Ursula Vargas: Current Practice and beyond…

​Following the CVAN South East exhibition at Phoenix Art Space last year I wrote a speculative rumination about Ursula Vargas’ paintings. I say speculative because I have not been able to sit down and talk to her in person, although we have exchanged a few messages via Instagram. The speculation also pertains to the notion of Magical Realism in her work. It’s a labelling that enables a route into the work which might at first appear rather knocked-off, casual or relaxed. There’s a surrealist element too but I am loathe to misrepresent a body of work that essentially derives from her student work – although despite the move to a new studio there is developmental work in eager production. As what might be expected from a ‘mature student’ the work also has an established feel about it rather than the provisionality that can pertain to a younger graduate’s work.

Vargas has now included this writing on her new website and so I print it here, with the addition of a quotation from the artist at the start and finish. I include some recent images too, but for more details do visit her website.

“The road is always been a fascinating place for me… the drone of the tyres against the asphalt… becomes this hypnotic chorus taking me back to places I rarely go… places where my imagination goes wild while having all my senses in that place creating memories… realising that we cannot paint what we don’t see but we can paint the in-between.” (Ursula Vargas)

Vargas’ current engagement with pictorial narrative is clearly contemporary, presenting often eccentric and sometimes bizarre magic-realist scenarios. But the ‘contemporary’ of course is a symptom or consequence of the past and Vargas taps into a rich heritage from her cultural South American routes, plus her own childhood. The carefully selected visual material, assimilating characters, artefacts and landscapes, invented, appropriated, real or mythical from past and present cultures consolidate a pan-historical vision when presented within a story-like visual framework. After all, human societies have thrived on tales and fictions across millennia whether spoken, written or visualised. As a contemporary practitioner with an acute awareness of the challenges that face the planet today her bold visual narratives reference climate change, the human exploitation of natural resources and its effects on populations. In this sense the work is futuristic too, though maybe in the sense of a ticking time bomb given the possible consequences of environmental issues.

Her subject matter is characteristically personal and shared by many. From a family history, which included many extended motorway journeys and recollections of ancient archaeological sites, she is able to utilise various narrative sources into a kind of play for today, where “all the world’s a stage”. Yet the players can include often-humorous visual references to Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons or figures from pre-Columbian art. Landscape scenarios and often-repeated ingredients (mountains, tunnels and roads; San Pedro cactus and road signs) are principal ingredients in Vargas’ neo-surrealist scenes that invite and provoke personal readings and translations from the viewer. But this apparent playfulness, where visual engagement might feel direct, easy and uncomplicated, transforms into a conduit leading to a cinematic, cut and paste, sense of time and place of both experienced and imagined ‘reality’. Vargas is fascinated by and curious about the relation between what we see and what we think we know. Coercing a creative response that may never be settled or certain, her various works often challenge the viewer to suspend routine judgments to allow the imagination to play awhile.

For example, the road motif might represent modernity (albeit now linked with a post-industrial questioning of energy usage and air pollution) but also functions as a prompt to travel imaginatively into the past, present and future. This is a demanding journey where the medium grapples with the message, as paint and collage, or recycled cardboard waste replacing fine canvas, vies with potent imagery. Another motif-type prop is the San Pedro cactus, which the Incas used to drink to connect with their Gods. Nowadays, on a secular level, the placing of a cactus at the doorway of homes throughout Peru and surrounding countries acts as a guardian to protect against intruders. As content in Vargas’ imagery the association is truly more magic-realist, psychedelic even, in invoking rituals of the shaman. Affected by alucinaciones (hallucinations), from drinking mescaline derived from San Pedro, the intensity of the colours of the perceived world may well resemble the colour palette chosen by Vargas.

As a conjurer of such fascinating content in her work, Vargas utilises pictorial tropes as signs (simple instructions) to indicatively become symbols that we might now read as warnings. Spectacle may initially subvert substance but a strong semblance of narrative, however magical or super-real, prompts a desire to make sense of current times and places in which the existential realities of life on an endangered planet inexorably dominates the natural world from urban litter to oil pollution. Such a message could be conveyed subtly or associatively – or even ‘in our faces’ as the use of litter suggests in some works.

The viewer might read Vargas’ staged narratives as demonstrations of a contemporary folk tale, warning or prophecy that even the trickster Coyote would struggle to adapt to, comprehend and accept. For a moral allegory, in what might initially appear to be a linear narrative, turns out, on reflection, to resurrect rather than travel to the past and to conjoin eras initiating a sense of time that is overarching. These apparent flashbacks or hallucinations are repeated, cyclical echoes rather than fragments of memory – only now the end game becomes a reality.

The artist today might be best placed to address the task of leaving room for the viewer to engage and self-question. This goes against the grain of the mass media dominated political and economic terrain that binds us all as consumers to a capitalist system (conjoining the political evils of Left and Right) on the brink of self-destruction. A hopeful interpretation might be that the power and potential of the individual, armed with a fertile imagination, may well succeed in undermining the corporate hegemony that hurtles the planet towards a point of no return.

If you are willing to jump on board Vargas’ time machine, occupy a window view and be prepared to participate in the action. But be proactive, not passive: for only the audience can save the day.

“In my work I kept the same motif, the road trips, but now due to size restriction and sense of confinement, I put myself inside the car, creating these viewings of climate change landscapes from inside of it, bringing this way the viewer into the car and creating a stronger connection with the painting between them.” (Ursula Vargas)

Geoff Hands (Brighton, 2021)

All images © Ursula Vargas




Miranda Forrester and Emily Moore

Window Gallery, Phoenix Art Space, Brighton

4-28 February 2021

Currently the best time of day to visit Phoenix Art Space would be at nightfall when the Window Gallery lights illuminate a display of works by Miranda Forrester and Emily Moore as the exhibition is only visible to the public from the outside of the building. Forrester (a painter) and Moore (an illustrator/animator) were awarded a studio residency with support from CASS Art at the Phoenix Art Space after graduating from the University of Brighton in 2019 and this work, a taster of their respective outputs, dates from 2020/21.

As fate would have it, much of Forrester’s and Moore’s time at the Phoenix was overshadowed by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately their positive resolve to continue to develop their respective practices beyond graduation was maintained and the studio opportunity enabled them to bridge the potentially challenging gap from university life to self-sufficiency and the early stages of promising careers.

For the staff and some permanent studio members of the Phoenix however, there is still the added bonus of being able to see the works closer up as they enter or leave the building. But, as a significant number of the Phoenix community have been unable to visit their studios during the current lockdown restrictions a decision was made to hold the private view for the show as an in-house Zoom meeting. For this event I was asked to present the work to viewers, aided by the Director, Sarah Davies at the computer and Chloe Hoare, the Learning Programme Manager, on iPhone camera duty as she recorded my live talk and the work displayed.

For each of the exhibitors I started the Q&A session by reading out a ‘first impression statement’. What I present here is each statement developed further after the event.

For Emily Moore

“…But the space of thresholds must be distinguished from the concept of a boundary. A threshold’s territory is not exclusive but inclusive. It also includes what might in fact question it. In it mixtures and conflicts occur, but also mutations and rites of passage…” Michele Manzini

Emily Moore – ‘Dreamers’. Silk finish print from animation still. (Sizes variable)

From these six framed images I am being introduced to a world bathed in blueness. I like it.

Initially, I read these scenarios as fictive spaces that are manifested from the imagination with the aid of digital technology. A leap from a sub-conscious image bank that appears to have been partly formed by watching films and animations, and maybe comics too. It’s romantic, in a knowingly constructed kind of way. Presenting a dreamscape with an open narrative for the viewer to invent and make sense from. But the reflections on the glass in the frames act as a barrier, at least until I view my photographs of the install later and realise that your scenic locales are not so disembodied from the quotidian space that I think I occupy as a viewer. The two apparent worlds merge.

I return the next day with the reflections in mind and after a while I have a sense of both viewing and entering this unfamiliar land. It seems unknown but commonplace. 

Emily Moore – ‘Deep Water Café’ with window reflections.

It’s not as alien as I first thought. This cinematic space is as real as what is outside the gallery windows now. And vice-versa. Might every-thing outside of the gallery space that is reflected on the blue surfaces (the trees, streetlights, and buildings) be props? The people who stroll past, heading home or towards the beach, despite the cold, are all actors – playing their roles unquestioningly. William Shakespeare was right, after all.

The mundanity of the near empty Brighton streets during this time of lockdown has the potential for enhancing a sense of a shared, communal territory. The gaze into these works employs a combined focus on the pictorial subject matter and, functioning as a rear view mirror onto the world outside. This double view was momentarily quite unnerving. I am not sure I want to look into a mirror too soon.

Emily Moore – ‘Deep Water Café’. Silk finish print from animation still. (Sizes variable)

Your use of distinctive tones and colour contrasts – particularly reds and blues – holds the series together, even if they tell different stories. It has always struck me that the most interesting ‘art’ prompts the viewer to see the world afresh. In the animation still, “Deepwater Café’ there’s a theatre-type space (the trees could be digital coulisse, flat cut-out forms, with blue and red projections suggesting shadow). The Café, a small homely looking construction, looks too small to accommodate very many visitors. The neon ‘Deepwater’ sign looks like it belongs in an urban setting, not in a woodland environment beneath snow-topped mountains. Is this a dream fiction? In such psychological spaces, like the ones we experience in early morning reverie that soon dissipate into the humdrum morning chores, rationality is suspended. This imagery might be built from lived experiences (a film or a family holiday) or render a premonition as yet unrealised. Either way, the scenes are uncannily real and imbue an emotive sense with a subtle quiet humour.

That earlier thought about props and human behaviour comes back, not to haunt, but to revitalise a notion of perception. From seeing your work the viewer might perceive their world to be as constructed as this, as if everything was a toy or commodity of sorts. Not just the small things, but also the complete environment, including the mountains. The point is, that whether intentional or not, seeing your artwork in this setting and context revealed the world to be a sort of construct and a theatre of operations, wherein boundaries are crossed in the imagination and in concrete reality to create a psychogeographic event.When I read your comments about your studies at Brighton I was intrigued by the journey you had made from “experimenting and panicking” in years 1 and 2, and doing what you thought you were supposed to be doing – this is very typical for visual arts students. By the third year you say you were following your “instincts”. You clearly had that ‘threshold experience’ at the right time, in the right place. Make sure that this instinct continues to grow. Nurture it with frustration and doubt if you have to. It’s a crucial element in the creative process.

Emily Moore – ‘The Forest’. Silk finish print from animation still. (Sizes variable)

For Miranda Forrester

“…blackness is a state of being punctuated by thoughtfulness, reflection, intimacy, community, and repose…. Yiadom-Boakye’s conscious decision to create images of black bodies in moments of atemporal pleasure and tranquillity is cathartic.” JaBrea Patterson-West

Miranda Forrester – Gallery view of ‘Adobe’ paintings.

From viewing the six small paintings I have a sense of the image ‘becoming’ – a kind of re-formation or birth. In the smaller works fragments build rather than deconstruct or diminish. The cut-out shapes and linear content takes on a decorative function with a short-hand, reductive engagement with actual surface and implied forms. The objectness of these three particular works is immediately apparent. Rendered simply and without fuss or detail. There is a minimalist palette of colour: reddish browns, a greyish blue, a pair of greens and a cream white. The light timber stretcher pieces add to the colour scheme. I might have dismissed these first three pieces, as they are so small and I was drawn to the slightly larger canvases. Perhaps they are studies for bigger pieces. Seeing the wood support, and even the staples, suggests that you are stating that there is no need for concealment. The front surface of two of these ‘opened up’ works protrudes barely a couple of centimetres from the white gallery wall surface, creating a space for shadows and this suggests early potential for installation work. Completed pieces are always works in progress.

Miranda Forrester – ‘Abode (Dancing Monstera)’ (18x13cm)

I am also struck by the smoothness and glossiness of surfaces in all six paintings as if these qualities are as relevant to the visual language as the more obvious, figurative, hand painted areas that depict a figure or a houseplant. The material and the process are in sync with the visual. Smoothness suggests the surface, and touch, of skin, or is this a reference to domestic, comfortable fabrics? The visual aesthetic is serene, simplified, and characteristically linear. Abstract tropes of flatness and painterly colour-shapes affect a visual simplicity. The literal spaces and the glossy smoothness combined with seeing through and between streamlined forms combines the figurative and the abstract nature of shapes.

You are observing the individual figure (perhaps this is your partner) but not voyeuristically. It’s more contemplative than furtive or secretive. It is matter of fact, open and loving. The implied viewer (who, in effect observes you both) takes in a relaxed ambience where there is a feeling of safety and an acceptance of self and other. This is a labile space where spontaneity is accepted and the arousal of emotions is not forced, but is organic. Behaviour is private and safe. But the implied narrative is not neutral. The implicit visual assertion, however visually appealing, is a proclamation of normality for the LGBTQ+ communities that have come to the forefront of culture and politics. This is a positive affirmation for the complexities of human relationships that contrasts with the simplistic binary notion of male/female and the patriarchal and androcentric nature of societies.

Miranda Forrester – ‘Stretch Fig 1’ (41x31cm)

The work also raises important questions about art’s subject matter(s) as well as the more broadly cultural and political. The ‘male gaze’ clearly has a dominating history in the tradition of Western art, especially painting. Is this okay, sometimes? So long as we acknowledge that there is a female gaze and a Queer gaze too? Forgive my clumsiness here, for I ask this as a white, heterosexual, sixty-something male who is on a learning curve.

Also, what of the Dancing Monstera in the Abode series? The commonplace Swiss Cheese plants that wilt or gather dust in many living rooms and offices that reveal the legacy of colonial botany under our very noses – was this intentional? The feminist voice encompasses so much more than elemental women’s rights. Let us celebrate diversity in skin colour too. Six little paintings say so much.

Is this a gentle manifesto?

Miranda Forrester – ‘Abode (Series #3) (41x31cm)

All images © Emily Moore and Miranda Forrester.


Phoenix Art Space – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org/Events/miranda-forrester-emily-moore/

Phoenix Art Space shop – https://phoenixartspace.selz.com/?_ga=2.238055808.1611813464.1612184337-1267114367.1610537476

Emily Moore – https://blogs.brighton.ac.uk/aadm/2019/05/13/graduate-show-2019-emily-moore-illustration/

Miranda Forrester – https://mirandaforrester.portfoliobox.io

CASS Art – https://www.cassart.co.uk

University of Brighton – https://www.brighton.ac.uk/courses/index.aspx

JaBrea Patterson-West

Quotation from ‘Rest as Revolution: The Speculative Nature of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Figurations’ (Flash Art no.331 Vol.53 Summer 2020)


Michele Manzini – Quotation from Instagram

Website – http://www.michelemanzini.com

MARY LLOYD-JONES: Lliwio’ Gair/The Colour of Saying

Mary Lloyd-Jones: Lliwio’ Gair / The Colour of Saying

Aberystwyth Arts Centre – May 2001

Introduction (2021)

In two previous reviews (Carol Bove and Shani Rhys James) that were written some time after viewing their respective exhibitions I had indulged in the unexpected relief, a mild catharsis perhaps, of being ‘better late than never’. After writing the Rhys James piece I recalled the second review I had ever written, which had not been published at all. This was in response to Mary Lloyd-Jones’ ‘The Colour of Saying’ at Aberystwth Arts Centre in 2001. I was an avid reader of Modern Painters magazine at the time and had submitted the review in the hope that Lloyd-Jones would receive some well deserved recognition in a major publication. Alas, the piece was not accepted, but as the review had been word processed I retained a copy that migrated from computer to computer. On a hunch I searched for it and found it almost immediately. So, if one can write about an exhibition a year or two after the event why not publish a review written 20 years ago?

I have not changed anything in the original text, except to split one lengthy paragraph into two. It was tempting to re-write some of the passages, but I resisted the urge. It is also worth noting that, in this time of the Covid pandemic, an uncanny atmosphere of absence was prevalent on road journeys. Hence a reference to MAFF – the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In 2001 there was a widespread outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK and access to public rights of way across land were closed. This severely affected the tourist industry and people travelled far less than normal. The journey west from Shrewsbury, where I had been staying with my brother, was therefore very quiet as this is a well-travelled route to the Welsh coast.

Catalogue cover for The Colour of Saying

The Colour of Saying

Travelling on a near empty A458 between Shrewsbury and Welshpool the warning signs about foot and mouth disease lend an eerie feel to an otherwise pleasant journey. The kind of journey one makes to escape from the hustle and bustle of life, at work or play, in the towns and cities of England. Thankfully, for now at least, the MAFF signs slowly disappear as the roads of mid-Wales wind gently up and down towards the coast on a bright April day. Making a small detour via Machynlleth for its near deserted craft shops (tourists are few and far between these days) I am reminded of a treasured watercolour hanging in my Sussex home. The colours and shapes of the painting in my mind become the actual landscape that surrounds me.  I have arrived, in the land of Mary Lloyd-Jones.

The work of many landscape painters have become associated with the regions in which they operated and in Britain it is Constable’s Suffolk that will first spring to mind. Moving west to ancient Celtic lands, in Peter Lanyon’s West Penwith, the landscape fuses inextricably with the man. In Chris Stephens’ study of the Cornish artist, At The Edge Of Landscape, he quotes Lanyon – “I paint places but always the Placeness of them.” This claim could also be applied to Lloyd-Jones’ paintings currently on display in the new and spacious Gallery 1 at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Many, though not all, of the works are representative of locations around Aberystwyth – Pontarfynach (Devil’s Bridge), Ystumtuen, and Cwmystwyth in the Rheidol Valley and other areas of Ceredigion. Although place names, or significant features such as lead mines or spoil tips, are regularly used for the titles in her paintings, the sense of a place or location adds up to far more than a picturesque view. These places are immersed in history and the collective rural memory – and in these paintings Lloyd-Jones reveals and interprets more than the purely scenic facts. Indeed many of these locations would only be known locally, for the visitor on his travels may pass them by en-route to more well known tourist destinations. Knowledge of these lesser known places – disused quarries, remote hillsides – may invite more visitors to this sparsely populated area of Wales; but in a Neo-Romantic spirit perhaps they are best left to poets and painters to explore and re-discover.

The gallery is large, light and spacious, and the architect, Peter Roberts, has integrated an inverted barrel vaulted ceiling to control what could have been an overwhelming space. The carefully arranged paintings, of various sizes, create a comfortable intimacy and envelope the viewer with walls of colour-filled landscape images.  Suspended down the central axis of the gallery an avenue of acrylic-stained canvas pieces hang, inviting the viewer to stand between these great walls of colour and script, and to move from one to another transcending the conventional one-to-one relationship with an image. It is this installation that demands the viewer’s attention on entering the gallery.

Mary Lloyd-Jones – Banners fron Lliwio’ Gair

The images hang in Bardic procession – the poetic reference is apt – for integrated with the strongly coloured banners are inscribed words from a variety of sources. From the earliest times the magical power of the word has been made concrete, the audible made visible, through mark and alphabetical system. To all but the most learned visitor these ancient inscriptions are without obvious meaning and we have to rely on the accompanying publication, that gives its title to this exhibition, for explanation. However, we are brought up to date by the use of quotations from contemporary poets, including Janet Dubé and Gillian Clarke. Lines by R.S.Thomas also appear and it was he, arguably the most important Welsh poet after Dylan Thomas, who found much inspiration from the environs of his native north Wales. Yet, as a Welshman who had to express and deliver his poetic vision in the ‘foreign’ English language, a dialectical tension would be present throughout his life’s work as a poet – where authentic pessimism jostled with spiritual redemption.

Painting, however, speaks a more universal language – the visual language of colour, shape, gesture and texture. Of the Bard, Mary Sara explains in her essay in The Colour of Saying:

“It is an ancient role which began with the member of the tribe who lifted his or her eyes from the task of survival and said Look! or asked Why? How? What if? – then shaped with their hands or said, or sang, a celebration or proposed an answer.”

In Lloyd-Jones’ paintings she re-affirms the task of the artist to communicate and show us those things, feelings and experiences worth having and knowing. There is great optimism and we see commensurate skills in the handling of oil, acrylic and watercolour. In the most recent works, for example, in ‘Rhosdir’, colour is both localised to earth, rock and field colours and enhanced by stronger, vibrant colours – the hues of interpretation and transformation. The viewer’s eye moves with these colours as paint is carefully applied in smooth, opaque layers or thin washes of semi-transparent colour. Oil paint is used with the consistency of watercolour with supreme confidence. In this composition there is a palpable sense of movement in space. Zigs and zags that relate to the characteristics of streams, trees, fences, posts, sheep paths – they allude also to the calligraphic script of words. The visual features are both fixed and rhythmical. Natural and abstract signs and symbols are derived from the landscape.

Mary Lloyd-Jones – ‘Iaith Cofio’

In ‘Iaith Cofio’, one senses, again, a personal colour palette derived from the artist’s predilection for strong colour, and from the richly coloured landscape of her homeland. She employs this intuitive and carefully observed use of colour to interpret and transform the subjects captured in her sensitive scanning of the Ceredigion landscape. For this is an image distilled from the whole area, from a landscape memory (‘iaith cofio’), not from a particular location. Integrating and superimposing the Bardic Alphabet and remnants of the Ogham script (an ancient alphabet found on stone monuments that could be used by the Celts for passing coded messages) this painting suggests an aerial view of a landscape delineated by stone walls, natural fissures or the scars of industrial activity. The word is imprinted in the land – as if to impress on the viewer the fact, for better or worse, of the cultivated, industrialised and ‘cultured’ environment that is inextricably linked to the ‘natural’ world.

However, Lloyd-Jones’ work is not reliant on a narrative tradition in literature or painting.  Nor is it  ‘insular’, for her work is clearly related, and indebted, to European (and North American) Modernism. One senses the intuitive spirit of Kandinsky in her use of colour on the brush; and another influence may derive, both technically and inspirationally, from Helen Frankenthaler’s stained and gesturally configured works. But in Lloyd-Jones’ work we are not presented with a limited and shallow Greenbergian expressionism – because here the content of the human and cultural place of landscape is signified.  At first glance her paintings are expressionist – in style and temperament. One is aware of the act of the painted mark forged in the shapes and passages of colour on the canvas surface.  These echo the patchwork of medieval field systems that, in topographic features, re-shape and define the land.

In another impressive painting, ‘Can Wyllt (Wild Sound)’, the title prompts the viewer’s memory to re-call the mixture of aural, vibrating and flowing qualities of the landscape. The painting’s aeriformed weaving and flurry of colour-shapes and blue-purple improvised layers, winding and scurrying as if in flight, takes the eye on a journey within the painting’s glowing and atmospheric space. This disembodies the viewer and takes the ground from our feet. To such a painting as this we bring our own memories and experiences – albeit unconsciously – and ‘Can Wyllt’ reciprocates by returning the human experience of exposure to the elements.

Mary Lloyd-Jones – ‘Rhaeadr Nant Gwrtheyrn’

In ‘Mwyn Plwm (Lead Ore)’, a recent and memorable painting, the handling of oil paint is light and refined, proving that with maturity the best painters continue to improve.  The skill of painting is hard-won, crafted, and controlled with the focused devotion that this timeless medium demands. However, for me, the most outstanding painting of the exhibition is, ‘Olion(Remains)’. In her catalogue essay Gillian Clarke refers to the transformative experience of a car journey made through Wales that reminded her of R.S.Thomas’ poem, Bright Field. Lloyd-Jones’ ‘Olion’ is, essentially, an indigo-blue and purple composition, incorporating flying orange ribbons to provide a complementary counterpoint to the mass of earth and rock that commands the centre of the image. Within its atmospheric boundaries it holds a green field or escarpment that also reminds one of Thomas’ account of this, literally, illuminating experience:

            I have seen the sun break through

            to illuminate a small field

            for a while, and gone my way

            and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl

            of great price, the one field that had

            the treasure in it …

This seemingly spot lit feature sits alongside a disused lead mine, an image retrieved from an industrial past. The painting contains the cartographers’ signs for various topographical features, incorporating both a bird’s-eye view and a multi-perspectival rendering of space, and is accompanied by an understated graffito of Bardic signs.  As in the poem, this painting re-presents the image to be given freely to those who take the time to look. This commanding, delightful and sensuous canvas becomes a precious object to contemplate too.

