British Painting in the 80’s – part 5.

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The Sense Of Sight, Christopher Le Brun, 197 x 193.5 cm., oil on canvas

Mai Dolgok (Current Affairs), opening at MOMA, Oxford in March 1987, curated by David Elliot and Lewis Biggs for the British Council and toured to Hungary is a good bell weather show for what might be considered the ‘gold standard’ in British contemporary work by the second half of the decade.  It ranged widely over practice of all kinds but of the twenty six selected artists barely four might be called ‘abstract’ painters.  For although Gillian Ayres and Howard Hodgkin can be counted fairly squarely Ian McKeever and Christopher Le Brun occupy a more ambiguous space.  It is a measure of where things had moved by that time that Art & Language (Baldwin and Ramsden) exhibited canvases that were more overly ‘abstract’ than either of the foregoing under their post-modern conceptual and political riffing – in this case on the work of Jackson Pollock.

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Cry, Jennifer Durrant, 265 x 288 cm., acrylic on canvas, 1985

In the Spring of 1987 Jennifer Durrant’s solo show opened at The Serpentine.  This was a tour de force, work of astonishing ambition and scale.  Michael Harrison’s eloquent eulogy to Cry, painted in 1985 (and exhibited at the John Moores) suggested its complexity and vast depth.

But then…less than twelve months later comes Freeze in 1988…akin to the advent of punk in the music of the seventies, sweeping all before it, drowning out other voices and creating a false sense of redundancy rather than welcoming the plurality that characterises the art of this century.  Of course some quality emerged from it…Fiona Rae for one, who went on in the 1990’s to make intelligent and original paintings.

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Towards the end of the decade re-affirmations of the continued vigour of abstraction came from a less likely source, and, one suspects, was less visible to many (most) in the metropolis.  In a relatively new initiative to re-engage with municipal galleries around the country the Arts Council worked with enterprising curators to mount significant touring shows.  One of the fruits of this was  The Presence Of Painting, curated by Mike Tooby and mounted first at the Mappin in Sheffield.  Billed by Mike as “Aspects of British Abstraction 1957 -1988” it featured many of those mentioned hitherto in its 43 selected painters, and over half the works featured had been painted over the decade in discussion.  At the heart of his argument was a passionate belief that such work had struggled through the late sixties and seventies to be thoroughly appreciated, even especially visible and that certain modes of making dominated by process had rather buried a more plural and inclusive notion of what abstraction could be.  For audiences in Sheffield, Newcastle and Birmingham it made for compelling viewing.  I recall being pulled up short by an astonishingly austere but exceptionally beautiful painting made in 1987 by Peter Joseph, a painter I’d quite forgotten at that time (although he had shown up in BAS 2).  An artist not previously known to me also made quite an impact – Yuko Shiraishi whose quiet, completive paintings showed a deft and lyrical understanding of colour.  Shiraishi continues to this day to be woefully under appreciated (her show earlier this year at Annely Juda was a beauty).  

Following hot on the heels of this show came The Experience Of Painting, another AC initiative but this time working with Mike Collier at the Laing in Newcastle and bringing Mel Gooding to the party to write the catalogue introduction.  In this show eight abstract artists were brought together in a more in depth exploration of their craft rather than the larger survey format.  All but one, Francis Davison were in the earlier show and all still working at the time of the exhibition (sadly Davison had died back in 1984).  Although opportunities to view a significant grouping of works by Bridget Riley, Jennifer Durrant, Gillian Ayres, Albert Irvin and Kenneth Martin had been evident over the decade it was good to see more of James Hugonin’s and especially Edwina Leapman’s canvases.  Together the eight of them were properly represented (and it was a revelation to see Davison’s late collages) as well as enjoying the catalogue where Mel Gooding’s introduction was coupled with his interviews with the artists to great affect – giving voice to them and their ideas and working methods and providing me at least with material I still quote to this day.

