Star Brewery Gallery, Lewes
4 to 12 March 2023
“Plein air painting on a large scale has heightened my sense of involvement. My use of colour is instrumental in expressing my feelings about form and light within the landscape. Inspired by some new subjects, a shift in my work has transpired.”
(Julian Le Bas, 2023)
In preparation for Julian Le Bas’ much-anticipated exhibition at the Star Brewery Gallery in Lewes, I was asked by Sarah O’Kane (Sarah O’Kane Contemporary Fine Art) to write about Julian’s work, as she knew I was a follower of his career and had written about his show at Berwick Church for Lewes Artwave 2022. I made a visit to his studio last November to talk to him and to see completed canvases and a few works in progress for the exhibition in Lewes. Some of this new text has been included in the catalogue for the show and a suitably edited version is published on her gallery website.
With Sarah’s approval, here is the full version of the exhibition:
A Studio Visit
Julian Le Bas is a painter, perhaps the contemporary painter, of the Sussex section of the South Downs. His work bares witness to this characteristically splendid and captivating geography of chalk hills, meadows, woodland and the adjoining coastline. The Sussex landscape possesses a subtle drama that does not provide the instant awe of, say, the Peaks of the Yorkshire Dales or views from Snowdonia, but the chalk cliffs that stretch eastwards from Brighton and Seaford towards Eastbourne are unique enough to provide a painted image with the visual impact of location not always provided so explicitly in other locales.
If you know Sussex reasonably well you will be aware of Chanctonbury Ring, Black Cap, Mount Caburn and Firle Beacon, and will recollect on how these geographical landmarks change in mood and appearance depending on the weather, the season and the time of day. On a more micro-level you will know that as you travel around, away from the A roads, you will expect to see characteristic churches in the villages, such as at Berwick and Southease. You will also know that there are marvellous trees in the various churchyards, or alongside the fields that produce crops or are home to the cows and the pigs. Look closer still with this consummate painter and, depending on the time of year, see the bluebells, snowdrops or a defiantly red rosehip amongst the winter brambles. In other words, there is no hierarchy of place or incumbent: be it animal, mineral or vegetable.
I wonder, also, if the paintings are a form of storytelling. Many of these visual tales will find their way to new homes, perhaps above the hearth, in a bedroom, a study or in a corridor leading to the kitchen. The point being that the paintings will find, literally, a home to prompt a recollection of a known and familiar landmark, embedding an internal conversation not necessarily or exclusively about rural Sussex, but also beyond to landscape revealed through the act of painting. Prompted by various locations, painting as gesture, as abstraction and as colour obsession – in an era of the digital and the virtual that can loose the immediacy of a physical and mental interaction with light, form and space.
These many places visited by Le Bas, often with the imperative ritual of walking to them, are invested with powerful colour effects and combinations of brush marks too. The viewer might be convinced that they are as improvised as much as they are consciously planned and controlled. Le Bas balances these two complimentary aspects of the act of painting, which is so important for what I interpret as reflection in action, as a matter of course. He produces visually potent and efficacious oil paintings that retain this sense of having a heart beat, of being visually fixed but alive somehow and which have to be authentically realised in situ. These studies can only be so faithfully achieved, by necessity, out of the studio environment.
For the uncompromising en plein air painter the idea of the studio is, potentially, a notional one, as four walls do not restrict the site of production. So when I visited Le Bas’ studio in the back garden of his home in Seaford I was not sure what to expect. At 12 X 10 feet the space was significantly more than big enough for the lawn mower, gardening tools and cracked flowerpots that one might normally expect to come across, although thankfully there were no such items stored here. But this was more than simply a storage area for dozens of canvases of various sizes. The wicker chair and cushion, just the one, was evidence enough to reveal a space for the artist to sit and ponder on his latest day’s work. Space too, to rethink and assess the necessity to return to a particular location to complete a canvas not yet considered fully realised, hence the provision of three viewing walls. I asked Le Bas if he sometimes continued the paintings here, away from the subject. A simple ‘no’ was the answer. I need not have asked, for his many collectors and supporters will know that he is a purist of sorts; passionate and uncompromising in the most positive sense and completely at one with the traditions associated with the landscape/seascape painter who will go out in all weathers to attain their goals – and to constantly surprise themselves at the inexhaustible range of subject matters and moods that wait to be seen and experienced.
