An exhibition of recent paintings by Julian Vilarrubi of the view from Studio 4S0 at Phoenix Art Space.
Window Gallery, Phoenix Art Space (2-25 April 2021)
With covid-related requirements morphing slowly towards some kind of normality, public access to one section of the Window Gallery at the Phoenix Art Space is gained via the coffee shop entrance. Here the visitor will be confronted by the largest work in ‘Shifting Moments’, a one-person show from Phoenix studio member, Julian Vilarrubi. ‘St. Peter’s Sunset’ (2021), as its title implies, represents the end of the day and so fittingly completes the sequence of nineteen works on display. This appears to be the most recent painting in the presentation but ideally, the visitor would start their promenade along the stretch of the gallery from the main entrance, though the obligation is still to view the exhibition from street level.
There is certainly a sense that the show begins, both logically and in a reminiscent spirit, from the northern end of the corridor where ‘Swan Hunter Shipyard I’ and ‘II’ are hung side by side. These are impressive observational exercises that Vilarrubi made at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1983 as a first year under-graduate. As monochromatic acrylic studies on paper they could be categorised as drawing or painting. Although made some 38 years ago they do not look out of place in relation to the recent paintings and drawings of St. Peter’s Church and its surroundings as they set the scene for the artist’s probing and inquisitive eye that has maintained such dedicated practice for almost four decades. The majority of the recent paintings are from 2021 and are essentially acrylic on paper (though sometimes with additional oil), although the project began in late 2020 and will continue beyond this exhibition.
As if to press the point home that this project is also ‘contemporary’ in a technological sense, there is also a selection of six iPad drawings (or are they ink paintings?) on display. Notionally these are original studies drawn from strict observation on an iPad at the studio window and it is intriguing to consider how the virtual sketchbook/canvas is actually something non-virtual/actual, even before the resulting prints have been produced. These are not playful simulacrums imitating photographs either, but are hard-won images requiring extended periods of time to produce. Given the appropriate resources it would have been a bonus to have an iPad or screen on display too, as this would be an intriguing development for realising this expanding body of work with due consideration for the digital aspect. Should ‘Shifting Moments II’ follow at some point it would be of great interest to see the imagery pre-print, as it were.
‘Shifting Moments’ is certainly a thought provoking title for the exhibition, suggesting fixity and flux at once. When engaged in looking at a subject, in a time-based physical mode, it may well seem that there is some sense of the film-still being frozen in time out of a continuum of images that otherwise ceaselessly flow around us. Then there is our cultural obsession with the photograph as visual memento, abundantly developed by the shift from film to digital technologies, most especially now with the Smartphone that almost every person on the planet appears to own and which produces images that typically remain in a digital format only to be shared from screen to screen. Since the 1840s it has been claimed that painting is dead; is printing dead too?
When we view time-heavy projects such as ‘Shifting Moments’ (including the digital medium that Vilarrubi employs), we see that there is something experiential going on, for artist or viewer, that an immediate exposure or impression does not record – or create. These are works that could only have been produced over many days or weeks, culminating in one final state, which seems like a contradiction against any notion of ‘real time’ telling the whole story of appearances. Time therefore might be better understood as a meta-medium that can be physically manifested and explored in whatever forms the artist chooses. In the instance of Vilarubbi’s work, most especially the paintings, the notion of the moment inexorably ‘shifting’ becomes visually and psychologically experiential – demanding time and effort from the viewer. His paintings, in effect, offer a visual journey that puts the observer in the driving seat. But this is not an A to B linear trajectory, it’s an extended moment in the shifting continuum of the here and now where it would be best to avoid the cursory glance – for then we would be wasting our precious time.
