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Skimming the Surface Natalie Dowse


Skimming the Surface Natalie Dowse Derbyshire Community Foundation Vickers Fine Art Award 2007-2008

Natalie Dowse

Skimming the Surface Derbyshire Community Foundation Vickers Fine Art Award 2007-2008 Published by Derbyshire Community Foundation Foundation House, Unicorn Business Park Wellington Street, Ripley, Derbyshire DE5 3EH www.derbyshirecommunityfoundation.co.uk ISBN-13: 978-0-9552231-1-2 © Copyright 2008 the artist and the authors Foreword by Rachael Grime Essay by Chloe Johnson Paintings and photographs by Natalie Dowse Designed by Natalie Dowse Printed by Colourstream Litho +44 (0)1332 222 4860 Derbyshire Community Foundation Vickers Fine Art Award is supported by: Colourstream Litho • EDS • John Felix Films • Rolls-Royce plc Royal Crown Derby • University of Derby 2

Derbyshire Community Foundation

For Derbyshire for good

Studio October 2007 Shed 5, Britannia Mill, University of Derby

Contents Foreword by Rachael Grime


Essay by Chloe Johnson






Foreword The Vickers Fine Art Award was established by Derbyshire Community Foundation to produce new work, of national importance, in response to the landscape, heritage and people of Derbyshire and we are delighted to introduce ‘Skimming the Surface’, a collection of work created during our fourth Vickers Fine Art Award by Natalie Dowse. Arriving in Derby in September 2007, Natalie embraced the unfamiliarity of our county as a strange but also a very liberating experience. Not knowing anyone or being known brought with it a heightened sense of observation and self reliance, as she journeyed around our city and county. Documenting Derbyshire through snapshot photography, movies, sketches and notebooks, Natalie then selected individual images and frames to produce paintings that reflect a sense of place through the eyes of a newcomer to our county. More than a documentation of a stranger’s perspective however, the precious ‘snapshot’ moments that Natalie has so beautifully captured in her collection, enable those of us, to whom Derbyshire is familiar, to see the county that is our home or our place of work in a completely new way. The fourth Vickers Fine Art Award has been very much a pioneering residency. Natalie is the first of our resident artists to respond not only to the landscape but also the people of Derbyshire and, in so doing, has added yet another facet to this artistic jewel in Derbyshire’s crown. In addition, Derbyshire Community Foundation is delighted to have embarked on an invaluable partnership with the University of Derby, who for the first time offered a teaching fellowship, as part of the Vickers residency. This


new collaboration brought Natalie into the University’s Fine Art department as a member of the teaching team and has benefited not only the University and the artist but has also strengthened the impact that the Award is having on the wider arts community and art viewing public in and around Derby and Derbyshire. Natalie’s enthusiasm for the residency and our county has been palpable from the day we all first met her. The Foundation thanks her for the commitment she has shown, not only in terms of her creative output, but to the overarching ethos and vision of the Award. We are incredibly grateful to the local companies and individuals, whose continuing commitment ensures that the Award goes from strength to strength. In particular, we thank EDS, for their sponsorship of the schools’ workshops, John Greene and the staff at Colourstream Litho, who have once again printed and sponsored this catalogue and Rolls-Royce plc and Royal Crown Derby for their ongoing support.


Many people work behind the scenes and the Foundation thanks our committee members, Helen Bishop, Lucy Palmer, Phil Tregoning, Amy Fulford, Laura Torresan, Scott Green and John Felix, for their continued dedication. We also thank Chloe Johnson for her sapient contribution to the selection panel and for so generously contributing her erudite essay on Natalie’s collection. As ever, our greatest debt of gratitude is to Peter Ashworth and John Nicholson, Trustees of the Jonathan Vickers Charitable Trust, whose prescience enabled the Foundation to establish the Award. We hope that they continue to take great pleasure in the Award as it continues to develop and enrich the cultural fabric of our county.

Rachael Grime Chief Executive Derbyshire Community Foundation

Skimming the Surface The Vickers Award was established to support a rising artist to produce new work in response to the landscape, heritage and people of Derbyshire. In 2007-8 the theme underpinning the biennial residency was a ‘sense of place’. This term carries connotations of historical landmarks and traditional scenes. For Natalie Dowse, winner of the award, investigating the theme involved getting to know Derbyshire, an area which was entirely new to her. Dowse’s previous work had prepared her for this experience. In 2006 she had participated in a six-week residency in Riga, Latvia which led her to develop a means of documenting her responses to an alien environment through photography and painting. In Riga, Dowse became fascinated by the ways in which human beings respond to what she has described as ‘the confusion of unfamiliar surroundings’, seeking out recognisable elements in an effort to establish a personal ‘sense of place’. The work produced there focused on corporate logos, signage and landmarks. Her technique, combining two seemingly opposing media: oil paint and the moving digital image, informed the work she produced during the Vickers Award residency. It is a contemporary mix; at once overtly painterly yet rooted in the popular technology of low resolution digital photography, both carefully structured and unreservedly random. Moving to Derby to take up the Vickers Award residency Dowse again found herself in a place where she was a stranger. Relishing the unfamiliarity she spent the first fortnight pacing the streets and recording the city on her tiny digital camera fixed on the movie setting. The camera, held in Dowse’s hand as she walked, recorded unselected footage of an ordinary day on the streets of the city. Dowse’s decisions about where to roam influenced the footage she collected, but the material was otherwise entirely random. Those caught on film for a few seconds were not aware of the unobtrusive camera. There is a degree of subterfuge in this method, but it also reminds us that


