The capture of transition: YCBA showcases works by contemporary British artist Rebecca Salter

By David A. Brensilver

Each year, visual artist Rebecca Salter spends a week in the Lake District of northwestern England, a locale that boasts beautiful landscapes and “has the most atrocious weather.” Salter goes there to draw, filling one sketchbook during the course of an annual visit. When she returns to her London home and studio, Salter puts the sketchbook she’s just filled away, never to look to those drawings as foundations for new works.

“It’s just a huge injection of nourishment,” Salter said of her yearly trip to the Lake District in a recent telephone interview, “and then you live on it.”

Gillian Forrester, the Yale Center for British Art’s curator of prints and drawings, said, “That week she spends away every year, I think, is very critical to her practice.”

There is a transitory nature to Salter’s work. In the 1980s, she made a series of drawings on Japanese paper. “After making the drawings, Salter cut them up and reorganized the pieces, mounting them on a backing sheet, a working method which she was to sustain for a decade,” Forrester wrote in an essay titled From Without to Within: Rebecca Salter’s ‘Erlebniskunst.’

Rebecca Salter, Untitled A57, 1982, mixed media on Japanese paper. Image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

The Center is currently showing an exhibition called into the light of things: Rebecca Salter, works 1981-2010, which is on view through May 1.

Forrester first met Salter in the fall of 2003, when Salter spent a three-month residency at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut. The current exhibition of Salter’s works at the Center came into being gradually. In 2005, Forrester was teaching in London through the Yale-in-London program, which is run by that city’s Paul Mellon Centre.

Salter was born in Sussex, England in 1955, graduated from Bristol Polytechnic in 1977, and then traveled to Japan to study at the Kyoto City University of Arts.

While she intended to spend a year in Japan, Salter ended up staying six years, a period that could be viewed as the most formative of her artistic development.

“By going to Japan, it almost felt as if I’d gone to the future,” Salter said, referring to the fact that her country “was in a terrible state” in the late 1970s.

Initially trained in ceramics, Salter has turned her attention from one medium to another over the years, though certain elements are staples of all her work – particularly “an engagement with surface.”

She refers to her focus and later abandonment of different media as a “sort of serial monogamy.” While today she considers herself a painter, Salter said the “most important thing is drawing.”

Each year, in the Lake District, Salter does just that, although drawing the landscape is made all-but impossible by the “atrocious weather.” Instead, she captures “the movement across and within it.”

Just as the time she spent in Japan was “hugely influential” on her work, the three-month period Salter spent in Bethany was a “huge turning point in my career,” she said.

Her first reaction upon arriving in Bethany in October 2003, she admitted, was to ask herself: What on Earth am I going to do in the forest for three months?

“What it did for me,” she found, “what was really empowering, was that you could live, 24 hours a day, alone in a forest.”

She described the experience as being “almost religious in its solitude.”

Salter did take advantage of New Haven’s cultural offerings while she was in Bethany – especially the Yale museums. She’ll return to the Albers Foundation at the end of February and stay until the beginning of April. At press time, Salter was scheduled to arrive in New Haven in late January for the opening of into the light of things, which encompasses some 150 works created in various media throughout her career. Her time in New Haven was to also include participation in a collaborative educational program.

Cyra Levenson, the Yale Center for British Art’s associate curator of education, said that Salter would be working with students from New Haven’s Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School to produce part of a drawing installation, called SCRAWL, at Artspace, along with a stop-motion film of that drawing taking shape.

“Rebecca’s really interested in drawings that move,” Levenson said, making reference to the sketches the artist makes during her annual visit to the Lake District.

Just as Salter’s work has evolved over time, informed and inspired as much by place as anything else, into the light of things evolved as it was planned.

Forrester was originally thinking of an exhibition that would focus on Salter’s most recent work before deciding that a “survey” would be more appropriate, given the “interesting trajectory” that could be brought forth.

“She’s constantly building, really, on this body of work,” Forrester said, with “definite phases, as well.”

into the light of things: Rebecca Salter, works 1981-2010, is on view through May 1 at the Yale Center for British Art. Visit ycba.yale.edu for more information.

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