Listed in alphabetical order
John Blackburn occupies an unusual position in British art. Born in Luton, he trained at Margate School of Art before doing National Service and going to live for a time in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands (1954-62). He returned to England and a period of early success in the 1960s, when his work was bought by Jim Ede (who founded Kettle’s Yard). After that, Blackburn largely dropped off the artistic radar until he was rediscovered in 2002; but since then, his reputation has deservedly gone from strength to strength, and he has become re-established as a name to conjure with. Now in his eightieth year, Blackburn is recognized as an abstract painter of originality and vision, an artist capable of taking the Modernist project of St Ives (Hilton, Scott,Wynter, Lanyon and Frost) into the twenty-first century, and breaking his own new ground.
Nearly forty years in the wilderness have neither embittered Blackburn nor deterred him from pursuing his own path. He divides his time between a studio in Kent and foreign travel. Recently, he has spent the early part of each year back in New Zealand, where he enjoys working in different personal and physical conditions. Blackburn responds to context, and the quality of light in New Zealand affects his sense of colour, resulting in some uncharacteristic pastel tints. This lighter (and perhaps more lighthearted) palette has begun to enrich the work he makes in England. Looked at overall, Blackburn’s paintings have been predominantly brown, black and white.Now, blue and pink have been steadily creeping in, vermilion even, while various ochres enliven the habitual greys and whites. ‘Pink Form’ (2010) (p17) is a fine example of this – also of the tall upright format the artist often favours. The constraints of this shape seem to suit him, and the group of upright paintings contain some of his best and most inventive shapemusic of recent years.
This is not to suggest that the work Blackburn generally makes in Kent is uniformly dark and doom-laden. But on home territory, the artist engages directly with his longterm preoccupations, and derives more inspiration from his internal landscape than from his external surroundings. His paintings are not directly of figure or landscape, but deal with relationships and states of mind, and these less readily definable qualities invariably involve both people and environments. Art is about making ethical and poetic judgements, about discerning nuance. It is also about bringing together a number of generalities to reach a concrete formal conclusion (the painting), which the artist hopes will act as a bridge between himself and his potential audience. This process of transformation can only be achieved through the constant practice of making art, but it is often the addition of happenstance which brings about resolution. In other words, the roles of intuition, juxtaposition and the irrational are just as important as anything intended. The unexpected is crucial.
The addition of extraneous matter to the picture plane is one of Blackburn’s favourite strategies for surprising himself into making a telling statement. In this he somewhat parallels the activities of the late Catalan artist and alchemist, Antoni Tàpies. There is too much talk of alchemy in modern art commentary (it’s an easy metaphor for the transformative processes of art), and in Blackburn’s case it’s preferable to concentrate on the witty way in which the artist extends his formal vocabulary. Several new paintings incorporate bits of old iron (one fragment even resembles a man trap or chastity belt) (p55), and ‘Shoe Picture 1’ (2012) (p47) includes several pairs of shoes. The satiric aspect of Blackburn’s work emerges strongly here, in a painting which triumphantly appropriates a post-Pop idiom, with more than a genial nod and a wink to Rauschenberg.
Blackburn defines a great painting as a balancing act between self-expression and impersonal statement, the point at which form and content are held in fruitful dialogue, and ‘the artist has managed to extract himself when the painting’s at its highest level’. This is an operation fraught with risk, and the artist must be prepared to lose the painting in order to succeed. The exposure to risk is essential to the health of the activity. This is one reason why so often he paints wet on wet, in itself a risky procedure, and why he pushes his forms into three dimensions with collaged additions.
The material dispositions of his paint are surprising and intriguing, his mark-making generates an unexpected play of thoughts and emotions – the whole physical presence of Blackburn’s paintings is original and compelling. There is nothing polite here. There might be lumps in the canvas – folds or overlaps, different layers. These are intentional. If Blackburn wants a smooth surface he makes one. In the same way if he wants the paint to run, he encourages it; otherwise a form is carefully and precisely outlined.
