#70: Richard Elderton – ‘Aida_間_.’

15th May 2024

In ‘Aida_間_.’ Richard Elderton explores the Japanese concept of ma. In sublime oil paintings of the natural world presented like still lifes, he finds an appreciation for stillness, contemplating the pause or breath between moments. He heightens his subjects, framing them with deliberate negative space defined by contrasts in colour and brushwork. Ahead of the exhibition Elderton discussed his works with City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston. ‘Aida_間_.’ opens 5.30pm Tuesday 21 May at City Art Depot and runs through to 10 June 2024.

After later / あとも過ぎて, Richard Elderton, oil on canvas over board, 320x765mm, 2024

Cameron Ralston: Are you able to give us some insight into the notion of aida or ma?

Richard Elderton: Aida is just a different way of reading the kanji 間 ma. I liked the way aida looked in English, so I used that instead of ma. The idea of ma dawned on me later into the process. It wasn’t a starting point. But I sort of stumbled on it as I was progressing with these works. I moved more and more towards using the negative space. I think that has something to do with the aspect ratio of these canvases. They’re unusual, wide planes. It got me thinking about how to use the space of the canvas more deliberately. And I also thought the aesthetic of ma was appropriate for the stillness of the images.

What is the aesthetic of ma?

It’s a somewhat general concept that is widely used in Japan. There isn’t really an English equivalent, but the term can loosely be translated into words like, a space in between, or a beat. In the way that you can measure a beat in music or in comedy, for example, you might leave a beat before you say the punchline. It’s like that, but it’s slower and more spread out. It’s this idea of a negative space that can be universally applied to music, poetry, the tea ceremony, even your diction – in regular conversations, art and architecture and so on. It’s similar to the idea of breathing space, giving things room to expand its potential.

It’s a respect for that in-between, it gives it significance. Is this something you see in a lot of Japanese art in particular?

I think they are conscious of it, and use it deliberately. It’s not uncommon to hear Japanese artists talk about it in their respective practices.

Reflections / 追憶, Richard Elderton, oil on canvas over board, 320x765mm, 2024

In your 2023 exhibition 無常 (mujō) you said you were chasing a feeling and then the concept of mujō just fit with that feeling. Is it the same here? What is that feeling?

It’s funny because at first, I wanted to do brightly coloured narrative works. I did a few and it didn’t feel right or gel well with my inner reality. So, with each painting I strayed further away from that and settled into a more quiet, meditative, space.

Is it in reaction to outside things?

There’s definitely that. Particularly this year I had some significant events in my personal life on top of the general state of the world. You wake up and you are bombarded with images of serious violence. I go into the studio and think, what the hell am I doing here? I’m making paintings, meanwhile my eyes are being opened to this wider reality that is so different from that solitary space in the studio. If there was a feeling, it was trying to reconcile that and figure that out. I’m not sure if I have.

There is all this meta thinking and meta-analysis of art, with post-modernism and all that, trying to figure out what art is (which I’m not all that interested in). But one time, this one guy was saying that, although he couldn’t tell you what art is, he knows one thing for sure, that the subject of art is the human perception. I don’t know if that’s true, but the idea still resonated with me. So, I wasn’t so much trying to communicate a message, but trying to be honest to the condition that I’m in and my perception of things.

That’s also where a lot of the subjects have come from. A rock is meaningless. There’s no story to it. If there is one, you’d be projecting it. But I like the idea of the fluctuation of it having no innate meaning but you attribute some strange significance to it by painting it and putting it in a frame, you sacralise it. Generating value where there maybe isn’t.

Still life: Contemplation of two stones, Richard Elderton, oil on canvas over board, 320x765mm, 2024

We’ve talked before about you being somewhat avoidant of literal symbolism. I guess that very much applies to these as well. What is the purpose of the painted-on frames?

Yeah. With figurative art, you can elevate the thing you paint into an imaginary realm of the extraordinary. And an internal painted frame can reinforce this sense of importance by making the subject and the boundaries of the picture plane official, so to speak. But I got this idea of putting these crude, sort of almost-frames, on the edges as if only to suggest this potential; in a sense I want to leave it open as a question mark. Some, I didn’t paint the frames on for compositional reasons.

There’s an unfinished quality to those edges.

