A Lewes Artwave exhibition at Berwick Church
Growing Rich With Looking
In a post-industrial revolution context the English countryside, for so long a subject for painters, can still be a strangely ‘other’ environment for so many. Nowadays this space we call the ‘countryside’ is a place of escape and rest, suitable for a day out or for a camping holiday. For the daily traveller going about their business the countryside is a fleeting arena placed in between centres of commerce and mass housing. Viewed from the train, bus or car window lack of access may even create tension. Despite being loaded with mythology, folk tales, notions of paradise (very much lost), agrarian history and, for the south of England in particular (arguably the birthplace of capitalism) a mode of enquiry for the contemporary artist continues on to the ecological crisis that now impacts our “green and pleasant land” (to reference William Blake).
Julian Le Bas is a painter, perhaps the contemporary painter, of the Sussex section of the South Downs and the adjoining coast. Le Bas bares witness to this typically splendid and beautiful geography of chalk hills and woodland as he engages with his, and our, local world on a journey that has been his indefatigable undertaking for over forty years. What lesson we might learn from his ongoing life-long project is that every day and every scene presents a seemingly revived landscape offering a new vista, and a fresh encounter, with the apparently commonplace. The landscapes from Le Bas are tirelessly offered up, renewed, for continuous engagement and revelation.
Paintings and drawings, made en plein air and in isolation as he travels alone, invite a congregation of onlookers in a small exhibition of paintings and drawings at Berwick Church for this year’s Lewes Artwave Festival. Le Bas’ paintings exalt and revere his subject matter – and how fitting that we see these works in a place of worship. This particular church might be considered a wonderful art installation in itself, purposely referencing the pre-Reformation model of the church as the historical forerunner to the ‘art gallery’, permanently containing murals by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, plus the recently commissioned altar reredos panels by Julian Bell.
The paintings and drawings from Le Bas, however, are secular in subject matter and intent but unequivocally express awe at the natural world. Le Bas is the epitome of the artist engaging in the role of shamanic consort, expressing the elevating metaphysicality of the everyday through the ordinarily magical presence of the landscape. It may take a leap of faith to accept such a purposely contradictory definition of this particular artist, but the work continuously appears to convey this sense of the uniqueness of the quotidian and the local which changes in appearance – not only due to time of day or season, but is subject to the artist’s own mood or degree of engagement at any particular time.
These paintings are of the moment – a duration measured in hours we might assume. Le Bas uses an English post-Impressionist palette where high key colour combines with earthy local colour. His engagement with colour reveals both a romantic and a matter-of-fact connection with the notion of landscape experience. But what does this mean if it’s a correct interpretation? I would argue that some exaggeration, a visual proclamation in his use of colour and insistent mark making, is intended to bring the viewer into the work and to remind us that the magical landscape is still a worthy and increasingly important genre – especially as it contributes to our burgeoning awareness of global environmental issues.
The personal capacity required of a contemporary painter, with an arguably dated assignment to record the landscape, and at first glance unshackled by what might be on trend at present, is necessarily blinkered to enable a deep focus on such a potentially numinous experience of landscape. A logical pragmatist, a post-modernist, might reject Landskip as relevant now (unless it provides a context for other, grander, socially and politically qualified narratives), but one role of the artist might still be to say: “look at what I have seen, see what is available to all”.
Or, to take most of the words of R. S. Thomas from the poem, ‘The Small Window’:
“… there are jewels
To gather, but with the eye
Only. A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles
With colour and goes out
In its turn; in one day
You can witness the extent
Of the spectrum and grow rich
Like this poet, associated with the Llŷn Peninsula in north Wales, Le Bas is tuned in to the sheer visual experience of his own landscape, not withstanding its potential to transform our experiences. Le Bas reminds the viewer that this environment is bursting with colour as much as any city has to offer and that it has the indefatigable capacity to ‘move’ us and to provide space to think, to plan and reflect and to explore. On a trite level, even a small canvas of Le Bas’ in the urban home will break down the barriers between the town and the country; but also on a metaphysical level, based on concrete experience, a transformative understanding of the landscape environment is possible too. Perhaps usefully, we cannot seem to let go of our obsession with ‘the countryside’. Landscape as a genre, engaged with constantly by the Sunday painter and the obsessive, committed practitioner alike, persists in our culture – which is quite assuring.
Whilst there is a certain, expressionistic conventionality in Julian Le Bas’ paintings and drawings (which I say in a positive sense), the gestural yet restrained visual language, honed and perfected after years of hard practice and utter devotion, results in a compelling engagement with his subject matter. For some observers he may exaggerate colour and mark making at times, approaching a general expectation of abstraction, but this is the hook that pulls one in and presents the eye and mind with spatial conundrums of simultaneous senses of flatness and depth. The generally bold brush marks are laid in areas that intermix, overlap or abut, amounting to a distinctive patchwork of organic shapes. Local colour and colour in its own right – straight out of the tube, Fauve-like – or mixed on the canvas as well as the palette to create secondary and tertiary mixes, make a variety of colour combinations. Realised as mark and gesture as well as for their tones and values, these colour-shapes are at once based on responding to visual reality and to testifying to a daily practice that celebrates the act of painting, whatever degree of verisimilitude is sought. There is clearly an extrovert inclination in these paintings, revealing an emotional involvement steered by rigorous and disciplined draughtsmanship. This engagement with the physical qualities of medium, from compressed charcoal in his drawings to oil paint on canvas, Le Bas’ works are somehow a summation of perceived experience with an aspect that says, “look at this world around you and engage with your whole being”. This is very much a serious undertaking, where pleasure is often an outcome.
In Le Bas’ paintings the drawing content morphs, via the brush, into painted lines that delineate shapes and forms, often flat rather than rounded, but creating visual space on the canvas. Perspective is loosely reduced within the network of colour-shapes but an abstract, surface acknowledging, arrangement of colours and gestures there is also an essence of movement. The observer might detect a degree of improvisation too, as taking liberties with mark and colour is a strong characteristic in Le Bas’ work. The paintings are made from a totally immersive activity of looking at sections, and spatial passages where the eye has been lead in deep concentration, engaging with various parts, structures, surfaces and atmospheres that make up the whole. A ‘whole’ that actually includes the observer, for if the environment is captured in spirit, it also captures us. In these paintings there is a record of being that is symbiotic with ‘nature’ as, in a real sense there is no divide. If we learn to appreciate this environment, starting with the local, with what’s in front of us, we might start to protect it better and therefore see that Le Bas’ paintings are as relevant as any other contemporaneous projects that have a more immediately political purpose.
Philosopher and Ecologist, Timothy Morton has written:
“Somewhere a bird is singing and clouds pass overhead. You stop reading this book and look around you.” (‘Being Ecological’)
We might stop looking at paintings and look around too, but engaging with the art might be the doorway we need to see what’s in front of us.
Geoff Hands ( September 2022)
Julian Le Bas – http://www.julianlebas.co.uk/home.html
Sarah O’Kane Contemporary Fine Art – https://www.sarahokane.co.uk/julian-le-bas-gallery
Berwick Church – https://www.berwickchurch.org.uk
R.S. Thomas – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/r-s-thomas
Timothy Morton – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/20/being-ecological-timothy-morton-review