The first (thrilling) time you ever saw your words in real, professional print was an essay titled ‘ Painting & Today’ written for the 1997 Royal College of art graduation catalogue. That turned out to be a good year at RCA as the catalogue includes works by George Shaw, Gillian Carnegie, Hurvin Anderson, Katie Pratt, Lothar Götz, Jaime Gili and Steve Dowson among others.
Since then, however you’ve only occasionally been moved or called upon to write on painting, until last year that is, when a little flurry of painting related commissions came along. Why this is you don’t really know, but sometimes you wonder if the unusually discerning painting fraternity have been quietly monitoring your progress and only recently decided that your writing is approaching the necessary gravity and maturity appropriate to addressing their noble art.
And it is true that there is something about painting that always leads you back to some sense of the very origins of art, even in these days of scepticism regarding all essence and origin; these times of ever-increasingly expanding fields of art practice.
When you first met those intrepid RCA painting students back in 1997 I was surprised and impressed by their knowledge of, respect for, and engagement with art history, which most 90s artists in London seemed to treat with either deep irony or outright disdain. You realised then that work – unlike artists whose raison d’etre is to break with tradition – with and in an often challenged but nevertheless unbroken tradition stretching back hundreds and thousands of years. Yes, painting has its ruptures, of course, and painting’s ruptures have often become the ruptures affecting art per se, but painting – unlike video, or photography, or conceptual art- is not defined in and of itself as a rupture but rather as a tradition.
It has also repeatedly impressed you that the supposedly most exhaustively exploited medium of all still attracts hosts of eager acolytes, each willing to risk a humiliating defeat in striving to find their own ‘voice by means of painting, and to contribute to expanding its rich history with their own unanticipated nuance, twist, niche or variation.
You have often asked, and perhaps grown beyond the question ‘what is art?’ but it still remains a fascinating mystery to ask why painters paint, and you have arrived at the vague notion that they must paint, not just for their own sake but that we always need them to paint. No matter how technologies change our dominant modes of representation, the community, the society simply needs certain people to paint, no matter how inauspicious their careers may seem at certain points, no matter how cold their studios or lonely their activities. If they ever stopped then perhaps the world, or society as we know it would come to an end.
Last weekend you were invited to attend a ‘Survey’ show of London-based painters curated (importantly) by two painters, Matthew Krishanu and David Sullivan. Their unequivocal rationale ‘basically – painters chosen by painters’ was proclaimed loud and clear on the Press Release. It was true that, stripped of the usual fancy title, clever concept, desirable epigraph and barely comprehendible paragraph of current artspeak, their refreshingly honest and straightforward way of framing their show allowed you to see and judge for yourself while tipping the evaluative table more firmly in the direction of the medium itself and its tradition.
One of the first things that struck you was the juxtaposition of ‘figurative’ and ‘abstract’ paintings, in a way that actually brings this old dualism into question. After all, there may invariably be something ‘figurative’ about any painted ‘abstraction’ and vice versa. The ease with which we can enjoy a mixed show like this may also be a sign of our increasing ability to comprehend ever-increasing complexity, in art and in life. After all, in science and mathematics the notorious and hellish ‘chaos’ that was once regarded as off the human scale has become map-able and usable as a form in various aspects of physics as well as becoming applicable in e.g. design and architecture.
Charley Peters’ Plexus RGB, (2015)
Having made this point, the paintings that we might habitually (and for our purposes here ‘conveniently’) categorise as abstract included the friendly-faced and well-titled Again and again and again (2015) by James Ryan, as well as the more Hi-Tec, possibly paranoid geometries found in works by Charley Peters. Both Peters and Chris Daniels [whose Scuta XXII, (2015] was close by] use intense hues to produce vertiginous or eye-boggling grids, but while Peters’ are akin to computer generated imagery Daniels presents equally vivid but slightly more accommodating forms in regulated sequences.