Mary Lloyd-Jones – ‘Jaipur III’

A profound interest in the transformative powers of colour is reflected in the artist’s interest in India. In the accompanying publication Lloyd-Jones explains that her “… aim in visiting India was to immerse myself in a culture where the use of colour is fluent, spontaneous and sophisticated.” Thus, a large and exuberant patchwork of mini-colourfields is presented in ‘Jaipur’ III’, painted after one such visit to India. Pictorial space is more up-front and shallower than in the landscape work, suggesting a more spatially enclosed, claustrophobic, urban environment. It is interesting to note that the colour scheme is essentially the same as in the Welsh images – as if there is a cross-cultural link between Jaipur and west Wales. I sense this in the almost uninhibited and joyous use of colour found in Indian culture and echoed in the proletarian evidence of the colourfully rendered houses and cottages of west Wales.  This dominance of colour also suggests a singular vision for painting that comes from this artist who imposes her visual language, her way of seeing, wherever she is – carrying a visual accent, or filter, to a foreign land.

Mary Lloyd-Jones – ‘Jaipur I’

This prompts the question – what is meant by foreign? Other peoples, another land, a different culture. In what sense is Wales foreign – particularly to the industrialised Welsh communities in the north and south who are essentially English speakers? What, and where, is their cultural identity? But Welsh art is a European and a British art too. In Lloyd-Jones’ work we see an unmistakably Welsh identity that is self-confident, undivided, and specifically related to the tradition of painting. She contributes to a living landscape tradition born out of her authentic rural experience and enriched by a European trans-national humanism. Landscape is proven to be a positive subject for contemporary painting. It is not an anachronistic genre but can deal with the here and now. In this instance contemporary, relevant, overtly political and wonderfully sensual and visual – from a geology over 400 million years old.

There are various dichotomies that can be distilled from the scope of this exhibition:  of the relationship between Wales and Britain (England?); in the vestiges of ancient cultures in ‘modern’ day society – embedded especially in the Welsh oral tradition; and in the autonomous visual and literary expressive arts that sometimes link to enhance each other. Such questions are not necessarily intended to be answered here but a demand is made for reflection on such matters.

Mary Lloyd-Jones – ‘Carn Menyn’

Lloyd-Jones’ work is, ultimately, a celebration.  It is nationalistic in a positive and proud sense – it explores a collective identity, of a culture, a people through the landscape genre. We see to such powerful visual effect, the use of ancient and modern written languages linked to a heightened sensibility for employing colour with the language of abstraction. In her work and on her travels Lloyd-Jones becomes one with the genius loci – the spirit of a place. The landscape is transformed and interpreted in human terms – and we are invited to play a major role as viewers to verify her findings.

In conversation with Julia Brown, Helen Frankenthaler commented that, “True artistic creation of any kind is a very lonely process, a totally selfish act, and a totally necessary one that can become a gift to others. That’s when the painting finds its audience…” Mary Lloyd-Jones’ audience has grown steadily in the past few years and it is time that due recognition was given to her achievements by a broader public and on a truly national scale beyond the Welsh Borders. This exhibition in Aberystwyth is well worth the distance travelled.

Notes (2001)

‘Lliwio’r Gair/The Colour of Saying’ until 12 May 2001, at Aberystwyth Arts Centre.

Touring to Wrexham Arts Centre, 7 July to 18 August 2001.

Catalogue: ‘The Colour of Saying’ (Gomer Press, Llandysul, Ceredigion), £19.95.

Mary Lloyd-Jones also exhibits at the Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff in September 2001.

Notes (2021)


The images for this review have been scanned from ‘The Colour of Saying’, with the exception of the Banners which appear in ‘Delweddau O’r Ymylon’ by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan (pub. Y Lolfa, Talybont).

‘The Colour of Saying’, edited by Eve Ropek (Gomer Press with Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 2001) was the first major publication on Mary-Lloyd Jones.

Martin Tinney Gallery – Mary Lloyd-Jones profile page




Wolfson Gallery, Charleston, Firle

(1 February – 19 April 2020)

Shani Rhys James – ‘Two Gourds’ (2017) 100x100cm
Courtesy the artist and Connaught Brown

A comment pops up on Shani Rhys James’ Instagram feed from newforestmutha asking if “…the Charleston show will be repeated?” This was in reference to ‘Tea on the Sofa, Blood on the Carpet’, staged in the Wolfson Gallery adjacent to the Sussex farmhouse where Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant set up their home in 1916. By chance, I had mentioned to my daughter just the day before that I still regretted not writing about Shani Rhys James’ show almost a year ago. I also recall coming out of the exhibition and announcing to my companions that this was the best painting show of 2020. I was not joking. This was on 1st February, the opening day, less than five weeks into the New Year and the exhibition be prematurely curtailed just a few weeks later.

Later, in June, after the first lockdown and the closing or limited opening of galleries, I had indulged in writing a retrospective account of Carol Bove’s sculptures at David Zwirner from 2018. This provided a fascinating experience for writing about, and reminiscing, an experience I assumed had gone by and for breaking with the convention of reviewing exhibitions whilst they were still ‘live’. The delay had also allowed time for thoughts to maturate a little, an indulgence of sorts that has been especially opportune with Rhys James’ works that have lodged in my thoughts throughout the past year. As the anniversary of ‘Tea on the Sofa, Blood on the Carpet’ approaches, I feel compelled to write my review at long last.

Installation view. (Photo – James Bellorini)

Starting with an overall impression, there was a sense that the work could have stayed in the Wolfson gallery space permanently. It somehow felt ‘at home’. A display of 13 paintings in a fairly compact space, one large elongated rectangular room that felt like three, as there are 11 walls, made for a powerful and emotionally impactful experience. The works were hung close together under strong spotlights that emphasised a chiaroscuro effect on works that featured bold colour and distinct tonal contrasts. In whichever direction one turned, and with any of the individual paintings selected, the viewer would be confronted by powerful imagery from the whole composition and, by stepping closer to get a sniff of the paint, details from small sections of the canvases were just as absorbing and captivating.

Shani Rhys James – ‘Boy and Bouquet’ (2017) 152x152cm

‘Boy and Bouquet’

Take, for example, a close-up section from the vase of flowers in ‘Boy and Bouquet’. Before arriving at these few square inches of canvas and paint that renders the top half of the vase, a mass of colourful blooms virtually fill the composition, brashly commanding and demanding attention as a child might. The vase in the foreground stands firm beneath this explosion of colour and painterly texture, perched as it is on a narrow white band of white linen on the tabletop edge that forms a counterpoint to the much larger black square of silence behind. In the bottom left hand corner of the composition a young, plump-faced boy stares, it would appear, at the implied viewer – or he may substitute the artist herself confronting the observer. His face, especially the eyes, acts as a focal point in the composition but one could be equally drawn to the row of yellow flowers that form a horizontal band across the mid-centre of the canvas. But with a swift movement the observer’s eye could swoop down the drooping stem of what might be a yellow tulip falling over the top half of the chunky looking vase. Here the eye could stay awhile to explore the surface of the canvas, slipping down further to an indistinct landscape on one of the facets of the ceramic form. The paint handling could be considered crude, but knowing when to leave a section as (apparently) unpolished as this is no mean feat when enough has been said. What is spoken, visually and materially, is quietly of itself. Nothing beyond flower forms, observed from real or decorative surface pattern by the artist, is to be elucidated.

Shani Rhys James – ‘Boy and Bouquet’ (detail)

An observer could have simply enjoyed the painting for what it is. But with a glance to one side to read Rhys James’ additional caption for ‘Boy and Bouquet’ revealed further scope and potential for interpretation:

“A small boy is dwarfed by a giant bouquet of flowers. I had been looking at a painting Degas did of a woman beside an enormous vase of chrysanthemums. My grandchild said ‘boys don’t like flowers’.”

The connection with the boy is pertinent, and undoubtedly special, for Rhys James but she expands upon a particular familial event by invoking a work of one of the greatest of early Modernism’s painters by referencing, ‘A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers’, held in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Whilst Degas, from a pre-Feminist age, might be equating this ‘pretty young lady’ alongside the bouquet of dahlias, asters, and gaillardias, Rhys James is both cheekily and seriously planting this very young boy next to a gregariously joyful bouquet in her own home. Never underestimate, or take for granted, a bunch of flowers. Given an alternative reading they might offer some other commentary on notions of ‘maleness’ too.

Edgar Degas – ‘A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers’ 1865

This effective curatorial decision, to include an explanation from Rhys James for all of the works in the show, broadened a reading of the images out of sync with the majority of ‘white cube’ affected exhibitions nowadays. In the context of a rural location, imbued with the fascinating history of a well known ‘extended’ family of sorts, there might be something unwittingly progressive about the inclusion of this text, as if Rhys James was at your shoulder, feeding you benevolent anecdotes as an additional narrative. The artist’s commentaries punctuate but do not interrupt the flow of imagery throughout the hanging. They vary in length too, which eschews any sense of strict curatorial guidelines to restrict this alternative conversation with the viewer.

Shani Rhys James – ‘Black Chandelier’ (2012) 183x317cm
Courtesy the artist and Connaught Brown

‘Black Chandelier’

The longest text, at over a hundred words, accompanies ‘Black Chandelier’, an un-domestically large canvas that invited very close inspection despite almost doubling as a wall-based installation. This canvas offers a fairly stark composition from the correct viewing distance, presenting a black chandelier suspended from the top of the canvas in the left half and a female figure dressed in black attire sprouting up from the right hand section. These two elements create a dynamic diagonal visual tension within the rectangular format that strongly suggests an implied narrative between object and person. But it’s the background of Edwardian style floral wallpaper that flattens out the implied interior space despite logically knowing that the chandelier, a pseudo-candelabrum, is placed in the foreground, with the figure just a step or two behind. The patterned and stylised flower forms, that with a feminist reading might represent vulvas, are regimentally repeated across the canvas as a visual manifesto.

Shani Rhys James – ‘Black Chandelier’ (detail)

The lengthy wall text references a literary source: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, as about a woman suffering from hysteria who was placed out of sight… at the top of the house… The walls are covered in yellow patterned wallpaper. She loathes the wallpaper and imagines a small black figure…” and that “This was one of the first feminist tracts…” This is serious literary and political content and we might think again about symbolism, culturally assigned gender-roles, the home, family and individual existential reality rendered so straightforwardly in this and other works in the exhibition.

Shani Rhys James – ‘Glass of Water’ (2017) 183x183cm

‘Glass of Water’ / ‘Oil of Ulay 2’

A relatively small jug of water and a piece of cloth placed in the bottom left hand corner of Degas’ aforementioned painting balances the gravitational weight of the woman on the right. Likewise, in Rhys James’, ‘Glass of Water’, a similar prop occupies the top right hand corner of a composition that suggests a late, minimalist/abstract, Rothko painting. This intimation of colour-field abstraction is also present in ‘Oil of Ulay 2’, where a backdrop screen of red extends three quarters of the way down the canvas and then continues its journey in vertical rivulets. In this lower quarter a hairbrush and a bottle of Oil of Ulay (now rebranded, ‘Olay’) float like flat constructivist forms from the 1950s. The elderly woman’s resting hand adds a third visual element that transforms object to subject. The red void provided was one route into the composition, but it is most likely that a viewer would enter via the subject’s arresting stare. These examples, the most compelling images in the show, pay homage of sorts to the artist’s mother. She appears to be an indomitable character, worthy of celebration within her daughter’s oeuvre. Her pictorial preservation in these works is surely a testament to the bond between mother and daughter. The raw, brutal honesty is strangely beautiful, but Rhys James does not go in for sentimentality.

Shani Rhys James – ‘Oil of Ulay 2’ 2018 182x213cm
Courtesy the artist and Connaught & Brown

These two simple domestic tableau in ‘Oil of Ulay 2’, a hairbrush and a bottle of ‘beauty cream’ (as a child might innocently call it), allude to a remaining element of self-respect more than vanity. As for the glass of water in ‘Glass of Water’, it potentially speaks of more than refreshment throughout hours of rest or confinement. For water is a symbol of divine life and purity, and is especially emphasised against the blackest of backdrops. The narrative is both mundane and spiritual – is the bed a place of rest, confinement or refuge? The interpretation is up to the viewer in these and, indeed, all of the works selected for ‘Tea on the Sofa, Blood on the Carpet’. Depending on your age and experience in life these engrossing portraits might be read as ‘matter of fact’ or deeply disturbing. A child could recognise a grandparent, or an adult might detect a premonition of a stage in life not so far away. For a carer of a senior the impact could be felt most deeply and upsetting.

Shani Rhys James – ‘Two Gourds'(detail)


No one could have left this exhibition without lasting impressions. Rhys James’ practice is multifaceted, with conjoined matters of painting practice in a digital era (perhaps reminiscing, proclaiming or asserting painting); family orientated as it impacts on personal selfhood and changing generational roles (including cultural expectations); and in being assertively feminist with humour and pathos.

This was certainly a show for other painters to see as well, as any evidence of struggling with the medium of oil paint had been expertly disciplined to serve the needs of the compelling imagery that distinguishes this work. By ‘expertly’ I mean that the handling of the paint medium has not only been adeptly and skilfully realised through many years of experience and practice, notwithstanding Rhys James’ continuing exploration that reveals the contradiction of struggle as part of the deal, but is also attuned to the potential of the subject matter and the possibilities inherent in the materiality and visuality of the medium itself.

This sense of a dynamic embodiment of readings has, ideally, to be experienced by the viewer in the presence of the paintings, but the enlivening and stimulating combination of image, subject matter and a viscerally coloured and textured surface facture, endures beyond an initial viewing. Whilst the content goes far deeper than simply enjoying the paintings for their immediate visual impact, for viewed from half a yard or less there is always an engrossing content of captivatingly brushed, palette-knifed, dragged and drawn marks in every work that rewards inspection. This brings us back to the paint and its alchemical properties to become something or somewhere else in the memory, the here and now or beyond language or pronouncement. Where the visual is both animated and physical, time bound and fleeting; and space is past and present, inward as well as external.

I am reminded of a comment about the mystery and complexity of painting made by the American painter, Joe Bradley:

“I think it hopefully escapes language and kind of stops a linguistic read. I don’t think the idea is to be evasive or tricky, but I think one thing that painting does well is to broadcast contradictory content in a single view, as opposed to a book or movie that leads you through. Good painting sort of stops time and jams up the works – in a good way.”

The medium is the message.

Shani Rhys James – ‘Boy and Bouquet’ (detail)




The Wolfson Foundation



Shani Rhys James has been represented by Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff since 1992 and by Connaught Brown in London since 2007.

Martin Tinney Gallery


Connaught Brown


Carol Bove


David Zwirner


Ryan Steadman talking to Joe Bradleyhttps://observer.com/2016/04/the-full-bradley-a-painters-painter-talks-about-painting/

CVAN South East: 2020 Platform Graduate Award

CVAN South East: 2020 Platform Graduate Award

Phoenix Art Space, Brighton

“Yes! The show must go on after all…”

“In this extraordinarily challenging year when universities and galleries have had to close their doors, support for graduates entering an uncertain landscape is needed more urgently than ever. The Platform Graduate Award 2020 enables us to join our network partners in revealing the high quality and diversity of practice that continues to emerge from the eleven participating art schools” 

Sarah Davies, Director of Phoenix Art Space

Bucking the trend for cancelling actual physical exhibitions, or for only revealing works on-line, the Phoenix Art Space celebrates the work of five recent fine art graduates. Unfortunately, the public will not have access due to the current Covid related restrictions but for Brightonians who are passing by on their daily stroll to the seafront a pause outside the gallery will be well rewarded.

For the Platform Graduate Award (now in its 8th year) instigated by the South East Contemporary Visual Arts Network, four highly renowned regional institutions (Aspex, Portsmouth; Modern Art, Oxford; Turner Contemporary, Margate; and Phoenix Art Space) are promoting 28 graduate artists selected from 11 universities in the south-east (excluding London). Phoenix have selected five artists: Jessica Davis and Leanne Jones-Starr from East Sussex College, Hastings and Charlotte Guérard, Rachel Atkinson, and Ursula Vargas from the University of Brighton.

The work is typical of current tends in fine art education in that conceptual aspects generally steer studio practice and diverse outcomes are the norm. No one prevailing trend dominates these young artists’ works – unless sharing and expanding introspective inclinations whilst creatively questioning our shared relationships with culture, industry and the natural world can be classified as such. As examples of good practice the field remains open for traditions of painting and sculpture to be realised as subtle or shocking; contemplative or overtly performative; immediate or slow burning; issue lead or aesthetically and visually nuanced in this taster of degree level fine art. The visual presence of the works ultimately takes centre stage and whether the audience can see the work on-line (see the YouTube walk through video via the Phoenix website) or through the windows at the Phoenix, the considerable efforts made to go on with the show are justly rewarded.

My privilege, as one of the selectors for the final cohort has been in seeing the work close-up as the show was installed. This was a fascinating experience as the initial selection, in two stages, was carried out by looking at photographs of the works via on-line access and in reading statements. All along I was aware of a niggling dissatisfaction from not truly sensing any sense of size or scale; or of experiencing those visual and haptic qualities that can only be sensed in the presence of the works. Nor could I meet the final five shortlisted participants who might have been free to talk about their works without the restrictions and formalities of the endemic written statement. But I need not have had any apprehension about the quality of the work, or the diversity of content.

The visual and physical ‘hit’ of seeing the various works just brought home, as if it were needed, the importance of seeing the real thing. To my relief I was even more impressed with the various outcomes after sneaking into the install a couple of times and in seeing works of such disparity so successfully curated by Production Manager, Gabby Gilmore and her colleagues. Because of the variety of practices none of the five displays overpowers or embarrasses another – and there are no lame ducks. The final realisation of the works in a group exhibition format is impressive and, as can be expected from early career works, there is evidence of great potential from each participant.

Ursula Vargas – ‘Every Man for Himself’

Without proper access a viewer of the show from the roadside will probably see the works displayed from what is normally the final section of the gallery, as a left to right scan of the front windows initially presents three large paintings from Ursula Vargas. To the left is the 2 metre high, ‘Every Man For Himself’, a floor based triptych. The term ‘ACCIÓN POÉTICA’ has been scrawled onto a banner-like flap on the top of the centre panel that lends a contemporary reference to a movement in South America that encourages reading, most especially of poetry, via a positive form of tagging. The primary source of narrative in the paintings is visual of course and the landscape backdrop sets the scene for three foreground characters. The visual references to Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons are revealed by the rocky topography and a Coyote character on the right hand side that leaps across, or into, a chasm whilst holding three balloons. To the left a figure from pre-Columbian art (a visually rich culture without a writing system) appears be juggling items that look like snakes and rocks. Between these two, in the centre panel, a scaly bird-like creature stares with one eye at the viewer as if conveying a message of some importance. The long, winding road links foreground to background and disappears into a man-made tunnel. It’s a surreal scene that conjures cultural pasts and presents into personal experiences of the extensive road travel that Vargas has undertaken in her partly nomadic life.

Ursula Vargas – ‘Where the Braves Die’

Another work, ‘Where the Braves Die’, also presents three foreground features: cartoon Coyote, a road sign for an oil extraction pump and a pre-Columbian stone statue. Again, the landscape appears to be wrecked by human activity and the highway to hell takes the viewer’s gaze to a Shell sign on the far horizon. The colour palette, essentially yellow, orange and purple is purposefully crude, referencing street art (aka graffiti) as much as cartoon imagery. The third piece in this space is ‘Self Portrait’, one of the most memorable pieces from the initial selection process. The bold use of colour grabs the attention first and the dripping orange paint that depicts the outline of distant landforms behind which a yellow sun appears to rise, clearly rejects any romantic notions of the beautiful sublimity of nature. In fact the philosophical notions of the ‘sublime’ (surely an overused term in contemporary discourse) as postulated by Burke and Kant in the 18th century, referencing the potentially delightful and uplifting, but also the overwhelming and horrific physical and emotional affect of the powers of ‘nature’, are referenced by Vargas’ take on the western landscape tradition. To send an unequivocal message, with the addition of the actual contents of a recycle bin she introduces (now in a global context) the evidence of the environmental fuck-up that prevails. Subtlety and diplomacy in imagery, paint rendering or pleasing ‘aesthetic taste’ is suitably rejected for maximum effect.

Ursula Vargas – ‘Self Portrait’

Ursula Vargas – ‘Me Llama La Llama (The llama Calls Me)’

Moving into the larger gallery space Vargas joins her four co-exhibitors with ‘Me Llama La Llama (The Llama Calls Me)’. This is a poignant work that adds a sentiment that rises above the cartoon simplicity of the visual language appropriated for this series of paintings. In anthropomorphic terms the Llama looks a friendly soul and, again, we see the road that will take the traveler away from her homeland and a view of distant snow-topped mountains that are picturesquely framed by a tunnel cut through the rock. That such romantic tropes provide such agency and emotional potency might bring some comfort after all.

Leanne Jones-Starr – ‘Isolation Garden’ installation

Shifting to an encounter based on having permission to actually enter the gallery (avec masque) and entering the exhibition through the internal double-doors the first display is a surprising black wall in an otherwise ‘white-cube’ type showroom space. Here a row of five digital photographic prints produced by Leanne Jones-Starr stretch across the wall, which is fortuitously or by design, just the right width. The whole display, measuring about 3×5 metres, establishes a dark, minimalist colour-field of sorts. Within this apparent void the plant forms in the photographic panels emerge, suspended in the implied emptiness. Were it not for a larger image (unless that’s how one should ‘read’ the black wall) the five panels might function as an altarpiece predella from the Early Renaissance period. This would imply a narrative sequence related to the ‘bigger picture’, which might have to be provided by the viewer.

Leanne Jones-Starr – ‘Isolation Garden’ (central image)

As with all other students across the country this final degree project from Jones-Starr was produced during the first period of the Coronavirus pandemic and is a collection entitled ‘Isolation Garden’. The images are inspired by the confinement of an urban space that must have taken on new and revived meaning and purpose. The fascination of the garden, art historically linked to the hortus conclusus from medieval times, has strong female associations, particularly in the Christian tradition relating to the Virgin Mary and a notion of the ‘untouched womb’. So I wonder if it is more than coincidence that the mirrored image (courtesy of Photoshop) suggests a vagina in the third and central panel. Symbolism is also provoked by two other images in the sequence, that are constructed again by using a mirror image and there is a suggestion of the Rorschach inkblot test about them. This potential for psychological interpretation very much places the imagery into the viewer’s court and for those of us fortunate enough to have such a space of refuge and potential solace, a period of introspection may well have prevailed at times in our gardens last Spring. In her explanation of this work, Jones-Starr states that she “explores the connection between memories, the uncanny and intuition… and challenges our sense of the familiar… the work invites us to question what it is we are viewing and to further consider the associations we build through our singular and collective memory.” It’s quite a claim, and a huge ambition to explore for what could be a long-term project, but the sense of the everyday appearing new or even unfamiliar may well have changed rather than confused the meaning and appearance of our enclosed spaces.

Jessica Davis – Installation of 3 photographs

This potentially illuminating and revelatory content in natural and/or private spaces was also echoed in Jessica Davis’ framed photographs on an adjacent wall. In these three images of a Great Tit that has been preserved, or reconstructed, by the taxidermy process, Davis is commenting on the treatment of wildlife by the ongoing development of modeling the world to our own (human) needs. Each of the set-up images conveys a specific message. ‘Bird Shit’ shows the heal of a boot about to crush the bird; a hand carefully picks up the creature in ‘Bye Bye Birdy’ as it is disposed of; and ‘Worthless’ presents the undeniably beautiful animal being inspected as an object that may have some sell-on value. The unpretentious scenarios facilitated by the arranged photographs give the imagery an almost forensic configuration, which very skillfully conveys the frustrated and distressed messages. The choice to employ the photographic process was not only expedient, as the same preserved bird could be used in a variety of simulations, but also added to a sense of distancing from the real animal kingdom which should be understood as a realm in which we are a part and not disconnected observers. Having mentioned the frames above, the clean and tidy domestic quality of the frames may have been selected to suggest the tendency to bring imagery of animals into our homes as innocent and innocuous decoration. But the underlying mockery and scorn is subtly powerful in this sequence. 

