BILL LYNCH: The Exile of Dionysus

At Brighton CCA, University of Brighton

From 6 August to 15 October 2022

This was an exhibition I had to visit twice and I may have been once more by the time this rumination has been written.

The Brighton Centre for Contemporary Arts is a relatively new gallery hub in Grand Parade and Dorset Place, which is situated at the University of Brighton. As such a large community of artists live in the city, many graduating from the university itself, the institution might now be expected to lead the way in highlighting contemporary themes and developments in the broad area of fine art. The Grand Parade gallery was reopened (and rejuvenated) in 2019 after several decades as a general gallery space that often showcased student work from the visual arts and design courses at the university. The last exhibition I saw there, at the beginning of this year, was Lloyd Corporation, a thought provoking (‘research lead project’) on material accumulation and social space, with the inevitable installation and slide show presentation. The show certainly made me review the garbage still stored in my attic at home, but as a painter who writes the occasional review, I have felt some disappointment in the possibility of new initiatives and expositions from the visually creative communities in Brighton to exclude, or at least downplay, painting. We appear to live in an age where issue-lead forms of  ‘information’ and ‘message’ are a key requirement for supportive funding too. Video, photography, installation and text-based works, in particular, have been on trend for some time now. So a painting show, by an artist new to me, provided a good excuse to get out of the studio. A five star review of The Exile of Dionysus, the first major show of paintings by Bill Lynch in the UK, from Laura Cumming in The Observer was also a powerful prompt.

Bill Lynch: The Exile of Dionysus

“In these pictures everything is alive and communicating wildly. Lynch’s connection to subjects and landscapes, both in life and painting, was empathic: a flower or tree branch sings just as strongly as any bird; … and he listened acutely, transcribing their conversation so you could hear it too. Their secrets opened up to him. Everywhere is meaning. Surrounded by his work, you can’t help but be struck by this vibrant language; his sincere belief, his love.” (Michael Wilde, White Columns, September 2014)

Déjà vu: to my unexpected surprise, as I first wandered (and wondered) through this immediately memorable exhibition of Bill Lynch’s paintings, I was reminded of the viewer experience from the Brett Goodroad: Toe Buoy exhibition held at the Phoenix Art Space here in Brighton in 2018. In both instances a relatively unknown North American artist, for a UK audience at least, brought a fresh voice and personalised vision to picturing, and actively celebrating, the world around him. Both artists’ respective projects augmented and amplified ‘reality’ with a sense of reverie and submersive attachment to the subject matter. Goodroad often explores a drama of figures in landscape settings, whilst Lynch more often highlights aspects (and objects) of his environment, for example, depicting flowers, trees and birds from nature or bowls, fruits and vases from more personal spaces. He was deeply interested in Chinese ink drawing too, hence a clearly affected visual language and subject matter in many instances of his work.

Unfortunately, Bill Lynch is now deceased (he died in 2013 from throat cancer aged just 53) and had mental health issues (schizophrenia) and these facts may well add to the inherent pathos of the works. The viewer cannot help but be affected by some aspects of autobiography (van Gogh being the classic case) when seeing an artist’s work, even in reproduction. But whilst a certain amount of knowledge and context of an artist’s work is necessary to understand and find a way into their artwork there is an argument for going straight to the work itself – inevitably accompanied by one’s own contexts and prejudices. This purist attitude is not one to always prevail, and we might seek to eschew habit, but it’s a conscious way in – most especially to such directly affective and demanding imagery. Theses are paintings that are impossible to ignore.

No doubt, every viewer will be struck by Lynch’s use of salvaged plywood as support. It’s a common material to use in place of canvas, solid wood or aluminium panels. It’s far from usual to use this base as found material and form (hence a variety of sizes and an acceptance of imperfections such as bashed corners and cut intrusions) without a backing frame and carefully primed and prepared grounds. The use of paint and the visual language is raw too. But Lynch did use oil paint and the subject matter fits into the tradition of landscape painting, notably influenced by an eastern (Chinese) tradition that celebrated nature.

Installation view in South Gallery

There may be an unsophisticated irony at work here too, although I doubt it. Lynch was an art student in New York in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, although he lived “on the fringes” and did not succeed on the gallery scene. Irony, as a post-modernist conceit, came a little later, and Lynch’s work appears beyond parody or intellectual conceptualism. One reading might be that Lynch was (metaphorically speaking) sticking two fingers up to the art world establishment. The works certainly have a feeling of individual strength and reveal a desire to stay tuned to painting as a way of mediating with the world, and oneself, irrespective of fashion or gallery pressures. Perhaps painting was a balm for his personal troubles, a way of coping with and of celebrating being alive.

His imagery, whether influenced by Chinese painting or not, has that sense of direct engagement with the subject. This of course includes the imagination, based on a story-telling kind of attitude, alongside concrete experiences and observations. The works are unashamedly ‘rough and ready’. They look like first drafts, but go beyond sketches or rough plans. The physicality of application of the paint matches the honest acceptance of the medium too, as if to suggest the illusion of visual reality as being quite matter of fact – a form of philosophical irony steeped in Buddhist traditions.

