John Hoyland

Crossroads where poetry may be found

‘Love and feeling. Portraits of nature & elegies, volcanoes, planets, cancers, rivers, veins, growth, growths, blood, eruptions, lava, sinew, skin, sunsets, cloud formations, movement, slow, fast, signs, hand-lines, hair, faces, scars, melting snow, rain, wind, erosion, decay, mould, insects, solar storms, sun, moon, animal life, x-rays, cuts, bruises, views from planes, wood, stone, (humans and nature contain the same organic forms) the same signs, birth, life, death, the cycles of nature. within this tumble and jumble there are many crossroads where poetry may be found.’

And correspondingly his titles: Indigo Moon, Memories of Rain, Circle Mountain, Life’s Pleasures, Feel the Stars, Zenist, AzureWinds,Winter Tiger, Love and Life, Moon’s Milk. Some painters try to deny the visual flux. Mondrian, famous pioneer of formal reduction, even avoided looking at trees for fear of disturbing his purity of vision, which had pared branched complication to the basics of line, rectangle and primary colour. Hoyland’s overtly emotional art has evolved in an opposite direction. It has expanded to embrace not just nature but the cosmos; reflecting the fact that he has witnessed the most mind-blowing half century of technological advance in history, from outer space to cyberspace. No painter has encompassed this complexity with more exuberance. The technical refinement and mastery which has enabled him to achieve this is every bit as hard earned as Mondrian’s.

What Hoyland does not mention in his list is art. A glance at the postcards and books (Gauguin, Hofmann, Matisse, Miro, Motherwell, Soutine) in his studio, at the African tribal art in his living room, the crimson leather upholstery of his Art Deco armchairs, supplies the answer. A modern English painter he has long admired is Matthew Smith (1879-–1959). So did Francis Bacon. In his introduction to Smith’s retrospective at the Tate in 1953 Bacon wrote:

‘He seems to me to be one of the very few English painters since Constable and Turner to be concerned with painting – that is, with attempting to make idea and technique inseparable. Painting in this sense tends towards a complete interlocking of image and paint, so that the image is the paint and vice versa ….That is why real painting is a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance.’

Hoyland has taken this inseparability of idea and technique, the ‘continuous struggle with chance’, to a new level. He has perfected a method of spreading, tipping, dripping, flinging and squirting paint that makes a virtue of accident by conjuring effects beyond the rigid control or artifice of the brushed mark. He makes images and colour combinations which have literally never appeared in art before, just as wildlife photographers and remote-control cameras have revealed creatures and details of the earth and planets previously inconceivable. To appreciate this, it is not enough to stand amazed at his cosmic starbursts and flares of iridescence; but to get close to the canvas and see the spiral of marbled colour round a thread of white barely visible without a magnifying glass.

Every February he and his wife Beverley stay at their apartment in her native Jamaica. ‘I really need it. I feel my use of colour fading in England as winter sets in’, he says. And he keeps a notebook and takes photographs. One recent thought about making pictures is: ‘You don’t paint them, you encourage them to happen.’ Talking to Hoyland you get an inkling of the knowledge required to bring this about. ‘A lot of people never looked at Utrillo, who never used a white but he used a lot of colours that look like white. It took me years to use white as a colour. Not to use it tonally. People usually use it tonally.’ The same applies to his maintenance of gravitational and tonal control, his suffusions, his playing colours against each other, so that a cadmium red which might seem crimson in one combination can look orange in another.

Everything is grist to his mill. Since his last exhibition at Lemon Street in May 2008 Hoyland has undergone major heart surgery and re-married. It is not coincidental that the scar on his chest and the lines on the palm of his wife’s hand have both found their way into his paintings; nor that there is sometimes a sense of division between sun and moon, day and night, life and death. One is left to marvel at his ability to create ‘small bombs’ of 24 x 24 inches as powerful in their way as five footers, so that it is hard to tell the different size in illustration; to rejoice in the mastery, concentration and sheer wonderment he displays in these paintings.

‘I was listening to Hockney on the television and he said: “I’ve always wanted to paint from the shoulder but you can’t, can you, in painting; you can only paint from the wrist.” And I thought: “Oh yeah!”’

Oh yeah indeed.

John McEwen