Its a different kind of ‘Cornish’ today. The waves are rolling in at a lick, its white and grey green for around a couple hundred yards at most before the mists gather. Sennen has gone and Lands End is on another planet entirely. But I’m glad to be a visitor to this remote spot when nature is at its rawest. This is as much a part of the experience of West Penwith as any sunny summers day, perhaps the more so.
Earlier in this second week we took another break from the work to visit Penlee House in Penzance and to take in ‘The Bigger Picture’, their current exhibition. This is a timely reminder that the twentieth century story of art in this far South West outpost goes well beyond the familiar and now oft celebrated ‘St. Ives’ group (of which of course Terry Frost, my last post, is a well known leading light). It is an historical survey covering the mid century and years either side, so sadly cannot encompass most recent work (I think, for example, of painters like Kurt Jackson, Michael Porter or Luke Frost, all still producing terrific work within the locality). But what it does do is remind one of figures who ought (indeed in some small measure already are) to be reappraised at the critical distance opening up on this fertile period. For me it was an absolute delight. There were good examples of many artists who are much less acknowledged than seems right to my eye.
The show opens with a handful of paintings that position the ‘stars’ of St. Ives in the firmament. Lanyon’s small panel Bicyclist in Penwith, a good Nicholson or two, a better Frost than many in the current show up the road, a beautiful Hepworth medical study, solid examples of Heron and Wynter and a decent John Wells or two are just some of those on offer. But its not them I want to comment on really, plenty having been said before and better by others.
But also ‘early doors’ in the gallery are two small unassuming pictures that might be easily overlooked…and for me that would be a big mistake. Both are dark and crowded, tightly packed interlocking loose geometric shapes in juicy oil. The artist is Michael Canney. To give you an idea of his historical context I have in front of me the Tate’s biggish catalogue of ‘St. Ives, 1939 – 64’ where just about anyone associated with the area is at least referenced (including most of those in the current show) but he doesn’t even appear in the index. Not that he’s the only one, I have waxed lyrical about Michael Finn in this blog before and his joyful 50’s oil in this exhibition is a highlight, and he’s not mentioned either. I only met Canney twice, the first time we simply exchanged pleasantries but on the second occasion, with what I think was typical modesty, our rather longer conversation centred on Peter Lanyon (who I was researching for a show I co-curated with Hugh Stoddart, my then boss at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham). I wish I’d known his work then, and had quizzed him about it. Go visit his website…if you care about abstraction there’s a deal of exceptional work to be seen.
There are plenty of paintings that repay attention over the five rooms. Tom Early is an artist I knew nothing of until a few years back when my good friend David Ainley alerted me to him. His four pieces here are variable (to be fair two being quite slight studies on paper) but he like those mentioned above is a much neglected figure – I’d like to see more. Early used a loose and relaxed figuration and was unafraid to use colour aggressively unlike much of the St. Ives group (excepting of course Frost). Alexander Mackenzie is another somewhat forgotten figure and to be truthful his work could sometimes for me be a little too ‘polite’ and over designed but here he has two cracking paintings. And if ever an artist has ever been woefully undersold it must be Margaret Mellis, here with a terrific canvas, one of the largest in the show. It finishes in a couple weeks time…get a train down!