British Painting in the 80’s – part 5.

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.

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.

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…