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Sea Coal, Seafield is a group of nine photographs exhibited in three rows of three, comprising a grid. It documents mining pollution washed up on the shore of the coastal area of Seafield, Ayrshire in Scotland. Onwin photographed layers of coal dust on the white sands of a local beach. The three images in the upper row of the grid show different types of patterning caused by the movement of water over the sand. Swirling currents and rivulets of water draining away have created patterns of dark on light. The central three images are close-up views of the texture of black grit on white sand, revealing tide lines in varying concentrations of coal dust and strong horizontal black bands. The bottom three photographs are smaller in format and mounted in windows of white card in order to make up the same dimensions as the six pictures of sand. They are views of the coast from a distance, showing a bay, shrouded in mist. The water appears very calm: there are no waves, only ripples on the water’s surface. A finger of land extends into the sea in two of the images. Although they were printed by colour process, the three sea views are grey in appearance, complementing the black and white printing of the upper six images.
Sea Coal, Seafield was originally displayed in an exhibition curated by Dr David Brown which was held in Hobart House in London in 1975. It was later shown in the exhibition Coal: British Mining in Art 1680-1980 organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain and the National Coal Board, where it was complemented by a work by John Latham (born 1921), entitled Carberry Bing 1976 (Arts Council Collection). This, like its sibling work, Derelict Land Art: Five Sisters (see Tate T02071), proposed the conversion of coal dumps into sculpture.
Onwin was born in Edinburgh and studied painting at the city’s College of Art (1966-71). In recent years he has returned to the college, where he is now a Reader. Soon after leaving art school, Onwin rejected manufactured paints for natural materials. Since this time he has produced work that makes reference to the natural environment. Many of his works reflect on the damage caused to areas of natural beauty by pollution and the misuse of natural resources. In the mid 1970s, on a walk along the Scottish coast near Dunbar, Onwin discovered a salt marsh which was to have a profound effect upon his practice. He returned to this flooded field many times to observe the cycles of tidal flooding and of the crystallisation and dissolution of salt. For him, the salt marsh represented a place in which life is deadened by a substance which also sustains life. It is a self-contained microcosm which reflects the macrocosm of much larger natural cycles. He made two exhibitions from this experience – Saltmarsh in 1975 and The Recovery of Dissolved Substances in 1978 – displaying photographs of salt in various stages of crystallisation and manufacture as well as panels on which salt had crystallised, constructions that paralleled the cubic structure of salt crystals and the containers that held the saline solution. In the 1980s he returned to painting with a group of works entitled Revenges of Nature exhibited at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh and the Third Eye Centre, Glasgow in 1988. Combining a range of such natural and toxic substances as earth, ash, wood, paper, metal, salt, bitumen and polythene, the paintings embody the complexity of the human relationship with nature, emphasising the destructive effects of human intervention on the natural environment. More recently Onwin has created site-specific installations in locations throughout Britain including The Quality of Light, a project organised in association with Tate St Ives. Onwin is interested in the microcosmic structures of things in the natural world and the way they slowly alter over time.
Coal: British Mining in Art 1680-1980, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1982, pp.42 and 61
Glen Onwin: Saltmarsh, exhibition brochure, Scottish Arts Council Gallery, Edinburgh 1975
Glen Onwin: As Above So Below, exhibition catalogue, Henry Moore Sculpture Trust, Halifax 1991