2 Mar 2020

David Greenslade: The Autoschediastic Mandalas of Martin Langford.

Martin Langford, from Kenfig Hill, is a skilful storyteller. He’s lived a colourful life, mixing with an enormous variety of people. He has also spent time alone – solitary confinement and as a rural recluse. In 1981, following eighteen months on remand, he received a four-year prison sentence at the Old Bailey for marijuana smuggling,

He takes his interests seriously and with a large dose of caustic humour. The same with his approach to art. He has invented a semi-automatic, silvery drip-flow, quick dry, freeze-hold technique, the secrets of which he refuses to divulge.

This much is known:
Step one: he takes a sheet of paper and applies a slowly flowing liquid mixture.
Step two: tilting the paper, folding, holding steady – now concave, now convex the mixture runs, spreads, stains, and hardens.
Step three: let the image dry – appraise it.

The process isn’t finished as the image Martin selects will not stand alone but will be reflected and repeated as a part of larger set. As free and as uncontrolled as the original may be, it is not without a steering hand. “I make thousands of experiments,” he says. “The result may be unforeseeable, but I know what I’m doing.” Finally, by placing the unpredictable result within a diptych or a quaternity its impromptu vitality becomes geometrically stabilised.

Apart from the fact that it is he who applies the secret, inky-mastic, metallic mixture to the paper, Martin’s marbled, elongated forms are made with minimum interference. However, the minutely detailed, swirling turbine effect is something Martin is looking for, like panning for gold. Hundreds of intriguing, mucilaginous forms are rejected. Interfacial intensity and peripheral feathery ringlets are qualities that his mixture can achieve. The process is not haphazard.

Chance, accident and knowing when to stop play their role. The silver toned amalgam has the qualities of mercury. It elongates, sticks, has capillary edges and also (improbable) volume. The alchemical flux has a glutinous ability to flow back through and over itself – hovering between the qualities of paint, dye, glue, varnish and emulsion.

He assesses the virtues of each sinewy image with an eye towards its duplex or quadruplex possibilities. For now the details resemble skeletal glass, bony flumes with marrow of grit and plasma while the finished whole can take on a completely new appearance.

Art historian Peter Wakelin describes Martin Langford as a ‘magician’ who ‘casts an entirely different spell, with techniques known only to himself, which seem to travel into distant worlds of biology, metaphysics or science fiction.” (Wakelin, 1998) The Rorscharch Ink Blot test as well as pareidolia play their part. Martin uses them as a moment of decision when to stop his liquid actions. He himself doesn’t dwell on ‘seeing things’ but uses elements of projection to maximise hallucinogenic properties. “It’s up others what they see there,” he says.

Science fiction is a factor. For sci-fi effects, however, some borrowers of his work (for CD covers) add colour. Martin objects that colour overwhelms the fine detail his images excel at. He prefers their original icy glow.

Influences include Basil Wolverton at Mad Magazine and the ‘melting’ period of Salvador Dali. Ernst Haeckel (1834- 1919) German biologist and artist, using very early airbrush, is also very important.

Martin: “I took LSD in 1965 before it was well known. I was told I’d have a good laugh and I did before paranoia kicked in. It had a profound effect on my thinking. I entered Art School in Carmarthen and studied for 2 years. Later I spent three years in London doing menial office work. It was also a period of introspection and a search for meaning via various philosophies, psychologies and eastern religions. I learned Transcendental Meditation and continue to use a mantra but more as a relaxation technique rather than deep meditation.

German surrealist Hans Bellmer gets a mention, as well as American comic artists Robert Crumb and Robert Williams. Martin produces examples of their work. His flat is an archive of treasures – OZ, International Times and The Whole Earth Catalogue. Also Hapt, first produced in Bournemouth later Stroud – a gem of the 1960s.

Pushing the human form as grotesque caricature is a consideration. Equally subversive are his researches into the corrupting influence of American organised crime and the various ethnic groups involved especially Jewish, Italian, Irish and even Welsh in the form of Murray “The Hump” Humphries. His acquaintances include devoted Arthurian fantasists as well as contemporary gangsters. Chaos both benign and malignant hovers at the edge of his experiments.

Martin: I’ve always appreciated science, cosmology for a time, including Black Holes etc. I have had a long interest in Panspermia. I even attended a conference in Cardiff Uni where I met the major boffins involved and a few crackpots. For various reasons, it seems more plausible that microbial life came winging in from elsewhere on a comet and took hold when conditions were favourable. The idea pushes the origin elsewhere which irritates many who support biogenesis ideas.