surveillance is something to which city dwellers have become almost immune. There are currently over 4 million close circuit television cameras in public areas of the UK and each day these cameras film our everyday activities. Dowse’s method also has its roots in the nineteenth century urban creation, the ‘flaneur’, or intellectual observer of the city streets. The recordings Dowse made in these initial days became the basis of Constellation, an installation of 54 small, postcard-sized, canvases arranged in an informal grid-like structure which echoes the coordinates on a map or town plan. The arrangement is aesthetic, but also reveals Dowse’s attempt to impose order on what she found around her. Each canvas is a tiny portrait painted in a monochrome blue / grey which echoes the dull tones of surveillance camera footage. Standing back from the wall the canvases appear like printed stills from a CCTV film, but on closer inspection the painterly qualities are revealed. Painted at speed, the tones blur into one another, the brushstrokes drawn rapidly across the surface replicating the movement of the camera as it skims past its moving subject. To describe these images as portraits is to ascribe to them a permanent quality which is patently absent. Traditionally a portrait would be expected to capture the essence of the model or sitter,


or perhaps reveal hidden personality traits. Unlike such portraits, these canvases appear deliberately transient. They ‘skim the surface’ of the person who happens to be depicted, transforming each figure into an anonymous ‘type’. Even the small image of the artist herself is barely distinguishable within the crowd of strangers. Constellation suggests a certain ambivalence about the existence of a ‘sense of place’. The figures in Dowse’s constellation were captured in Derby but could inhabit any town or city. Despite this temporal quality, these images, which challenge the traditional oil painted portrait and the classically composed black and white photograph, do have a universal appeal. It is human instinct to make visual connections, to try to identify with the figures depicted. It is difficult not to imagine that we see ourselves or recognise people we know within this ‘constellation’ of city dwellers. At the same time, the randomness of this work triggers anxiety. Surveillance cameras are intended to curb criminal behaviour so CCTV footage has become associated with illicit activity. The term ‘Big Brother’ might now be more associated with Channel Four’s reality TV show than the society chillingly imagined by George Orwell in his novel 1984, but both play on the human nervousness about the potential loss of privacy, independence and a sense of self. This fear is explored in One in a Million a

canvas onto which the image of one figure (apparently randomly selected) has been enlarged. The painting was originally created as an exercise in technique. Using large brushes to cover the canvas, Dowse had to work quickly to replicate the technique of the smaller paintings. Each mark and brushstroke is exaggerated when working on such a monumental scale and the painterly surface is tactile and beguiling. However, like the paintings of Gerhard Richter which reproduce the qualities associated with photography in oil paint, this expansive painting both delights and frustrates the viewer. Just as the detail in a photograph remains indistinct when it is enlarged, here the thickly applied paint on the canvas acts like a physical barrier between the viewer and the subject. The viewer is left with an alarming sense that the individual qualities of the person depicted may be irretrievable. This peculiar combination of beauty and unease is also evident in Through the Trees, a series of monochrome paintings which replicate the dappling of sunlight on a riverside path near the city centre. The eight paintings create a sense of rippling movement when displayed together. This imagery has also been exploited in a short digital film Breathe, repeating on a loop creating the impression of slow, regular movement. As in Constellation the meditative beauty of these images are undermined by a sense of unease.

Natalie’s existence as an alien in Derby was relatively shortlived. Naturally gregarious, she soon began to make friends with the strangers in the vicinity and learnt her way around. But the changing nature of the city meant that even as she got to know it, it began to evolve. Building work has been a feature of Derby town centre over the past few years with the re-development of the city centre and the construction of new buildings. In October 2007 the Westfield shopping centre, in the heart of Derby city centre, opened its doors to the public. Its arrival was the subject of fierce local debate, perceived by some as enhancing the area, by others as imposing an undesirable uniformity on the town centre. Once inside, shoppers will find the same high street brands, the same coffee shops and the same items for sale as they might in any city across the UK. Dowse gathered over 200 photographs of the interior of Westfield, becoming particularly fascinated by the double escalator installed to transport shoppers from one floor to the next. Her animation Steps to Heaven, created from time-lapse photography, depicts shoppers clutching their purchases as they move up and down the escalators in an eternal state of flux. Like the figures in Constellation, these shoppers have a universal appeal and anonymity.



