“Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now.”
Visually primed from visiting the Cézanne exhibition at Tate Modern the day before, it was surely appropriate to move on to the Giorgio Morandi show the next day. Through his work Cézanne may have been saying, stop and look at the world (often the landscape) and construct it directly through the dynamic act of perception – but take your time. Calmly experience what is in front of you, he may have added, with the incomplete narrative of the here and now. Morandi appears to take this lesson from the master of modern art and subsequently devotes his painting mission to this, his unrelenting lifetime project.
The literature on Morandi confirms that he was interested in Cézanne’s work (especially in Morandi’s own still lifes of 1914-15 onwards) and the viewer will sense it in many of the examples from future works in this marvelous show at the Estorick Collection in London. The exhibition has travelled from the Magnani-Rocca Foundation in Mamiagno in northern Italy – not so far from Bologna where Morandi lived and worked for the whole of his career. Normally for the UK based artist or keen gallery visitor, to see and contemplate Morandi’s works the opportunities are severely limited as there appear to be less than a dozen paintings in public collections. Outside of London, visits would be required to such places as Norwich, Birmingham and Edinburgh but one would only see individual works. The best and most obvious option is a weekend trip to Bologna to visit the collection in the Museo Morandi, part of the Museum of Modern Art of Bologna (better known as MAMbo). Fortunately, as the Magnani-Rocca Foundation undergoes some refurbishment, the Estorick has the honour of displaying seventeen paintings and 33 works on paper, including etchings, for four months.
Oddly, as I felt compelled to write about this exhibition I also had a contrary sense of there being no necessity to do so. What more can one say about such a relatively straightforward range of imagery. Morandi’s works, especially the oil paintings, are so matter-of-fact painterly that they are surely just what they are, no more, no less – or as Dan Flavin the American minimalist sculptor once said: “It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else”. So I hesitated for a couple of weeks or so, during which time I happened to read Italo Calvino’s ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium’ and came across some ideas that could be applied to considering Morandi’s paintings – most especially the still life compositions. For example, Calvino writes about the transition from word to image and vice versa as a crucial aspect of writing for novelists. So I wondered if Morandi, perhaps instinctively, takes the viewer from image to image, but in the same work. That is, as an inseparable combination, conjoining the material object (the oil painting) and the mental image (the viewer’s) as one phenomenon. Referring to St. Ignatius, Calvino also wrote of the “…visual contemplation or meditation”. This viewing approach is crucial for any work of art, but especially so for Morandi. This point also reminded me of Giotto’s frescos in Assisi and most especially to the palette that Giotto had access to. This link, however pertinent or not, was realised as I flicked through an old copy of ‘Forma e Colore – Giotto Gli Affreschi di Assisi’ by Roberto Salvini (1965) that a friend had recently passed on to me. There’s probably more detail in Giotto’s work, and a clear religious narrative of course, but the overall sense of the essence of form and a restricted palette renders an insistence on contemplation, both spiritual and commonplace for both of these pre-eminent Italian painters.
In a more modern sense (post Freud and Jung), Calvino brings psychological experience and time into the creative equation: “…to the individual or collective unconscious, for example, or to time regained through sensations that rise up from lost time, or to epiphanies or concentrations of being in a single point or moment.” Such experiences may be rare unless programmatically sought through meditation and so do we learn from Morandi that time, by extension, returns the viewer to a concrete notion and an awareness of now? His still-life paintings appear to acknowledge the past as present, even beyond his own lifetime. Or, to put it another way, Morandi realises the metaphysical nature of perception of the world without recourse to limiting or tying himself to the illustrational or imaginary aspects of Metaphysical artists such as Carlo Carrà and Giorgio di Chirico, both of whom he knew personally in his formative years. Morandi’s imagery is utterly solid and direct: he sees the wood for the trees.
Morandi must have dedicated countless hours of actively looking whilst painting, just as Cézanne did. We might wonder what Morandi may have been thinking about his restricted subject matter that was essentially local to Bologna and to his studio tabletop for so many years. Perhaps many days were necessary to make one small work, one more little addition to all of the pictures in the world. But the apparent narrative of the imagery, as there is always a context, returns to the moment when, typically, a group of objects that have been arranged to be studied, for no other reason than to make a painting that replaces the original objects, the lighting conditions and the local colours. This may suggest a very limited artistic programme, bordering on the absurd, for recording the instant in paint at least, requires great time and effort even to conjure something so simple. Would a photograph have sufficed? The problem with a photograph might be that it is, literally, an instant, albeit a split second, but a painting comes loaded with at least a notion of commitment to a long-winded task that can appear ridiculous considering the time and effort required to reach some kind of conclusion – again and again.
Painting can be unashamedly romantic too. Does Morandi seduce the viewer? The artist is doing no more than selecting, composing, looking, recording and painting his direct experience with an implied narrative of light, colour and form overtly realised in a particular arrangement of an apparently small collection of very ordinary objects – though sometimes a small bunch of picked flowers will appear. But Morandi shows us that the human gaze can rest upon something as simple, as pedestrian and as everyday, as a few mundane bottles, jars, and vases – and utterly captivate the viewer. Anticipating Object Orientated Ontology and contemporary metaphysics, Morandi’s paintings might be convincing the viewer that these objects and/or the paintings will exist eternally whether we are there to witness them or not – despite the contradiction that the paintings, his collection of domestic items and the occasional building from his window views were designed, made and contextualised by humans in the first place. The sound of the falling tree may not need a witness after all.
Returning to Calvino, pictures are starting points (imagined or real) and he makes reference to the playwright and author Samuel Beckett “…reducing visual and linguistic elements to the bare minimum…” This reductive tendency could equally be applied to Morandi’s imagery. His still life paintings in particular need no extra content than that which has already been selected, arranged and recorded. The viewer can look and wait knowing that Godot will probably never arrive after all. But we are here with the painting, nonetheless.
Just before, eventually, writing this essay I had the speculative thought that Morandi’s work might be of interest, his paintings in particular, because there is no overt or political narrative? Due to the omnipresence of the media and rolling news streams, notwithstanding the politically correct themes and causes that arts organisations have to embrace to secure funding, the curator and the viewer might sometimes lose sight of the aesthetics of the image? This is not to suggest that issues and contemporary subject matters are unimportant or unnecessary, but I sometimes fear that the immediacy of the painted image, including its inherent materiality, the appropriate choice of physical application and visual content becomes secondary to a particular narrative that ticks a societal, and therefore political, box.
The viewer might find some unexpected joy in visiting this exhibition. Luigi Magnani, the collector of these works said himself that Morandi’s “…works have no content”. So by not fulfilling a manifesto with which to frame the work Morandi does not appear to take sides or to insist upon a message. The work has to speak for itself, or as Stefano Roffi writes in the catalogue: “Just like angels, the works Magnani chose had to possess a soul, be characterized by essentiality, purity, formal perfection, a lack of agitation, of vain philosophizing; to convey silence rather than clamour, peace rather than anguish.”
In writing this purposely ruminatory essay, and in not being bound by a publisher’s deadline, I was also able to ponder and let the work sink in further, albeit from my own photographs and others kindly provided by Alison Wright (PR) on behalf of the Estorick. As a painter myself I have a conscious bias of concentrating on the paintings in the exhibition, but I chose not to discuss any particular work on display in this instance. But as I check my scribbled notes from the day I visited, I am reminded that I returned to view three works on paper before I headed for the bookshop to buy the catalogue. Each titled, ‘Still Life’ (from 1963, 1959 and 1963) they verge on the edge of abstraction with a minimalist aesthetic. The viewer could indeed start from the final works and study Morandi’s visual journey in reverse chronological order to find that he was a proto-minimalist after all. As, perhaps, Cézanne was too.
Review title from: “Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now. Live it, feel it, cling to it. I want to be acutely aware of all I’ve taken for granted.” (Sylvia Plath, letter to Eddie Cohen, 1950)
“Plein air painting on a large scale has heightened my sense of involvement. My use of colour is instrumental in expressing my feelings about form and light within the landscape. Inspired by some new subjects, a shift in my work has transpired.”
(Julian Le Bas, 2023)
In preparation for Julian Le Bas’ much-anticipated exhibition at the Star Brewery Gallery in Lewes, I was asked by Sarah O’Kane (Sarah O’Kane Contemporary Fine Art) to write about Julian’s work, as she knew I was a follower of his career and had written about his show at Berwick Church for Lewes Artwave 2022. I made a visit to his studio last November to talk to him and to see completed canvases and a few works in progress for the exhibition in Lewes. Some of this new text has been included in the catalogue for the show and a suitably edited version is published on her gallery website.
With Sarah’s approval, here is the full version of the exhibition:
A Studio Visit
Julian Le Bas is a painter, perhaps the contemporary painter, of the Sussex section of the South Downs. His work bares witness to this characteristically splendid and captivating geography of chalk hills, meadows, woodland and the adjoining coastline. The Sussex landscape possesses a subtle drama that does not provide the instant awe of, say, the Peaks of the Yorkshire Dales or views from Snowdonia, but the chalk cliffs that stretch eastwards from Brighton and Seaford towards Eastbourne are unique enough to provide a painted image with the visual impact of location not always provided so explicitly in other locales.
If you know Sussex reasonably well you will be aware of Chanctonbury Ring, Black Cap, Mount Caburn and Firle Beacon, and will recollect on how these geographical landmarks change in mood and appearance depending on the weather, the season and the time of day. On a more micro-level you will know that as you travel around, away from the A roads, you will expect to see characteristic churches in the villages, such as at Berwick and Southease. You will also know that there are marvellous trees in the various churchyards, or alongside the fields that produce crops or are home to the cows and the pigs. Look closer still with this consummate painter and, depending on the time of year, see the bluebells, snowdrops or a defiantly red rosehip amongst the winter brambles. In other words, there is no hierarchy of place or incumbent: be it animal, mineral or vegetable.
I wonder, also, if the paintings are a form of storytelling. Many of these visual tales will find their way to new homes, perhaps above the hearth, in a bedroom, a study or in a corridor leading to the kitchen. The point being that the paintings will find, literally, a home to prompt a recollection of a known and familiar landmark, embedding an internal conversation not necessarily or exclusively about rural Sussex, but also beyond to landscape revealed through the act of painting. Prompted by various locations, painting as gesture, as abstraction and as colour obsession – in an era of the digital and the virtual that can loose the immediacy of a physical and mental interaction with light, form and space.
These many places visited by Le Bas, often with the imperative ritual of walking to them, are invested with powerful colour effects and combinations of brush marks too. The viewer might be convinced that they are as improvised as much as they are consciously planned and controlled. Le Bas balances these two complimentary aspects of the act of painting, which is so important for what I interpret as reflection in action, as a matter of course. He produces visually potent and efficacious oil paintings that retain this sense of having a heart beat, of being visually fixed but alive somehow and which have to be authentically realised in situ. These studies can only be so faithfully achieved, by necessity, out of the studio environment.
For the uncompromising en plein air painter the idea of the studio is, potentially, a notional one, as four walls do not restrict the site of production. So when I visited Le Bas’ studio in the back garden of his home in Seaford I was not sure what to expect. At 12 X 10 feet the space was significantly more than big enough for the lawn mower, gardening tools and cracked flowerpots that one might normally expect to come across, although thankfully there were no such items stored here. But this was more than simply a storage area for dozens of canvases of various sizes. The wicker chair and cushion, just the one, was evidence enough to reveal a space for the artist to sit and ponder on his latest day’s work. Space too, to rethink and assess the necessity to return to a particular location to complete a canvas not yet considered fully realised, hence the provision of three viewing walls. I asked Le Bas if he sometimes continued the paintings here, away from the subject. A simple ‘no’ was the answer. I need not have asked, for his many collectors and supporters will know that he is a purist of sorts; passionate and uncompromising in the most positive sense and completely at one with the traditions associated with the landscape/seascape painter who will go out in all weathers to attain their goals – and to constantly surprise themselves at the inexhaustible range of subject matters and moods that wait to be seen and experienced.
Such an approach is Le Bas’ unspoken manifesto. He just gets on with the task in hand, albeit as a healthy compulsion loaded with drive and sheer enthusiasm. The work is so memorable that it speaks not only for itself, but also for the inexhaustible landscape related encounters that somehow await the viewer’s comprehension, though intriguingly via the work itself. The paintings may well function as signposts, imploring the viewer to get back out there and look again, but they are more than mere signage of course. The canvases, as carriers of physical imagery, embody lived experience and a sense of time, where to pin down the visual realisation of a particular place, set in some notion of the abstractness of duration, is reliant on the paint medium and its expert treatment. Time and light is fluid too, which poses a contradiction to the solidity of form, of the interaction of colours and the myriad relationships that constitute fixed composition. Le Bas’ works bring the observer and observed together so that the works also realise the shared experience of seeing, through the manifestation of consciously formulated structures constructed by this communal gift of sight.
There is an inherent democracy at work, wherein the drawing content, the range of mark making, the colour range are all carefully balanced so that if anything dominates it is the difficult to define ‘spirit of place’. Le Bas can apply such an abstract notion in any aspect of the landscape environment, whether nearby or far away. Interestingly, the historical picturesque can be discounted in his approach to composition and content, as there is an honest acceptance of what is simply there. What lesson we might learn from Le Bas’ life-long project is that every day and every scene presents a seemingly revived landscape offering a new vista, and a fresh encounter, with the apparently commonplace. These landscapes are tirelessly offered up, re-imagined, for continuous engagement and revelation, so long as the viewer will give over their own time to enjoy and contemplate the imagery.
Le Bas’ paintings celebrate, exalt and revere the various locations and unequivocally express awe at the natural world. The role of shamanic consort, expressing the elevating metaphysical aspect of the everyday through the ordinarily magical presence of the landscape is his task. The work continuously appears to convey this sense of the uniqueness of the quotidian and the local which changes in appearance, not only due to time of day or season, but is subject to the artist’s own crucial engagement at any particular time. This notion of self, however, is not selfish as these paintings help the viewer to see afresh and to experience beyond subject matter.
There is an extrovert inclination in these paintings and drawings, revealing an emotional involvement steered by rigorous and disciplined draughtsmanship. This engagement with the physical qualities of medium, from compressed charcoal or chalk pastel in his drawings to oil paint on canvas, Le Bas’ works are somehow a summation of perceived experience that lives beyond his initial encounters in the landscape. High key colour combines with earthy local colour. His engagement with the glorious power of colour reveals both a romantic and a matter-of-fact connection with the landscape experience.
There is, I suspect, some deliberate exaggeration in Le Bas’ practice. A visual proclamation in his use of colour and insistent mark making, which is intended to bring the viewer into the work, and to make a lasting impression, reminds us that the landscape is still a worthy and increasingly important genre. Not solely for the sake of decorating our walls, or as a reminder of those places we love to visit, but as ecological imperative. For, as our burgeoning awareness of environmental issues develops for all the wrong reasons, Le Bas’ representations of the landscape may be reminding us that Arcadia is on our doorstep and, by implication, we need to stop trashing it a.s.a.p.
“A work of art is a whole, and this whole contains many parts – the material out of which it’s made being just one of them. We could include the interpretive horizons of the art’s consumers, for example, and the contexts in which the art materials were assembled… In this way it’s obvious that there are so many more parts than there is whole.” (Timothy Morton)
The chair in the art gallery has never been quite the same again since Joseph Kosuth presented, ‘One and Three Chairs’ (1965), in a Duchampian spirit of challenging the viewer to question representation in art. Subsequently we have learned, or been reminded, that everything is loaded with possible interpretations – especially when context is accounted for. A context that includes the viewer, of course.
