MICHELLE COBBIN: ‘I’d Be Enlightened Now If It Wasn’t For You’

Window Gallery, Phoenix Art Space

2 to 24 April 2022

Phoenix Art Space, Brighton

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.

Michelle Cobbin – ‘Atmosphere’ acrylic on canvas (130 x 130cm)

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.

Michelle Cobbin – ‘Atmosphere’ (detail)

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.

Michelle Cobbin – ‘Hidden’

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.

Michelle Cobbin – ‘In the Top Field’ exhibition installation shot (early evening)

Michele Cobbin – ‘Phosphorescence’ in the Canvas Coffee Co. bar at Phoenix Art Space

Links:

Michelle Cobbin –

https://www.michellecobbin.art/exhibitions-id-be-enlightened-now-if-it-wasnt-for-you.html

Instantloveland – https://instantloveland.com/wp/2022/02/10/4891/

Phoenix Art Space –

Peter Dreher – https://fineartruminations.com/2017/04/14/ce-nest-pas-un-verre/

Sharon Blackie – https://sharonblackie.net

JANE CAMPLING: Studio Visit before Time + Place

Jane Campling: Studio Visit for 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 – ‘Beach Rain’ 2019

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.

Jane Campling – ‘Dune’ 2019

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.

Jane Campling – ‘Still’ 2021

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.

Jane Campling – ‘Fields’ 2021

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.

Jane Campling – ‘Winter Sea I’ 2022

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.

Geoff Hands

Copyright © of paintings remains with the artist.

Cameron Contemporary Art image for Time + Place

Links:

Cameron Contemporary Art – https://www.cameroncontemporaryart.com/time-and-place-campling-dury

Jane Campling – https://www.janecampling.com/work/recent-work-asz9b-3ffkd

Amy Duryhttps://www.amydury.com/gallery/timeplace/

Contemporary British Painting Prize 2021

Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop

28 January to 12 February 2022

Exhibition poster with ‘Inflatable’ 2021 by Susan Absolon

“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)

Tony Antrobus‘Narcissistic Wounds’ 2021 oil on board

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.

Martyna Lebryk‘Sirens’ and ‘Three riders of my fate’ (each 2021, oil and oil pastel on paper)

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.

Sarah Poots‘Temporary Sculptures’ 2021 oil on canvas

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.

Installation at Unit 1 with Thorne, Absolon and Robinson paintings
Hannah Murgatroyd ‘Night Mapping’ 2021 oil on canvas and Jesse Leroy-Smith‘Father Figure’, ‘Blowback’ and ‘Creator – Tricky’ (each 2021 oil on panel)

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.

Bill Stewart‘Oklahoma’ and ‘TheDancingTreesOfYellowstoneAnthemStandingVibrationWyoming’ (both 2021, oil on canvas)

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.

Jan Valik‘It’s About Time’ 2021 oil on linen
Gary Spratt‘Odd Legs’ 2021 oil on canvas
Donna Mclean – ‘Sarah Lund’ 2019-20 oil on canvas
Christina Niederberger‘Revue (after de Kooning)’ 2018 oil on canvas
Zack Thorne‘The End Part IV’ 2020 oil on canvas
Tom Robinson‘Telmah’ 2021 oil on panel
Daisy Richardson‘Rutilation (DOMESTIC)’ 2021; ‘Tourmalination’ 2021; ‘Rag and Bone’ 2020 (each oil unprimed paper)
Roland HicksTriple Zip Board Chord’ and ‘Blueshady’, both 2021 (acrylic and acrylic gouache on shaped MDF panel)
Huddersfield exhibition poster with ‘Blowback’ 2021 by Jesse Leroy-Smith

Copyright © of paintings remains with the artist.

Links:

Unit 1 – https://unit1gallery-workshop.com/contemporary-british-painting-2021/

Contemporary British Painting – https://www.contemporarybritishpainting.com

Mel Gooding – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/oct/03/mel-gooding-obituary

Bernard Jacobson Gallery – https://www.jacobsongallery.com/georges-braque-catalogue

PERDITA SINCLAIR: Small Towns

Window Gallery, Phoenix Art Space

15 January – 20 February 2022

Phoenix Art Space entrance (Photo: Bernard G Mills)

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?

Perdita Sinclair – ‘Pineapple’ (165x125cm) oil on canvas

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?

Perdita Sinclair – ‘One In Hundreds and Thousands’ (80x60cm) oil on canvas

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.

Perdita Sinclair – ‘Along The Coast from Yarmouth’ (80x60cm) oil on canvas

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.

Perdita Sinclair – ‘Inbetween Castles’ (80x60cm) oil on canvas

‘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.