Jessica Davis – ‘Couple of the Hunt’

In Davis’ most confrontational piece, ‘Couple of the Hunt’, a pair of foxes are ‘live’, as it were, in the gallery space. Not literally alive, the taxidermy process has been used yet again, but as actual bodies that uncannily greet the would-be visitor on entering the gallery and turning right. Each of the pair wears a black sock on its head, adorned by a plastic muzzle. As with Vargas’ Llama, mentioned earlier, there is an echo of anthropomorphism at play here. And unanswered questions: why the socks (is black relevant?) and what are the muzzles for – is this an ironic gesture at the hunting hounds that might now be muzzled so that ‘innocent’ pets are not killed by out of control hunts (never mind the poor old fox)? Or is there an attempt to make these animals tamed and domesticated – yet effectively blinded by the socks? And lastly, what does a pairing imply in anthropological terms, if we are to read the duo as a human-like couple? Clearly, this body of work is not restricted to Davis’ heartfelt narrative that is both shocking and emotional. The creation of more open interpretations for future works that trust less explicit but equally powerful imagery might be an area to explore.

Charlotte Guérard – Installation of paintings

It’s been quite a year for Charlotte Guérard, nominated for the new Freelands Painting Prize 2020 and having an interview with writer Kitty Bew published in the a-n review in April. This will have softened the blow of missing out on the University of Brighton degree show 2020, which has been a true highlight of the annual visual arts calendar in the city for decades. Guérard has selected three new works made after submitting images of her abstract paintings for the Platform Graduate Award. This is a great statement of intent, as she is clearly not resting on her laurels after been selected for the Phoenix exhibition. Due to their size (about two metres high), the canvases are well visible from the street but also demand close viewing and deserve far more than a mere glance or first impression. Often, abstract work of this sort is heavy on the colour impact and the application of paint, but these canvases are characterised by subtlety and understatement. Whilst the work is informed by painterly abstraction from the British and American traditions of the past 60 years (read her interview with Kitty Bew) there is a contemporaneous feel that places the work within the current mission in abstract painting for further development of the genre. This relates to both the attention to medium specificity (painterliness, materiality, colour impact and independence of imagery in portraying external content) and to countering the phenomenon of competing visual technologies, particularly lens-based, digital and ‘post-internet’ art.

Charlotte Guérard – ‘Marble Dawn on an Autumn Morning’

Charlotte Guérard – ‘In her pink dress she swam under the bridges’

Although the titles may apparently point to subject matter (‘In her pink dress she swam under the bridges’ could alternatively be a line from an Imagist poem) I suspect that these are paintings one could live with and see afresh from day to day without identification with external subject matter. I get this impression most immediately from, ‘Marble Dawn on an Autumn Morning’. It’s an accomplished painting that wriggles with movement within the confines of the four sides. The disparity of forms are restrained and just about held back from over-indulgence. There is a hint of excess in the stream-like exuberance in the bottom left hand section where reds, greens and oranges interweave and overlap, but they are kept in check. The colours influence each other, especially when overlapping, but retain essential characteristics without mixing into muddiness. The implied visual space shifts from shallow to deep too, created by shape, colour and compositional proximity. There is an element of dance and vivacity about this work that gives it visual rather than the subject-matter type agency that we see in Vargas’ paintings. But this is not esoteric imagery, suggesting introverted or closed systems of self-containment. The viewer can be engaged with the abstract qualities of the compositions or take a more literal route that might attach to geographical or landscape scenarios. We may see the ocean in, ‘In Her Pink Dress…’ or aerial views of land and sea in, ‘Daddy Long Legs’ (which actually references the old electric railway that ran along the Brighton seafront at the very end of the nineteenth century) but these are paintings to write around rather than explain like visual texts. They are paintings to be open to and to ingest before judging. The conversation is purely visual, despite the intriguing titles. But they are serious too and demand attention so the viewer can indulge in their own realisation of time and space, preferably over a long period of contemplation.

Rachel Atkinson – Installation through the front window with Charlotte Guérard canvases in the background

In this setting Guérard’s canvases command the biggest wall space but still allow other works to hold their own attention. If anything physically dominates the floor space it’s Rachel Atkinson’s multi-media installation entitle ‘Exit, Stage left’, a contemporary example of the expanded field of sculpture first identified by Rosalind Krauss in 1979 and still informing and influencing fine art practice from the art schools to the major galleries. As, primarily, an object maker with a Sculpture degree Atkinson’s productivity may well be primarily manifested as a producer of ‘things’. But in art of course, such ‘things’ are not confined to the purely material, as ideas and concepts are manifested in and from them. In fact we can philosophically contend with ideas and situations as a category of object, not only because objects always have context, but also situations have consequences that affect the material and object-oriented world.

Without meaning to be condescending, Atkinson’s props might have been appropriated from a Level 2 BTEC trainee’s attempts at basic construction, but part of her project is to advocate notions of failure (or lack of expertise). The props are well made enough to look just about good enough to function, even if in an implied amateurish way. From a socially distanced Instagram exchange with me she revealed that her “… props all have their faults. They have wobbly edges and filled holes. They are makeshift. They are objects you can’t quite place. I want them to feel familiar yet out of place. The moment you think you’ve placed them somewhere, you find something new and strange that doesn’t quite add up.” So don’t be fooled too soon.

Rachel Atkinson – ‘Laughter Applause sign’

Atkinson’s constructed objects are hard or soft, humorous (‘Laughter Applause sign’) or a little menacing (a suspended rope). Some could be about to fall apart or simply not function effectively. Consequently we might consider all of the objects in our daily lives in this way, particularly in lockdown 2.0 as we spend yet more time at home with our hoarded artifacts of excessive consumption. (Though I really must buy a more comfortable computer chair and dispose of some of that junk from the attic.) As an expansion from sculpture as three-dimensional form, her time-based, fictional but spookily real presentation of human choices, actions and everyday melodrama, replete with film props, is a compelling ingredient in the 90-second video included in ‘Exit, Stage left’. On the screen, Atkinson utilises old and new media in a playful performance overlaid by a spoken soundtrack. A male voice appears to be commentating on the lonesome performer’s raison d’être“And you can’t help but feel as if you should be doing something”, he intones. So aptly put in lockdown mode.

The text (written by Atkinson), and the physical actions of the awkwardly moving actor introduce a strong hint of a Samuel Beckett type purposeless absurdity, with implicit routes from Dada and Surrealism. One abiding image is of the actor self-consciously performing the gesture of taking off a top hat (so old school) and of approximating a grand, but melancholy and trite, performance. And again, in our role as ‘audience’, as innocent observers of all modes of media whether written, sound based, visual or performative, we have impressive skills in suspending belief to go along with the fantasies, good intentions and/or lies of our constructed existence. But our acts and behaviours have to be questioned. This constitutes the ethical dimension of Atkinsons’ burgeoning project, which suggests that freedom is frightening and therefore necessitates positive actions and reactions to the status quo, otherwise we descend into conformity and control by the state or other authority. This may sound heavy, but art is a serious business.

Rachel Atkinson -Cropped still from ‘Exit, Stage left’ video

It not just props, a video and a written script that Atkinson presents (and she may even be acting in her short film). Green is a major component too, as dark or light sheets of material for the soft sculptures, or for the green outfit of the actor in the video. For two crucial seconds the green room (a bunker of sorts) is purposefully empty in the opening shot. Clearly referencing the ‘Green Screen’ by including two oversized markers for editing for CGI purposes on the front and back of the hidden figure’s head covering, this is space into which any narrative or identity is possible. The green might also be read as representing growth or nature, which makes for a fascinating connection with the garden imagery from Leanne Jones-Starr’s work at the beginning of the show, or with the broader palette in Guérard’s paintings. Green certainly represents potential. Atkinson’s work is impressively sophisticated at such an early stage of her career as she delves into a lifetime’s journey of creativity with her peers. She will now contend with the graduates selected from the other regional institutions for a bespoke mentoring package and a £2000 bursary.

Before I leave, I notice several sheets of A4 paper on the gallery floor in close proximity to the props. It is a one-page script for ‘The Final Performance’, a conversation by seven actors named as ‘fools’. One of the lines provides the title for this review, which I hope is suitably ruminatory. By picking a sheet up I become an actor of sorts too: Fool 8, I guess.

Geoff Hands

Rachel Atkinson – ‘Exit, Stage left’ installation


Phoenix Art Space (PGA Award)


South East CVA

Ursula Vargas (Website)

Leanne Jones-Starr (Website)

Jessica Davis (Website)

Charlotte Guérard (Instagram)

Rachel Atkinson (Instagram)

Freelands Foundation (Charlotte Guérard)

a-n review (Kitty Bew / Charlotte Guérard)

Hunting hound petition (Jessica Davis)


Michelle Cobbin: Transitions

At 35 North Gallery, North Road, Brighton

24 September – 10 October 2020

Right here, right now

35 North Gallery frontage with ‘In the top field’ (162x122cm). Oil, acrylic and sand on canvas.

It’s a dull morning in Brighton and heavy rain is expected, but the streets are busy as shoppers make the most of dull but dry weather conditions. The opportunities to see art in the flesh have, for obvious reasons, been few and far between these past six months. The Phoenix Art Space gallery is functioning again and now 35 North also opens its doors to visitors. As it happens, Michelle Cobbin’s studio is based at the Phoenix and so she is on home territory. This is not the largest of spaces, just the one room, but Tardis-like, the space has accommodated 16 paintings of various sizes without feeling congested. Cobbin last showed at the gallery in 2017, in both group and solo shows and now a new body of work is on view. Entitled Transitions, the collection suitably presents a subsequent period of time impacted by extraordinary and historical circumstances. But, true to character, the repercussions for Cobbin are subtle within a broader painting project to explore colour and its potentially meditative effects on both maker and viewer. The work is highly personal too, as Cobbin has revealed that, “…‘Transitions’  best describes where I feel I am right now: in an in-between space; taking stock; moving my practice forward; embracing ageing; exploring ancestry and welcoming seasonal change.”

Cobbin is one of those painters who enjoys both strong, impactful colour and the materiality of paint without inhibition and whose work would be categorised as abstract. But she’s not averse to employing earthy or atmospheric colours either and there are clear references to the landscape, particularly horizons, and the titles reveal her wandering spirit and love of the natural world. Cobbin has been walking on the local Sussex downland that embraces the City of Brighton and Hove to the north and east. With the Covid lockdown her expeditions have been restricted to an area close to where she lives. This lack of autonomy to venture further afield has proved a bonus, as it happens. Even from a relatively small collection of works the varieties of visual memories and encounters recorded, experienced and visually ingested al fresco, then developed in the studio, are numerous in terms of colour combinations, tonal variations and implied explorations and experiences of local landscape spaces at various times of the day. That no space is inexhaustible, as visual phenomena or for prompting personal interpretation and meaning, might be a sub-theme to Transitions.

Michelle Cobbin – ‘Old path’ (30x60cm). Oil on canvas.

This title is most interesting, for transitions occur not just in the natural environment but also in terms of the self, as the artist’s revelation above identifies. In a more general sense, for many the enforced social isolation, where a deceleration in the daily engagement within society has not proved to be an overwhelming burden, this opportunity to slow down and to go inwards in daily active/walking meditations might have manifested a positive aspect in such troubled times. The daily 30-minute walk approved of and encouraged during full lockdown earlier in the year has certainly born fruit for the continuous developments and adjustments in Cobbin’s practice. The sometimes stark juxtapositions of colour and shape remain in her work, but the outcomes are now mediated with a more pronounced sense of finish and resolution. Even in ‘Bridge’, one of the larger canvases on view that could have originated from an earlier body of work (although described as a – “Spontaneous expression of summer” by the artist), there is a softer combination in the relationship between contrasting colour fields of reds, greens and yellows. This is partly due to the overall sensuousness of surface and brushwork that is quite restrained and, given the robust implications sometimes associated with complimentary pairs, quells overt contrasts of form. The monumentally dominant standing stone and lintel red/pink form is subsumed into an atmosphere of physical lightness by the modulated green-yellow backdrop and there is a sense of disembodied levitation. Or perhaps it’s a floating bridge of sorts, whereby the notion of a bridge is not so much a transitional or connecting motif but a specific time/space worth recollecting and monumentalising.

Michelle Cobbin – ‘Bridge’ (1oox150cm). Oil and acrylic on canvas.

Whilst shear size may assist in enveloping the viewer into an atmosphere of contemplation and visual engulfment, ‘Chalk meadow – high summer’, the largest work on view also had this effect, the smaller works were as compelling. Take for example the series consisting of ‘June’‘July’‘August’ and ‘September’ at just 20x20cm each. The compositions are identical but are rendered in a variety of colour palettes that record not just different months and times of day and/or weather conditions but may also register four quite different studio sessions. For these are not en plein air landscape paintings but they catalogue the engagement with the practice of painting within the confines and solitude of the studio – the peculiar but positive form of social distancing that many artists experience. The studio can be a difficult and challenging place to survive within and the endeavour to be productive without recourse to repetition and falling for the formulaic (and commercial) is a tough call. But this stubborn resilience is one of Cobbin’s strengths and accounts for diversity and range in her imagery.

Michelle Cobbin – ‘June’, ‘July’, ‘August’ and ‘September’ (each 20x20cm). Oil and acrylic on wooden panel.

The consistency and sense of development and transition – which should by its very nature traverse ups and downs in outcomes – embraces the contradictory successes and failures of the rough ride of studio practice. Arguably, it’s a condition of painting that maintains its protean and variable spirit in a media-driven world of formulaic pastiche and cliché (and painters of lesser talent). This is, unavoidably, a pertinently welcome aspect of a solo exhibition from a painter who is clearly making this sometimes arduous journey alone – but with a generous desire to share the endeavour with an audience in a spirit of celebration of visual observation and perceptive awareness of the natural world. But there are no weak paintings in Transitions, none are superfluous, for disciplined studio practice has probably buried less resolved and unsatisfactory paintings beneath the surface in the more built up layers of paint. The installation and curatorial achievement is spot on too.

Michelle Cobbin – ‘September’ (20x20cm). Oil and acrylic on wooden panel.

This link to an audience is partly initiated by the titles of the works. ‘Barley and chalk’‘Glimpse of Hawkweed’‘Dandelion Love’ and ‘Walking through Knapweed’. These experiences and subjects are available to anyone willing and able to make the effort. During lockdown many of us became aware of street weeds and there was a campaign originating in Nante (check out Frédérique Soulard and her Belles de Bitume project) that enabled us to appreciate the intriguing beauty of what was literally on our doorsteps. This active meditation, a tuning in to one’s surroundings, bares fruit. For a local audience we learn the lesson that the South Downs that extend into the city are a place of discovery. Not, so much, a place of escape, but of finding aspects of thought and feeling, from the sublime to the everyday; and potentially even from our personal geographical histories (for Cobbin, her native East Anglia) that collapses time and space into the here and now.

Michelle Cobbin – ‘Dandelion Love’ (50x50cm). Oil and acrylic on wooden panel.

But if that were too metaphysical, the best advice would be to visually savour the immediate spectacle of the paintings on view. There’s more than enough to contemplate and perhaps just one image would suffice. The painting I kept returning to was ‘Barley and chalk’, a square composition that intrigued me for its simple brushwork (from a wide, flat brush) and understated simplicity. The initial register of a subdivision into two dominant rectangles is given a slightly suspended, vertically floating sensation by the background of acidic yellow. The broad white horizontal stripe in the lower half calmly moves forward from a light grey/blue veil behind. There are subtle shades of pink that are barely noticeable too (confession: I only notice this contradiction of colour from looking at a photograph later on). ‘Barley and chalk’ demands more than a handful of short viewings: a lifetime of meditation might be in order. Such is the potential of a humble painting, or a walk on the Downs.

‘Barley and chalk’ (60x60cm). Oil and acrylic on panel.

Leaving the gallery some 45 minutes or so later the gloom has lifted, the expected storm has abated and it’s a glorious sunny day – right here, right now.

Geoff Hands (2020)

All images © Michelle Cobbin.


Michelle Cobbin – https://www.michellecobbin.art

35 North Gallery – http://35northgallery.com

Phoenix Art Space – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org

DENNIS LOESCH: State Your Position

State Your Position

saasfee*pavillon, Frankfurt. Opening 29 September.

002 - DL - Production.jpg

Sign o’ the Times

The initial working title for this essay was ‘Meditation on a Cross’. The religious connotation was tongue-in-cheek, but I first thought of the cross in general terms. On a mundane level a mark in the sand that a child could make with their foot or a stick came to mind. Getting deeper, the beginning of written languages, such as the scratched sign on a rock will forever fascinate. As if to say, “I was here”, the pre-historic hunters in Upper Paleolithic Europe 20,000 or more years ago may have been continuing to develop one of the earliest forms of code that have lead to what we now call visual culture.

In a refreshingly modern and contemporary environment provided by the saasfee*pavillon space, this body of new works from Dennis Loesch will surely feel at home. When I heard that Loesch’s new body of work was to be staged there it felt appropriate, not only because this is his home city and he studied at the Städelschule Academy of fine arts, but also because of his personal interest in avant-garde and cross-cultural musical genres.

005 - DL.jpg

It’s a late Friday afternoon in early-August, and Dennis Loesch and I exchange comments on WhatsApp about his forthcoming installation at the saasfee*pavilion. I have asked what will be in the show: “…all unique. 3 huge ones, 4 a bit smaller, 10 small ones… leaning, floor and hanging”, he replies. “X Cellant”, I respond, trying be clever with the X from the English word ‘excellent’ (ausgezeichnet in his native German). I don’t know if he gets my reference to Germano Celant and Arte Povera. It would have helped if I had spelled the Italian art critic’s name correctly. Not that the use of ‘poor materials’ are especially featured in Loesch’s work but there is something of the everyday in his choice of subject matter (including artefacts such as memory sticks and SD cards from digital technologies). As a contemporary artist with an attraction to bright, vivid colour and graphical, geometric visual forms with Photoshop quality gradations of colour or flat but painterly surfaces, Loesch embraces the digital realm, its appearances and production techniques, with great enthusiasm and ongoing engagement. Even in reproduction the form, surface qualities and colouration is attractive – even sexy.

One of the larger ‘State your position’ (SYP) forms has fascinated me for several weeks now. Not just as a visual artefact but for the title too. Is this a question, or an instruction? It could be a phrase requesting a point of view or it could be a geographic location that is sought for safety reasons. The titles of artworks typically pertain exclusively to the subject matter, as in a portrait or landscape work, but SYP purposely acknowledges the viewer who thus becomes a more activated, self-reflective, participant.

006 - DL

‘State Your Position’ presents seventeen ‘X’ forms in a configuration that will undoubtedly engage the audience both visually and physically as they negotiate the gallery space. Although for safety reasons none of the artworks can, after all, be positioned to lean against the walls, using the floor as well as the wall space will actively undermine pictorial notions that generally command wall-hung works. A degree of minimalist objecthood will possibly prevail, although the indicative subjecthood from such an open-ended and multiple meaning sign as an X is surely present, compliments of the viewer.

Despite being so skilfully manufactured with the aid of Computer Numerical Control to control the movement of the cutter and highly skilled technician assistance for completion, these particular ‘one-off’ Xs are unique. As objects that have been produced to Loesch’s specifications they each reproduce a digitally handwritten gesture made with the computer mouse – a fascinating contradiction of technologies. Another paradox I find is that the imagery suggests two-dimensional delineation, but these are also moveable three-dimensional forms that could as easily be defined as sculptures, albeit in the unmonumental camp. But any Dada-istic tendency is subverted by rather wonderful colours and subtle textures across the front and sides of the forms. They are eye-pleasingly pleasant with a decorative energy that induces enjoyment.

Alternatively, Loesch might be playing with his audience, commandeering an innate sense of humour that embraces irony. The X form, with all of its semiotic potential, can mean anything between the poles of seriousness and triviality, sign and symbol. Just how meaningful can a strong graphical and visual statement be? Placed into a gallery/fine art context do we assume profundity in whatever ‘message’ might be invoked by such a simple form? Or is the artist undermining the sophistication of an audience that is attracted to contemporary art by a token of innocent banality? Alternatively, art can be fun, like fashion clothing. At once visually entertaining and pleasingly simple, reminding us to accept that since Duchamp fixed formulas and old world hierarchies are now disempowered in art. Which leads me to wonder if Loesch’s Xs in SYP are paradoxical Readymades? Virtual digitally derived realities, returned to substance.


Unless the artist makes an honest statement of intent (and let’s hope he does not, for the sake of the viewer’s imagination) it appears that a speculative environment is made manifest by this assembly of Xs in the saasfee*pavillon space. After all, despite the high quality aesthetics and design profile of these forms, visitors will be encountering ‘art’ forms, not artefacts or a scattered stockpile of road signs from the Frankfurt City Council.

Returning to the notion of audience the context of the gallery/cultural space might shift the balance of interpretation for sign to symbol in the SYP collection/series. In Jung’s final piece of writing, aimed at a general readership, ‘Approaching the Unconscious – The Importance of dreams’ he explained that signs:

“… are meaningless in themselves, they have acquired a recognizable meaning through common usage or deliberate intent. Such things are not symbols.”

And that:

“What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning… Thus a word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning.”

Loesch’s SYP Xs might be playing with this definition.

011 - DL.jpg

The adaptation and confident interest in digital processes and formulations certainly states the position that Loesch occupies as a contemporary practitioner. He accommodates the digital, whilst more than referencing the tactile visuality of form and the unashamed rapture of colour. One way to approach these works might be to follow Daniel Buren’s advice that, “My painting, at the limit, can only signify itself… It is. So much so, and so well, that anyone can make it and claim it.”

Works transcend themselves and individual experiences let us know we are here: it’s a sign o’ the times…

Geoff Hands

012 - DL

saasfee* pavillon link – saasfee*pavillon 

An extended version of this essay will be published on Saturation Point with final installation photographs. http://www.saturationpoint.org.uk/

008 - DL

More articles for Dennis Loesch:

Abstract Room interview by Frédéric Caillard, April 2017 –


FAD Magazine review by Eric Thorp, October 2015 –


AbCrit article on Dennis Loesch at PM/AM by Geoff Hands-


Goldhurst Art Advisory feature –


JOHN TAYLOR – The Circle

John Taylor – The Circle

18 June to 1 August 2018

An on-line exhibition of drawings and collages

John Taylor - Cover image - The-circle 2010 show

Despite holding reservations about on-line exhibitions, even in these days of full or partial Covid lockdown, I surprisingly found myself intrigued by John Taylor’s current website initiative. Ideally, exhibitions should be seen ‘in the flesh’ whenever possible, but of course since the reproduction of images became technically possible, this has never been sacrosanct – thank goodness. I last wrote about Taylor’s collage/paintings shown at the Jeannie Avent Gallery, East Dulwich in the Spring of 2018 after coming across his work via my iPhone, which prompted a day out to see if the actual works were as impressive as the miniature versions were on-screen.

As if to challenge the logic of the notion of a current show ‘The Circle’ brings together twenty-five unframed mixed media works from 2011 and is best viewed on a computer or tablet for decent sized reproductions of the works. Having not been able to attend his last show, ‘Abstract Realities’, at Westminster Reference Library just before last Christmas I was pleased at this opportunity to see more of Taylor’s work, albeit nine years after completion. Not that this time element is especially problematic and in fact there is a sense of circumstances being just right for this particular project to leave the studio. For though it’s not a retrospective in the conventional sense, it is something of a treat to see works that were made purely for their own sake, privately as it were, and not for commercial reasons.

John Taylor - Room 1 with title

Clearly with the convention of a small gallery in mind, the indicative model of the solo show has guided the simple but effective structure of this exhibition. In a sense the display or the event is not at all ‘virtual’ as it only exists in reality as a digital platform, although the original works are solidly ‘real’ as we would normally understand mixed media works on card. Divided into three rooms (there’s no need to use the term ‘virtual’ anymore), the similarly sized works are split into groups of eight or nine images that might be comfortably viewed in three modest salons or vestibules. Thankfully, the works have not been presented to look like they are hung on a wall with some clever Photoshop technique, but are photographed in a straightforward manner lying on sheets of paper with subtle shadows indicating the gentle curve of unstretched paper. They will not be perfectly flat until someone has one framed.