Particularly with Still life: Two stones I had this idea that the subject matter (the rocks) is a weird abstraction, and seen up close they’re just paint slathers. But somehow it implies space and light and volume. Then the backdrop could just be this quick wash or underpaint which the abstraction in the middle would give context to. So, you interpret those paint slathers as a rock on a table, even though it’s hardly that.

It does make you acutely aware of the objectness of the painting.

That was a part that I became increasingly conscious of. I wanted to lay bare the traces of the process, a grid, an underpainting, some pentimenti. All the paintings have this area of interest where basically ninety percent of the representation is confined to a small area of the canvas. The rest can be sketched in as long as the interest contextualises it properly. In photography I’ve heard of this term – punctum – which is a word for a point of interest. You can have all these lights and shades and abstract areas but that point of interest will orient the image somewhere in a reality.

It’s interesting that you’ve done pretty much only natural subject matter here, doing away with the science.

It might come back but definitely for this body of work I wanted to focus on nature. An interest of mine has been the tea garden. This idea of Japanese traditional gardening which in a way deals with nature. Bonsai is a good example, where the aesthetics try to recreate a natural landscape. Its miniature forms might echo that of a giant ancient tree but it’s carefully constructed. You have this weird bridging of still life and landscape, and within that, there is this deep contradiction between nature and artifice. The rock paintings for example bring a piece of nature but set it up as a still life. Then with the landscapes I wanted to keep the horizon line or ground near the lower edge of the canvas like they’re still-lives sitting on a table.

Between two worlds / 休息, Richard Elderton, oil on canvas over board, 320x765mm, 2024

From my study in Japanese architecture, I remember learning about how openings or windows frame the landscape. Trying to heighten the view.

In my mind I wanted to combine that with realism of the western lexicon. I know today when we talk about realism, we imagine something to do with photography. But historically realism was represented by artists like Courbet and Millet. If you look at their paintings, they don’t necessarily transcribe reality. From today’s standards of photography, it’s like they paint a fictional view. But in that fiction, there is something that is analogous to the perception of reality. A heightened view maybe. Years ago, I read a book called Mystery & Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Conner where she talked about fictional reality. She was talking about all these novelists who are really realists in the sense that they create a fiction that allows them to combine the concrete things with the invisible things to reach a more genuine sense of reality.

Tell me about the figure in Between two worlds / 休息.

Initially they weren’t there, I just had the tree with the idea it was dividing these two planes of grey and golden hills. Compositionally it felt like it needed something there. I thought about putting in a still life or some rocks but in the end the figure just crept in.

They look like they’re quite peaceful or in that moment of contemplation.

I was looking at Balthus paintings, particularly his Poussinesque landscapes, and to me they really set up a world of his own. In a weird way when you look at his paintings, they’re a total fantasy. But when you think about the world he was living in, you had two world wars going. There was all this brutality and violence that he would have been very aware of, and I think he experienced personally but you wouldn’t be able to tell it from looking at his paintings. In a weird way I feel like there’s a truth to that as well.

Was it a slow process for you working on them?

It depends really. Some of them have taken months. I like working wet into wet for the bulk of the painting. So, I guess each painting session happens quickly, but I also paint over and redo large portions of the works instead of making small incremental changes, so it really depends on the work.

Entelechy / 命の法則, Richard Elderton, oil on canvas over board, 320x765mm, 2024

Part of the joy of your work is looking at the way you’ve layered the paint. Especially getting up close and seeing the different, sometimes vivid, colours that you’ve incorporated.

There’s an enjoyment for me in trying to find that balance. I’d put a bright colour in and then try to mute it back. If I go too far, I’ll add it back in and try to find that balance.

I like the contrasts in brushwork where you’ve got a central concentrated intensity of working which then dissipates towards the edges. As a graphic designer I know the importance of considering the negative space. In fact, that’s where I do most of my designing and how I achieve balance with text, images and so on. Is this balancing with negative details something you’re considering when making the pieces?

That really dawned on me with this body of work. You can see that Entelechy / 命の法則 has been worked on a lot in the tree but then becomes less concentrated.

It’s nice with works like these to leave some mystery and not overexplain them. They feel like paintings that you want to experience slowly and have a quiet moment in front of.

I hope so. For me, it was good to go into the studio and for the time in there it’s me, my palette and my canvas. I can just focus my attention on that and the craft and trying to make these paintings happen.