Jack Lanagan Dunbar’s exhibition Signal, at COMA gallery, is part of Art Month Sydney. The show features two separate strands of work inspired by time the artist spent in two highly contrasting locations: the Canary Islands and Germany. Yet his two bodies of work do have things in common, such as a reliance on copper as a vibrant artistic material, and an interest in the sublime. Dunbar, who was awarded the 2019 Brett Whiteley Travelling Arts Scholarship and is currently based in Berlin, spoke to Barnaby Smith about his travels, the history and symbolism of copper, the enduring appeal of Romanticism, and more.
Barnaby Smith: Can you give a general introduction to Signal, in terms of ideas, how it came together, the materials and so on?
Jack Lanagan Dunbar: Signal is an exhibition of two distinct collections really: a set of copper electrotypes and a group of paintings that rely heavily on malachite as a pigment.
They’re tied together by their elemental relationship. Malachite is a copper ore, meaning that the more familiar metal, copper, can be extracted from it. It’s a particular green that you’ll often find in religious fresco work and in Japanese Ukiyo-e pieces. I like that a colour’s history has an effect on its reception.
The electrotypes were produced while on residency in the Canary Islands at the end of 2019, supported by a grant from the Ian Potter Cultural Trust. I went to learn the process from Alfonso Crujera, a Canarian artist and print-maker, and I was taken by the power of the landscape on Gran Canaria – heavy swells set against volcanic cliff faces.
The malachite paintings were made in Leipzig where I lived throughout 2020.
My work has more and more become about exploring gestural marks – trying to bring out a feeling through marks alone. The thinking around these pieces began on New Year’s Eve 2019-2020, with my first experience of European fireworks – a 24-hour-long, building cacophony that is at once celebratory and traumatic, not to mention excessive.
It’s funny, the locations couldn’t be more different but both bodies of work connect through their engagement with these overwhelming experiences. Somehow they work together.
BS: What is the common ground between your responses to the ocean and to fireworks?
JLD: Both suites of work involve materials derived from a common source. They both include marks that follow similar patterns and share similar modes of making. They are both produced in an antithetical sort of way, that is, during the production of the work there is a moment, or moments, when the form of a piece is entirely reversed.
During the production of the electrotypes there is a modelling, moulding and casting process, and during the production of the paintings there is line work produced with material that is eventually washed away to reveal what lies beneath it. It’s these push/pull, positive/negative, in/out functions that bring the work into being.
The links between ocean and fireworks that I enjoy most are metaphorical: the boom and roar along a coastline and a sky awash with fire, sparkling water and blast waves. I think both bodies of work are able to conjure up these types of experiences, these potentially overpowering moments.
BS: How does this work develop or depart from ideas you have explored in previous work?
JLD: The works in Signal simultaneously extend ideas from previous exhibitions while turning a new leaf. In the same way as previous shows, the suite is designed to create an ambience, a vibration, to cue an emotional response from the viewer, whatever that response may be.
You could look at the works as backdrops for meditation. I try to have all my work function in this way. The aim is not to be overly prescriptive in order to allow the works do as much as they can for the viewer.
BS: How do you interpret your exhibition title, Signal?
JLD: I was delving into the various practical applications of copper, looking for a starting point for the next set of works and was led to submarine telecommunications cables: copper as a carrier for information.
There is a cable under the Mediterranean Sea linking Greece and Cyprus that is named APHRODITE-2, and a cable named APOLLO linking the UK and France to the US. There’s also an AURORA, a JUPITER, and a POSEIDON: all gods from Western antiquity.
That seemed like a sign, a nudge in the right direction, and so Signal came to be the working title for the show and it just stuck.
It is a beautifully slippery word when you unpack it. It brings to mind a range of actions: a shot fired, flag waved, limbs held at particular angles, invisible waves travelling through the air. But of course it doesn’t give any indication of what is actually being signalled. That is left entirely open.
BS: Can you tell us why copper is such an important material for you?
JLD: There is a weight to it in both a physical and an existential sense. Copper embodies a huge leaping forward in technology and in the development of civilisation. It is right at the beginning of metalworking.
Before the Bronze Age there was the Copper Age. They sort of bleed together, bronze being predominantly copper itself. It’s a material that once was the pinnacle of technological advancement and it is still a critical component in technology today.
Its procurement had us doing some seriously abstract things: digging deep underground, burning rocks in incredibly hot fires, clearing forests to provide fuel for those fires, harnessing water power to crush and sort ore. It’s a very loaded material. It speaks about the development of civilisation as we know it and the deconstruction and destruction of the natural world.
BS: You’ve said that much of your work can be described as vignettes. How has this idea informed Signal?
JLD: I like to describe the works as vignettes because the word implies a certain conciseness. I think the works in Signal live up to the term better than any I’ve produced yet. They are isolated collections of marks – self-sufficient. Although there are laborious amounts of layering or processing that the works go through, typically the marks are made in one intense sitting. It’s where most of the risk is, this make-or-break moment for the work, a precipice. This mark-making is really the most integral part of the process. It’s the relative brevity of that part of the process that marks the works as vignettes in my mind.
BS: You seem to have a deep appreciation of art history. Forgive the very broad question, but can you outline how an appreciation of Romanticism or any other significant movement has influenced your recent work?
JLD: In relation to Romanticism, purely coincidentally, while living in Saxony, my partner Zara and I walked some sections of the Malerweg in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. It’s the area where Caspar David Friedrich sketched the mountainous elements for Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, c1818.
The whole area was well stomped by German Romantics. It was wonderful to see. Certainly not as overwhelming as the painting makes out, of course, somewhat Disneyland-ified, but I think that’s part of the appeal of Romanticism for me – its passionate simplification of things. Certainly, that can be a dangerous quality, but its best examples are about a deep love.
The works in Signal have had this overblown passion invested in them: awe of and gratitude for the ocean, and a head-shaking disbelief at the frivolous human ingenuity that has us launching and combusting minerals dug from the earth.