John Taylor - Room 2 with title

From a recent Instagram exchange of messages the artist confirmed that the works were produced on a daily basis throughout the year in question as a “365 project”. This daily assignment suggests a degree of perseverance, discipline and resolve that, if my own experience of similar tasks with collage and drawing is similar, calls for the contradictory necessity to often see what happens with the process in an informal manner before attending to other forms of studio practice. Taylor also revealed a usefully relaxed attitude in saying that, “It’s my kind of sketchbook really. Bits of cardboard and paper rather than a book of ideas.” But let’s not be deceived by any notion of indifference or impassiveness, as Taylor’s engagement with the selection, disparity and handling of the media constitutes an active form of research that allows for far more than a simple process-lead endeavour. Taylor’s undeniable Constructivist tendency also reveals a highly intelligent ‘eye’ that is a pure pleasure to witness in his work generally. In this selection of works, cutting up, colour-scribbling and the use of linear sub-divisions and boundaries is controlled by impressive skill in the placement of rectangular and circular forms to attain asymmetrical balance within the compositions. In other words, the works are highly sophisticated and exemplary examples of a particular territory of abstraction.

John Taylor - Room 3 with title

The works could well function as small studies for larger works, significantly grand and spacious canvases or even sculptures set in a large garden or parkland as a feel of the monumental pervades the imagery. Typically, the circular forms float in front of solid colour or sketchier, hand drawn backgrounds, although in two compositions, ‘Combinations’ and ‘Balance’, there are circular forms that might be described more appropriately as discs. By the time I had reached the penultimate image in Room 3, I started to read the titles and found ‘Circle Myth’. Having just read about the newly discovered giant Neolithic structure on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, I could not avoid thinking about the fascination that many artists and writers still have for our ancient landscape. With the Summer Solstice just passed and Paul Nash’s ‘Landscape of the Summer Solstice’ also very much in mind a notion of landscape as a fundamental subject in art history (even if ‘landscape’ is at a low ebb at the moment) now imposes itself on my thinking. Nash’s ‘Equivalents for the Megaliths’ also springs to mind of course, which contains centrally placed geometric forms set in a simply rendered, painterly range of light yellows, ochres and greys that might be sensed in stronger colouration in some of the images in Room 3 of ‘The Circle’ (most especially ‘Sculptural Landscape’). Briefly letting my mind wander still further from the show for a while (an inevitable consequence of sitting at the computer rather than in a normal gallery context) I also recall the ‘Circle: International Survey of Constructivist Art’ publication involving Ben Nicholson, who surely must be a positive influence on Taylor’s work. In fact when I asked about a Nicholson link, Taylor confessed that he “…hesitated showing them for ages because of the inevitable comparison with Nicholson”. But he continued to explain that, “…they show my roots”. This is quite understandable and, I would argue, something to allow to unfold over time as a worthy lineage.

John Taylor - Circle Myth
John Taylor – ‘Circle Myth’, 2011. (6.5 x 23.5cm)

Whatever the associations, intended or otherwise, one must always return to the work of course. So having become aware of the addition of titles (note: Taylor has revealed that the titles were added before going online, which is fascinating as I wonder if stepping back from production allowed a usefully distanced overview away from process and production for different a mode of contemplation) I returned to Room 1. This navigation of the exhibition is a habit I commonly adopt for actual exhibitions, as a sometimes hurried overview requires one to retrace the initial journey. To find myself doing this online was certainly a surprise, though a reassuring one.

John Taylor - Circle Talk
John Taylor – ‘Circle Talk’, 2011. (14.5 x 19cm)

Looking again, giving more than cursory glances that may happen in walking around a show, an initial impression is formed of non-perspectival space compositions in which shape and placement is paramount. In these images visual space is essentially flat, although some of the rectangular forms could indicate perspective rendering. But on closer inspection vertical and horizontal lines also suggest spaces or areas receding. Occasionally a rectangular, trapezoid, form literally overlaps a drawn line to also create a sense of recession. Ins and outs, adjacent to, atmospheric backgrounds and bodily foregrounds are generated by the content. The circles, relatively large or small, often create a sense of floating but in a very slow motion akin to our experience of the moon or notions of the planetary. More forcefully intimating a notionally ‘real world’ are the titles. In Room 1 ‘Night Circles’ references a time of day and ‘Circle Talk’ could allude to a relationship between the three circular entities or the smallest group of people beyond a pair, with whatever narrative or consequences one might imagine. In the next room, ‘Sculpture Clouds’’ and ‘Sculpture Circles’ reference structures that could well be constructivist forms or ancient standing stones that predate what we culturally call ‘art’. ‘Dusk Moment’also summons a specific interval of time between day and night. Back in the final room, ‘Circle Myth’ again attracts my attention and now I am further intrigued by the various combinations of circular forms that feature in all of the works, but perhaps more emphatically here in Room 3. The works are suggestively intimate as two, three or four and a half discs converse in a rectangular environment. Perhaps these are conversation pieces, alluding ever so subtly to the eighteenth century English painting tradition of group portraiture in landscape or interiors. So, once more, the works take the observer on a digression by design or unintended intimation, fascinatingly open to the imagination.

John Taylor - Sculpture Clouds
John Taylor – ‘Sculpture Clouds’, 2011. (17 x 23.5cm)

‘The Circle’ prompts me to re-think my aversion to the online exhibition phenomenon – particularly as it’s here to stay, pandemic or no pandemic. But for an even more satisfying experience of the works another option would be to invest in one, and without a gallery mark up, there are bargains to be had from this show.

Geoff Hands (June 2020)

All images © John Taylor.


John Taylor – http://www.johntaylorpaintings.com

Abstract Voices review – https://fineartruminations.com/2018/04/21/john-taylor-abstract-voices/

Abstract Realities on ArtRabbit – https://www.artrabbit.com/events/abstract-realities-paintings-by-john-taylor

Guardian article – https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jun/22/scrap-stonehenge-road-tunnel-say-archaeologists-neolithic-discovery

The Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project – https://lbi-archpro.org/cs/stonehenge/

Tate: Paul Nash – https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-28-summer-2013/paul-nashs-equivalents-megaliths-1935

Rushing through an exhibition: Review of Calder on CFA – https://www.conceptualfinearts.com/cfa/2016/02/09/the-good-art-generates-new-art-a-short-story-about-alexander-calders-retrospective-at-the-tate/


CAROL BOVE at David Zwirner

Carol Bove at David Zwirner

June 8 to August 3, 2018 at 24, Grafton Street, London

Carol-Bove - May - 2018
Carol Bove
May, 2018 (detail) Stainless steel and urethane paint
21 x 66 x 28 inches (53.3 x 167.6 x 71.1 cm)
© Carol Bove
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner New York/London/Hong Kong

The Covid-19 pandemic has closed galleries for many weeks, and a plethora of online initiatives for displaying art, both contemporary and historical, have been taking place. From virtual tours of our major galleries to shows specifically curated for the digital platform there has been much to see, albeit in understandably compromised and impaired form. I must admit straightaway that the increased online content has not particularly engrossed me, probably because I have not tried hard enough, but in my defence, I just prefer to see the ‘real thing’. These would be not only the exhibitions I may have seen last week or even yesterday, where the experience would be fresh in my mind, or the shows I anticipate for tomorrow or next month, but also the shows from some time ago. This wishful thinking is due to focussed reminiscence, rather than some quirk of the lock-down effect on the deeper layers of consciousness, but is a welcome indulgence.

So, as I contemplate exhibitions I am now missing – most especially ‘Titian: Love, Desire, Death’ at the National Gallery in London and ‘Young Rembrandt’ at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – I also recollect exhibitions that I would love to travel back to see and to experience again. My initial wish list, though never possibly definitive but inevitably autobiographical, would include the tenth John Moores show at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool from 1976, where John Walker’s ‘Juggernaut with Plume – for P Neruda’ won first prize, and The Hayward Annual 1980, selected by John Hoyland.

In Liverpool, Walker’s ‘Juggernaut’, a collage of painted canvas segments is still lodged in my memory, albeit without detail or the ‘plume’ that I am reminded of by seeing it again on the gallery’s website. Along with a visit to Manchester Art Gallery and The Whitworth during the same academic year as a Foundation art student in Shrewsbury, the pigment encrusted surface and painterly physicality of a small Camille Pissarro landscape definitely propelled me towards applying for a fine art degree. The real thing, before the advent of the digital-visual and a more mainstream understanding of hyperreality (beyond anything the surrealists may have conceived), was physically and visually rendered as form, surface, colour and materiality. Not that this was an intellectual realisation for a fledgling art student; it was simply emotive and felt intuitively.

Having completed my Fine Art (Painting) degree at Farnham (WSCAD) the year before, the Hayward Gallery show rejuvenated my post-graduation period of rudderless struggle without the luxury of tutors, fellow students, workshops and a well-stocked library. Several decades on, a lingering sense of something significant about seeing canvases by the likes of Gillian Ayres, Frank Bowling, Jeff Dellow, John McLean, Mali Morris, Fred Pollock, Terry Setch, John Walker et al that was subsequently scuppered by the following years of conceptualism and a diminishing lack of faith in abstraction from the art world power brokers, still niggles. But Hoyland’s choice of Albert Irvin’s ‘Bodicea’ for the Annual made a great impression and this exuberant painting still resides prominently in my mind’s eye as an overwhelmingly visceral experience of paint, colour and shape celebrating an unashamed abstract visuality.

As I linger at the keyboard, there are other shows from the past that bob-up to resurface in a state of lock-down reverie: ‘Ian McKeever: Recent Paintings’, at the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton 1984; ‘Francis Bacon’ at the Tate in 1985; ‘Georg Baselitz’ at Wiener Secession, Vienna 1986 (the upside down imagery was clearly more than a gimmick when viewed in the flesh rather than in the magazines and catalogues); but I must stop here, as Constable, Blake and Patrick Heron shows from the Tate emerge from the depths of memory.

What links these exhibitions for me is not only the pictorial content but also the impact and tangibility of the materiality of paint (including Blakes’s watercolours). The pre-digital ‘medium specificity’ of art works, before reading Greenberg years later for consuming his purist/modernist angle, has never been quite satisfied by the digital screen. Hence my predilection for first hand experience.

HyperFocal: 0
Installation view, Carol Bove, David Zwirner, London, 2018
© Carol Bove
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

A relatively recent show that I recollect, albeit from 2018, is Carol Bove at David Zwirner in London. Had I not been so busy on other projects I chose not to review this colourful and impactful show, despite the temptation. I was already fully committed to reporting on Patrick Heron at Tate St Ives for AbCrit and was on this particular day heading for Gagosian in Grosvenor Hill for ‘Howard Hodgkin: Last Paintings’ and later for the opening at Assembly Point in Peckham of ‘Everything – An artist multiples event’ in which my eldest daughter was participating. It must have been Thursday 26 July.

There was, I realise in retrospect, a personal conundrum implicit in this decision not to explore Bove’s work further, as I was not sure if the work was abstract or something else. Had I made a little more effort I would have reconciled any questions of abstract purity issues with Heron in mind as his work was so embedded in qualities of local landscape from Eagle’s Nest, his Cornish enclave, that references or echoes from the world beyond the canvas or sculptural form do not necessarily undermine abstract intent.

If there is already too much anecdotal content in the story so far I can only defend my position within what is still a semi-lockdown mode wherein subjectivity might understandably outweigh a more objective line of conversation. Whilst taking time out, as it were, recalled images of Bove’s objects resurface more than from other exhibitions. A faint memory, gaining visual strength as I ponder and allow something to come through, gains colour and form with a sense of a long-lost video replaying in piecemeal fashion. Deliberately letting the slenderest of re-imaginings take hold and become concrete is the luxurious order of the day, as these sculptures, as memory traces, somehow change from lying dormant to becoming visually active.

HyperFocal: 0
Installation view, Carol Bove, David Zwirner, London, 2018
© Carol Bove
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Though a little indeterminate, I can see the sculptures in my mind’s eye quite strongly. In terms of writing this down a handwritten list will have to suffice before flowing prose tidies things up. I sense ‘modern’, perhaps ‘abstract’, pre-formed architectural forms, at once toy-like and yet suggestive of a larger scale, carefully arranged and mounted on white plinths in two rooms. Elongated steel boxes set at various angles seem dominant. Previously vertical forms that are no longer upright, but now bent and twisted by gravity or some calamitous circumstance. Careful placement, a degree of deliberate arrangement holding back from over indulgence – yet not minimalist. Some component parts painted yellow and green (is there red?), or rusted, that’s not so clear. Is there orange too? Yes, and black. Out of the tin colour, decorators’ pigments I guess (hints of Caro), rather than organic and earthy; satin rather than gloss finish, although I think the rust was real. Where did the rust come from – can you paint it on? Here I am uncertain – and holding back from searching for Bove imagery on-line or visiting the gallery website too soon.

Related to and arising from the experience of seeing the works in situ, lasting impressions are generated: a sense of collapse, of degeneration held for a while. A sense of time stalled, at least apparently so. Natural change is often unnoticeable from a human perspective, as we seem to live too fast. Nothing is permanent, is this implication generated from the work intended by the artist or from my own interpretation two years on? Not so much the flux of nature that Heraclitus pondered, but the impermanence of the built environment comes to mind.

From form and imagery I have shifted to associations. The work is certainly suggestive – though this might be the beholder trying to make figurative sense, literal definition. This is always an imposition on the abstract in art, until you tune in to what you are actually looking at. But any judgment of the works in terms of a simplistic like or dislike; finding the purely formalistic or recognising narrative content; or suggesting (especially as this is sculpture) monumentality, perhaps undermined by a sense of the mundane are put on hold. Despite disparity of form and colour the works appear to be coming together rather than disintegrating. Pleasingly composite forms that reference industry and applied design rather than nature, but somehow neither too big nor too small for the human scale of experiencing, tie everything together. I am neither physically overawed nor obliged to enquire close-up. There’s something about these sculptures that give more joy than promote fear, despite knowing that collapsing steel would mercilessly crush my bones. The addition of colour seems to imbue lightness and movement.

HyperFocal: 0
Installation view, Carol Bove, David Zwirner, London, 2018
© Carol Bove
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Is this ‘abstract’ sculpture? The works appear to be constructed from recognisable artefacts, designed, ‘modern’ forms – architectural, toy-like. How are they assembled as if they are virtually weightless, cardboard box forms? These disparate but related parts feel kind of wholesome and complete in themselves, though they could as easily be 3-D fragments collected from a skip and reassembled by some chance process. Experiencing (as well as seeing) several together in the same space emphasizes the artist’s dexterity in combining forms with visual as well as physical balance. I get a sense of humour, or is this an engagement with the unmonumental? (Which I shall later discover that it is.) There’s a sense of refined sophistication on display, if only because the sculptures look effortless. Others may disagree, but these are seriously playful pieces.

So, if they are not abstract are they figurative? There is an essence of bodily physicality – a sense of lying down, fallen, at rest or in flight. The works could be made to live outside as well as inside a home, gallery or public space. The plinths could be discarded, though I see the forms placed on a surface beneath them rather than suspended or attached to a wall. They are confidently themselves and could look good in any environment; urban or rural; homely, public or corporate.

Recollection, particularly from memory, can appear crystal clear or play tricks. But when I finally allow myself to search on-line for these works I see that all I recollected was reasonably accurate. The interpretation of the works might be way off the mark but I am pleased that I allowed myself the indulgence to revisit the show via my memory and further gratified by seeing the works brought into sharp focus and clarity by the installation shots of the exhibition kindly sent to me from the gallery on request. There’s a purpose and place for the virtual after all.

HyperFocal: 0
Installation view, Carol Bove, David Zwirner, London, 2018
© Carol Bove
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner


Carol Bove at David Zwirner – https://www.davidzwirner.com/exhibitions/carol-bove

Reopening information – https://www.davidzwirner.com/news/paris-and-hong-kong-galleries-reopening

New Museum – https://archive.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/918

Frieze – How to Write in a Pandemic – https://frieze.com/article/how-write-pandemic

Patrick Heron at Tate St Ives on AbCrit – https://abcrit.org/2018/07/13/105-geoff-hands-writes-on-patrick-heron-at-tate-st-ives/

Assembly Point – http://assemblypoint.xyz/project/every-thing/

Robin Greenwood writes on the Possibilities of Abstract Sculpture – https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/77587112/posts/10598




An on-line showcase by Lucy Cox

000 - Window Mood Title page
Film still, Rear Window, 1954.

Given the current Covid-19 lock-down gallery visits have been curtailed and so on-line presentations of exhibitions are a welcome substitute for the ‘real thing’. Or rather, a regular alternative as we are so used to viewing artworks on our mobile phones – perhaps even more than on the computer screen – that the ‘virtual’ experience of art during this pandemic constitutes a reinforced normality. But where this increased reliance on the tiny digital screen might prove salutary as we miss out on visiting the galleries is in emphasising the loss of the material reality of the work of art. We might need reminding that the physical impact, embracing surface qualities, visual weights and textures, the correct colour and the actual size of artworks in relation to the viewer is missing from the digital experience. In a curated space (let’s assume in one large room) we could view individual works close up and from afar, or consider one or more works in juxtaposition to others. We might be satisfied with the choice and arrangements of the artworks or critical of the curator’s decisions. Furthermore, we might be impatient and in a hurry, or ideally attuned to a slow contemplation that the best quality works inevitably deserve and demand. Either way, seeing and experiencing an object as curious as a work of art are beyond the capabilities of the digital, but creative and intriguing possibilities are still available to the medium.

012 - Ruth Philo - A Slow Parade - 2018 acrylic-on-paper_28x38cm.jpg
Ruth Philo – ‘A Slow Parade’ (2018). Acrylic wax and graphite on paper, 28 x 38 cm.

It has been a few years since I last read the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, so a re-acquaintance with his works was timely when artist, curator and podcaster Lucy Cox invited me to contribute two images to her blog, ‘The Aura of Abstraction’. Presenting a recent translation of Rilke’s ‘I’m in a Window Mood’ (the original is in French) adds an intriguing dimension to the two-dozen images selected and presented by Cox. As arranged on the web page the poem serves as a thoughtful precursor to the images that follow, although the intention is clearly not to requisition them as illustrations, but perhaps to provide pointers and prompts to consider the works. Most usefully, a spoken recording of the poem is also provided with the text and you can read the poem as you listen, or close your eyes and truly experience the verse in your mind.

001 - Laurence Noga - Double Violet Filtered Blue 2020.jpg
Laurence Noga – ‘Double Violet Filtered Blue’ (2020). Acrylic and collage on panel, 12 x 16.5 cm.

The 24 artworks that follow are, simply, to be looked at as no further commentary is added. Taking a prompt from Rilke’s poem, harmony will be perceived to varying degrees in the images, from the carefully arranged colour shape elements in Laurence Noga’s collages or EC’s more painterly conflations, in contrast to Ruth Philo’s or Johanna Melvin’s more pared down compositions.

011 -  Johanna Melvin - Maquette 3 2020.jpg
Johanna Melvin – ‘Maquette 3’ (2020). Acrylic on linen, 50 x 40 cm.

006 - Kuai Lianhui - White Noises 25 painting-series-3 acrylic-and-ink-paint-on-paper4259cm2020-25.jpeg
Kuai Lianhui -‘White Noises 25 (painting series 3)’ (2020). Acrylic and ink on paper, 42 x 59 cm.

Elements of a purposeful and positive inconsistency (compatible contrasts) characterise Karl Bielik’s, Lisa Denyer’s and Jeff Dellow’s works. If the image or idea of the window frames a ruminatory and framing perspective, then the shallow spaces of Kuai Lianhui’s and Andrea V. Wright’s works press on the viewer’s eye space to create a tight and compressed sensation. Lucy Cox’s pieces echo the loosely geometric disclosures and ambiguous spaces of Melvin, Noga and Denyer to hint at a future collaboration that would be well in tune with current trends in abstraction. Huang Jun’s two works initially surprised me by their inclusion as they fuse figurative imagery with a painterly and gestural application of paint, but each is very cleverly interspersed with images from Denyer and EC to play off the visual liveliness found in their works.  Seeing my own pieces in similar proximity to Dellow and Lianhui appropriately emphasised the interplay inherent in visual language that has been pared down to essentials where much, hopefully, can be implicit in inferred understatement.

014 - Karl Bielik - seek-25x20cms-oil-on-linen-2018.jpg
Karl Bielik -‘Seek’ (2018). Oil on linen, 25 x 20 cm.

007 - Andrea-v-Wright-empreinter-1-6-.2018.-accreted-latex-pigment.-28-x-28-cm.jpg
Andrea V. Wright -‘Empreinter 1-6’ (2018). Accreted latex and pigment, 28 x 28 cm.

A rewarding and worthwhile poem, like its visual counterpart, is always open to translation shifting meaning for a variety of potential readers. During the reading/viewing time we consider parts within the whole as well as the totality of the work. Responding to and ingesting a phrase within the structure might focus solely on a part in a text or an image, but the overall configuration has still to be resolved by the producer and the audience alike. For example, is the ‘bird’ appearing in the middle stanza of Rilke’s poem a thought that unexpectedly appears, asking for or wanting (depending on the translation) attention? Of course, the contemplative poet or reader is not the object of the bird’s attention. The bird is not aware of any observer, just as an incident in a visual image (abstract or figurative) has arrived devoid of relevance until the observer is primed to take something from any given situation when the conditions are right – by design or circumstance. Consequently, the actual and the imaginary meet the abstract, non-verbal conditions of contemplation with the promise of the unexpected integration beyond the self in concrete reality, avoiding the alienation commonplace between notions of ‘self’ and ‘other’. This is what Rilke consummately achieves.

013 - Lisa Denyer - Rousseau-2017.jpg
Lisa Denyer -‘Rousseau’, 2017. Acrylic, emulsion and collage on panel, 30 x 30 cm.

Potentially, I’m in a window mood, whereby the implied frame of the rectangular screen, printed page or artwork becomes a portal that comforts me in these strange and unaccustomed times.

016 Lucy Cox - .jpg
Lucy Cox -‘Construction (study)’ (2020). Watercolour on paper, 12 x 12 cm.

002 - Jeff Dellow - Pospects-2020-acrylic-on-panel-18x23-cm.jpeg
Jeff Dellow -‘Prospects’ (2020). Acrylic on panel, 18 x 23 cm.

025 - Huang Jun - What Can Save You? (Mortal Diary series) - Acryliconcanvas.jpg
Huang Jun -‘What Can I Do to Save You? (Mortal Diary series)’ (2020). Acrylic on canvas, 46 x 106 cm.



Two slightly different translations of Rilke’s poem are presented here. I have added the italics in the Petermann version to link with my comments above.

I’m in a Window Mood

I’m in a window mood today –

life seems to consist of simply looking.

I’m surprised by all the harmony I see,

intelligence as great as in a book.


Each bird that reaches into my view

with its flight asks for my consent.

And I give it. Inconsistency

used to terrify, now it comforts me.


You might find me in the middle of the night

having spent probably the entire day

surrendering to the inexhaustible window,

trying to be the other half of the world.

Poem: Rilke, R.M. (2017) When I Go: Selected French Poems. Translated from French by S. Petermann. Cascade Books.

010 - EC - Are-you-sitting-uncomfortably-then-let-me-begin-100-x-70-cm-ec-2017 -2020.jpg
EC -‘Are You Sitting Uncomfortably? Then Let me Begin’ (2017–20). Acrylic, oil, household paint, paper, collage and wood on canvas. 100 x 70 cm.

Earlier translation

Today I’m in a window mood,
to live seems just to look,
astonished by the better taste
of all, the fuller insight of a book.

Every bird that flies within
my reach wants me to consent.
I consent. Such an inconstant
force doesn’t surprise me now, it soothes.

And when night falls, who knows
perhaps I’ll find I’ve spent all day
given to you, inexhaustible window,
to be the other half of the world.

