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. 


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.

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…

Enclosures, Elsewhere

Due to a last minute swerve away from the original plan…I find myself back at the Lion + Lamb for Enclosures, Elsewhere a painting show that takes a clip from a John Clare poem as its starting point. The intriguing thesis sketched out by artist and curator James Fisher in a discussion around the work elided Clare’s return from the asylum in High Beech near Epping to his home near Peterborough a deluded walk of four days with his interest in, and opposition to, the Enclosures Act that parcelled up the agricultural land and in another twist introduces the idea of Elsewhere in a fascination with the circumstances and contexts surrounding Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise. Though these antecedents are important to the curator the works in the show can be considered outwith the thesis however at several junctures in examining the work some echoes of these hightide moments of the romantics do come back to haunt one’s consideration of the works on show.

Paula Kane, Copper Tree, 2014, oil on linen, 46 x 33 cm.


None more so perhaps than in the case of Paula Kane. Her Copper Tree is amongst the most delicate of pictures on display with a deftness of handling and knowing references to the romantics that recall say Dahl for example. Her other piece in the show is a drawing that she described herself as a landscape we might feel we know but of course we cannot as it is entirely imagined…though the wan and watery light that filters through the trees and illuminates the space seems all too real.


(left) Andrew Cranston, Fair Is Foul, 2014 oil & varnish on canvas (right) Peter Ashton-Jones, The Edge, 2013, oil on canvas 40 x 51 cm.

If Kane’s Copper Tree exhibits considerable craft (an aspect of this exhibition that is underlined in much of the selection) then Andrew Cranston‘s Fair Is Foul might be taken for cack handed if one didn’t know of his pedigree.  In this tree paint is essentially playing a role as proxy for itself. A big gloop is situated in his typically claustrophobic space though ostensibly it is a landscape (after all it has a clear horizon line, that as discussion convenor Juan Bolivar pointed out is rather a rarity in a show ostensibly devoted to landscapes). It is a picture that repays hard looking at and, despite it being so curiously fangled, a rather spectacularly good one.

(left) Simon Burton, Divine, 2014, oil on linen, 75 x 60 cm. (centre) Peter Ashton- Jones, Paper Aeroplane, 2013, oil on canvas, 35 x 46 cm. (right) James Fisher, Jenny Nettles, 2014, oil on linen, 52 x 57 cm.

The show as a whole is hard to fathom at many junctures with intriguing and elusive images that incorporate such diverse genres as portraiture in the case of Simon Burton‘s Divine to near total abstraction in Fisher’s own case. His Jenny Nettles suggests that MC Escher may have got himself organised a bit, tidied up his act and learnt his painting craft…the geometries meticulously and fastidiously played out on top of, and intermingled, in a gorgeous ground. This painting got at the ideas the artist articulated in his introduction to the show in an elegant and yet quite visceral manner.  Quite how the picture plays out the story of the Scots lassie of the old fiddle tune or the daddy long legs that takes the title for its nickname or even whether the artist is making reference to these (a spider’s web?) is up for grabs though I doubt there is anything left to chance here.   In Burton’s picture the subject, a miner, is emerging from the gloom (more claustrophobia) in a wraithlike manner, with tentative, sensitive handling akin, I felt, to much of Leonard McComb‘s work (in my book quite a compliment!).

Elusive is a good epithet too when considering Sarah R Key‘s painting The Second Novelty At Square Pier in which a structure that might be taken for a watchtower owes as much to a medieval torture device (as the artist explained) and is situated in another spectacularly rendered ground that also contains what might or might not be a portal to another place…the ‘elsewhere’ of the show’s title perhaps.

Sarah R Key, The Second Novelty At Square Pier, 2014, acrylic on panel, 61 x 61 cm.

Amongst the other pictures here Peter Ashton-Jones particularly intrigues with The Edge , a painting with yet more dark, gloomy claustrophobic space… Though miraculously as one moves away from the canvas there is a hint of light…that promises maybe some redemption if we can just take those few steps further away from the thicket depicted. His other canvas Paper Aeroplane is just plain wacky though Fisher suggested a kind of parallel with a Bonnard in which the artist’s hands appear holding the sketchbook in which the picture beyond is being created, the space between the subject and its creator compacted…but then again here we are talking paper aeroplane that conceals the landscape beyond and may or may not be the artists hands that made or even are holding it.

Paul Rosenbloom, Trace 1 C, 2014, oil on canvas, 20 x 25 cm.

Great grounds are a feature too of Paul Rosenbloom‘s contributions to this exhibition, though in his case the four Trace canvases repeat a set of motifs that are far removed, at least for this viewer, from their origins that I imagine may be rooted in geological material of some sort. In these paintings I felt that they might be models for larger works…a different kind of ‘elsewhere’ maybe?   Joe Fan‘s two inclusions were an interesting counterpoint to most of the rest of the exhibit. One a drawing, the other ‘a sculpture’, and the parentheses are important here for this curious little tower of oil paint entitled Midnight In Jerusalem we discovered is a process object, quite literally the remnant scrapings from the palette (and not ‘normally’ considered a work by the artist himself). Apparently inspiration occasionally to Cranston the work was an enigmatic offering that sits alone and adrift in the space reminding us of the act of painting perhaps, those solitary hours wrestling with the ‘stuff’.  Rosebud, Fan’s small drawing showed us a figure floating in that most constrained of ‘landscape’ spaces, a snowglobe.  Laden with references and allusions to Kane, Welles, and the film and its myriad of interpretations this modest little conte drawing is another delight.

(foreground) Joe Fan, Midnight In Jerusalem, 2014, oil paint (background) Sarah R Key – as before
(left) Kate Belton, Mutation, 2014, mixed media 52.5 x 52.5 cm. (right) Paula Kane, Pond Gazing, 2014, mixed media, 59 x 84 cm.

I struggled a little with the one other work in the exhibition Kate Belton‘s Mutation. Not for quality but rather because this piece had for me something of a post pop sensibility and mixed photographic and cut out and collaged elements that used silhouettes and graphic devices in a more decorative way.  Perhaps the intention was to play with, and privilege, a very different kind of making, in which case it certainly succeeded, but for me the work seemed a little out of place in this selection. But then again as the curator suggests in his press statement “the works in this show aim to exploit tensions between two territories – the painting and the site, which are not always landscapes per se”…

nor paintings, drawings, sculptures, figurative or abstract per se either…or elsewhere…

Joe Fan, Rosebud, 2014, conte on handmade paper

Enclosures, Elsewhere runs till next Saturday 19th April…pub opening hours…cut along and have a drink and check it out!