Tony Foster | In Context


On Taking the Elements to Heart
Tony Foster’s Art of Concerned Witness

[Essay from the exhibition catalogue Exploring Beauty: Watercolour Diaries From the Wild]

Tony Foster’s art, the product of sustained observation in isolated places, may look like a throwback to a British tradition of watercolorist wanderers that includes greats as diverse as John Sell Cotman, John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner. The sureness and poise of Foster’s pictorial style bespeak both maturity of technique and an iron resistance to the temptation of slurred, summary depiction and the indifference to the specifics of reality that it might promote. To achieve consistently the transmission of level-eyed, contemplative views, Foster must also resist pressures—of inclement elements, of daunting commitments of time, expense, and travel—typical of the remote settings in which he chooses to work. 

The word risk gets used too often by contemporary critics, curators, and artists as a term of praise or a boast. It may refer aptly to performance art hijinks such as Andrea Fraser’s or to an immense investment of time and resources such as Christian Marclay’s daylong chronometric epic of found film footage, The Clock (2010). But more frequently talk of risk exaggerates the stakes of creative chancing.

As a committed indoorsman, I have a very different inkling of risk when I imagine Tony Foster trekking up the slopes of dormant volcanoes or sidestepping venomous snakes and fending off insects to work in a steaming, sopping rain forest, not just for art’s sake but for ours in an eco-conscious sense. To sustain the sort of detailed observation that his work requires would be a discipline exemplary enough under conditions of studio comfort, but he does it again and again under the pressure of extremes of climate, elevation, and exposure.

When I try to imagine what Foster has endured to produce authentic work, I think of Lawrence Durrell’s narrator late in The Alexandria Quartet, as he recalls “the Adam of the medieval legends: the world-compounded body of a man whose flesh was soil, whose bones were stones, whose blood water, whose hair was grass, whose eyesight sunlight, whose breath was wind and whose thoughts were clouds.”

For the project titled Exploring Beauty: Watercolour Diaries from the Wild, Foster asked a group of “luminaries,” as he calls them, experts in various fields of science and natural history, to name the most beautiful unspoiled places they knew of, where he might search for subjects. These luminaries include the British explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison; the scientist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough; María Teresa Ruiz, professor of astronomy at the University of Chile; and Dr. Winslow Briggs, director emeritus of the Department of Plant Biology at the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University.

Most of the sites that Foster has chosen and that have been suggested to him, he said in conversation at his Cornwall studio, “are wilderness because they’re incredibly difficult to live in for some reason. They’re too hot or cold, too wet or dry or too high—there’s always a reason why no one’s exploited them yet. But sooner or later, these places will go. Mulu”—in remotest Borneo—”is a good example. Because of Robin Tenison’s devotion to the place, which brought all kinds of scientific attention to it, it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site. But all around it, the trees have been completely cut down for palm oil. There’s just a few hundred square miles of exquisite rain forest left alone. But no doubt, if the pressure was great enough, it would be exploited for something. When I was there, I could feel the pressure on to make it more tourist-friendly. . . . Anyway, if my work is some small argument about how extraordinarily exquisite these places are, that would be a great thing.”

At a cultural moment when digital technology has made the capture and dissemination of images effortless, even automatic, and therefore increasingly trivial and fugitive, Foster’s handmade observational art has a philosophical force—the force of redescription, not merely of description. “I’m not interested in accuracy. I don’t think that’s a particularly interesting thing for an artist to pursue. I’m trying to be truthful.” (His saying that reminded me of a statement by Richard Avedon: “All photographs are accurate. None is the truth.”)

Foster’s art is a notation of the experience of seeing, not a mere inventory of appearances. Hence the need that he feels to supplement his work with written diaries. “That’s another discipline,” he said. “To sit at night in your tent and write your diary. There are times when you really don’t want to. You’re tired, it’s wet, it’s cold, but you have to do it every day or there’s no point to it really. It has to be what you saw and felt during the day. . . . They’re a very important component of the work. They only appear as a few lines under a painting, but those lines are distilled from huge experiences . . . thoughts you had, things you observed. If a tapir comes bounding through the jungle, you can’t paint that, but you want to have a record of it.”

