Nicholas Herbert Artist
About the 'Residual Trace Series'

Artist’s Statement – Pneuma, new paintings 2024


The way we assess, view and think about time, both in our relationship to the past, and at an individual and personal level through our own remembered experiences, has always been at the core of my work. I am fascinated by ancient history; by our need to discover, document and understand the deep past to uncover our human story; and in particular by the way in which archaeologists often have to extrapolate this from what fragmentary evidence might remain. What is left to us after decay and the passage of time have overwritten their own effects on something we later view, often incomplete, influences how we make judgements about the reality of the past. One way or another, my artworks have always been about fragments of lived experience recalled, shared memories remembered and the physical remains of the activity of painting itself, the final viewable surface.

Thinking about what is left must inevitably lead us to think about what has been lost, not just artefacts and buildings, but innumerable generations of humanity. Things are probably even more transient than we would like to think, and yet somehow something remains; bits of the story do survive over millennia to both capture our interest and perhaps also to confound us about our journey to the present. The fact that over time everything changes, some things are erased, eroded or buried, others crumble, decay or are wilfully destroyed, that impermanence is the norm and our species’ sense of indestructibility and on-going supremacy an illusion, means that the idea of the residual, both historical and personal, is more central to our emotional lives than we might at first think. I started the ‘Residual Trace’ project as a series of paintings in the mid-nineties to explore what these ideas meant to me personally and how they might inform, even direct, what I made. In late 2022, after ten years of solely concentrating on drawing the landscape, I made the decision to explore this subject matter through non-referential painting once again. Seeing one’s past work through the prism of elapsed time offers new insights and developmental perspectives, as well as new resolutions to old challenges. For me, at least, an emerging path into future work is laid out and potential revealed for deeper inquiry into those fundamental ideas that have always been important to me and continue to underpin my art practice.


Ultimately, a return to lyrical abstraction allows the viewer a greater degree of interpretative flexibility, and the paintings can convey more universal ideas that my previous landscape drawings perhaps cannot. Like those drawings, these recent paintings benefit from some degree of contemplation: colour emerges, the indistinct sharpens up, a space to think opens out. For me, when there is no evident figurative narrative, however, paintings are able to point beyond themselves to ideas that are more fundamental to our shared human experience, perhaps questioning our answers rather than answering our questions. The viewer has room to fashion their own more individualised narrative by the interpretation of what is visually available, not unlike the archaeologist, who, confronted only by what remains, must piece together a plausible historical hypothesis.


‘Pneuma’, the title of my current and ongoing corpus of work on paper within the Residual Trace series is also the title of this exhibition. The word pneuma in ancient Greek had a variety of meanings, some more literal such as ‘breath’ or ‘air in motion’ in the sense of something essential to life, and also some more philosophical such as ‘ghost’ or ‘the immortal soul’. For the Stoics, pneuma was also seen as a force that organises matter, thereby existing in inanimate objects. In the Christian New Testament, written in Koine Greek, pneuma appears 385 times and is usually rendered as ‘spirit’, but mostly it means specifically the ‘Holy Spirit’. The word usefully seems to encompass many possible spiritual interpretations and ideas, directional without being too didactic or constraining.


The artworks themselves are the product of a reductive and refining process of painting and iteration, the resolving visual language emerging out of a larger body of prior paintings in the overarching series. These paintings have become ever more pared back, delicate and ethereal, challenging the eye to look with real purpose. In particular, their colouration intensifies the longer these paintings are viewed. Colours that perhaps were not evident on initial inspection slowly become apparent, and eventually some evidence of visual vibration can materialise, as after-images subtly overlay the whole. To me they feel otherworldly, even quasi-religious, dealing with ideas of both the temporal and the eternal, of loss and yet of the hope of something more profound beyond the everyday.


The way the constituent elements are spatially set out in these paintings is deliberately grid-like, formal and repetitive, like a museum drawer full of artifacts that on first glance appear almost identical, yet on closer inspection each item is in fact quite different. It is these small, relative differences of perception that are important. And it is in the way that specific colours and their interactions slowly emerge more distinctly as the painting is viewed – revealing each similar yet clearly unique component – that animates the eye across the surface and draws the viewer into the painting’s internal rhythms, its perpetual state of visual metamorphosis, its soft flux. This particular property of ordered repetition is a counterpoint to the spiritual, alluding to systems and ontology, organisation and classification, to the world of science – the polar opposite of faith, the sacred or the numinous. Visual repetition and regularity might also remind us of some fundamental things that have uninterrupted continuity or periodicity, such as breathing, a pulse, cellular structures, the diurnal cycle, neural networks, fast radio bursts from a distant galaxy and so on. Viewers can of course construct their own list and therefore their own interpretative context.


On a more technical note, these artworks are all made with thin colour glazes of professional grade lightfast acrylic paint on acid-free, archival cartridge paper (these are not watercolours). Each colour is laid down individually after the previous layer has dried. There are then two overall finishing layers. The first is a thin coating of diluted transparent Davy’s Grey acrylic pigment that subtly modifies and unifies the colours and surface. The final layer is a thinned-out layer of micaceous iron oxide in a heavy body acrylic emulsion. This gives the work a subtle overall granularity and ‘etching-like’ quality, depending on the dilution. It also helps give the edge of the painting sharper definition.


This corpus is still evolving, albeit very slowly. Within the boundaries of Pneuma’s quite minimal visual language, as it is currently defined by these paintings, there are continuing possibilities for deeper examination of the sensory interplay between variations of colour, tonality, types of mark and their distribution. For me, Pneuma has a degree of resolution that, while not an endpoint, is certainly a sufficiently contained and meaningful poetic and emotive visual language to be fertile ground for future exploration, while still remaining firmly within its particular restraints and disciplines.


Nicholas Herbert
April 2024     |     All rights reserved ©2024