Bryan Illsley


Daedelus in Stoke Newington by Mel Gooding

Ethics and aesthetics are one. (Wittgenstein)
Trouver une langue. (Rimbaud)

Bryan Illsley is a master of the spontaneous, of the unprecedented, un-anticipated texture and mark, the thing that was never conceived or executed before this gesture of arm and wrist, and which can never be repeated, however many more similar marks will be made after, including those on the same surface, made a few inches away, moments later. Before, now, now, again, now, again, after; a rhythmic dynamic of time is inscribed in these strokes and markings: and an urgency of spirit, a sense of necessity, perhaps, something for the want of something else more complete, more determined; a desperation even, or a defiant exultation! Nothing is premeditated in this process of mark-making, in the brushed scribble and broken inconsistent plane of the paint; no aspect of the final image – an image that is the thing itself, conterminous with the support that carries it – is predetermined.

The perceptual impact of the image-object is immediate: every mark simultaneous in its dynamic presence, there is no point of rest, no beginning or end. You are disconcerted perhaps, but also enthralled, as if you had come across touches and traces sent from who knows who, who knows when, ‘speaking’ (in a manner of speaking) to us from an elsewhere unnameable in an untranslatable tongue. ‘As if’: because, of course, the manner of delivery, the determined dimensions of the canvas support, the title, the apparently arbitrary diversity of texture and scatter of line, colour-smudge and mark, the patches of black, white, colour, half-colour and off-tone are implacably objective aspects of a deeply considered art. Illsley – who is a consummately cunning and resourceful craftsman, a jeweller and a sculptor as well as painter – is nothing if not artful as he dodges familiar categories of genre and style. It constantly takes us by surprise that such an unprecedented thing should have arrived in front of our eyes.

His habitual emphasis on the automatic stroke and action, the spontaneous mark and gesture, might suggest, notwithstanding his creative deliberation and his aesthetic sophistication, something mediumistic about Illsley’s actions as a draughtsman and painter. Or it might bring to mind the aimless, improvised antisigns of certain graffiti, a scatter of scribbles simultaneously signifying something and nothing, presence and absence. Or it might suggest the poignancy of a desperately scribbled doodle, an incipient, unformed, illegible message to its own sender. In fact there may be elements of any or all of these things in an Illsley painting, but its uncanny vitality is the outcome of a canny willingness to admit whatever impulse is necessary to the making of the image, without the let or hindrance of compositional forethought or structural reconsideration.

The emphatic gaucheness of facture that characterises these paintings may remind us also of what William Scott (an artist much admired by Illsley) once called ‘the beauty of the thing badly done’.We have all encountered things like that, wryly cherishing them for their traces of an all-too-human ineptitude of improvisation: a roughly plastered wall, painted quickly with cheap emulsion or whitewash; a surface dabbed or daubed with an arbitrary brush-load to finish off a can of household paint; a broken pot awkwardly stuck back together; sgraffito scratches and scrawls inadequate to the urgency of their message; the odd impersonality and inscrutable purpose of a pencil-scrawled date. The ‘beauty’ of such things lies paradoxically in their artless poignancy, the sense we have of their having been necessary, demanding to be done, but imbued with the accidental grace of immediacy, an idiosyncratic individuality of gesture or expression. Bryan Illsley’s paintings have this strange and compelling beauty, as a matter of (artistic) course.

His paintings (and his drawings, sculptures and ceramics) are, of course, not ‘badly done’ at all; their improvisatory informality is rhetorical, a quality of affective persuasion; they intend to move us, and the manner of their making and its concomitant effects, are in fact consciously expressive simulations of naiveté. As Pausanius, the early Greek travel-writer, observed of the legendary Daedelus: ‘The works of this artist, though they may seem to lack refinement, nevertheless have something of divine inspiration in them.’ For Illsley is that rare artist, like William Blake, who knows precisely what he is up to, without allowing this knowledge to impede the imaginative imperative that demands creative action, whatever its origins in the alternation of uncertain joys and genuine despair, innocence and experience. These paintings present us with images that in their richness – of colour, mark and texture – are correlatives of states of feeling familiar to us; they are metaphors of a human condition, remarkable in the exactitudes of their different and imprecise moods.

