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…

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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’.

their judgement of artwork may be faulty…

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16 works in progress, Wonky Geometry series, each 30 x 30 cms., 2018

“their judgement of artwork may be faulty”…Many, many moons ago I worked in an art gallery, and the Director (just returned from NYC) gave me a piece of paper.  Its here now…

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Although it was written (gawd help us) nearly forty years back much of it, despite the many changes in the art world, still stands.  It was the dealer Ivan Karp who, having had enough of artists pestering him, wrote it to stem the flow.  Goodness knows what he’d make of today’s art market.  But its that last sentence that resonates with me right now.  And what stands for dealers and gallerists and curators (what vulgar, squalid words they are!) equally stands for judges in competitions. I know many of them are artists too, but generally they are those whose primary objective is not making work but ‘networking’ and ‘brown nosing’  the aforementioned thus rendering their judgment equally faulty.  Its in my mind as yet another competition has passed me by…or not (as I’ve observed of late, that many of these exercises in fleecing artists of their meagre funds, they often ‘extend’ deadlines to pull in yet more gullible punters) and I marvel at the plausibilty of all of us – I’m not immune as I, albeit occasionally, do it myself – in falling for the lure of bright lights and associated fame promised by the tiny odds of success.

Truckin’ On…

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Etienne, Catherine, Leonard, Acrylic & watercolour on paper, 130 x 90, 2018

Trucking’ On…Time passes, and seems to do so with increasing rapidity as one ages.  It seems only a few weeks back that it was Christmas and we are rapidly approaching the longest day of the year after which, as my dear old mother was fond of saying, the nights will start drawing in.  I often feel that I don’t get much work made in a year but perhaps thats simply because I dither about making pieces (like the one above) that take for ever to get to a point that I’m (more or less) happy with.  This is the final outcome of the three banners that were to have gone to Honfleur (see previous posts).  Whether or not they may be able to be shown in the return leg exhibition is a moot point as space will likely be at a premium.  In the end I titled them after the three major churches of the town of Honfleur that I viewed one morning from the town’s best vantage point, Mont Jolie.

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And today I’m even more aware of time passing as its ten years since Esjborn Svensson died, tragically in an accident.  E.S.T. were always one of my favourite bands since I first came across them in the early 1990’s and his death was a sad reminder of tempus fugit.  All the more so a decade on.  Yesterday I played the above discs as I worked but today the maudlin’ might be a tad too much. So let’s just keep truckin’ on…

Making Colour Sing…

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A Sundoor In The Harbour, Acrylic & watercolour on paper, 124.5 x 30 cm. 2017

Make Colour Sing is the title that Laine Tomkinson has chosen for the exhibition she has curated at the Nottingham Society of Artists gallery on Castle Gate in the city. It’s an intriguing title, not least as alongside all the works in which colour features as a significant force, there are lovely etchings by Michelle Keegan that are resolutely monochrome – raising the old chestnut as to whether black is ‘properly’ a colour.  My own pieces use a raft of colour combinations that bounce about in a reckless manner.  This piece – A Sun Door In The Harbour – pretty much nails colour confusions and plays them off against one another within a loose geometric arrangement.  The show features Laine’s work, a delightful and playful exploration of form and gesture in her chosen medium of screen printing. And much else besides; Martin Heron with a range of equally delicate and intense repeated drawn elements that coalesce into form that is almost as solid as his sculptures yet shimmer and dissolve before your eyes; John Stockton‘s collaged photographs that evidence strong graphic style; Andy Parkinson‘s obsessive preoccupation with repetitive mark making that gradually off registers  to compelling effect.  There are plenty of other marvellous things on offer.  Laine asked me to write a short introduction to the show that I’m reposting below:

A gutsy, powerful and emotional vocal performance is a stirring thing…be it Beyoncé’s Check On It or Handel’s Oratorio and so it is with colour in art, whether it’s loud vibrant hues played off against one another or quiet sensitive interactions modulated by tone and texture.  Either way for many artists – and especially those gathered together by Laine Tomkinson here – Make Colour Sing, her chosen title, seems so appropriate.

Laine has ranged both close to home and across the nations of these isles to source artists for whom colour interactions are either the main spring of their interests or at the very least a vital component of the mix that makes up the work.  Not surprisingly, given her own intuitive, sensitive process for making paintings and prints, several of those she has assembled allow chance to play a significant role in the creation of work.  Insofar as colour is concerned this opens up possibilities that the artist might not have envisaged for herself and truly reveals fresh opportunities for the colours to sing out – in both close harmonies and also, occasionally, dissonances that act as counterpoint and contrast.  

Of course for some of those invited the procedures are much stricter. It may, in musical terms, be much more a closer reading of the score, indeed a literal translation of it where nothing is left to chance, each colour combination the result of finely considered adjustments, every action pondered at length. 

Either way, and acknowledging that for some it might be a case of both approaches deployed together, colour remains an elusive, slippery customer.  Over several centuries now distinguished figures from Goethe to Albers have tried to pin it down, codify and tame it only for it to spring back as vibrant and unruly as ever.  It has many voices and plenty of diverse ditties, from every avenue of the creative impulse, and quite a few have been assembled here too.