A lasting impression after the show: Vivarini and Richter at Moretti Fine Art – Frieze Masters 2014

Santa Caterina d'AlessandriaVivarini – Santa Caterina d’Alessadria

It is sometimes said that there are too many images in the world, particularly in this great information age. Visiting both Frieze Art Fair and Frieze Masters in Regents Park, London this autumn certainly enabled us to indulge in mixing the past and the present in a particularly concentrated and carefully selected celebration of some of the highest quality and thought provoking examples of fine art from many countries, cultures and eras. Now, of course, we move on to more great venues and exhibitions that reveal the seemingly exponential nature of the visual arts. Despite the endless production of works of art, contemplating the many forms of practice from all ages confirms the universal, humanistic nature of the plastic arts that often combine mystery with a visualised clarity of thought.

As with all art fairs, something will linger in the memory for longer than the duration of the event. From Frieze Masters one of our abiding experiences that we are still recollecting and discussing was the fascinating triptych presentation by Moretti Fine Art of Antonio Vivarini’s, ‘Saint Catharine of Alexandria’ (‘Santa Caterina d’Alessandria’) hung between Gerhard Richter’s two slightly smaller abstract paintings (‘Abstract Bild’ 454-4 and 454-5). Moretti had shown this same combination at the Biennale des Antiqaires in Paris a few weeks ago and this was a decision well worth repeating for a new, and broader, audience.

The reading of painted, European, images made some 500 years apart will be oriented to a stylistic contrast for it is sometimes impossible to separate art historical knowledge from perception. When first confronting these three small paintings, we were compelled to look at and to read what was instantaneous: The iconography and well-known story line in Vivarini’s painting, and the medium-specific, painterly, abstract, materiality of Richter’s pair of canvases were immediately obvious, The clever, but simple, juxtaposition of these works on the Moretti stand immediately set up a figurative/abstract comparison that could, potentially, construe a dialectical opposition, whether this was intentional or not by the curators. However, we found that these immediate readings could be reversed, emphasizing the surface, materiality and non-narrative features in the Saint Catharine; and the framework of a metaphysical abstraction in the potential of a less formalistic, Greenbergian, reading of the non-figurative compositions.

To some extent the work of both painters are paradigmatic: Vivarini’s style provides an example of Venetian late Gothic, albeit with subtle elements of the ‘new’ perspective and anatomically conscious scientific knowledge shifting the visual language from flatness to roundedness and the space of the world inhabited by the viewer. For example, despite the typically two dimensional halo, there is, in her crown, a hint of perspective that, with the three-quarters view of the portrait, ‘modernises’ St Catherine as a fellow human-being rather than as a symbolic representation. Also, Vivarini has attempted, although not fully realised, to depict the hand as structurally convincing rather than as a flat approximation or template. However, the gothic elements are pervasive, as a monumental St Catharine is set against a blank background (a Florentine master, such as Botticelli, would by now have included an architectural space) and the image, probably part of an altarpiece, was made for a church rather than a palace.

Richter Abstraktes Bild 454-4Richter – Abstraktes Bild 454-4

Ricter Abstraktes Bild 454-6Richter – Abstraktes Bild 454-6

Richter knowingly, and perhaps in an act of appropriation of style, presents an example of 20th-century abstraction: in this case, of the painterly and expressive kind rather than hard-edged and overtly systematic. The colour scheme is essentially rich and fiery – which, when associated, and seen, with the Martyr Saint Catherine, could be interpreted as pertaining to the spiritual desire of her faith. Yet it is this simple, blank backdrop that makes the visual link to the Richter paintings and to a sense of the mystery, and metaphysical meaning, of colour. The Italian master applies tempera onto a gold ground panel through which an orange-red spiritual space is enhanced by the close proximity of the oils in Richter’s paintings. The visual influence is reciprocated as the subtle green and flat geometric forms in ‘Abstract Bild 454-6’, to the right, echo colours and shapes in the St. Catharine. We also perceive a correspondence between the broken spoke that suggests piercing, and perhaps crucifixion (martyrdom), and the yellow diagonal in the bottom left-hand quarter of Richter’s abstract composition. In either case, each painter’s work is seen afresh because of this presentation.