Poem: Rilke, R.M. (2002) The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. Translated from French by A. Poulin. Graywolf Press.

019 - Geoff Hands- Night monotype 3 2011.jpg
Geoff Hands -‘Night Monotype 3’, 2011. Ink on Fabriano paper, 20 X 15 cm.


The Aura of Abstractionhttps://theauraofabstraction.com/2020/05/06/window-mood/

Painters Today Podcasthttps://soundcloud.com/painterstodaypodcast


Karl Bielik – http://www.contemporarybritishpainting.com/karl-bielik/

EC – https://untitledpainting.wordpress.com

Lucy Cox – https://www.lucycox.com

Jeff Dellow – https://jeffdellow.com

Lisa Denyer – http://lisa-denyer.squarespace.com

Geoff Hands – https://www.geoffhands.co.uk

Huang Jun – https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/cu7O1YtEQgKW5qg74tK8TA

Kuai Lianhui – https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/F7hKv35mZlsp4kXJiSIB4A

Johanna Melvin – http://www.johannamelvin-art.com

Laurence Noga – http://laurencenoga.co.uk

Ruth Philo – https://www.ruthphilo.co.uk

Andrea V Wright – https://www.andreavwright.com

Images: © The artists, 2011–2020.


H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G_x2 (Part2)

Phoenix Art Space, Brighton

Part 2: 8 February – 1 March 2020

Opening Times: Wednesdays – Sundays 11:00 to 17:00

Part 2: Rana Begum, Ian Boutell, Philip Cole, Biggs & Collings, Deb Covell, Stig Evans, Jane Harris, Mali Morris, Jost Münster, Patrick O’Donnell, Carol Robertson and Daniel Sturgis.

“The title of this Painting exhibition does not dictate an aesthetic and it does not mean to imply a preference for one process or system of making work over another. It instead concerns itself with the elusive and critical nature of Contemporary Painting today; the complexities, the overlooked simplicities and the ‘wonder’ it can engender.”

(Curator’s statement in Press Release)

Sign HPX@.jpg

After writing about HardpaintingX2 (Part 1) and attending the recent mid-show Symposium at Phoenix Art Space I am still intrigued by what the term Hardpainting actually means. Would part 2 of this show clarify what, exactly, hardpainting is? For example, is ‘hardpainting’ an adjective or a verb? Or maybe it’s both, as doing and describing handily suggests theory and practice combined.

Or, imagine arriving late home from school on a Friday afternoon and mum asks what you’ve been up to in your art lesson today: “We’ve been displaying our Hardpainting exhibition in the school hall”, you reply with great enthusiasm.

Mum – Tell me all about it then.

It was great fun all week and we put up an exhibition at the end of the project. The usual teacher, Mr Wright, has been off sick so this young supply teacher, who only left University a couple of years ago, gave us the really good paints that the top class only get for their exams. She told us she was an ‘Installation Artist’ and went on for a while about the ‘expanded field of painting’ and also said that unpremeditated self-expression was an indulgence no longer fit for purpose in a post-digital era. I don’t have a clue what she was on about but she said that she had arranged for the 3-D workshops to be open for us as well.

We all felt a bit unprepared (except for Deb who loves to break rules) as it says ‘Self-Portrait Painting project’ on the timetable. This alternative project was called ‘Hardpainting’ and we had to find out what it was all about by making the work as a form of ‘research and exploration’, which was ‘planning in action’. There were no strict rules but her guidelines included exploring ‘colour, geometry and visuality’, and that ‘an application of making skills’ would be important elements to bear in mind. Anyhow, we like to be challenged and we were encouraged to produce work that was personal and so there would be similarities and differences in what we produced. She also said that we should avoid unnecessary figurative elements, as that’s what cameras are for these days. But we had to work neatly and with great care. The materials and processes of production should be regarded as important as any subject matter as well. Mr Wright would have choked on his cheroot if he had heard this! He says every picture should tell a story and that we should avoid that easy abstract nonsense that doesn’t get good grades in exams anyway.

Jane Harris - Pearling Blue 2017-19 and Out of Bounds 2027.jpg
Jane Harris – ”Pearling Blue’ (2017-19) and ‘Out of Bounds’ (2017). Both oil on wood (40x40cm).

Once the show was up I had a good look around. The Head Prefects, Jane and Mali, impressed everyone (as usual) with their equally skilful applications of thick and thin paint that embraced a painterly and methodical process, presenting decorative eyefuls of carefully placed brush marks and colour shapes. Both exploit great control in their paintings and explore colour, shape and configuration with astonishing expertise. Jane doesn’t use many colours in a composition, usually just three, and tonal nuances are created by the textures made by the brush, which uses natural light as a material of sorts. The imagery reminded me of flower heads or splashes in water, but that’s secondary to the constructive layering of the oil paint. The works display unbelievable confidence too, so she must be onto something.

Mali Morris - Touch 2016  and Trio - 2017.jpg
Mali Morris – ‘Touch’ (40x50cm) and ‘Trio’ (30x40cm) (both 2019). Both acrylic on canvas.

Mali is obsessed with colour and she can put all of the colours, primaries and secondaries, together to create harmony. Mr Wright says that only one or two colours should dominate a picture, but Mali proves him wrong. Her works are also interestingly active, contrasting with the restfulness of Jane’s paintings. I think that they’re brave too, as she does not fuss about and lets the paint and colours interact as if truly separate from her ego. She must try really hard to not try hard.

Biggs & Collings - House - 2020.jpg
Biggs & Collings – ‘Night’ (2020) (100x50cm). Oil on canvas.

Matthew and Emma were getting on well by themselves as usual, especially as Matt likes being told what to do. Em really knows about colour and is usually timetabled for Ceramics, but the kiln is broken this week and the clay order has not arrived. Matt’s own paintings are usually bit a more textured and patchworky but he can be very careful at applying the paint when he’s in the right mood. They both like the geometric and abstract so start off with a neutral grid system that, weirdly, by subdividing and introducing diagonal lines ends up suggesting sea and landscapes which are punctuated by beams of light and colour that look kind of perspectivey. With left to right mirror images, held in check by a central spine, a geometric abstract field of tile-like segments become strangely earthly and atmospheric as opposed to architectural and assembled. This must be the colour doing something magical. I wish there had been more than one canvas on display.

Carol Robertson -  Colour Map - Yellow - 2019.jpg
Carol Robertson – ‘Colour Map (Yellow)’ (2019) (175x175cm). Oil on canvas.

Rana spent half of the week in the metalwork workshop but she was back in the art room just in time to use up some of the colours that Carol had left over from making her big triangle pictures. I’ll come back to Rana later, because the boys say that Carol is always so hard-edged and ‘reductive’, like it’s a problem. But the subtly striated yellow and orange backgrounds in her two paintings in our show made the geometric forms float out into the foreground of the canvas. The colour combinations within the forms she typically depicts create a visual equivalence to softness, cajoling a sort of mellow lightness. (She does circles, arcs and squares too – if only her boyfriend Trevor was in our class as well.)

Stig Evans - Untitled - 2019 acryliconpolyester (150.5x130cm).jpg
Stig Evans – ‘Untitled’ (2019) (150.5x130cm). Acrylic on polyester.

Stig was a bit dreamy as usual, his paintings I mean. They’re rather fuzzy looking, like a camera lens is out of focus. But if you look long enough the flat forms eventually feel quite solid, almost hard, which surprised me. They deserve a great big dollop of time to ingest – and it’s worth the effort. He’s obsessed with colour and pigments and I can see him working in a museum conservation department in the future.

Phil Cole - Shift 3 2020 and Slider 5 2019.jpg
Philip Cole – ‘Shift 3’ (2020) and ‘Slider5’ (2019). Coloured polyester resin on board. (60x60x3.5cm).

I think that’s why he gets on really well with Phil who is the coolest pupil from the science department (if only more kids would study art and science – and by the way his tie collection is amazing). Phil has been into resin for ages, but his colour combinations prove that he’s so much more than a patient fabricator, for he’s a painter with a greatly intuitive eye. Also, the drippy edges of his paintings give an arty edge to his works that emphasises the materiality of his incredibly silky-smooth works.

Ian Boutell - Slipslideshift II - Semper - Slipslideshift - all 2019.jpg
Ian Boutell – ‘Slipslideshift II’ (49x49cm), ‘Semper’ (100x100cm) and ‘Slipslideshift’ (49x49cm) (all 2019). Acrylic on perspex.

Ian (the lads call him ’laughing boy’, but he has a really serious side) and his new best friend Patrick were taking the hard-edged thing really seriously. Ian found a box of sticky tape and Perspex, which meant he didn’t get covered in paint like the new boy Jost usually does. Ian applies his acrylics really carefully, sometimes using a spraying devise. The Perspex, which reminded me of putting glass over a painting, is both ground and foreground. There’s an architectural vibe going on here, though maybe the reference is unconsciously to ‘60s fashion (I’m thinking Mary Quant with a touch of Bridget Riley) if we consider clothing as a form of body architecture combining surface pattern with form as an equal partner – only it’s essentially flattened out form becoming shape, albeit in shallow relief.

Joat Munster - muN4ro and 5yS*nt - both 2019.jpg
Jost Münster – ‘miN4ro’ and ‘5yS*nt’ (both 2019). Acrylic, card and canvas. (42x30cm)

There’s a more organic kind of building and framework to Jost’s two pieces that seem to play with the waste materials that might have been collected from the studio floor (recycling is good) that embodies light and shadow with literal overlapping. Jost is a more organic sort of collagist than Ian. Mind you, their new friend Dan said he wanted to make things look simple but to slightly place his grids off-kilter and to unsettle the viewer a bit. Like when he puts two different reds next to each other; it does my head in but I kind of like it. Dan’s work seems to immediately hook the viewer into some kind of visual activity, though calling this a game would not do the work justice, as it’s more serious than a game implies. I’m always niggled, a little perturbed, by his work – but this sustains my interest. It was good that he had his paintings displayed together, particularly as the biggest of the three canvases (‘Not Fixed I’, 2019) felt like one big composition that could also be viewed as four in one.

Daniel Sturgis - Not Fixed 1 and 2 - both 2019.jpg
Daniel Sturgis – ‘Not Fixed I’ (76.3×137.2cm) and’Not Fixed II’ (30x35cm). (Both 2019). Acrylic on canvas.

Patrick loves painting but he also spent some time in the woodwork room where he was sawing up sections of birch ply and making some small constructions that could get him into University on an interior architecture course – unless he still wants to make some cool tent-like constructions for the Glastonbury Festival next summer, or maybe a Pavilion in a city park. But seriously, these would be great enlarged and developed beyond maquettes – only of course they’re not models as their handleable size makes them ideal for plinth or shelf display in an interior. Just like Rana, he activates the forms and the immediate white walls with reflected colour, only his shadows play a significant role too especially when shelving becomes part of the sculptural/constructional formation of the artwork with the wall or floor.

Patrick O'Donell - The Grey Passion - 2020.jpg
Patrick O’Donnell – The Grey Passion’ (2020). (Approx. 21 x 40 x 23cm). Charcoal and acrylic on birch ply with hinges.

Rana and Deb are like chalk and cheese but not so much by their characters (I don’t know them that well), but this is based on first impressions of their artwork. They each construct their works in a spirit of positively affecting a sterile space such as a white walled gallery environment. Rana keeps her colours uncomplicated but juxtaposes them in two and three-dimensional configurations that you could live with and look at forever. Our teacher got a bit philosophical when she explained that Rana’s two vertically dominant wall pieces offered ‘perceptual and phenomenological experiences’. I think this means you see and feel the work physically and that we are part and parcel of that space, not just detached observers.

Rana Begum - 917 - 2019.jpg
Rana Begum – ‘917’ (2019). Paint on powder coated aluminium. H125 x W95 x D5cm in 20 sections)

Sometimes people think Deb is the odd one out; not odd, odd – more of an anarchist (which makes Matt a bit jealous) as she always challenges our usual art teacher to justify why paintings should be fixed to stretcher bars or have boring old frames put around them. She likes to make these 3-D models that she attaches on to the walls when the teacher is out of the room doing some photocopying (though we all know he’s sneaked off for a ciggy in the bike sheds!). I think she might be a bit ‘expanded field’ – so our student teacher loved her work, but explained that these labels are less important than the work itself.

Deb Covell - Drape - 2013.jpg
Deb Covell – Drape’ (2013) (64x14cm). Acrylic paint.

The teacher would not tell us what Hardpainting really means and I wanted to tell her that I didn’t think she knew anyway, but the bell rang and it was time to go home.

Mum – Thank goodness for that. Now then, are you having fish fingers or fishcakes, it’s Friday.


HARDPAINTINGX2 has been curated by Deb Covell, Stig Evans, Philip Cole, Patrick O’Donnell and Ian Boutell.

Links for pupils, in order of appearance:

Deb Covell https://www.debcovell.co.uk

Jane Harris http://www.janeharris.net

Mali Morris http://www.malimorris.co.uk/index.html

Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings http://emmabiggsandmatthewcollings.net

Rana Begum https://www.ranabegum.com

Carol Robertson https://www.flowersgallery.com/artists/73-carol-robertson/

Stig Evans https://www.stigevans.com

Philip Cole https://colecorner.com

Ian Boutell https://www.instagram.com/ianboutell/?hl=en

Jost Münster http://www.jostmuenster.net

Patrick O’Donnell http://www.patrick-odonnell.co.uk


Mr Wright is partly based on my Head Teacher from Junior School who was so highly critical of a drawing I made (I was aged 10) that I should probably seek therapy, even now. He did not teach art (thank goodness). I don’t think he smoked cheroots either. Otherwise, all of my art teachers were brilliant.

The reference to ‘abstract nonsense’ is another autobiographical anecdote as I failed my O’ Level in Art at age 16 with my timed examination piece being an abstract composition. In the re-take for the examination a year later I painted a ‘realistic’ picture of a townscape. I passed and was able to attend Art School. I don’t recall painting a building ever again.

Please understand that this review is a little tongue-in-cheek. I have written about HARDPAINTINGX2 Parts 1 & 2 for AbCrit. Link

Trevor Sutton (mentioned but not in the exhibition) http://www.trevorsutton.com


H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G_x2 (Part 1)

Phoenix Art Space, Brighton

Part 1: 11 January – 2 February 2020

Opening Times: Wednesdays – Sundays 11:00 to 17:00

Part 1: Richard Bell, Katrina Blannin, John Carter, Catherine Ferguson, Della Gooden, Richard Graville, Morrissey & Hancock, Tess Jaray, Jo McGonigal, Lars Wolter and Jessie Yates

001 - HPX2pt1 - Phoenix .jpg

It’s chaos out there. You may be heading east from the railway station or the city centre so you have to deftly negotiate the human throng of the iPhone generation of distracted texters, Google mappers and Spotify listeners commanding narrow lanes that will eventually lead to the Phoenix Art Space. Eager gallery-goers and psycho-geographers beware too; for en-route to the gallery you may trip on uneven pavements and become confused as you navigate some way of crossing the maze of roads and temporary pathways that otherwise create a fascinating collage of concrete, stone and tarmac surfaces. Use the eyes in the back of your head as you navigate this terrain and inadvertently trespass upon leaf-covered cycle-lanes. But it’s worth the hassle.

Highway Maitenance van & Phoenix.jpg

But even as Brighton city centre is regenerated the Phoenix is currently a haven for some degree of peace and tranquillity as it hosts H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G_X2. We were here two years ago (courtesy of AbCrit) for the inaugural H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G exhibition. This time there are five curators (Patrick O’Donnell, Stig Evans, Philip Cole and Ian Boutell are joined by Della Gooden) and they have assembled a 2-part mini-survey of current reductive, colour-conscious (when employed), object-oriented, minimalist, what-you-see-is-what-you-get, bespoke painting. Defining ‘Hardpainting’ is a fascinating challenge, but looking and experiencing must initially supersede theoretical advocacy – and I suspect that the curators have defined their terms more critically through the ongoing curatorial journey now undertaken.

_BGM3969 copy.jpg

Richard Graville –  ‘Blushing Phantom’ and ‘Red Banded’ (both 2019)

Based on the evidence of this show (and the accompanying catalogue that reproduces images representing each contributor’s paintings from parts 1 and 2), this, it appears, is what Hardpainters do. In an ‘un-expressive’, non-gestural manner they eschew the pictorial and representational and make work that is as equally visual (almost gratuitously in some instances) as it is skilled in construction and application of medium. 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.

Understandably there is an emphasis on the viewer as active participant to make whatever sense or reasoning they can. But any burgeoning definition will not exclusively intend to suggest an orderly visual terrain in every instance, as some works quickly engage the eye and disrupt the gaze more than others. For example Richard Graville’s painterly, ‘Blushing Phantom’ and Morrissey and Hancock’s flat, hard edged ‘TPIAR’ possess dynamic Vorticist qualities; whilst John Carter and Catherine Ferguson offer a more restful, contemplative experience for the viewer that mixes up the range of visual encounters on display.

M&H - TPIAR.jpg
Morrissey and Hancock – ‘TPIAR’ (2019)

In some instances there are works that could qualify as ‘Slow Art’, to coin a phrase from the late Arden Reed. For whilst many of the 24 works on display appear to strive for visual simplicity and understatement the requirement to settle in for concentrated looking will allow the works to stage various scenarios of narrative-free, abstract, experiences. Or is a scenario a narrative of sorts?

004 - HPX2pt1 - Tess Jaray - One Hundred Years [Green] & [Purple].jpg
Tess Jaray – ‘One Hundred Years [Green]’ and ‘One Hundred Years [Purple]’ (both 2017)
All too often the natural tendency to find referential, external meaning or metaphor can all too easily kick in whatever one is observing. Take for example the first encounter of the show with a pair of Tess Jaray canvases that command attention from the viewer immediately. This is partly due to the size and placement of the work but ‘One Hundred Years (Green)’ and ‘One Hundred Years (Purple)’ also possess a minimalist audacity: energised in each instance by a central rhythmic zip, or meeting edge, of alternating curves and straight, though angled, lines. This fissure is suggestive of the cut edge from a pair of sawtoothed pinking shears or a totemic form reduced to its linear essence, and is indicative of a mechanical or architectural feature.

Lars Wolter X3 side view.jpg
Lars Wolter – ‘Cut-Off [Altrosa]’; ‘Cut-Off [Enzianblau]’ and ‘Cut-Off [Goldgelb]’ (all 2019)
Next, stepping further into the main gallery space, three gloriously reflective and colourful pieces from Lars Wolter attract the eye and dominate one of the larger walls. A pronounced sense of tactility is sensed in ‘Cut-Off (Altrosa); (Enzianblus) and (Goldgelb)’, which hang like engineered products on a showroom wall. If touching, indeed stroking, a brand new car bonnet feels out of bounds then controlling the desire to touch the glass-smooth glossy and matt surfaces of these works is almost a challenge too far. These are skilfully made works that emphasise their craft and precision as 3D visual objects – but to be looked and ingested rather than manhandled and serving functional purposes. Coated in polyurethane paint, MDF has never looked so interesting.

Even at this early stage of a first visit, the message was becoming clear that the Hardpainting theme does not constitute a narrow range of styles, materials or appearances. For example, two contrasting, non-matching combinations of the selection each involve Jessie Yates’ textile/fabric uses of paint on canvas, augmented with stitch as an integral linear ingredient. ‘Untitled 1’, a collaged patchwork of variegated parts, hangs alongside Katrina Blannin’s geometrical four piece ‘Sequence #2/4 (P)’; whilst in an adjoining space Morrissey and Hancock’s systems inspired, ‘Rotational Drawing’ and ‘Untitled’ are hung adjacent to Yates’ miniature and piecemeal ‘Canvas Studies’. This clever, or fortuitous, curatorial ruse emphasises a sense of individual journeys being undertaken without recourse to a strict program or manifesto. Hardpainting is not a School of painting or a ‘movement’: maybe it’s an attitude.

Jessie Yates - Untitled 1 (2018).jpg
Jessie Yates – ‘Untitled 1’ (2018)

By my third or fourth visit to see the show, as I took breaks from my studio upstairs, an unexpected sense of connection between Morrissey and Hancock’s geometric, maze-like ‘Rotational Drawing’ and Yates’ organically structured and curvy-edged ‘Canvas Studies’ installation brought out the underlying geometric randomness and systematic essence of the 30+ canvas collages.

Jessie Yates - Canvas Studies.jpg
Jessie Yates – ‘Canvas Studies’ (2018-19)

My first exposure to Katrina Blannin’s paintings were from seeing her impressive solo show, ‘Annodam’ at Jessica Carlisle in 2016, where she actively acknowledged and employed (via Piero della Francesca) a carefully formulated mathematical intelligence towards a streamlined abstract outcome. The inherent geometry and visual impact of colour as shape (and vice versa) as a systemic component of the design aspect of painting is explored by Blannin in these four distinct panels that motivate physically active looking from left to right and in and out of a shallow visual space. Yet here, in ‘Sequence #2/4 (P)’ the content partly derives from the throwaway cardboard discs from pizza packaging, rather than art historical material. Even without knowing this (see Della Gooden’s essay in the catalogue) the ergonomic discs, not too big, not too small for specific uses, possess a degree of visual comfort and functional association. Because of the afterimages from Blannin’s work, due to the colour/tone combination, the flat shadowy forms on the viewer’s eye then track around the gallery as you blink ready to refocus on another exhibit.

Katrina Blannin side view.jpg
Katrina Blannin – ‘Sequence #2/4 (P)’ (2019)

A commanding and exquisite group of three paintings by Catherine Ferguson ‘Cieco’; ‘L’arresto del Tempo’and ‘Fango’ were probably enough without ‘H&P’ on the same wall (which would, in this context, have been better placed with works by Richard Bell and John Carter). Ferguson’s works were possibly the most indicative of a Slow Art suitability as they appeared to be stripped down or reductive manifestations from more complex compositions. These are immaculately painted compositions that present great dexterity in paint handling and even contain a hint of painterliness that I had not expected see in this show.

Catherine Ferguson – ‘Cieco’; ‘L’arresto del Tempo’ and ‘Fango’ (all 2019)

A more deliberate or obvious pairing (with Carter’s ‘Chapitau Three Identical Shapes’ making a cohesive triangulation on the opposite wall) is made between ‘Tectonic Plates (For A.H.)’ and Richard Bell’s ‘Equivalences (2 part painting)’. Possibly a diptych, due to the title, Bell’s pair of canvases could hang alone and appear complete. Following an initial impression of highly controlled rendering a multi-coloured and schematic sub-division of the rectangle; on closer inspection ‘Equivalences’ appears to only allow one coat of paint per shape, which means that in places (e.g. the white on red and green on black in the left-hand canvas) the single layer does not totally cover the underpainting opaquely as might be expected. As if to subtly emphasise an understated painterly approach the canvas edges are not overpainted by the colour shapes that leave a millimetre of an almost imperceptible edge.

Richard Bell - Equivalences.jpg
Richard Bell – ‘Equivalences [2 part painting]’ (2019)
John Carter’s two pieces, though wall mounted, suggest a modernist/minimalist preoccupation with sculptural concerns or referencing the built environment. Giving ‘Chapiteau’ its own generous wall space was an inspired decision by the curatorial team emphasizing the observer’s full attention to this one example.

Gooden and Carter.jpg
Della Gooden – ‘As’ (2019) and John Carter – ‘Techtonic Plates [For A.H.]’ (2019)
Looking back at ‘Tectonic Plates’ then revealed another relationship outside of this triplicate arrangement with Della Gooden’s ‘for’ and ‘against’ and ‘As’ creating a visual conversation across the gallery space. This suggested an invisible but active structure to the choreographed arrangements; a successful site-specificity that has been achieved after devoting several days to the installation.

