 Gillett was born in Brinscall, Lancashire, a small village on the edge of what locals call the ‘Brinsky Woods’. 10 The villages of Great Snoring and Little Snoring are located in Norfolk UK. In the Domesday Book of 1085, Little Snoring is recorded by the names “Esnaringa”, “Snaringa” and “Snarlinga”, named after “Snare”, the settlers’ leader. 11 The stop motion animated ‘old furry catpuss’ created by Oliver Postgate (1925-2008), watched over a shop where lost things were gathered and restored. 12 Cezch surrealist filmmaker and artist born 1934. His 1990 film Darkness Light Darkness depicts a disembodied hand searching the rooms of a house for its other body parts until a fully assembled person can finally switch out the lights. 13 In Lewis Carroll’s 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, the flowers that Alice meets include a tiger-lily, arose, a daisy, a violet and a larkspur. Of these, the violet is the rudest. The flowers mistake Alice for one of their own and claim to know another flower in the garden that can walk and talk like she can, but describe that “she is redder and her petals are shorter.” 14 The quarry was originally opened around 100 years ago to satisfy demand from local builders and is the source of much admired fine-grained, buff to buff-brown Gritstone. Brinscall Gritstone Block contributed significantly to the building of the North West’s motorway system and as well some impressive, prominent and historical buildings. 15 In 2009 British artist and director Steve McQueen brought a pack of greyhounds to the island of Venice, filming them scavenging in a deserted park for his British Pavilion exhibition Giardini. The dogs and their trainers slept in the pavilion’s basement during filming. 16 The word ‘suture’ literally meaning “seam” may refer to surgical stitches that hold tissue together; the major joints in the bones of the cranium or a fault line through a mountain range.
As if peering through a gap in the trees this art work focuses on the relationship between light and dark, quarry and hunter. The colour and form of the red figure references Uccello’s practice within the late Gothic tradition and reminds us that red is the colour of fairytales, representing blood (virginity, violence, death).
In Paolo Uccello’s preparation of his wood panels for Hunt in the Forest (1470), he glued canvas over knots and scored lines into a black underlayer of paint to mark tree branches and vanishing points.
Salt is mined, extracted and evaporated. Stitching mends holes, fills in blank space. This artwork began life as the back of an unfinished needlepoint and grew into an exploration of geology and archeology.
I wanted to create a work that used just a few very strong elements to show the power of a repeated shape. I drew this grid over Uccello’s painting to reveal his mastery of perspective and as the starting point for Trace.
The relics and ghosts of long ago are brought together here as if in a wild dream of nature. Starting from the verticals of Uccello’s trees and dotted lines he cut into the wood I wanted to present a landscape of fragments that offers a framework for a narrative.