In 262 CHAIRS, currently installed in the Coachwerks exhibition space in Brighton, I find myself looking for a chair to sit on, as I need to rest awhile. Alas, this is not an option, which I find ironically amusing. But there are chairs galore in this warmly welcoming environment, thanks to the blazing log burner, which are represented in many drawings and two sculptures. Adam Spain, Exhibition Manager at Volt, Eastbourne, has neatly curated the exhibition, which may account for a certain ‘just rightness’ about a selective display that does not go overboard visually and presents enough physical content to engage the viewer.
The two exhibitors, Becky Hancock and Molly Stredwick (both graduates of Camberwell College of Arts) are presenting works that simply work well together. Not just because the apparent subject matter might be the same, but also because there’s an almost unassuming simplicity and innocence about the imagery as well as the means of execution. Though I suspect the content could be loaded.
Take Becky Hancock’s five drawings, for example, where each composition includes a pair of chairs placed at, what might be, a dining table. Domestic space suggests relationships, often about couples, and by extension, families. Here the furniture is, in a sense, naked. There are no figures directly represented, although the placement of, and spaces between, the various pairs of chairs are perhaps melancholy and at odds. The viewer might clothe these scenarios with their own imaginative interpretations or real experiences and any one of these drawings would be ideal to start writing a short story from in a creative writing class. The more visually dominant element in these drawings is the table, which distorts itself into angular hieroglyphs. The table might be a body that undergoes both voluntary and, as a domestic situation might dictate, forced distortions and poses – though not so much as a referee or arbitrator, but functioning as a victim of sorts. As sketchbook drawings, presented on the wall unframed, they might well function as studies for paintings or installations but they are intriguingly finalised statements that are impressive and compelling enough to be fully resolved outcomes per se.
Also on display are two 3D pieces by Hancock. At first sight the viewer might read them as adjusted ‘real’ chairs. But they are human-scale simulacra. A chair can be an idea, a model, a prototype, an image, a word or even a functional item. Whatever a ‘chair’ has the potential to manifest itself as it can also be a sculpture, of sorts. These two pieces take on an anthropomorphic presence with one leaning forward, as if in prayer, adoration of the deity or submission, the other sat back in picnic mode – engaged in déjeuner sur l’herbe, perhaps. Either way, both are fallen, making a melancholic and downcast presence at the viewer’s feet. Or telling us that they are not really chairs, whatever our automatic reading probably is.
Co-exhibitor, Molly Stredwick, has commandeered the largest, most expansive wall, upon which 176 small drawings of chairs are displayed (selected from a series of 251). These are, for all intents and purposes, imaginary chairs. The perspective is sometimes distorted, conventional three-point perspective reversed, or appearing to be floating or rendered flat without surrounding space or objects included. Any resemblance to Hancock’s 3-D chairs is superficial, though creating a coherent feel and appearance for the exhibition. This wall of 11X16 approximately postcard sized drawings might be a catalogue of chairs, but each is surely the same one, or maybe not, for very subtle personality traits might distinguish each speculative rendering. Drawn on G. F. Smith paper samples with the same red Muji Gel pen there is a suggestion of the series or the genus with variety being sight. The manufacturer’s printed text functions as an internal framing device too, with the different numbers, paper types and weight information changing along with the colours and the visual and tactile presence of the material. So what appears to be repetition and sameness calmly explodes into huge variety. In effect, this wall of assembled drawings functions as an installation that can be viewed as a whole grid-type shape or as individual drawings that must attract viewers to any one sample or part, which is nevertheless complete in itself.
In his book, ‘Being Ecological’, Timothy Morton has explained that an ecosystem of parts and wholes is an environment of “just lifeforms and their extended genomic expressions: think of spider’s webs and beaver’s dams.” That’s what artists do; they make their respective webs and dams alongside and sometimes in collaboration with others (or curators make the connections). The viewer is part of the situation too; not so much caught up in the web, as one of its constructors.
Note: Both quotations from: Morton, T. ‘Being Ecological’, Pelican, 2018 (p.113)
Returning home from the Private View for ‘We Like The Taste of Certain Poisons’, I am compelled to write something immediately about this small but compelling exhibition of Richard Graville’s paintings at NoHawkers Gallery, which is situated in the Rodhus complex of studios and workshops in Brighton.
Some sense of urgency (including the use of my iPhone photographs – so apologies to the artist) is due to the fact that the show is only open for two days and that if someone were to read this hurried review in time they might make it to see the exhibition. But another aspect of this impulse is due to my having spent a large proportion of the day preparing a teaching session, in which I shall ask my students to consider our shared human history of the landscape environment and might consider why this is still an interest for contemporary painters.
I had been re-reading Timothy Morton’s, ‘Being Ecological’, in which he posits the notion that:
“Picture postcards are descendents of what came before Romanticism in art, namely the picturesque. In the picturesque, the world is designed to look like a picture – like it’s already been interpreted and packaged by a human. You can easily see what’s what: there’s a mountain over there, a lake, maybe there’s a tree in the foreground… this is pretty much what humans saw in the savannah millions of years ago. Having a body of water nearby and some shade (those trees), encircled safely by mountains where you know there is water descending to feed the lake (for instance), is pretty handy if you’re some kind of ancient human. The picturesque is keyed to a fundamental human-centred way looking at things: it is anthropocentric.”
This seems strangely fortuitous, for although Graville’s paintings would certainly not be identified as landscapes as such (though they hold that possibility for a viewer who might be so inclined to wear their landscape-tinted spectacles), some kind of deep psychological and ‘pre-historical’ possibilities are pertinent to Graville’s project within a minimalist, systems/coding kind of approach to hard-edged abstract painting.
The last time I saw a Richard Graville painting (in the flesh, as opposed to on Instagam) was in H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G_x2 (Part 1) at the Phoenix Art Space in Brighton at the beginning of 2020. I wrote then that:
“Even Richard Graville’s pair of canvases, ‘Blushing Phantom’ and ‘Red Banded’, that come the closest to accruing accusations of painterly abstraction, have an aura of careful, premeditated control. That they echo the similar stripes on the workforce vans outside the building is either unfortunate or reminds us that abstract art is everywhere.”
This was my personal, uninformed but simplistically and naively honest response to two rather satisfying paintings. We search for meaning, some allusion, illusion or just good old subject matter in paintings. It’s habitual. That the red and yellow stripes on the Highway Maintenance vans had any connection with the natural world, as in animal colouration and patterning, I must admit was beyond me at the time.
From this solo show of ten new works by the artist (plus several more in his studio on-site) an information sheet presents this comment:
“Humans were once able to navigate and track subtle clues in nature. Now flat signs in primary colours tell us which way to go and what to do. I continue down that path to see where it leads.” (Richard Graville)
Hence my connection with Morton’s view on the picturesque, in that we humans create systems of understanding to navigate and understand the environments we live in – as do the other animals. Morton’s observations reference a perception of the world from a clearly human viewpoint (the anthropocentric), although also in the book he makes it clear that a worm’s experience of an apple is somewhat different to a human’s. Nevertheless, on all sorts of levels, data is interpreted, via various access modes, to be acted upon.
A wall mounted information display adjacent to the exhibition room tells the viewer that animal colouration systems, categorized as aposematism, inform potential predators that an animal is poisonous, venomous, or otherwise dangerous. All animals (which include us humans), to some extent, live (and die) by preventing attack (or not). Data requires interpretation, which is a form of code, taking us back to the work of the artist.
Not that Graville’s works could be categorized as ‘landscape’, but various painted arenas (canvases) are presented for interpretation and contemplation. Sensory input, from the simple act of looking, enables the mind to process information that we categorise typically as colour, size, shape, texture and finish or sheen. Each composition is relatively simple and geometrical and often references (purposely or not) windows and road signs. The colour palette is always limited (sometimes monochrome), though sophisticated and astute enough to prompt some reaction from the viewer. Every work is immaculately and carefully composed, painted and visually constructed. I suspect that the paintings might feel different depending on one’s mood and known or unknown frame of reference at different times. If you can accept a minimalist type of simplicity, aligned to a deep interest in colour (for its own sake, never mind any aposematic coding or sign) try to see this show – or look out for the next opportunity.
Geoff Hands (October 2022)
‘Being Ecological’ by Timothy Morton (quotation from pp.24/25 Pelican, 2018)
In a post-industrial revolution context the English countryside, for so long a subject for painters, can still be a strangely ‘other’ environment for so many. Nowadays this space we call the ‘countryside’ is a place of escape and rest, suitable for a day out or for a camping holiday. For the daily traveller going about their business the countryside is a fleeting arena placed in between centres of commerce and mass housing. Viewed from the train, bus or car window lack of access may even create tension. Despite being loaded with mythology, folk tales, notions of paradise (very much lost), agrarian history and, for the south of England in particular (arguably the birthplace of capitalism) a mode of enquiry for the contemporary artist continues on to the ecological crisis that now impacts our “green and pleasant land” (to reference William Blake).
Julian Le Bas is a painter, perhaps the contemporary painter, of the Sussex section of the South Downs and the adjoining coast. Le Bas bares witness to this typically splendid and beautiful geography of chalk hills and woodland as he engages with his, and our, local world on a journey that has been his indefatigable undertaking for over forty years. What lesson we might learn from his ongoing life-long project is that every day and every scene presents a seemingly revived landscape offering a new vista, and a fresh encounter, with the apparently commonplace. The landscapes from Le Bas are tirelessly offered up, renewed, for continuous engagement and revelation.
Paintings and drawings, made en plein air and in isolation as he travels alone, invite a congregation of onlookers in a small exhibition of paintings and drawings at Berwick Church for this year’s Lewes Artwave Festival. Le Bas’ paintings exalt and revere his subject matter – and how fitting that we see these works in a place of worship. This particular church might be considered a wonderful art installation in itself, purposely referencing the pre-Reformation model of the church as the historical forerunner to the ‘art gallery’, permanently containing murals by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, plus the recently commissioned altar reredos panels by Julian Bell.
The paintings and drawings from Le Bas, however, are secular in subject matter and intent but unequivocally express awe at the natural world. Le Bas is the epitome of the artist engaging in the role of shamanic consort, expressing the elevating metaphysicality of the everyday through the ordinarily magical presence of the landscape. It may take a leap of faith to accept such a purposely contradictory definition of this particular artist, but the work continuously appears to convey this sense of the uniqueness of the quotidian and the local which changes in appearance – not only due to time of day or season, but is subject to the artist’s own mood or degree of engagement at any particular time.
These paintings are of the moment – a duration measured in hours we might assume. Le Bas uses an English post-Impressionist palette where high key colour combines with earthy local colour. His engagement with colour reveals both a romantic and a matter-of-fact connection with the notion of landscape experience. But what does this mean if it’s a correct interpretation? I would argue that some exaggeration, a visual proclamation in his use of colour and insistent mark making, is intended to bring the viewer into the work and to remind us that the magical landscape is still a worthy and increasingly important genre – especially as it contributes to our burgeoning awareness of global environmental issues.
The personal capacity required of a contemporary painter, with an arguably dated assignment to record the landscape, and at first glance unshackled by what might be on trend at present, is necessarily blinkered to enable a deep focus on such a potentially numinous experience of landscape. A logical pragmatist, a post-modernist, might reject Landskip as relevant now (unless it provides a context for other, grander, socially and politically qualified narratives), but one role of the artist might still be to say: “look at what I have seen, see what is available to all”.
Or, to take most of the words of R. S. Thomas from the poem, ‘The Small Window’:
“… there are jewels
To gather, but with the eye
Only. A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles
With colour and goes out
In its turn; in one day
You can witness the extent
Of the spectrum and grow rich
Like this poet, associated with the Llŷn Peninsula in north Wales, Le Bas is tuned in to the sheer visual experience of his own landscape, not withstanding its potential to transform our experiences. Le Bas reminds the viewer that this environment is bursting with colour as much as any city has to offer and that it has the indefatigable capacity to ‘move’ us and to provide space to think, to plan and reflect and to explore. On a trite level, even a small canvas of Le Bas’ in the urban home will break down the barriers between the town and the country; but also on a metaphysical level, based on concrete experience, a transformative understanding of the landscape environment is possible too. Perhaps usefully, we cannot seem to let go of our obsession with ‘the countryside’. Landscape as a genre, engaged with constantly by the Sunday painter and the obsessive, committed practitioner alike, persists in our culture – which is quite assuring.
Whilst there is a certain, expressionistic conventionality in Julian Le Bas’ paintings and drawings (which I say in a positive sense), the gestural yet restrained visual language, honed and perfected after years of hard practice and utter devotion, results in a compelling engagement with his subject matter. For some observers he may exaggerate colour and mark making at times, approaching a general expectation of abstraction, but this is the hook that pulls one in and presents the eye and mind with spatial conundrums of simultaneous senses of flatness and depth. The generally bold brush marks are laid in areas that intermix, overlap or abut, amounting to a distinctive patchwork of organic shapes. Local colour and colour in its own right – straight out of the tube, Fauve-like – or mixed on the canvas as well as the palette to create secondary and tertiary mixes, make a variety of colour combinations. Realised as mark and gesture as well as for their tones and values, these colour-shapes are at once based on responding to visual reality and to testifying to a daily practice that celebrates the act of painting, whatever degree of verisimilitude is sought. There is clearly an extrovert inclination in these paintings, revealing an emotional involvement steered by rigorous and disciplined draughtsmanship. This engagement with the physical qualities of medium, from compressed charcoal in his drawings to oil paint on canvas, Le Bas’ works are somehow a summation of perceived experience with an aspect that says, “look at this world around you and engage with your whole being”. This is very much a serious undertaking, where pleasure is often an outcome.
In Le Bas’ paintings the drawing content morphs, via the brush, into painted lines that delineate shapes and forms, often flat rather than rounded, but creating visual space on the canvas. Perspective is loosely reduced within the network of colour-shapes but an abstract, surface acknowledging, arrangement of colours and gestures there is also an essence of movement. The observer might detect a degree of improvisation too, as taking liberties with mark and colour is a strong characteristic in Le Bas’ work. The paintings are made from a totally immersive activity of looking at sections, and spatial passages where the eye has been lead in deep concentration, engaging with various parts, structures, surfaces and atmospheres that make up the whole. A ‘whole’ that actually includes the observer, for if the environment is captured in spirit, it also captures us. In these paintings there is a record of being that is symbiotic with ‘nature’ as, in a real sense there is no divide. If we learn to appreciate this environment, starting with the local, with what’s in front of us, we might start to protect it better and therefore see that Le Bas’ paintings are as relevant as any other contemporaneous projects that have a more immediately political purpose.
Philosopher and Ecologist, Timothy Morton has written:
“Somewhere a bird is singing and clouds pass overhead. You stop reading this book and look around you.” (‘Being Ecological’)
We might stop looking at paintings and look around too, but engaging with the art might be the doorway we need to see what’s in front of us.
This was an exhibition I had to visit twice and I may have been once more by the time this rumination has been written.
