Returning home from the Private View for ‘We Like The Taste of Certain Poisons’, I am compelled to write something immediately about this small but compelling exhibition of Richard Graville’s paintings at NoHawkers Gallery, which is situated in the Rodhus complex of studios and workshops in Brighton.
Some sense of urgency (including the use of my iPhone photographs – so apologies to the artist) is due to the fact that the show is only open for two days and that if someone were to read this hurried review in time they might make it to see the exhibition. But another aspect of this impulse is due to my having spent a large proportion of the day preparing a teaching session, in which I shall ask my students to consider our shared human history of the landscape environment and might consider why this is still an interest for contemporary painters.
I had been re-reading Timothy Morton’s, ‘Being Ecological’, in which he posits the notion that:
“Picture postcards are descendents of what came before Romanticism in art, namely the picturesque. In the picturesque, the world is designed to look like a picture – like it’s already been interpreted and packaged by a human. You can easily see what’s what: there’s a mountain over there, a lake, maybe there’s a tree in the foreground… this is pretty much what humans saw in the savannah millions of years ago. Having a body of water nearby and some shade (those trees), encircled safely by mountains where you know there is water descending to feed the lake (for instance), is pretty handy if you’re some kind of ancient human. The picturesque is keyed to a fundamental human-centred way looking at things: it is anthropocentric.”
This seems strangely fortuitous, for although Graville’s paintings would certainly not be identified as landscapes as such (though they hold that possibility for a viewer who might be so inclined to wear their landscape-tinted spectacles), some kind of deep psychological and ‘pre-historical’ possibilities are pertinent to Graville’s project within a minimalist, systems/coding kind of approach to hard-edged abstract painting.
The last time I saw a Richard Graville painting (in the flesh, as opposed to on Instagam) was in H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G_x2 (Part 1) at the Phoenix Art Space in Brighton at the beginning of 2020. I wrote then that:
“Even Richard Graville’s pair of canvases, ‘Blushing Phantom’ and ‘Red Banded’, that come the closest to accruing accusations of painterly abstraction, have an aura of careful, premeditated control. That they echo the similar stripes on the workforce vans outside the building is either unfortunate or reminds us that abstract art is everywhere.”
This was my personal, uninformed but simplistically and naively honest response to two rather satisfying paintings. We search for meaning, some allusion, illusion or just good old subject matter in paintings. It’s habitual. That the red and yellow stripes on the Highway Maintenance vans had any connection with the natural world, as in animal colouration and patterning, I must admit was beyond me at the time.
From this solo show of ten new works by the artist (plus several more in his studio on-site) an information sheet presents this comment:
“Humans were once able to navigate and track subtle clues in nature. Now flat signs in primary colours tell us which way to go and what to do. I continue down that path to see where it leads.” (Richard Graville)
Hence my connection with Morton’s view on the picturesque, in that we humans create systems of understanding to navigate and understand the environments we live in – as do the other animals. Morton’s observations reference a perception of the world from a clearly human viewpoint (the anthropocentric), although also in the book he makes it clear that a worm’s experience of an apple is somewhat different to a human’s. Nevertheless, on all sorts of levels, data is interpreted, via various access modes, to be acted upon.
A wall mounted information display adjacent to the exhibition room tells the viewer that animal colouration systems, categorized as aposematism, inform potential predators that an animal is poisonous, venomous, or otherwise dangerous. All animals (which include us humans), to some extent, live (and die) by preventing attack (or not). Data requires interpretation, which is a form of code, taking us back to the work of the artist.
Not that Graville’s works could be categorized as ‘landscape’, but various painted arenas (canvases) are presented for interpretation and contemplation. Sensory input, from the simple act of looking, enables the mind to process information that we categorise typically as colour, size, shape, texture and finish or sheen. Each composition is relatively simple and geometrical and often references (purposely or not) windows and road signs. The colour palette is always limited (sometimes monochrome), though sophisticated and astute enough to prompt some reaction from the viewer. Every work is immaculately and carefully composed, painted and visually constructed. I suspect that the paintings might feel different depending on one’s mood and known or unknown frame of reference at different times. If you can accept a minimalist type of simplicity, aligned to a deep interest in colour (for its own sake, never mind any aposematic coding or sign) try to see this show – or look out for the next opportunity.
Geoff Hands (October 2022)
‘Being Ecological’ by Timothy Morton (quotation from pp.24/25 Pelican, 2018)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Outer space is right here, right now. It’s in front of us and in us, one and all – for there’s an inner space too. In terms of individual consciousness the two may as well be the same. When we think, we travel too, even if we remain physically still. When there is nowhere left to go, when we are trapped, marooned or sheltering from the storm we can rely on mental space. Still, but adrift in time, when memory kicks in to take us out of ourselves there is a palpable sense of space as an extension of self. Such are the conditions of splendid isolation, afforded most recently during the early months of the global pandemic.
