At Campden Gallery, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire
18 September to 9 October 2021
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.
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.
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.
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.
Campden Gallery – https://campdengallery.co.uk/exhibitions/
Mary Grant on Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/marygrantpainter/?hl=en
Mary Grant website – http://www.marygrant.co.uk/index.html