Dowse does not make an explicit judgement about the impact of urban development on its environment - indeed she is clearly fascinated and energised by the dynamism of the modern city. However, her work does raise the issue about the current validity of the phrase a ‘sense of place’. In Work in Progress, a series of semi-abstract canvases which depict men at work near the shopping centre, harsh orange streaks and spray paint glares out among the lush natural greens of the trees and foliage. The sound of a road drill is almost audible and the colours are familiar to a modern onlooker whose view of nature is rarely undisturbed by road signs and neon graffiti. As the city develops and grows, there is a suggestion that its ‘sense of place’ is being gradually eroded.

carefully manipulated viewpoints echo the canvases known as ‘capriccios’, which attempted to amalgamate as many landmarks as possible into a single scene. Dowse’s use of the digital camera, beloved by the tourist, is made explicit by the visible lens flare which cuts across the canvas. The heightened colours and glossy paint echo the brilliant tones of holiday snaps. Here though the popular landmarks, the normal focus of a tourist snapshot, are either obscured or not present at all. The scene is of an ordinary day and the central canvas largely consists of a brightly coloured and loosely painted sky. Rather than offering a classic view of central Derby this painting deliberately denies the viewer the experience they might expect and instead makes the painterly surface of the canvas the subject of the work.

This sense of erosion is also apparent in Market Hall Corner. On first glance the painting appears to be a 360 degree view of Derby taking in the Guildhall, Market Hall and the hoardings around the newly constructed arts centre Quad. It is only on closer inspection that it becomes clear that the views do not match up. The painting is made up of five parts, structured in a way which echoes panels of an altarpiece or room design. The inclusion of the two domed buildings appears to be a reference to the eighteenth century cityscapes painted by artists such as Canaletto for the aristocratic tourists visiting Europe. The

This challenge to the viewer is also present in Dowse’s canvases depicting the cable cars at Matlock Bath which scale the craggy landscape of the Peak District commonly known as the ‘Heights of Abraham’, an area popular with tourists. Each summer visitors flock to take the cable cars to see, and photograph, the spectacular views across the limestone gorge at Masson Country Park. However, it was not the views that fascinated Dowse. Instead she chose to depict the squat machines traversing the landscape, the heavy cables that support them dominating the canvases and obscuring the dramatic scenery. Again, the

machine and human intervention has scarred the landscape, transforming a site of natural beauty into a tourist haven. Dowse’s efforts to pin down a ‘sense of place’ raise questions about the twenty first century meaning of the term. Traditional views linking it to heritage and homecoming no longer seem appropriate in a world which has adopted an international and nomadic culture. Dowse’s work resists any attempt to establish a fixed notion of a ‘sense of place’. The digital movie camera skims across its subjects, indiscriminately recording what it finds, while the painted canvas refuses to yield further clues about the subjects depicted. The painterly surface, with its sense of durability, underlines the temporal qualities of the digital images, fixing them in a permanent state of unrest. By combining these two apparently disparate techniques Dowse poses questions about what a ‘sense of place’ means to a twenty-first century artist and audience. Is it a geographical term, an idea attached to historical landmarks, heritage and tourist attractions, or is it a more personal notion linked to individual identity? In her refusal to offer a traditional notion of a ‘sense of place’ Dowse proposes a positive alternative. She celebrates the dynamism of the modern city and revels in the quirkiness of the Peak District cable cars. She uses the oil paint associated with

a more traditional approach with as much relish as she exploits contemporary digital technology. Her own reaction to Derby has also been a positive one. Although she began as a stranger to the area she is now considering becoming a permanent resident. By ‘skimming the surface’ she has succeeded in overturning traditional assumptions and has created her own, more durable, ’sense of place’. Chloe Johnson May 2008

Chloe Johnson is the Curatorial Officer at the Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum and has recently completed her PhD.



Market Hall Corner

434cm x 100cm Oil on linen, 2007 15





12.5cm x 12.5cm x 54 Oil on canvas, 2007 (opposite and overleaf) 19




One in a Million

125cm x 125cm Oil on canvas, 2008 23


Work in Progress 130cm x 20cm Oil on linen, 2008


Heights of Abraham

150cm x 100cm Oil on canvas, 2008 27

Heavens above!

150cm x 100cm Oil on canvas, 2008 29


Through the Trees

65cm x 50cm x 8 Oil on canvas 2008 31

Acknowledgements I would like to thank Rachael Grime, Ella Ferris, Amanda Whittam, John Felix, Phil Tregoning, the Vickers selection panel and committee and all at Derbyshire Community Foundation for all their help and support throughout the award and making me feel welcome. Many thanks also to all the sponsors of the award; John Greene at Colourstream Litho for printing the catalogue; Andrea Hadley-Johnson, Louise Dunning and Maggie Cullen at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery; Chloe Johnson for her splendid essay; Scott Green, Denis O’Connor and Paul Marshall from the University of Derby for looking after me so well; all my friends and family for their encouragement. Natalie Dowse


Profile for Natalie Dowse

Skimming the Surface  

Skimming the Surface exhibition catalogue by Natalie Dowse

Skimming the Surface  

Skimming the Surface exhibition catalogue by Natalie Dowse