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What qualities give a place an irresistible aura; what makes a person connect to a particular location and yearn to go back? What is it that makes a site special: the memories, the weather, the landscape? The elements that make a place alluring are amorphous, and they vary from person to person—no exact formula can be tabulated to give that feeling of affective singularity. A person can become enraptured by a location, and remain so, if perhaps it was where they first saw the sea, where they had an especially meaningful interaction, or where the vast beauty and power of nature seemed incomprehensible.
Norman Ackroyd’s career and aesthetic sensibility have always been tied to places that have strong auras for him. Norman’s etchings and watercolours transfer to the audience what Norman calls the ‘deep understanding of place,’ a sense of being there, even when we as viewers know that we are staring at a deceptively deep two-dimensional etching. But in reality, etching is a three-dimensional medium that requires much physical effort and the use of acid to bite into metal. Norman’s approach to obtaining his source material is also laborious. By sketching in the middle of the sea on a boat or on a rocky shore with the whipping winds and splashing tides around him, he can transfer his own transcendent experience of a location’s aura to his paper. This allows viewers to experience a far-flung island, inlet, or body of water for themselves, and to bring a piece of it back to their home. Norman has learned to read these landscapes, hence the title of this show. Each piece in his new box set ‘Reading the Landscape,’ debuted in this exhibition, is accompanied by writing by Norman that helps to explain the special meaning that each place has for him—whether it is due to a particularly beautiful zig-zag path or a memory of a storm.
The first important place for Norman and his art was Leeds, his hometown, and the surrounding area. It appears in some of his earliest etchings and the Yorkshire countryside continues to hold purchase on his artistic focus. His love of the landscape of the region was fed by his long childhood bicycle rides in the Yorkshire Dales. In contrast, several of his newest prints, like Pool of London, focus on this great city, where he now lives and works. In these etchings, Norman shows London as a place that has an aura as striking and exciting as the crashing waves of The Isle of Skye or Blacksod Bay.
This exhibition places a particular focus on Blacksod Bay in County Mayo, Ireland. The coastline and islands in this region have called to Norman since the mid-1990s. He first became intrigued just from looking at maps, noticing the mountainous terrain of some of the islands around the bay, like Achill Island. Norman still owns his original travel map of the Galway and Mayo counties of Ireland: a yellowed and worn foldout with a bright green cover, emblazoned with a white shamrock.
Norman first visited the area in 2000. After landing on Inishkea North, Norman was able to spend only five hours sketching—time punctuated by the rages and lulls of lashing rain, bright sun, and the occasional rainbow. During these five hours, Norman filled two drawing books; these books resulted in a series of Blacksod Bay etchings, which is presented in this exhibition. Norman beautifully captures the fickle nature of the skies and seas in his etching with watercolour from 2000, Blacksod Rainbow.
This summer, Norman went back to create a new series of etchings based on the area. He was accompanied by a skilled local boatman, but yet again the weather was truculent—at one point a Force 7 wind plagued their ride to the elusive westerly Black Rock. And yet Norman managed to produce stunning works of art reflecting on this part of the world that has continually called to him. Several islands around Blacksod Bay are still a mystery to Norman, their secrets guarded by the fierce weather and difficult seas that made it impossible to land on their shores. But perhaps that mystery is one of the elements of this region that is so alluring to Norman.
Small mysteries aside, Norman has deftly translated the aura of Blacksod Bay—and of the other locations depicted in this exhibition—to paper. Norman praises the work of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas for conveying deep understanding of place by transmitting the smells and sounds of landscape and seascape from in between the lines of his texts. Norman is often inspired by this type of poetry, and we can see that he has accomplished a similar feat in his etchings: looking at his work, we are engulfed by the place portrayed, able to smell the water and hear what Norman terms ‘the orchestral scream of the gannets.’ In this exhibition, Norman has provided an uncommon opportunity to viewers to travel and experience new places without ever leaving London; through his images, we can understand why these sites keep Norman returning.
Christine Slobogin, August 2019