Echoing down the decades…

Tracerie Oct 71 8x8ft Acrylic On Canvas
Tracerie, Acrylic on Canvas, c. 6 x 7 ft. 1971

A current article in Hyperallergic on the marvellous Joe Overstreet, reminded me a little of the paintings I was making late in 1971 and into 72…where I was exploring the possibilities of unstretched form and colour having been dissuaded from the proscenium arch paintings that had preceded them.  Tracerie, above, was not the largest of them but is the only one I have a decent image of.  Below are details of the biggest, Pinky Free, an over thirty feet expanse of 12 oz. cotton duck the width of the bolt (I guess 78 inches) – Let us pause to give thanks for free higher education where a poor working class Devonian lad could explore his most ridiculous creative impulses wherever he wanted to take them!

Pinky Free Oct 71 9x27ft right hand side
Pinky Free, Acrylic on canvas, c. 6 ft 6 in. x 27 ft. 1972




The whole contraption was propped up on an assortment of photo light and music stands ‘borrowed’ from the relevant departments for a few days (at least until the lecturers responsible realised).  Pinky was the last of this run of loose canvas pieces that I then began pulling back into more formal arrangements, pushing and pressing oil paint into the canvas weave to give it a little more structure and solidity.


Here I’m installing one of these Oilcloth pieces in the studios for the second year interim exhibition. I’d also abandoned the riot of colour in favour of more muted earthy tones, even then I was already heavily into the idea of pushing work far out in one direction only to wrench it back wildly in the other.  It may seem implausible in the world of instant information via social media but back then most of those few who saw this work were completely mystified by it and thought it pretty crazy.  It was quite some years before I began realise that, contrary to what everyone thought, on the other side of the Atlantic, in the lower Eastside of Manhattan and down in Washington DC (and I guess quite a few other places, including one or two in the East End of London) others were exploring similar ideas of how far painting could be pushed.  At the time I felt quite isolated and exposed in the far west of Cornwall!


Trawling Black Water…

02Given that it has been raining cats & dogs for over eighteen hours now there’s plenty of opportunity to get on with the work!  So I have at last finished at least one piece to my satisfaction.  It derives its title from both the context in which it has been produced (on the waterfront here in Scalloway) and a poem by the late Peter Redgrove entitled On Losing One’s Black Dog.  The view from our French Windows reminds me a little of the time when, albeit briefly, I knew Peter as a student at Falmouth where he was, luckily for us, the Complementary Studies tutor.  He was very finely attuned to the Cornish environment and spoke eloquently and imaginatively about the ‘Black Dog’ in its several senses, one of which (not the one referred to directly in the poem) concerned the melancholia that descends on all things Cornish in the winter months.  After today’s performance here (see photo below) during August one can only imagine what mid-winter brings to the folk here on Shetland!


Don’t be smug!


Ah…yesterday…and now today.  It doesn’t pay to be clever does it.  Bragging about the weather has seen a day of squally rain, some of it quite heavy.  We have managed to get out twice for reasonable strolls without getting wet but a goodly part of the day has us confined to the studio.  Some decent progress made but in order to cheer us on a grey day I’ve pinned a few studies I made back on Cape Cornwall a few years back that put some strong Cornish colour on the wall.  Oddly enough we were there on the first of November with a temperature (and sun to match) of seventy degrees c.  And ‘the donald’ says global warming doesn’t exist!


A different kind of Cornish

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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.

(c) Sheila Lanyon/DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Sheila Lanyon/DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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!

Reports greatly exaggerated…

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Were I to have any regular followers on social media they might be forgiven for thinking I’d stepped off the planet of late!  However it has simply been a case of the long awaited fortnight in Cornwall at the lovely Brisons Veor finally coming to pass.  Its not that one cannot get online there (actually there was a decent BT ‘hotspot’ one could purchase) but simply that other things took precedence.

So a self imposed ‘media exile’ then.  An opportunity to reflect and enjoy this most magical of locations.  I’m sitting at a small desk that faces south from Cape Cornwall towards Sennen and beyond to Lands End. Through the window is nothing but the heaving swell of the ocean as it makes the shore in Priests Cove, below me and away to my left. It is the kind of cool, windy, misty and dank early evening in late autumn that this most westerly part of England excels in and from the vantage point of this small and warm cottage completely blissful.

Today we took a trip out, away from our immediate surroundings that we have come to know pretty well. We took in the Terry Frost centenary exhibition that is taking place across the Newlyn Art Gallery and The Exchange in Penzance. It was organised between Tate St. Ives and Leeds City Gallery and in truth the whole enterprise seems a little off kilter, maybe the product of too many hands on the tiller or just as possibly not just one with a firm grip on it.

Then again I should confess from the get go that I’m not a massive fan of the artist whose work has always seemed to me to be either a little too hesitant or overly designed…and whose exuberant use of strong primaries is a little too much ‘in one’s face’ for my taste. That said the early work, focussed mainly on the space at The Exchange is very solid and does contain enough strong paintings to put him into the premiership in fifties British painting.  For me it is the pictures towards the back half of the decade that really hit the mark.


In these the handling is freer, the gestures less forced and the colour is turned down a few notches.  Force 8 is a pretty fitting encapsulation of what it seems to me that the best of Frost is all about.  The ground is wristy and provisonal, the marks positive and yet unforced, and there’s a really intriguing landscape/figure dichotomy that hovers around the composition that keeps the viewer guessing…and looking which of course is ultimately what its all about. I guess that the sixties were a busy time for the artist, he seems to have been whizzing about all over the place, not least the States, and the influences from here, coupled with a move to acrylics, clearly impacted on him.  Not for the best in my view as the paintings are overtaken by the intensity of the colour, what the gallery handout calls “its presence as a character in itself”…and the works correspondingly have a strong designed element.  Now in the hands of a hard headed and unsentimental character like Frank Stella this ‘character’ was wrangled and rail roaded into submission in the 1960’s to make convincing pictures but with his adherence to forms and feelings from outside the rectangle of the painting there is often a falling back on earlier ‘boats’ or suchlike in Frost’s work that seems rather formulaic and a tad repetitive. The addition of a couple sausage like constructions do little to suggest a sustained engagement in seeking out new forms or invention.


All that said overall it was a show of warmth and delight in the sheer physicality of the act of painting…and given the confines of the two venues and the absence of several key works perhaps shouldn’t be raked over as grudgingly as I have!  In any event from my brief acquaintance with him I doubt Frost would have given a toss what I think!

Its worth mentioning in passing that the little display of monoprints by Ben Sanderson in the picture room at Newlyn were a delight…there’s something of the spirit of Kevin Coyne at work here.


They have a lightness of touch and a spontaneous wit that is, if you’ve ever tried it, much harder to pull off than might be imagined.