Driving back from dropping my son at nursery this morning I saw this rather splendid haystack next to the road. (It’s actually a strawstack but I’ve never heard one called that…) Remembering this storyfrom a few years ago about a farmer who built a house behind a haystack hoping to conceal it from the planners, I had to go and see what was behind it but disappointingly, there was just a stubbly wheat field. It is rather beautiful though:
I was initially drawn to the haystack because it is a big, artificial shape in the landscape and it was glowing a rich honey colour in the morning sun. As I got closer its rectangular form became less dominant and I became more aware of the grid and the finer pattern of the strings binding the bales. Nearer still and I noticed the irregularity of the gaps between adjacent bales and how the lines where one bale meets the next are indistinct. Up close I ceased to see the grid lines at all and the random texture of the straw becomes dominant.
This quality of revealing new interest at different scales is an important quality in the built environment. One of the criticisms often levelled at some modern materials like concrete blockwork or render is that they lack the character of traditional ‘natural’ materials like timber or stone. The blue lias stone wall below has a similar quality to the haystack in that your perception of it gains depth as you look more closely. There is a primary order of the stones set in mortar joints but the joints themselves vary in width and over time the distinction of stone and joint blurs as the wall weathers. The stones themselves have their individual colours and relief and as you get closer you see their particularities.
When you look closely you see the characteristics of the materials, their structure, how they are held together and how they are affected by exposure to the elements. The information you are given helps you understand better why the thing as a whole is like it is. Making the relationship between material, structure and nature legible adds to its enjoyment and there is a sense of satisfaction that it seems to be working as it should.
Similar characteristics can be seen in the work of one of my favourite artists, Sean Scully. He creates fields of colour using quite strict compositions of stripes or rectangles that are intended to make a direct emotional connection with the viewer. They work primarily through scale and their use of colour but if they were just hard-edged compositions , as many of his early works were, they would be less engaging. Scully initially used adhesive tape to give his stripes crisp edges but then started painting the edges free-hand, a decision he describes as the most important development in his work.
Below is a one of his Wall of Light paintings from 2009. I have enlarged a detail where you can see the joints. As with the haystack the painting reveals a whole different layer of interest at the smaller scale with its own structure of brushstrokes and nuances of colour. The imprecision is very different to the order you perceive when viewing the painting as a whole. You notice the red background burning away in the cracks between the surface planes, without which the painting would be much less vibrant and passionate. The detail enriches the composition and makes a more satisfying experience.