Conversations while colouring in a mushroom cloud is not something you’d usually find yourself discussing, but artist Marcus Lanyon is describing a colouring-in workshop that’s part of his Age of Panic exhibition at the White Moose Gallery, Barnstaple.
“There’s a sense that colouring in sounds a little basic – people can be a bit judgemental about it,” says Marcus. “Which was part and parcel of why I got interested in the format and started this whole project.”
Marcus is using the approach to inspire, stimulate and engage in a number of workshops directly working with the images on a large scale from The Post Apocalyptic Colouring Book itself.
Marcus calls his colouring book ‘mindfulness for misanthropes’, but it is more than that – first provoking and then calming the ‘disquiet’ that his work inspires. In its own way, The Post Apocalyptic Colouring Book is a call to action in a body of work that seduces you with its gloom-laden narrative, beguiles you with its haunting, delicate beauty and draws you in with its gnawing familiarity.
We’re talking on the morning after the first of these workshops, the participants of which were arts graduates from across the EU on an exchange to Petroc College in Barnstaple as part of the Erasmus scheme.
“It’s really interesting to see how people interact with these images,” says Marcus, who sets rules and criteria throughout the workshop process.
“What I noticed from the get-go was the act of colouring is a way of making a person consider quite deeply the image they’re working on, because as any artist knows, as you get into that state of flow and you’re working, you are completely and utterly absorbed in that image.
“You begin to almost meditate on that image. It’s more of a productive meditation – the connotations of that image are very present, you can’t get away from it. But throughout that process, you’re introducing your own decisions, you’re going down certain paths, you’re working in a certain way. Mark-making is so individual, and you end up interacting with it.
“Because everyone is working alongside each other, conversation flows. You get standard everyday chat, but then you’re colouring in a mushroom cloud or you’re colouring in a bombed-out ruin of a city, so inevitably the conversation hovers around that area.
“It’s an interesting way of generating quite targeted discussion.”
These discussions are key themes to Marcus’s work, which picks at the tensions between a perception of how things used to be and the potential future of our world and our place in it.
“At the moment, I’m very focused on a cultural obsession with change, whether it’s desired or forced upon us, and on the states of anxiety, of panic, of fear, whether it’s real or imagined, about a cataclysmic event,” says Marcus.
“I’m interested in something that can connect and is universal with people, but tries to tweak and generate discussion around the question ‘does it have to be like this?’
“Something else I’ve become really interested in lately is the amount of time, effort, energy and agency that people have given to fretting about collapse, and investing more time and energy in that as a potential outcome rather than doing something active to try to prevent that very collapse. You could encapsulate that as buying a gun in a bunker rather than buying some land and trying to preserve it.”
It’s that tension, that almost nihilistic resignation, versus optimistic pragmatism that Marcus captures. It doesn’t even need to be optimistic, he says.
“You can effect a considerable amount of change through very small actions and you have that sense of disempowerment which is manifest in so much now, across the world.”
The work is intent on getting people to reflect and perhaps ask themselves ‘what can I do?’
“I’m not going to give people answers,” says Marcus, “but I feel it’s part of my job to ask questions.”
The domestic and international political world stage seems ripe for mining that vein at the moment with statements and actions seeming increasingly erratic.
“You could comfortably argue we are now in a totally post-satirical age, but then there’s another argument which is that we need satire more than ever.
“A lot of my values and everything that I assumed was on an upward trajectory has now been completely shifted. Everything is upended – it’s very much an age of panic.
“My work does occasionally have that jab of the darkest humour. That is intentional. But it’s a very, very bitter pill because you can use that hook, that route to very, very deeply communicate with people.”
That communication takes many forms: for The Age of Panic exhibition Marcus has been commissioned to produce a series of sculptures alongside his pictorial work.
“The decision to work across mediums has always been part of my work. I trained in a variety of them because I didn’t particularly want to be limited or tied down to them and you can deploy materials to communicate in a certain way,” says Marcus.
The combination of material history and the way people engage differently with different forms is part of his approach to multi-media work.
“The ideas connect across the mediums – sometimes it’s as simple as bringing to 3D an image I’ve made in 2D because as an artist it excites me to do that and it’s a different human reaction when you’re engaging with objects of art.
“I’m also using 3D print for the first time in this show, so there will be an exploration of that alongside these bronze sculptures.
“I also like to have that tension between history and where we are now. Using what you might call classical, historically rich mediums – painting on canvas, ink on paper, casting in bronze – and toying with that history is also part of the work.”
As well as the workshops, the wider world of the exhibition also features Marcus talking about the creative industry and the career of an artist. Does he feel optimistic?
“I feel really optimistic,” says Marcus. “It’s such an exciting time to be an artist now. And more than ever I think we need people who are proud of their creativity and are willing and brave enough to put it out there.
“An important aspect about being an artist and being creative is that you have to embrace vulnerability, and that’s slightly at odds with some of the resurgent thinking we’re facing at the moment.
“The power of art to connect and to facilitate communication, to allow people to work though issues, and most of all to help build community. All of these things are absolutely vital.”
And his advice: “Put time and effort into working out what your voice is, and what it is you want to say and how you’re going to say it. The hardest part of the journey is working that out. Once you’ve worked it out, then you can blaze forward with it.
“Don’t rush. If you’re savvy and you’re consistent you can get your work out there and you can generate an audience. You can be creative about ways of generating an income. You can use things like Instagram and Patreon, if you get outside that idea of being a lonely, reclusive, difficult artist that has to be managed or looked after by a gallery. In this way, they will then find and come to you. Go out there, form your own story.
“Make your own network. Brian Eno coined the term ‘scenius’, playing on the idea of genius. His idea is that real genius is dependent on a network and a scene of people working together.
“Life’s too short to not be strident,” says Marcus.
“It takes time. And quite often the message you are communicating will take some serious knocks and it might get realigned and reformed. That’s all part of the process, you learn and you adapt. It’s tough, but it goes into the work.”
The work in Age of Panic is beautifully delicate, bold, haunting – there’s that sense of Bambi after the fire.
“It’s that constant balance between tragedy and beauty and violence and vulnerability and loss and potential,” says Marcus.
“On a surface level, people look at my work and think it’s very bleak, but it’s not. They also assume I have a very bleak outlook for the future of humanity – I don’t at all, I have a lot of faith in us as a species and our potential.”
‘Age of Panic” will run from 21 April -10 June 2017 at theWhite Moose Gallery, Moose Hall. Trinity Street. Barnstaple, Devon, EX32 8HX.
During the exhibition, the gallery will be open to the public, Tuesday–Friday 11am-5pm and Saturday 11am-2pm. Monday’s are by appointment only. Entry is free of charge.