Illsley possesses to an extreme degree the quality Keats defined as ‘negative capability’: ‘that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. His abnegation of will is wilful: he repeatedly and bravely courts failure, and sometimes, indeed, comes a cropper. No matter. Quite a few of his paintings owe something of their surface texture and tension to the failure of an earlier work on the reverse of the canvas; in such cases he will have heeded Beckett’s famous injunction: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ There is a paradox at the heart of his project: his paintings must succeed by failing to do what other paintings succeed in doing and which thereby fail because they lack fidelity to a kind of uncertain integrity, and finish things off with a refined and unambiguous definition. Illsley understands the double sting of Dylan’s lines: he ‘knows there’s no success like failure/and that failure’s no success at all’

He is an artist who finds creative advantage in incertitude, mystery and doubt: he allows his chosen media – ‘poor’ materials such as the PVA solutions into which he mixes natural pigments and other ingredients, marble dust, grit, sand, china clay, coloured earths, whiting etc – ‘to find the painting’ (as he puts it). This discovery of the painting is made through the processes of its material preparation and the procedures of its making and marking (including the quick graphite scribbles he habitually adds to its surface). This aleatory approach towards the final image has an inner logic determined by expressive necessity. ’What gets done gets done,’ says Illsley, ‘so things do have a direction.’ It is by indirections that he finds direction out. It is in the rhythms of a perfect spontaneity that he finds it. Medium and technique are the means to unpredictable expressive ends.

Unique and unexpected as they are, these paintings also invite diverse art associations quite other than those with everyday things, banal objects and anonymous purposeless markings, associations which (quite properly) invite comparison with Arte povera. They evoke, for example, recollections of weathered and abraded fresco paintings, and of the subtly-bleached colourism of Piero della Francesca (as we see him today, after five centuries and numerous restorations). They might also recall Morandi’s painterly attention to the surfaces of simple things. And though they have nothing of Ben Nicholson’s cool exactitude and referential linear elegance, they share the sensibility that finds lyrical grace in a pencil line drawn across a variegated textured surface. The stark and poetic primitivism of Tápies also inescapably comes to mind. Illsley works with a knowing awareness of these historical and stylistic traces, these intimations and recognitions, and of how they might fruitfully affect perception of his work.

His own paintings are, of course, resolutely concrete and non-figurative. Such associations as we bring are entirely our own. His paintings make no recourse to subject matter, to existential expressionism, or to any kind of deliberate nature-derived poetic allusiveness: post war abstraction, in either its New York or St Ives manifestations, does not figure in his creative assimilations, in spite of his admiration for some American painters, and despite many years of living and working as an artist craftsman, potter, jeweller and sculptor in St Ives.

Instead, Illsley acknowledges that his project as a painter (it is subtly different with his drawings, sculpture and ceramics, which spring from other sources in his artistic imagination) has its deepest artistic connections to the poetic early modernism of what Camilla Gray described as the great Russian experiment in art. He invokes Malevich and Rodchenko, the former for the resolute spirituality that informs his revolutionary aesthetics and political idealism, the latter for his indefatigable dedication to the physical world and its objects, his visionary craftsmanship and his implacable insistence on the materiality of reality.

There is no contradiction here: rather, these two models represent the terms of an inescapable dialectic, in which truth is discovered in oppositions: not at a median point but as an unceasing dynamic between them. In Illsley’s work, however, it as if the redemptive orders of high modernism – with its spiritual metaphysics (Malevich, Kandinsky, Mondrian) on the one hand, and its materialist ethics (Rodchenko, van Doesberg, Moholy Nagy) on the other – have been recognised and assimilated, and remain instinct within the work, but only to have been abandoned or reduced to poignant traces or fragmented quotations. There is something heroic about this renunciation, this tragic-comic disavowal. But when a great order is abandoned, the truths found in its traces and fragments, however attenuated, may still illuminate the dark, and lift the heart. Like Wallace Stevens’s ‘Connoisseur of Chaos’ he knows

A. A violent order is disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order.
These Two things are one.

Illsley works in identifiable phases, each having an internal consistency and each finding the manner and characteristics of texture, colour and motif that are proper to itself and its expressive purposes. As I have indicated, these series begin, and continue, without benefit of any schematic programme. The cohering concept (impulse might be the more exact term) that creates the unity of a series is discovered in the series or suite as a ‘work in progress’: in the recurrence of a particular manner, of a thickness or thinness of painterly application, say, or in a contrast between them; in the recurrence of a variation of particular kinds of marks; in a range of distinctive tonalities or colours. In short, each individual work takes its place in the search ‘to find a language’ right for the intuition that guides the project.