The Brighton Centre for Contemporary Arts is a relatively new gallery hub in Grand Parade and Dorset Place, which is situated at the University of Brighton. As such a large community of artists live in the city, many graduating from the university itself, the institution might now be expected to lead the way in highlighting contemporary themes and developments in the broad area of fine art. The Grand Parade gallery was reopened (and rejuvenated) in 2019 after several decades as a general gallery space that often showcased student work from the visual arts and design courses at the university. The last exhibition I saw there, at the beginning of this year, was Lloyd Corporation, a thought provoking (‘research lead project’) on material accumulation and social space, with the inevitable installation and slide show presentation. The show certainly made me review the garbage still stored in my attic at home, but as a painter who writes the occasional review, I have felt some disappointment in the possibility of new initiatives and expositions from the visually creative communities in Brighton to exclude, or at least downplay, painting. We appear to live in an age where issue-lead forms of ‘information’ and ‘message’ are a key requirement for supportive funding too. Video, photography, installation and text-based works, in particular, have been on trend for some time now. So a painting show, by an artist new to me, provided a good excuse to get out of the studio. A five star review of The Exile of Dionysus, the first major show of paintings by Bill Lynch in the UK, from Laura Cumming in The Observer was also a powerful prompt.
Bill Lynch: The Exile of Dionysus
“In these pictures everything is alive and communicating wildly. Lynch’s connection to subjects and landscapes, both in life and painting, was empathic: a flower or tree branch sings just as strongly as any bird; … and he listened acutely, transcribing their conversation so you could hear it too. Their secrets opened up to him. Everywhere is meaning. Surrounded by his work, you can’t help but be struck by this vibrant language; his sincere belief, his love.”(Michael Wilde, White Columns, September 2014)
Déjà vu: to my unexpected surprise, as I first wandered (and wondered) through this immediately memorable exhibition of Bill Lynch’s paintings, I was reminded of the viewer experience from the Brett Goodroad: Toe Buoy exhibition held at the Phoenix Art Space here in Brighton in 2018. In both instances a relatively unknown North American artist, for a UK audience at least, brought a fresh voice and personalised vision to picturing, and actively celebrating, the world around him. Both artists’ respective projects augmented and amplified ‘reality’ with a sense of reverie and submersive attachment to the subject matter. Goodroad often explores a drama of figures in landscape settings, whilst Lynch more often highlights aspects (and objects) of his environment, for example, depicting flowers, trees and birds from nature or bowls, fruits and vases from more personal spaces. He was deeply interested in Chinese ink drawing too, hence a clearly affected visual language and subject matter in many instances of his work.
Unfortunately, Bill Lynch is now deceased (he died in 2013 from throat cancer aged just 53) and had mental health issues (schizophrenia) and these facts may well add to the inherent pathos of the works. The viewer cannot help but be affected by some aspects of autobiography (van Gogh being the classic case) when seeing an artist’s work, even in reproduction. But whilst a certain amount of knowledge and context of an artist’s work is necessary to understand and find a way into their artwork there is an argument for going straight to the work itself – inevitably accompanied by one’s own contexts and prejudices. This purist attitude is not one to always prevail, and we might seek to eschew habit, but it’s a conscious way in – most especially to such directly affective and demanding imagery. Theses are paintings that are impossible to ignore.
No doubt, every viewer will be struck by Lynch’s use of salvaged plywood as support. It’s a common material to use in place of canvas, solid wood or aluminium panels. It’s far from usual to use this base as found material and form (hence a variety of sizes and an acceptance of imperfections such as bashed corners and cut intrusions) without a backing frame and carefully primed and prepared grounds. The use of paint and the visual language is raw too. But Lynch did use oil paint and the subject matter fits into the tradition of landscape painting, notably influenced by an eastern (Chinese) tradition that celebrated nature.
There may be an unsophisticated irony at work here too, although I doubt it. Lynch was an art student in New York in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, although he lived “on the fringes” and did not succeed on the gallery scene. Irony, as a post-modernist conceit, came a little later, and Lynch’s work appears beyond parody or intellectual conceptualism. One reading might be that Lynch was (metaphorically speaking) sticking two fingers up to the art world establishment. The works certainly have a feeling of individual strength and reveal a desire to stay tuned to painting as a way of mediating with the world, and oneself, irrespective of fashion or gallery pressures. Perhaps painting was a balm for his personal troubles, a way of coping with and of celebrating being alive.
His imagery, whether influenced by Chinese painting or not, has that sense of direct engagement with the subject. This of course includes the imagination, based on a story-telling kind of attitude, alongside concrete experiences and observations. The works are unashamedly ‘rough and ready’. They look like first drafts, but go beyond sketches or rough plans. The physicality of application of the paint matches the honest acceptance of the medium too, as if to suggest the illusion of visual reality as being quite matter of fact – a form of philosophical irony steeped in Buddhist traditions.
The Exile of Dionysus is divided into two main spaces, plus a reading room at one end. The North and South Galleries house the works. The former has some suffused natural light, which was strangely welcome despite the noise of the traffic from outside. But from the main entrance into the building the visitor enters a high ceilinged space containing ten of the fifteen works selected. Here the internal walls are painted green, which oddly reminded me of the National Portrait Gallery in London. We are so used to white walls now that colour can come as a shock. But the works bedded in well and the green was congenial and not dominating. Intended or not, this gave a sense of being in a rather special, natural, kind of space. I mention this, as any gallery environment imposes an unavoidable immediate context for the work. White would have been okay, but the use of a colour brought the paintings together, whilst in the adjoining setting the five other works felt separate. As a space with the additional construction of surrounding walls the traffic sounds were heavily muffled. A chair or bench to sit and ponder Lynch’s painting would have been most welcome too, not only to discourage the common gallery walk through, but also to facilitate an even more contemplative experience. But, no matter, for the works will make the visitor stop and stare.
Once the shock of the materiality of the works is accepted, the imagery can come to the fore. In the South Gallery I suspect that the almost, but not quite, light-hearted imagery of a human skeleton in ‘Untitled (Skeleton)’ will stand out first. A white shroud, suggestively the beginning of applying a primer to the board, slightly foregrounds the serious looking skeleton that is accompanied by a flowering plant between its legs, with part of a tree trunk and branches behind. Not that perspective as a necessary element bothers Lynch too much.
To the left of this relatively large work is, ‘Emperor’s Erection’, which depicts a vase with two ghostly wings (linear depictions of four legged animals in fact) that levitates the form against the board that has a pre-painted layer of varnish from a previous life as a piece of furniture. The still-life reference of the found board, like a piece of Cubist assemblage, accommodates the rather beautifully painted vessel decorated with plant forms. Lynch tends to draw with the paint, especially when getting a little more detailed and specific.
Nearby hangs, ‘No title (Vase with Blue and Purple Flowers)’ which, despite almost hiding in a corner, demanded my attention as much as any other of the works in the show. A Rothko-esque cloud of colour fills the top right-hand corner of the composition before a rather scraggly looking vase of flowers demands more viewer focus and attention. These may have been cut-plants in need of water as the stems are beginning to droop. I imagine they may have once existed in Lynch’s studio, or wherever he painted. Dotted across the board are knots in the plywood layers that suggest planets to the imagination, though they are more ‘real’ than any painted representation of anything. Around the base of the glass vase is a pair of wing-like forms. Or perhaps they are clouds of unknowing. On one level, this scruffy little painting might be considered as superficially trite, but holds a galaxy of potential meaning and viewer interpretation.
Before entering the North Gallery the visitor will certainly be stopped in their tracks by, ‘Four Corners Sunset’ from 1994, one of only three works dated in the exhibition, and the largest. I wonder if Lynch was so pleased to obtain such an expanse of plywood that it invited a glorious sunset, worthy of the attention of a 19th century Hudson Valley painter, inspired by the implied sublimity of a J.M.W. Turner sunset. The red circular forms throbbing in a suggestively psychedelic pulse line across the horizon, like a row of coloured spotlights from a rock concert, contrasts with the dark cratered lunar-like landforms below and to either side of the setting sun. The world can be a strange place indeed, though we need painters to remind us sometimes.
Lynch’s work, however, seems to be appropriately and healthily placed in the often commonplace. In the North Gallery one of the outstanding works is one of the simplest compositions in the show. ‘No title (Bird on Branch)’ depicts a bird perched on a tree branch, with leaves above and below on a single stem. The leaves are gently modulated with tone and shift in sequence from being closed in the top left, to open (in the middle), to dropping apart in the bottom right hand corner. One might sense the passing of time in this small painting, as the bird’s weight holds the branch in a diagonal position within the composition. I assume that the bird was copied from a reproduction, not that it matters. It’s an image that far surpasses its simplistic representation and it’s no big deal that it’s not painted on canvas. It is just about the end of the show at this point, although the green glade behind will pull you back in for another look.
Laura Cumming may have been purposely, and journalistically, provoking the reader for attention in suggesting that Lynch was “…the greatest American artist you’ve never heard of”, but she was correct when she stated that, “Bill Lynch’s paintings on salvaged wood transfix with their dual power of primitive joy and high sophistication.”
This really is a show to visit and the arts community of Brighton dare not miss the spectacle. Painting can go far beyond the provision of mere information.
Outer space is right here, right now. It’s in front of us and in us, one and all – for there’s an inner space too. In terms of individual consciousness the two may as well be the same. When we think, we travel too, even if we remain physically still. When there is nowhere left to go, when we are trapped, marooned or sheltering from the storm we can rely on mental space. Still, but adrift in time, when memory kicks in to take us out of ourselves there is a palpable sense of space as an extension of self. Such are the conditions of splendid isolation, afforded most recently during the early months of the global pandemic.
Kiki Stickl clearly made the most of her own experiences of her family’s six months spent in countryside near Munich during the first lockdown in 2020 when she produced her ‘Breath in Breath out’ series of drawings, several of which appear in Drift. Here she encountered ideal conditions for creativity: time and space, duration and environment – and possibly sound as well – especially when the world is hushed. In fact, as I awoke on the morning after seeing Drift being installed at the Phoenix Art Space a couple of days before the opening I was semiconsciously thinking of Stickl’s drawings as visual soundworks. Not necessarily apropos Cage’s 4’ 33”, but literally, and deafeningly, silent. Stickl’s drawings suggest small arenas of silent sound consisting of visual counterpoints, full of emptiness inviting a form of meaningful mark making as an abstract response to recalling time and space. These are drawings made as an end result as they are not subservient to, or necessarily leading to painting as might traditionally be the case. Stickl conjures drawings from a meditation in the everyday physical realm of being that amount to sensory, environment-based studies. From a landscape environment to the literal sheet of paper that she works on, the drawings map out themselves. Sometimes she cuts the paper to reference, literally, a sense of layering as well as amalgamating marks on the paper surface as a form of recording what has been seen and remains to be seen: Cartesian, with Buddhist overtones.
Drift presents 19 works. One is a temporary wall drawing (employing paint); another is a painting (titled, ‘Lines of Disruption’); plus seventeen square format drawings on paper, simply but immaculately framed. The painting is placed in the adjoining coffee shop, but cannot be missed on the main show wall as a little taster of her painting practice. The wall-based work, ‘Drift’, at about two metres square, is the centrepiece in the long Window Gallery space. Composed as an essentially linear structure from two tones of grey paint on the white wall, with the addition of ground up glass beads applied to the lightest grey paint when it was still wet, the darker grey mass suggests a resting figure, perhaps in meditation pose. An ephemeral, time-based work such as this will disappear at the end of the exhibition later this month. This work, therefore, demands that we hold it in our memories, just as we may do from our personal experiences of places beyond the gallery.
The bulk of the show consists of the drawings that have been selected from a much larger body of works, the aforementioned ‘Breath in Breath out’ series. From drawing to drawing, as they are arranged in blocks and rows, there is great variety of imagery and mark making. Subtle use of colour is occasionally employed, although they still read as essentially monochrome iterations. In many, linear rhythms consisting of scribbles, dots and short or flowing lines are accumulated suggesting light and weather conditions. Forms are deconstructed to some extent, invoking that sense of recall that does not rest, preferring flux and instability as performative, shorthand approximations. Imagery that might be solid is no longer fixed as a conventional photograph might replicate for the viewer. The paper cut-out sections present voids and absences, shadow and light, useful contrasts and visual paradoxes. Implied shapes and lively line is reductive though essential as imaginative remnants of remembrance celebrated. These are motion pictures, mapping the psyche as much as the terrain.
Stickl is not so much taking a line for a walk (re: Paul Klee) as inventing and playing with accumulations, sometimes in counterpoint mode, un-egotistically presenting a notion of drift through time and space.
“This work does not conduct itself with grand gestures. The best of these paintings make themselves felt intuitively and structurally by measures quite human. They progress carefully, in challenging jumps and starts. They are full of free and varied thought, without self-importance, working towards new and distinct states of abstract reality.” (Robin Greenwood, AbCrit website)
After seven previous shows this is the first exhibition in the newly extended abcrit.org gallery in Bell Yard Mews near the White Cube gallery, showing paintings by EC. There are 24 works on display ranging in size from 30x20cm to 122x92cm, with various permutations in between. Five are square and others portrait or landscape format. For such a range of disparity in dimension this collection literally hangs together in unison. There is a sense of the ‘series’ about the selection, yet every work has an independent status and can be viewed as a discrete piece.
The various titles are intriguing too. They read like a list of poems. For example:“Your Exquisite Manners (Frankly)”; “Unforbidden Pleasure Seeker”; “It Takes Patience to Make a Disaster”; “Yellow Swing Yellow Swing”; and “All Trajectories are Unstable”. Although “PUNK JAZZ”, the only work titled in capital letters, pays homage to a Weather Report track from ‘Mr Gone’ (1978) in which, at the start of the composition, Jaco Pastorius launches his bass guitar expertly into an unforgettable percussive jazz fusion frenzy that is, nonetheless, totally controlled. Rather like EC’s works.
These mixed media collages, that we can call paintings, are typically busy, boldly delivering overlapping patchworks of fragmented physical elements, purposefully destroyed then re-worked, but never distraught. Painterly fragments (as if) from the studio floor or bin, or from managed intentions to destroy previously made compositions, are sensuously positioned over the surface of supporting canvases. There is a visceral sense of chaos controlled, or rather, accommodated as the natural order of things prevails. Asymmetric balances and compositional nous bring these paintings into the current period of abstraction as a breath of fresh air. For this is serious stuff. Not content with employing pretty colours, punchy but vacuous vistas or harmonious and undemanding safe passages of expressive playfulness arranged for decorating an interior space, EC’s project engages with hard-earned visuality and an inherent depth of thought. The works truly engage and demand attention so honestly that you can detect joy and frustration combined. EC is one of those artists who are not distracted by the whims of fashion, socio-political issues, political correctness or commercial endeavour. This makes her work all the more engaging, as it constitutes a somewhat precarious road to travel upon that does not seek a ready-formed market position for safety.
Is EC’s project Dada-esque in spirit? Not so much anti-art (which Dada never was, of course) but anti-comfort: deploying the punk impulse to rock the boat (before it was integrated into the mainstream) when challenges are required to wake us from our stupor. From a first impression the viewer might wonder if this is a chaotic mess – though even chaos has a hidden pattern and logic. After all, why not explore and present ‘mess’? Chaos eventually controlled or simply halted at a stage of completion that is subjectively felt, has lead to these captivating and provocative works in “Strange Attractors”. Yet in a painting such as ‘Bias Interruptor’, or ‘Sanity Project (Radical Will)’, by giving some time for the paint smears and splatters seemingly applied by chance some careful looking, the open distribution in the former or the painterly concentration in the latter, actually read as carefully placed and subtly balanced compositions that reveal an expert eye and an adeptness for composure. There’s the punk irony, which hooks the viewer with clattering surprise but cares passionately after all.
