Michelle Cobbin: Transitions
At 35 North Gallery, North Road, Brighton
24 September – 10 October 2020
Right here, right now
It’s a dull morning in Brighton and heavy rain is expected, but the streets are busy as shoppers make the most of dull but dry weather conditions. The opportunities to see art in the flesh have, for obvious reasons, been few and far between these past six months. The Phoenix Art Space gallery is functioning again and now 35 North also opens its doors to visitors. As it happens, Michelle Cobbin’s studio is based at the Phoenix and so she is on home territory. This is not the largest of spaces, just the one room, but Tardis-like, the space has accommodated 16 paintings of various sizes without feeling congested. Cobbin last showed at the gallery in 2017, in both group and solo shows and now a new body of work is on view. Entitled Transitions, the collection suitably presents a subsequent period of time impacted by extraordinary and historical circumstances. But, true to character, the repercussions for Cobbin are subtle within a broader painting project to explore colour and its potentially meditative effects on both maker and viewer. The work is highly personal too, as Cobbin has revealed that, “…‘Transitions’ … best describes where I feel I am right now: in an in-between space; taking stock; moving my practice forward; embracing ageing; exploring ancestry and welcoming seasonal change.”
Cobbin is one of those painters who enjoys both strong, impactful colour and the materiality of paint without inhibition and whose work would be categorised as abstract. But she’s not averse to employing earthy or atmospheric colours either and there are clear references to the landscape, particularly horizons, and the titles reveal her wandering spirit and love of the natural world. Cobbin has been walking on the local Sussex downland that embraces the City of Brighton and Hove to the north and east. With the Covid lockdown her expeditions have been restricted to an area close to where she lives. This lack of autonomy to venture further afield has proved a bonus, as it happens. Even from a relatively small collection of works the varieties of visual memories and encounters recorded, experienced and visually ingested al fresco, then developed in the studio, are numerous in terms of colour combinations, tonal variations and implied explorations and experiences of local landscape spaces at various times of the day. That no space is inexhaustible, as visual phenomena or for prompting personal interpretation and meaning, might be a sub-theme to Transitions.
This title is most interesting, for transitions occur not just in the natural environment but also in terms of the self, as the artist’s revelation above identifies. In a more general sense, for many the enforced social isolation, where a deceleration in the daily engagement within society has not proved to be an overwhelming burden, this opportunity to slow down and to go inwards in daily active/walking meditations might have manifested a positive aspect in such troubled times. The daily 30-minute walk approved of and encouraged during full lockdown earlier in the year has certainly born fruit for the continuous developments and adjustments in Cobbin’s practice. The sometimes stark juxtapositions of colour and shape remain in her work, but the outcomes are now mediated with a more pronounced sense of finish and resolution. Even in ‘Bridge’, one of the larger canvases on view that could have originated from an earlier body of work (although described as a – “Spontaneous expression of summer” by the artist), there is a softer combination in the relationship between contrasting colour fields of reds, greens and yellows. This is partly due to the overall sensuousness of surface and brushwork that is quite restrained and, given the robust implications sometimes associated with complimentary pairs, quells overt contrasts of form. The monumentally dominant standing stone and lintel red/pink form is subsumed into an atmosphere of physical lightness by the modulated green-yellow backdrop and there is a sense of disembodied levitation. Or perhaps it’s a floating bridge of sorts, whereby the notion of a bridge is not so much a transitional or connecting motif but a specific time/space worth recollecting and monumentalising.
Whilst shear size may assist in enveloping the viewer into an atmosphere of contemplation and visual engulfment, ‘Chalk meadow – high summer’, the largest work on view also had this effect, the smaller works were as compelling. Take for example the series consisting of ‘June’, ‘July’, ‘August’ and ‘September’ at just 20x20cm each. The compositions are identical but are rendered in a variety of colour palettes that record not just different months and times of day and/or weather conditions but may also register four quite different studio sessions. For these are not en plein air landscape paintings but they catalogue the engagement with the practice of painting within the confines and solitude of the studio – the peculiar but positive form of social distancing that many artists experience. The studio can be a difficult and challenging place to survive within and the endeavour to be productive without recourse to repetition and falling for the formulaic (and commercial) is a tough call. But this stubborn resilience is one of Cobbin’s strengths and accounts for diversity and range in her imagery.
The consistency and sense of development and transition – which should by its very nature traverse ups and downs in outcomes – embraces the contradictory successes and failures of the rough ride of studio practice. Arguably, it’s a condition of painting that maintains its protean and variable spirit in a media-driven world of formulaic pastiche and cliché (and painters of lesser talent). This is, unavoidably, a pertinently welcome aspect of a solo exhibition from a painter who is clearly making this sometimes arduous journey alone – but with a generous desire to share the endeavour with an audience in a spirit of celebration of visual observation and perceptive awareness of the natural world. But there are no weak paintings in Transitions, none are superfluous, for disciplined studio practice has probably buried less resolved and unsatisfactory paintings beneath the surface in the more built up layers of paint. The installation and curatorial achievement is spot on too.
This link to an audience is partly initiated by the titles of the works. ‘Barley and chalk’, ‘Glimpse of Hawkweed’, ‘Dandelion Love’ and ‘Walking through Knapweed’. These experiences and subjects are available to anyone willing and able to make the effort. During lockdown many of us became aware of street weeds and there was a campaign originating in Nante (check out Frédérique Soulard and her Belles de Bitume project) that enabled us to appreciate the intriguing beauty of what was literally on our doorsteps. This active meditation, a tuning in to one’s surroundings, bares fruit. For a local audience we learn the lesson that the South Downs that extend into the city are a place of discovery. Not, so much, a place of escape, but of finding aspects of thought and feeling, from the sublime to the everyday; and potentially even from our personal geographical histories (for Cobbin, her native East Anglia) that collapses time and space into the here and now.
But if that were too metaphysical, the best advice would be to visually savour the immediate spectacle of the paintings on view. There’s more than enough to contemplate and perhaps just one image would suffice. The painting I kept returning to was ‘Barley and chalk’, a square composition that intrigued me for its simple brushwork (from a wide, flat brush) and understated simplicity. The initial register of a subdivision into two dominant rectangles is given a slightly suspended, vertically floating sensation by the background of acidic yellow. The broad white horizontal stripe in the lower half calmly moves forward from a light grey/blue veil behind. There are subtle shades of pink that are barely noticeable too (confession: I only notice this contradiction of colour from looking at a photograph later on). ‘Barley and chalk’ demands more than a handful of short viewings: a lifetime of meditation might be in order. Such is the potential of a humble painting, or a walk on the Downs.
Leaving the gallery some 45 minutes or so later the gloom has lifted, the expected storm has abated and it’s a glorious sunny day – right here, right now.
Geoff Hands (2020)
All images © Michelle Cobbin.
Michelle Cobbin – https://www.michellecobbin.com
35 North Gallery – http://35northgallery.com
Phoenix Art Space – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org