Blackburn’s list of admired artists ranges from Goya to Roger Hilton, via Fautrier and Bacon. Twombly is one of his favourites because of the beauty in his work, beauty that does the spirit good. All have inspired him and some have proved very useful to steal from – as recommended by Picasso. One or two paintings seem to contain an echo of Hilton, but Blackburn’s personal vision has turned a shared formal device (abutting square, circular or boat-shaped forms; an inventive use of outline with vigorously applied paint) into something very much his own. There is a world of difference between using a gimmick – such as a specific unusual texture or material – and redeploying a shape which in its fulfilled ordinariness is a lasting one in the general vocabulary of forms available to all artists. For instance, the circle or sphere can never be exhausted because it is the basic form of so much central to our lives: the world itself, the belly, the sun, the womb, the moon, the breast.
Two paintings made earlier this year, ‘Brown/Black Squares’ (right) and ‘Black, Brown,White’ (p51), feature a row of black dots along the top, rather like holes or the perforations in a spiral-bound sketchbook. This similarity confirms in these large paintings the immediacy of the sketch that was already present in Blackburn’s paint-handling. There is an urgency and spontaneity to much of his best imagery which affirms the potent informality of his approach and suggests the work of a much younger man. It is this ability to question his aims and assumptions, and fruitfully to reinterpret favourite themes, which ensures John Blackburn’s continuing relevance as an artist.
Repeatedly asked why he does not tend to paint his native Scotland, John Brown states simply, ‘I like to be warm’, going on to praise the quality of light and colour in the various Mediterranean destinations that he uses for inspiration. ‘A Mixed Pallette’ is perhaps a fitting description for Brown’s December show at Lemon Street Gallery: as an artist who regularly bases his exhibitions on his most recent travels, this current body of work features pictorial sources from various residencies across Europe – from Corfu and Paxos, to Moire and Collioure. The show demonstrates the artist’s pure and genuine zeal for colour and light, with works that range dramatically in size and stylistic representation, yet maintaining the constant vibrancy and beauty for which Brown is so well acclaimed.
Regularly flitting between abstract and pictorial representation in his paintings, Brown has yet to be pinned down as a painter of solely one or the other, a style that he compares to Richard Diebenkorn, an artist frequently cited as a particular source of inspiration for Brown in his use of colour and methods. Brown also uses his own preliminary work as a basis for progression – his on-the-spot sketches are seen as gateways into his ‘flirtation with abstraction’, as he focuses on the sketches’ tonality or linear quality as a method of determining how the final piece will look.Working predominantly on board, the surface is prepared using a mixture of collage materials, including paper, canvas and fabric in various textures, in order to give the bright acrylics that dominate the mood of the work ‘something to cling to’. The result is an intriguing, multitonal piece that captures the spirit of its location-based subject in both its bold use of colour, and its tactile intricacy. More recent work sees a dramatic introduction of stark black lines that kick out against the bright colours, creating a very deliberate juxtaposition.
Brown’s fascination with texture is what pervades his choice of subject, seen in his frequent return to the decaying grandeur of old European towns and villages. ‘I get drawn to the same sorts of subjects wherever I am,’ Brown says. ‘I fall in love with surface textures: distressed walls, flaking paint, footprints, washing hanging out of windows, fruit and veg markets.’ Combined with the sun-bleached colours and light of the Mediterranean, the end result is pleasantly tactile and evocative. Another key interest of Brown’s is windows, and their artistic potential as subjects for an artist whose work centres on multiple layers and surfaces, and the illusion of texture and depth that comes from painting and using a variety of materials and techniques.
John Brown’s December show at Lemon Street Gallery is a fantastic mix of shape and tonal vibrancy. The works illustrate Brown’s versatility across many different styles and showcases the entire spectrum of his interest in locational subjects.
Rosie Willmot 2011
When Judy arrived in England in her early twenties she quickly realised that she wanted to paint seriously and it was the landscape that became her first primary subject. This led to her eyes being opened to the great artists in the landscape tradition. Notably Turner and Constable, especially his small oil studies and, such French painters as Monet, Cezanne, Courbet, Corot and Daubigny.
Later as her early language developed and her own expressive and painterly language emerged, she found in American and European expressionism, painters such as De Kooning, Diebenkorn, Corinth, Auerbach and De Stael. All these and more were influential in her early years.
John Byrne was born in Glasgow in 1940. He was brought up and educated a Catholic. At seventeen he started work as a ‘slab boy’ mixing dyes for a firm of carpet manufacturers in Paisley in what he describes as a ‘technicolour hell hole’.
John studied painting at Glasgow School of Art from 1958 – 1963 and was hugely encouraged by their strong tradition of figurative painting.