Perdita Sinclair – ‘Lickerty Split’ (80x60cm) oil on canvas

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.

Perdita Sinclair – ‘The Infinite Gobstopper’ (80x60cm) (Photo: Bernard G Mills)

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.

Perdita Sinclair – ‘Baskin in Obliquity’ and ‘Lickerty Split’ (Photo: Bernard G Mills)

Copyright © of paintings remain with Perdita Sinclair (all are oil on canvas)

Installation images are copyright © 2022 Bernard G Mills. All rights reserved.

Links:

Perdita Sinclair – https://www.perditasinclair.com

Phoenix Art Space – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org/Events/perdita-sinclair-small-towns/

Giuseppe Arcimboldo – https://www.theartstory.org/artist/arcimboldo-giuseppe/

Also see –

Perdita Sinclair interview in The Organ – https://organthing.com/2022/01/17/13-questions-from-organ-perdita-sinclairs-paintings-are-alive-with-appeal-with-deceptively-soft-ice-creamy-colour-theres-an-undertone-though/

HATTIE MALCOMSON: I’m Like Other Girls

Phoenix Art Space, Brighton

9 October to 7 November, 2021

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.

Note:

‘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).

Links:

Hattie Malcomson –

https://www.hattiemalcomson.com

University of Brighton

The Guardian

https://www.theguardian.com/education/gallery/2020/aug/21/student-artists-exhibit-their-final-shows-online-in-pictures

New Art Projectshttp://newartprojects.com/events/hattiemalcomson/

CASS Art – https://www.cassart.co.uk

UP FOR GRABS at APT

Jonathan McCree, Bruce Ingram, Jonathan Goddard and Joe Walking

APT Gallery, Deptford

2 – 12 September 2021

APT Gallery

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. *

Bruce Ingram and Jonathan McCree

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.

Jonathan McCree and Bruce Ingram

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.

Bruce Ingram and Jonathan McCree

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.

Bruce Ingram

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?

Jonathan McCree

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.

Jonathan McCree

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.

Jonathan McCree

Note:

* 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.

Bruce Ingram

Links:

Bruce Ingram

Jonathan McCree

High Folly: Jonathan McCree at Sim Smith

Saturation Point review of Mind’s Eye at Flowers

MARY GRANT: The Distance

At Campden Gallery, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire

18 September to 9 October 2021

Campden Gallery

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.

Mary Grant – ‘Further’ (30x40cm)

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.

Mary Grant – ‘The Distance’ (100x120cm)

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.

Mary Grant – ‘Wilderness’ (60x80cm)

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.

Links:

Campden Gallery – https://campdengallery.co.uk/exhibitions/

Order the catalogue here – https://campdengallery.co.uk/publications/23-mary-grant-the-distance-18-september-9-october-exhibition-catalogue/

Mary Grant on Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/marygrantpainter/?hl=en

Mary Grant website – http://www.marygrant.co.uk/index.html

The Distance catalogue cover

SIÂN LESTER: Symbiosis

SIÂN LESTER: Installation – Symbiosis ‘living together’

At Studio Cennen, Ffairfach, Llandeilo

19 July to 14 August 2021

“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.

Links:

Studio Cennenhttps://studiocennen.com

Sian Lesterhttp://www.sianlester.com/art/

Gatekeeperhttps://gatekeepermagazine.com

Natural Dyeing publicationsJenny Dean https://www.jennydean.co.uk/publications/

Note: Sian is completing the Textiles – Contemporary Dialogues MA at UWTSD: Swansea College of Arthttps://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/ma-textiles/

“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.”

ALICE WISDEN: Off The Rails

Alice Wisden: Off The Rails

At Rêver Gallery, Brighton

22 July – 5 August 2021

Go Ask Alice

“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.

Links:

Alice Wisden – https://www.alicewisden.com

Rêver Gallery – https://revergallery.com

“All the world’s a stage” – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56966/speech-all-the-worlds-a-stage

Phoenix Art Space – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org

Jefferson Airplane – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ug2EcWkb26I

SOPHIE ABBOTT: Shoreline

SOPHIE ABBOTT: Shoreline

Phoenix Art Space, Brighton

2 – 25 July 2021

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.

Installation view with ‘Pink Sunrise’

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.

Sophie Abbott – ‘Pink Sunrise’ (95x120cm) acrylic on canvas

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.

Sophie Abbott – ‘Pink Sunrise’ detail

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.

Installation view

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.

Installation view

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.

Installation view

Links:

Phoenix Art Space – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org/Events/sophie-abbott-shoreline/

Sophie Abbott website – https://sophieabbott.co.uk

Installation view

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.