David Tremlett


As part of a challenge to the ontological status of sculpture, three British artists of the same generation were drawn to travel. Though motion, impermanence, and elementary narrative attracted them, it defied their artistic means, and in this, perhaps, lay its enduring fascination. Almost 20 years later, Hamish Fulton indulges a Victorian taste for exotic landscapes, recorded in a spirit of deep melancholy. Richard Long walks in patterns as one element of an art that doubles and redoubles its phenomenological ramifications. David Tremlett wanders at random, often at the slightest pretext, jotting down fragments of conversation, collecting random objects, focusing on particulars. Until recently his art consisted of large wall pieces; now he works on paper, making individual colored drawings. Words occur too: like Long and Fulton, Tremlett has developed his own version of concrete poetry, employing titles or remarks as part of an entire design. His chosen genre could perhaps be described as a casual Abstract Expressionist picaresque haiku. And though presentation may change, feeling does not. Tremlett is an easygoing artist with an eccentric, wry style involving no tone, no illusion, no impressionism. Like the ex-sculptor he is, he works with the paper flat on the floor, smudging on the color with both hands. One other feature is worth mentioning. His work is unusually resistant to analysis.

The reason may be the degree to which experience is digested and changed in the work. Though Tremlett offers emotion recollected in tranquillity, somehow it has ceased to be personal to him. Mexico 3 (A Cracked Step. A Wrong Move), 1983, is a good example. Within one frame two panels of earth brown flank a panel of jerky calligraphy. Influenced by African and aboriginal art, Tremlett nevertheless shuns pattern, opting for asymmetricality. Edgy and inward-looking, the design is a collection of elements that never touch, cross, or cohere but hang unresolved, irresolute, in a constricted space. The artist explained to me that on reaching Ciudad Juarez, south of the Rio Grande from El Paso, he found himself without a room for the night, sitting on a cracked doorstep, drawing by streetlight. Similarly, Africa No. 6, 1983, is based on an incident that occurred in Botswana. Camping alone, Tremlett was woken early by guerrillas who cross-questioned him at gunpoint and could only be pacified by having their photographs taken. In the drawing, words from their conversation circulate like flies around the head of a self-portrait stick figure, while from the left come furious shapes like fire or waves. Unaware of such circumstances, the viewer is offered not a snatch of travelogue but a situation rendered as static, an effect close to caricature. For Tremlett the process of paring life down to its essentials demands placing events in context. Yet that context can exist only as shorthand notes. Far from seeming autobiographical, the drawings have the effect of stimulating the viewer to travels of his or her own. Does the openness of the works, their self-possessed, public nature, rely on careful editing? Or could it lie in the willingness to acknowledge what drawing cannot do? This art is still concerned with relations between space, time, and memory, dislocating all three to make a new perception. “Be a person on whom nothing is wasted,” wrote Henry James. Tremlett would certainly agree.

Stuart Morgan