There will, doubtless, be many more ‘readings’ and connections, convincing or not, between these paintings and it might be more significant that paintings from very different eras in the fine arts are capable of generating interpretations and opportunities for co-existence than for any specific links we are constructing at the moment. This potentiality in contemporary curatorship, to align art works from all periods and cultures to produce holistic meanings or conflicting debates, can only be proof that a notion of community speaks across the ages, making notions of the ‘modern’ and of ‘progress’ questionable.

Geoff Hands (October 2014)


Maintaining integrity: Pippa Young and Helena Clews

Pippa Young at Coombe Gallery and Helena Clews at Brown Hill Arts, Dartmouth

Clews 2013_01_04
Helena Clews – ‘Pitch’ (2012) Oil on linen. (c) Helena Clews
comfortably swaddled copy
Pippa Young – ‘Comfortably Swaddled’ (c) Pippa Young

A visit to Dartmouth in Devon (south-west England), however brief, will inevitably draw visitors interested in painting to some of the significant number of small art galleries that are a feature of the town. Many of the galleries are typical of those found at other English holiday resorts where the subject matter of the majority of the images that fill the gallery walls belongs to the Marine genre. Inevitably, the standards on display will range from one end of the quality spectrum to the other. Much of the work can be easily dismissed and contemporary works that might be found in more cosmopolitan centres, such as Cork Street in London, are rarely found.

However, two galleries that we came across exhibited works that maintained an impressive personal artistic integrity, rather than slavishly following a formula to produce mediocre, but saleable, images for the marketplace. Coombe Gallery included a number of portrait works by Pippa Young. She is a highly skilful painter who creates portraits that are intriguing in terms of possible meanings, or readings, and appear to reference Italian and Dutch portraiture (the great Venetian Giovanni Bellini most especially sprang to mind). The visual language of her practice is confident and communicates a narrative that is not slavish to realism but creates a great possibility for what might be termed a ‘magical conversation’ (an implied reference to the sacra conversazione of the Quattrocento). This discussion of meaning for the viewer will prompt thoughts and discussions about the identity of these singular characters, situated in anonymous spaces that reveal little or nothing about context, but are augmented by gestures and artefacts (for example, a sheep’s skull or piece of red cord) to imply a possible psychological, or subjective, interpretation. As a counter-point to the near photo-realism of these portraits, Young’s figures typically have blank areas of canvas where there might otherwise be hair or a headpiece. Also, fabrics rendered as flat are juxtaposed with the traditional perspectival language of realism.

At Brown Hill Arts, Helena Clews exhibited abstract works that revealed her interest in exploring “…the possibilities of painting in the liminal space between abstraction and representation”; and alluding, “to something that is difficult to define or identify clearly as a particular thing in the world, whilst at the same time being recognisable aesthetically as an ‘abstract’ painting.” Interestingly, this is Clews’ own gallery project and she maintains her practice of abstraction (albeit from the world around her) in a market that is not necessarily favourable to non-figurative art. For this stance, she is to be congratulated. At this early stage of her career the dangers of succumbing to more commercial demands on style and subject matter can be difficult to resist, especially in the environment of the holiday resort where the pseudo-Marine subject matter will dominate what is on offer. We were particularly impressed with Clews’ fluid painting style and a self-assured use of colour, economically employed as gestural marks with allusions to objects, space and atmospheres.

In both artists’ work there is an interest in visual language and visual communication at a sophisticated level. This is a factor they share in common with other contemporary artists, who can choose to reference the past, question matters of language and meaning, yet strive to construct their own voice and originality as painters.

Geoff Hands





Writing: Introduction




Alongside my painting practice, I have regularly kept notebooks in the studio. Some time after completion of the MA programme in Creative Writing at Sussex University I decided to write about art exhibitions. The initial impetus was to use the writing experience to clarify and develop my own thoughts about the creative process.

A more public opportunity to communicate these responses to looking at art (especially painting) was offered to me by Stefano Pirovano at Conceptual Fine Arts (CFA) in 2014.

Ruminations: Exhibition Reviews will essentially be posting responses to a wide range of exhibitions. Additional material from my personal writing will also appear from time to time.

Some reviews for Abcrit appear here, but most will remain exclusive to that website. For this opportunity, I thank Robin Greenwood.

Reviews for CFA remain exclusive to the CFA website.

Instantloveland, instigated by John Bunker and Matthew Dennis (May 2018), will also feature my writing; as will Saturation Point with thanks to Patrick Morrissey and Hanz Hancock.