ON LOOKING AT MOUNTAINS : Thomas A Clark


As a young boy, the American poet Gary Snyder first encountered Chinese landscape paintings in a museum in Seattle. “I saw first that they looked like real mountains of an order close to my heart…they were real mountains and that these mountains pierced into another reality which both was and was not the same reality as ‘the mountains’”. Many years later, Snyder would begin a long poem, intended as his major work, entitled Mountains and Rivers Without End, which would be continued for years in imitation of the continuous unfolding of Chinese landscape scroll paintings. The poem would place him, again and again, among real mountains and rivers, confronting “another reality”.

If we leave aside for a moment the question of two levels of reality, the more urgent problem arises of finding a form, like the Chinese scroll, which will not only be adequate to experience but will further it, in an art that will be a continually renewed invitation to experience. Snyder’s “without end” is one solution, in two words effecting a shift from the immediacy of mountains and rivers to their scale and scope, and from the confrontation of looking to a more extended and resourceful acquaintance. A scroll or ongoing poem suggests that the scrolling and going might continue indefinitely, and that time might drop into the timeless.

How long can you look at a mountain? The truthful answer is, not for long! Any such encounter must surely bring up a discrepancy between the immense dignity and geological reach of a mountain and our own limited attention span, our ability, or lack of ability, to remain present to an answering gaze. While the mountain is solid and inescapable, the gaze addressed to it is intermittent, of uncertain depth and origin. This discovery is in itself sublime, as vertiginous as a cliff face. Its fascination and ethical urgency may quickly replace the original object of inspection. Looking at a mountain easily translates or collapses into looking at looking.

But is there not a similar problem with art? Is it not increasingly the case that art gives rise to occasions of bad faith where we shy away from the demands that art would make on us? We are too busy; the gallery is too crowded or too noisy; we are slightly drunk! In contemporary culture, such evasions or excuses are likely to occur whenever art is not a diversion from everything including itself. Serious art must not only struggle with the motif but with our own resourceful strategies of evasion.

Lesley Punton is a mountain watcher, and a mountain climber, who knows Schiehallion and Stob Coire Easin from distant and from close acquaintance. She makes drawings, photographs and paintings which deepen, prolong and interrogate her experience of mountains, islands and other landscapes. Painting and photography are pictorial media but Punton’s interests are less in depiction and documentation than in enquiry: how do you look at mountains, how do you make art about mountains, how do you look at art?

The problem of time is tackled directly in a dyptich by Punton, called Duration. A white painting (silverpoint and gesso on board) bears the inscription 186 Days, being the number of days of light at the north and south poles. A black painting (oil and gesso on board) carries the words 179 Days, the number of days of polar darkness. What are we to make of this information? What are we to do with it? Might it not have been as effectively conveyed if typed on a sheet of paper? Are we supposed to empathise, to look forward to the light, to endure the days of darkness? The contrast within the dyptich dramatises a real difference which seems to demand a response.

The paintings are beautifully made, the surface built up and sanded down, layer upon layer, to give a depth of texture and colour. The white is creamy and tactile. The black turns out to be a deep prussian blue. Spread across the centre of the paintings, the words stand in the way of access to this tonal richness. A gap is opened up between concept and craft, or between discourse and content. After all, what does this information tell us about polar experience? Can there be any equivalent of, or substitute for, living through darkness? Perhaps the distance between information and knowledge is the ultimate concern of these paintings.

If so, the distance is partially crossed in two fog drawings. While the shapes of foliage and branches are barely discernible, wrapped in a graphite blanket, the drawings are less concerned with the obscuring properties of fog than its insistent presence. A visual impoverishment concedes to tactile awareness. The touch of fog on face and hands is duplicated by the touch of pencil on paper; graphite clings to the paper as fog to the branches. The softness of the touch of the pencil creates an intimacy, bringing the viewer closer, increasing visual, tactile and aural acuteness in proportion to the reduced circumference of perception.

Can a drawing drench you like a fog? Can it dampen down ambient sound, sealing you into a hermetic reduction, a light grey parenthesis? Looking at these drawings is very close to touching them. You want to stroke them with a finger, to recover a little of the tenderness of the mark-making, of the pencil passing over the paper. The even pressure across most of the drawing amounts to a more-than-local condition. Everything slows down. There is nowhere to go. In the middle of the drawing, with the pencil touching the paper, time and self are suspended. Where have you put yourself, in the absence of external referents?

Most of Punton’s work is small, in part because she doesn’t want to confuse size with scale, but also to draw the viewer closer in to the work’s concerns. The tonal range is deliberately reduced. We have to make do with what is there, or augment it in imaginative variation. An overall coverage of the surface area avoids the power of the central image. All these strategies are at play in three small drawings of Dark Mountains, recording the light at midnight on Ben Cruachan, Beinn Eighe and Stob Coire Easain. We are given the dark shape of each mountain, reduced to an outline against a dark sky.

It is only for impatience that things are dark. If we wait for long enough, there is always some available light. The three drawings are means of elliciting this resourceful waiting. The two principal tones in each drawing, mountain and sky, are close but might be closer, or more distant. We catch them at a moment that will change. To see the drawings properly is to wait until the tones separate, until we can distinguish mountain from sky; and then to go on waiting, in anticipation.

We might speculate that landscape is not an inevitable location for Lesley Punton’s work, that it might be taken up with its own making, or that her interest may be as much psychological as geological. Certainly, the moment when the directed gaze turns back on itself seems to come up very quickly in the pieces I have mentioned. But the involution is never allowed to become all absorbing. This remains an essentially outwardly directed art, concerned with landscape through the full measure of concern. How to be true to it, to keep faith with it, to see it, to stay with it? If there is “another reality” to be discovered, it will be one that engages at a deeper level than that of the verbal and visual information, but also one to which such information may be a hint or lure. Close in, these small paintings and drawings, for all their modesty, seem on the brink of a revelation.

One might say that Punton’s methods are more conceptual than pictorial. To show is only one possibility; there is also to say and to do, to inform, to speculate, to re-enact. You can look at a mountain, think about it, weigh it, walk on it, bivouac on the summit. The different devices Punton employs in different works are means of returning to the terrain, of inhabiting the ground, of enjoying the weather, of sharpening the intelligence of both artist and viewer, of slowing down response. These are slender means, given the size of the task, and our own entrenched habits of digression. But concepts are capacities. Like Snyder’s little phrase, “without end”, Lesley Punton’s conceptual ingenuity and focused working methods are just enough to give some purchase on space and time.


Thomas A Clark