Notably, the colour black appears in all of these works, holding things together akin to the lead scaffolding in stained glass windows. A disparate framework unevenly dispensed at times gives structure to hold the roving eye. Amalgamated into and alongside relief patchworks, dynamic structures, colour-as-paint (and vice-versa), these seemingly accidental and fortuitous juxtapositions make for engaging visual judgements that are anything but flaccid or disorganised. In the previously mentioned ‘Sanity Project (‘Radical Will’)’, a fragment of black (ink) text appears unexpectedly. Maybe it is an oblique clue of sorts. The title page from an edition of ‘Styles of Radical Will’, a collection of essays by Susan Sontag has possibly been torn up, discarded and disclaimed. I want to doubt it somehow (show some respect!): but here it is, peeping through the collaged detritus close to the centre of the composition as a potential manifesto statement.
In Sontag’s essay, ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’ she writes:
“… art comes to be considered something to be overthrown. A new element enters the individual artwork and becomes constitutive of it: the appeal (tacit or overt) for its own abolition – and, ultimately, for the abolition of art itself.”
The text and the concept have taken visual arts aside far too much and must be subsumed within the work itself, not held part in judgement. I wonder if EC’s mission is to toy with this radical notion that favours a changing resolution of “the human situation” (Sontag) as a form or manifestation of “spirituality” (Sontag, again) as an ironically playful project in itself, creating (or finding) some sort of order in chaos. Do these works employ the abstract absurdity of consciousness and self; notions of reality and worth vis-à-vis the creative impulse – and the concrete materiality that is abstract art? It all adds up to everything and nothing. But it’s something most refreshing and attractive.
abcrit.org – Block K, 13 Bell Yard Mews, 175 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UW
Visit by prior appointment. Text your name and requested date and time to 07866 583629, for return. The entrance to Bell Yard Mews is opposite White Cube.
The Window Gallery at Phoenix Art Space in Brighton offers studio members an exhibition opportunity close to home and the latest show celebrates the abstract paintings of Michelle Cobbin. After an email exchange of questions and answers in anticipation of the exhibition I had the pleasure of helping her to hang the show and so literally saw the work very close up. I mention this, as a viewer would normally step back to view the larger works. But despite the apparent visual simplicity of many of her canvases the colourfield experience really does pull the viewer up to the surface and into an atmospheric, non-objective, realm. The weave of the canvas, however, reminded me that I was not floating in some sort of meditative dreamland but was experiencing concrete reality.
I have often thought that abstraction in painting without overt reference to a particular narrative, scenario or specific space lends itself to a notion of timelessness, or of historical time collapsed into simply the experience of looking at and experiencing a work of art – something one might unashamedly describe as the aesthetic experience. This notion of the material here and now counterpoised by a more expanded sense of place is philosophically, as well as artistically, intriguing. Such an experience is not exclusive to abstract painting of course, as might paradoxically be seen in still-life painting (I am thinking of works by Giorgio Morandi and Peter Dreher) that both acknowledges a social reality and a particular time and place yet exudes a sense of ongoing visual engagement irrespective of the date on the back of the canvas. A kind of meta-reality embedded in paint and its various qualities.
In Cobbin’s oeuvre you will find that the landscape is implicit but not essential to identify and in this selection of six works the viewer will travel across the colour spectrum and from dark to light. The titles are generally broad and non-specific, although ‘Bridge’ and ‘In The Top Field’ keep our feet on the ground alongside ‘Atmosphere’, ‘Lament’, ‘Phosphorescence’ and ‘Hidden’.
To start the discussion with Michelle Cobbin I borrowed John Bunker’s first question for Peter Lamb from the new series of ‘Abstraction in the Now’ interviews from Instantloveland. “Can you remember the first abstract painting to make a real impression on you?” is a brilliantly simple gambit to open up a deeper conversation that delves into the past to relate to the present, and implicitly the future, in one’s practice.
Interview with Michelle Cobbin (February/March) 2022
Geoff Hands – Can you remember the first abstract painting to make a real impression on you?
Michelle Cobbin – The first would be Tibetan Mandalas and Thankas that I saw whilst travelling in Nepal in the early 1990s. If you want a western fine art example it would be the Rothko room of Seagram murals at what we now call Tate Britain in the mid 1990s. I was struck by how much presence they had, how they made me feel melancholic and introspective.
GH – That’s interesting. I recall looking at reproductions of Mandalas in my studio on my degree course (late ‘70s) and being dissuaded by my tutor from doing so as I could not possibly relate to them. He would have been okay with Rothko of course. Your paintings invite a long slow look. A meditative state may not be necessary but I assume that you would like the viewer to take time to contemplate the imagery.
MC – I am interested in how people respond to colour and abstract imagery – I’m interested in how it makes them feel. So this could be an instant instinctual response. But yes, with contemplation the viewer may drop into their body and feel their response more fully.
Aside from contemplating an image in a meditative way I’m also interested in how abstract imagery and colour has been used to divine insight. For example Rorschach’s Inkblot tests, the Lüscher Colour Test and the Aura Soma system.
I title my paintings which may lead the viewer to see them in a particular way, but people read images based on their own experiences, likes and dislikes, which goes back to sensory responses again.
GH – You have made and continue to develop several series of paintings, which is a fairly common way of grouping paintings for artists today. Your website is well illustrated with examples from these various series where a viewer can see ‘Transitions’, ‘Gaia’ and ‘Terra Verde’ which relate to landscape experiences, or ‘The Breath’, ‘Semblance’ and ‘Sumptuous Contentment’ which are more specifically yoga and meditation related. I am particularly fascinated, but for different reasons, by the ‘Inscape’ series that summons up memories from East Anglia, with a minimalist Zen Haiku guiding principle, and ‘Kenshō’ which is more programmatically ‘abstract’, with a clear reference to Zen calligraphy. The sense of family history and landscape related impressions from childhood in the former and a more formalist expression of abstract mark making in the latter gives rise to quite stark imagery.
But I wonder if the notion that, if I can reference Neil Young, these “are all one song”, by which I mean that the series titles and subjects might fall away to reveal a process of expression and communication that ties everything together as a record of one voice – in your case a visual and intuitive, feeling sensibility that manifests itself as abstract painting?
MC – Yes, of course my work is ‘all one song’ in some respects. I am interested in keeping things simple both in how the work looks and in making things clear. I know that abstract painting can be difficult to relate to and I think by working in series and titling paintings it goes some way to bridging that difficulty.
Working in series also gives me boundaries to work within – that might be a particular palette, mood, or conceptual idea. It helps me to focus, but no I’m not suddenly going to start painting people or objects as that would deviate from the message or ‘song’ that I want to convey.
As you mentioned, I grew up in East Anglia, near the Fens. The ‘Inscape’ series was my internalised and perhaps nostalgic impression of that landscape. It was the first series where I began using a horizon line in my work. I was hesitant about this – blocky colours with a straight-ish line, I was concerned it would scream “Rothko!” Of course his work has been hugely influential upon me. I included lots of little scribbles in the ‘Inscape’ series to begin with, to make the paintings less ‘empty’. It took me a while to have the confidence and to find my way into accepting I’m influenced by but not deriving my work from anyone else.
My forthcoming show, ‘I’d Be Enlightened Now If It Wasn’t For You’, at the Window Gallery, Phoenix Art Space is, if we keep with your musical reference, going to be a Greatest Hits show. I will be selecting works from various series. The criteria will be size. It is such a great window – literally – into Phoenix, and out into Brighton. Personally, I want to use this opportunity to survey how my large canvases sit together and show how, to quote Bob Dylan, I “keep on keeping on…”
GH – I expect that such a selection would work well in a linear type space that necessitates hanging most of the works in a straight line. Not necessarily in a chronological sense but in taking the viewer on a short but visually loaded journey from period to period.
The experiential link to a particular landscape is, to some degree, an historically “English’ trait too. Perhaps, for many painters and viewers the landscape is a way into abstraction?
MC – Yes the show could be a short visual journey. That could be an inward journey provoking an emotional response. I like the idea of colour bathing: standing close to large swathes of colour and noticing what you feel. The arts are a gateway to our emotional life and a way of connecting to other humans. In my case, I do this through paint. I hope viewers are drawn in, intrigued, and perhaps, as you say, the landscape nature of some of the paintings might be a way into abstraction.
I think that being linked to a landscape experientially is universal. I took a course with psychologist Sharon Blackie on finding and creating myths in one’s contemporary and ancestral landscapes. It has certainly helped me to relate differently to the little bit of downland near to where I live as well as to draw comparisons with the chalk land of East Anglia where I have traced my roots as far back as 1600. None of my ancestors moved outside of a 30-mile radius. This research will underpin my next series of paintings.
GH – Thank you Michelle, there is clearly so much more to contemplate from your broad body of work and I look forward to seeing and experiencing your mini-retrospective at the Phoenix in April, and, at some future date, the following series.
Jane Campling: Studio Visitfor Time + Place at Cameron Contemporary Art, Hove
5 to 20 March 2022
Jane Campling is exhibiting recent paintings at Cameron Contemporary Art in Hove this month alongside the figurative painter, Amy Dury. In preparing a short text for Campling’s section of the catalogue I also extended the word count for these Ruminations as I considered her painting practice.
Jane Campling is a committed painter. Her practice involves walking, drawing, looking, painting and reflection – both in the South Downs landscape, on the coast or back in her studio at Brighton’s Phoenix Art Space. Intriguingly, when I paid her a studio visit recently she was at pains to stress that she does not identify as a ‘landscape artist’. As a fellow painter with similar interests this made sense to me but we wondered if her audience would. After all, she paints within the landscape tradition. But then painting is, or can be, akin to thinking in action and to invention and to discovering, whatever the subject matter. It’s also intensely physical – including moments of just sitting and pondering in between busy periods of activity. At a simplistic level we can separate walking, drawing and painting quite easily but as a practitioner (and even avoiding the term or label ‘artist’) these various aspects coalesce in lived reality to create a more holistic experience of perception and feeling which can be celebrated and shared through the production of paintings, irrespective of the availability of other media. Looking at the paintings, and some wonderful shorthand-type drawings, on the studio walls felt relevant and contemporary. Just sitting and observing quietly between periods of speculative discussion contained no vestige of painting being obsolete or outmoded.
Campling makes paintings that can be viewed meditatively and purely for themselves as ‘abstract’ compositions, or with recourse to some vestige of landscape memories, special times and lived experiences from the artist or the viewer. If labels such as ‘landscape’ or ‘abstraction’ serve a purpose for categorisation that is fine, but a worthwhile challenge is to consider the works without these labels to get closer to what they are. It’s difficult for sure, as we have become so accustomed to learning ways of seeing and adopting forms of categorisation. We unavoidably read imagery and visualise from within traditions, but we sometimes need to remind ourselves that conventions can become distorting filters that close down rather than open up seeing clearly.
Campling’s project appears to be celebratory about a subject matter that is both external (ostensibly the landscape) and suggestively internal (the actual, visual/physical outcome that is placed within the rectangle and received in the guise of our own perception and adjudicated by our experiences and preferences). So we might have a sense of the fleeting visual reality of nature from her works, of the sometimes restless moment, and are coaxed into acknowledging the discord as well as the harmony of the physical world. Yet we are paradoxically given a fixed continuum of moments by the amalgam of brush marks, surface qualities and colour choices and relationships. Her work is characterised by a gestural form of shorthand, apparently quick decision-making, and working with the various properties and traits of the paint medium.
Expertly, Campling knows when (and how) to hold back and not to over apply or to embellish within the painting process. She knows when to start as well as when to stop, employing a subtle expressionism that approaches a cohesive colour/shape minimalism. Surprisingly perhaps, her work is not decorative in the sense of being superficial, but is attractive and engaging nonetheless. Tonal qualities are as important as a clear interest in colour combinations. So too with mark making, whereby the drawn qualities of shape and line might provide contrast or harmony within a composition, especially when the linear content of lines and edges coalesce so well. Layered and woven colour shapes are consistently under control to provide depth and rhythm, so that the viewer’s looking is active.
If you are fortunate enough to view Campling’s work in the gallery space or in the privacy of your own home imagine all filters removed. Her work evidences drawing into painting, seamlessly. Time and place as experience is here too, not only her own, but the imagery proactively coaxes the viewer’s memory bank of rural time and place, of the half-remembered scenery from a walk by the sea or even from the fleeting flashes of landscape from car journeys. Despite the unavoidable fixity of artworks made on paper or canvas, we know that time is not immutable but is defined by that unfathomable state of flux and flow. To define or fix would be to diminish the experience itself (which, of course is just another definition to eschew). The challenges of still images that represent in some way this notion of the impermanence of moments seemingly amalgamated and fixed invites reverie so that active looking is required, for the viewer is not a mere receiver. It’s a form of looking, thankfully, without too much effort. You can laugh or cry or just allow pure feeling without overt reaction. You could be elated or disinterested, I guess, for our moods constantly change. Campling’s paintings contain the potential to transform the mundane moment – but consider this experience potential normal and everyday – don’t get hung up on notions of the mystical or metaphysical. After all, the ordinary is extraordinary and visual experiences are preserved and developed by those painters, including Campling, who respond to notions of the contemporary in this digital age by painting even more, for there is something unique and timeless about painting. It’s an act of faith.
“The stated aim of Contemporary British Painting is to explore and promote current painting. The subtext to this is giving voice back to the artist, the originator and source of painting. The real discourse around current painting is generated painter to painter and emanates from the studio and not from the boardrooms of institutions, directors’ offices, lecture halls or galleries. This prize is artists submitting themselves to consideration and selection by their peers.” (Simon Carter, co-founder CBP)
A woman and her partner are standing in front of ‘A Farmhouse near the Water’s Edge (‘On the Stour’)’ by John Constable. “Does he ask questions?” she reactively inquires. I think it’s a rhetorical question. It’s certainly a gift of a question and I now wonder, was the painting asking questions about subject matter; perception; time; self; the painting process or the fiction of imagery and invented composition? Constable also appears to have gouged his palette knife into the surface of the oil painting and it is an unsettling image. I doubt that the subject matter is merely a farmhouse or a landscape. Paintings have so much to offer and so much potential for interpretation, with endless ground to cover. It’s no wonder they continue to intrigue viewer and maker alike.
What happened (is still happening) within the history of painting? Thousands of years on from the cave painting phenomenon, as Matthew Burrows would remind his audience at the opening of the London leg of the Contemporary British Painting Prize, current practice might point to the fact that many artists believe that the journey continues because painting is so inexhaustible and adaptable. Selected survey shows such as this point to the fact that the painting continuum trundles on, regardless of other media, technologies and contexts that artists employ to make certain points or simply investigate as life choices. But the CBP prize acts as both a celebration of, and a manifesto of sorts, exclusively for painting. The mission statement is, perhaps, understated, as there is no one predominant style, genre or parameter for painting being proclaimed – although an exploration and promotion of current trends in British painting, especially from the community of the painters rather than the gatekeepers, is paramount.
Before arriving for the Contemporary British Painting Prize 2021 – which consists of a selection of 15 artists’ work made by Unit 1 Director Stacie McCormick who had visited the prize show at Huddersfield Art Gallery a few weeks back – I had finally got around to jumping on a train, adorned with a facemask, to see a few London shows. The exhibition batteries had been running low, so the CBP show was ideal to touch base with some contemporary works and to see a few friendly faces. Beforehand, experiencing the Late Constable exhibition at the RA was bound to impress and, so too, was the Georges Braque show, The Poetry of Things, at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery that had fortuitously been extended to this very day. Both prestigious exhibitions might have overshadowed seeing anything else that day but it is always necessary, I believe, to put status aside when viewing the works of contemporary painters, otherwise there is a danger of being disrespectful to the endeavours of such an extraordinary community.