IIlsley’s first exhibition at Lemon Street Gallery comprises a remarkable suite of paintings made over a period of just over a year between 1993 and 1994. It is coherent in its mode of execution and its presentation of a series of contrasting moods.With ups and downs, swerves and reversals, it proceeds from images whose darkness may seem to intimate implications of an unbearable pain and darkness of spirit to those in which the expressive white light of a brighter air suggests a release into possibilities of a breathing delight. It is a kind of chronicle, not simply of feelings but of reflections on the inconsistencies and changes of feelings and on the variations of their intensity. As is usual with Illsley, the varying moods established in such a series are hinted at, or subjected to wryly ironic comment, in the subtly deadpan wordplay of the titles attached (after the fact) to the individual paintings.

The suite does not, however, offer a simple narrative of an emotional journey with an implied chronology: there are intimations of light in darkness, glimpses of clarity; in the midst of joys we may catch sight of an ineffable sadness. And always, the painting itself represents a kind of affirmation, an assertion of the possibilities of creativity. It is one of the greatest qualities of Illsley’s paintings that the experience they offer has the complexity of experience itself: this is what I meant when I wrote above of the paintings as ‘correlatives of states of feeling’. Life is not simple. Art needs must reflect its complexity and its contradictoriness; and it must be truthful in its acknowledgement of the ineluctable temporality of things. It must, in Patrick Kavanagh’s words, ‘Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.’

The presentation of time finds a changing expression in the paintings as the series develops, and it is possible to discern a subtle shift of mode between the earlier and the later works in this respect. In Quick Sand and Lashed Cream (both 1993), for examples, and in the unequivocally titled Yellow Fog, Aimless Blue (also 1993) there is a suggestion of depth achieved by the figure-ground proposal of space and the recessive layering of painterly features in each painting. Sometimes, as in Quick Sand, this is achieved by a kind of foreground screening, more often, by the presence of floating figures set in imaginable space, as in those already mentioned and also in Dashed White, White Liquid, and Whipped Grey. In the ethereal Left Blue, the eponymous column at left might indeed be a cipher for the sad figure suggested by the title.

In all these paintings, this deep atmospheric space is a metaphor, a painterly equivalent of the ‘dark backward and abysm of time’. In all of them the gaiety or vehemence of surface stroke and indented line speak of a kind of joyful defiance in the face of the existential void behind the variegated surfaces of the world and its objects. Illsley’s subject may be despair, but (as was said of Scott Fitzgerald) his style sings of hope. Sometimes, perhaps, the tune is comically desperate: the titles, the colours, the ludic virtuosity and variety of drawn marks of Laughing Red, Red Slapstick and Weeping Pink speak (or sing perhaps) for themselves.

In the paintings of 1994 the mood lightens, and the fraught depth of space-time gives way to the surface brightness of the here and now. Not that there are not intimations of mortality: the titles of Black Fog, Lacerated Grey and Over Dun preclude any simplistic progressive reading of the series. Nevertheless white, however marked, blotched and incised it may be, is a metaphor for light, and light is inescapably the sign for dawnings and beginnings, the announcement of morning and the hope it brings.

A succession of paintings characterised by greys and compromised whites – Ice Lines, Blue Comic, Crazed Grey, Lighter Grey, White Blotched and Blue, Broken White – gives way at last to Plain White, a pure plane of light, white on white: the ultimate escape from the trammels of experience and the limitations of expression. But for Illsley, the inevitable recollection of Malevich’s sublime paintings (White on White) of the ethereal dissolve of matter into light characteristically demanded the recall of its famous opposite, the black square which contains everything. Marked Black is the culmination of Illsley’s enthralling suite, in which the black is at once the ultimate sign for a light that cannot be painted (the black light of Matisse’s seminal Window at Coulioure), and the sign for new beginnings, in which a whole world of future paintings are prefigured in the insouciant mastery of the linear marks, the love of chance and the sheer nerve that are necessary components of his abundantly creative life.

Mel Gooding, June 2011