Kiki Stickl clearly made the most of her own experiences of her family’s six months spent in countryside near Munich during the first lockdown in 2020 when she produced her ‘Breath in Breath out’ series of drawings, several of which appear in Drift. Here she encountered ideal conditions for creativity: time and space, duration and environment – and possibly sound as well – especially when the world is hushed. In fact, as I awoke on the morning after seeing Drift being installed at the Phoenix Art Space a couple of days before the opening I was semiconsciously thinking of Stickl’s drawings as visual soundworks. Not necessarily apropos Cage’s 4’ 33”, but literally, and deafeningly, silent. Stickl’s drawings suggest small arenas of silent sound consisting of visual counterpoints, full of emptiness inviting a form of meaningful mark making as an abstract response to recalling time and space. These are drawings made as an end result as they are not subservient to, or necessarily leading to painting as might traditionally be the case. Stickl conjures drawings from a meditation in the everyday physical realm of being that amount to sensory, environment-based studies. From a landscape environment to the literal sheet of paper that she works on, the drawings map out themselves. Sometimes she cuts the paper to reference, literally, a sense of layering as well as amalgamating marks on the paper surface as a form of recording what has been seen and remains to be seen: Cartesian, with Buddhist overtones.
Drift presents 19 works. One is a temporary wall drawing (employing paint); another is a painting (titled, ‘Lines of Disruption’); plus seventeen square format drawings on paper, simply but immaculately framed. The painting is placed in the adjoining coffee shop, but cannot be missed on the main show wall as a little taster of her painting practice. The wall-based work, ‘Drift’, at about two metres square, is the centrepiece in the long Window Gallery space. Composed as an essentially linear structure from two tones of grey paint on the white wall, with the addition of ground up glass beads applied to the lightest grey paint when it was still wet, the darker grey mass suggests a resting figure, perhaps in meditation pose. An ephemeral, time-based work such as this will disappear at the end of the exhibition later this month. This work, therefore, demands that we hold it in our memories, just as we may do from our personal experiences of places beyond the gallery.
The bulk of the show consists of the drawings that have been selected from a much larger body of works, the aforementioned ‘Breath in Breath out’ series. From drawing to drawing, as they are arranged in blocks and rows, there is great variety of imagery and mark making. Subtle use of colour is occasionally employed, although they still read as essentially monochrome iterations. In many, linear rhythms consisting of scribbles, dots and short or flowing lines are accumulated suggesting light and weather conditions. Forms are deconstructed to some extent, invoking that sense of recall that does not rest, preferring flux and instability as performative, shorthand approximations. Imagery that might be solid is no longer fixed as a conventional photograph might replicate for the viewer. The paper cut-out sections present voids and absences, shadow and light, useful contrasts and visual paradoxes. Implied shapes and lively line is reductive though essential as imaginative remnants of remembrance celebrated. These are motion pictures, mapping the psyche as much as the terrain.
Stickl is not so much taking a line for a walk (re: Paul Klee) as inventing and playing with accumulations, sometimes in counterpoint mode, un-egotistically presenting a notion of drift through time and space.
“This work does not conduct itself with grand gestures. The best of these paintings make themselves felt intuitively and structurally by measures quite human. They progress carefully, in challenging jumps and starts. They are full of free and varied thought, without self-importance, working towards new and distinct states of abstract reality.” (Robin Greenwood, AbCrit website)
After seven previous shows this is the first exhibition in the newly extended abcrit.org gallery in Bell Yard Mews near the White Cube gallery, showing paintings by EC. There are 24 works on display ranging in size from 30x20cm to 122x92cm, with various permutations in between. Five are square and others portrait or landscape format. For such a range of disparity in dimension this collection literally hangs together in unison. There is a sense of the ‘series’ about the selection, yet every work has an independent status and can be viewed as a discrete piece.
The various titles are intriguing too. They read like a list of poems. For example:“Your Exquisite Manners (Frankly)”; “Unforbidden Pleasure Seeker”; “It Takes Patience to Make a Disaster”; “Yellow Swing Yellow Swing”; and “All Trajectories are Unstable”. Although “PUNK JAZZ”, the only work titled in capital letters, pays homage to a Weather Report track from ‘Mr Gone’ (1978) in which, at the start of the composition, Jaco Pastorius launches his bass guitar expertly into an unforgettable percussive jazz fusion frenzy that is, nonetheless, totally controlled. Rather like EC’s works.
These mixed media collages, that we can call paintings, are typically busy, boldly delivering overlapping patchworks of fragmented physical elements, purposefully destroyed then re-worked, but never distraught. Painterly fragments (as if) from the studio floor or bin, or from managed intentions to destroy previously made compositions, are sensuously positioned over the surface of supporting canvases. There is a visceral sense of chaos controlled, or rather, accommodated as the natural order of things prevails. Asymmetric balances and compositional nous bring these paintings into the current period of abstraction as a breath of fresh air. For this is serious stuff. Not content with employing pretty colours, punchy but vacuous vistas or harmonious and undemanding safe passages of expressive playfulness arranged for decorating an interior space, EC’s project engages with hard-earned visuality and an inherent depth of thought. The works truly engage and demand attention so honestly that you can detect joy and frustration combined. EC is one of those artists who are not distracted by the whims of fashion, socio-political issues, political correctness or commercial endeavour. This makes her work all the more engaging, as it constitutes a somewhat precarious road to travel upon that does not seek a ready-formed market position for safety.