John Carter - Chapitau.jpg
John Carter – ‘Chapitau Three Indentical Shapes’ (2017)

Three interventions from Della Gooden add to the variety of approaches and intentions selected for HardpaintingX2. Two of the works, ‘for’ and ‘against’, might be easily missed on an initial tour of the exhibition, as these assemblages resemble doorbell chime covers and are placed on a pillar rather than a wall. ‘As’ physically intervenes in the space, although its placement on one of the larger walls enables a more conventional expectation. A hand-drawn graphite line is ejected out of the bottom left hand corner of the blue rectangle, which appears as a plane of semi-transparent colour that has temporarily found a space to occupy. Perhaps this is a portal of some sort as an ethereal feel prevails with the addition of a misty emanation of blue pigment to the right, although a square of wall or a thick wall tile is placed where it may or may not belong and brings one back to the solidity of the built environment. This tableau is applied to a larger white gesso background, which suggested an empty street shrine I had seen in Napoli some years ago. I cannot explain this last point as anything more than a peculiarly personal point of departure; or the sense of the blue as a reminder of a Gothic or Renaissance painter’s lapis lazuli for Mary’s cloak (even though it’s Prussian blue). There is something uncanny about this assemblage emanating from the gallery wall, for the artwork has a short life, as it will be painted out before Part 2 is installed.

Della Gooden.jpg
Della Gooden – ‘As’ (2019)

If there is at least one curatorial surprise, or challenge to the audience in this show, ‘Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang’ by Jo McGonigal might be chosen. Perhaps this is the main Slow Art contender, as a narrative appears more likely in this painting-cum-sculpture. Is this yet another tableau of sorts (most pertinent to a form of Slow Art whereby a painting can be represented by real people dressed up as ‘fictive others’ and posing as constituents from a ‘real painting’) to link with the imaginative essence of Della Gooden’s ‘As’? Or is it a model of a theatrical, but virtual, stage set? Still searching for a context, a sense of the surreal bringing-together of unrelated components to create an alternative fiction, this work is anything but blandly minimal. Held aloft by two striding, leg-like forms a box-like, steel girder sort of construction makes a stage-set for various items including a balloon and a ball of putty. The suspended tangle of cord and its dim shadow or reflexion has a connection of some kind with the neon light that floats as a light gesture, or a whimsical cloud, to the left of the box. I am lost for finding meaning and understanding, but feel suitably challenged in an attempt to make sense of this absurd scenario.

Jo McGonagal Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang.jpg
Jo McGonigal – ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’ (2019)

Splitting the show into two parts is unfortunate to some extent, though curatorially useful for showing a wide range of works and avoiding over-congestion. As is typical of the white-cube aesthetic the context of the ‘art space’ as a neutral but active component to display the works, with full attention paid to the wall spaces between works, brings some coherence to a selection of artists who might not otherwise show together. Each work is indicatively related to every other, as an aura of focussed attention and control to the making and construction process permeates every artwork included here. This in turn invites inspection of each and every component part of the presence of each work.

Jo McGonagal - Kiss kiss detal.jpg
Jo McGonigal – ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’ (detail)

Of course it might be that the exhibition title sets up the attentive and open-minded viewer to approach the show in a particular state of mind, for we can start the viewing with a proposition: that there is a varied field of abstraction that can be categorised under the umbrella term of ‘Hardpainting’. Here there is still enough of a mix to ensure that diversity within a particular aspect of abstraction, wherein the practice confirms an adamant attitude towards a certain quality of making and presentation. Nothing is superficial, slap dash or ‘expressive’; but an emphasis on visuality is paramount. This reminds me of a point made by Gillian Ayres (whose work I suspect would not be in this show as it is so instinctive and improvisatory), that in addition to any notion of painting as a visual phenomenon, it “is a physical and material project”.

Co-curator Ian Boutell summed this up succinctly when he stated in an interview for the Phoenix website that – “There are lots of ways of reading the show but for me the underlying theme is that it is about premeditation; careful forethought and high production value finishes.”

Hence an atmosphere of calm has been achieved in this carefully curated environment – in stark contrast to the developments outside of the building. Bring on part 2.

  • Artwork images are © of the artist
  • Photographs Geoff Hands and Bernard Mills


Richard Bell https://www.richardbellart.co.uk

Katrina Blannin http://www.katrinablannin.com

John Carter https://www.redfern-gallery.com/artists/38-john-carter-ra/biography/

Catherine Ferguson http://catherineferguson.co.uk

Della Gooden

Richard Graville http://richardgraville.com

Morrissey & Hancock www.patrickmorriseyhanz.co.uk

Tess Jaray www.karstenschubert.com

Jo McGonigal www.jomcgonigal.co.uk

Lars Wolter www.larswolter.de

Jessie Yates www.jessiejewyatespainter.com

AbCrit HARDPAINTING review (2018)

Slow Art art net.com article

Gillian Ayres: The quotation is from the introduction by Andrew Marr in the ART/BOOKS (2017) monograph.

SATURATION POINT Inside the Outside: saving up for the future by Della Gooden (from the catalogue)

Phoenix Art Space 

HARDPAINTINGX2 (Part 2) will present works by: Rana Begum, Ian Boutell, Philip Cole, Biggs & Collings, Deb Covell, Stig Evans, Jane Harris, Mali Morris, Jost Münster, Patrick O’Donnell, Carol Robertson and Daniel Sturgis.


TANIA RUTLAND: Chip of flint – fragment of chalk

Tania Rutland: Chip of flint – fragment of chalk

Window Gallery, Phoenix Art Space, Brighton

2 – 24 November 2019

TR - Poster

‘Crowding the solitude’, ‘Ghost white path’, ‘Night’s first light’, ‘Silent reach’ and ‘Restless lane’ might be headings in a list of poems from a collection that constituted a volume of landscape inspired verse, but they are selected from the titles of drawings and prints from Tania Rutland’s exhibition at the Phoenix Art Space.

Another title, ‘Chip of flint – fragment of chalk’, makes reference to commonplace Sussex downland geological material that could have been gathered from her visits to Iron age Mount Caburn and Neolithic Cissbury Ring in East and West Sussex and is the intriguing title of this exhibition.

040 - TR - Chip of flint - fragment of chalk (28x21cm) pencil and graphite on paper.jpg
Tania Rutland – ‘Chip of flint – fragment of chalk’ (28x21cm). Pencil and graphite on paper.

The very idea of a ‘chip’ or a ‘flint’ suggests the collection of a memento, a physical token from a walk, picked up to place on a shelf when home. Such an item might be revered as a memory of a time and place spent in solitude or with a partner or friends from a Sunday walk. The cultural pursuit of walking might be a form of escape from everyday life, most especially the ‘working week’. A leisurely stroll or demanding hike, especially in the countryside, can be rejuvenating and refreshing. It might also be consoling during a time of stress. A walk is healthy for both mind and body; and for a landscape artist a place for research, inspiration and hard work.

Though superficially a landscape exhibition, on reflexion, ‘Chip of flint – fragment of chalk’ is loaded with speculative and thought provoking possibilities enabling the visitor to take away the non-physical souvenir: not to be placed on the mantelpiece but constituted in the form of ideas to consider and discuss further and, ultimately, leading to environmentally focussed action.

From the very start of the corridor space Window Gallery, making a de facto antechamber, two wall-mounted assemblies of small, unframed, preparatory drawings make it clear that drawing is at the core of Rutland’s practice. As an introductory display, sufficient in itself as a stand-alone exhibition, the 28 studies make an implied proposition that drawing is still of paramount importance towards painting, especially in landscape art. Whilst an en plein air approach is also possible, the drawing in advance of the essential schema for a final painting, even without colour content, provides the opportunity for intense consideration of composition and content; and for revision of the essential rectangular format. Rutland’s methodical approach also develops the initial ‘sketch’ to a more ‘finished’ state and therefore requires a more prolonged period of execution. In this respect, the lengthening of time to make what might simply become no more than a preliminary part of production, adds to the inherent conceptual aspect of Rutland’s greater project, namely that of time and duration.

001 - TR - Untitled 1 (Fatigue of early light - Mist's cover) (14x16) prep drawing
Tania Rutland – ‘Untitled 1 (Fatigue of early light – Mist’s cover)’ (14x16cm) Preparatory drawing.

Annotated on half a dozen of these relatively intense drawings are more titles, including: ‘Ghost lines’, ‘Eroded slope’, ‘Frozen light’ and ‘Fatigue of early light’. Without mounts, but with clearly measured and demarcated perimeters for consequent development into paintings, these studies may have come straight from the studio wall in her Phoenix studio. This informality in presentation might have initially diminished an observer’s attentive reaction to these works, but throughout the opening evening many visitors could be seen both standing back to view each of the two groupings of drawings and then be observed stepping closer to scrutinise each image as if through a magnifying glass. In relation to time a second aspect, that of concentrated visual observation of various locations, loaded with evidence of human interaction in and on the land (and sea), also implied itself in the bigger project.

029 - TR - White ghost path (200x150cm) pencil and graphite on paper.jpg
Tania Rutland – ‘Ghost white path’ (200x150cm). Pencil and graphite on paper.

Continuing into the main display space the biggest piece in the show first greets the visitor in contrast to the small studies just encountered. The pencil and graphite ‘Ghost white path’ impresses not just by size alone (200x150cm), but also by a display of controlled elegance in mark making and an example of compositional skill in which the viewer might literally fall into this Downland vista. As a completed drawing, ‘Ghost white path’ is as consummate and exhaustive as a painting might be and therefore expands the notion of drawing as going beyond the supportive role that it often takes.

In this significant work the viewer will certainly gain a sense of the past and the present day in one hit. In the bright distance, where the intense light dissolves the sea from sight, the Rampion wind farm turbines that now dominate the view from the Sussex coast have been recorded. Whether these technological structures please the viewer or not, like the telegraph poles we may barely notice anymore, or the electricity masts that cannot always be buried beneath the ground, we will inevitably have to become accustomed to this burgeoning technology for generations to come.

The past and present (an ancient landscape and an off-shore development) combine in one monumental vista so that a viewer has to contemplate a challenging and controversial journey to the future in this era of climate change awareness and necessary proactive behaviour.

031 - TR - Mound duskily glowing (24x24cm) etching.jpg
Tania Rutland – ‘Mound duskily glowing’ (24x24cm). Etching.

Four monochromatic etchings are displayed next, including ‘Mound duskily glowing’, a title merging topography with time and light, which again suggests a poetic counterpart (a haiku perhaps) that may one day be written. In ‘Silent reach’, telegraph poles located in a flattened mid-grey rhombus in the central area of the composition leads the eye from foreground to mid-distance. The poles could be traversing alongside a coastal area, or trace a communications route a few miles inland, leading to the next village or town. Very few regions of this relatively small island will be without such evidence of human habitation, as if such evidence of technology was as natural a phenomenon as the trees.

033 - TR - Silent reach (24x24cm) etching.jpg
Tania Rutland – ‘Silent reach’ (24x24cm). Etching.

With a change of process and medium Rutland allows a weathered, washed-out look in the thinned ink layers transferred from the surface of the metal that she has etched with. For example, in ‘Selvedge edge’ the distant hills are visually subject to mist dissolving form, whilst rain falls as weather conditions change appearances. In the bottom section of the image fence posts create a small enclosure, a signifier of order and land ownership. A telegraph pole, like a crucifix, in middle ground, merges at its base into foliage. Dark parallel lines in the foreground, perhaps suggesting the selvedge edge of fabric for the title, foretell the flint seams in the set of the four ‘Flint Seam’ drawings that are to follow.

032 - TR - Selvedge edge (24x24cm) etching.jpg
Tania Rutland – ‘Selvedge edge’ (24x24cm). Etching.

These more minimalist compositions, ‘Flint seam 1, 2, 3 and 4’, are placed at the centre of the show. They are undoubtedly complete in themselves but may well hold the prospect for further development as abstract paintings. Each is placed behind a clear acrylic sheet, rather than mounted in a conventional frame. Like its counterparts, ‘Flint seam 2’ is composed of a series of vertically placed horizontal bands of smudgy, burnished graphite drawn on to a gesso (i.e. chalky) coated, paper ground. Within these thin, dark, cloud-like strata are more defined linear marks suggesting a compressed handwriting with a slightly nervous, quivering organic edge.

035 - TR - Flint-seam 2 (66x46cm) pencil and graphite on gesso paper.jpg
Tania Rutland – ‘Flint seam 2’ (66x46cm). Pencil and graphite on gesso paper.

These often flat and smooth, mark-like shadow shapes are found in split flint nodules originating from sedimentary chalk that litter the farmland in Sussex and have been used as building materials for walls and buildings since the Roman era. Further back in time flint was fashioned as a Stone Age tool. But way beyond any human presence on earth they are a literal compression of geological time and materiality that seems beyond comprehension and may well suggest a natural kind of drawing. Dark and wave-like, these markings made from the chalk seabed reveal fissures of implied energy. As a form of visual poetics, the past is metaphysically now in these teasingly simple, but thought provoking and elegant drawings.

039 - TR - Crowding the solitude (28x21cm) pencil and graphite on paper.jpg
Tania Rutland – ‘Crowding the solitude’ (28x21cm). Pencil and graphite on paper.

At what appears to be the end of the display, a group of five framed drawings (including the title piece of the exhibition) are presented in suitably mounted and framed studies that, like the etchings, read as ‘finished’ works. They include ‘Crowding the solitude’ which is a similar composition to the aforementioned ‘White ghost path’. In the mid-ground the land builds steeply to two bulbous hills; to the right on the implied horizon are the perspectival rows of 14 vertical masts from the Wind farm out at sea. In the space between the hillocks, and particularly on the left hand feature, is a meandering configuration of chalky pathways. The closer foreground is patterned by a gentle arrangement of subtle tones that visually pock mark the paper surface. The notion of the landscape as corporeal and libidinous is difficult to deny.

042 - TR - Flint (42x42cm) pencil and graphite on paper.jpg
Tania Rutland – ‘Flint’ (42x42cm). Pencil and graphite on paper.

The last of these five drawings is titled ‘Flint’. Initially it could be a drawing that goes unnoticed, such is the insistent or subtle presence of so many of the other works. One feature, however, hooks the gaze as one might head for the coffee bar and the prospect of seeing a painting from Tania Rutland. Within this rendering of what may be a recently ploughed and almost featureless field, a tiny but visually dominant grid-like structure interrupts the shallow curve of the land, just before the dark masses of a thicket of trees on the close horizon, revealed contre-jour, emphasising a sense of infinite space beyond. Its identity is a mystery: could it be a wooden or metal framework? From the bottom right-hand corner of the drawing a purposely trodden pathway leads to the unknown construction and it could be that the track across the field has been rendered into the surface by either animals or humans.

043 - TR - Remote dwellings (40x40cm) oil on canvas.jpg
Tania Rutland – ‘Remote dwellings’ (40x40cm). Oil on canvas.

Outside of the Window Gallery, but in a suitable display space that extends all of the exhibitions, one of Rutland’s oil paintings, ‘Remote dwellings’ is presented on a dark grey wall. This provides an example for those who do not already know her work and is now interestingly and more than adequately informed from seeing the drawings and prints. One painting is probably just enough exposure in this context and holds out the prospect of seeing a future exhibition of Rutland’s paintings.

Significantly, this work in the more ecologically minded attitudes of society today is made more potent by its combined references to the past, present and future. The human conquest of the environment is, of course, aided and abetted by the genius of technologies, open to interpretation and revision. The drawings and prints presented in ‘Chip of flint – fragment of chalk’ not only record and reflect the history of particularly special locations, but provoke the observer to contemplate the future too.

Geoff Hands (November 2019)

All images © Tania Rutland


Tania Rutland’s website – http://www.taniarutland.com

Phoenix Art Space – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org/events/tania-rutland/

Rampion Wind Farm article from The Guardian –



Black Fireworks: Mike Edwards

At Window Gallery, Phoenix Art Space, Brighton

5 – 27 October 2019

“He came home from the war with a party in his head and an idea for a firework display.” (‘Swordfishtrombone’, Tom Waits)

Poster at night
Phoenix Window Gallery

One of the earliest Black Fireworks paintings (‘Black Firework Painting’ – not exhibited here) was produced on 20 January 2017. Nearly three years later Mike Edwards has created a distinctive body of work throughout September 2019 from which eleven of the 30 paintings form the centrepiece of this show, plus three associated works. A potential benefit of a gallery at a studio complex is for displays to reveal explorations of new ideas and work in progress from the incumbents, rather than just exhibitions of fully realised periods from an individual’s practice. Arguably, any distinctive period of an artist’s oeuvre is still, in some way, a selection of work in progress but ‘Black Fireworks’, provides a fascinating departure by Edwards from his ‘bread and butter’ works. The change is not wholesale as there are undoubtedly connections with his earlier works, but current preoccupations and future possibilities have been examined and explored in what could turn out to be a preliminary body of work.

001 - Mike Edwards - Black Firework Painting 030919 (40x30cm).jpg
Mike Edwards – ‘Black Firework Painting 03.09.19’ (40x30cm).

Edwards completed his September 2019 series of ‘Black Fireworks’ barely three days before the show opened – with framing still to do. Such a move may have been foolhardy or brave: either way the transitional nature of the collection provides an insight into the creative process that might often be overlooked by an audience expecting ‘the best selection’ from a body of work from a sustained period of time. It also provides a spur to other artists to revive their practice by encompassing the risk factor that may have lain dormant from their formative student years. This is not to suggest that ‘Black Fireworks’ is in any way reminiscent of an undergraduate’s body of work. It’s too sophisticated for that as, for example, the seemingly random splatters of black paint (burst from a paint filled balloon that might double as a fist or a cushion for comfort) that are repeated in the paintings are likely to have been washed off and reinstated, or carefully adjusted throughout the month-long project. There is also a distinct possibility that one or two ‘failures’ or unresolved compositions have been allowed to remain in the series (one of my favourites, ‘Black Firework Painting 21.09.19’) – though it’s all quite subjective.

004 - Mike Edwards - Black Firework Painting 210919 (40x30cm) acryic pins and destroyed balloon on board.jpg
Mike Edwards – ‘Black Firework Painting 21.09.19’ (40x30cm).

In some instances elements from older works resurface, most obviously the personal iconography of the skull and the energy inducing zigzag motif. Some, such as ‘Black Firework Painting 04.09.19’, have an additional graffiti-like rendering. In this work the word ‘Paris’ has been daubed onto the blue-grey ground before the black burst of acrylic paint was applied. The imagery is further enhanced, and completed, with a neon-like rendering of a primitive human skull, complete with cast shadow to visually push the skull into the viewer’s space. Purposely or not, the dot over the ‘i’ in Paris doubles as one eye for the skull. There is nothing slapdash or random about this painting as it combines a rendering of informal lexicography with abstract, mark making, intensity. Referencing Paris also gives the work a specific historical dimension after a year of protest in the French capital and beyond and is granted a little more particularity by the choice of yellow (from the gilets jaunes) for the two lines that constitute the street-art type skull. Edwards loosely appropriates, as visual metaphor, the skull for the mind that thinks about the world and what goes on in it. ‘Black Firework Painting 04.09.19’ is a visual morpheme, wherein differing language systems combine successfully to produce a coherent whole.

002 - Mike Edwards - Black Firework Painting 040919 (40x30cm).jpg
Mike Edwards – ‘Black Firework Painting 04.09.19’ (40x30cm).

Frustrations at the way things are, or how others act, can irritate. We might literally hit out at others, shout out loud or scream inside. In painting, especially in an expressionist vein, one option to the artist is to throw the paint at the canvas, constituting a deliberate act of unbrushworthiness (sic). This ultimate and totemic symbol of pent up frustration may well be the splatter that smashes against the barrier between the inside and the outside: self and society, me and you, us and them. These Black Fireworks are sneakily contradictory as they appear as a personal (visual) attempt to be integrated into the ever developing body of the artist’s work, but as active participants with some impatience and informality in addition to the well established degree of control normally associated with his work. For example, the inclusion of ‘Magna Carta’ and ‘Thrills, Skills, Kills & Ills’ shows evidence of Edward’s highly disciplined painting abilities. So too does ‘Black Firework Painting September 2019’, a 60x60cm oil painting on canvas that is both completed and undermined by the particularly aggravating intrusion of a weighty black splatter over geometric zigzags and a sublimely dramatic cloudy sky as theatrical backdrop.

011 - Mike Edwards - Black Firework Painting September 2019 (60x60cm) oiloncanvas.jpg
Mike Edwards – ‘Black Firework Painting September 2019’ (60x60cm).

The smaller and more speculative acrylic on board ‘Black Fireworks’ (which at 40x30cm suggest the page of a sketchbook or preparatory study) are a productive response to external circumstances, proposing a painting surface that constitutes both a resistant skin and a site for testament beyond simple materiality. It’s the contradiction of the material and the mental that might be both engaging (for the viewer) and frustrating (for the producer). Even as personal exegesis to attempt to come to terms with current affairs, ‘Black Fireworks’ undoubtedly reflects contemporary events and potential states of mind (depending on your personal point of view, of course) at a time when the shift to extremes in politics and the burgeoning ecological crisis leave so many people feeling guilty, helpless or angry. The capricious and volatile scenes that the digital interface of the TV, iPhone or computer screen (perfect formats for the fictive) that can equally entertain and distress an audience, now creeps into lived daily experiences in many forms including the pernicious Brexit argument, poverty and homelessness, exaggerated weather conditions, constant surveillance and party-political turmoil, notwithstanding the acceptance of such conditions as perfectly acceptable from some sections of society and government. This compelling work has the hand mark and effect of the personal and provides evidence of a genuine sense of the visual artist who feels that he must respond/react in some way to the violence and unpredictability of the times in which we live. It’s a political act. That reaction may ultimately be fruitless or self-centred, even though shared and made public. But this provides the frisson of creative danger that hopefully results in a successful outcome. In his own way, as a popular and successful  painter, Edwards makes a visual diary of sorts for the times we live in by using the metaphor of ‘black fireworks’, which paradoxically darken the sky, as oppose to illuminate it. These may not be paintings that sell as well as colourful and decorative popular-image-type paintings may often do – though here there is a contradictory polemic at work that is redolent of individual angst, but may well resonate more collectively and find space in personal collections that are more than superficial.

005 - Mike Edwards - Black Firework Painting 190919 (40x30cm).jpg
Mike Edwards – ‘Black Firework Painting 19.09.19’ (40x30cm).

‘Black Fireworks’ may well constitute a period of transition – not necessarily to radically replace, but to refresh and invigorate an esteemed practice. These 30 little windows on to the world, including those not selected for the show due to space restrictions, through the non-digital medium of paint, initially stresses the handiwork of the individual who works with the seemingly chaotic explosive imprint of the painterly splash. Mediated by varying instances of additional images: the red lightening strike in ‘Black Firework Painting 19.09.19’, the scrawl that emerges from the black mess of ‘Black Firework Painting 29.09.19’, or the pin and balloon that remains in ‘Black Firework Painting 16.09.19’, indicate that this series clearly has plenty more mileage left to explore.

‘Black Fireworks’ are a History Painting of sorts, where facts vie with interpretation.


009 - Mike Edwards - Black Firework Painting 290919 (40x30cm).jpg
Mike Edwards – ‘Black Firework Painting 29.09.19’ (40x30cm).


003 - Mike Edwards - Black Firework Painting 160919 (40x30cm).jpg
Mike Edwards – ‘Black Firework Painting 16.09.19’ (40x30cm).

All images © Mike Edwards.


Mike Edwards – www.mikeedwardsartist.com

Phoenix Art Space – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org/events/mike-edwards-black-fireworks/

Tom Waits – ‘Swordfishtrombone’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDGhJtEsmj8





A Tapered Teardrop at Terrace Gallery

The William The Fourth, Leyton

Curated by Karl Bielik

19 September to 25 October 2019

013 - John Bunker - Shady Hill Fugue.jpg
John Bunker: ‘Shady Hill Fugue’ [2014-18]
It’s a warm September evening and on the big screens in the lounge bar Arsenal are on their way to beating Eintracht Frankfurt by a comfortable three goals to nil in the Europa League. Concurrently, in the rear annex of The William the Fourth public house located at the Walthamstow end of High Road Leyton, the reopening of Terrace Gallery has also kicked off. Both contexts demanded close scrutiny of the action, resulting in much delight and satisfaction at the final outcome.