Art schools in the nineteen sixties still had life drawing, painting and still life classes at their core and John Byrne was considered a star pupil. He won a scholarship to Italy where he visited Assissi where he marvelled at Giotto’s frescoes, and at the paintings of Duccio and Cimabue . John returned from his travels a highly accomplished and confident young artist.
Byrne married in 1964 and had a son and then a daughter the following year. He worked as a graphic designer for Scottish TV and illustrated some book jackets. He returned to work for the carpet manufacturers, this time as a carpet designer. In 1967 Byrne sent some paintings in a rather primitive style to London’s Portal Gallery signing them ‘Patrick’ and claiming that they were by his father, a Glaswegian newspaper seller. This was partly to do with John’s amusement at inventing odd characters, and also thinking that a gallery which at the time exhibited self taught artists might not be interested in work by a highly skilled art school trained painter. He was wrong! Portal exhibited his work with great success.
From the early seventies John Byrne’s biography reflects his diverse talents, as a designer of theatre sets and record covers. He made an animated film. His first play ‘Writer’s Cramp’ (1977) was followed by ‘ The Slab Boys in’(1978)and won him the Evening tandard’s most promising playwright award. In 1983 there was a New York production of ‘The Slab Boys’ with Sean Penn, Val Kilmer and Kevin Bacon.
In 1986 John wrote the immensely successful television series ‘Tutti Frutti’starring Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson and Richard Wilson. This was followed by another series ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ with Tilda Swinton. In 1993 John’s play about the two Scottish painters ‘Colquhoun and McBride’ was put on to great acclaim.
He has designed record covers for Donovan, The Beatles, Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly. Singersongwriter Rafferty’s song Patrick is written about Byrne (the lyrics begin: “Patrick my primitive painter of art/You will always and ever be near to my heart”), and the pair co-wrote several songs together His work is held in major collections in Scotland and abroad. Several of his paintings hang in The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, the museum of Modern Art and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.
In 2001 he was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list for services to literature and the theatre but returned it in protest at the British Government’s joining forces with the US Administration’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.
In 2004 he was made an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy and a full member in 2007. Byrne is an Honorary Fellow of the GSA, the RIAS, an Honorary Member of the RGI and has Honorary Doctorships from the universities of Paisley, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Strathclyde. He lives in Nairn in the Highlands.
Neil Canning paints in a remote studio in rural West Cornwall, ancient province of rocky headlands, crashing waves and wild moors. The natural dramas played out daily where land meets sea and sky touches earth are an enduring inspiration for the bold and vivid abstracted works that bear his signature.
Neil’s work deliberately transcends visual depiction. And he likens the physicality of moving paint freely around the canvas as a process akin to alchemy. Using layer upon hidden layer of colour and texture, his aim is to encompass the holistic spirit of a location or experience – the very personal sensations he carries away with him from a particular time and place… the light, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the textures and the passions. He undoubtedly succeeds.
Doug was born and raised in rural Scotland and comes from a long line of farmers and blacksmiths. Doug’s works speaks of the history of land he grew up in and the landscape in which he finds himself immersed now. His studio looks out upon the ever changing Tayside landscape. Nature therefore quite naturally takes center stage in his work. His material is mainly wood, in many shapes and forms. He builds his pieces with exact precision developing and forming movement from static material. The quality of his work reflects him and his career to date.
Barrie Cook’s paintings have occupied a distinctive position within British Art for over 30 years. Since the mid 1960’s he has maintained an almost unbroken allegiance to spray – painting. This technique has had few notable adherents and his achievement is to have established this way of working as a legitimate and versatile mode of expression in a fine art context.
Questions about visual truth and ambiguity are brought to mind, as we each form our own internal comprehension of Cook’s multi-hued canvases, which as a rule go against the grain of traditional representation. The use of spray-paint, having become an iconic and recognisable technique of Cook’s, was originally adopted to navigate having just two days a week to dedicate to his work, and a need to process and form his ideas quickly. In its scale, unexpected colour combinations and dramatic yet technically intricate forms, it is easy to view Cook’s work as a physical manifestation of the creative mental process, an idea that is lent credibility through layered and rapid execution.
Trained academically, the development towards spray-painting was, in Cook’s words, to ‘break the habit of brushstroke mentality’, and to escape the potential clichés that arise from a ‘monotony’ of technique. Cook’s work seems self-reflective, playful, apparently enjoying its ability to surprise its viewers – and indeed, its creator – through its versatility of form and colour. Our interpretation of the work must re-set itself with each piece we observe, a deliberate method of Cook’s to displace any sense of comfort and security, and to invite a deeper, prolonged response not simply to the work itself, but to our own interpretation of it.
