The Scotsman Magazine, 24 September 2011,
By Roger Cox
Capturing his subject matter is an immersive
experience for landscape artist John Slavin
The artist, musician and storyteller John Slavin is explaining what it’s like to paint outdoors on the Isle of Skye in the middle of winter. ‘Two hours and you’re actually physically shaking,’ he says. For Slavin, though, there’s no other way to work. Like the members of the Group of Seven, the Canadian landscape painters who did so much to give their fledgling nation a sense of physical identity 100 years ago by trudging through the Ontario backwoods in ‘the search for a site’. For him and for them, the journey is as much a part of the painting as the painting itself.
‘This thing of hopping into a car, of driving to a layby, rolling down the window, taking a photo and then going back to your studio . . . no. Just no! It’s so, so important that you absorb what’s around you. It’s like Turner. I’m not a fan of Turner but being tied to the mast and being in the storm – that says everything to me. You’ve got to be in the place, and it has to be on foot.’
The results of Slavin’s many years of yomping, both on Skye and in the Eastern Pyrenees, where he spends his summers, will be on display until 11 October at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. As you’d expect, there’s a world of difference between the vibrancy of the French paintings and the more sombre tones of some of the Scottish ones, but while Slavin acknowledges that he’d probably be more commercially successful if he painted nothing but ‘blue skies and white beaches,’ perhaps with a whitewashed croft or two thrown in for good measure, he’s able to capture the wildness of island storms like few others – probably because he insists on experiencing them first-hand. Occasionally he alludes to the conditions in which a painting was made in the brief texts that accompany them. Of Loch na Beiste, for example, he writes: ‘painted alla prima to capture the momentary visibility of the mountainous shore before a hailstorm engulfs it entirely’. It’s not hard to imagine him packing up his paints and running for cover the second that picture was completed.
Slavin was born in Falkirk in 1956 and studied at Edinburgh College of Art from 1975-80. He was taught by Peploe, Blackadder and Philipson but if there’s an obvious influence on his painting it’s the Group of Seven, specifically the unofficial leader of the group, Lawren Harris. The Canadian artist had a knack of condensing complex landscapes down to their bare essentials, and in his best works, such as Blaven and the Cailleach, Slavin does much the same.
Although his paintings are landscapes first and foremost, Slavin describes himself as a narrative painter -- and not just because his latest exhibition happens to be at a storytelling centre. The scenes he paints, though deserted, often have a human dimension to them. In The Road to Montsegur, for example, the cliffs in the middle-distance seem strangely organic. A quick glance at the accompanying text tells us that there was a siege at Montsegur from 1243-44 during the Albignesian Crusade. When the siege was broken, some 200 Cathars chose to be burned to death rather than renounce their faith. Is this some sort of medieval riff on Picasso’s Guernica, then? Are those writhing human forms in the cliffs? Not if you examine them closely, perhaps, but there are definitely echoes.
In 12 years of living and working on Skye, Slavin has tried to find what he calls ‘potency of place’ and this has often led him far from the obvious spots. ‘I used to love going down to Elgol to look at Camasunary and across to the high peaks, but there came a point where I realised that view was fodder for tourism in many ways,’ he says. ‘The coach parties and established art galleries seemed to be working towards the perpetuation of some advert. So I decided there was a debatable area of rock available when the tide was out. I got down to the shore and found the most incredible micro-landscapes. You see the rocks, the coral, the weed, the seal pups, the birds and the incredible light play on the water and the sand – it’s a very, very powerful place. I became completely fascinated by doing detailed studies of shore rock, although I haven’t exhibited them yet.’
With a bit of luck, we’ll get to see them soon.