North Uist in the Outer Hebrides is a wilderness, a place where the usual balance between the modern world of humans and ‘other’ world of nature is inverted. Days spent alone in the landscape here can feel similar to the halcyon days of childhood, one’s sense of time greatly expanded by the stimulus of wide-ranging natural phenomena. Extreme weather conditions, unusual geomorphology, abundant and diverse wildlife, all these and more promote a deep sense of connection with nature. This is a magical place, if you are open to it.
Dominated by the iconic Eaval, (Eabhal), North Uist’s highest hill, the terrain here varies radically from one coast to another. The ‘Blacklands’ of the east, acidic peat moorlands punctuated by hundreds of fresh water lochans, give way in the west to ‘Machair’, low lying grassy plains that form between the sea and moorland habitat, beyond this, through the dunes, miles of white sandy beaches. For a painter whose creativity is sparked by the natural environment, Uist offers many unique and inspiring challenges.
People joke that it is possible to experience a year’s weather in a single day here. Whilst that may be somewhat of an exaggeration, (snow is rare!), it is true that very strong winds are a regular feature of life on the island. As a consequence the landscape here appears in an almost perpetual state of flux, animated by constantly shifting patterns of light that seem to transform it physically and chromatically, from one minute to the next. This is not a subject for the faint hearted.
Undeniably expressive, gestural and physical in essence, George Rowlett’s paintings have an elemental quality well met in the Hebridean environment. Highly motivated by a sheer delight in its visual splendor, his Uist works transcend a purely descriptive response to inland or coastal views. Visually autonomous, so far as geographical precision is concerned, these images do never the less, relate to distinct motifs within the landscape. Created in situ, they are wholly of the place in which they were made and correspond not to shallow romantic vistas but to an authentic melding of the artist’s perception with expressive process. Complex layers of sumptuous paint, simultaneously ambiguous, precise, delicate and strong, appear as vivid translations of the artist’s sensorial experience.
Close scrutiny of their heavily impastoed surfaces reveals a sensitive interplay between intuition and deliberation, arguably a paradox at the heart of Rowlett’s practice. There is a macro/micro aspect to these paintings; understood pictorially at a distance, they are equally appreciated as landscape close up - within the detail of individual passages small topographical ranges of pigment quietly assert themselves.
Working intensely to assimilate fleeting moments, Rowlett’s method of material addition and subtraction physically alludes to an altogether different time-scale, one that speaks of the very processes of accretion and erosion that have created this unique topography over millennia. His handling of paint – lavish, enfolding manipulations, somehow echoing the stilled magma of Lewisian Gneiss, (the bedrock of the Hebrides), and like the Gneiss, we sense in these paintings the influence of what we cannot see, an accumulated intensity built up within the layers and conveyed to the viewer by virtue of their facture, each work multiple moments conflated to a single form.
Urban-centric, digitally ‘hyper-connected’ societies offer little in the way of opportunity for people to connect directly with nature, (which for all our technological sophistication we are still a part of); most often it is reduced to the experience of gardening and the keeping of pets. Under this circumstance, cultural artifacts, in this case paintings, can act as prompts, encouraging us towards an element of our lived experience to which our senses may have become dulled. George Rowlett’s lyrical and exuberant North Uist paintings embody this notion. They are not imitations of nature, rather we might view them as an opportunity to share in the artist’s direct experience of it, and in this way, perhaps experience for ourselves a revitalization of our own subjective instincts.
© Sophie Morrish, 2011