An essay written in response to
Perpetual Flux - an exhibition of new paintings by David Mankin
26 September to 20 October 2018 at Cornwall Contemporary Gallery
“So all around the morning air and the sea’s blue light, with points of diamond, and the gorse incandescent beyond the trees, countless rocks ragged or round in every colour, birds resting or flying, and a sense of a multitude of creatures living out their minute lives…. All this is part of one’s life and I want desperately to express it; not just what I see, but what I feel about it… but how can one paint the warmth of the sun, the sound of the sea, the journey of a beetle across a rock, or thoughts of one’s own whence and whither? That’s one argument for abstraction. One absorbs all these feelings and ideas: if one is lucky they undergo an alchemistic transformation into gold that is creative work”
John Wells (1907 -2000) writes in a letter to Sven Berlin
’From Painting the Warmth of the Sun, St Ives artists 1939-1975,
Tom Cross, Halsgrove, 1997)
David Mankin’s work is about landscape, yet there is no attempt to mimic a ‘view’. Instead he conjures the feeling of being in the natural world, and a sense of our human insignificance in the face of the elements.
His paintings express a love for the landscape surrounding his Cornish home and studio, and a sense of freedom in the wild open spaces - the raw physical elements, big skies and surging seas. In this new body of work Mankin sets out to explore the forces and rhythms underpinning the shifts we see and feel in the landscape.
In these paintings, it is as if the artist has gathered fragments of sensory experience from the outside world which, brought back to the studio, are allowed to spill out onto canvas. There is no imposed narrative or comment – just ‘here, this is what it was like.’
In Mankin’s working method the formal qualities of his medium are not neglected and the initial, intuitive flow is followed by a quiet process of refinement. Thought is given to balance in colour, line, tone, texture and shape. Mankin aims for a balanced composition, with dialogue between mark-making and passages of paint. The surface is built up, scratched, removed, scraped, and further layers added, all punctuated by marks and lines and graffiti-like scribble. The surface becomes activated as historical layers are allowed to seep through.
During the course of a day’s work, a painting may change completely as elements or relationships are discovered, buried, lost and re-found, echoing the shifting ‘perpetual flux’ of the natural world. Buried scars of previous iterations echo the dark, abandoned lodes beneath the earth; the soaring flight of a gull, encountered on a windy day, becomes a sweeping gestural brush mark; a tangle of fine sgraffito lines suggests the wind-blown branches of tamarisk at the cliff edge. A series of tiny dashes moving delicately across the corner of one painting is reminiscent of the dainty steps of an oystercatcher foraging on the edge of the shore. Irregular charcoal shapes seem traced directly from flotsam discovered on the beach - or perhaps they refer to the disused mine chimney stacks dotted along the cliffs. Mankin offers these painterly impressions for viewers to interpret as they will. Always there is the underlying energy of the sea, at times an early morning milkiness, at others a raging elemental force. The artist is remembering in paint.
As these recollections of the Cornish landscape tumble on to his surfaces, and the process ebbs and flows, art historical influences reveal themselves. Mankin admires Richard Diebenkorn’s insistent pushing of process; also Prunella Clough’s subtly layered and textured surfaces, and the way she isolated small details. Passages of visceral paintwork evoke Joan Eardley’s Catterline works.There’s a muscularity of line reminiscent of Roger Hilton, and a Lanyonesque influence discernible in the apparently aerial perspective of some paintings.
As with all painting, Mankin’s work needs to be seen ‘in the flesh’ - words can’t convey the subtleties. We need to stand in front of his paintings, taste the salt air and feel the warmth of the sun.
Pippa Young is a fine art painter
whose work is collected internationally.