Is EC’s project Dada-esque in spirit? Not so much anti-art (which Dada never was, of course) but anti-comfort: deploying the punk impulse to rock the boat (before it was integrated into the mainstream) when challenges are required to wake us from our stupor. From a first impression the viewer might wonder if this is a chaotic mess – though even chaos has a hidden pattern and logic. After all, why not explore and present ‘mess’? Chaos eventually controlled or simply halted at a stage of completion that is subjectively felt, has lead to these captivating and provocative works in “Strange Attractors”. Yet in a painting such as ‘Bias Interruptor’, or ‘Sanity Project (Radical Will)’, by giving some time for the paint smears and splatters seemingly applied by chance some careful looking, the open distribution in the former or the painterly concentration in the latter, actually read as carefully placed and subtly balanced compositions that reveal an expert eye and an adeptness for composure. There’s the punk irony, which hooks the viewer with clattering surprise but cares passionately after all.
Notably, the colour black appears in all of these works, holding things together akin to the lead scaffolding in stained glass windows. A disparate framework unevenly dispensed at times gives structure to hold the roving eye. Amalgamated into and alongside relief patchworks, dynamic structures, colour-as-paint (and vice-versa), these seemingly accidental and fortuitous juxtapositions make for engaging visual judgements that are anything but flaccid or disorganised. In the previously mentioned ‘Sanity Project (‘Radical Will’)’, a fragment of black (ink) text appears unexpectedly. Maybe it is an oblique clue of sorts. The title page from an edition of ‘Styles of Radical Will’, a collection of essays by Susan Sontag has possibly been torn up, discarded and disclaimed. I want to doubt it somehow (show some respect!): but here it is, peeping through the collaged detritus close to the centre of the composition as a potential manifesto statement.
In Sontag’s essay, ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’ she writes:
“… art comes to be considered something to be overthrown. A new element enters the individual artwork and becomes constitutive of it: the appeal (tacit or overt) for its own abolition – and, ultimately, for the abolition of art itself.”
The text and the concept have taken visual arts aside far too much and must be subsumed within the work itself, not held part in judgement. I wonder if EC’s mission is to toy with this radical notion that favours a changing resolution of “the human situation” (Sontag) as a form or manifestation of “spirituality” (Sontag, again) as an ironically playful project in itself, creating (or finding) some sort of order in chaos. Do these works employ the abstract absurdity of consciousness and self; notions of reality and worth vis-à-vis the creative impulse – and the concrete materiality that is abstract art? It all adds up to everything and nothing. But it’s something most refreshing and attractive.
abcrit.org – Block K, 13 Bell Yard Mews, 175 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UW
Visit by prior appointment. Text your name and requested date and time to 07866 583629, for return. The entrance to Bell Yard Mews is opposite White Cube.
The Window Gallery at Phoenix Art Space in Brighton offers studio members an exhibition opportunity close to home and the latest show celebrates the abstract paintings of Michelle Cobbin. After an email exchange of questions and answers in anticipation of the exhibition I had the pleasure of helping her to hang the show and so literally saw the work very close up. I mention this, as a viewer would normally step back to view the larger works. But despite the apparent visual simplicity of many of her canvases the colourfield experience really does pull the viewer up to the surface and into an atmospheric, non-objective, realm. The weave of the canvas, however, reminded me that I was not floating in some sort of meditative dreamland but was experiencing concrete reality.
I have often thought that abstraction in painting without overt reference to a particular narrative, scenario or specific space lends itself to a notion of timelessness, or of historical time collapsed into simply the experience of looking at and experiencing a work of art – something one might unashamedly describe as the aesthetic experience. This notion of the material here and now counterpoised by a more expanded sense of place is philosophically, as well as artistically, intriguing. Such an experience is not exclusive to abstract painting of course, as might paradoxically be seen in still-life painting (I am thinking of works by Giorgio Morandi and Peter Dreher) that both acknowledges a social reality and a particular time and place yet exudes a sense of ongoing visual engagement irrespective of the date on the back of the canvas. A kind of meta-reality embedded in paint and its various qualities.
In Cobbin’s oeuvre you will find that the landscape is implicit but not essential to identify and in this selection of six works the viewer will travel across the colour spectrum and from dark to light. The titles are generally broad and non-specific, although ‘Bridge’ and ‘In The Top Field’ keep our feet on the ground alongside ‘Atmosphere’, ‘Lament’, ‘Phosphorescence’ and ‘Hidden’.
To start the discussion with Michelle Cobbin I borrowed John Bunker’s first question for Peter Lamb from the new series of ‘Abstraction in the Now’ interviews from Instantloveland. “Can you remember the first abstract painting to make a real impression on you?” is a brilliantly simple gambit to open up a deeper conversation that delves into the past to relate to the present, and implicitly the future, in one’s practice.
Interview with Michelle Cobbin (February/March) 2022
Geoff Hands – Can you remember the first abstract painting to make a real impression on you?