A more disruptive contribution to abstract painting’s own tradition came in the form of Katrin Maurich’s return II (2011). Here, the painting’s support was the only one in the Survey to risk going beyond a standard rectangular form. the artist carefully, but intuitively cuts away at a board until it achieves a satisfyingly oddly-angled shape, and in this case adorns the surface with shapes – in varying tones and opacities of black which faintly echo and enter into dialogue with the shape of the base. The result is an image that refuses to sit down quietly for your eye to contemplate. It also caused the curators a problem as it refuses to sit comfortably alongside any row of paintings hung according to a neat ‘eye line.’
Marijke Vasey’s Horn of Plenty (2015)
Two paintings that seem to sit on the edge of ‘abstraction’ and figuration’ were Marjke Vasey’s Horn of Plenty (2015) and Cara Nahaul’s Pas Faire Comme Moi (2014). Vasey’s gracefully pale and silvery tones of subtle pinks and blues (imagine a 17th c. Tiepolo painting deconstructed as its base elements) conspired to approximate something like an object, but one to which we would hesitate to give a name. Meanwhile Nahaul confidently spread three bands of bright colour across a deep blue ground and by the subtle addition of a few angles and a well-placed sphere of exotic fruit, made them appear suspended like the kind of shelves we would all love to fit in our homes. The overall effect used surprisingly minimal means to suggest volume, space, gravity, light, colour and culture.
Cara Nahaul’s Pas Faire Comme Moi (2014)
The remaining paintings to which you have not yet referred come then under the habitual categorisation ‘figurative. ’ Again you are consistently surprised by the wide number of approaches and means by which narrative, mise-en-scène, event, characters (of people, animals and objects) have been achieved, chosen and displayed. Marguerite Horner paints monochrome scenes from a world dominated by the automobile [Lost the wisdom deep inside (2014), Carry both of us (2015), and On the move (2015)]. They come across as the fleeting visions of an outsider (perhaps a Londoner visiting extra-urban America) curiously observing highway life.
Marguerite Horner’s Lost the wisdom deep inside (2014)
Nicholas Middleton meticulously renders with a graceful (and again monochrome) rather more English images of social tension and unrest, populated by broken cash machines and police in riot gear [Territorial Support Group, (2014) and After the Riots, (2014)]. As if to set-off the precision of his detailed rendering Middleton curiously leaves an area of canvas around the picture (about the width of an appropriate frame) unadorned, except for evidence of the pencilled grid that enables and underpins the process and rough smears of greeny-grey ground. Wayne Clough is another painter apparently drawn to newsworthy images of destruction and unrest, but in Cry of the Lowland Cavalier (2015) he has chosen to experiment with time honoured tempera techniques to render what looks like a crashed and flaming factory, perhaps an oil rig collapsing into the sea.
Wayne Clough’s Cry of the Lowland Cavalier (2015)
Nathan Eastwood joins a generation captivated by documentary photography but also alludes to a hybrid of realist painting, black and white photography and the proliferation of candid imagery now resulting from the conjoining of mobile phones with cameras. In this show you can see Rock & Roll (2015), one of Eastwood’s larger works which seem to force his brushwork and certain forms within the painting into more self-consciously ‘painterly’ and therefore self-reflexive mark-making.
Nathan Eastwood’s Rock & Roll (2015)
Trevor Burgess seems to have a hit some much-craved momentum by perpetuating an extensive series of urban scenes, titled A Place To Live. Number ‘11’ in the series (2011) shows a ubiquitous Victorian terrace but strangely infused with an engaging powder-blue that we take for granted and enjoy against the pink and grey brick and plaster but which really seems to have no place here other than in allowing us to enjoy a little more what might otherwise be a dour scene. Meanwhile, number ‘36’ in the series (2012) allows a squat modernist block to balloon with pale yellow light on an appropriately proportioned support.
David Sullivan’s New European Vision, (2015)
One of the two curators, David Sullivan, adds to these journalistic pictures a grim vision of prone bodies overseen by a few more managerial figures. The title. New European Vision, (2015) leads our imagination quickly away from the more current and emerging humane disasters. Matthew Krishanu meanwhile alludes only obliquely, symbolically or tentatively to human failings in a painting called Forest, (2013) in which our human perspective seems to have joined with that of some mysterious dark birds haunting a canopy of densely compacted and deeply concentrated trees. A slightly miserable, coloourless precipitation seems to coat and run down the painting’s surface, adding to its atmosphere.