Foster generally works in solitude but seldom travels without friends, guides, or experts, who may be one and the same. “I’ve been very fortunate in my working life to have traveling companions who were brilliant at being outdoors and loved adventures,” he said. “I’ve always managed to find someone to come with me who knows exactly what they’re doing and is prepared to spend a week, a month or three months traveling with me in order to help me get what I want to do. I’ve learned a lot from them, so in the last few years I’ve felt quite prepared to organize these trips myself and invite people along who know less about these places than I do. There have been a couple of occasions when I’ve been in situations where absolute catastrophes could have happened. . . . I’ve often been in that position, but by now I have a much better sense of what to expect. . . . I like to feel that I open myself to whatever’s going to happen, and similarly I open myself to whatever subject I’m going to paint. I try never to look at photographs of places I’m going to because I want to be open to whatever it is I’m going to find.”

Foster has immersed himself in situations of extreme density, such as the Borneo jungle, and of almost lunar barrenness, such as the Atacama Desert in South America, which has seen no rain in a century and a half. “The idea of going to the Atacama Desert to find something to paint is kind of odd really,” he said, “because it’s the bleakest place in the world. But if you hunt around, you will find something. I’ve never yet been to a place where I couldn’t find something to paint.”

Foster admits to having felt, in his early years of wilderness work, a concern for his adventurer companions that could result in creative failure. “Years ago, when I was traveling with friends, I felt sort of responsible for all the time I spent wandering about looking for the right subject. Once when I was traveling in the White Mountains in California, I sat there and worked on a piece for six days, and then I finally stood back and thought, ‘this will never make a painting.’ It was just because I’d sort of snatched at the subject, thinking I’d better find something quick. You don’t have to have that happen too many times before you realize that you’ve got to find the right subject before you commit yourself to it. . . . Where I’ve been defeated is where I’ve made the wrong start, but I don’t have many duds, really.”

Drawing is the foundation of Foster’s practice, and his habit, having chosen a landscape vantage point, is to set up his drawing board, which has to be leveled and stabilized against winds and other elements, and leave it, camping as nearby as practical. He never uses a camera, even as a mnemonic device. “If you stare at something”—a vista—“for eight or nine hours a day for ten days, you remember it pretty well . . . it’s in there pretty deep,” he said. Anyway, no camera could capture his true quarry: the feeling of being in a wild place. 

A couple of days’ observation will enable Foster to decide the time of day when light best enhances the character of his chosen subject and vantage point, and subsequent days’ work at a site will hinge on those hours. “Once you’ve set it at that time,” he said, “then that’s the logic of the work.” 

What Foster brings back to his studio are “more than field notes,” he said. “They certainly look like paintings, but the process in the studio is one of strengthening and making the foreground come forward and the background go back and so on. . . . I find sometimes that I have to change my mind about the appropriateness of what I intended. Sometimes it’s a matter of something as radical as what I thought the focal point was. The work in the studio is not just about finishing things. It’s more about resolving the thing to make it work as a work of art.”

Look at one of Foster’s images of jungle thicket and you recognize both the impossibility of its corresponding to what he saw, down to every leaf and tendril, and his remarkable knack for infusing description with challenges to the eye apposite to those that he faced on-site. When I study such a picture, I recall the saying of an American Zen teacher that I have often cited as a critical motto: All we really have in this life is what we notice. By the way he makes it and by dint of what it records, Foster’s art offers us instruction in noticing what there is to be seen. His practice of attaching “souvenirs”—found bits of organic, mineral, or cultural matter—as collage addenda to paintings reasserts the works’ implicit advice that we pay attention, wherever we are, to tangible details of the enveloping reality.

