LS: It is significant that this is the question I get asked most frequently. It suggests that our spatial perceptions might be vital to us as "individuals".
Yes, collectively we can measure and define the world by agreed mathematical codes - yes, we can interact with each other by utilising a variety of models or 're-presentations' of the world - but privately as individuals, we need more specific information. We want our very own customised "understanding" of space.
If my brain processed visual information like the camera, then my paintings of the manufactured box would be consistent in size - and nobody would have doubts about it.
But something very strange happens. The contents of the blue box alter my perception of its size and space.
I seem predisposed to inconsistency. I even test myself by trying to paint the same contents from the same viewpoint. Look below at what happened with - "Eggs Boxed" Feb '90 and "Eggs Again" Jul '91.
For me much of the excitement of painting is doing what I call the "eye-work" to discover that personal "understandable" space - because it always comes as a revelation to me - and I never find it by simply looking, or applying the so-called "rules of perspective", or by taking a photograph.
So I am not being obtuse when I answer - as big as the viewer's imagination - for that scale was never mine to define.
Are there things you would not put inside a Blue Box ?
LS: One of the aims of doing the Blue Box Series was to explore that question - to discover if my eye-brain was imposing "limitations" on what I considered putting in the box.
Is "imagination" fundmentally visual? Educationalists may like to know. Or is it a uniquely human activity because it developes as a result of our verbal capacities?
I soon noticed that once something had been painted in the blue box (a decision based entirely on my eye's interest) my "imagination" was eager to create a whole new category - with rules. My eye-brain then seemed keen to find a way to both apply and break the rules simultaneously.
I have placed many things in the blue box based on conceptual reasoning - but if my eyes were disinterested I did not make a painting. The following diary excerpt illustrates the procedure quite well:
16/4/00 16:23 pm I found the duck egg at the edge of the large oval pond in the Glan Y Mawddach garden. I waited patiently for another to appear, so that I could complete a Welsh version in the two eggs box series - but none did - the lone egg was probably a crow's thieved treasure. So I started what was to be the first One Egg Box; I was happy to be breaking a rule. The deep orange of the yolk was sufficient to demand a painting. But then, when I had completed the egg, the very next walk to the pond produced the gift of a dead goldfish whose colour and size fitted the 'space' of the 'missing' egg perfectly. Intellectually I liked the single egg, but my eye-brain revelled in the new vision: "Egg and Fish, Please" - painted in late afternoon light between 17-20hr.
When did you paint the first Blue Box ?
LS: It was painted at Glen Etive, Scotland, in the summer of 1988. It all began by taking the lid off and asking myself a simple question: "What am I seeing?"
My verbal brain supplied a category; mushrooms and separate words; russula, lactarius, boletus. To my eyes it was a jumble of rich colour contained within a rectilinear box. What puzzled me when I looked on the finished painting was that the edges of the box were not where I expected them to be. The box did not follow the rules of perspective. I must have done something "wrong": something that could not happen with a camera lens.
Still, the result transfixed me. My verbal brain couldn't explain. So I asked myself another question: "Is it possible that my eye-brain did something that my verbal-brain will never understand?"
When I look at it today a fully integrated reconstruction of time and place and self forms in my mind. I had forgotten that the Highland river made that incessant motor sound because of the pebbles churning along its bed.
Why do you paint Blue Boxes ?
LS: I started the Blue Box Series as a pseudo-scientist. As an artist you assume an audience which will be pleased or challenged or stimulated by your output - or not. I wanted my silent inner eye to operate unhindered by social motives. I wanted to look; to do "eye-work".
I knew that as I human I could not do this in isolation. No matter what mark I made, my verbal brain would start theorising. The next best thing was to confuse my verbal brain with tautology. A box is simple and distinct and yet full of potential. It contains and excludes. It can be full or empty. It doesn't roll away. It stays in its place and yet is perfect for transportation. It is a basic building block of human development - so essential that we give it to babies. It is the logic of human language made real.
But verbal logic moulds its own version of reality. I = not you. Then = not now. This binary logic led all the way to computing and its menu-mentality. Is/isn't. In/out. Alive/dead. Any verbalisation which does not adhere to on/off logic is poetry.
The common assumption is that the visual brain is unstructured and free of this rigidity. Based on my experience in advertising, I had doubts. The Blue Box Series was my attempt to explore the ground rules of my own visual thinking.
What is your attitude to the "contents" of the Blue Boxes ?
LS: This is a good question for highlighting a very human dilemma: the spokesperson for my 'attitude', or hypothetically integrated viewpoint, is my verbal brain - which I feel is, paradoxically, just another "onlooker" - admittedly closer to the events, but still guessing, and moreover, still limited by the logic of its own syntax.
I can state that the contents always have some direct relationship to my life. I don't say, 'Hey I'd like to paint a Greater Black-backed Gull - where can I buy one? ' The contents are therefore the trivia of my daily life. And my reality is as commonplace as any other.
Sometimes everyday items hold strong emotions that are specific to me. Often I paint them knowing the dichotomy between the publically perceived icon, symbol, or totem and the specific occurrence in my private life. The painting "Dad's Onions" Nov '89 is an example of this.
My father planted and nurtured the onions and garlic, and died. He left the job of harvesting and consuming the crop to me. On top is the packaged supermarket equivalent. My "attitude" is more in the seeing than in the saying.