Painter, curator and singer, Karl Bielik has selected this mix of artists to re-boot Terrace Gallery with a clear interest in abstract painting. ‘A Tapered Teardrop’ is the first of three group shows and these initiatives are to be welcomed, particularly in a climate where the artist as curator has become paramount in disseminating contemporary practice alongside the sometimes inaccessible and exclusive domain of the ‘gallery system’. It’s also fascinating to encounter an exhibition in a non-exclusive type of social space where the punters can socialise with the added option of visiting the gallery. Jo and Adam, the management team, are keen to make the Terrace Gallery part of the pub and not a disconnected add on and it will be interesting to see how this initiative develops with future shows.

There are 19 exhibitors, which constitute a healthy maximum for the space that is essentially one large room. With so many paintings on show there was bound to be a wide variety of approaches to image making on display, from the improvisatory to the meticulously planned and executed. To some extent the policy of one piece per person results in a series of de facto ‘calling cards’ and all of the exhibitors are well known contributors, to a greater or lesser extent, on the London art scene. Certainly, a (loosely knit) group show always has the potential to send the visitor off to see more by any favoured participant.

Should you view the works in sequence, from the implied start of the display you might turn immediately left on entering the Terrace space. Here, with some humour, Max Wade’s ‘Metronome’ appears to be throwing off what remains of a frame and a stretcher fragment, as a painted wooden limb gestures nonchalantly but pointedly towards EC’s ‘BOOM BACK’. This particular example from Wade’s studio has a sense of provisionality if you compare it with subsequent works made for his recent show at Sid Motion Gallery. ‘Metronome’ offers an impression of the unfinished, unrefined or abandoned, instigating a somewhat contained but punk-like sensibility that comes and goes throughout the show. Raw energy vies with measured and carefully nuanced processes, as each of the 19 paintings has to hold its own assured presence.

001 - Max Wade - Metronome.JPG
Max Wade: ‘Metronome’ [2016]
Almost immediately I found myself mentally rearranging the hang, not because of any inadequacy, but because the possibilities for new relationships are a feature of an intelligently selected body of works, constituting a multitude of new connections and associations. By suspending a typical, orderly walk through, a scan around the space soon picks up the mix of geometric, hard-edged abstraction intermingled with more gestural, spontaneous, painterly compositions. The sequencing mixes up similarities and contrasts alike, and the more overtly geometric examples from Katrina Blannin, David Webb and Shaan Syed have to hold their own within a strongly gestural demographic. From this changed vantage point one might decide to mix up the order of engagement by flitting purposefully from one wall to another – seeking initial security in a sense of order and immediate connection between similar attitudes in the works. But (viewer beware) first impressions must be challenged too, for the sense of an inherent provisionality of some works was initially perceived (though none were overworked) but it was eventually evident that, say, Katrina Blannin’s ‘Piero 5 (P)’, or Gabrielle Herzog’s ‘Untitled (Offbeat)’ were offering more than the sum of their parts.

Another early reaction might be a desire to see more examples from any one particular exhibitor, depending on personal preference or familiarity with the various artists. In this instance I would have liked to have seen a larger example or two by John Bunker to break the monotony of a conventional, though efficient hang. (Although a solo show, ‘Faint Young Suns’ is opening at Unit 3 Projects space at ASC studios in November.) But on a more constructive note there is ample opportunity for experiencing the visual hit from all of the exhibits, including Bunker’s ‘Shady Hill Fugue’, which suggests a spatial constellation far beyond its 43.5x34cms. This busy and colourful composition takes collage (with its painted elements) on a physical as well as a visual journey almost as intensely as EC’s ‘BOOM BACK’ that might have been displayed alongside – but two boisterous children are best given space apart.

002 - EC - BOOM BACK 2019.jpg
EC: ‘BOOM BACK’ [2019]
‘BOOM BACK’ is somewhat typical of EC’s oeuvre, although she typically takes it to the max from a visual engagement point of view where distribution and layering is always uncompromising. At 20x25cm this is one of the smaller works in the show (although nothing is particularly big) but the inner space is maximal and the eye can take an engaging and meandering staccato-esque, psychogeographic journey in a sequence of 90°, stop-start, urban perambulations in this painterly, collaged environment.

007 - Katrina Blannin - Piero 5.jpg
Katrina Blannin: ‘Piero 5 (P)’ [2019]
Blannin’s ‘Piero 5 (P)’ offers her usual impressive exactitude of application of medium and an immaculate geometric organisation of flat forms. As I studied this engaging work another viewer, visiting artist Will Stein, offered his observation that the image sinks rather satisfactorily into the patchy light and atmosphere of the space. It’s a feature of the installation of the whole show that the painted grey walls avoid the typical starkness of the white cube aesthetic and helps to integrate the works to provide some degree of consistency. This might partly explain why the neighbouring work by Karl Bielik lessens its contrasting juxtaposition with Blannin’s canvas. Bielik’s ‘Net’ might inadvertently be indicatively figurative as a stage-like scenario is occupied by two diamond-like forms that refer the observer back to the pairings of discs in ‘Piero 5 (P)’.

Bielik’s self-confessed unplanned approach to painting (as revealed in an interview for Abstract Critical in 2011) and his modus operandi of making paintings/images as a kind of performance, albeit on many canvases at one time, might be seen as a sort of magic act in which images are produced from a state of activity within the strict parameters of time spent exclusively in the studio. It’s certainly the case that the studio can be a lonely place where subjectivity can drown in introverted self-doubt or, conversely, emerge into the light from where, in a exhibition an audience can engage with the fruits of this curious labour. Indeed, the title of the show, ‘A Tapered Teardrop’ might constitute an unintended misnomer.

008 - Karl Bielik - Net.jpg
Karl Bielik: ‘Net’ [2013-19]
I asked Karl Bielik about the title and he explained that “the title is a collage of many thoughts and things going on, I’d been listening to ‘Trout Mask Replica’ by Captain Beefheart a lot at the time of coming up with a name for the show. ‘Tapered’ crept into my notes, so teardrop just sounded good and I view it like titling an album and it fitted. So some automatic writing, mixed with stuff going on, and that’s what got thrown up. Then after deciding on that as the title, the words began to take on a different meaning, kind of how we all somehow make our sadness fit and work for and against us – to like the sadness, a measured sadness, a tapered teardrop. I mean we are all painters, not the most functional creatures…”

Bielik’s comment reveals a shrewd understanding of the creative process. Whatever transpires in the studio, maybe the flipside to apparent “sadness” is a quiet and positive contemplation – Bielik’s “tapering”. The paradox of the (apparently) dysfunctional is that it can work in tandem with a dynamic creativity, especially for abstract art that is concretely and psychologically located ‘in the world’ of experience and honest endeavour.

004 - David Webb - Galata (Blue) 2019.jpg
David Webb: ‘Galata (Blue)’ [2019]
Also, I would posit that the external, social world often informs and seeps into works alongside the personal. For example, David Webb’s ‘Galata (Blue)’ is, on one level, a quiet and meditative affair depicting one flat white form on top another but is undoubtedly informed by his keen eye and relationship to places (including Galata – a village in Cyprus) as titles of so many of his other paintings often reveal. The human sense of balance, poise, lightness and weight, plus symmetrical and asymmetrical interrelationships between forms (geometric and organic), crucially relies on visual perception in his overall project. ‘Galata (Blue)’ possesses a 2D design aesthetic that nevertheless hints at the mass and three dimensionality of architecture. I was also fascinated by an easily missed small smudge of the blue acrylic paint that had thinly leaked from close to the apex of the triangular white base on to the rectangular shape above, as if to remind the observer that this is painting and not graphics. It also reminded me that all perception and thought is as sophisticated in simplicity of realisation as in sometimes necessary complexity.

017 - Shaan Syed Untitled 2016.jpg
Shaan Syed: ‘Untitled’ [2016]
Shaan Syed’s ‘Untitled’ also posses an architectonic and environmental, ‘built environment’ characteristic, despite an enclosed colour scheme of blue, green and sunset orange that hints of nature and landscape. Yet I have a feeling that I could be way off the mark here. The perfectly flat white surface that accounts for the majority of the composition’s frontal area is made from a filler of some sort and hides a primer or hidden background that is revealed almost surreptitiously around the edges.

019 - Sharon Drew - Flip & Curl 6.jpg
Sharon Drew: ‘Flip & Curl 6’ [2019]
A more overtly figurative element however is strongly suggested in Sharon Drew’s ‘Flip & Curl 6’, where a wide, flat brush has formed a curly breaking wave from the seashore. Set against an orange/red loosely striped backdrop the resulting image foregrounds a more independent, organic graphic that, in her own words evokes “the sensation of light, colour, rhythm and movement in the landscape…”

014 - Kes Richardson - Uncletomcobley.JPG
Kes Richardson: ‘Uncletomcobley’ [2019]
But associations with external subject matter are not always necessary or desirable. Kes Richardson’s ‘Uncletomcobley’ presents an essentially rectangular but jigsaw-like configuration, balancing a thinly applied, wobbly edged patchwork of colours. Figure-ground shifts create a shallow sense of space. The grid-like geometry is organic in nature rather than strictly formulated or measured out and it sits comfortably next to the Caterina Lewis and Mali Morris canvases. It would also be interesting to see this work next to Blannin’s ‘Piero 5 (P)’ as I find myself counting and comparing discs and squares from a ‘systems art’ perspective. On viewing ‘Piero 5 (P)’ for a second or third time I noticed the incredibly subtle tonal existence of grey on grey discs that reveal what is in effect a grid arrangement of 25 circular forms.

018 - Johanna Melvin - Slipstream Dream 2019.jpg
Johanna Melvin: ‘Slipstream Dream’ [2019]
Johanna Melvin’s ‘Slipstream Dream’ straddles both camps of gestural and hard edge abstraction, as perhaps do EC’s and John Bunker’s hybrid collage/paintings. Though visually ‘busy’, the relationship between solid, flat forms (two bars of green and cream in this instance) and a deliberative and paced execution in the making seems apparent. If you know Melvin’s work already you will be aware that solid, flat shapes comingle within painterly arenas as forms shift between the positive and negative notions of space as visual experience.

003 - Stephen Buckeridge - The Bringing Together 2017-19.jpg
Stephen Buckeridge: ‘The Bringing Together of what has been Parted’ [2017-19]
The interstitial characteristics of space, the betweens as well as the withins, inherent in Melvin’s work makes an interesting juxtaposition with the overtly painterly and rich colours in Stephen Buckeridge’s, ‘The Bringing Together of what has been Parted’. But Buckeridge’s powerful and efficacious composition, which contains an element of collage and forms a challenging contrast with David Webb’s ‘Galata (Blue)’ which hangs alongside, suggests expansive proportions of territoriality despite the small size. The paintings are so different that neither interferes or segues into the other, yet each work has a similar characteristic of uncompromising boldness.

006 - Nicky Hodge - Bereft.JPG
Nicky Hodge: ‘Bereft’ [2019]
To varying degrees Nicky Hodge, Clare Price, Caterina Lewis, Sharon Drew and Mali Morris’ works add a luscious visuality that brings forms into more blended configurations. Hodge’s ‘Bereft’ is a restrained miniature colour field that might have been wrecked with the addition of another colour: it’s a brave decision. Likewise, Caterina Lewis holds back on the colour and knows how to not get carried away with overt enthusiasm for slapping on the paint.

005 - Phillip Allen - deepdrippings.JPG
Phillip Allen: ‘deepdrippings (hypersensitive nose for the next new thing’ [2019]
Intriguingly, one of Lewis’ fellow exhibitors in ‘Stairway To Heaven: Abstraction Now’ (at Watson, Farley & Williams, presented by Coombs Contemporary until 18 October) Philip Allen, displays‘deepdrippings (hyper sensitive nose for the next new thing)’, just about the largest work in the show at 50x45cms. But the oil paint encrusted surface, tonally light and delicately coloured in pastel hues and frothily dense, is anything but slapped on. Despite the varied topography of the surface, the tactile nature of the work dominates visually, through the touch of the eye as if to conjoin senses. This sense of the bodily and the physical is also implicated in Clare Price’s, ‘This gossamer meniscus bomb’. On her Instagram feed the artist has described this as a “Fragile little painting”, which is revealing. A sense of a capricious, shifting and labile mode of thought and physicality appears to be directed by the work in a subtle use of acrylic that could be mistaken for watercolour.

012 - Clare Price - This Gossamer miniscus bomb.jpeg
Clare Price: ‘This gossamer meniscus bomb’ [2019]
 Despite a diminutive 18x24cms, Mali Morris’ ‘Under and Over’ (the smallest work in the show) feels like it could be mural sized, possibly because three relatively large horizontal strokes of equally occluding, veiling and semi-transparent brushstrokes, set against three or four vertical gestures, dominate the ‘field’. In each corner of the composition almost similar green, crimson, orange and purple capsule-like markers lend an anti-clockwise sense of animation and a subtle kinetic force. An orange fingertip, to the right of the top centre edge, pins the image down.

016 - Mali Morris - UNDER AND OVER 18X24CMS 2011.jpg
Mali Morris: ‘Under and Over’ [2011]
An apt grouping of canvases from Gabrielle Herzog, Henry Ward and Tony Antrobus emphasizes some similarities of a materialising structural integrity with a marked linear component, which suggests the potential of a future three-person show. It may be this drawing type component that gives these three canvases a sense of activity that has been stopped in its tracks. Herzog’s ‘Untitled (Offbeat)’ shares some affinity with Caterina Lewis’ reductive display of shorthand mark making that if it were a sound would be a whisper.

015 - Caterina Lewis - (Untitled) 2017.jpg
Caterina Lewis: ‘(Untitled)’ [2017]
The slight heaviness of a black top edge to Herzog’s composition hints at the desire to fill the canvas that is often difficult to resist in making a painting, whilst the overpainted (formerly) black double triangle in the bottom half of the composition creates a counterpoint of deliberate negation to the black above. Despite its simplicity, the work increases in visuality the more time one gives it as a kind of ‘slow art’ component.

009 - Gabrielle Herzog - Untitled (offbeat)2019.jpg
Gabrielle Herzog: ‘Untitled (Offbeat)’ [2019]
Ward’s ‘Weekend’ also has this element of unhidden overpainting, which contributes to a sense of drawn deliberation, which is particularly emphasized by a thicket of leggy stumps drawn with oil stick in the lower horizontal quarter of the composition. The colour range is closer to Mali Morris’ palette, which suggests yet another potential combination, although an edginess in the application of paint and pictorial character makes ‘Weekend’ a suitable partner for Tony Antrobus’ ‘Untitled’, wherein a loose repetition of three blacked out uncompromising lozenge-ish shields, that release tail-like drips down the bottom half of the canvas, provide an echo from Herzog’s less emphatic painting. Antrobus’ linear motifs dance almost (but not quite) frenziedly over a background that suggests a history of earlier decisions that refuse to disappear. As with everyone else, you just want to see more.

011 - Tony Antrobus - Untitled 2019.jpg
Tony Antrobus: ‘Untitled’ [2019]
On another day I may have discussed these paintings in a very different order and made alternative connections of familiarity or contrast between them. If you can visit for yourself, more the better, for after such commitment in the studio the works deserve to be seen, enjoyed and debated. Like the football fans back in the bar, we observe with our own biased point of view, where objectivity is always compromised by personal preference as we tell our tales of what happened that night.

010 - Henry Ward - Weekend.jpg
Henry Ward: ‘Weekend’ [2018] 

Venue: http://williamthefourth.co.uk

Exhibitors in order of display:

Max Wade https://maxwade.co.uk/

EC https://untitledpainting.wordpress.com

Stephen Buckeridge https://stephenbuckeridge.com

David Webb http://www.davidwebbpaintings.co.uk

Phillip Allen http://www.phillipallenartist.com

Nicky Hodge https://www.nickyhodge.com/index.html

Katrina Blannin http://www.katrinablannin.com/index.php

Karl Bielik http://www.karlbielik.com

Abstract Critical interview https://vimeo.com/24881576

Gabriele Herzog https://www.gabrieleherzog.eu/work

Henry Ward http://www.henryhward.com/paintings-2/

Tony Antrobus https://tonyantrobus.com/recent-paintings/

Clare Price http://www.clareprice.com/#home

John Bunker https://patternsthatconnext.wordpress.com/tag/john-bunker/

Kes Richardson http://www.kesrichardson.com

Caterina Lewis http://caterinalewis.com

Mali Morris http://www.malimorris.co.uk/index.html

Shaan Syed http://shaansyed.com/2018-2/

Johanna Melvin http://www.johannamelvin-art.com

Sharon Drew https://www.sharondrew.com

All images © of the artist




Tremenheere Gallery, nr. Gulval, Penzance

25th May to 23rd June 2019


In anticipation of his forthcoming exhibition in the impressive, oak framed Tremenheere Gallery I have been fortunate enough to see some of the ongoing developments in Jesse Leroy Smith’s recent painting practice. The final selection, overseen by independent art critic Sacha Craddock as curatorial advisor, promises to be rich in imagery and content.

On the artist’s Instagram feed in the run up to the show we read that visitors will experience an “Immersive frieze of paintings across both gallery floors with (an) arcade of collages, photographs, drawings and prints.”

This selection of work draws upon a decade of experimental projects, which is apt as I was first introduced to Leroy Smith’s paintings, prints and drawings about nine years ago when we were both participating (separately) in a Brighton Festival event. My first impressions of his work were two-fold, with the most immediate visceral impact being for the powerful visual presence of the mainly portrait imagery developed from observations of his two children. These I found discomfortingly transgressive in the sense of looking and feeling both human and idol-like, as if to undermine notions of pure individuality or sedate portraiture. The portraits were not necessarily of the children so much as from their lives. Physical poses, looks and gestures transformed them from individuals to archetypes, for in those early years life has an imaginative and theatrical edge constructed through play and enhanced with costume.

Jesse Leroy Smith – ‘Leopard’ (2006). Oil on canvas. (166x144cm)

The other impression had less to do with the immediate impact of the image (though essential to it) but was one of great admiration for his application of drawing skills. I recall thinking that, unusually for many contemporary figurative painters, here is someone who can draw within the painting – that is within the methodology of the practice, assuredly and authentically aligned to concept and execution. Undoubtedly the talent to make a mark intentionally, especially with a difficult medium like paint, relies as much on the artist’s psychic experience as of the result of an academic educational training. The manual nuances of painting, and drawing and printmaking, in Leroy Smith’s work encompass qualities of a physical and visual confrontation with the visual subject as both materiality (e.g. see how the paint behaves) and mark (painterliness and linear qualities evincing shape as form). The weak images made by so many others rely on look alone and are ethically redundant. Not so here, for in the latter stages of ‘Force Majeure’, as an unplanned project relating to real life circumstances, it appears that this ability to develop the potency of the figurative image persists, with a rawness exploited to the point of near destruction in the drawing content. Empirically, if this is not a contradiction, Leroy Smith reveals the facts of the imagination.

Jesse Leroy Smith – ‘Black Arrow’ (2007). Watercolour and ink on paper. (50x70cm)

The two standard definitions of the term force majeure can be compounded into one seemingly paradoxical interpretation by this exhibition. For unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract, and/or utilising irresistible compulsion or superior strength, might be summarised by a well-worn cliché: from adversity comes strength. Despite the trials and tribulations of juggling relationships, purposeful endeavor, and self-worth, the results are impressive and uplifting.

An individual’s circumstances are personal, but the consequences and reactions to adversity have an impact that operates on (and with) one’s immediate family and friends, or in the case of creative outlets, can be transformed into the relevant art form. With compulsion, a veritable strength if channeled positively, generates, creates and realises ambition. If there is one thing an artist needs it is strength in commitment to image making and to finding a voice that speaks truths, however confused, damning and disheartening at times.

Jesse Leroy Smith – ‘Shaman on a Burnt Out Motorbike’ (2019). Oil on canvas panel with collaborative elements with Caleb Smith and Chris Priest. (155x180cm)

Interestingly, in a discussion with artist and writer Paul Becker, Leroy Smith has explained that the main focus of the show, a frieze of up to 18 paintings, his ten-year retrospective is a form of apologia:

As a parent, son, friend, lover, teacher we fail. Let alone the environment. This frieze is an attempt to makes sense of how we can’t cope with being human. For me, painting is a medium of doubt and speculation, what is smeared away is the potential exhilaration.”

Doubt and speculation… these states of being can haunt us all, especially when attempting to progress and develop ideas and to finding meaning through our visual arts practice. In the most recent imagery of the frieze we see many figures, often in a state of becoming or disintegration. If you have followed Leroy Smith’s development this is not necessarily a new development for the individual figure, especially in his impressive range of portraiture over the years. But here the scenarios feel speculative, as the surrounding landscapes expand to a more dissonant environmental space that could be read as dystopian. I prefer to regard these spaces as potentially mythological (echoing and reviving the past) or even futuristic, where lessons might be learned. The sense of time is Bergsonian rather than Cartesian: mobile and fluid, impossible to measure and avoiding an exegesis of fully-fledged facts alone that might induce stasis. A cinematic quality pervades the frieze imagery that induces a sense of an unraveling of time without conclusive certainty – such is the experience of real life.

Jesse Leroy Smith – ‘Beauties and the Beast’ (2019). Oil on canvas. (140x155cm)

Cocteau - Beast
Still from ‘La Belle et la Bête’ (1946).










The imagery is very open to interpretation. For example, in one panel the father-like figure could be a form of self-portrait (for the male painter) or a fictionalized ‘other’. Or perhaps acknowledges a loss of one’s own childhood for the responsibilities of adulthood. Alternatively, on a mythological level, is the monstrous, colourless, male figure the Bogey Man (or the Green Man) lurking both in the subconscious and in the forest? Or is this a Greek god: Apollo, Ares, Dionysus or Hermes? When I checked with the artist he revealed that the character is transcribed from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, ‘La Belle et la Bête’ (Beauty and the Beast). From the IMDb trailer the epic lines: “Love can turn a man into a beast… Love can also make an ugly man beautiful”, add poignancy to looking again at Leroy Smith’s images. Certainly, the imagery from his paintings, prints and drawings continue an exploration of the poetics of the visual, where the formal and material qualities of the imagery subsume a narrative that is purposefully open to interpretation at a gut level. How else does one react to a mise en scène of psychological disintegration and ongoing, redemptive recovery? Might this exhibition represent a healthy period of change and of development – despite the sometimes fractured topology, where disembodied arms and lips, or the split-faced, mask-like vestiges inhabit these works?

Jesse Leroy Smith – ‘The Erotic Impact of a pastel study by Delacroix on a teenage recurring dream’ (2019). (120x150cm)

And what of the animal parts? A bird’s head, a dog (domestic or wild, it may not matter), a pig, bears. We share this planet after all, despite our tendency to consider the world our own in anthropomorphic delusion. Soulful feeling is surely dispersed into all living things and the latent animism, however dispersed and distressed, envelops us all. Because all the world is (really not) a stage.

Jesse Leroy Smith – ‘Lets kill the Matador’ (Song by East River Pipe) (2019). Oil on copper. (120x 90cm)

On a practical level, especially when considering the paintings, the medium is applied confidently, often generously but not necessarily thickly (though sometimes it is) but skillfully allowing the medium its own characteristics. This could be the flowing nature of thinned oils or an area of sticky mastication. Colour is as crucial as the linear/drawing content. Sometimes brash, though often subtle in effect, the colour creates the mood of spaces. Environments are liminal, characters pensive and ruminatory, though clearly part of the space and therefore the unfolding story. Literal, physical surfaces are visceral, compounding the mood. There is a confident interplay between the illustrative image and the qualities of the substance, its shapes, forms, tone and colour.

The sequencing of a frieze references storytelling of course, and from our Greek and Roman cultural heritage great stories and events are made public. In a modern context there is something of the poster too, whereby the format and sequencing of a display of paintings also becomes public in the gallery environment. But whereas the commercial poster is designed to clearly communicate, influence and bring attention to some circumstance or to graphically convey information, the richness of the narrative painting tradition insists on far more prolonged contemplation to enter the depths of novelistic truths and mythologies. The mystery must be shrouded in plain sight – must be emotional and experiential.

