Tracks, Trails and Tarmac: Nick Bodimeade
St Anne’s Galleries, Lewes (15-30 October, 2016)
‘If you go down to the woods today’ with Nick Bodimeade… or rather, travel the highways and byways – the B roads and the dirt tracks of rural Sussex – you will not be troubled by any bears. At the various ‘cycle-rider-friendly times of the year, when inclement weather is not an issue, you will probably find what you expect: glimpses of green and yellow glades, clusters of leafy trees, vistas of blue skies punctuated by the odd telegraph pole or lamp post; plus undulating pathways of asphalt, briefly recording the fugitive chiaroscuro of shadow and light.
Presented in the homely setting of St Anne’s Galleries in Lewes, the vibrant and swooping mini-vistas of the quiet and intimate rural scenery immerses the visitor immediately. Initially this felt like curatorial overenthusiasm for an abundant body of work, but once fully enveloped by the blue/green/purple colour scheme it was clearly an appropriate way to set out the show.
Because the subject matter for the exhibition is so programmatically focused on a very particular aspect of the English countryside, one might sense a degree of repetition in this body of work. This is true to some extent, but after a while you start to notice variable characteristics in many of the paintings. It’s rather like a huge family portrait of one side of the family, where the various cousins are clearly related, but then the personalities (including their interesting oddities and idiosyncrasies) slowly emerge. For example, in ‘B133a’, a predominantly blue sky with fish-like vapour trails criss-crossing in a loose weave depicts a typical Sussex sky scene (thanks to the ever-present Gatwick and Heathrow pathways imprinting their presence on the earthbound sky-gazer). But on the left hand side of the composition, creating a diagonal intrusion from the bottom left hand corner, a thin sentinel-like figure intrudes. It’s just a street-lamp, but the dark visage seems to stare back at the onlooker. This may be a small reminder that the so-called landscape we generally think of as ‘natural’ is a constructed and technological space too. Or is this purely in the viewer’s imagination?
Interestingly, in an interview for his previous ‘B-Roads’ exhibition at the same gallery in 2013, Bodimeade spoke of the viewer’s role in completing the image. He wished, through the paintings, to meet the viewer, “on ground they are already familiar with”. In turn, we might interpret this position, as the landscape images are purposely un-romanticised, as encompassing a desire to present the world (or at least an aspect of it) without ideal or irony. For they are everyday scenes of the ‘countryside’, framed by our leisurely or impressionistic looking, and invariably linked to previous experiences of travel (especially by bus, bike or car – rather than train) where the localised features are encountered without surprise. A Romantic disposition, in art historical terms at least, might formally rearrange and overidealise from the tradition of Claude, via our inherited Constable or Turner-type cultural filters, to make something rather unnecessarily grand of such subject matter. But ‘Tracks, Trails and Tarmac’ simply presents the mundane and the ordinary – which, with a positive twist, achieves the opposite.
Certainly, to recognise the extraordinary in the commonplace is not uniquely Romantic or even surreal, and we all possess the ability to do this. To pitch a more redemptive note, these paintings might remind us of the opening lines of R.S.Thomas’ poem, ‘Bright Field’:
“I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it…”
From ‘Laboratories of the Spirit’, published by MacMillan
Alternatively, another example of the implicit extension from the taken-for-granted ‘everyday’ landscape view, to a more portentous or ominous presence was generated by, ‘B108’. The shadowy knot of entangled green forms virtually writhes on the canvas surface and a rich purple protuberance snakes across the unusually bright road. (Note to painters: try recording tarmac – it’s almost impossible.) The ‘snake’, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. And like all words applied to a form of abstraction, the personification or adaptation to the word for explanation is fundamentally flawed: these paintings demand to be consumed by the eye and felt by the body.
From the 28 paintings on view, the one that most immediately undermined any notion of unashamedly pretty landscape painting (for the subject is now dangerously clichéd) surreptitiously dominated the first room of the show. This was ‘B129a’. At a diminutive 35X40cm it could have been easily overlooked, as it was almost instantly located behind the viewer’s back when entering the gallery. The prospect of so many paintings pulled you into the colour-animated space.
The subdued light in B129a suggested the dawn or early evening; and a fellow viewer intriguingly described it as the Ur-landscape – by which he implied that it was the primitive, or original painting, for the show.
Whatever the implied time or place in any of the images, this may not matter, for we are looking at paintings, in the flesh, so-to-speak. The “dialogue with people” that Bodimeade seeks, transforms into a two-way process, or active meditation, on painting. So, although B129a might, at first glance, record a rain soaked or greasy strip of tarmac that reflects the colours from the sky, the medium of oil paint provides the true substance for our gaze. An apparent ease in applying the buttery medium reveals a painter of consummate skill, gained through the daily labour of the studio. The calligraphy of the handling is robust, but retains a vibrant, De Kooningesque freshness. The visual language teeters in that fascinating zone between the figurative and the abstract and so one might be attracted to either aspect. There is also a great intelligence and reflective questioning of the act (or task) of painting in an era that eschews the relevance of paint on canvas. This is answered by the celebratory impact of the paintings.
It would be perverse to be overtly expectant of paintings that clearly exude such confidence and a sense of arrival at a suitable outcome – but it will be interesting to see where this artist travels to next. The threshold into abstraction might provide the pull, or a reinforced figuration may prevail. Either way, we can look forward to the next stage of a long journey – where the arrival points are rendered en route – and not at some fictitious end.
Geoff Hands (October, 2016)