The square canvas came into its own as a vehicle for modern art. For Malevich, with his Black Square(1913), it meant pure form; for Mondrian, in Broadway Boogie Woogie (1943), it captured the modernity of New York. Andy Warhol made square Marilyns. Josef Albers nested squares within squares as he played his tricks with colour.
For the abstract painter Stewart Geddes, adopting the square for recent work was a shape shift born of requirement. He had agreed to make a painting that would be used as an album cover by the musician and songwriter Philip Selway. Function determined form. But as it did for many of the British abstract painters he has learnt from – for Paul Feiler, his tutor at Bristol Polytechnic in the early 1980s, for instance, or for his late friend Albert Irvin – the square proved liberating. It was a non-hierarchical shape, Geddes quickly felt, and even a democratic one: ‘It almost presupposes the idea of circulating around the painting,’ he says.
The freedom must have felt welcome, coming as it did during a period of lockdown induced by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. To mitigate against the strangeness of the times, Geddes and Selway agreed to have weekly conversations by video link. The two men had met before the pandemic: As a tutor on the Fine Art course at Cheltenham art school, Geddes had taught Selway’s wife, Cait, and the couple subsequently attended ‘Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism’, an exhibition curated by Geddes at the Royal West of England Academy in 2019. But it was in their prescribed isolation, speaking studio to studio, that Geddes and Selway developed a creative friendship that quickly flourished into collaboration. ‘You had to occupy one space, you had to slow down,’ Selway says of lockdown, ‘which allowed these conversations to grow.’
Selway was working on new songs at his home in Oxfordshire, Geddes commuting through the vacant streets of Bristol to paint in his studio in Bedminster. They talked of their work and its challenges, about their families, about football. Selway might play early versions of new songs, Geddes pan the video camera around the studio to show his paintings in progress. The artist made a painting that took up the muddy palette of the River Avon, which rises and falls so dramatically in Bristol with the tide. It was a way to dwell on his home city, with its forgiving fluidity, but also an invitation to Selway, who has family ties to Bristol, to embark on an imaginative journey.
Selway invited Geddes to create the album art for Strange Dance (2023), his third solo album. What was unusual about this collaboration, beyond its unfamiliar circumstances, was that the visual elements were by no means an afterthought: the paintings and the music developed in parallel to each other. When we meet at Geddes’s studio in November 2022, the respect between the two, their consciousness of listening and learning from the other, is palpable. Geddes describes Selway as an unfailingly ‘affirmative’ collaborator; ‘Stewart is a natural teacher,’ says Selway, admitting that he had ‘always been a bit scared of the process of art’.
Geddes set out not to illustrate the songs but to respond to their mood as it increasingly came into focus. He listened to tracks before Selway had added lyrics to them but with the chord structures and melodic arcs in place. And then he took to his squares, painting with the canvases laid horizontally and raised slightly from the floor, the seep of the music into his mind echoed in the spread of acrylic paint across their dampened, unprimed surfaces. Reflecting on the suite of four paintings that accompany the finished album, he observes that they evoke interiors more perceptibly than his previous work has done. ‘Although I come from a landscape tradition,’ he says, ‘I think of these paintings as much more about an enclosed room space […] It’s the space we inhabit, and have conversations in.’
For his part, Selway speaks of the ‘remote synaesthesia’ of the collaborative process. Geddes’s paintings, he felt, ‘spoke the same language as [my] music’. To encounter such sympathetic responses to his work was not only affirmatory but emboldening. As the drummer for Radiohead, Selway has long worked closely with a group of musicians for whom the give-and-take of collaboration begets creative resonance – and he has consistently admired the partnership between his bandmate Thom Yorke and the artist Stanley Donwood, which since the 1990s has generated distinctive artwork for each of the band’s releases. To work with Geddes on Strange Dance opened up a space in which he could imagine the participation of musical collaborators such as Adrian Utley and Hannah Peel, who would eventually join him in the recording studio. It was a way of eluding the constraints of his own subjectivity, of listening to his music through someone else’s ears. ‘A linear way of working inhibits everything’, he says. ‘If I can step out of it, the music flows more easily. Stewart’s work enabled that.’
The paintings celebrate that process, with its shared willingness and its openness. As we drink tea in Geddes’s studio, talking everything from Portishead to Patrick Heron, the two men joke that Canaro is in fact a band portrait. This work, with its palette defined by browns and oranges, emerged after Geddes had spent a day with Selway and his musical collaborators at Evolution Studios in Oxford: he was struck by the venue’s wood panelling and by the tangle of wires in the studio. The orange is inspired by the musician Hannah Peel’s red hair; the moment of pink, which pulls together the entire composition, by the pink shirt that Selway wore that day. Such references are ‘both really important and playfully arbitrary,’ Geddes says. Finnador, the painting that has become the album cover, suggests two figures leaning towards one another, as though in conversation: it evokes an encounter even as it revels in the possibilities of communion.
Two further paintings, Sakram and Senovoglii, capture the fragile hope of Selway’s album. The former in particular, says Selway, represents ‘the whole musical landscape of the record’. This is the only rectangular painting in the group, a work dominated by blacks and greys that nonetheless succeeds in establishing its radiance through the gloom. Geddes’s way of speaking about luminosity in painting, Selway notes, was formative as he composed the songs – helping with his exploration of how optimism might co-exist with types of darkness or displacement. Indeed, Strange Dance is characterised by an acoustic chiaroscuro throughout, setting the intimacy and vulnerability of Selway’s voice and lyrics against the lushness of his orchestrations. ‘All the walls are closing in’, he sings on ‘Check for Signs of Life’, as an expansive musical panorama unfurls around him.
Geddes, for his part, recognised the songs’ ‘dark undercurrent, […] their unflinching frankness’. ‘This conversation just can’t wait’, Selway sings on ‘Picking up Pieces’, a clarion call for his own collaborative generosity, in a way, but one reimagined as a moment of anguish. This music has a mature appreciation for how emotional light and shade commingle, a nuance that Geddes looked to capture in his own handwriting with the paintings. Sakram admits to complexity through the thoughtful layering of its acrylic paint, particularly – a method borrowed from Bonnard – through the late addition on the surface of colour, here a hot pink, to salvage a tone applied earlier in the process and buried beneath other layers.