In terms of mainstream art history we might recall the work of the French Impressionists (in the 1860s) gloriously attempting to record a particular scene at a specific time of day with their hog-hair brushes, canvases and oil paints. With the advent of photography (initially a scientific methodology) preceding the painters by 30 years or so it may be erroneous to connect the two historical developments in visual representation too keenly, but both endeavours are connected by an interest in recording ‘the everyday’, a kind of inversion and subversion of History and Salon painting that prevailed in the nineteenth century. In this respect the everyday is a subject matter that can engage us in reflections from the monotonous and unchanging (particularly in Covid-related lockdown periods) to the metaphysical and the philosophical. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus informed us: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Gender issues aside, no academic inclination towards an interest in Ancient Greek philosophy was necessary for those of us confined to a prolonged observation of life outside our places of confinement, for it is likely that we all noticed even more how ever-changing and plenteously detailed our world is when we are forced, or take time, to observe the view from the window – every day.
Vilarrubi’s imagery, irrespective of the chosen medium, offers this same range of pondering possibilities. The studios at the Phoenix Art Space, at least for those artists who have a studio to themselves, this self-isolation chamber or place of refuge became strangely significant and certainly not taken for granted, if it ever was. For Vilarrubi the adaptation to the vicissitudes of the pandemic prompted the ‘Shifting Moments’ series as an extension of his predominantly landscape based practice (Italy, France and Spain have been typical destinations) with the ‘stay at home’ simplicity of the view from the window.
Fortunately, perhaps, this view is from the fourth floor at the very top of the building and faces towards the impressive St. Peter’s Church and the cityscape beyond. The view is west facing too and so the daily sunset provided, at times, spectacular changes in light and would sometimes drench the backdrop to the church in colour. Add an equally glorious Elm tree to the foreground and the stage was set for a continuum of changing scenarios, underpinned by the still-life constancy of architectural structures and forms enveloped by an ever changing light show from dawn to dusk. Some expanded category of subject matter, beyond physical location, was always in plain sight.
On the face of it, what ‘Shifting Moments’ offers the viewer is a collection of views of St. Peter’s Church undergoing restoration, built, by coincidence, at the same time that Nicéphore Niépce invented the photographic process in the 1820s. As the church is slowly but surely being restored (these projects are typically of long duration and are probably never ending) the building might be considered as battling against the elements, erosion, and time itself – just as we are as mortal beings. But the church is not necessarily the main subject for this observational project. Vilarrubi also records the buildings (a block of flats and a multi-story car park) beyond the church, teasingly decorative in their modern, banal, mundanity, repeating the repetitive forms of the scaffolding on the church. The view of architectural structures, seemingly solid and formidable, under the canopy of the ever-changing sky is also foregrounded by the most wonderful tree. Along with the changing light, here is ‘nature’ epitomised by the leafy foliage of the tree – a subject that would seem a monumental task to record faithfully in any detail by drawing or painting: why not just take a photograph? But, as every artist understands, you inherit and invent a methodology: a visual system or language to approximate what is observed, or needs to be communicated as best you can.
Playing the devil’s advocate for a moment, the subject matter of the project is satisfyingly prosaic and, if it were this simple, a sequence of good quality photographs would surely have sufficed. But things (or observations) are never this straightforward. To give due credit, and appreciation, to any painter’s work the viewer must consume slowly. Vilarrubi’s paintings physically pull the viewer towards their surface and the detail of colours, shapes and patterns wherein they engage the eye to the point where the ostensible subject matter is secondary. Then again, step back, and the various scenarios are pictorially strong enough to engage the viewer just as satisfactorily. In this respect, Vilarrubi has painstakingly emphasised a multitude of often quite intricate shapes that ‘work’ from any normal viewing distance. Some are obvious brush marks, repeated or varied as the scene or prospect demanded for he is not enslaved to photorealism. The viewer could be struck by a fusion of minimalist repetition and a decorative Rococo-esque surface pattern that is Japanese in spirit, despite the use of western perspective. Engrossed in the paintings, the eye may rest only briefly as a dot or a dash with the brush invokes a visual dance routine taking the eye into a contrasting colour or tonal field where detail is replaced by a simple coating of thinned paint. One is constantly aware that these are paintings, rendered by hand, not illusionistic devices.
