Gone South (part 2…the bit about the art!)

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Despite forecasts to the contrary Friday dawned very bright and sunny again…bizarrely as the news was full of the tribulations of the West coast of the UK.  We hightailed it to the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill that looked magnificent in that light.  A brisk walk along the beach, equally glorious and quite bracing (it is January after all…), showed off the place to very best effect.

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Alison Turnbull‘s exhibition in the Pavilion was interesting…she is a painter I’ve seen only very occasionally over the years.  This show seemed on the face of it well suited to the venue, indeed her interest in the modernist architecture makes it a shoo in in some respects.  That said I was less convinced by it…in part I suspect because of the way in which it was laid out.  Several differing strands of practice were dotted around the space, quite literally in the case of the ‘dot’ paintings (that I feel are the strongest), so that following the train of thought was harder than one might wish.  The elegant table cases that contained many drawings and painted paper pieces should have added to one’s understanding and appreciation of the work but for me (and my wife) there was something a little soulless about them.  Overall the show lacked a little guts and passion…at least to my taste.

Back to Hastings then as the Jerwood had now opened.  ‘Guts’ and ‘Passion’ then…and Basil Beattie could never be accused of lacking them!

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This show of large pictures (pretty much all of which have been made in the last eighteen months or so, no mean feat as you are nearing eighty I suspect) had all the trademark tropes I’ve come to expect over the near on forty years I’ve been admiring his work.  But (and in keeping with the display of Guston’s next door that I’ll come onto in a moment) with a freedom and insouciance that was at first a wee bit shocking.  It was as if he was riffing on his own motifs, so much so that they seemed sometimes almost cartoon like.

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And there were clear avenues down which the work might be taken further, new directions that must be really exciting for an older generation figure – powerful reasons to keep on working at a high energy and with plenty to say.  At the time of writing I’m still digesting the work…rethinking the one or two I didn’t think were as successful as well as reflecting on the others that I loved from the off.  No better recommendation than that really.

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In the adjacent space were a host of Guston’s prints, mainly lithos that I always feel are very nearly as good as drawings themselves, and a beautiful small canvas that complemented the print work well.  They all came from that period just after ‘the change’, that point where he shocked the art world to its core by reverting back to figuration from the earlier trademark coalescing abstractions.  Now, from a safe distance of over forty years, it all seems pretty reasonable but back in the day…  Beattie, of course, made a similar transitional journey, but now it might seem (from, say, the canvas in the near right side of the installation shot above) that maybe he could travel back again in the other direction…its the freedom now that still makes painting so fresh and dynamic despite all the other competing contrivances of contemporary art.  I can’t leave this venue without making mention of Marlow Moss, an artist who was previously unknown to me, and as the show sets out to prove, quite a few others. Its an undoubted fact that, in the twentieth century, being a woman, openly lesbian and working near to but slightly apart from an acknowledged  centre of art (St. Ives) did you no favours at all.  Although her work undoubtedly owes a debt to the leaders of constructivism (and Mondrian in particular) she also made her own contribution with on the evidence here a voice of her own.  A reassessment of this thoughtful, intelligent and pellucid artist and her work was clearly overdue and credit goes to Tate St. Ives and Pallant House whose project this is.

Time was challenging us now but, and maybe because the weather had now finally started drawing in on us, we did decide to drive swiftly westwards towards Chichester and Pallant House.  Although its a journey of nearly two hours on a Friday through by now awful rainy and windy weather I wanted to see Triptychs by Sean Scully.  Now I’ve not only seen plenty of Scully’s over the years but curated and presented his work, and am lucky enough (through his generosity) to own a work on paper.  Nonetheless this was a real opportunity to see a small but beautifully curated show centred on a theme that has re-occurances over his entire career.  And the beauty of this show (as apart from the others, except the Moss that runs till April) is that if you are quick you could still get to see it yourself (it runs till the 26th of this month – January 2014)!

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Take for example this absolutely sumptuous oil on aluminium painting Barcelona Robe, one of the recent pictures.  The use of the hard and definitive edges of the metal support against the more recognisable brushstrokes is a real triumph.  Or look at this painting from a slightly earlier period…a real beauty.

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There were plenty of others, and prints, watercolours, pastels and other drawings, all packed into three smallish galleries but in such a way that all the work was able to breathe and the viewer more than able to fully appreciate them.  It was the kind of show that hammered home his reputation as one of the leading figures of his generation at work across the globe.  Another aspect of Sean’s approach that is really refreshing is the honest and direct way of talking about abstract painting he has.  There were several well chosen quotations from him amongst the beautifully crafted and presented captions that accompanied the work (I don’t generally welcome these in galleries but here they genuinely complemented the works)…and this one struck home for me…a good place to end really.

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