by Anna Souter

Noughts and crosses is the simplest of games, played with the simplest of tools: a pencil and paper, or even a stick and a patch of soil. Sometimes called Tic-tac-toe or Xs and Os, the game suggests hugs and kisses signing off on child’s play. The X and O shapes are also connected to the most universal and ancient forms of decoration; many prehistoric artefacts and stone carvings feature circles and crosses, often used to create repeating motifs and patterns.

Outside the Void. North coast Cornwall 24,983 steps, rake, 0.6m tide | Tony Plant | 2018

An overview of artist Tony Plant's practice reads like an expanded game of noughts and crosses played out across a coastal landscape. Circles and crossed lines are inscribed across sketchbooks and the surfaces of Cornish beaches, or layered onto composite paintings and digital records.

3. 3. 3. Success Triptych, found routed-wood, metal, gesso, oil, silver leaf, acrylic, cardboard. 74cm x 34cm 2021-22 |
Photo by John Hersey | 2022

It is important to Plant’s work that these symbols are also widely used to mark-up maps: “you are here” (a circle) or “X marks the spot” (a cross). In this directional form of mark-making, X and O become stand-ins for locations, both specific and generic; placeholders for landscapes both familiar and unfamiliar. The repeated use of these symbols suggests a way of knowing a place that is both chartable and mysterious, evoking the technical complexities of cartography and the romantic thrills of treasure-hunting in equal measure.

WIP, Studio 5, Porthmeor | Tony Plant | 2020

Plant repeats these patterns throughout his practice, working in series and making incremental changes as he develops ideas. This method of working is not unlike that of the tides with which he interacts, moving over the sand repeatedly in a cycle that changes each time.

Wynter sunset from the Carn and past Paddys house. Oil, acrylic, gesso on unstretched canvas 173cm x202cm 2019-20 |
Photo by John Hersey | 2022

Void drawing, north coast Cornwall | Tony Plant | 2018

The beach drawings could be seen as durational paintings; each site-specific work takes several hours to complete, bookended by the influx of seawater which creates the sandy “canvas” and which will return the beach to its smooth state after another tidal cycle. Each drawing is a couple of hundred metres across, but it is inscribed only around a centimetre into the surface; the impact of the pattern comes from the shadow created by the inscribed sand.

Since Plant does not announce his drawings in advance on social media or to colleagues, viewers often arrive at the beach drawings by chance. The works are designed to draw one’s attention to the surface of the sand, inviting viewers to mindfully consider their surroundings and contemplate something outside (but intimately connected to) themselves. Each viewer comes to both artwork and landscape with a distinct perspective, carrying with them their own narratives and memories of coastal places. Plant aims to forge new or previously unnoticed connections between people and place.

Sketch book detail’ acrylic, watercolour, ink, pencil | Photo by John Hersey | 2022

The beach emerges in these drawings as a found object, transformed into a participant through Plant’s process of removing the sandy surface to expose the drawing latent underneath. The works draw on the tempting beauty of a stretch of sand newly revealed by the ebbing waves. It is easy to think of this as empty space, virgin territory without human footprints. And yet under every footfall and drawn line there is a microscopic ecosystem, suggesting the vital significance of tidal zones as shifting spaces with complex living ecologies.

Plant doesn’t see landscape as something fixed, but rather as ever-evolving, fragile, and delicate. The pace of this transformation is made even quicker by climate breakdown and the ecological crisis. Plastic detritus is thrown up on beaches while increasing extreme weather events are hastening coastal erosion and microplastics are changing the makeup, feel, and colour of the sand itself.

WIP, Studio corner | Photo by John Hersey | 2022

The beach drawings are created with a humble stick, showing how the most primitive of tools can be used to create an intricate geometric world. However, this simplicity is deceptive. The ephemeral drawings are accompanied by a variety of media and technologies used to map both landscape and work, including Strava route tracking, GoPro footage, and panoramic timelapse camera recordings, as well as more traditional art media such as sketching and painting.

The artist is interested in how people move through and interact with places and landscapes, and how these actions can be recorded and mapped. The lines in the drawings are inspired by journeys through the local area. Sometimes these are borrowed from heatmap records on data-collating apps such as Strava. On these interfaces, the most commonly used paths are marked by thick, dark-coloured lines surrounded by a web of fainter “desire lines” where individuals have strayed from the marked footpaths. Sometimes the drawn lines come from routes walked or kayaked by Plant along the coast or down rivers, or from the movements of the area’s nonhuman inhabitants: the flight patterns of birds or the rhythms of ocean currents, for example.

3 Triptyches Silent Coast. Here, meet here. Oil. gesso, acrylic 60cm x 60cm 2018-2022 | Photo by John Hersey | 2022

The Strava logs reveal the physically demanding nature of Plant’s work; to make a piece stretching a couple of hundred metres can mean walking five miles back and forth across the sand. The remote beaches are often accessible only via long hikes and scrambles down cliffs, often with heavy equipment in tow. The works are created in conference and collaboration with elemental forces: the tides, the weather, and the light.

Plant’s paintings and drawings on paper are informed by the practical demands of the landscape just as much as the transitory beach works. He has experimented with a number of formats in order to develop a portable practice. For example, he makes small boxes that can be hooked onto his belt, which are used to transport groups of drawings that are folded up like maps, leaving the artist’s hands free as he climbs down to the beach. Over time, the cases have become art objects in themselves, their plain white surfaces used to make sketches or to map out new ideas in situ.

Salt Pan Triptych. Found routed-wood, oil, acrylic, gesso, lollypop sticks, found routed-wood. 58cm x 43cm 2021 |
Photo by John Hersey | 2022

Portability is a key element of all Plant’s physical work. Many of the single paintings and triptychs are composed of a series of small square panels, developed outdoors, and then combined in cross shapes and finished in the studio. Most of these “composite” works include found objects, which Plant collects on his journeys through the local countryside and later edits indoors, creating a continuation and interrelation between studio practice and work en plein air. For these painterly works, Plant draws a line of connection to the history of artists working in the Cornish landscape, such as St Ives painter Bryan Wynter, or the native artist Alfred Wallis, whose works often similarly incorporated found objects and surfaces.

Objects from beaches, such as driftwood, are often waterlogged, making them heavy and impractical. It can therefore take time to get the objects back to the studio; they are sometimes stashed under rocks or bushes to dry out for a while, or brought back in stages over a few visits. They then need time to dry thoroughly, often changing shape and colour as they do so, perhaps developing unexpected cracks or textures.

Where 4 Corners meet. 19,243 steps, rake 1.6m tide | Photo by John Hersey | 2022

Plant’s practice is one of open-endedness and uncertainty, reflecting the mutability of the places with which he works. Drawings on the beach are begun without knowing what the result will be, focusing on the process of making them rather than the end result. Over the last eight years, Plant has even made drawings at night in order to create works that exist only in the making. A game of noughts and crosses that seeks to break the illusion of control.