As a child Martin grew up in a secure family environment. His father, Arthur Langford served as President of the Ice Cream Association of Great Britain. Langford’s ice cream was locally famous but going into the family firm was not for Marty the Martian. He left school at the age of fifteen and found a job in a shoe factory. After three years he quit and in his twenties reunited with his Garw Grammar school friend Howard Marks. Together they set up a global marijuana smuggling operation.

He recalls ice cream making with great affection – the heating, blending, watching the mix flow down cooling pipes and gather in open trays. This warm liquefaction and slow, cold coagulation echoes in the shapes of his art, the works he crystalizes and the works he rejects.

In prison he revised his pencil drawing but kept it private. “Too many cons,” he says, “ask an artist to draw their dog, or draw their girlfriend. It can become a nuisance.” He returned instead to collage using cut outs to play jokes on prison officers. On release he started using Photostats (a process of photocopying using negatives) to reproduce his art. The glowing preliminary negative and reversal of black and white prompted a new direction. He intensified his sudden engagement with Photostat and applied it to the viscous liquid he invented. While the earliest large scale works were cut and glued (where the joins can be seen) today’s technology accommodates images on screen and printing on a seamless single sheet. The early works are fascinating just because of the retro reproduction and the singular originality of the images.

Martin’s formal training includes studying at Carmarthen School of Art when Stanley Lewis was principal. He recalls Lewis, delighted that his teacher had his first one man show at the age of 101 (Lewis lived to be 103). He is also grateful for the rigours of traditional pencil work – again showing a preference for the qualities of silver and grey rather than colour. Martin recalls how, one day at college, following a period of free improvisation in the style of Jackson Pollock he seized upon an image of his own, ‘no bigger that your little fingernail’. This image captivated him and he found himself repeating it in dozens of variations. He believes that this moment still informs his art today.

Unlike Max Ernst who delighted in labelling his discoveries (frottage, grattage, oscillation, decalcomania) Martin has not coined a term for his own original method. The magic is in the alchemical compound. He confesses that asymmetrical composition remains unsatisfying for him. This seems reasonable when, after all, the irrational resists cerebral control.

Martin Langford’s art is cellular and primordial. His marks connect the contained with the uncontrolled just as cracks on a tortoiseshell connect a soothsayer with the beyond. Minute transparent detail and bold visceral gesture are what make them so compelling. Their fourfold resolution surpasses chance by presenting their autoschediastic origins in the form of an intuitive, fleshy mandala.

Wakelin, P; Art Review, April, 1998. No other information available


Click here for Martin Langford’s Images


David Greenslade is a widely published poet and prize-winning essayist. He recently co-edited William Brown in Wales and, in 2019, he curated Impertinent Distortions, a three-part art exhibition between Wales and Romania with its final installation at the Welsh Assembly Gallery.  Sometime in 2020, Contraband Books will publish his visual, multilingual collection, Ubiquitext  He lives in Cefn Cribwr, mid-way between Swansea and Cardiff.


29 Feb 2020

Simon Collings: Micro-Fiction


On Thursday night my wife and I went to the annual concert organised by our local Chamber Music Society, though neither of us could remember why we had bought tickets. The programme was advertised as Mozart followed by Brahms, but just before the start of this ‘musical feast’ a chap in red trousers got up and announced that the musicians had decided to play the two works in reverse order, Brahms first, followed by Mozart. You can imagine the stir this caused. Well into the first movement of the Brahms much of the audience still looked perplexed, and some never seemed to recover at all from the confusion. The musicians, able professionals though they were, played with a studied lack of emotion, very little attack and a complete absence of dynamics, no doubt in deference to the audience, many of whom like to sleep through the concert and rouse themselves only when an opportunity to clap presents itself.  So effective were the players in their approach to the music that I was soon left wondering why we had ever liked Brahms, and by the end of the fourth movement I was convinced I had badly over-rated him.


The secret

What Claire and Sophie said to each other while they were closeted in Sophie’s bedroom remains a mystery. Something vitally important to the unfolding of this story I suspect, though I can’t be sure. When they came out of the room they were unusually animated, and their conversation struck me straight away as artificial. It was as though they were playacting, performing a charade for my benefit with the intention of throwing me off the scent. Are they aware of my eavesdropping? I have recorded every word of their conversations since, but they give no clue as to what passed between them that afternoon. They avoid any discussion of matters of importance, offering nothing of psychological interest. It’s as though they have entered into a pact to keep me in ignorance of their secrets, speaking only of the most trivial matters when in my presence, subjects too dull to be even worth repeating. Are they deliberately thwarting my attempts to bring this narrative to a satisfactory conclusion?


