The Power of the Motif

Finding direction in the unconscious

by Mike Cain

For many years now, when I have drawn but not from observation, the result has almost always been what I would describe as a single upright motif. I'm not sure why this happens. I seem to do it unconsciously.

I realised it had happened again during a project I've just finished, which involved working on some photo collages. For an artist like myself, who believes it is essential to keep experimenting and trying new approaches, it perhaps seems odd that I am prepared to keep using the same motif or stating point. But I've come to realise its not where you start, but where you end up, that is important.

Putting the finishing touches to 'Upright form in landscape' part 3.

Putting the finishing touches to 'Upright form in landscape' part 3.

The idea of a motif in art, either as a complete image, part of a bigger work or a starting point, goes back thousands of years. For example what's often called 'The Master of Animals' is an image that is common from ancient Egypt through to the Anglo Saxons and Vikings. Obviously the style and exact content  changes depending on the culture it comes from, but the basic idea of a figure controlling two opposing animals remains the same. Perhaps these images are a visual representation of power, who knows.

Lots of artists use motifs, sometimes directly, sometimes just as a beginning. Some months ago I saw a painting by the German born artist Paul Feiler (1918 - 2013). He was part of the post-war generation of artists working around St. Ives. His great friend was Peter Lanyon. I've always thought both artists are much under-rated.

The Paul Feiler painting was called 'Inclined Oval Brown'. Its in the Tate Gallery, London and you can find it by searching online.  Its a square painting with a central circular motif. This motif contains within it smaller forms and shapes, some of which progress to the edge of the picture. Although Paul Feiler is part of the St. Ives school, his work also has links to the American abstract artists like Mark Rothko, who visited Lanyon and Feiler in Cornwall in 1958.

But while Rothko and many of the American abstract artists pursued the abstract for abstraction's sake, Feiler took some of his inspiration from the structure of natural forms and from the land, sea and light in the South West of England. 'Inclined Oval Brown' is one of a series of similar works Feiler made, which appears to include or start from a circular motif.

Looking at that painting was a kind of starting point for me, and came shortly after I'd returned to working in ceramics. Many of my pieces were based around square plates and dishes which included various standing motifs - like the one below. 

Ceramic dish with Upright motif - Mike Cain 2017

Ceramic dish with Upright motif - Mike Cain 2017

As I mentioned at the beginning I've recently been working on a number of collages based on my own photographs. The interesting thing was that that when I started constructing my first piece, I again found myself subconsciously drawn to the 'upright' form'.

I produced a second and a third piece, but it was only when I saw all three together for the first time that I realised how strongly linked they were, and that they were actually a single piece in three parts - a triptych.

Also while I was making the pieces it became important to me that the work should show the 'marks of their own making'. 

I've called this work 'Upright form in Landscape'. For me this has been exciting because while I have used the upright form as a starting point, by using a different medium and process I have forced myself to engage with a new creative direction.

Many artists use motif in different ways. I am happy to continue working with variants of this upright motif, as long as I can continue to bring something new to the table.