Michelle Cobbin – The first would be Tibetan Mandalas and Thankas that I saw whilst travelling in Nepal in the early 1990s. If you want a western fine art example it would be the Rothko room of Seagram murals at what we now call Tate Britain in the mid 1990s. I was struck by how much presence they had, how they made me feel melancholic and introspective.
GH – That’s interesting. I recall looking at reproductions of Mandalas in my studio on my degree course (late ‘70s) and being dissuaded by my tutor from doing so as I could not possibly relate to them. He would have been okay with Rothko of course. Your paintings invite a long slow look. A meditative state may not be necessary but I assume that you would like the viewer to take time to contemplate the imagery.
MC – I am interested in how people respond to colour and abstract imagery – I’m interested in how it makes them feel. So this could be an instant instinctual response. But yes, with contemplation the viewer may drop into their body and feel their response more fully.
Aside from contemplating an image in a meditative way I’m also interested in how abstract imagery and colour has been used to divine insight. For example Rorschach’s Inkblot tests, the Lüscher Colour Test and the Aura Soma system.
I title my paintings which may lead the viewer to see them in a particular way, but people read images based on their own experiences, likes and dislikes, which goes back to sensory responses again.
GH – You have made and continue to develop several series of paintings, which is a fairly common way of grouping paintings for artists today. Your website is well illustrated with examples from these various series where a viewer can see ‘Transitions’, ‘Gaia’ and ‘Terra Verde’ which relate to landscape experiences, or ‘The Breath’, ‘Semblance’ and ‘Sumptuous Contentment’ which are more specifically yoga and meditation related. I am particularly fascinated, but for different reasons, by the ‘Inscape’ series that summons up memories from East Anglia, with a minimalist Zen Haiku guiding principle, and ‘Kenshō’ which is more programmatically ‘abstract’, with a clear reference to Zen calligraphy. The sense of family history and landscape related impressions from childhood in the former and a more formalist expression of abstract mark making in the latter gives rise to quite stark imagery.
But I wonder if the notion that, if I can reference Neil Young, these “are all one song”, by which I mean that the series titles and subjects might fall away to reveal a process of expression and communication that ties everything together as a record of one voice – in your case a visual and intuitive, feeling sensibility that manifests itself as abstract painting?
MC – Yes, of course my work is ‘all one song’ in some respects. I am interested in keeping things simple both in how the work looks and in making things clear. I know that abstract painting can be difficult to relate to and I think by working in series and titling paintings it goes some way to bridging that difficulty.
Working in series also gives me boundaries to work within – that might be a particular palette, mood, or conceptual idea. It helps me to focus, but no I’m not suddenly going to start painting people or objects as that would deviate from the message or ‘song’ that I want to convey.
As you mentioned, I grew up in East Anglia, near the Fens. The ‘Inscape’ series was my internalised and perhaps nostalgic impression of that landscape. It was the first series where I began using a horizon line in my work. I was hesitant about this – blocky colours with a straight-ish line, I was concerned it would scream “Rothko!” Of course his work has been hugely influential upon me. I included lots of little scribbles in the ‘Inscape’ series to begin with, to make the paintings less ‘empty’. It took me a while to have the confidence and to find my way into accepting I’m influenced by but not deriving my work from anyone else.
My forthcoming show, ‘I’d Be Enlightened Now If It Wasn’t For You’, at the Window Gallery, Phoenix Art Space is, if we keep with your musical reference, going to be a Greatest Hits show. I will be selecting works from various series. The criteria will be size. It is such a great window – literally – into Phoenix, and out into Brighton. Personally, I want to use this opportunity to survey how my large canvases sit together and show how, to quote Bob Dylan, I “keep on keeping on…”
GH – I expect that such a selection would work well in a linear type space that necessitates hanging most of the works in a straight line. Not necessarily in a chronological sense but in taking the viewer on a short but visually loaded journey from period to period.
The experiential link to a particular landscape is, to some degree, an historically “English’ trait too. Perhaps, for many painters and viewers the landscape is a way into abstraction?
MC – Yes the show could be a short visual journey. That could be an inward journey provoking an emotional response. I like the idea of colour bathing: standing close to large swathes of colour and noticing what you feel. The arts are a gateway to our emotional life and a way of connecting to other humans. In my case, I do this through paint. I hope viewers are drawn in, intrigued, and perhaps, as you say, the landscape nature of some of the paintings might be a way into abstraction.
I think that being linked to a landscape experientially is universal. I took a course with psychologist Sharon Blackie on finding and creating myths in one’s contemporary and ancestral landscapes. It has certainly helped me to relate differently to the little bit of downland near to where I live as well as to draw comparisons with the chalk land of East Anglia where I have traced my roots as far back as 1600. None of my ancestors moved outside of a 30-mile radius. This research will underpin my next series of paintings.
GH – Thank you Michelle, there is clearly so much more to contemplate from your broad body of work and I look forward to seeing and experiencing your mini-retrospective at the Phoenix in April, and, at some future date, the following series.