Jesse Leroy Smith – ‘Take me to the mountain and I’ll swallow the requiem’ (2019). Oil on copper. (55x40cm)

Despite reflecting on personal upheaval over a ten-year period, Leroy Smith’s paintings appear to be in a state of becoming, as opposed to the fragmented and unresolved. Contrary to a notion of personal or cultural history compromised by circumstances, change is the nature of things (and events). There can be, and is, a sense of the transitional within completed compositions. If a figure or an environment in his paintings sometimes appears piecemeal we might read this as necessary shorthand, implying a sense of time and a developing narrative despite the retrospective nature of ‘Force Majeure’.

Jesse Leroy Smith’s images appear to be found through the process of making the work, rather than pre-planned. There is also something of the theatre and the cinema about the scenarios, whereby we can safely relate if viewing from a distance, outside of events. We might all connect with sometimes playful, or challenging, imagery of relationships with others and ourselves and with accepted or expected norms that are ideal more than actual. These various narratives may not be exclusively social or familial worlds but are also shared, universal, psychological constructs. It is in the nature of truly contemporaneous art, that it constantly revives itself in and for the present and through the eyes of the beholder. This explains the over-arching humanity and relevance of art from all eras. ‘Force Majeure’ promises to be a blockbuster.

Jesse Leroy Smith – ‘Smoking Gun’ (2019). Oil on canvas panel. (160x140cm)


Jesse Leroy Smith http://www.jesseleroysmith.com

Instagram – @jesseleroy66

Tremenheere Gallery https://www.tremenheere.co.uk

Sacha Craddock http://www.sachacraddock.com

Paul Becker https://paulbecker1.xhbtr.com/THEKINKINTHEARC

IMDb – La Belle et la Bête https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038348/videoplayer/vi1008515097?ref_=vp_pl

A STUDIO VISIT: Kate Sherman

A Studio Visit: Kate Sherman – Coast

“A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter…” (V. Nabokov)


In advance of her forthcoming exhibition, entitled ‘Coast’at the ONCA gallery in Brighton (opening 20 June, 2019), I paid a visit to Kate Sherman’s studio in Ditchling, just seven miles north of Brighton. I had anticipated landscape-type developments from a previous show, ‘Rendlesham – New Paintings’ (also at ONCA), which I responded to back in November 2016. A lasting impression from that body of work was of being impressed with a highly skilful painterly photorealism applied to representing the superficial banality of a Forestry England location. Sherman’s treatment and presentation of the subject matter gave rise to brooding possibilities about memory and longing, fixed and transfixed by the eternal phenomenon of painting.

002 - KS - Studio table
Kate Sherman – Studio table.

This metaphysical treatment of the ordinary and everyday continues apace in the Coast series. Seeing the new work, both finished and in progress, also reinforced expectations of Sherman’s continued evolvement of painting skills, utilised to registering a certain kind of ordinary yet uncanny subject matter that might represent far more than what is initially perceived. Coast, the exhibition, will undoubtedly invite the viewer to contemplate a potentially loaded subject matter that will emerge from first impressions of commonplace imagery. But this deeper field of enquiry will again demand a slightly abstracted, subjective response to aspects of the everyday and the unremarkable in the way that she re-presents them. Sherman’s paintings demand a slow looking – not the snapshot glance that the photograph often presents. But what they ‘give up’ to the viewer will oscillate between the nebulous and the clear.

KS - Coast 11 - 60x60cm
Kate Sherman – ‘Coast 11’, 2019. Oil on board (60X60cm).

Sherman’s ‘drive-by’ house paintings do not explicitly present a series of coastal views, as there is no immediately obvious coastal scenery. An exception is ‘Coast 11’, where we possibly see a glimpse of beach sandwiched between two small vans. This slim portal may reveal the sea in the furthest distance; only the sky and sea is burnt out, overexposed in photographic terms, by a strong source of reflected light.

As for the potential inland vista of distant hills there is also little evidence, although the exception here might be ‘Coast 15’, which is a square format dominated by a parked caravan taking up at least 50% of the area of the composition. On the right hand edge, just into the top half of the mid-section, are two thin bands of grey. The bottom strip is the roof of a building and the top, lighter shape, could well be a strip of mid-distance hillside, toned down by aerial perspective. Or maybe it’s another rooftop?

KS - Coast 15 - 35x35cm
Kate Sherman – ‘Coast 15’, 2019. Oil on board (35X35cm).

The other paintings in the series suggest a looking to one side, or immediately ‘along the way’, en route to someplace or other. This lack of land or seascape views suggests the enclosed strip of the carriageway, a corridor of sorts, through the urbanised landscape. Here the mundane and the familiar, seen fleetingly as blurred, foregrounded swathes of tarmac, plus the odd picket fence, a section of the canopy of a tree and a variety of shadows, adds an aura of emptiness and anonymity – perhaps even loss or disappearance. For example, a number of vehicles (low budget cars, vans and caravans) appear as the main figures in the paintings, as there are no actual people or even animals, domestic or wild. These are matched in their dullness by drab bungalows and other unremarkable modern buildings generally enclosed by sections of public space, cut grass or monochromatic skies. We could be travelling the minor ‘A’ roads of southern England in a daydream or state of restrained, bearable ennui. These places, usually only glimpsed at mid-journey, are usefully fixed by the intervention of the camera in Sherman’s preparatory studies. Transformed into paintings, however, there might be more to the potentially humdrum and prosaic narrative.

In an interview with Jessica Wood (from Arts Media Contacts in Lewes), about these paintings, Sherman has explained that she “grew up on the coast in Dorset, and had quite an idyllic childhood by the sea. With this series I am trying to recapture some of the feelings of innocence and simplicity connected with childhood… There are also ideas around loss.”

So, this occlusion of the view of land and sea, where buildings and vehicles might block the view of a child returning to her routes (prompting the bored but yearning, “Are we nearly there yet?” soundtrack of many a long journey), could make some sense. Except that the artist is no longer a youngster, and she could be reflecting upon both an equally pleasing and poignant intermixing of emotions.

Time is certainly an element too. As the here and now is so impossible to pin down, only the past exists as something reasonably concrete (though surely the past is distorted by memory itself and can only be placed in the context of the present). That the artist, and by implication, the viewer, only see these types of empty but potent scenarios from the Coast series fleetingly, might suggest that, were it not for the ‘memory technology’ of the camera, such representations and views of places might be quickly forgotten or left unrecorded.

As we may recount, those early untroubled years that, ideally, most children have, may well have seemed like a golden age when time itself was stretched out into an almost endless ‘now’ – but from the perspective of adulthood we experience time as flowing faster and with greater urgency. This adds a tone of reversed premonition to the work, which activates and energises a feeling that we might sense in the subtle painterliness of the application and materiality of the paint. Message and medium are interconnected by varying qualitiesof light, colour, texture, composition and space, where content is associative and liminal rather than presenting a clearly defined narrative.

KS - Coast 10 - 35x35cm
Kate Sherman – ‘Coast 10’, 2019. Oil on board (35X35cm).

It’s also appears to be very quiet in these images; yet the silence of these physical ‘outside’ spaces and the mobile and immobile structures (homes, caravans and vehicles) that assign human ergonomics to a sense of place and space, might sonically echo or rekindle memories suggesting the fourth dimension of anthropic time. By this I mean the duration from the present to the personal past as experienced by reminiscence, or the unexpected surfacing of episodes of gentle trauma. In pictorial terms, the depth of distance is flattened and foregrounded, despite the occasional perspective and vanishing points of receding roads and orthogonal, architectural elements. There is a draining out of colour too and here the colour palette of Agnes Martin or Giorgio Morandi springs to mind, encompassing quietude and tonally meditative imagery. The Coast paintings juxtapose society’s urban clutter against flat, grey-blue skies, where greenery is controlled and piecemeal. This territory, viewed and reconstituted with cool restraint, makes for an agnostic, temporal and secular palimpsest in subjective Protestant tinctures.

Sherman’s reconstituted photo-album records urban dwellings that look somewhat off-track, where vehicles are often seen from the rear or in semi-private roads. These are places you might only visit if you had taken a wrong turn or you would only need to go to if friends or relatives lived there – or perhaps these are the real destinations, where the goal is to reach the people and not the picture postcard coastal resort.

KS - Coast 8 - 57x60cm
Kate Sherman – ‘Coast 8’, 2019. Oil on board (57X60cm).

Initially, the imagery reminded me of a passage from ‘Transparent Things’, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1972 novel:

“Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines! … A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, of the now, should please not break its tension.”

Nabokov’s quirkily written novella tells the story of the main character’s recollection of his four trips to a village in Switzerland over almost two decades. The author presents a journey through a kind of metaphysics of memory, where reminiscence is more than mere factual recall due to its subjective nature and has an immediate relationship to an immaterial sense of past reality based in time. Every object (a stone, a pencil…), or familial historical event, is loaded with known and unknown histories leading to consequences driven as much by chance or design as by desire.

In Sherman’s paintings for Coast, specific, personal history might be deliberately obscure or non-descript, as the author passes interpretation over to the onlooker, as if a potentially self-obsessed investigation is being deflected into a more shared experience. The thinned application of oil paint, gently hued and subtlety nuanced in interconnecting planes of conjoining perspectival and flattening shapes, acts as “a thin veneer of immediate reality” to evoke a response specific to a new witness.

As Sherman further explained to Jessica Wood:

“I want the viewer to respond to the experience or feeling in the painting, rather than a specific place; keeping it vague makes it more likely that something may trigger a memory and perhaps provoke an emotional response.”

These paintings also take the viewer on a journey of sorts, only this is a through the viewfinder snapshot revealing of the artist’s outings. Because of the blurring, indicating the observer’s speed in relation to the subject matter, and the predominant angle of view, there’s a sense too that the vantage point is from the side window of a car. In this sense, the commonplace is framed and composed, as a traveller would see it – not constructed or fabricated in the classical, 17thcentury landscape tradition from Claude Lorrain onwards. The cropped image, art historically, may owe something to Degas and his acceptance of the viewfinder framing of immediate reality for some of his compositions (e.g. see ‘Carriage at the Races’, 1872. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); and throughout the 20th century to the burgeoning ascendancy of visual representation, and notions of realism, mediated by the camera lens in all its various manifestations and formats.

KS - Coast 18 finished - 100x100cm 2019
Kate Sherman – ‘Coast 18’, 2019. Oil on board (100X100cm)

But Kate Sherman is not strictly a photorealist and a composition such as ‘Coast 18’, where barely hidden drips of paint disrupt the traits of photorealism, we see a painter (or rather, the work) in a positive, questioning state of transition. Coast promises to present a fascinating series of paintings; real physical images rendered by hand, that are not the result of a purely reproductive, mechanical or copying process. The attentive audience will become aware of a sense of time – not just in the time to patiently make and to craft the paintings in symbiotic relation to the source of the image from a particular mode of primary research, but to their own phenomenological experience of place and memory. In relation to photography, this almost expressionless painting may bare a greater verisimilitude to the veneer of the ‘real’, sparking personal and familial memory and associations enabling us to dig deep.


Geoff Hands (April 2019)

008 - KS - Studio end wall
Kate Sherman – Studio wall.


Kate Sherman: http://www.kateshermanpaintings.co.uk

‘Rendlesham – New Paintings’ review:


ONCA: https://onca.org.uk

Jessica Wood at AMC: http://www.artsmediacontacts.co.uk


NOT MUCH? – DRIVING SCHOOL: David Bellingham

Driving School: David Bellingham

Main Gallery, Phoenix Brighton

19 January to 24 February 2019

db - not much

In the beginning was the Word… or was it the image or the object that enabled communication for the antecedents of Homo erectus? In terms of the evolution, invention and development of human communication (through shared language systems), how were thoughts as exclusively non-material manifestations related to things (signs and symbols) in the world? A sign cannot be a signifier devoid of meaning but it takes many forms. What role does art have in a world full of increasingly reactionary, fixed views and the post-modern impulse to mix things up? David Bellingham’s ‘Driving School’ prompts these thoughts – these ruminations.

Curated by David Shrigley, an element of wit and absurdity – with a dash of idiosyncratic character – might have been expected. For Shrigley fans, ‘Driving School’ will not disappoint as Bellingham’s visual/text/object works challenge and coax the observer’s intellect and sense of humour alike. The work is both fun and droll.

That Shrigley chose an artist who is not so well known is refreshing too. The exhibition title suggests that the viewer will be attending some kind of compulsory educational experience and the press release prepared visitors by stating that:

“Driving School offers lessons in unlearning and relearning, undoing and redoing and unmaking and remaking. To unlearn something is to take it apart, to relearn it is to put it back together examined and refreshed.”

db - l plate patch up

The works in ‘Driving School’, currently installed at Phoenix Brighton, pose many questions based on what is perceived as well as read. The newly refurbished gallery is transformed into a learning zone wherein the dynamic learning situation generates questioning from the viewer (the student), which the artwork (the teacher) facilitates. The installation (the lesson plan in action) of various works lets go of total control (didacticism) to allow for debate (welcoming the student voice). The goal here is not to obtain a diploma, but to carry on thinking and looking as reward in itself.

Of course, we know that the standardisation of the conventional driving school must be instructive, objective and specific, leading to fixed outcomes of shared, collective knowledge without room for modification of the rules. But this is an art exhibition and an implied post-academy visual arts curriculum asserts its strengths on antithesis and fluid thinking. All that is fixed, flows. Absurdity is celebrated where certainty and bafflement are equal partners for our binary thinking habits. Bellingham conjoins word, image and object as one. The viewer can take the works at face value or extrapolate at will. To varying degrees there is paradox in all of the works displayed, but all is concrete and tangible despite the conceptual framework that might define this visual field of enquiry.

db - matter in motion

As the viewer enters the exhibition the first work encountered is ‘MATTER IN MOTION’, a wall text/drawing. It might be a super-enlarged photocopy of a sophisticated doodle. The work (as image) is made from thousands of near identical marks. It’s more than a doodle of course. The work is planned for this specific wall space as the whole wall is filled as a singular composition. Initially, the white letter-forms stand out against the background. But do the letters depict negative space, the space between or behind forms, or are the letters the foregrounded forms? Furthermore, is the phrase an object of sorts? Are the three words no more than 14 letters? Or should the drawn linear elements (albeit just the one sort) constitute a pictorial image? But this is a picture, of sorts, formed as an installation-type artwork on a wall. We simultaneously ‘read’ the words as image. The placement of the letters suggests time and motion too as the letters could be forming or displacing and deconstructing the words. The message is fixed on the wall but the implication is one of movement as the mind reacts to the visual dynamics.

db - a circle in the mind

In ‘Driving School’ contradiction is an essential characteristic. The Hegelian interpretive method (thesis and antithesis leading to synthesis) enshrines contradiction as an essential model of thought and debate. But synthesis (in the form of these conceptual artworks) might remain consistently contradictory. For example, ‘A circle in the mind prompted by a circle on the wall’ prompts the chicken-egg conundrum – which came first? Is the ‘artwork’ in the viewer’s mind and on the wall simultaneously? Admittedly the art-object was on the wall before entering the gallery, but the viewer attends pre-programmed with the notion of a circle already formed in the mind. Where did the circle originate and is the idea of a circle innate? (And was it a perfect circle? Plato’s theory of forms/ideas tells us there is no such thing…)

db - a moment installation

If this is too serious and weighty some humour to lighten the mood is welcome. Many viewers smile on encountering a grouping of five apparent road signs. There’s ‘NOT MUCH’except ‘DIGRESSION DISTRACTION DIVERSION’in ‘A PLACE AMONG PLACES’and ‘A MOMENT AMONG MOMENTS’with ‘A SIGN AMONG SIGNS’. In poetic mode you can order the instructions in any order you wish and as the temporary road sign is a moveable object it might be permissible to engage physically with the work.

Or you can escape up a ladder into the roof space and beyond. For in the beginning was the Imagination…

db - ladder


Homework (Links and further reading):

Phoenix Brighton – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org/events/driving-school/

David Bellingham – http://www.davidbellingham.com

David Bellingham interview with Lisa Otty – http://www.davidbellingham.com/texts/pdfs/For_Wall.pdf

Make your own, many signs available here – https://www.uksafetystore.com


EDITION 1 (19 January to 17 February)

Also on display in the Window Gallery space at Phoenix Brighton is ‘Edition 1’ an initiative to promote the resident artists from the Phoenix studios.

Buy works here: https://www.phoenixbrighton.org/all-shops/edition-1-shop/

kiki stickl - second thoughts ii
Kiki Stickl – ‘Second Thoughts II’


Slam-Dunk: John Bunker New Collages

Unit 3, ASC, Empson Street from 3-17 November 2018

26 - Slam-Dunk front door - (GH)

Collage has a significant 20thcentury history. Inspired by Braque and Picasso, Kurt Schwitters typically utilised “used tram tickets, bits of driftwood, buttons and old junk from attics and rubbish heaps” and, long before re-cycling was a conservation matter, applied his alchemical process effectively. Henri Matisse utilised painted papers and cut out the shapes required for his decoupage that extended his exploration of painting, particularly in his latter years. In the era of the Abstract Expressionists, Robert Motherwell raised the medium of collage (and particularly the Gauloises packet) to an aesthetic height where it became conjoined with painting. With Duchampian whit, and challenging categorisations between painting and sculpture, Robert Rauschenberg produced a huge body of collage and assemblage works (aka ‘combines’) with explicit social and cultural content, introducing ironic reference to abstract painting and contemporaneous subject matter. Matisse aside, an underlying spirit of Dadaism and with a nod towards Arte Povera, a particular type of collage can still exploit a direct embracing of materials from the urban jungle.

Within the visuality of collage as material and process, which still has an aesthetic and fiscal purchase (i.e. material value), it appears evident from John Bunker’s ongoing project that, in the broadest context, collage engages with an interpretation of social reality that has more political and economic discomforts than might be desired. Crucially, this reading is best experienced from being in the presence of the work, which is both visually abstract and embodied in the material specificity of a re-constructive process. Like painting, in the flesh the collages possess a life force that is compromised in reproduction – rendering any notion of duplication as anything close to satisfactory, almost null and void.

13 - JB - Vilja 2018
John Bunker – ‘Vilja’, 2018

One fascinating aspect of these new mixed media shaped collages (though the term ‘assemblage’ better categorises Bunker’s works as many of the parts are objects as much as surfaces) is that the base materials possess idiosyncrasies of substance and surface impossible to replicate on the ubiquitous screen. Materials and objects that had a previous life, used goods as it were, become fresh or new again as component parts of the subsequent artwork. So, in ‘Vilja’, one of twelve works presented in ‘Slam-Dunk’, items such as electrical cable, cardboard packaging or a printed poster are not those things anymore. Identity is reassigned to a very different functionality. Material hierarchy is certainly de-bunked.

In these works the deterioration of the physical conditions of found objects, street and studio detritus, are presented as if new and fresh; where for example, decomposition and fragmentation can be regarded as a primary state and not a proximate condition within a standard ontology of physical manifestations. So the various engineered metal components in ‘Tjádass’, one that may have functioned as part of a musical instrument, another as a sturdy wall fastening (replete with plastic rawl plug), survive destruction and redundancy in a form of re-incarnation. The connection with Schwitters’ synthesizing use of mixed media, which interchanged the material and the visual, is palpable in the ‘Slam-Dunk’ collages.

14 - JB - Tjaldass 2018
John Bunker – ‘Tjádass’, 2018

Twelve months on from Bunker’s last one-man show at Unit 3, the viewer is treated to these new works gathered together with quirky titles. For an Abcrit review for ‘Leave It’ in 2017, I had commented that, “I was reminded that collage is not a substitute for painting.” It was apparent that these collages were potent enough in themselves to stand alone from painting, albeit with similar characteristics – made for the wall; to be read by the eye across the surface, with various implications of spatial congress; shifting the visual interrogation from part to part; colours, shapes and surfaces refreshing the abstract mission; and prompting suggestions for personal interpretations on context or sufficing unadulterated visual pleasure.

‘Slam-Dunk (for Dennis)’, the largest work in the show that filled a whole wall, is something of a punk-mural as many of the various components are torn by hand, burnt and dishevelled. Though discarded, rejected and roughed up, the parts are now rescued and revived. But are the painted parts in ‘Slam-Dunk (For Dennis)’, a little disingenuous if they have been made to be unique collage components? Perhaps they are intended as simulacra of wastage from the production of other paintings/collages? Intermixed with all sorts of flotsam and jetsam, including found print, nylon string, fragments of plywood and plastic and cotton material of unknown origin, the inclusion of paint (industrial and artists’ quality?) might reference Rauschenberg’s expressionist painterly gestures – only now the paint might be a spill or composed bluntly from a cleaning of the brush, rather than a personalised action from the hand of a ‘master’.

10 - JB - Slam Dunk (for Dennis)
John Bunker – ‘Slam Dunk (For Dennis)’, 2018

All of the other works are much smaller (approximating 50 x 60cm each) and you can touch them with your eyes by standing close-to. Keeping your hands to yourself increases the visceral pleasure and tactile frisson of so many moving parts. Though nothing actually moves, except the viewer. Take, for example, ‘Fun Bobby’, which might suggest two dancers in full swing connected by a flash of red feather and white bunting. A wriggling line, with few breaks, starts with a ring at bottom centre, heads north-west into a patchwork maze then bridges east to a counterpart form that is characterised by a figure of eight, and a diamond framework placed over a black disc, overlapped in part by a second little shanty town of patches.

15 - JB - Fun Bobby
John Bunker – ‘Fun Bobby’, 2018

What is so impressive about the works in ‘Slam-Dunk’ is not only the inherent particularity of the stuff of the collages, but the selection and arrangement within the frameless compositions – the choreography as such. As with all of the works on show, there is visual dynamism in every composition. Bunker’s ‘expanded field’ of collage removes the omnipresence of the rectangle and eliminates the edge that preoccupies some abstract practitioners. The various colour-shapes echo spatial placements, propose latent moveability; physically conjoin, meander, occlude and reveal the specific abstract qualities that are somehow vital and fecund in an organic phraseology of materiality. Disjuncture is carefully balanced with ‘just rightness’, whilst visual rhythms unlock the still nature of the fixed parts and the condition of the arrangements are inherently organic, playing with a shift from the visual to the material and vice versa.

As installation, the wall behind each work in the gallery space, and the quality of light (particularly from the spotlights) that enhance low relief in millimetres, activates the collages, especially if the viewer approaches at close quarters. As is typical of Bunker’s collages, there is a painterly aesthetic at work in an agile distribution and handling of the materials. The works have edged towards resolution into an abstract condition that may well emulate painting, but still maintains the independence of collage in the same way that print is both independent of, but inextricably related to painting.

As medium and process, we might still debate the status of collage as an offshoot of painting (and sculpture in the form of assemblage), or as an independent medium. Current artspeak might label the kind of collage that John Bunker makes as ‘expanded field’ of painting. His work is certainly ‘painterly’ and I sometimes wonder what a new series of paintings would look like – although I would imagine that the canvas would simply get in the way.

In Bunker’s press statement for ‘Slam-Dunk’ a revived declaration from three years ago reiterates his contention that, “Collage allows me to constantly test the limits of what an abstract painting can be. I hope to find something like a new hybrid visual grammar in these clashes of matter and forms.”

This notion of hybridity is undeniable. So, is collage eternally bound to painting? The kind that Bunker cajoles and constructs from the detritus of the contemporary situation may well place his works in a broader societal context. Perhaps the medium is the message after all, especially if the collages predominantly employ the debris of the urban, suggesting a dystopian reading in its literal, material content. But if the various fragments appear to be resurrected from the waste bin or the gutter – places of superfluous cut-offs, rejection and abandon – the underlying message is a positive and uplifting one. For there is also visual refinement and elegance on display here. The viewer might also embrace the tangible qualities and materiality of the forms in Bunker’s collages in the spirit of Wabi-Sabi, a Japanese philosophy of beauty in imperfection, where the transient and imperfect is revered.

Or is this just too snowflake?

18 - JB - Plurabelle 2018
John Bunker – ‘Plurabelle’, 2018


All images are © John Bunker.


Schwitters quotation from ‘Kurt Schwitters: Collages and Assemblages 1929-1947’
‘Leave It…’ John Bunker: New Work (2017)