Burning ring of fire

There is nothing in the gallery, nothing to see, no exhibits. People wander from one empty room to another, exchanging bemused expressions, imagining that perhaps it’s a joke. The labels on the walls seem to be left over from a previous show, some partially pealed off, it’s hard to tell. There’s no information, no audio guide.  ‘Why did you come?’ one label asks. ‘What are you looking at?’, asks another. ‘Who are all these people?’ A teenage girl, dressed as an Italian Renaissance Madonna and with a small naked child in her arms, periodically glides through the rooms. She makes eye contact with those she passes, holding their gaze for a moment with a look completely empty of expression. In the corner of the final room is an old jukebox, like a piece of abandoned scrap. Every fifteen minutes it lights up and plays Jonny Cash singing ‘Burning Ring of Fire.’


The double

I first noticed him in a café, where my wife and I had just been having lunch. He was reading a newspaper, his face partly concealed, but there was something about his posture, and the way he moved, which reminded me of myself. Later that day I saw him again when I went out to post a letter. He was seated behind the wheel of a car parked just down the street. Our eyes met as I passed and the likeness of his face to mine was unmistakeable. I told Carol about him, but she thought I must be imagining things. A few days later we went to the cinema, and there he was again, seated a few rows behind us. ‘My doppelganger’s here,’ I whispered, ‘behind you and to the left.’ Carol turned around and surveyed the rows of seats. ‘Where?’ she said, turning back. ‘I can’t see anyone who looks like you.’ Then the film began, preventing further discussion, and by the time it ended the man had gone. Later that evening I found him in the kitchen, laughing with Carol. They were drinking, and he was wearing one of my shirts. Carol looked startled.  ‘Who are you? How did you get in?’ she asked nervously. ‘It’s me, Philip.’ I said, but she showed no sign of recognition. The man got up from the table where they had been sitting. ‘I think you’d better leave,’ he said. ‘But I live here,’ I protested. ‘Get him out of here Philip,’ Carol said, addressing not me but my lookalike. ‘Please, get him out of here.’ He was surprisingly strong, and despite my protests I found myself being bundled irresistibly towards the door. As we passed the hall mirror I caught a glimpse of my face, and was appalled to discover I no longer recognised myself.


Verne’s nemesis

Reading Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea it’s hard not to be struck by the fervour of Captain Nemo’s revolutionary idealism. His open-handed support for liberation movements around the world, financed with gold bullion recovered from the sunken wrecks of Spanish galleons, is unswerving. But Verne gives only one identifiable example of a struggle supported by Nemo, that of the Cretan Revolt against Ottoman rule in the 1860s. This uprising attracted considerable public support in Europe and North America, and the Greek rebels could have been financed by any number of liberal philanthropists. It did not require someone with Nemo’s beliefs to step in to support the revolutionaries, and we can only speculate about the other groups fighting tyranny and oppression which benefitted from the largesse of the inventor of the Nautilus. Verne, in the person of the bourgeois Professor Aronnax, eventually jumps ship, literally and metaphorically distancing himself from Nemo, a character seemingly too radical to be comfortably embraced any longer within the pages of the novel. Nemo had, after all, sunk a US naval vessel, with the loss of its entire crew. But Verne does not do away with Nemo. Whether the Nautilus survives the whirlpool at the end of the narrative is left open, the militant Nemo surreptitiously slipping away perhaps to continue the struggle, a surrogate perhaps for suppressed desires his author dared not acknowledge, even to himself. Four years later, in The Mysterious Island, we encounter Nemo again, strangely aged and failing in health, and with the dates of his exploits hopelessly at variance with the earlier book as though Verne wants to underline the fact that this is all just invention, a work of fiction. This time Nemo is put to rest, his corpse entombed forever in the scuppered Nautilus.


The evidence

That’s you, they tell me. Remember that happening? The locations I seem to recognise, but I don’t believe the person I am watching in the video is me. The filming was mostly done at night, and always from a distance. The blurry figure on the screen could be an actor, someone of my approximate build who had studied my habits, the way I walk, the way I hold myself. There are no close ups. The images seem to relate to something from a long time ago. They play the video again. I don’t remember any of the events shown, only the locations appear familiar. Try to remember, they say. I watch the footage over again. Filming in the streets I often frequented, the lobbies of office buildings, a railway station from which I travelled on occasions, would have been easily arranged. But why would anyone do that? This could easily be a case of mistaken identities. The evidence is circumstantial. Something about the figure on the screen doesn’t ring true. Is this a dramatization, a fiction? Try to remember they say, it’s important you try to remember.



Simon Collings lives in Oxford, UK. His poetry, short fiction, translations, reviews and essays have appeared in a wide range of magazines including Stride, Fortnightly Review, Café Irreal, Litter, The Long Poem Magazine, Ink, Sweat & Tears, Lighthouse, PN Review and Journal of Poetics Research. He has published two chapbooks: Out West (2017) and Stella Unframed (2018).


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