The artist David Rayson has done a whole series of paintings based primarily on his memories of the Ashmore Park housing estate in Wolverhampton on which he grew up in the 1970s and 1980s.
Rayson focuses on the bland exteriors and serial logic of houses as a way of revealing their collective life. His paintings convey the silence and emptiness of commuter estates in the daytime, with the lives of their residents implied only by surface appearances. The title of the exhibition that brought Rayson to wider public attention is ‘Somewhere else is here’. It is reminiscent of a line from Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘I remember, remember’, about his nondescript childhood in the featureless suburban streets of pre-war Coventry: ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere’. As this title suggests, Rayson’s work often explores the tension between the generic features of housing estates, and the unspoken ways in which they reveal the small traces of individual lives.
In his study of still-life painting, Looking at the Overlooked, Norman Bryson argues that historical art criticism has tended to divide painting into two spheres: a highly valued megalography (concerned with grand narratives, historical events and great figures) and a less esteemed rhopography (concerned with the unremarkable routines and objects of everyday life). Bryson suggests that rhopography [from the Latin rhopos, meaning trivial objects] has a tendency to turn into megalography. Rhopographic paintings often aim at a ‘re-education of vision’, a looking again at overlooked objects so as to make them seem unfamiliar and unique, which is actually a ‘re-assertion of painting’s own powers and ambitions’. But certain artists avoid this tendency by undermining the rules of visual composition, refusing to direct the viewer’s gaze towards particular elements in the picture at the expense of less ‘significant’ elements. The works of the eighteenth-century still-life painter, Jean-Siméon Chardin, for example, ‘cultivate a studied informality of attention, which looks at nothing in particular’. Chardin produces an overall, uncentred image which suggests that nothing needs to be ‘vigilantly watched’.
Rayson’s paintings work in a similarly inclusive way. The viewer is not sure which area of the painting to focus her gaze on, or how to divide the frame into accented foreground and unaccented background. In the exhibition catalogue, the preparatory drawings for these paintings have grid squares underlying them, suggesting a non-judgmental methodicalness which gives each element in the picture equal weight.
Rayson’s paintings are composites, drawn from his own childhood memories of Ashmore Park and speculations about what it might look like today. Ashmore Park is a former council estate which now reveals the unmistakable signs of owner-occupation: uPVC windows, a conservatory built on to a kitchen, a new car on a gravel drive, a satellite dish. Even smaller details suggest the lack of ownership of the public spaces that connect these private environments: stubbed-out cigarettes, crushed lager cans, crisp packets, cracked paving stones and graffiti tags. The studied ‘boredom’ of Rayson’s paintings allows them to hint at the human stories behind the blank surfaces of these newish houses.