Do you paint from photographs to achieve the hyper-realism ?
LS: No I don't use a camera. I am interested in how my brain deals with what I see. I think the following piece, which I wrote for a gallery in 2000, explains my thinking on photography and realism.
"3 x 2 = pink + blue" is a "Confusion" of three individual Blue Box paintings. In the centre lies "Take's Two" painted in Hamburg in June 1990. Above is "Two More Fish" painted two years later, again in Germany. Below is "Fish Fingers" painted in Scotland in December 1990.
The "Confusion" misconstrues the size of each painting, and fuses their two-year time span into a single event. That three separate paintings could readily share the same frame suggested the presence of a resonance beyond that of the conscious leitmotif. The human eye is predisposed to seek out similarity. The brain hypothesises some ideological significance. Only when non-visual experience proclaims a difference, [a red berry that poisons rather than nourishes], does the thinking eye look longer and harder and "learns" the precise visual divergence. The eye will thereafter make a refined search. To explore this process I deliberately suppressed each individual painting's colours. Next I emphasised colours they shared in equal part. What my eye found in the "Confusion" was the delicate balance of new pinks and new blues. My verbal brain, always in need of significance, eventually remembered that the first painting of this enforced union ["Two Fish Boxed" 1988] was a very simple equilibrium in pink and blue. Visual knowledge, once gained, can be forgotten but not unknown.
The aim of any Blue Box is to get me (and, if willing, the viewer) to see and think, and then to see again and think again - for perception is not finite. At no point can we ever say, "Look no further. Here is reality." Photography gave the 20th century the illusion of visual certainty. The camera lens apparently captured the scientifically real "reality". When we saw something different, it was our human eyes that were "mistaken". But working as an art director, I realised that the camera was too easily tricked. Many "real" visual elements are invisible to the camera; for example, the moment before and the moment after... which our mind's eye can never "unsee".
For example, by the time I painted the printed paper fish "Two More Fish" my eyes knew that fish which look equally "real" might be edible like "Fish Fingers" or inedible plastic replicas like "Take's Two". My now educated eye knew a precise difference to look out for - the body cavity gradually deflating. When the crumpled paper gradually deflated... my brain used all its visual knowledge to understand the reality of the moment - so that of those two indistinguishable motifs - one fish escaped its logic and swam away - the other had its soggy reality chewed.
As viewer you will bring your own experience to this "Confusion". You will have your own understanding of pink and blue and fish and box.... which you will mix with my cold-blooded biblical and sexual inferences to create some private certainty. What will remain in doubt is the "real" size of the Blue Box. I cannot assist you with your perception of that space.
Why are there so many dead birds ?
LS:There are about 9,703 species of birds in the world. There will be between 100,000,000,000 and 200,000,000,000 adult birds on the planet at any one time (presently that is 15 to 31 for every human) - but when I put a deceased one in a Blue Box it seems to create a disproportionate flutter in the human psyche.
For me the interesting question is not why I paint the dead birds that drop into my life [it is a chance for my eyes to observe specifics of color, shape and size that have teased fleetingly from afar] but why do they nest so in other people's minds? Nobody accuses me of painting dead flowers - though I do.
In fact many of the birds I paint aren't dead at all - they are inert artefacts produced by some humans and collected by others. It is these behaviours that I find strange.
If Jung, not Freud, was right and birds are the best symbol our minds can provide for an invisible entity called a soul - this hypersensitivity towards dead birds may be a spiritual issue.
[Freud saw birds as phallic symbols and small boxes as female genitalia. I note that breeding birds take up the offer of a readymade bird box with tolerance for both human ideology and orthogonality.]
In folklore birds were often harbingers of death, yet we associate flying with ultimate freedom. [Rainer Maria Rilke - The Spirit wants only that there be flying.]
Our mythology invites us to imagine souls flying around hither and thither. However we could equally associate bird flight with acquiring and developing spatial skills. And - here is my point - we could choose to correlate souls and spiritual aspirations with spatial dimension.
My theory is that our vision always encodes the truth - but that ever since we took up with verbal language we increasingly misread the message. Painting temporarily reverses the process.
So instead of souls floating around heaven randomly, I can have in my mind's eye the perfect V of migrating geese.
Instead of souls being layabouts whose only activity is the odd bout of "overseeing" - I can envision energetic and ingenious entities that can adapt their spatial skills to whatever is available: weaving straw or spitting mud into wondrous multidimensional designs.
And I can see this great spiritual diversity repeating the simple perfection of an egg by the dozen.
These visions are total flights of fancy. But they illustrate the point that when I paint a dead bird, I am observing a life-form that has evolved behaviours that we humans claim as evidence of advanced intelligence - solving complex puzzles, performing rituals, singing, dancing, constructing, sculpting, even talking - all from a brain the size of a walnut.
I paint birds to be free to engage in what is nowadays termed blue-sky thinking. What if I need wings ? What if they have better image-handling ?
Do you have a favorite Blue Box ?
LS: Several. One that I delight in is "Bunny Buns" from March 2000.
I enjoy slipping from reality to abstraction - sliding from visual to verbal mode - and onwards. I like confusion and clarity to fight for possession of my perception. It's that space which nourishes me. I read a lot about extra dimensions and hyperspace, and when I look at this painting I sometimes think I can glimpse it.