It’s worth noting that in addition to these shows both Tooby and Collier had presented opportunities to significant abstract painters over the same period.  I recall a large exhibition of Brian Fielding in Sheffield around the time of his premature death that revealed his emergence as a significant figure and suggested that more was to come from him.  In 1989 in Newcastle Collier championed a show by Liverpool based Terry Duffy. Although uneven in quality it revealed him to be a lyrical and intelligent painter

The John Moores Liverpool Exhibition was something of a barometer for what had happened in painting though it seemed often to lag slightly behind rather than ahead of prevailing trends.  Hoyland had taken first prize in 1982, just as the figuration craze following on from the ‘new Spirit’ was really getting into gear.  In 85 Bruce McLean surfing the semi figuration wave took the prize with an enormous canvas that aped the fluid, one touch, abstract gestural approach but with overt figural elements.  In 1987 Tim Head, an artist whose career had hitherto shown a remarkable diversity (encompassing installation, projection, print, photography and painting) won with Cow Mutations a painting as much conceptual and procedural and far removed from the concerns of most ‘abstract painters’.  By the end of the decade the figuration craze reached its apogee with Lisa Milroy’s Handles though it is interesting to note that quite a few abstract artists were pushing their way back into the show as a whole.  Jeff Dellow, Michael Bennett, Madelaine Strindberg, all showed tough, vigorous and intelligent canvases

As the decade drew to a close I had less opportunity to see work particularly in the capital.  Two shows stick in my mind however.  At Nottingham’s Castle Museum David Austen showed small canvases that, as has become increasingly apparent over subsequent decades, were hardly abstract though its easy to assume that Man without Skin could be a non figurative image.  Back in London at The Serpentine Susan Bonvin’s Colour In Context provided an opportunity for her to present complex structures that showed a really confident exploration of colour relationships in space. 

So by the beginning of the nineties what might be said about abstract painting?  We were moving inexorably towards the market completely defining the public discourse and a concomitant disinterest by it in “abstract’ painting as other than what Graham Crowley calls ‘wall furniture’.  There was a gathering consensus towards a complete detachment from any demarcation between figuration and abstraction, that has flourished in the present century.  And a climate developing in which painting generally has to take its place alongside other media (that for the most part doesn’t yet include the digital in 1990).  Everything goes in phases so it was only really in the early nineties that Feminist perspectives re-emerged overtly in exhibitions such as  (dis) parities at the Mappin in Sheffield and despite many advances, including ever larger cohorts of female students dominating degree courses, women artists are still underrepresented in most contexts. 

Perhaps most significantly slowly and surely abstraction in painting was taking its cues more from academia than from the market and more opportunities to view it and promote discourse around it have almost certainly led us to the place we see it in today.

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Ol’ rough cartography…

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It’s been a while…since I last posted one of the Rough Cartography series.  This is one of three OS maps that used to live on the walls of a department of the University of Sheffield.  I think one of my friends rescued them from the bin for me.  They were rolled up in one of the many cardboard tubes of stuff that is part of my ‘back end of 2018  tidy up’…and I’ve decided to give them a sprucing up and create a kind of Cornwall triptych.  Nearly (gawd help us) twenty years back I was asked to give a talk to our Foundation students about sketchbooks and took quite a few along to the session.  One of the questions was “why do you colour in so many maps”?  I couldn’t rightly say then…nor now really!

British Painting…part 4…

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By 1984 The British Art Show had rolled around for its second outing – this time starting in England’s second city before visiting Edinburgh, Sheffield & Southampton.  A three strong selection panel (comprised of Jon Thompson, Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton and Alexander Moffat) chose eighty artists of whom a dozen or so (definitions again) might be termed abstract painters.  What is more striking by comparison with 1979 is the effusion of figuration, over twenty of whom were included.  Although none of the selectors referenced it directly, they all, in one way or another, gave a nod to The New Spirit show in their texts.  Some were fairly ‘classical’ (Kitaj, Auerbach, Kossoff), others Expressionistic (Bellany, Rego, Kiff), and there were the Scots, oddly enough Bruce McLean heading them up having returned to painting, along with newbies Stephen Campbell and Adrian Wiszniewski.  And frankly much else besides from conceptualists Terry Atkinson and Art & Language to the really odd stuff that the ‘new figuration’ could turn up…John Hyatt, John Yeadon, Graham Durward and Peter Bailey.

Those abstract painters who were included were very much the established ‘team’.  John Hoyland naturally enough, Gillian Ayres, Hodgkin, and from that East End, lesser feted group, Basil Beattie.  Sitting somewhat aside from them were the cool minimalists, Alan Charlton, Peter Joseph and John Carter and those on the fringes of abstraction by this time…John Walker, Ian McKeever and, reflecting the still small chinks of light in female representation (13 in all), Therese Oulton.