For example, in ‘St. Peter’s, Brighton I’ (2020), the image chosen for the exhibition poster, the viewer can start the journey I mentioned above anywhere. Centrally from the expected greens and surprising blues in the foreground tree; or in the architecture where there are various greys and blues in yellows (one mix with a hint of orange) are linked to the pinkish mauve on blue for the sky. Alternatively, start or finish at the bottom of the composition where a band of local and atmospheric colour creates a variegated ribbon of orange, brown and yellow on the top surface of a low wall. This slightly bending strip sits atop a wider band of blues and pinks that are echoing the early or mid-morning sky above, reflected on the inside of the wall on the terrace immediately outside the studio and (maybe) on the flat surface inside the window space – a watery blue stream that would only distract with additional detail.
Vilarrubi’s project is very localised both in terms of subject matter and his personal visual language that is forged from observation. Seeing so many studies of the same view (is it really the same view, Heraclitus may disagree) undergoing constant change helps to insist in the realisation that nothing is actually fixed – it’s an illusion that we sometimes fool ourselves to believe. ‘Shifting Moments’ strikes me as a meditation on time, place and seeing. The time-based act of seeing, especially through and making observational drawings and paintings – an active meditation – vastly extends the apparent immediacy of the photographic exposure: though perhaps 1/250th of a second is an eternity? The photographic references just will not go away. But this is not because of the inclusion of the iPad drawings (that I mistakenly regarded as being photographs when I first saw them) but more associatively from the suggestion of the viewfinder that crops the views provided by the window of the studio. Vilarrubi accepts what he sees, whereas painters from the past would re-arrange the ‘furniture’ (landscape props, most especially trees, glades or a mountain range) to represent the world idealistically or to conform to the Academy. From Degas onwards the view is conceptualised and modernised, thanks to the photograph.
The initial conflation with the photograph (whether from film or digital file) was also partly suggested by out an of focus representation of St. Peter’s church in some of the paintings and iPad drawings. In photographic parlance this is due to a limited ‘depth of field’, which is often how a camera ‘sees’ and distorts the focus by the physics of light and lens and is a commonplace phenomenon within the fiction of photographic representation. As a visual language the oddities of photographic imagery (the blur is another example) may well affect how we perceive the world but it could be that the reflective pane of glass in the studio window becomes a site or place of separation.
We are back to the metaphysical; take for example ‘Midday’ (2021), an iPad drawing that is at once viewfinder, window, portal, and self-reflective mirror. In the top half of the composition two vertical smudges of a glue-like substance are similarly rendered like the clouds beyond. Gravity wise there is a sense of falling, a downward movement split between arriving at the church and the tree. In the bottom third, placed more-or-less centrally (this is important) we might be seeing the artist observing, reflected on the iPad screen or in the window. The imagery here is so subtle and out of focus that it could be anyone: you or I.
Vilarrubi’s distance from the window portal alters slightly from study to study as he frames afresh for each session. A foregrounded shelf in his studio, sometimes visually tight to a safety railing just outside the window four floors above the pavement, makes brief appearances. Most content in the foreground is on the glass surface where inside and outside appears not to matter. This invites a meditation of sorts. The glass screen (no more than a filthy window) thwarts the connection with the outside world. Between the observer and the quite non-picturesque environment outside (tree and church appear to occlude and vie for attention, at the expense of a romanticised picture postcard vista) is the pane of glass. Smeared by rain, glue, sticky tape or bird shit mimicking an abstract expressionist gesture; or actually behind a knotted curtain, determined not to be sidelined, that soaks up and emanates the setting sun in one acrylic study (‘St. Peter’s Church I [diptych]’). These are predominantly outside views but we are always inside: trapped observers who will never freeze time into a moment.
Even if the notion of ‘outside’ needs the ‘inside’, celebrate and be amazed at what is outside the window, for solitude is a fiction. Here is the evidence.
All images © Julian Vilarrubi
Phoenix Art Space – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org/Events/julian-vilarrubi-shifting-moments/
The exhibition filmed – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJ2kXqVhjig
Julian Vilarubbi website – https://www.julianvilarrubi.com/home
St. Peter’s Church website – https://stpetersbrighton.org