Mark Willcox. Inspiration and influences.

On the evening of August 2nd 2018 I attended a presentation by photographic artist Mark Willcox at ABDA in Northwich. Throughout the talk entitled Inspiration and influences Willcox elucidates with a clarity and self-awareness which is only found in a true practitioner.

I will attempt to set out the main points of the talk chronological as they were delivered.

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Willcox began as most people would, with a brief personal introduction without venturing into extraneous detail. He did however talk about his own visual impairment and how this had been formative in his understanding of vision and perception.

Touching on (the dissatisfaction of) his early work as a photographer it was apparent to the artist that key themes were cyclic and recurrent throughout his intentions even before he had himself realised them.

These key themes operate around the juxtaposition between solidity/translucency, stillness/movement, soft/hard focus, clarity/distortion, order/chaos.

Development through early experiments with camera settings, and informed reading of Chaos by James Gleick, and A brief history of time by Stephen Hawking led to a fascination with concepts of order and chaos, and enquiry into the world that surrounds us with an acute awareness of the connection of all things from the gigantic to the molecular. Another key (if unaware at the time) influence came whilst Willcox worked for a camera retailer who provided a film processing and print service, occasionally customers would castaway unwanted photographs due to them being blurred or double exposed, Willcox found a indefinable beauty in these strange orphaned images.

Thoughts then turned to clear artistic influences. David Hockney’s joiners, the neo-cubist photographic montages of analog 35mm film and polaroid frames composed to create a single image from a multitude of viewpoints. Willem de Kooning’s abstract expressionist work with broad, gestural marks and use of bold unadulterated zones of colour. The images of these artists work were shown back to back with Willcox’s own images, allowing him to highlight clear connections and comparisons.

Willcox then took some time to talk about his own work in greater depth. At this point I would like to emphasise the fact that Willcox is clearly an artist who uses photography as a medium to convey his ideas, rather than a photographer who records instances in time through a single viewpoint; I say this not to belittle photographers, but to simply to state that they are two very different things.

He began with his Rush hour series, multiple exposure images shot on 35mm film using a Canon EOS 500n. Images such as The vortex with its Cubist/Hockney feel, and Confrontation which seems to place the viewer at a distance of tension from the movement of the individuals within the image.

Willcox has produced his images using analog photography, rather than the digital capturing of images which seems almost throwaway in modern times. Technical aspects force format and compositional considerations, highlights in multiple exposure images burn out colour, dark areas hold the colour of second exposures providing accidental richness through layering; Turner rush hour being a prime example of the painterly qualities of Willcox’s vision of the world.

The incident led Willcox to present another artistic influence, Francis Bacon; the fragmentation of the figure, twisting and contorting, darks drawing in colour. Whilst there are evident parallels between the two artists work, I wonder if the variable, accidental nature of Willcox’s images can be considered to have the same intent as Bacon’s deliberated,  measured and constructed paintings. Other presented images such as Refraction, Waiting in neon, Waterloo sunset, and Speedlight reinforced the notion of photography as a medium used to express the key themes outlined earlier.

10 pieces of 20 from the Rush hour series are now part of the permanent collection at Salford University, the title piece having been curated next to a painting by L. S. Lowry.

The Kings Cross fire provides an overarching subject for Willcox’s next body of work, In the line of fire, Flash point, Ticket hall melt and Fire escape exemplify the notion of beautiful images conversing about challenging subjects. The palette of hot vs cool colours, and contrast between light and dark are not simply rendered visually, but ask deeper questions about the nature of art itself. The artist again taking time to relate process and technical aspects of the work, which again make implicit connections to the key themes which form the artist’s intentions; the use of 100 iso film under tungsten lighting without white balance adjustment in order to produce hot colours, the quality of the grain found in film photography to induce the painterly effect of scumbling, the uncontrollable nature of analog photography as oppose to the noise and considered review of digital photography.

There is an image in this body of work which is produced in a different way to Willcox’s multiple exposure method, Two figures at the base of a crucifixion is shot using long exposure; this image makes deliberate reference to Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Willcox’s intentions this time when referencing Bacon’s work are clear, deliberate, and aching with pathos. A new clarity is reached, which typifies the antithesis between the light and the dark, the permanent and the transitory, the banal and the extraordinary, the ugly reality and the beautiful truth.