The Unit 1 space had allowed for a selection of 27 works, including a small triptych set, depicting ‘Temporary Sculptures’ by Sarah Poots, without either being jam-packed or leaving acres of wall space empty. Arriving before the many visitors for the opening there was ample room to step back or to go in closer, particularly for the smaller and finely rendered paintings by Daisy Richardson. None of the paintings were inappropriately combined, which was testament to the careful hanging decisions. Some works were obvious to display together if by the same artist, such as Martyna Lebryk’s pair of drawing-type paintings on paper; Bill Stewart’s two commanding canvases and Jesse Leroy-Smith’s three compelling portraits. Other exhibitors had their respective works such as Gary Spratt, Tom Robinson, Zack Thorne and Donna Mclean interspersed with others, which enabled an overall cohesiveness to the selection and hang that clearly attempted to celebrate every participant rather than any one in particular. So, even the winner of the 2021 Prize, Susan Absolon, had her three works split into a small pair and one relatively large work, ‘Dugout’ intriguingly placed between Zac Thorne’s ‘The End Part XI’, a tight figurative work and Tom Robinson’s ‘Telmah’, one of the most painterly and abstract in the show. More object-oriented works came from Christina Niederberger (with a strong mimetic textile vibe) and Roland Hicks (constructivist, non-objective, found object become painting), whilst Tony Antrobus, Jan Valik, and Highly Commended Award winner Hannah Murgatroyd (with just about the largest canvas – ‘Night Mapping’ at 130x150cm on show), had just one canvas selected each, which perhaps left one wanting more.
Picking out any one or two participants as favourites seems unfair in the context of this exhibition, though inevitably one will gravitate towards preferred visual languages or subject matter (though as an abstract painter I found myself gravitating towards Mclean’s ‘Cloud’ and Leroy-Smith’s portraits throughout the evening – yet still felt compelled to sneak of with Antrobus’ ‘Narcissistic Wounds’ that took a while to grow on me). The recommended approach to ingesting the show is to enjoy and be intrigued by this celebration of British painting. There is no overriding theme. Search for a subject if you wish, but do not establish a territory of preference. If works are resolved still see painting, generally, in a state of becoming and development, not only for the individual artists, but also for painting as an ongoing project.
The catalogue for the aforementioned Braque show added poignancy to the day as it contains what I believe to be art historian, Mel Gooding’s final essay. In the last paragraph he writes of Braque’s nature morte paintings:
“They are real, indeed, but their actuality is within the painting. They give the mind a reality to contemplate, one that doesn’t and couldn’t exist elsewhere: only here…”
If there are relevant contemporary narratives in British painting emerging post-Brexit they seem to be about time and place; history and self; inside and outside. But it is still too early to see, I suspect. There has to be an argument for painting though, best developed from the studios of the dedicated practitioners who live in every town and community on this tiny little island. The selected work supports this cause for we are all on the same side, even if we disagree or appear to live in different realities sometimes.
Visitors will surely be intrigued by the spectacle of the colourful, carefully and skilfully painted oil paintings that join together under the title of Small Towns, an exhibition from Phoenix Art Space member, Perdita Sinclair. Usefully there are chairs spaced along the broad corridor that encourage people to sit and take stock too. Paintings (especially good ones) deserve prolonged attention rather than the perfunctory or passing glance.
A sequence of eight canvases begins with ‘Pineapple’, which at 165x125cm is the largest work on display. The title is suggestive rather than descriptive as it could just as well allude to a portrait as much as an exotic fruit. But more about titles and interpretations later, for what we do see before us is a figurative painting of a mound of litmus-test-type strips of variously coloured papers. Or are these tickertape off-cuts from the studio floor? They look like discarded fragments purposely gathered together and fashioned into something specific but just out of reach of a clear identity. Also, it’s an inventory of sorts, as if a student painting class has completed a day of mixing colours and these are the results, a fairly comprehensive range of all six primary and secondary colours plus black and white. As an extension to the task of mixing the paints perhaps a still-life has been produced wherein the painted shadows form greys and other tonal varieties of the colours. There are some striped pieces too, including red and white that might be paper bags from a sweet shop. As interpretation creeps into observation of the image one might sense that the coloured papers are hiding something. It might be a pineapple, as the title implies, or a vertically held up thumb or even a portrait of sorts. Is the title a trick? Is our humour being tested? Has the artist literally set something up for the viewer to interpret as they wish?
Seven more paintings are to follow and questions persist. Each is clearly an original statement but all link somehow. Colour pervades, as does clarity of form and skilful rendering. Are these portraits or still-lifes? Do the generally blue/grey backgrounds suggest skies, distances, neutral space? Are these singular forms still or floating in space? There is no clear external context in the paintings; all content is essentially contained within the implied forms. But let’s not forget the artist and/or the viewer. Could these be self-portraits or mirrors – or both?
If the viewer takes in the whole sequence from left to right there is some suggestion of a progression, or morphing, from a still-life type configuration to a portrait of sorts. After ‘Pineapple’, ‘One in a Hundreds and Thousands‘ appears to be a form floating in a sky-coloured atmospheric space. Within and around what might be locks of long flowing hair there are triangles of painted papers or thin card. Some of these fragments are painterly wet into wet renderings that could reference landscape based fragments or abstract compositions. The striped papers are here too. There is a sense of the organic and the geometric making some kind of union. Next, in ‘Along the Coast from Yarmouth’ a similar sort of composite form has come back to earth, or rather an ethereal sea with reflections or submerged forms.
A mixture of flat triangular forms, mostly airborne, and flat on the picture plane slightly undermines a traditional perspectival reading. Predominantly there is a shallow or tightly enclosed space created from the spatial arrangement of the entangled forms in the foreground. A snaking red, blue, yellow and white candy stick at the apex of the arrangement meanders down to, or up from, the base. It is also partly submerged. Likewise, the tricolour ribbon also winds its way from the bottom of the composition to the apex. An echo or reflexion of the red, white and blue form is placed behind this mysterious configuration to suggest some depth and a flattening simultaneously. Solidly rendered, yet flat triangles (X7 white, X5 red, X2 blue and X1 black – for it seems pertinent to count them) float around or penetrate the central mass/form. Unexpectedly, centre-left, a curvaceous form that might be fish or snake skin, or possibly a hand-dyed scarf on a slender shoulder, links top to bottom or head to torso.
‘Inbetween Castles’ is more grounded, and candy-type tubes employing the colours from the paper stripes from ‘Pineapple’ replace the vertical, elongated form of the hair. A flat triangle of colour at the apex of the form is possibly turning into a set-square. Read this more organically and the soft sticks of seaside rock might otherwise suggest intestines. It’s uncanny – by which I mean weird. But not grotesque or creepy weird; more like playful everyday, ordinary, artefacts being open to interpretation and association in the eye of the beholder.
‘Lickerty Split’, the penultimate image in the sequence certainly does look like a glorious head of long hair. The title suggests doing something quickly, though clearly not the making of the painting. Take a look at Sinclair’s website and you will see that this painting, along with ‘Baskin in Obliquity’ displayed next to it, belongs to her Wave Theory series. Sinclair’s painting titles are fascinating. There is a mixture of deadpan humour and scientific awareness – as provided by this pairing. Natural forces are at work. The small town reference starts to make some kind of sense. Whether we live in a village, town or city we belong to relatively small communities after all.
This selection from Sinclair’s various series of painting themes and projects (she has also produced sculpture and installation events) not only provides evidence of her undoubted commitment to painting but also prompts an intriguing meditation and reflection on what we think and feel about ourselves and our immediate familial situations and the world around us. A brief explanatory wall mounted statement adjacent to ‘Pineapple’, primes and sets up an opportunity for the viewer to see where the imagery might take their expanded thoughts:
My work reflects what I perceive as the dichotomy between the way the human mind confronts complex and serious issues and, at the same time, deals with the trivial ephemera of our everyday lives. I am interested in contradictions and tensions in human nature, which often express themselves through our interaction with the natural world.
Small Towns is an exploration of life cycles within confined spaces. The work is inspired by the geographical restraints that we have lived with which paradoxically turbo charge the mind into thinking about distance, difference and alternate realities. (Perdita Sinclair)
Thereafter the viewer is surely connected with each work beyond the immediate visual impact of the intriguingly titled pictures. As much as we might long for the day that we can forget about the ongoing pandemic that has restricted us physically and geographically, an unexpected benefit might be that we start to appreciate and more fully understand our truly global ecosystem that relies on cooperation rather than unabated competition and nationalistic introspection. Or at the very least, we might take what is near as a fascinating take off point for the imagination. For Sinclair it might be the trivial bits and pieces that one’s children might play with vis-à-vis the bigger issues that concern us.. This is an interpretation of superposition (another of her series of paintings) in which something (or a system) can be in multiple states at the same time until it is measured. It’s certainly the case that if we take the suggestion of the portrait from these paintings we must ultimately place the notion of self or identity within an environment, which can be either physical or metaphysical… but perhaps this is a step too far.
Returning to Sinclair’s work, she does not break with tradition to assert contemporary relevance and context. Despite alternative practices and technologies, painting has much more to say or remind the audience of. At a simple level, subject matter generally splits into and expands the categories of the portrait, still-life or landscape – with, arguably, the addition of abstract art. At a more nuanced and deeper level paintings perform (even when undermining or questioning) within conventions of visual culture, including iconography, aesthetics and culturally shared systems of visual language. Of course, within and beyond the visual arts painting also has to contend with ever developing technologies, particularly since the invention of photography and, far more recently, digital systems and the financially speculative advent of the NFT. But painting persists and potentially slows us down, in a useful self-reflective way.
Walking home from the exhibition, in my own small town, I unexpectedly thought of the work of the 16th century Milanese painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a Mannerist artist, who created portraits from a piling up of natural forms, especially flora, vegetables and fruits. The ‘Arcimboldo palindrome’ may also be suggested, whereby the apparent reading of a work is changed, not by turning the canvas through 90 or 180 degrees as the artist ingeniously invented, but by alternative conceptual readings and understandings of an imaginative invention, or inventory, as presented by Sinclair’s work. Intriguing, indeed.
What is it that makes a painting exhibition so memorable? It could be the whole collection of works or just one item in particular. This show at the Phoenix Art Space Window Gallery offers so many possibilities for that first ‘visual hit’.
A viewer might be struck by the strong and forceful imagery wherein the subjects stare relentlessly back at the hapless viewer, or by the acute feminist rhetoric that challenges the ‘male gaze’. In more formalist terms the audience could be impressed by the sheer abundance of colour that, though so varied a palette is employed, the ability to place one colour beside another in contrast or harmony reveals visual decisions that are not diverted by narrative content. Coaxed in by the colour and/or the subject matter, by getting up close to the painterly surfaces the confident paint handling keeps the imagery in check and tempers sheer expression that could otherwise overpower the project’s central message of female empowerment within a patriarchal society.
The notion of the viewer, as an individual or gender based, is particularly interesting in the context of seeing a one-person show. We might attend an exhibition to see the work of a specific artist, whatever the various potentials for subject matter may also present. In this instance the show’s title, ‘I’m Like Other Girls’ could draw attention to the artist herself or to notional characters, real or imagined, who are presented in the imagery. But, as well as these personalised references and dramatis personae, the viewer’s gaze is brought to the fore too.
This viewer/writer can only, really, react and write from his (my) own perspective and knowledge base of course, even if objectivity is genuinely sought. So I found myself scribbling down a few words and phrases as I pondered the possibilities of reviewing the exhibition. Negatives were recorded first: Don’t like. Not my thing. Unsettling. Unnerving. Daring. Shocking. Uncomfortable.
Then the notations became more conciliatory: Look at the paint handling. Clear decisions made. What does the paint do? The colour too. Confronted by the image and the colour/materiality of the medium. Narrative?
I suspect that at least one of Malcomson’s objectives had been confirmed by my initial reaction, particularly as a male viewer. From a statement on the University of Brighton blog at the time of graduation she wrote:
“I don’t want my paintings to be ‘nice’. I want them to hurt. I am testing the boundaries of taste. I am playing with the contradiction of attraction and repulsion. The figures in the paintings are strong, powerful, larger than life, not delicate, fragile or ‘nice’. They are not the way the male gaze has often portrayed women in art history. Throughout this history, women have been painted as passive objects.“
What will be memorable to me about this exhibition, in addition to confirming the relevance, and therefore the role of the viewer, is that Malcomson’s work does not reside in that compromising area where the ideas are stronger and more engaging than the physical outcomes – a phenomenon that is not unusual in ‘emerging artists’ work (and maybe a few established artists too) – but for the great skill and maturity displayed in the painting at such an early stage of her career.
‘I’m Like Other Girls’ is a celebratory event after being awarded the CASS Art/ Phoenix Art Space Studio Award for 2020/21. Since graduation this is Malcomson’s second solo show (the first, entitled ‘Sisters, Sisters, Sisters’ was held at New Art Projects, London in June of this year).
Jonathan McCree, Bruce Ingram, Jonathan Goddard and Joe Walking
APT Gallery, Deptford
2 – 12 September 2021
It was Thursday 9th September and Up For Grabs had been open for a week. A performance had already taken place some days before and the Private View was tomorrow. This was a two-week exhibition of painting, dance, sculpture and film. I had missed the dance and the film too, but a projector was being installed to show a video of the performance, but I couldn’t stay too long as I had a timed entrance ticket for something of apparent importance at the Royal Academy. So this would have to do, and thank goodness, it was probably the best part of the day. *
The front space was conventionally organised for an exhibition of sculpture and painting and Bruce Ingram and Jonathan McCree had three works each on display. By conventional I mean some works were placed on the wall at a comfortable viewing height and three more pieces were arranged on the floor with ample room to walk around. There was a balance. They were, it appeared, ‘finished pieces’ and ‘final’ as we expect artworks in exhibitions to be. As a first impression there was surely something going on about construction and deconstruction, about placement of the works and relationships within the works themselves. What was ‘up for grabs’ at this stage I wasn’t sure – maybe an opportunity to take something away from the show, or to suggest potential.
This initial selection and indeed this space could be complete in itself, but it proved to be something of a threshold to pass through, for in the next space that precedes the largest room at the rear, a clue to some playfulness was sensed from encountering an apparently disfigured column, a strongly vertical element, that was placed on the floor but had unexpectedly been folded at 90 degrees to fix itself to the wall to form an archway to tempt someone to stoop under and squeeze through. This piece was quickly followed by another of McCree’s stretched box forms wrapped around the protruding corner into the next space. Clearly an intervention had taken place at some point and as the artist was on duty to greet visitors today he explained to me a little later that one of the performers had previously indulged in interacting with the sculptures to adjust them to the gallery environment.
Also in this middle room were more of Ingram’s works and by now there was more of an obvious or staged interaction between the two artists’ works. Typically, Ingram’s works explore found materials in assemblage and collage-type painted forms employing plaster and various paints (household and artists’ acrylics) to fuse the various elements together. Placed on the floor rather than on the wall one of Ingram’s constructions formed a framework to look through to see another work beyond. A sense of destruction as much as building the artefacts of the environment was taking shape. As a visual tease, Ingram’s works have remnants of colour applied, similar to McCree’s suggestively ‘out of the tin’ coatings, to link the works. Contrasts of smoothness and rough surfaces distinguish the two to some extent but the pairing is not incongruous.