Jane Campling: Studio Visitfor Time + Place at Cameron Contemporary Art, Hove
5 to 20 March 2022
Jane Campling is exhibiting recent paintings at Cameron Contemporary Art in Hove this month alongside the figurative painter, Amy Dury. In preparing a short text for Campling’s section of the catalogue I also extended the word count for these Ruminations as I considered her painting practice.
Jane Campling is a committed painter. Her practice involves walking, drawing, looking, painting and reflection – both in the South Downs landscape, on the coast or back in her studio at Brighton’s Phoenix Art Space. Intriguingly, when I paid her a studio visit recently she was at pains to stress that she does not identify as a ‘landscape artist’. As a fellow painter with similar interests this made sense to me but we wondered if her audience would. After all, she paints within the landscape tradition. But then painting is, or can be, akin to thinking in action and to invention and to discovering, whatever the subject matter. It’s also intensely physical – including moments of just sitting and pondering in between busy periods of activity. At a simplistic level we can separate walking, drawing and painting quite easily but as a practitioner (and even avoiding the term or label ‘artist’) these various aspects coalesce in lived reality to create a more holistic experience of perception and feeling which can be celebrated and shared through the production of paintings, irrespective of the availability of other media. Looking at the paintings, and some wonderful shorthand-type drawings, on the studio walls felt relevant and contemporary. Just sitting and observing quietly between periods of speculative discussion contained no vestige of painting being obsolete or outmoded.
Campling makes paintings that can be viewed meditatively and purely for themselves as ‘abstract’ compositions, or with recourse to some vestige of landscape memories, special times and lived experiences from the artist or the viewer. If labels such as ‘landscape’ or ‘abstraction’ serve a purpose for categorisation that is fine, but a worthwhile challenge is to consider the works without these labels to get closer to what they are. It’s difficult for sure, as we have become so accustomed to learning ways of seeing and adopting forms of categorisation. We unavoidably read imagery and visualise from within traditions, but we sometimes need to remind ourselves that conventions can become distorting filters that close down rather than open up seeing clearly.
Campling’s project appears to be celebratory about a subject matter that is both external (ostensibly the landscape) and suggestively internal (the actual, visual/physical outcome that is placed within the rectangle and received in the guise of our own perception and adjudicated by our experiences and preferences). So we might have a sense of the fleeting visual reality of nature from her works, of the sometimes restless moment, and are coaxed into acknowledging the discord as well as the harmony of the physical world. Yet we are paradoxically given a fixed continuum of moments by the amalgam of brush marks, surface qualities and colour choices and relationships. Her work is characterised by a gestural form of shorthand, apparently quick decision-making, and working with the various properties and traits of the paint medium.
Expertly, Campling knows when (and how) to hold back and not to over apply or to embellish within the painting process. She knows when to start as well as when to stop, employing a subtle expressionism that approaches a cohesive colour/shape minimalism. Surprisingly perhaps, her work is not decorative in the sense of being superficial, but is attractive and engaging nonetheless. Tonal qualities are as important as a clear interest in colour combinations. So too with mark making, whereby the drawn qualities of shape and line might provide contrast or harmony within a composition, especially when the linear content of lines and edges coalesce so well. Layered and woven colour shapes are consistently under control to provide depth and rhythm, so that the viewer’s looking is active.
If you are fortunate enough to view Campling’s work in the gallery space or in the privacy of your own home imagine all filters removed. Her work evidences drawing into painting, seamlessly. Time and place as experience is here too, not only her own, but the imagery proactively coaxes the viewer’s memory bank of rural time and place, of the half-remembered scenery from a walk by the sea or even from the fleeting flashes of landscape from car journeys. Despite the unavoidable fixity of artworks made on paper or canvas, we know that time is not immutable but is defined by that unfathomable state of flux and flow. To define or fix would be to diminish the experience itself (which, of course is just another definition to eschew). The challenges of still images that represent in some way this notion of the impermanence of moments seemingly amalgamated and fixed invites reverie so that active looking is required, for the viewer is not a mere receiver. It’s a form of looking, thankfully, without too much effort. You can laugh or cry or just allow pure feeling without overt reaction. You could be elated or disinterested, I guess, for our moods constantly change. Campling’s paintings contain the potential to transform the mundane moment – but consider this experience potential normal and everyday – don’t get hung up on notions of the mystical or metaphysical. After all, the ordinary is extraordinary and visual experiences are preserved and developed by those painters, including Campling, who respond to notions of the contemporary in this digital age by painting even more, for there is something unique and timeless about painting. It’s an act of faith.
“The stated aim of Contemporary British Painting is to explore and promote current painting. The subtext to this is giving voice back to the artist, the originator and source of painting. The real discourse around current painting is generated painter to painter and emanates from the studio and not from the boardrooms of institutions, directors’ offices, lecture halls or galleries. This prize is artists submitting themselves to consideration and selection by their peers.” (Simon Carter, co-founder CBP)
A woman and her partner are standing in front of ‘A Farmhouse near the Water’s Edge (‘On the Stour’)’ by John Constable. “Does he ask questions?” she reactively inquires. I think it’s a rhetorical question. It’s certainly a gift of a question and I now wonder, was the painting asking questions about subject matter; perception; time; self; the painting process or the fiction of imagery and invented composition? Constable also appears to have gouged his palette knife into the surface of the oil painting and it is an unsettling image. I doubt that the subject matter is merely a farmhouse or a landscape. Paintings have so much to offer and so much potential for interpretation, with endless ground to cover. It’s no wonder they continue to intrigue viewer and maker alike.
