The British painter Arthur Lanyon was born into a family of artists. His father was painter Matthew Lanyon while his grandfather was renowned modernist artist Peter Lanyon. “There was a lot of art everywhere, so it came naturally, I didn’t really think about it,” he says. He recalls a specific memory that illustrates his childhood. “I remember when I was little my dad came in one day and said, ‘I have to draw something today,’ and he put a big bucket full of snails in the middle of the table and they crawled out at the edge,” says he. “As a little kid, getting involved in all of this was pretty exciting.”
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 an emotional, gestural abstraction.
He recalls a moment while studying at Cardiff University, where he graduated in Fine Arts in 2008. “The tutor asked me, ‘What do you want to paint?’ And I just said, ‘Well, I want to paint everything,'” he says. “I use abstraction to squeeze a lot of things in, and I’m getting more and more interested in picking those things out with drawings.”
In addition to artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Lanyon cites the abstract expressionism of the 1950s and 1960s as his influence. “He existed in a similar era, but he was doing something very different with images. You could see what it was and there were different reasons for it, and that was very interesting.” Adds Lanyon, “I’m usually caught up by the painters, who have this abstract feel. It’s color that doesn’t hide from what it naturally does: it gets a bit scruffy, it’s hard to control, it speaks for itself in a way.”
Lanyon’s latest solo show, Coda for an Obol, arrives at Gallery Anima Mundi in St Ives this month and presents an existential exploration of purpose, legacy and heritage, at times incorporating themes from classical mythology. The exhibition includes more than 30 works of art – his last three creative years. In it, the artist takes stock of important life events – his father died in 2016 and his first son was born three years ago – and traverses their meaning and motivations. “I’m at a point where I’m thinking quite a lot about these two polar opposites. That was something to ponder over the course of three years.”
The title of the exhibition was inspired in part by a Wikipedia entry Lanyon was reading at the time, in the coda of James Merrill’s poem Lost in Translation, which he says acknowledges the power of our imagination to make meaning in the world from what we do see, discover remember. The “obol” refers to the ancient Greek and Roman custom of putting a coin in the mouth of a dead person to pay the ferryman Charon for the passage to the underworld.
“There was this idea to do one last drawing,” he says. “It comes from this sudden urgency with my father because he knew he was going to die.”
Neon Myths: Arthur Lanyon on his new work
“Pz is short for Penzance, my hometown. There’s a figure and a face, but there’s those distinctive oval cavities. They’re not vacuum cleaners, they’re just like a space through which you can feel the opposite. It is called the plenum where the rest of space is filled with matter. But in that sense, it’s kind of lost its soul – like the city lost its soul.”
House Almeria (main picture)
“I use many of my childhood drawings and one of them was of the Indalo – the spirit that could hold and carry a rainbow in its hands. It is a symbol of Almería in Spain and a good luck charm. I must have copied it somewhere as a kid without knowing the meaning. Embarrassingly, 30 years later I copied it again into this painting without knowing its meaning. You can see it below left.”
“This was not an easy painting. It started out very open and free, and I encouraged everyone who came by to make a name for themselves. My son stole the show with his two year old doodles. From that kind of harmony, that collaborative starting point, I built in layers and things locked in… The painting was fully treated, with razor blades, random orbital sanders and body wash, turpentine and glazed with different paint colors.”
“I love a good splash of neon orange – not that I can’t get enough of it, you have to be very sparing with it. But you can really dot things, especially in a painting that has a lot of neutral tones or contrasts: black and white or shades of gray. Orange or a fine line of red on gray has an optical effect that just buzzes.”
“If I may just draw your attention to the center left, there are two small figures…these are like recurring motifs. I have them in three other paintings in the exhibition. This character on the left is actually from an oceanic mythology book, a melanesian mythology book, and it’s about the story of the crocodile men and the making of this character called Nugu. They carved him out of wood and brought him to life by painting his face with sago milk. I also found out 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 available from Anima Mundi, St Ives until 29th August.