Matthew Krishanu’s Forest, (2013)
Krishanu’s subtle way of allowing paint, colour and an idiosyncratic formation of spaces and figures, to tell us stories in ways that only painting can is something that is first contradicted then confirmed in two paintings supplied by Gerraint Evans. In A Carnival, (2014) figures on a suburban lawn semiotically lead us, with what seems to be a purposeful heavy-handedness, into an unequivocal, because allegorical reading. But Cave, (2014) though similar in many ways allows us to enjoy probing the particular way (slightly ‘Alex Katz’ or ‘Manga-esque’) in which this artist represents a small group of trees, or the stone or concrete that makes up the structure referred to in the title. Yes, we can make allegorical meanings from the juxtaposition of caves and councils houses, but only painting can invite us into consideration of the ways that particular ways of rendering objects speak to us – albeit in a language we otherwise cannot consistently speak- of our changing understanding of our changing humanity.
Hannah Brown’s Victoria Park 4, (2015)
Perhaps we could say something similar regarding the paintings of Hannah Brown. Her luscious oil paintings [Victoria Park 9, (2015) and Victoria Park 4, (2015)] of London’s Victoria Park have an almost enamelled-looking glossy finish and seem to belong to tradition of English landscape painting, and yet they are peculiar and disturbing in conveying a certain discomfort and evoking dark, distant memories that we might also associate with England’s otherwise famously beautiful and leisurely contrived heterotopias. Hanging nearby, three small paintings [two of them ‘Untitled (2015) plus Sedgemoor (2015)] by Sam Douglas gleam under thick bubbling varnish and invite us into a post-card-sized realm where what we see gleams in a distant rural setting like a past or future place, the way to which we have recently lost.
Lee Maelzer works equally small but with darker, more focused intent. She has a talent for registering a particular colour on our consciousness in a way that seems to inflict an irremovable stain. Here, the word ‘Livid’ in the title Livid Sink, (2013) makes a domestic device in which you might cleanse yourself into a toxic site of possible infection, while Bottom of the Stairs, (2014) seems to record the kind of off-days when we behave more carelessly than most, and with a kind of undignified resentment of all forms of order.
Simon Burton’s imposing Walthamstow Dog apparently acquired its title in direct and immediate response to the curator’s request for one, and it does indeed contain little more than a canine character trying to make itself visible amid a dark, scraped surface reminiscent of a Max Ernst frottage. William Wright’s Montparnasse, (2014-15) offers us a more Matisse-an, Dufy-an or even Rousseau-ean way of seeing the celebrated Parisian cemetery. This small painting demonstrates the artist’s confidence and freedom in placing his perspective in impossible space and thereby freely abstracting his figuration, bending space and forms to his will and into dialogue with the slightly narrowed rectangle of the support.
Caroline Walker’s Scene Painting, (2014)
Caroline Walker’s paintings courageously, and almost magically wield bold colour and brushwork to involve and invite us into obscure narratives. In Scene Painting, (2014) sunset orange lights up what looks like a holidaymaker’s dream scene until the title clues us into the more likely scenario of a slightly tacky restaurant mural, making us witness to the painting of a painting. Meanwhile, a much larger, more authoritative painting titled The Stand In (2014) shows two women, confronting or engaging each other. A strange ritual or greeting seems to be taking place as Walker’s brush wildly plies rich and luminous colours about the surface, conjuring up an explosion of romantic blossoms as a backdrop or suggesting form with the merest wisp of a mark, and sometimes even with an absence of an expected mark – an absence into which our eyes can nevertheless project both form and meaning.
As you visited the ‘ Closing Event’ you were fortunate enough to also briefly meet many of the painters, and you left the show as they were beginning to modestly remove their works from the walls and say their goodbyes to the curator and their peers. The painters too then drifted off into the London evening, delicately supporting various odd packages and bags, returning to their studios, their teaching roles and day-jobs to reflect upon their inclusion in this ‘Survey’, and to thereby further deepen and extend their commitment to this, perhaps still the most quietly committed, proud and necessary of all the 21st century arts.