What happened (is still happening) within the history of painting? Thousands of years on from the cave painting phenomenon, as Matthew Burrows would remind his audience at the opening of the London leg of the Contemporary British Painting Prize, current practice might point to the fact that many artists believe that the journey continues because painting is so inexhaustible and adaptable. Selected survey shows such as this point to the fact that the painting continuum trundles on, regardless of other media, technologies and contexts that artists employ to make certain points or simply investigate as life choices. But the CBP prize acts as both a celebration of, and a manifesto of sorts, exclusively for painting. The mission statement is, perhaps, understated, as there is no one predominant style, genre or parameter for painting being proclaimed – although an exploration and promotion of current trends in British painting, especially from the community of the painters rather than the gatekeepers, is paramount.
Before arriving for the Contemporary British Painting Prize 2021 – which consists of a selection of 15 artists’ work made by Unit 1 Director Stacie McCormick who had visited the prize show at Huddersfield Art Gallery a few weeks back – I had finally got around to jumping on a train, adorned with a facemask, to see a few London shows. The exhibition batteries had been running low, so the CBP show was ideal to touch base with some contemporary works and to see a few friendly faces. Beforehand, experiencing the Late Constable exhibition at the RA was bound to impress and, so too, was the Georges Braque show, The Poetry of Things, at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery that had fortuitously been extended to this very day. Both prestigious exhibitions might have overshadowed seeing anything else that day but it is always necessary, I believe, to put status aside when viewing the works of contemporary painters, otherwise there is a danger of being disrespectful to the endeavours of such an extraordinary community.
The Unit 1 space had allowed for a selection of 27 works, including a small triptych set, depicting ‘Temporary Sculptures’ by Sarah Poots, without either being jam-packed or leaving acres of wall space empty. Arriving before the many visitors for the opening there was ample room to step back or to go in closer, particularly for the smaller and finely rendered paintings by Daisy Richardson. None of the paintings were inappropriately combined, which was testament to the careful hanging decisions. Some works were obvious to display together if by the same artist, such as Martyna Lebryk’s pair of drawing-type paintings on paper; Bill Stewart’s two commanding canvases and Jesse Leroy-Smith’s three compelling portraits. Other exhibitors had their respective works such as Gary Spratt, Tom Robinson, Zack Thorne and Donna Mclean interspersed with others, which enabled an overall cohesiveness to the selection and hang that clearly attempted to celebrate every participant rather than any one in particular. So, even the winner of the 2021 Prize, Susan Absolon, had her three works split into a small pair and one relatively large work, ‘Dugout’ intriguingly placed between Zac Thorne’s ‘The End Part XI’, a tight figurative work and Tom Robinson’s ‘Telmah’, one of the most painterly and abstract in the show. More object-oriented works came from Christina Niederberger (with a strong mimetic textile vibe) and Roland Hicks (constructivist, non-objective, found object become painting), whilst Tony Antrobus, Jan Valik, and Highly Commended Award winner Hannah Murgatroyd (with just about the largest canvas – ‘Night Mapping’ at 130x150cm on show), had just one canvas selected each, which perhaps left one wanting more.
Picking out any one or two participants as favourites seems unfair in the context of this exhibition, though inevitably one will gravitate towards preferred visual languages or subject matter (though as an abstract painter I found myself gravitating towards Mclean’s ‘Cloud’ and Leroy-Smith’s portraits throughout the evening – yet still felt compelled to sneak of with Antrobus’ ‘Narcissistic Wounds’ that took a while to grow on me). The recommended approach to ingesting the show is to enjoy and be intrigued by this celebration of British painting. There is no overriding theme. Search for a subject if you wish, but do not establish a territory of preference. If works are resolved still see painting, generally, in a state of becoming and development, not only for the individual artists, but also for painting as an ongoing project.
The catalogue for the aforementioned Braque show added poignancy to the day as it contains what I believe to be art historian, Mel Gooding’s final essay. In the last paragraph he writes of Braque’s nature morte paintings:
“They are real, indeed, but their actuality is within the painting. They give the mind a reality to contemplate, one that doesn’t and couldn’t exist elsewhere: only here…”
If there are relevant contemporary narratives in British painting emerging post-Brexit they seem to be about time and place; history and self; inside and outside. But it is still too early to see, I suspect. There has to be an argument for painting though, best developed from the studios of the dedicated practitioners who live in every town and community on this tiny little island. The selected work supports this cause for we are all on the same side, even if we disagree or appear to live in different realities sometimes.