My daughter and I walk around a while, tuning in still to a display that has transformed from calm quietude at the main entrance to visual and spatial cacophony in the largest room. I pick up a press release (which I shall read on the train back to Brighton later, as I want the work to speak to me first and foremost) and start to scribble some notes on the reverse:
Enter the labyrinth, parts, bits & pieces…
Plenty to see, though not too much…
Image / Object – which will predominate…
What is an exhibition for?
What is an exhibition for? Now that’s interesting. In this instance, Up For Grabs is certainly entertaining, exciting and memorable. The individual paintings and sculptures work on their own terms, but as an arranged event (sadly for just over a week) the exhibition comes alive as a happening of sorts as much as a static display. I imagine the missed performance and projected film work that preceded today’s visit, which isn’t enough, but will have to do. The finished and unfinished, or work in progress nature of the works, suggests a similar modus operandi for the viewer. There is method in looking, in relating to the artworks physically, spatially and psychologically. Visual art is not exclusively about seeing; it offers possibilities for recognising the power of one’s own imagination (and sometimes a lack of). There are formal relationships to find or be presented with. There are colours and textures to indulge in. Likewise there are parts that seem to work perfectly and others that the viewer might desperately want to change – even to improve. The visual aesthetics provide a way into potential readings that could suggest social interaction, notions of community, interdependence, the built environment (including furniture) and the politics of choice, indulgence and creativity.
My daughter described the assembly as “rocks and trees”. Jonathan McCree talked perceptively about “… delaying uncertainty in or from painting to the sculptures, which are moveable parts”. This gave his three-dimensional work edginess, like it was finished but not really. Or resolved, but hopefully not so as it invited some form of change.
This exhibition, no – this environment, concocted a landscape of sorts, an active space demanding an audience to interact by looking, moving, pacing, stopping; head up then head down, confronting occlusions to find surfaces, then seeing variously coloured or textured planes morphing into three-dimensions giving way to silently laughing, then becoming equally engrossed or bemused. Performing a journey, in effect, as an exhibition is not necessarily a final resting place for particular works – anything might be up for grabs; even our expectations.
* This statement is a little disingenuous as I was also impressed with Mind’s Eye at Flowers in Cork Street where Carol Robertson’s geometric works had been displayed with Terry Frost’s. My review of this show has been published by Saturation Point. See the link below.
At Campden Gallery, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire
18 September to 9 October 2021
In preparation for Mary Grant’s exhibition entitled The Distance at Campden Gallery I had access to some of the works selected to enable me to write the catalogue essay. Here I present an extended version:
Looking at this body of recent work from Mary Grant’s studio in Sussex I am somehow more conscious of the past and present. There is a sense of clock-time imploding into the apparent contradiction of the past, yet still fused with the here and now as one visual manifestation. Via the individual memory of the artist, seeing and experiencing the landscape as any of us might, then transforming and translating this into a labile but fixed image. Any one of her paintings creates a memorial of sorts, a testimony for a time of looking and feeling. A landscape painting, especially a figurative one, might be considered a kind of snapshot, particularly as we are so accustomed to photographic imagery. But the painter, and the wise viewer, knows otherwise. A canvas holds the potential to be a palimpsest for feelings, whether joyful or sorrowful, celebratory or despairing – or simply captivating and inviting contemplation of the imagery over time.
The English Landscape Tradition continues apace, though its longevity may prompt some to look for the ‘shock of the new’ in media beyond painting – especially oil painting. But you do not necessarily need to be acquainted with or particularly well informed about late eighteenth or early nineteenth century painting to find meaning, relevance and inspiration in contemporary painting that engages with what we generally refer to as the landscape genre. Critically, we have to remember that this imagery is loaded with reference to its own times – from any century. The art historian will have a handle on the picturesque and romantic enthusiasms of the painters from the past and this may well be part of the DNA of numerous contemporary painters – of whom Grant is one. But the best painters avoid pastiche (unless irony is their thing) and produce work that is genuinely set in the present day avoiding the trappings of shallow decoration or safe imagery, to express that which is contemporaneous. There is often a sense of risk taking in Grant’s paintings, whereby she might lose the vitality of the image but is supremely able to know how far to go and when to stop. Her work includes the viewer, indeed needs the viewer, to realise the project.
If you were not sure where to start with contemporary landscape you might take a look at Grant’s work, where an undeniable indebtedness to the history of her pictorial subject matter is acknowledged but is not derivative. Grant’s imagery is typically honest, recognisable and everyday – but the commonplace is surely as astonishing as the unexpected or rarely observed. If only we might observe this intensity of visual phenomena more often. We might take notice from a walk or from the car window as the world rushes by, in leisure or work time, but being ‘in the moment’ is an understandable challenge to the senses as we journey to or from other aspects of our busy lives. Perhaps this is why the prosaic is often unusual or unexpectedly powerful in Grant’s imagery. Figures seldom appear but these places are there for us. A road, street lamps, a view that implies the viewer through eye-level in the composition, a sense of the gaze that breathes life into the paintings.
An important aspect of Grant’s paintings, which delivers the imagery, is the controlled but high-energy frisson in the paint handling. Put the notion of subject matter aside and engage with the immediate, unfussy, raw and expressionistic application of paint. There is tactility and colour to connect to, plus an engaging tonal impact to engage with. Such concrete qualities provide a transitional experience for the viewer. They are more than Romantic tropes because they are concrete and felt in the here and now. You might literally touch the sgraffito surfaces with your eyes and in some imagery the heightened colour intrusions of red, yellow or pink adds a tantalising hint of Magical Realism to the scenery. In these instances the content is also psychological, not only recording the painter’s psyche but also the viewer’s potential mental and physical experience. For sometimes the landscape is quietly exploding or churning, or it envelops us in a misty, comforting shroud. We are here in the works, but we are inevitably going somewhere from somewhere. Grant leaves a door open for the viewer to interpret at their will. The everyday – reminding the viewer of what visual glories are in front of us, often right here, right now.
“The initial meaning of work is increasingly lost, as it becomes a commodity or a product, reflected by its monetary value. This presents creatives with a moral dilemma. Art is more than a commodity; it is a movement, it is expression, it is power.”(Editors’ Letter, Gatekeeper, issue 01, Autumn 2020)
For convenience and convention, Siân Lester might be described as a textile artist but as a freelance textile designer, who finds her practice segueing from applied design to fine art via post-graduate study at Swansea College of Art, a less specific labelling might be ‘visual creative’, with functional distinctions being irrelevant or outmoded. From a fine art perspective there is nothing unusual, especially nowadays, for the painter or sculptor to develop their practice from a particular discipline (painting might be the obvious one) into the ‘expanded field’. Hence terms such as the un-monumental (re-sculpture), the ephemeral (a development of performance and the ‘happening’) and a celebration of non-hierarchical materialism (explored in Modernism as the objet trouvé, the collage, the Combine and the Readymade – leading to Conceptualism) where all and any media are worthy of the message they impart. This expansion of the artist’s role would also include curatorship, most especially into the domain of the ‘installation’ where project and praxis combines theory with materiality as event as much as for object production.
In the current world-wide political and economic climate that at long last is starting to consider environmentalism seriously, and slowly but surely questioning the way we all live with industrial and post-industrial technologies, we notice the visual arts community externally thinking things through in their various choices of materials, processes and outcomes with explorative vigour. Lester has identified that her local environment has much to offer up in the form of oak bark, fallen lichen, gorse flowers, nettles, madder root and birch leaves; she also utilises a knack for gathering, carefully manipulating and presenting her materials, including match boxes, artefacts such as string, matchsticks and woven materials in a variety of simple vessels. There are seed heads, dried flowers and other fibrous materials too – even a small Bosch saw blade. Her gatherings accept an environment’s history and character, whether from inside or out. She ‘goes with’ the selected materials as if it was a two way process where she has invited the remnants of her environment to participate.
In this comfortably sized space for the installation at Studio Cennen, situated underneath the main gallery housing the Borrowed Landscape exhibition, Brigid Loizou, gallery founder and curator, has given Lester free reign to organise and display her symbiotic samples where the spider webs have been left on display by the artist with her various examples of dyed cloths and natural objects (free gifts) placed carefully into small circular vessels made from packing sourced from her kitchen. Many of the offerings are placed on a central tabletop with other items lined up on a long shelf-like construction or the window shelf. Opposite the windows a line of botanically dyed woven samples are suspended from a piece of rope to suggest a washing line. These domestic suggestions are enhanced rather than disrupted by a sense of a place of worship in which relics have been stored and placed for the visitor to appreciate in relaxed reverence. Symbiosis might be seen as an installation that forms a hybrid configuration of temple and garden shed as a display case to walk into. This could be a secular place of worship that marries the natural environment with the human dwelling; or the holy shrine with the everyday stuff we seldom notice as a celebration of a form of Wabi-Sabi – the Japanese aesthetic of acknowledging the everyday, especially the transient and imperfect.
This ostensible storage area has been transformed into what may come across as a tidied up workshop wherein collections or categories of object and matter are neatly displayed. The visitor might walk around as if in Fortnum and Mason’s, enjoying the visual and textural delights of lots of goodies on display. Some are identifiable, other not so straightforward. Some content is pure (seeds and shells), whilst others are processed (especially string and twine) to prompt a sense of awe and reverence or even humour. The installation can be viewed as a diorama of sorts but the engagement is best explored as a visual journey to be taken by inspecting the parts that make up the whole. The temptation to touch is mitigated by the simple arrangement of material content that is a pleasure to observe. Some items line up or bunch together, whilst others act alone. The vessels may invite the viewer to pick up, even to shake or pour, but a sense of stillness pervades that slows the viewer down, edging towards meditation. Observation is ideally performed in silence, despite the road traffic outside, and the material objectness of the display goes beyond commodity offering the viewer an experience to ponder the world beyond the individual sense of self as observer in the direction of an opportunity to appreciate plant-type material whose historical ancestry started 500 million years ago – and will probably continue long after the humans have gone.
In the meantime, if you have the chance to visit Studio Cennen before mid-August you will not be disappointed.
“Textile is distinct, offering a unique opportunity to consider both the material and immaterial.
As part of the MA Contemporary Dialogues portfolio, you will be encouraged to engage with contemporary issues and material investigation, including critical and theoretical dialogues as fundamental to your progression and individual practice.
We offer workshops across disciplines, including photography, glass, ceramics, surface pattern and textiles, encouraging you to develop an interdisciplinary approach, involving those traditionally associated with textile practice and beyond. Hand-made as well as digital processes can be considered, as can writing and text as forms of textile making and thinking.”
“Rêver Gallery is happy to announce our latest and newest collaboration with the very unique and talented Alice Wisden. When we first met Alice we automatically gained to understand the type of ‘realness’ that she brings to not only the Art industry but to how tangible the emotions and passion are behind the paintings.” (Gallery website)
The burgeoning art scene in Brighton continues to develop despite the underlying presence of the Covid pandemic. Excuse the cliché, but there’s a buzz about the city that owes more than just to the busy streets and the swarms of Deliveroo scooters that plague the roads. Life really does go on.
Brighton’s newest gallery is the wonderfully named Rêver, which has opened with a show for Alice Wisden from the local Phoenix Art Space studios. Off The Rails is an intriguing title for the exhibition, which might resonate with viewers generally as opportunities to see art in the flesh and to socialise at private views slowly comes back on track. Digital presentations and selling platforms are here to stay but you can’t beat seeing the real thing. This ‘realness’ that Rêver Gallery identifies is palpable in Wisden’s challenging imagery, most especially with the cartoon-like addition of big red happy or sad lips set within white masks that replace real people’s faces from old photographs. At least they were real, once. For the cast of hundreds, or even thousands, that have resurfaced into the world are resurrected from found photographs and prints, many reclaimed from the local council rubbish dump by her dad.
Enter the gallery and at once images of people, from recent but past generations, surround the viewer. At first one will notice the unforgettable white masked faces with contorted expressions and those aforementioned red lips. The largest work in the show, not a photographic piece, but a drawing with the addition of blue and red neon components is ‘Gameface’ has very thoughtfully been displayed to pull the passerby into the exhibition space. But this title, which describes the blank, deadpan face required in a game of cards so as not to give away any clues to the opponent, is instantly undermined by the combination of a huge teethy smile and bulbous tears bursting from the cartoon character’s eyes. This work sets the scene for all that follows to either side, not in a superficial sense, but in setting up the viewer to reconsider the apparent appearances we enact by facial expression and unconscious body language. Taken further, our thoughts and behaviour might be viewed as those of the actor. William Shakespeare recognised this in his play, ‘As You Like It’ when Jaques’ well known speech begins with the immortal lines: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances…” Surely we all sensed this in those mundane periods of lockdown during the last 18 months or so?
The various stages, or everyday settings, in Wisden’s constructed scenarios appear to be dredged from the everyday, albeit dated with the richness, and sadness of times gone by. The works invite the viewer to engage in the quotidian calamity with a cast of every Tom, Dick and Harriet. Their mums and dads, their children; countless cousins, uncles and aunts; the great British family it would appear. We find them in familiar settings too: in schools, at home, in the back garden or at fairgrounds; or to add a little more drama, in swimming pools, burning buildings and churches; and of course the countryside or the seaside. Add many weapons, especially guns; plus aeroplanes, bicycles and even the proletarian classic car – the Hilman Imp – and psychodrama abounds in the everyday. But that which might first appear bizarre is, in reality, quite ordinary. If only we noticed a little more often: or perhaps not.
Do we laugh or cry with Alice? Remove yourself awhile, as if you were a visiting Alien from another universe, and question what is going on in this potent imagery. You might think that the Earthlings take this fascinating drug called humour. It’s both darkly repressive and lightly refreshing at the same time. It must be intoxicating and is surely imbibed on a daily basis to ward off evil spirits. Even the daftest, or darkest, humour keeps the spirit going for the inhabitants of this strange little island. You have to laugh, inside at least.
Throughout the collection in Off The Rails, tying everything together, there is always this fiendishly smiling, anxious or sad mouth. Their function goes way beyond any women’s mouths that Willem De Kooning embedded in his abstract expressionist frenzies. There’s more of an affinity with the characters from Otto Dix, the German Expressionist if historical precedents are sought. These over sized and contorted additions to Wisden’s imagery might initially look jokey. But the boy in the deck chair in ‘Brotherly Love’ isn’t smiling convincingly, although the naughty big brother who is about to shoot the kid in the head sheds tears for the tragedy about to reach its climax. The viewer knows it’s a fiction, but then maybe everything else is too?
I don’t know Alice personally, but her welcoming speech to the audience at the exhibition opening settled everyone down and gave us all a laugh. She spoke a little about her medical condition that, it seems to me, gives her a perceptive insight into existence and the stages and scenarios that we occupy awhile. She must have a wonderfully supportive group of family and friends that encourage an individual’s humour in the face of the mystery of life and all that we foolishly, and sometimes wisely, get up to.
Returning to Shakespeare’s final scene for us all: “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”, all is not necessarily lost as Wisden re-presents these ghostly souls, our de facto relatives, for our serious entertainment. Thanks too to the camera that required film and analogue printing; thanks to our elderly forbears who kept this stuff in old suitcases in the attic or garden shed. What’s it all about? Go ask Alice and give her work time. You will be rewarded via that crucial sense of humour that insanely keeps us going in adversity.
Immersed in the ocean, when varying degrees of coldness have been adjusted to, and when relieved of the weight of one’s body to counter the substance of our normally earthbound physicality, swimming in or just floating in the sea must be a wonderful place to be. Or if strolling on the promenade, in leisure time or between tasks and expectations from work or family, time and space can merge with the visible if we allow it to. Such experiences are freely available, though we may need reminding of this from time to time. Sophie Abbott’s current show, Shoreline, at Phoenix Art Space does just this.
