The British painter Arthur Lanyon was born into a family of artists. His father was the painter Matthew Lanyon, while his grandfather was the renowned modernist artist Peter Lanyon. “There was a lot of art everywhere, so it came naturally, I didn’t really think about it,” he says. He recalls one specific memory that illustrates his childhood. “I remember when I was little, my father came in one day and said: ‘I’ve got something I need to draw today,’ and he put a big bucket full of snails in the middle of the table, and they crawled out around the edge,” he says. “It was quite exciting as a little kid, to get involved in all that.”
Lanyon, 37, spent his first two years in Leicester before the family relocated to Cornwall, where he still lives in a house built by his parents near Penzance. His paintings often combine figurative motifs with an emotive, gestural abstraction.
He remembers a moment while studying at Cardiff University, where he graduated with a degree in fine art in 2008. “The tutor asked me: ‘What do you want to paint?’ And I just said: ‘Well, I want to paint everything,’” he says. “I use abstraction to squash a lot of things in, and I’m becoming more and more interested in picking those things out with drawing.”
Among his influences, Lanyon cites the abstract expressionism of the 50s and 60s, alongside artists such as Robert Rauschenberg. “He existed in a similar time, but he was doing something very different with imagery. You could see what it was, and there were various reasons behind that, and that was very interesting.” Lanyon adds: “I usually get caught up on the painters that do have this abstract feel. It’s paint that is not hiding from what it naturally does: it does get a bit scruffy, it’s hard to control, it speaks for itself in certain ways.”
Lanyon’s latest solo exhibition, Coda for an Obol, comes to St Ives’s Anima Mundi gallery this month, presenting an existential examination of purpose, legacy and heritage, at times incorporating themes from classical mythology. The exhibition comprises more than 30 artworks – his last three years of his work. It sees the artist taking stock of major life events – his father dele died in 2016 and his first son was born three years ago – traversing its meaning and his motivations. “I’m in a place where I think about those two polar opposites quite a lot. That was something to ruminate on over the course of three years.”
The title of the exhibition was in part inspired by Wikipedia entry Lanyon read at the time, on the coda of James Merrill’s poem Lost in Translation, which he says the power of our imaginations to uncover meaning in the world from what we see and remember. The “obol” is a reference to the ancient Greek and Roman custom of placing a coin in the mouth of a dead person to pay the ferryman Charon for their passage into the underworld.
“There was this idea of doing one last drawing,” he says. “That comes from this sudden urgency with my father, because he knew he was dying.”
Neon myths: Arthur Lanyon on his new work
“Pz is short for Penzance, my home town. There is a figure and there is a face, but there are these unmistakable oval voids. They’re not vacuums, they’re just like a space through which you can feel the opposite. It’s called a plenum, where the rest of the space is full of matter. But, in this sense, it’s kind of lost its soul – like the town has lost its soul.”
House Almería (main picture)
“I use a lot of my childhood drawings, and one of them was the Indalo – the ghost that could hold and carry a rainbow in his hands. It’s a symbol of Almeria in Spain and a lucky charm. I must have copied it from somewhere as a child not knowing the significance. Embarrassingly, I recopied it into this painting, 30 years later, still not knowing its significance. You can see it on the bottom left.”
“This was no easy painting to make. It started off very open and free, and I encouraged anyone who came over to make their mark. My son stole the show with his two-year-old scribbles. From that sort of harmony, that collaborative starting point, I built up in layers and things got entrenched … The painting got the full treatment, with razor blades, orbit sanders and full body washes, turpentine and glazed with different color paints.”
“I love a good shot of neon orange – not that I can’t get enough of it, because you have to use it very sparingly. But you can really punctuate things, especially in a painting that’s got a lot of neutral tones or contrast: black and white, or greys. Orange or a fine red line on gray has an optical effect that just buzzes.”
“If I could just draw your attention to the center left, there are two little figurines … these are like recurring motifs. I’ve got them in three other paintings in the show. This figurine on the left is actually from an oceanic mythology book, a Melanesia mythology book, and it’s about the story of the crocodile men and the making of this character called Nugu. They carved him out of wood, and brought him to life by painting his face dele with sago milk. I also found that ‘nugu’ is actually the Korean word for ‘who’ and ‘Nugu group’ is an unknown pop group who haven’t had their first show yet!”
Arthur Lanyon: Coda for an Obol is at Anima Mundi, St Ives, until 29 August.