Second Homes and Other Pathetic Fallacies - Jon Sharples
In the 1930s Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, California, “there is no there there” as she reflected on the discovery that her childhood family home had been torn down to make way for a soulless development. It had lost its ‘sense of place’, to borrow a phrase from the gentrification consultants. If there is any place in the UK that seems to me to have there in spades, it is St Ives, with its crystalline waters and cobbled streets providing the setting for coexistence between Celtic magic and rational modernity that just shouldn’t work, but somehow does. To spend time there is to oscillate between feeling you are at the edge of the world, and the centre of the universe. The Hepworth sculpture outside St Ives’ quaint Guildhall, with its hanging baskets, would look perfectly at home outside the UN. Tate St Ives, a world-class museum that could hold its own in any capital city in the world, rises from amongst whitewashed fishermen’s cottages. International artists enjoy studio residencies in the same buildings as local fishermen mending their nets. Tropical palm trees line the road into town, while granite hills lead the way to Zennor. It is, quite simply, a place unlike any other.
And yet… all this is the gushing of a tourist. Sam Bassett’s family have lived in St Ives since the 1600s and it’s fair to say that he’s on a different trajectory to me. His grandad was a fisherman, as was his dad, before becoming Harbourmaster… that would be the same harbour that now has a Pizza Express and - worse - a Jack Wills and, in the summer months, a human statue coated in metallic gold paint, some 270 miles from Trafalgar Square. Every indignity visited upon the place is, for Sam, a personal provocation, but worse than all of that is that the fact that he and many of those he grew up with are now shut out of living there altogether, priced out by the buoyant market for second ‘homes’. Sam’s return to drawing in 2020 has produced a series of lamentations on this theme that is some of the most direct work he has ever made. For lots of painters, paintings can be like pandemics in that when they start the ending is so far off as to be inconceivable, but these works on paper, sometimes made at a rate of dozen a day, have given Sam what some people find in banana bread – the satisfying feeling of outcomes and accomplishment when living day-to-day is the only option. Coastal Development and New Zealand Cabbage in Cornwall 2 narrate a double tragedy in which greenfield sites are overdeveloped while so many houses sit empty for most of the year. Recurring motifs, as in Anvil Heart and Your Built on Sand With Mooring, are the iron mooring posts that stand in for Sam’s ties to and anchor in the area, contrasted against the shallow and precarious foundations of the new developments.
Samuel Bassett, Anvil Heart, Your Built on Sand With Mooring, Coastal Development, 2021
For years Sam has sampled, quoted and remixed his own paintings, heightening the sense that what we see on canvas is what his erstwhile gallerist Joe Clarke described as 'psychological cubism', where his inner and outer selves reveal themselves and coalesce. The most frequently repeated image of all is the disembodied head in floods of tears – a comically extreme personification of grief, often indistinguishable from the landscape and the great squalls that characterise St Ives’ weather at any time of year.
It’s a cliché of Romantic literature for the poet to be so overwhelmed by his own emotions that he projects false sentience onto the natural world around him – a tendency towards sentimentality that Ruskin called ‘pathetic fallacy’. In visual art, it’s sort of the other way around and we are more likely to perceive sentimentality and kitsch in the straightforwardly descriptive presentation of a landscape, and the introduction of elements that are self-evidently not to be taken literally are somehow afforded more breathing space. I’m thinking of the Winter Landscape in the big Anselm Kiefer show at the Royal Academy a few years ago in which the floating head of a woman rises above the field, spotted with blood-red watercolour; the martyr as a personification of the land, stained by the events of human history.
Anselm Kiefer, Winter Landscape, 1970. © 2014. Image copyright
The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence /
© Anselm Kiefer.
Samuel Bassett, Cold night Drowning, 2019
Another association that occurs to me is that that little-known work The Scream by Edvard Munch. Munch described his inspiration for the image as follows:
“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned
blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues
of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling
with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”
It’s a brilliant image, made no less truthful by the fact that the figure is so ludicrously OTT that he is the only one in the history of art to become a literal emoji. (I do sometimes wonder whether there is an emoji artist out there who was familiar with Sam’s work before they created the Loudly Crying Face.)
The figure on the bridge, symbolic of Munch himself, feels the cry of nature, a sound that is sensed internally rather than heard with the ears, and communicated in a synesthetic approach that says emotion can be a visual phenomenon.
The beaches of St Ives are not stained with blood, as in Kiefer’s image, but in Cold night Drowning Sam seems to perceive the landscape itself as churned up, crying its eyes out, eternally inconsolable at the ravages of change and the loss of that which will never be recovered. In Rock, a giant head lies on its side in shallow water and under a bruised sky, like a decapitated colossus, a ruin of a vanquished civilisation.
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893 © T
he National Gallery of Norway
Samuel Bassett, Rock 2021. ©
In the end, truth conveyed by a pathetic fallacy is phenomenological truth, the truth of experience, the truth as it appears to the experiencing subject – and it can perhaps be the most profound truth of all… not solipsistic, not isolating, but a glimpse directly into the consciousness of another human being.
The other striking way that Sam wears his inside on the outside is by the text that inhabits his pictures. Where Kiefer might inscribe his canvasses with ‘VALHALLA’ or some other mythological or literary reference, or Cy Twombly might reach for ‘AGAMEMNON’, or similar, to summon a grandiose association with the classical world, Sam often seems proactively to snuff out any danger of pretension by using vernacular language to ground his paintings in his everyday life in and around St Ives. Somehow the text always forms a natural part of the picturescape, rather than something separate from the action or overtly descriptive of it. The result is the feeling for the viewer of the fourth wall having been broken and a collapsing of time and distance caused by a reversal of the instinctive expectation that experience precedes language.
Like Tracey Emin, another national treasure of the British seaside, Sam employs lettering so recognisably his own that I can imagine typing this in Bassett Bold font. His flair for graphic impact is equal to that of the Die Brücke group, perhaps rooted in the same affinity for carved wood and antipathy towards bourgeois sensibility. German artists always seem to find their way into the symbolic forest, whether as a nurturing locale or a site of terror; the series of Sam’s works set amongst the beech trees suggests it has a similar pull on him. But if the forest is the locus of German subjectivity, for Britain, and ultimately for Sam, that place is clearly the sea (fishing quotas, anyone?).
Alongside subjective, autobiographical revelation, Sam’s work is ultimately about the interaction of the psychologies of individuals in a delicate, symbiotic relationship with the world that formed them and a conviction that people are made of place and places are made of people. A recurring vision as in Beach Comber and Up Trevalgon Hill sees the characters Sam has met down the pub or on the beach – caricatured as if at the merciless hand of Goya or George Grosz – embedded in the geology of the land, like the granite tors protruding from the ground, the exposed element of the layers of rock, stacked, slipping and balancing - a tectonic metaphor for the generations of people of those ancient Cornish lands and the hardy mining and fishing communities built upon them. Maybe this symbol of (pre)historic resilience is the perspective we need right now and always… I can’t wait to get back there.