Installation view North Gallery

The Exile of Dionysus is divided into two main spaces, plus a reading room at one end. The North and South Galleries house the works. The former has some suffused natural light, which was strangely welcome despite the noise of the traffic from outside. But from the main entrance into the building the visitor enters a high ceilinged space containing ten of the fifteen works selected. Here the internal walls are painted green, which oddly reminded me of the National Portrait Gallery in London. We are so used to white walls now that colour can come as a shock. But the works bedded in well and the green was congenial and not dominating. Intended or not, this gave a sense of being in a rather special, natural, kind of space. I mention this, as any gallery environment imposes an unavoidable immediate context for the work. White would have been okay, but the use of a colour brought the paintings together, whilst in the adjoining setting the five other works felt separate. As a space with the additional construction of surrounding walls the traffic sounds were heavily muffled. A chair or bench to sit and ponder Lynch’s painting would have been most welcome too, not only to discourage the common gallery walk through, but also to facilitate an even more contemplative experience. But, no matter, for the works will make the visitor stop and stare.

Once the shock of the materiality of the works is accepted, the imagery can come to the fore. In the South Gallery I suspect that the almost, but not quite, light-hearted imagery of a human skeleton in ‘Untitled (Skeleton)’ will stand out first. A white shroud, suggestively the beginning of applying a primer to the board, slightly foregrounds the serious looking skeleton that is accompanied by a flowering plant between its legs, with part of a tree trunk and branches behind. Not that perspective as a necessary element bothers Lynch too much.

Bill Lynch – ‘No title (Skeleton)’ oil on wood

To the left of this relatively large work is, ‘Emperor’s Erection’, which depicts a vase with two ghostly wings (linear depictions of four legged animals in fact) that levitates the form against the board that has a pre-painted layer of varnish from a previous life as a piece of furniture. The still-life reference of the found board, like a piece of Cubist assemblage, accommodates the rather beautifully painted vessel decorated with plant forms. Lynch tends to draw with the paint, especially when getting a little more detailed and specific.

Bill Lynch – ‘Emperor’s Erection’ (1988) oil on wood

Nearby hangs, ‘No title (Vase with Blue and Purple Flowers)’ which, despite almost hiding in a corner, demanded my attention as much as any other of the works in the show. A Rothko-esque cloud of colour fills the top right-hand corner of the composition before a rather scraggly looking vase of flowers demands more viewer focus and attention. These may have been cut-plants in need of water as the stems are beginning to droop. I imagine they may have once existed in Lynch’s studio, or wherever he painted. Dotted across the board are knots in the plywood layers that suggest planets to the imagination, though they are more ‘real’ than any painted representation of anything. Around the base of the glass vase is a pair of wing-like forms. Or perhaps they are clouds of unknowing. On one level, this scruffy little painting might be considered as superficially trite, but holds a galaxy of potential meaning and viewer interpretation.

Bill Lynch – ‘No title (Vase with Blue and Purple Flowers)’ oil on wood

Before entering the North Gallery the visitor will certainly be stopped in their tracks by, ‘Four Corners Sunset’ from 1994, one of only three works dated in the exhibition, and the largest. I wonder if Lynch was so pleased to obtain such an expanse of plywood that it invited a glorious sunset, worthy of the attention of a 19th century Hudson Valley painter, inspired by the implied sublimity of a J.M.W. Turner sunset. The red circular forms throbbing in a suggestively psychedelic pulse line across the horizon, like a row of coloured spotlights from a rock concert, contrasts with the dark cratered lunar-like landforms below and to either side of the setting sun. The world can be a strange place indeed, though we need painters to remind us sometimes.

Bill Lynch – ‘Four Corners Sunset’ (1994) oil on wood

Lynch’s work, however, seems to be appropriately and healthily placed in the often commonplace. In the North Gallery one of the outstanding works is one of the simplest compositions in the show. ‘No title (Bird on Branch)’ depicts a bird perched on a tree branch, with leaves above and below on a single stem. The leaves are gently modulated with tone and shift in sequence from being closed in the top left, to open (in the middle), to dropping apart in the bottom right hand corner. One might sense the passing of time in this small painting, as the bird’s weight holds the branch in a diagonal position within the composition. I assume that the bird was copied from a reproduction, not that it matters. It’s an image that far surpasses its simplistic representation and it’s no big deal that it’s not painted on canvas. It is just about the end of the show at this point, although the green glade behind will pull you back in for another look.

Bill Lynch – ‘No title Bird on Branch)’ oil on wood

Laura Cumming may have been purposely, and journalistically, provoking the reader for attention in suggesting that Lynch was “…the greatest American artist you’ve never heard of”, but she was correct when she stated that, “Bill Lynch’s paintings on salvaged wood transfix with their dual power of primitive joy and high sophistication.”

This really is a show to visit and the arts community of Brighton dare not miss the spectacle. Painting can go far beyond the provision of mere information.

Text: © Geoff Hands, 2022

All images – © Rob Harris/ Brighton CCA (excluding the first image)

Artworks have been borrowed from The Approach, The Bill Lynch Family Estate and several private collectors.

Note: In the Brighton CCA reading room a wall-based text has been written by the poet Vanessa Onwuemezi in response to Bill Lynch’s paintings. Hear her read it here: ‘Lines of Chance’

Links:

Bill Lynch at Brighton CCA – https://brightoncca.art/exhibition/bill-lynch/

Laura Cumming review in The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/aug/21/bill-lynch-the-exile-of-dionysus-brighton-cca-review-the-greatest-american-artist-youve-never-heard-of

Bill Lynch at The Approach – https://theapproach.co.uk/artists/bill-lynch/images/

Roberta Smith in The New York Times – https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/18/arts/design/bill-lynchs-paintings-get-a-show-at-white-columns.html

White Columns exhibition – https://whitecolumns.org/exhibitions/bill-lynch-u2013-curated-by-verne-dawson/

Brett Goodroad at Phoenix Art Space –

Author: Geoff Hands

Visual Artist / Writer. Studio based at Phoenix Art Space, Brighton UK.

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