In Conversation: Amy Adams and Rob Lyon, January 2022 

Amy Adams: The burning bush is an enduring metaphor—in the bible to represent a miraculous energy and in popular culture including a Radiohead song where the band bends the phrase in critique of then US President George Bush. In many of your works, there's a symmetrical tree with branches rendered with pieces of fiery red paint. Is this your burning bush? What does it represent to you?

Rob Lyon: I’m wary of unpacking the motifs. I regard them from the periphery with a mix of wonder and suspicion. Bulbous forms emerged during my partner’s pregnancy. I took them to be ciphers for fecundity. Although wholly inaccurate, they depicted yews, junipers, hawthorn, gorse—flora native to the South Downs, near to where I live in England. These continue to appear alongside the sharper, phallic forms of pines. Following my father’s death over a year ago, they have gently evolved into cross-like, funereal forms. But the red tree is not a tree I recognise. It doesn't belong there. It's an interloper, setting light to the landscape. It's painted last and glibly; quick flicks of a loaded fat brush. It’s the big finale, marking the painting’s completion. Until you asked me this, I hadn’t consciously thought of it as a burning bush in the religious tradition. That said, considering this as a possibility, I do see it as an incendiary latecomer—a raging, ecstatic, redemptive presence. There's no sense of its destruction. It burns bright yet remains standing. It’s a beacon. It endures. I expect it represents endurance.

AA: You had mentioned to me that these paintings grew out of a daily practice of walking, itself an activity that has a long history of being explored through an artistic lens. Can you tell me a bit about your walking and how it relates to these paintings?

RL: Paul Klee defined drawing as “An active line on a walk, moving freely, without goal. A walk for a walk’s sake. The mobility agent is a point, shifting its position forward.” I walk as Klee drew. It is a way to manage grief, walking for walking’s sake, unburdened by particular memories or customs. It became a means of navigating beyond sadness’ jurisdiction, to move freely. It’s during these walks in the South Downs that ideas for paintings arise. Paul Nash wrote of a place’s ‘genius loci'—the ancient idea that a particular location possesses a spirit, its own particular magic. I experience this. On a walk last year, I discovered a hill near my mother’s home on which we, as a family, had somehow never walked, and during which I experienced an acute sense of communion. Many of my subsequent paintings draw from this hill, its spirit, and the encounters made there.

Photo: Rob Lyon

AA: I've never been to the South Downs. Could you describe for me the landscape? And how would you describe its spirit?

RL: They’re a long stretch of hills from Winchester—once the capital city of England—to Eastbourne, on the south coast. Pilgrims would traverse them to Winchester. The gently undulating contours and white cliffs have afforded them iconic status in the British mindset. The western end tends to be wilder, with ancient yew groves, Iron Age forts, and, as legend would have it, Viking burial grounds. The eastern end gives way to stark, open chalk grassland (from centuries of sheep grazing). If there’s drama, it’s in the steep chalk escarpments and white cliff edges that plunge into the sea. They’re the setting for extensive folklore.
Since my childhood I’ve encountered spirits at numerous locations within the Downs. Each is unique. It is not a spirit in the ghostly tradition. I don’t see it, so much as experience it. It’s a spontaneous and heightened sensory reception and amalgam of the visual, the aural and the olfactory. The location and its spirit can be revisited. That defines the spirit - its permanence.

AA: Your work often seems to have its own vocabulary or lexicon. Between each painting you rearrange familiar motifs—a cloud-like mound, pointy trees reminiscent of witches hats or fields of dashes or dots—to create meaning.  I just started reading Robert MacFarlane's book, Landmarks, which has many beautiful moments and turns of phrases. One in particular made me think of your work: "Words act as compass; place-speech serves literally to en-chant the land—to sing it back into being, and to sing one’s being back into it.” To what degree does language figure into your work?

RL: Landmarks is wonderful and the quote from it apposite. It so beautifully distills the idea that, through language, especially our own language, in whatever form it takes, we may engender symbiosis between landscape and person. To shamelessly adapt the analogy, I paint the landscape back into being, and paint myself back into it.

I took Landmarks to be primarily concerned with the precision of regional vernacular for terms of landscape. The incredible diversity of language to match, for example, the many forms of wind. I think this may be where my motifs, having bubbled-up and undergone shaping over a number of years, divert. They’re a form of language personal to me but their meanings remain elusive and, perhaps, in flux. Without too much thought, they emerge in various permutations until the painting says to me what I need to hear. The forms and colours collectively form a  “compass”, pointing a way into or out of something, whether that be grief, joy, oblivion—you name it.

As an aside, the hill I referred to earlier is called Levin Down. ‘Levin’ is thought to derive from the Saxon for “leave-alone”, on the basis that it is too steep for agricultural use. As a result, it has been designated a site of special scientific interest due to the high density of rare flora and fauna able to flourish there. It’s looked-over by most walkers (drawn to the nearby Trundle, an iron-age hill fortress on top of the much higher St. Roche’s hill which overlooks Levin Down) and is therefore somewhere for one to be left alone, in every sense. It’s a magical place.

The late Gravenhurst (Nick Talbot) and Nick Cave possess a mystical ability to convey a thing of fragility in just a handful of words,without exhaustively describing it—they have spoken to you yet the magic remains intact. I think any good painting does this. It’s what I’m trying to achieve.

AA: I’m glad you mentioned music as an influence and I see that a sense of lyrical composition strongly drives your work. I was initially drawn to your paintings as I saw them fitting within a long-lineage of artists depicting an animistic landscape including Arthur Dove, Forrest Bess and Joseph Yoakum. I am curious what fellow artists inspire you.

RL: Some of the artists who stirred me to start painting were William Scott, Paul Nash, Prunella Clough and Milton Avery. I keep a close eye on contemporary artists, like Ann Craven, Thom Trojanowski and Rae Hicks. All share an intense, at times ecstatic, musicality. Beyond other painters, I learnt a lot about composition—rhythm, texture, effective counterpoint—through composing music, which I did a lot of in my 20s. It must inform my painting.