In terms of encouraging and spreading the understanding of abstraction the emergence of cheaper colour printing began in earnest in the later seventies and impacted on the production of catalogues, pamphlets and postcards. When the Jacobs Gallery began producing small catalogues each of her exhibitors benefitted from the inclusion of several colour images too.  The catalogue of this second British Art Show reflected this with a goodly number of colour images spread through the publication rather than, as before, a single section.  It was a good job colour printing was getting cheaper as budgets (especially in the public sector galleries) were severely constrained in the first half of the decade as recession raged.  Indeed the whole political scene was torrid over much of the decade, beginning with the Falklands War, continuing with the Miners Strike, the Greenham Common protests and ending with the rumblings of the Poll Tax revolts that ushered in the 1990’s.  

Walker, John, b.1939; Labyrinth II

One of the major events of the mid decade were the simultaneous shows by John Walker ,of paintings at the Hayward and prints at the Tate, in 1984.  Walker had announced himself as one of our pre-eminent painters back in the late sixties at the Hayward with huge canvases that combined oddly shaped trapezoids bunched in groups set against rugged colour fields.  Following prolonged sojourns in Australia and the States…he returned with paintings that, whilst still abstracted, were also struggling to accommodate the figurative impulses that the ‘new spirit’ had released.  In particular he revelled in a long held obsession with the old Spanish Masters, Velasquez and Goya, as well as drawing upon imagery drawn from the Pacific cultures.  These paintings were increasingly mixed together with religious text extracts,  still very big, rugged and muscular, exploiting tonality and modelling in a way quite alien to many of the other leading figures in abstraction and set a challenge that has rarely (if ever) been matched in subsequent decades for painting that is both utterly authentic and painfully honest on the grand scale.

One of those painters who had learnt a lot from the example of Walker was Hugh O’Donnell.  O’Donnell was the only artist to escape relatively unscathed from the critics mauling of the 1980 Guggenheim show.  Subsequently his star was on the rise and he was taken up by Marlborough with whom he had shows in New York and, in the spring of 1985, London.  The work in this show was fresh and vital, often as Ronald Rees put it in the catalogue “a new tactile quality and painterliness [with] a strong sense of immediacy”.  The strong graphic, design elements went far beyond where most of the younger generation discussed so far had dared at the time and that painters like Hopkins and Mali Morris would venture late into the subsequent decade.

The difficulty of definitions actually increased over the decade as the continuing fall out from The New Spirit exerted its influence.  Robert Ayers and Tony Godfrey put together a show at The Serpentine that ran through mid-winter in 1984/5 titled Landscape Memory & Desire of what had been, essentially ’abstract’ painters a few years earlier but now fell under a rubric of new-romanticism, Michael Porter, Andrew Mansfield, Maria Chevska, Peter Lewis, Theresa Oulton and Adrian Searle.  All were, in one degree or another, making ‘abstract’ paintings albeit several of them flirting with and even overtly embracing clear elements of figuration.  In truth it was less the examples of figuration in New Spirit (few of whom were interested in landscape) than than the licence that it gave to artists whose inclinations were more towards a far more rooted desire for English romanticism.  The subsequent career trajectories of both Porter and Oulton saw them push further in the direction they had set here though for them and Mansfield the tide of fashion has seen them rather marginalised despite their evident quality as painters.

The fluid, seemingly one touch, exploration of form and colour exemplified by artists such as John McLean and Mali Morris in quite a few shows over the decade is another means of abstract picture making that has been somewhat marginalised, other than in recent works by Peter Joseph.  It takes a certain kind of ‘commercial’ dealer to make a really long term commitment to an artist to allow them the freedom to make work that sits outside what is pretty much ‘allowable’ by the official organs of taste.  In Joseph’s case the Logsdail’s at their Lisson Gallery, a nice irony really when the ‘market’ is seen (mostly) by painters as a bad thing.

Shave, Terry, b.1952; Inferno Storms
Inferno Storms, Terry Shave

Opportunities to get back to Birmingham were few, despite it being less than an hours drive away.  But in the latter part of 1985 Clyde Hopkins show and in the spring of 1986, Terry Shave and then Barrie Cook presented excellent opportunities at Ikon for studying abstraction.  Three very distinctive and quite different approaches to the genre each had qualities to admire.  Hopkins was already beginning to strengthen the structures of his canvases, although the gestural marks and colour clouds were still much in evidence.  Shave presented large almost monumental canvases where the neo-romantic spirit was informed with a deft, dynamic touch and suffused with a marvellous light. Sadly much of his work of the time was destroyed later but the canvas Inferno Storms, over three metres high gives an indication of the vigorous and confident qualities in the painting.

