TBritish artist Arthur Lanyon was born into a family of artists. His father is the painter Matthew Lanyon and his grandfather is the famous modernist painter Peter Lanyon. “There was a lot of art everywhere, so it came naturally, I didn’t think about it,” he says. He recalls one specific memory that illustrates his childhood. “I remember when I was little, my dad came over one day and said, ‘I have something to draw today,’ and he put a big bucket full of snails in the middle of the table and they crawled around the edge,” he says. “It was pretty exciting as a little kid to be involved in all of that.”
Lanyon, 37, spent his first two years in Leicester before the family moved to Cornwall, where he still lives in a house built by his parents near Penzance. His paintings often combine figurative motifs with emotional, gestural abstraction.
He recalls a moment while studying at Cardiff University, where he graduated with a fine art degree in 2008. “The teacher asked me, ‘What do you want to draw?’ And I just said, ‘Well, I want to draw everything,'” he says. “I use abstraction to crush a lot of things, and I’m more and more interested in picking those things out with painting.”
Among his influences, Lanyon cites Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s and 1960s, along with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg. “He was around at a similar time, but he was doing something very different with imagery. You could see what that was and there were different reasons behind it and that was very interesting. Lanyon adds, “I usually gravitate toward artists who have that abstract feel. It’s a paint that doesn’t hide from what it naturally does: it gets a little dirty, it’s hard to control, it speaks for itself in certain ways.”
Lanyon’s latest solo exhibition, Coda for an Obol, comes to St Ives’ Anima Mundi gallery this month, presenting an existential exploration of purpose, heritage and legacy, occasionally incorporating themes from classical mythology. The exhibition includes over 30 works – his last three years of work. It sees the artist take stock of major life events – his father died in 2016 and his first son was born three years ago – going through the meaning and his motivations. “I’m in a place where I think about these two polar opposites quite often. It was something he had to ponder over for three years.
The exhibition’s title was partly inspired by a Wikipedia article Lanyon read at the time about the coda of James Merrill’s poem Lost in Translation, which he said recognized the power of our imagination to make sense of the world from what we see and i remember “Obol” is a reference to the ancient Greek and Roman custom of placing a coin in the mouth of a dead person to pay the boatman Charon for their passage to the underworld.
“I had this idea to do one last drawing,” he says. “It comes from that sudden urgency with my dad because he knew he was dying.”
Neon Myths: Arthur Lanyon on his new work
“Pz is short for Penzance, my home town. It has a figure and a face, but it has those unmistakable oval gaps. They are not vacuums, they are just like a space through which you can feel the opposite. It is called a plenum, where the remaining space is full of matter. But in that sense it has kind of lost its soul – like the city has lost its soul.”
Almeria House (main photo)
“I use a lot of my childhood drawings and one of them was Indalo – the ghost who could hold and carry a rainbow in his hands. It is a symbol of Almería in Spain and a good luck charm. I must have copied it from somewhere as a child without knowing its meaning. Embarrassingly, I copied it again in this painting 30 years later, still not realizing its significance. You can see it at the bottom left.”
“This picture was not easy to make. It started out very open and free and I encouraged everyone who came to make their mark. My son stole the show with his two year old doodles. From that kind of harmony, that joint starting point, I built in layers and things took hold… The painting got a complete treatment, with razors, orbital sanders and full-body washes, turpentine and glazed with different colored paints.”
“I love a good shot of neon orange – not that I can’t get enough of it because you have to use it very sparingly. But you can really emphasize things, especially in a picture that has a lot of neutral tones or contrast: black and white or gray. The orange or subtle red line on the gray has an optical effect that just buzzes.”
“If I can just draw your attention to the center left, there are two little figures there … those are like repeating motifs. I have them in three other paintings in the show. This figurine on the left is actually from a book about oceanic mythology, a book about Melanesian mythology, and it’s about the history of the crocodile people and the creation of this character called Nugu. They carved him out of wood and revived him by painting his face with sago milk. I also discovered that ‘nugu’ is actually the Korean word for ‘who’, and ‘Nugu group’ is an unknown pop group that hasn’t had their first show yet!’
Arthur Lanyon: Coda for an Obol is at Anima Mundi, St Ives, until 29 August.