On my third visit in as many days I sat in the gallery and felt calmed after an intensive few weeks spent preparing for and invigilating other exhibitions. This was a ‘time out’ experience that induced an unexpected ‘time in’. On my first two visits, when my mind was on other matters, I wondered if there was too much on display – albeit out of shear enthusiasm from the artist and her assistants to create a visual feast for the increasing number of visitors now able to attend exhibitions.
In the main Window Gallery space thirteen paintings are displayed on four white walls. Clusters of work, two, three or four paintings at a time, are punctuated at even intervals by the double doors that lead into the teaching spaces. Yet all of these paintings considered together create an immersive corridor to move along, prompting a viewer to switch back and forth. It could well be too busy a hang for some but, for me, maxes out to provide just the right impact to enable individual canvases to be contemplated, or to experience the whole frieze affect. But this is mere stocktaking.
Sitting down at the central point of the corridor I found my gaze shifting from what was immediately in front of me to a work I had only notionally glanced at as I entered the show from the coffee shop (one of two entrances). Some literal perspective was pulling me in to ‘Pink Sunrise’. Colour-wise this work is the odd one out and a distinctive placement on a dark grey wall emphasises some kind of divergence. On the other hand the rising sun represents the generally considered start of day and so the show thematically begins here.
The all-over scan might be the way the viewer steps into most paintings but for this work I suspect that a relatively small, orange oval shape placed in the bottom right-hand section almost instantly commands a roving eye. I wondered if unconsciously and symbolically this was someone special in the crowd. The intensity of colour in relation to the rest of the composition is certainly strong. But it’s a momentary focal point from the experience of seeing as a larger but fuzzier orb mirrored on the left-hand side repeats the shape as if to provide balance. Amongst the eponymous pinks in this sunrise are crimsons and blues as well as larger but softer clouds of pink and orange in all areas. These vie for attention without recourse to hierarchy of size or saturation. The small orange shape that first stood out is a punctum of sorts (though Barthes identified this phenomenon in photography of course) as there is a subtle aura of subjectivity suggested by the abstract qualities of the work as a whole. Yet step back or shift your head around if you stay close by and this orange blob of delicious orange is subsumed into the whole composition and other, initially less noticeable, colour shapes stand out too. Visually, the viewer could be stilled by one shape or by the alloverness of the work. The phenomenology of sight perception can contradictorily oscillate between the gaze and the focus.
There’s often a feeling of joy in Abbott’s painting, typically communicated through an exuberance of colour and a painterly glee. But it’s also the handling of the paint and an acceptance of its simple qualities of thickened or thinned; intermixed or stand alone; opaque or transparent; forceful or anonymous that lends a sophistication that can be overlooked if the decorative interior design feel is given too much credence. Although liquidised enough to avoid a literal heaviness the subject matter is never forced in her work. But there is often an everyday profundity at play.
In the lengthy Window Gallery installation the colour scheme is markedly, though not completely, different from ‘Pink Sunrise’. Here we engage with watery blue-greens and more ultramarine sky-blues, often contrasted with pinks and oranges. Fairly strong hues shift to mixes with white (sometimes approaching chalkiness but not too much to kill the colour effect). This fine-tuning of colour adjusts the surface tensions and contributes to the visual and physical layers, including flattened labyrinths of atmospheric form.
Controlled drips of paint – never over indulged in, but enough to remind the viewer of gravity (which even makes water earthbound) – plus seemingly independent colour patches form islands and archipelagos that ultimately add up to fully integrated and holistic arenas. Abstract reality is developed from the external environment, along and within the shoreline, with the potential for a frame of mind that, arguably, only visual abstraction and music can recreate. The viewer is invited to enter this (literal) acrylic/canvas space as an immersive experience. The result is an elegant state of grace.
Note: Approach the exhibition from the main entrance to the Phoenix Art Space for an extra painting from Sophie Abbott in the Plein Air exhibition in which her work is accompanied by works from fellow studio members Jane Campling and Julian Vilarrubi.
What started at the Phoenix Art Space at the beginning of 2020 as a critical discussion group for ten painters has now developed into an exhibiting group named The Ruminators Arts Collective (RAC), our collective public designation. Whilst our main raison d’etre will be to encourage the sharing of practice based ideas and outcomes through constructive feedback as we meet up in our respective studios, we are also open to new developments and opportunities.
Many artists may well have inadvertently stockpiled their wares over the past fifteen months or so as exhibiting prospects were diminished as galleries closed for now or for good. Some artists prospered to varying extents from the Artists Support Pledge, an amazing Instagram based initiative instigated by Matthew Burrows, though this life support system cannot replace the established gallery system however either may evolve from now on. Back at the Phoenix Art Space we were disappointed to not being able to participate in the last two annual Open Studio weekends during the Brighton Festival. As a small but determined group within the larger community we felt that a desire to exhibit could only be resolved affirmatively by an enterprise to take a selection of works into the city centre with a ‘pop-up’ show. Closely missing out on a council lead initiative to fill otherwise empty shops with exhibitions of locally produced art eventually lead the group to take a more direct initiative and to approach Henry Gomez at the Dynamite Gallery for this inaugural show.
Eight of the RAC have been able to contribute to BOOM at this time and, as the member who also writes reviews, I suggested a feature here on fineartruminations. As a participant it would be inappropriate for me to scribe a glowing review, though I have waxed lyrical about solo shows from Philip Cole and Michelle Cobbin in the recent past. Reviews of the HARDPAINTING showpieces held at the Phoenix Art Space over the last few years also included my own responses to contributions from Ian Boutell, Patrick O’Donnell and the aforementioned Philip Cole. But given that media coverage of contemporary art, especially painting, is limited to the select few (you can make your own shortlist) it seemed like a reasonable decision to share the work of my accomplices on this platform.
Without consulting the rest of the group for affirmation it seems obvious that what we all have in common is a love of painting. The term ‘love’ is a loaded term of course but, in this context, I optimistically believe that a serious commitment to the cause of painting can be recognised in everyone’s work however diverse our practices may be. No one should be embarrassed by the term. There is also a strong sense that other worthy media never diminish painting, whether ‘expanded’ or even as a direct challenge within the post-modernist era, and that relationships are there to be forged in varying contexts. I therefore would hope that an underlying manifesto-type imperative in each Ruminator’s actual work is registered by potential viewers to pose an argument for painting beyond the merely decorative and the ‘on trend’ manifestations of the commercial sector that sits more comfortably with easy access imagery. Typically, the works from the RAC demand time for contemplation from an audience so that a casual scan would be insufficient to do justice to the work in question. It is unapologetically incumbent upon the individual viewer to complete the work in a sense, not a new argument of course, which necessitates some degree of faith. But do bear in mind that this ‘completion’ is just the beginning of a journey as a painting, akin to a living organism, is ideally something to live with and to re-visit over time.
The words that follow (not all mine) are simply intended to provide some helpful context with minimal biography, if any, so as not to fall into the contemporary trap of pushing the personal so far in front of the work that good old-fashioned aesthetic standards (even anti-aesthetic positions are valid) might be allowed to drop. If this assertion draws criticism, so be it.
My essential curatorial decisions are three-fold for this feature: to take each artist’s personal statement that I requested and to change the text into the third person if this had not already been done; to add and weave in my own thoughts and interpretations where relevant; and to include one image for each artist. Correctly, I appear at the end – so this section will be conveyed in the first person.
Harrison’s bold and colourful work focuses on landscape subject matter and a sympathetic emulation of, or rather from, the natural world. On smoothly seductive surfaces, Harrison’s colour range often blends or juxtaposes local hues with atmospheric and subjectively ethereal colour-shapes that mix the observed with the felt experience developed on the canvas. An often-understated painterliness also creates a tension of sorts with brash yet confident colour combinations. This distinctive feature relates to synaesthetic conditions that lend some delicious configurations of colour choices that ‘pop’ to make the surface feel lively and visually active. In these instances the abstract characteristics of such works might temporarily disengage the viewer from the ostensible subject matter – what disrupts these glimpses of paradise?
Harrison has not indulged in a purely colour obsessed jaunt through the landscape. Enquire of the work a little more and, beyond the immediately visible, a cultural awareness invested in imperative ecological concerns emerges. For Harrison is particularly interested in eco-systems and conservation spaces that are hidden or discovered on walks. Many people’s interaction with the physical landscape may often be for superficially picturesque pleasure (not necessarily a bad thing) but her on-going project aims to bring attention to these spaces and the work that is or is not being done to maintain sustainability.
June Frickleton is known professionally for being involved with curating and consultancy as well as for her own practice as a painter. The Boom exhibition gives visitors an opportunity to see and experience her distinctive imagery developed from a visit to Iceland in early 2020 before the Covid-lockdown, which typically has a strong visual impact that combines landscape sources with painterly abstraction. Her palette is often, and intentionally, reduced to just two or three colours. Crimson reds and ultramarine blues dominate the recent works, which have a sumptuous and richly Baroque feeling of visual movement which the viewer may well feel physically and internally as much as visually.
Frickleton’s studio activity responds to the process of painting from an improvised and performatively enacted engagement with painterly qualities from working on the studio floor as well as with the conventions of the wall mounted canvas. From internalised experiences made during and after travelling the engagement with the paint medium develops the imagery in the studio environment and, though sometimes looking spontaneous, is cultivated and evolved over extended periods of time using a mixture of deliberate brush marks combined with thinned down layers of oil paint. By a process that involves pouring washes of turpentine over the surface to stain the canvas, Frickleton builds these various interlocking, overlapping and strongly tinctured fields of pure colour up into layers until the desired image emerges. The final result, particularly in her larger works that engulf the viewer’s gaze as spaces to float or fall into, might well convince the recipient that the experience of looking and engaging becomes their active role as much as the artist’s intention.
In a similar vein to Frickleton and Harrison, Michelle Cobbin’s work explores the relationship between colour, form and mood. She is interested in how her own mood dictates the colour palette she chooses to work with on any particular painting journey. She might start a painting in warm tones for example, and then feel completely out of sync with those colours the next time she is in the studio, so she either puts that work aside or paints over it. This surely frustrated her to begin with until she realised that her approach to painting is overtly visceral and intuitive – therefore choosing the right colour for her mood was essential and not arbitrary.
With a mode of operation that is reliant to an emotional response to colour it is no surprise that abstract images emerge without the necessity to formulate a figurative or recognisable ‘picture’. Cobbin’s practice is both brave and dependent on faith in a sense. She surely has to allow herself to psychologically, and certainly self-consciously, leave the painting process somehow, which sounds like a weird contradiction. This seeming loss of self that, probably, many painters experience (whatever their visual language) is a major component of Cobbin’s practice that might be better witnessed than explained in words – though it might be a necessity for the poet too.
In physical terms, some of Cobbin’s paintings are many layered, as their colour narratives develop and change as she works. She has revealed that, “other pieces that appear are born complete – rare species that flow through me occasionally when the stars align and I’m without ego or self-consciousness.” This necessitates the hard-won skill to recognise when a painting is finished relatively early, before subsequent layers are added out of habit or expectation. From this point onwards the work develops its own potential narratives that are projected on to it by the viewer, though one might be warned not to project into the work with one’s gaze, but to accept what is projected wordlessly by the visual impact of the work itself.
It seems appropriate to follow an appreciation of Michelle Cobbin’s painting practice with Nina Garstang’s as their working practice employs huge faith in avoiding over indulging in any form of didacticism and instead engages in a heavily subjective and autonomous approach to visual creativity that bypasses ego and self-absorption. Her work contemplates a middle ground between what is real and what is not, pushing the view of the objects she paints to the point where they lose their identity, thus revealing an altered view that suggests looking into the universe or travelling deep inside the body.
When immersed in her studio practice, Garstang carefully ponders the medium of paint and/or inks as if little else exists once the realm of painting as both noun and verb, thing and action conjoined, takes over. Her work explores the qualities and viscosity of coloured media as primary material with which to explore not only a state of mind but which are also evocative and redolent of current opinions of the tradition of painting in an increasingly ‘virtual’ world. This notion of the virtual is, arguably, inherent both historically (from the moment women made their hand prints on cave walls perhaps) to the on-going psychological experience of creating a painting at any time. For example, flirting with the idea of Rorschach cards and likening the state of mind to that of the theta brain wave state, which is akin to daydreaming and is free flowing, Garstang’s work presents both a thought provoking and aesthetically fabulous indulgence in painting that truly engages the viewer’s seeing experience beyond the here and now. Author and poet Richard Lewis’ description of Garstang’s glass paintings is evidence of this potential in her recent work:
“The colours hit me up with their intensity, like chemicals chasing through my blood. It’s a visceral thing at first and then meaning emerges: I get rivers, seas and mountains, then into cells under microscopes, maps of the earth from space bleeding into brains and embryos, soft tissues and weather systems all on a single sheet of glass, yet it is still. I’m getting flashes of old masters too, like faces and scenes from other things I’ve seen dissolving away from me.”
Ian Boutell, whose work reveals his architectural training and interest in Modernist pioneers including Malevich and Tatlin has influenced his investigations into how space is re-presented for the viewer as concrete fact rather than as perspectival illusion in his painting practice. Boutell incorporates Perspex and other materials, including paint, into his work to explore the shifting territory around contemporary and expanded painting. The relationship between displayed artwork and the physical space the works appear in acknowledges the physical context intentionally as integral to the conception of the works, albeit in the knowledge that venues and spaces may change between the institutional and the domestic for any particular work at different times. Such an intention requires any one work to function actively as an object as much as an image irrespective of the placement which conjures the paradoxical materialist necessity to be independent of yet very much part of the immediate environment.
For Primer02, a recent online feature with artist-led group epox_contemporary, Boutell commented: “I did a few of these ‘corridor constructions’ where, when walking past, the vertical strips are revealed then hidden by others that project further and momentary flashes and reflections from bronze Perspex mirrors reveal the room, corridor or oneself. The onlooker, the viewer, the audience completes the work.”
Speaking further of his practice, Boutell also says, “Science and art each seek ways of understanding our world in concordance with these new ideas of cosmology and subatomic physics, and I am seeking visual metaphors in paintings and constructions for these ideas that are not directly visible. This is the paradox in both science and art; making objects and forms that are metaphors of their opposites, the abundance of space and the energy and waves that fill atomic space…”
As with Lewis’ reaction to Garstang’s ethereal imagery, Boutell’s more architectonic constructions act as a starting point for something sensed rather than spelt out as a diagram or illustration, thus engaging the mind in conjunction with the eye – yet demanding the viewer’s full focus and attention.
Like June Frickleton, Patrick O’Donnell is also an artist and curator. His work has become increasingly non-figurative with an ongoing investigation into the perception of 2D shape in three-dimensional projected and real space creating a dynamic tension, both visually and conceptually, between the two phenomena.
O’Donnell has been largely working on tondos (circular paintings) for the last year after fellow tondo-enthusiast, Ian Boutell, kindly passed a batch his way. The circle was a blessing in disguise as it offered him a neutrally balanced compositional arena with multiple orientation options allowing him to focus his enquiry into boundaries and opacities of colour, line and edge. The distribution of shapes in a specific kind of space, without the visual weight of any physical corner of the picture support, avoided the more commonplace phenomena of a portrait or landscape format. In this sense the disc becomes a model form to challenge the ubiquitous rectangle, although such shapes will appear within the physical parameters of his work alongside triangles and rhomboids.