Cook’s show was more of a retrospective but as with several others discussed here (Peter Joseph, Alan Green, Alan Charlton) and others – I’m thinking of both Edwina Leapman and James Hugonin, there was a consistent and admirable single-mindedness to the means, methods and outcomes of his deliberations that fads and fashions were unable to significantly disturb, from the beginnings of their careers right through to today.  Indeed these painters, whose work is determinedly and doggedly non -representational tend not to be especially clubbable so often sit outside the loosely formed groups and survey shows to their detriment as painters of considerable talent. However as the decade pushed on into its latter stages there was a growing trend towards re-evaluation of abstraction, indeed of painting, in the broader context of  contemporary art practice as a multi-faceted, post-modernist and plural activity…of which more in part 5, the (mercifully!) last part of this series…

 

The terrors of twilight…

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I’m not a great fan of the winter months – like quite a few painters I suspect.  The absence of light gets to me.  Not so much in the early morning sessions as the coming of day sort of makes up for the gloom.  No it’s more that time around three in the afternoon on dull days like today when the darkness starts properly creeping back.  And the getting up early hasn’t helped of course as I’m getting tired with it.  I do have my lovely daylight lamp to offset the gathering gloom but my productivity takes quite a dive.

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So I tend to hunker down after lunchtime, sitting in the kitchen, tinkering with my Wonky Geo‘s.  There’s 58 completed in the series now – and here’s 54 to 56 for perusal.  I’ve said before that these are the fun things where ideas, even bloody silly ones, can be tested out.  And the pile of uncompleted ones is heavy, like properly heavy, now.  Goodness knows how many I’ll have eventually!

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Splendid Stuff…

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Gawd awful journey into Leicester last Saturday but worth every minute to support Tristram Aver‘s quite astonishing project on show over the past weekend at LPW.  Please go online and support it…actually he’s doing you a favour as each of the (terrific) prints is priced at a measly £10 a pop…less than a round of drinks with two or three friends.

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It’s one of those processes that’s been around for an awfully long time but the beauty of a good linocut can’t be topped…and Tris has made a thousand crackers!  Go on…Xmas is coming…give yer pals something really worth having!

British Painting in the 80’s – part 3

IMG_1403Moving into 1981 the real ‘biggie’ exhibition that captured everyone’s attention was the Royal Academy’s A New Spirit In Painting show that opened early in the year.  Looking back it was a really skewed oddball selection.  Heavy on the Germans (they put up a lot of the cash that enabled the then strapped RA to mount it), the Americans and British following on and with the rest of Europe behind them (other than Matta no one from the other continents featured) it was also conspicuous in the total absence of women painters (even in 1981 something of a shock) and artists of colour (not so surprising at that point, viz. Bowling RA in my first post on this subject). It has been suggested that in part the relative reductiveness of the selection with regard to abstraction reflected Nicholas Serota kicking back against the predilections of his predecessors at Tate, Sir Norman Reid, and the recently (1980 ) appointed Alan Bowness.  More likely it was more his tastes and those of co-curators Norman Rosenthal and Christos M. Joachimides, and a general desire to stir things up a bit.  It’s rather forgotten now but alongside the emergence of ‘new’ figuration (that dominated its reception and discussion) there were resolutely abstract or – perhaps more accurately – non-representational painters featured in the show.  Brice Marden and Robert Ryman represented the US in the reductive nature of painting, whilst Gotthard Graubner and Alan Charlton did a similar job for the Europeans.  Charlton continues to be one of our most single minded painters, confining himself to a range of greys, expressed in singular forms, often in groups and/or simple triangular forms and far better recognised in Europe than the UK though Annely Juda is currently running a retrospective show. Besides these the others were an odd bunch, late De Koonings, Frank Stella – moving into full on lurid construction mode and Howard Hodgkin, who seemed to be very much an ‘outlier’ – thoughtful and intelligible, considered and elegant pictures that seemed firmly within the ‘canon’ rather than outside it, obliquely or not.  Nonetheless what this extravaganza did, more than anything was usher in a period in which figuration, narratives and textuality re-established themselves as values, if not the ‘key’ values, in contemporary painting.

