It struck me this morning that I was pretty much doing exactly the same thing on this day as I might have been forty years ago… After all I’d put on headphones to listen to the new Caravan album Paradise Filter (enterprisingly done through online pledges) and got stuck into work on my Cornish Coast paintings that, broadly speaking, reprise those hard edge pictures from my student days. In that way it very occasionally does, a forgotten memory of a conversation from all that time ago came back to me. It was my personal tutor suggesting that the paintings of that period in my student days were a bit ‘old fashioned’ and this hit home hard as a twenty year old who was determined to be at the cutting edge of what was going on at the time. So I changed tack completely, something that it’s true has hounded me ever since, but not particularly something I either wanted, or needed, to do at that moment. And maybe that’s why I’ve started these (alongside the ‘prompt’ from Terry)…unfinished business after four decades have passed!
Of course something else that was more or less ‘beyond the pail’ back then was figuration, it simply got panned by most of us, especially my student colleagues, if not by the staff (though curiously they rarely revealed their work or their passions, that in several cases I now know were for a kind of impressionistic figuration). But for us youngsters it had to be big, aggressive and strident and if it were painting it had to be abstraction. As I got older I came round to figurative work (even dallied with it myself for a brief period) especially the more crafted and painterly (I still struggle a fair bit with the illustrative and academic) and nowadays take in painting more or less as it comes, regardless of that particular distinction.
And that brings me to Ill-Tricklit, new paintings by Nicola Williams, currently showing at the New Court Gallery in Repton, one of our region’s better kept secrets, being a modest but one of the most beautifully presented exhibition spaces we have hereabouts. I’m fascinated by the resurgence of painting amongst younger generation artists and by the breadth of practice in the medium. It seems as if the freedoms that have been accorded these artists by the demise of the ‘Canon’, that was having it grip on us wrested away around the time of my student days and has accelerated over the period, has allowed the exploration of form, process and content to be thoroughly mixed up and chaotically articulated (a contradiction in terms I know but…). The work on show had all of these characteristics in abundance. In the bigger paintings especially there was a hazy, undefined space in which painterly devices of all kinds (though often with an emphasis on the inherent properties of gloss) were cheek by jowl with misty narratives plundered from a host of sources from 70’s children’s safety films to modernist architecture. Inter alia what a profound effect those old safety films had on that generation of children!
In viewing several of Williams’ pictures I was in part reminded of the kind of space that Ron Kitaj was fond of creating in his larger narrative paintings and that prompted a remembrance of the Narrative Paintings show that Timothy Hyman curated at the Arnolfini, Bristol back in 1979 (and that toured to London, Stoke and Edinburgh). I think that Williams’ pictures would be a good ‘fit’ for a later generational selection to join the two that Hyman had identified as having “a figure, or several figures caught up in some kind of story”. In that show the older generation were essentially ‘the School of London’ team (besides Kitaj, there was Hockney, Andrews and Paolozzi) whilst the younger generation were made up of painters who had – at the time – not much had their due, such as Jeffrey Camp and Ken Kiff (who went on to get theirs) and those such as Andy Jackowski who never have had the recognition they deserve. Two of the younger painters Peter’s Darach and Sylviere were cooking up space and imagery in a similar way (as was Hyman himself) to Nicola’s but down all these years the knowing use of pure painterly tropes is something they would never have dreamed of adopting at that time.
My two penn’orth on the show at New Court is that where the larger pictures begin to really breathe is in a work like Maud’s Transmitter where the more fiddly gloss tricks are very much subservient to the picture content and where the object dominates the space so that some of the drawing issues that I felt cropped up in some of the figure work are pushed aside. That said in a set piece like Railway Tracks the two figures seem to be drawn almost as quotations and have an illustrative function so that they shoulder less of a burden in the mix so that there is plenty to admire in the work. It’s curious (and somewhat crazy juxtapositions) made it for me the strongest and most compelling of the larger pieces in which materials float in a flat colour ground punctuated by all manner of both paint incidents and odd objects ranging from traffic cones to two crows (or ravens?) perched in a tree several sizes too small for them and surveying the scenes below. In this work and in passages in several others I found myself thinking of my old friend the Glaswegian turned Leicestershire based painter Peter Wilson whose canvases from the 70’s and 80’s share some characteristics with those here (and for me at least, that’s quite a compliment).
Perhaps one of the strongest works, as well as being the most chilling, was also one of the most recent, presaging a bright future for an artist of substantial ability. In The Finishing Line the figure is gruesomely well realised (what’s left of it) and there’s a curious and distinctive light cast over the closely cropped scene. Painterly tricks have all but been abandoned, or at least tamed, in favour of getting the mood just frighteningly right. Process, form, colour, facture are conjoined with idea and title to good effect. I mentioned Kitaj earlier and Hyman used a quote of his from 1976 to conclude his own text in the Narrative Paintings catalogue…”the seam never really gave out…it’s not as if an instinct which lies in the race of men from way before Sassetta and Giotto has run it’s course. It won’t. Don’t listen to the fools who say that pictures of people can be of no consequence…there is much to be done.” And there still is, as this show suggests. Get along to it if you can… (Thanks to Louisa Chambers and the artist for allowing the use of the photographs)