Visitors will surely be intrigued by the spectacle of the colourful, carefully and skilfully painted oil paintings that join together under the title of Small Towns, an exhibition from Phoenix Art Space member, Perdita Sinclair. Usefully there are chairs spaced along the broad corridor that encourage people to sit and take stock too. Paintings (especially good ones) deserve prolonged attention rather than the perfunctory or passing glance.
A sequence of eight canvases begins with ‘Pineapple’, which at 165x125cm is the largest work on display. The title is suggestive rather than descriptive as it could just as well allude to a portrait as much as an exotic fruit. But more about titles and interpretations later, for what we do see before us is a figurative painting of a mound of litmus-test-type strips of variously coloured papers. Or are these tickertape off-cuts from the studio floor? They look like discarded fragments purposely gathered together and fashioned into something specific but just out of reach of a clear identity. Also, it’s an inventory of sorts, as if a student painting class has completed a day of mixing colours and these are the results, a fairly comprehensive range of all six primary and secondary colours plus black and white. As an extension to the task of mixing the paints perhaps a still-life has been produced wherein the painted shadows form greys and other tonal varieties of the colours. There are some striped pieces too, including red and white that might be paper bags from a sweet shop. As interpretation creeps into observation of the image one might sense that the coloured papers are hiding something. It might be a pineapple, as the title implies, or a vertically held up thumb or even a portrait of sorts. Is the title a trick? Is our humour being tested? Has the artist literally set something up for the viewer to interpret as they wish?
Seven more paintings are to follow and questions persist. Each is clearly an original statement but all link somehow. Colour pervades, as does clarity of form and skilful rendering. Are these portraits or still-lifes? Do the generally blue/grey backgrounds suggest skies, distances, neutral space? Are these singular forms still or floating in space? There is no clear external context in the paintings; all content is essentially contained within the implied forms. But let’s not forget the artist and/or the viewer. Could these be self-portraits or mirrors – or both?
If the viewer takes in the whole sequence from left to right there is some suggestion of a progression, or morphing, from a still-life type configuration to a portrait of sorts. After ‘Pineapple’, ‘One in a Hundreds and Thousands‘ appears to be a form floating in a sky-coloured atmospheric space. Within and around what might be locks of long flowing hair there are triangles of painted papers or thin card. Some of these fragments are painterly wet into wet renderings that could reference landscape based fragments or abstract compositions. The striped papers are here too. There is a sense of the organic and the geometric making some kind of union. Next, in ‘Along the Coast from Yarmouth’ a similar sort of composite form has come back to earth, or rather an ethereal sea with reflections or submerged forms.
A mixture of flat triangular forms, mostly airborne, and flat on the picture plane slightly undermines a traditional perspectival reading. Predominantly there is a shallow or tightly enclosed space created from the spatial arrangement of the entangled forms in the foreground. A snaking red, blue, yellow and white candy stick at the apex of the arrangement meanders down to, or up from, the base. It is also partly submerged. Likewise, the tricolour ribbon also winds its way from the bottom of the composition to the apex. An echo or reflexion of the red, white and blue form is placed behind this mysterious configuration to suggest some depth and a flattening simultaneously. Solidly rendered, yet flat triangles (X7 white, X5 red, X2 blue and X1 black – for it seems pertinent to count them) float around or penetrate the central mass/form. Unexpectedly, centre-left, a curvaceous form that might be fish or snake skin, or possibly a hand-dyed scarf on a slender shoulder, links top to bottom or head to torso.
‘Inbetween Castles’ is more grounded, and candy-type tubes employing the colours from the paper stripes from ‘Pineapple’ replace the vertical, elongated form of the hair. A flat triangle of colour at the apex of the form is possibly turning into a set-square. Read this more organically and the soft sticks of seaside rock might otherwise suggest intestines. It’s uncanny – by which I mean weird. But not grotesque or creepy weird; more like playful everyday, ordinary, artefacts being open to interpretation and association in the eye of the beholder.
‘Lickerty Split’, the penultimate image in the sequence certainly does look like a glorious head of long hair. The title suggests doing something quickly, though clearly not the making of the painting. Take a look at Sinclair’s website and you will see that this painting, along with ‘Baskin in Obliquity’ displayed next to it, belongs to her Wave Theory series. Sinclair’s painting titles are fascinating. There is a mixture of deadpan humour and scientific awareness – as provided by this pairing. Natural forces are at work. The small town reference starts to make some kind of sense. Whether we live in a village, town or city we belong to relatively small communities after all.
This selection from Sinclair’s various series of painting themes and projects (she has also produced sculpture and installation events) not only provides evidence of her undoubted commitment to painting but also prompts an intriguing meditation and reflection on what we think and feel about ourselves and our immediate familial situations and the world around us. A brief explanatory wall mounted statement adjacent to ‘Pineapple’, primes and sets up an opportunity for the viewer to see where the imagery might take their expanded thoughts:
My work reflects what I perceive as the dichotomy between the way the human mind confronts complex and serious issues and, at the same time, deals with the trivial ephemera of our everyday lives. I am interested in contradictions and tensions in human nature, which often express themselves through our interaction with the natural world.