Not that the signs weren’t already out there if one knew where to look.  In my neck of the woods (the Midlands) there was the ambitious painter Trevor Halliday working out of Birmingham.  Of the same generation as John Walker (who also hailed from the city) Trevor had steadily established a reputation, much of it resting on his solo exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in 1974, where the large (typically 2 by 4 metres), ribbon like paintings of sophisticated handling and carefully modulated construction were quite unlike much else in UK abstraction at the time.  In the latter part of the 70’s his move out of Brum into the countryside to the south saw him virtually disappear from exhibiting for a few years after which he emerged with a new painting (as part of a selection of historical material at the invitation of the local Museum & Art Gallery), still large in size but with an expressive figuration and a classical theme to boot…viz. Diana & Actaeon, replete with  three of his hounds.

The change of tone that the ‘New Spirit’ ushered in would quickly transform the exhibition scene over the coming years but in the early part of the decade abstraction still had a prominent place in the UK scene.  In many cases it was the commercial gallery sector that led the way.  The Rowan Gallery had been around for quite a while (and had been substantially involved in bringing Bridget Riley to prominence as well as the New Generation sculptors). Another significant venue for abstraction was Annely Juda that, in one incarnation or another has been doing a vital job for abstraction since Annely Juda established herself in 1968 (having previously established the Molton Gallery and operated the Hamilton Galleries).     The pressures of recession saw these two combine for a period (82 to 85) as the Juda Rowan Gallery and it was there I saw Jeremy Moon‘s work in depth for the first time in the spring of 1982. 

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Also having opened back in 1978 by the 80’s the Nicola Jacobs Gallery  was giving abstract painters opportunities, especially a clutch of shows in 1980/81 that gave good gallery exposure to a host of interesting abstract painters.  I saw work there by John McLean, Gary WraggPeter Rippon, Mali Morris, Paul Rosenbloom, the latter showing canvases diametrically different from the works of just a few years earlier.   Where previously he had been making vertiginous ‘allover’ monochrome canvases with heavy impasto these were replaced by delicate marks and dabs of colour in linen.  I’m also pretty sure I saw at least one canvas there by Patrick Jones, a consistently excellent and much underrated painter to this day, not least because his delicate stained canvases have been dreadfully out of fashion for donkey’s years despite being of exceptional quality.  At the Ian Birksted Gallery I first saw the marvellous paintings of William Henderson, still, as his 2015 Bankside show demonstrated, one of our most exciting and accomplished painters.

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Dappled Russets, Patrick Jones, 229.8×177 cm. acrylic on canvas, 1979

The plurality of public venues that were prepared to give artists space and time to experiment were relatively few but they were incredibly energetic.  Robin Klassnik’s Matts Gallery was one such and although the programme was very diverse it did give one painter, Ian McKeever, an opportunity to try out new directions…  I was blown away by his installation work ‘Black & White…or how to paint with a hammer’ that took place there.  There were also chance encounters, a casual visit to Gimpels in 1983 where Caryn Faure-Walker had selected Freya Purdue as one of the younger, less established artists for Stroke, Line & Figure and whose exuberant and delightful abstractions suggested paintings of quality might follow, a hunch that her appearance in Pacesetters V in Peterborough in 1985 confirmed.

Back in the public/artist led sector the vitality of the Acme Gallery that operated between 1976 and 1981, had given some important exposure to several ambitious abstract painters none less so than Gary Wragg whose 1979 exhibition had revealed a substantial talent whose enormous, wrought and expressive canvases teetered on the boundary between figuration and abstraction. One of its later shows, actually two shows, took place in 1980 where Eight Artists:Women:1980 was a declaration of the then, still, precarious and liminal position of women artists.  Amongst the painting were lively and accomplished shaped works by Sarah Greengrass, who sadly died early and Mikey Cuddihy who showed experimental, process driven works that presaged her move into installation and a more overt reference to feminist perspectives later in the decade.  The closure of Acme Gallery perhaps something of a harbinger of what was to come as the vogue for figuration took a hold.

part four on its way shortly…

The ‘I’ series…

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I Felt The Chill Before The Winter Came, Acrylic on Linen, 15 x 15 cm., 2018

Some ways back (around 2006/7) I began making very small pictures by making the odd mark on tiny shop bought stretchers and having them lie around the studio whilst I got on with bigger jobbies.   A little triptych of them sold on our expedition to the ‘Supermarket’ in Sweden in 2010, you can see me pontificating at the event here.  Over the past two years all my other series have rather overwhelmed these but I’m now enjoying ‘tickling up’ a few more.  Its a good way of freeing yourself up whilst in the studio when things don’t seem quite ‘right’.  I took to giving them names of tracks on my iPod beginning with ‘I’.