The traditional character of Foster’s style and subject matter may lead us to overlook one of his art’s most significant effects: the way it shuttles our attention unendingly between local and panoptic focus. At historical moments less urgent than our own, less burdened by systems that magnify inestimably the impact of small, seemingly private acts, his guidance in connecting and reconnecting details to overviews might carry less weight than it does. 

Only by a willful aversion of attention, for example, can I keep out of mind linkages between the prodigious convenience of the computer on which I’m writing and the social and environmental tolls its existence takes through resource extraction, potentially toxic waste, and their associated economic injustices. Such bad faith, itself a by-product of the information age, discourages me, as it must nearly everyone, from thinking too much about the ecological, ultimately planetary implications of actions taken in my private sphere. Yet to become sensitized to that pressure—even if only in bafflement over what to do about it—has become an ethical imperative of our era. Much contemporary art ostensibly more adventurous in style and tactics than Foster’s has far less pertinence to this inescapable dimension of our daily experience.

A contemporary critical prejudice regards aesthetic and activist impulses in art as adversary values. This attitude echoes distantly an old debate about the authenticity of art for art’s sake as against art for the sake of persuasion: of saving souls, of flattering power or patronage, or otherwise awakening malleable sentiments. Consider the great lineages of devotional art, of court and aristocratic portraiture, or the more artful inventions of pictorial propaganda, which every modern war has spawned in one form or another. In the late twentieth century a deepening suspicion of mass media and of new imaging technologies recast and reignited the long-running critical debate. Can any mode of representation claim to function uncorrupted by the allure of tendentious distortion available to the master of darkroom technique, to the montage maker, and to the dark arts of digital manipulation? 

Then again, can any primarily aesthetic pursuit, such as abstract painting, claim for itself the moral force or psychological traction to provoke morally even the most engaged audience? The critique of contemporary image making’s dependence on institutional resources has cut deep. It has given a discomfiting torque of skepticism to all sophisticated artistic reception. So to say today that imagery can proceed untainted by its past and its potential for abuse has become a profession of faith best made by rare practitioners such as Foster, who can show, not merely say—though he says very well—what such a profession entails. 

Since the late twentieth century there has been a revival of critical interest in the work of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) and Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964), for whom Cézanne was a great exemplar. This bespeaks hunger for a distinctly modern mode of authenticity capable of allaying the concern that ulterior, perhaps unconscious motives haunt even handmade depiction. Cézanne and Morandi evolved distinct styles informed by shifting allocations of attention between description and construction: touch, palette, subject matter, and surface design. Their vacillations stir a sort of affirmative restlessness in attentive viewers of their works—not the unquellable appetite for the next thing aroused by kinetic media and the Internet’s superabundance—but felt recognition of a deep link between the summoned energy of scrutiny and a tolerance, even an appetite, for ambiguity in perception. 

Foster has inherited that restlessness as an artistic value and a creative problem. But against a twenty-first-century background it has meanings different from those given it by the twentieth. Tensions between subject and style, registered in ambiguities of description, preoccupied Cézanne and Morandi as quavers of temperament. But each artist also recognized those tensions as instabilities that had to be mastered to certify painting’s continued relevance to accelerated modern experience. We live out that acceleration today at a tempo that people a century ago would have found simply shattering.

“It’s partly about time passing,” Foster said, referring both to his practice of sustained observation and to his work’s mode of concerned address. By dint of his peculiar approach to subject matter and image making, he knows the texture of his era’s time passing with an intimacy few of us share, through a search and advocacy for environments not yet compromised though threatened by what Edward O. Wilson calls “the social conquest of earth.”

“The beauty thing has been at the back of my mind for a long time,” Foster said. “I realize that what I’ve been doing is to demonstrate to people, to persuade them that these are extraordinary untouched places, many of which are extremely fragile. It should be a mark of whether we’re capable of civilization in our society to leave these places alone because they are so exquisite.”



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