Small Towns is an exploration of life cycles within confined spaces. The work is inspired by the geographical restraints that we have lived with which paradoxically turbo charge the mind into thinking about distance, difference and alternate realities. (Perdita Sinclair)
Thereafter the viewer is surely connected with each work beyond the immediate visual impact of the intriguingly titled pictures. As much as we might long for the day that we can forget about the ongoing pandemic that has restricted us physically and geographically, an unexpected benefit might be that we start to appreciate and more fully understand our truly global ecosystem that relies on cooperation rather than unabated competition and nationalistic introspection. Or at the very least, we might take what is near as a fascinating take off point for the imagination. For Sinclair it might be the trivial bits and pieces that one’s children might play with vis-à-vis the bigger issues that concern us.. This is an interpretation of superposition (another of her series of paintings) in which something (or a system) can be in multiple states at the same time until it is measured. It’s certainly the case that if we take the suggestion of the portrait from these paintings we must ultimately place the notion of self or identity within an environment, which can be either physical or metaphysical… but perhaps this is a step too far.
Returning to Sinclair’s work, she does not break with tradition to assert contemporary relevance and context. Despite alternative practices and technologies, painting has much more to say or remind the audience of. At a simple level, subject matter generally splits into and expands the categories of the portrait, still-life or landscape – with, arguably, the addition of abstract art. At a more nuanced and deeper level paintings perform (even when undermining or questioning) within conventions of visual culture, including iconography, aesthetics and culturally shared systems of visual language. Of course, within and beyond the visual arts painting also has to contend with ever developing technologies, particularly since the invention of photography and, far more recently, digital systems and the financially speculative advent of the NFT. But painting persists and potentially slows us down, in a useful self-reflective way.
Walking home from the exhibition, in my own small town, I unexpectedly thought of the work of the 16th century Milanese painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a Mannerist artist, who created portraits from a piling up of natural forms, especially flora, vegetables and fruits. The ‘Arcimboldo palindrome’ may also be suggested, whereby the apparent reading of a work is changed, not by turning the canvas through 90 or 180 degrees as the artist ingeniously invented, but by alternative conceptual readings and understandings of an imaginative invention, or inventory, as presented by Sinclair’s work. Intriguing, indeed.
What is it that makes a painting exhibition so memorable? It could be the whole collection of works or just one item in particular. This show at the Phoenix Art Space Window Gallery offers so many possibilities for that first ‘visual hit’.
A viewer might be struck by the strong and forceful imagery wherein the subjects stare relentlessly back at the hapless viewer, or by the acute feminist rhetoric that challenges the ‘male gaze’. In more formalist terms the audience could be impressed by the sheer abundance of colour that, though so varied a palette is employed, the ability to place one colour beside another in contrast or harmony reveals visual decisions that are not diverted by narrative content. Coaxed in by the colour and/or the subject matter, by getting up close to the painterly surfaces the confident paint handling keeps the imagery in check and tempers sheer expression that could otherwise overpower the project’s central message of female empowerment within a patriarchal society.
The notion of the viewer, as an individual or gender based, is particularly interesting in the context of seeing a one-person show. We might attend an exhibition to see the work of a specific artist, whatever the various potentials for subject matter may also present. In this instance the show’s title, ‘I’m Like Other Girls’ could draw attention to the artist herself or to notional characters, real or imagined, who are presented in the imagery. But, as well as these personalised references and dramatis personae, the viewer’s gaze is brought to the fore too.
This viewer/writer can only, really, react and write from his (my) own perspective and knowledge base of course, even if objectivity is genuinely sought. So I found myself scribbling down a few words and phrases as I pondered the possibilities of reviewing the exhibition. Negatives were recorded first: Don’t like. Not my thing. Unsettling. Unnerving. Daring. Shocking. Uncomfortable.
Then the notations became more conciliatory: Look at the paint handling. Clear decisions made. What does the paint do? The colour too. Confronted by the image and the colour/materiality of the medium. Narrative?
I suspect that at least one of Malcomson’s objectives had been confirmed by my initial reaction, particularly as a male viewer. From a statement on the University of Brighton blog at the time of graduation she wrote:
“I don’t want my paintings to be ‘nice’. I want them to hurt. I am testing the boundaries of taste. I am playing with the contradiction of attraction and repulsion. The figures in the paintings are strong, powerful, larger than life, not delicate, fragile or ‘nice’. They are not the way the male gaze has often portrayed women in art history. Throughout this history, women have been painted as passive objects.“
What will be memorable to me about this exhibition, in addition to confirming the relevance, and therefore the role of the viewer, is that Malcomson’s work does not reside in that compromising area where the ideas are stronger and more engaging than the physical outcomes – a phenomenon that is not unusual in ‘emerging artists’ work (and maybe a few established artists too) – but for the great skill and maturity displayed in the painting at such an early stage of her career.
‘I’m Like Other Girls’ is a celebratory event after being awarded the CASS Art/ Phoenix Art Space Studio Award for 2020/21. Since graduation this is Malcomson’s second solo show (the first, entitled ‘Sisters, Sisters, Sisters’ was held at New Art Projects, London in June of this year).