If this sounds a little too systematic and brings back memories of times spent struggling in geometry lessons (that was my experience anyway) a more personal and subjective element is formulated into the mix by O’Donnell’s use of either straight or torn edges of tape, or a combination of both, to devise and realise his compositions. When using a torn line the tear has to be intuitively right or else it fails to convince him as an image. He started experimenting with the tension between the torn and clean line in charcoal works in 2016. A key work from this period was ‘Seven Sisters’ which consisting of seven essentially abstract shapes that echoed rather than depicted the iconic landscape features of the Sussex Coast. Working this way offers him the freedom to explore a variety of ideas through simple formal elements, including a highly sensitive choice of colour contrasts and combinations.
The ‘Toe the line’ series that incorporates straight and torn edges was initially prompted by observations of boundaries and territories within domestic settings, to then later include ideas filtered from the book, ‘Prisoners of Geography’ by Tim Marshall of natural / geographical versus political borders, imposed and accepted (or not). As we see in Harrison’s more organically characteristic paintings, O’Donnell’s geometric configurations that suggest a built or even psychologically constructed environment, there is so much more than meets the eye however pleasurable this experience may be.
Philip Cole is a painter, maker and teacher. He has spent the past twelve years exploring the possibilities inherent in his chosen primary material, Polyester resin. As a Painter/Maker he uses unconventional materials and commonplace processes to produce qualitative painting objects. His use of polyester resin is intentional in order to elevate its status as a suitable material for ‘painting’. The work may be characterised by the use of simple colour combinations and tonal variations where the predominant geometric shapes are composed essentially of rectangles, and less frequently, discs. They sometimes suggest printers’ colour registration marks or aerial views of tins of paint, or even hints of perspectivally represented forms. But these associations are not necessarily of primary importance, even if a consequence is to reference similar organisations of colour and shape in the overlooked and marginal, or in architectural spaces (the interstices) of ‘real life’.
The production of a conventionally permanent object (a painting) is in contrast to the use of these materials to construct and mark temporary and throwaway vessels. His constructed, material/process-focused, object-type painting requires hard graft, perseverance and extended hours in the studio. Cole’s belief in the necessary work involved in the production of his paintings is rooted in deliberation and a craft aesthetic, rather than in a gestural approach to provide evidence of the painter or maker’s mark as a ‘personality’ is avoided. But the potential for a cold and indifferent outcome is avoided by the combination of wonderfully effective colours that could be contemplated forever and the sheer refined beauty of the ultra smooth surfaces.
From a review of ‘Making Painting +-’ at Phoenix Art Space in 2019 written for the Saturation Point website I commented:
“Cole’s practice may well have vestiges of the deconstructive and the reconstructive that more painterly practitioners might disdain, but this fascinating notion of ‘obtaining consciousness’ can be applied to Cole’s works from a viewer’s perspective. The experience of active looking takes the patient viewer into the work as a thing in itself, visually and physically, allowing the imagination space to breathe. Possibilities come alive, in explicitly authentic, concrete, non-virtual manifestations. These are characterised by instances of reduction and variation: geometry, regularity and logical developments, measuring and assaying exactitude, craft and reductive simplicity. Ingesting visually exciting combinations of colour and shape, with Cole’s carefully formulated contrasts, definitions and edges, produces end results which generate a rich and diverse encyclopaedic experience of possibilities.”
Since retiring from full-time teaching I have become involved in the short course programme at West Dean College near Chichester. I was asked to write a brief statement for potential students who might enrol on my ‘Abstracting from the Landscape’ three-day course. I wrote:
“I encourage students to work with a disciplined kind of freedom. As with writing you have to find your ‘voice’ and this often demands trial and error. The paint medium is on an equal footing with the potential subject matter and so you have to mediate and discover the real subject through the physical process of painting. Everyone will be encouraged to allow the paint to speak for itself.”
The paintings chosen for the Boom exhibition aim to fulfill this brief. I also chose oil paintings that I had not displayed publically before and which mark a shift in an even more ‘painterly’ approach to my practice.
Ian Boutell also curates Cottage of Modern Art at his home on the outskirts of Brighton. The gallery shows just one painting at a time inspired by Winifred Nicholson’s Cumbrian cottage with a Mondrian on the wall.
An exhibition of recent paintings by Julian Vilarrubi of the view from Studio 4S0 at Phoenix Art Space.
Window Gallery, Phoenix Art Space (2-25 April 2021)
With covid-related requirements morphing slowly towards some kind of normality, public access to one section of the Window Gallery at the Phoenix Art Space is gained via the coffee shop entrance. Here the visitor will be confronted by the largest work in ‘Shifting Moments’, a one-person show from Phoenix studio member, Julian Vilarrubi. ‘St. Peter’s Sunset’ (2021), as its title implies, represents the end of the day and so fittingly completes the sequence of nineteen works on display. This appears to be the most recent painting in the presentation but ideally, the visitor would start their promenade along the stretch of the gallery from the main entrance, though the obligation is still to view the exhibition from street level.
There is certainly a sense that the show begins, both logically and in a reminiscent spirit, from the northern end of the corridor where ‘Swan Hunter Shipyard I’ and ‘II’ are hung side by side. These are impressive observational exercises that Vilarrubi made at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1983 as a first year under-graduate. As monochromatic acrylic studies on paper they could be categorised as drawing or painting. Although made some 38 years ago they do not look out of place in relation to the recent paintings and drawings of St. Peter’s Church and its surroundings as they set the scene for the artist’s probing and inquisitive eye that has maintained such dedicated practice for almost four decades. The majority of the recent paintings are from 2021 and are essentially acrylic on paper (though sometimes with additional oil), although the project began in late 2020 and will continue beyond this exhibition.
As if to press the point home that this project is also ‘contemporary’ in a technological sense, there is also a selection of six iPad drawings (or are they ink paintings?) on display. Notionally these are original studies drawn from strict observation on an iPad at the studio window and it is intriguing to consider how the virtual sketchbook/canvas is actually something non-virtual/actual, even before the resulting prints have been produced. These are not playful simulacrums imitating photographs either, but are hard-won images requiring extended periods of time to produce. Given the appropriate resources it would have been a bonus to have an iPad or screen on display too, as this would be an intriguing development for realising this expanding body of work with due consideration for the digital aspect. Should ‘Shifting Moments II’ follow at some point it would be of great interest to see the imagery pre-print, as it were.
‘Shifting Moments’ is certainly a thought provoking title for the exhibition, suggesting fixity and flux at once. When engaged in looking at a subject, in a time-based physical mode, it may well seem that there is some sense of the film-still being frozen in time out of a continuum of images that otherwise ceaselessly flow around us. Then there is our cultural obsession with the photograph as visual memento, abundantly developed by the shift from film to digital technologies, most especially now with the Smartphone that almost every person on the planet appears to own and which produces images that typically remain in a digital format only to be shared from screen to screen. Since the 1840s it has been claimed that painting is dead; is printing dead too?
When we view time-heavy projects such as ‘Shifting Moments’ (including the digital medium that Vilarrubi employs), we see that there is something experiential going on, for artist or viewer, that an immediate exposure or impression does not record – or create. These are works that could only have been produced over many days or weeks, culminating in one final state, which seems like a contradiction against any notion of ‘real time’ telling the whole story of appearances. Time therefore might be better understood as a meta-medium that can be physically manifested and explored in whatever forms the artist chooses. In the instance of Vilarubbi’s work, most especially the paintings, the notion of the moment inexorably ‘shifting’ becomes visually and psychologically experiential – demanding time and effort from the viewer. His paintings, in effect, offer a visual journey that puts the observer in the driving seat. But this is not an A to B linear trajectory, it’s an extended moment in the shifting continuum of the here and now where it would be best to avoid the cursory glance – for then we would be wasting our precious time.
In terms of mainstream art history we might recall the work of the French Impressionists (in the 1860s) gloriously attempting to record a particular scene at a specific time of day with their hog-hair brushes, canvases and oil paints. With the advent of photography (initially a scientific methodology) preceding the painters by 30 years or so it may be erroneous to connect the two historical developments in visual representation too keenly, but both endeavours are connected by an interest in recording ‘the everyday’, a kind of inversion and subversion of History and Salon painting that prevailed in the nineteenth century. In this respect the everyday is a subject matter that can engage us in reflections from the monotonous and unchanging (particularly in Covid-related lockdown periods) to the metaphysical and the philosophical. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus informed us: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Gender issues aside, no academic inclination towards an interest in Ancient Greek philosophy was necessary for those of us confined to a prolonged observation of life outside our places of confinement, for it is likely that we all noticed even more how ever-changing and plenteously detailed our world is when we are forced, or take time, to observe the view from the window – every day.
Vilarrubi’s imagery, irrespective of the chosen medium, offers this same range of pondering possibilities. The studios at the Phoenix Art Space, at least for those artists who have a studio to themselves, this self-isolation chamber or place of refuge became strangely significant and certainly not taken for granted, if it ever was. For Vilarrubi the adaptation to the vicissitudes of the pandemic prompted the ‘Shifting Moments’ series as an extension of his predominantly landscape based practice (Italy, France and Spain have been typical destinations) with the ‘stay at home’ simplicity of the view from the window.
Fortunately, perhaps, this view is from the fourth floor at the very top of the building and faces towards the impressive St. Peter’s Church and the cityscape beyond. The view is west facing too and so the daily sunset provided, at times, spectacular changes in light and would sometimes drench the backdrop to the church in colour. Add an equally glorious Elm tree to the foreground and the stage was set for a continuum of changing scenarios, underpinned by the still-life constancy of architectural structures and forms enveloped by an ever changing light show from dawn to dusk. Some expanded category of subject matter, beyond physical location, was always in plain sight.
On the face of it, what ‘Shifting Moments’ offers the viewer is a collection of views of St. Peter’s Church undergoing restoration, built, by coincidence, at the same time that Nicéphore Niépce invented the photographic process in the 1820s. As the church is slowly but surely being restored (these projects are typically of long duration and are probably never ending) the building might be considered as battling against the elements, erosion, and time itself – just as we are as mortal beings. But the church is not necessarily the main subject for this observational project. Vilarrubi also records the buildings (a block of flats and a multi-story car park) beyond the church, teasingly decorative in their modern, banal, mundanity, repeating the repetitive forms of the scaffolding on the church. The view of architectural structures, seemingly solid and formidable, under the canopy of the ever-changing sky is also foregrounded by the most wonderful tree. Along with the changing light, here is ‘nature’ epitomised by the leafy foliage of the tree – a subject that would seem a monumental task to record faithfully in any detail by drawing or painting: why not just take a photograph? But, as every artist understands, you inherit and invent a methodology: a visual system or language to approximate what is observed, or needs to be communicated as best you can.
Playing the devil’s advocate for a moment, the subject matter of the project is satisfyingly prosaic and, if it were this simple, a sequence of good quality photographs would surely have sufficed. But things (or observations) are never this straightforward. To give due credit, and appreciation, to any painter’s work the viewer must consume slowly. Vilarrubi’s paintings physically pull the viewer towards their surface and the detail of colours, shapes and patterns wherein they engage the eye to the point where the ostensible subject matter is secondary. Then again, step back, and the various scenarios are pictorially strong enough to engage the viewer just as satisfactorily. In this respect, Vilarrubi has painstakingly emphasised a multitude of often quite intricate shapes that ‘work’ from any normal viewing distance. Some are obvious brush marks, repeated or varied as the scene or prospect demanded for he is not enslaved to photorealism. The viewer could be struck by a fusion of minimalist repetition and a decorative Rococo-esque surface pattern that is Japanese in spirit, despite the use of western perspective. Engrossed in the paintings, the eye may rest only briefly as a dot or a dash with the brush invokes a visual dance routine taking the eye into a contrasting colour or tonal field where detail is replaced by a simple coating of thinned paint. One is constantly aware that these are paintings, rendered by hand, not illusionistic devices.
For example, in ‘St. Peter’s, Brighton I’ (2020), the image chosen for the exhibition poster, the viewer can start the journey I mentioned above anywhere. Centrally from the expected greens and surprising blues in the foreground tree; or in the architecture where there are various greys and blues in yellows (one mix with a hint of orange) are linked to the pinkish mauve on blue for the sky. Alternatively, start or finish at the bottom of the composition where a band of local and atmospheric colour creates a variegated ribbon of orange, brown and yellow on the top surface of a low wall. This slightly bending strip sits atop a wider band of blues and pinks that are echoing the early or mid-morning sky above, reflected on the inside of the wall on the terrace immediately outside the studio and (maybe) on the flat surface inside the window space – a watery blue stream that would only distract with additional detail.
Vilarrubi’s project is very localised both in terms of subject matter and his personal visual language that is forged from observation. Seeing so many studies of the same view (is it really the same view, Heraclitus may disagree) undergoing constant change helps to insist in the realisation that nothing is actually fixed – it’s an illusion that we sometimes fool ourselves to believe. ‘Shifting Moments’ strikes me as a meditation on time, place and seeing. The time-based act of seeing, especially through and making observational drawings and paintings – an active meditation – vastly extends the apparent immediacy of the photographic exposure: though perhaps 1/250th of a second is an eternity? The photographic references just will not go away. But this is not because of the inclusion of the iPad drawings (that I mistakenly regarded as being photographs when I first saw them) but more associatively from the suggestion of the viewfinder that crops the views provided by the window of the studio. Vilarrubi accepts what he sees, whereas painters from the past would re-arrange the ‘furniture’ (landscape props, most especially trees, glades or a mountain range) to represent the world idealistically or to conform to the Academy. From Degas onwards the view is conceptualised and modernised, thanks to the photograph.
The initial conflation with the photograph (whether from film or digital file) was also partly suggested by out an of focus representation of St. Peter’s church in some of the paintings and iPad drawings. In photographic parlance this is due to a limited ‘depth of field’, which is often how a camera ‘sees’ and distorts the focus by the physics of light and lens and is a commonplace phenomenon within the fiction of photographic representation. As a visual language the oddities of photographic imagery (the blur is another example) may well affect how we perceive the world but it could be that the reflective pane of glass in the studio window becomes a site or place of separation.
We are back to the metaphysical; take for example ‘Midday’ (2021), an iPad drawing that is at once viewfinder, window, portal, and self-reflective mirror. In the top half of the composition two vertical smudges of a glue-like substance are similarly rendered like the clouds beyond. Gravity wise there is a sense of falling, a downward movement split between arriving at the church and the tree. In the bottom third, placed more-or-less centrally (this is important) we might be seeing the artist observing, reflected on the iPad screen or in the window. The imagery here is so subtle and out of focus that it could be anyone: you or I.
Vilarrubi’s distance from the window portal alters slightly from study to study as he frames afresh for each session. A foregrounded shelf in his studio, sometimes visually tight to a safety railing just outside the window four floors above the pavement, makes brief appearances. Most content in the foreground is on the glass surface where inside and outside appears not to matter. This invites a meditation of sorts. The glass screen (no more than a filthy window) thwarts the connection with the outside world. Between the observer and the quite non-picturesque environment outside (tree and church appear to occlude and vie for attention, at the expense of a romanticised picture postcard vista) is the pane of glass. Smeared by rain, glue, sticky tape or bird shit mimicking an abstract expressionist gesture; or actually behind a knotted curtain, determined not to be sidelined, that soaks up and emanates the setting sun in one acrylic study (‘St. Peter’s Church I [diptych]’). These are predominantly outside views but we are always inside: trapped observers who will never freeze time into a moment.
Even if the notion of ‘outside’ needs the ‘inside’, celebrate and be amazed at what is outside the window, for solitude is a fiction. Here is the evidence.