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TRCH Classic Thriller Season

Geoff Diego Litherland

5 May 15 words: Mark Patterson
This sci-fi-esque landscape artist has got an exhibition on at Djanogly Art Gallery that ends this Sunday. We were intrigued about what makes him tick
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In the great 1972 science fiction film Silent Running, the last of the Earth’s forests survive only in massive geodesic domes attached to spaceships in orbit near Saturn. When the order from Earth comes to blow them up to cut costs, the resident ecologist, played by Bruce Dern, refuses to follow orders and attempts to save the last of his planet’s precious natural resources with the help of three small robots. The final scene with a forest dome floating off into the cosmos, tended by a robot with a child’s battered watering can, is a memorable homage to the idea that the planet is a precious floating haven of life in a cold universe – Spaceship Earth, as it was called at the time.

The film’s director, Douglas Trumbull, had worked on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with Silent Running, he fashioned a more human-centred and environmentally-concerned vision of the future – one that also reflected the concerns of the early seventies when the ‘green movement’ was starting to achieve a high profile just as the hippies and America’s Apollo space programme were fading away. Years later, in eighties Ecuador, a young boy called Geoff Diego Litherland – father English, mother Mexican – began to develop his own love of science fiction by reading all he could get his hands on in the library of the British Council.

Years later still, Litherland, now based in Nottingham, has reached back into the interests of his own past and the history of western landscape art to produce a curious set of paintings that are currently on show at Djanogly Art Gallery. While Litherland’s canvases don’t offer to ‘save the Earth’, as Bruce Dern and his little robot drones tried to in Silent Running, they do offer a kind of timely update to the basic green message that is always in danger of becoming stale through over-familiarity.

However, it would be wrong to think that these paintings, which have titles such as Hushed Pulse of the Universe and Spaceship Earth, are about lifestyle lessons. Litherland’s intention is really to suggest connections between the way that we think of nature and landscape in the past, present and future. This future includes the fused retro-futurism of seventies space technology, science fiction movies and the technological optimism of American visionary architect R Buckminster Fuller, designer of the geodesic dome in the fifties. Fuller saw his domes as quick, energy-efficient shelters. Such domes, attached to massive space freighters, housed Earth’s last forests in Silent Running, and the same shapes can be seen in Litherland’s paintings.

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Several of his paintings are in the shape of octagons with eight straight sides, as if they were flattened geodesic domes. They could be portals looking through time and space to Earth. “They were also initially meant to be a window from a spaceship looking back down on Earth,” says Litherland. “I’m not religious, but I hope that these images make you think of day four of Genesis when the Earth was being born and nebula clouds were being formed in space.”

Litherland talks about his work in his studio in Chaucer Street, not far from where he works as an art tutor at Nottingham Trent University. It’s a small, normal, messy artist’s studio and, apart from some background minimalist music by Steve Reich, it’s a pretty earth-bound environment that seems to be several light years away from space portals and bright clouds of nebulae.

So where have the paintings originated? While Litherland is a well-known artist in Nottingham (he also used to manage NTU’s Bonington Gallery) he was formerly better known for abstract painting and images that explored his Anglo-Mexican background. Such paintings earned him a place in the John Moores 25 Painting Prize in 2008 and, in the same year, he won the Nottingham Castle Open art exhibition.

In 2010, hoping to revitalise his interest in art, he began a part-time MA at Goldsmiths College in London. A tutor there asked him what he was really interested in. “I said the sublime, relationships to nature, romanticism and science fiction. He looked at me, didn’t mock me and said ‘that’s great, go and do some work around that and we’ll have another chat’ and that’s what started the ball rolling. I realised I could bring in all the things I was interested in and make work from it. So I think it was one of the best things anyone’s said to me. But it was an ambitious step to take in terms of my painting, including the scale, because until then I had been working quite small. I had to make these paintings bigger so people would get lost in them, get overwhelmed by them. I had to dedicate myself to them and improve my technique.”

According to a friend of Litherland, his new paintings resemble the covers of albums by seventies prog rockers Yes. They are rooted in nineteenth century landscape paintings and, in particular, the Hudson River school artists who romantically portrayed the epic wildernesses of the American west around the time conservationists were calling for these landscapes to be protected as national parks. It is these landscapes that Litherland incorporates into his own paintings. Yet, located as they are under clouds of cosmic gas and strange interruptions of space technology, they could be taken for the landscapes of alien planets. The ambiguity is surely deliberate.

“The reason I keep coming back to those paintings, and the landscapes of the Hudson River school, is because of the way painting historically has sculpted our ideas and relationships with nature and our lineage to that,” says Litherland. “As well as looking back, these paintings are looking forward into a possibly dystopian place. They’re not hopeless – there is hope within them. I believe that technology, as well as being a problem, can be the cure and salvation for us because there is really very little else.”

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Litherland’s love of science fiction began when he was living in South America with his parents. “I grew up in Latin America without a TV because my dad thought it was all rubbish, so I used to go to the British Council Library and just pick sci-fi novels by their covers. So before I was twelve, I had read Asimov’s Foundation series and all that classic stuff.” He also read Larry Niven and Arthur C Clarke and today professes a liking for non-SF authors such as Paul Auster and the late Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, both of whose fictions are much about the creation of worlds within worlds. You can see that in Litherland’s paintings too.

Litherland’s father, by the way, is a widely travelled former British Geological Survey geologist who worked in southern Africa, Bolivia and Ecuador. His mapmaking and adventurous travels (“he would bring back fantastic tales of battling anacondas”) would be another influence on the paintings. However, Litherland owes the ‘Diego’ portion of his name to his Mexican mother who named him after the Mexican painter Diego Rivera. That’s quite a heritage. His parents now live in Loughborough but his mother still regularly visits her hometown. When he was young, Litherland would accompany her on family visits and hear news of the terrible drug violence that was and still is affecting Mexico. This, he says, has included the kidnapping and deaths of his own distant cousins.

“When I was there, we’d meet my grandparents at the airport and we’d have a three to four hour drive over the mountains when they’d be saying to my mum, ‘Oh, so and so got killed.’ And I was a little kid in the back, shitting myself, thinking, ‘What?’ Coming to England after hearing this stuff made England seem like a sanctuary. Arriving at Heathrow, smelling the green of England… for me, England was this idealised place and, while this was the eighties so I know it wasn’t all that nice, for me it was a haven.”

Geoff Diego Litherland exhibition, Djanogly Art Gallery, runs until 10 May, free.

Geoff Diego Litherland website

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