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Steve Thorpe: Rock Works article I

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If travelling by car, train or plane shrinks the world, traversing the landscape on foot re-expands it. Steve Thorpe walks – and gathers rocks along the way. He records the landscape not with sketches or photographs but by collecting pieces of it small enough to fit in his pocket or rucksack. Back in the studio he grinds them to a fine powder, just as artists have done for centuries to make their paints. But instead of lapis lazuli or cinnabar, he’s working with sandstone from Budleigh Salterton or mudstone from the River Plym. The process reveals the startlingly diverse and vibrant hues inside ordinary weathered rocks.

Having fast-forwarded the slow, natural process of erosion by wind or water, he patiently coaxes the particles into grids on paper, reasserting order through the application of geometry. But unlike commercial pigments, rock dust is unruly. It absorbs the glue unpredictably; it drifts, clots and smudges. This isn’t colour applied to create an image, an illusion, but the real messy stuff of the world.

The rocks embody geological history, but Thorpe’s use of them also evokes human history – ancient practices such as sand painting or the use of tally sticks. A day’s walk might be measured out in different pigments, a rectangle marking each stage of the journey. The sequenced colours can also look like the legend in an atlas – brown means mountain, yellow means higher mountain. Except this isn’t an allusion to the land on paper; these vivid, velvety squares are the land on paper.

They function both as a direct classification of the variety of the world and as mementoes with personal narratives. Often places with some resonant geographic connection will be sampled – two river mouths or opposing coasts – but sometimes it is simply a case of 'I was here and then I was here'. So for all the paraphernalia of fieldwork – the maps, the texts, the timings, the mileage – these are fundamentally personal journeys, more akin to reflective pilgrimages than geological studies.

Through mere juxtapositions of dust, these works condense time and space. Three days and many miles of walking might be summoned in a few inches of pigment and text. Equally, they are a reminder that, out in the landscape, millions of years of geological time can be crossed with a single step. To look at these works is to zoom in and out over time and space at dizzying speed.

As with walking itself, the process of grinding and gridding is repetitive, meditative, sometimes laboured. It creates work which invites contemplation, not just on the land as it is today but the land as it was and as it will be in millions of years, when it has eroded and reformed itself – with our bones ground up in all its colours.

Gabrielle Hoad
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