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