Such an approach is Le Bas’ unspoken manifesto. He just gets on with the task in hand, albeit as a healthy compulsion loaded with drive and sheer enthusiasm. The work is so memorable that it speaks not only for itself, but also for the inexhaustible landscape related encounters that somehow await the viewer’s comprehension, though intriguingly via the work itself. The paintings may well function as signposts, imploring the viewer to get back out there and look again, but they are more than mere signage of course. The canvases, as carriers of physical imagery, embody lived experience and a sense of time, where to pin down the visual realisation of a particular place, set in some notion of the abstractness of duration, is reliant on the paint medium and its expert treatment. Time and light is fluid too, which poses a contradiction to the solidity of form, of the interaction of colours and the myriad relationships that constitute fixed composition. Le Bas’ works bring the observer and observed together so that the works also realise the shared experience of seeing, through the manifestation of consciously formulated structures constructed by this communal gift of sight.
There is an inherent democracy at work, wherein the drawing content, the range of mark making, the colour range are all carefully balanced so that if anything dominates it is the difficult to define ‘spirit of place’. Le Bas can apply such an abstract notion in any aspect of the landscape environment, whether nearby or far away. Interestingly, the historical picturesque can be discounted in his approach to composition and content, as there is an honest acceptance of what is simply there. What lesson we might learn from Le Bas’ life-long project is that every day and every scene presents a seemingly revived landscape offering a new vista, and a fresh encounter, with the apparently commonplace. These landscapes are tirelessly offered up, re-imagined, for continuous engagement and revelation, so long as the viewer will give over their own time to enjoy and contemplate the imagery.
Le Bas’ paintings celebrate, exalt and revere the various locations and unequivocally express awe at the natural world. The role of shamanic consort, expressing the elevating metaphysical aspect of the everyday through the ordinarily magical presence of the landscape is his task. The work continuously appears to convey this sense of the uniqueness of the quotidian and the local which changes in appearance, not only due to time of day or season, but is subject to the artist’s own crucial engagement at any particular time. This notion of self, however, is not selfish as these paintings help the viewer to see afresh and to experience beyond subject matter.
There is an extrovert inclination in these paintings and drawings, revealing an emotional involvement steered by rigorous and disciplined draughtsmanship. This engagement with the physical qualities of medium, from compressed charcoal or chalk pastel in his drawings to oil paint on canvas, Le Bas’ works are somehow a summation of perceived experience that lives beyond his initial encounters in the landscape. High key colour combines with earthy local colour. His engagement with the glorious power of colour reveals both a romantic and a matter-of-fact connection with the landscape experience.
There is, I suspect, some deliberate exaggeration in Le Bas’ practice. A visual proclamation in his use of colour and insistent mark making, which is intended to bring the viewer into the work, and to make a lasting impression, reminds us that the landscape is still a worthy and increasingly important genre. Not solely for the sake of decorating our walls, or as a reminder of those places we love to visit, but as ecological imperative. For, as our burgeoning awareness of environmental issues develops for all the wrong reasons, Le Bas’ representations of the landscape may be reminding us that Arcadia is on our doorstep and, by implication, we need to stop trashing it a.s.a.p.
Sarah O’Kane Contemporary Fine Art – https://www.sarahokane.co.uk/julian-le-bas-spirit-of-place-2023
Edited version of the essay – https://fineartruminations.files.wordpress.com/2023/03/91cdb-lebas-hands-text-sokcfa.pdf
Julian Le Bas website – http://www.julianlebas.co.uk
Star Brewery Gallery – https://www.starbrewerygallery.com
Visit Lewes – https://www.visitlewes.co.uk/things-to-do/art-and-culture