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Archaeology & Art: Nesscliffe Hillfort Artists in Residence
18 Jul 2023

Artists are working hand in hand with archaeologists at Nesscliffe Hillfort to capture the interaction between humans and the landscape through time. Katy Rink spoke to Simon Callery and Stefan Gant about their creations. 

Simon Callery

You’ll find work by Simon Callery in Tate Britain, the British Museum and in the collection of Arts Council England. He was one of the Young British Artists exhibiting at the Saatchi Gallery in the 1990s but lately has been redefining the boundaries of British landscape painting, working alongside archaeologists to capture the visceral and temporal qualities of excavation sites. 

Recently, he’s been creating ‘contact paintings’ alongside teams from Southampton and Oxford universities as artist in residence, as they explore Shropshire’s Nesscliffe Hillfort - a mysterious and beautiful site just outside Shrewsbury. 

“Archaeological sites are like sculptural environments,” Simon says, “once you are aware of the beauty of the excavated surfaces, the range of colour and the variety of form. The excavation process provides an incredible opportunity to think about the landscape in new ways. I am trying to make paintings that focus on the material qualities of this place rather than its appearance.”

Simon Callery at work at Nesscliffe

Simon works with giant canvases drenched in distemper (rabbit skin glue and iron-based pigments that reflect the dark orange colour of the Nesscliffe sandstone). These are thrown down onto the trenches, once the archaeologists have finished their work, and are marked, cut and punctured registering the features underneath. The canvases are stitched together later in the studio to form large scale paintings with interior spaces and voids. 

“What I’m trying to do is to make paintings under the same conditions as the diggers and to work with the qualities of the site and with the colour of the stone in the rampart, the excavated soils and the subsoils,” Simon explains.

“My paintings aren’t pictures of the landscape. The canvas is worked in physical contact with the site. These are places where time and material connect so strongly it suggests new functions for painting and provokes questions about our place in the landscape over time”.

Simon Callery standing by his canvas at Nesscliffe

Simon Callery's finished canvas on display

Simon’s finished paintings are experiential, for the attention of the body as much as for the eye, and they are emphatically physical. They are of the landscape and their materiality is the basis of our aesthetic experience - whether we realise it or not. Through his interactions with archaeology and landscape, Simon is recasting an understanding of landscape based ‘painting'. - paint is deployed, certainly, but his work supersedes traditional representations of landscapes and invites us rather to consider the story of who we are and where we have come from. 

“When the paintings are finished, then it is for the viewer to connect with what I’m trying to do,” Simon adds. “They are rough, but this aesthetic is a direct consequence of working outside. Once completed, I would like to show all these works together in Shropshire within the context of its landscape and its history.

Simon currently has a solo exhibition at the Centro de Arte, Caja de Burgos in Spain which brings together paintings made in response to archaeological excavations at Moel y Gaer, Bodfari in North Wales from 2013-2018 and also includes two from the excavations at Nesscliffe Hill from 2019 - 2022. (Until Sept 24th, 2023). See more examples of his work at @simon.callery

Stefan Gant

Artist Stefan Gant at the Nesscliffe site

Stefan Gant is a fellow artist in residence at the Nesscliffe excavation, in collaboration with The School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford. He has been working with artist, Simon Callery and archaeologist, Professor Gary Lock for 10 years and was also artist in residence at an archaeological excavation site in Bodfari, north Wales.

A senior lecturer in Drawing and Digital Practice at the University of Northampton, Stefan creates contemporary drawings that re-map human interactions with the landscape over time. 

Whilst on site this summer, Stefan was notified that his new work, Phygital Re-Mapping (2023), developed at Nesscliffe, has been selected for the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize. The international prize for drawing is selected by a distinguished panel including: Laura Hoptman, Executive Director of The Drawing Center, New York; Dennis Scholl AM, Collector, Arts Patron and President & CEO of Oolite Arts, Miami; Barbara Walker MBE RA, British artist and Turner Prize Nominee, 2023.

This is the fourth time the artist has been a finalist for this prestigious contemporary drawing prize (2007, 2010, 2012 and 2023).

Stefan in the field

Stefan Gant drawing

The artist describes his process: “I begin by making drawings exploring trowelling processes and collecting found marks from the site which are later integrated with 3D scans of the trenches back in my studio. The resulting work explores and reveal complex layers of human enquiry with present and past landscapes, re-mapping our tacit experiences with the land.” 

An associated work, Phygital Palimpsest from a former excavation in Bodfari, north Wales (2013-2018) gained international acclaim by becoming a prize winner at the Lumen Prize 2019, the international award for art and technology, selected by Tate Gallery and Serpentine Gallery amongst others.

Stefan's artwork Phygital Conglomerate 2023 showing detail

Detail from 'Phygital Conglomerate 2023' by Stefan Gant

The artist's distinct hybrid digital and drawing process result in large format digital C-Type prints. Whilst at Nesscliffe, Stefan has developed this process to extend to digital laser drawings on paper.

Stefan explains, “These are contemporary drawings, both artwork and art/archaeology with the paper acting as a membrane and storage space for historical traces, narrating markings in, on and through it. It’s a kind of contemporary Bayeux tapestry, presenting collective human surface interferences over time.”

Stefan and Simon are now keen to work with galleries to find a home for their work following the Nesscliffe digs.