Since moving to Cornwall, with its clear light and sparkling seas, Cook’s palette has broadened, shifting from the earlier sombre blues and greys to a greater emphasis on primary and secondary colours. These paintings, with their vibrant turquoises, lush oranges and citrus yellows, point to an aesthetically recharged artist with a more exuberant edge to his work. It would be wrong to imagine that they have lost their profundity of purpose: the message may have altered somewhat, but the motivation remains as committed as ever.
After 1963, when he first visited St Ives and befriended many of the leading artists of the modern movement, Dannatt supported and avidly collected their work while joining their ranks as a fellow abstractionist using a neo-constructivist geometry, tactile and expressive collage or a painterly gesturalism linked to the irrepressible local landscape. While he retained a personal touch in this work, it reflected the art of John Wells, Alexander Mackenzie, Terry Frost, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Roy Conn, Patrick Heron and others whose work he collected and lived with and who so directly inspired his own output.
Dannatt entered this illustrious milieu as a distinguished arriviste with a past career as Chartered Surveyor, music critic for the London News Chronicle and a burgeoning patron, collector and connoisseur. Music inspired his work directly and so it automatically accorded with the longstanding modernist ethos that saw abstract art as a kind of visual music and certainly in Dannatt’s rapidly developing oeuvre there are discernible qualities of harmony, melody and rhythm. Klee and Kandinsky pointed the way and it is undeniable that Dannatt, while steadfast in his allegiances to St Ives modernism, looked further afield to continental Purists and Concretists who were perhaps more aligned to the architectural or the mathematical than the more romantic, nature-orientated English school.
The longevity of his relationship to Ann Doncaster, whom he married in 1943, provided domestic stability and an ongoing sense of purpose throughout. Beyond the bedrock of this partnership Dannatt’s architect and interior designer brother Trevor, later a Royal Academician, proved useful. Trevor’s historically significant installation design for the Fitzroy Street weekend exhibitions in 1952 of advanced abstract art in Adrian Heath’s studio proved a seminal pointer to George’s adoption of an art career.
Since his death, choice examples from his collection together with samples of his own work have been bequested to Pallant House Gallery, Chichester and to Southampton City Art Gallery. In the recent exhibition ‘Shared History: The Art of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, George Dannatt and John Wells’ at Dannatt’s London dealers Waterhouse and Dodd and the 2015 exhibition ‘George Dannatt and Friends’ at his then London dealers Osborne Samuel emphasis was placed on the symbiotic relationship between Dannatt and those artists whose work he collected. These relationships were social as much as professional.
Living at East Hatch on the Wiltshire/Dorset border the financially secure Dannatt worked at a geographic – but never spiritual or aesthetic – remove from Cornwall which he did however regularly visit. He also holidayed with Denis and Jane Mitchell in Devon and entered into a long 30-year correspondence with Wells, perhaps ultimately his foremost colleague.
The Fitzroy weekend exhibitions culminated in critic Lawrence Alloway’s landmark book Nine Abstract Artists of 1954. Alloway detected an aesthetic fault-line within the nine, between the Purists and Concretists on the one hand and the softer St Ivesian landscape tendency on the other. Dannatt swung both ways. The hard logic of mathematics certainly appealed less to George than the more human realm of nature, landscape and music. Dannatt did, however, persevere with the beauties of geometry as we see here with White Circles with a Red Complex (1995), Linear Inversion Ochre (1976), Linear Form with Blue Circle (1998), Fanfare (1974) and the double sided Vaporetto (1977). Collage undoubtedly appealed to George with its rich, mostly local, cultural references. In A Swiss Collage (1985) and Milano (1977) Dannatt paid homage to Kurt Schwitters or Max Bill, works that use the Merz master’s lettering or else transform found posters into expressive papieres déchirés.
One of the foremost features of the current survey is the extent of Dannatt’s experimentation with different graphic media. There is a marked relish for utilising the intrinsic physical and plastic properties of media encompassing pencil, charcoal, gouache, extrinsic collage, wash, tempera, ink, crayon, pastel or paint. In works like White Sea (1960), Ariel Movement (1962) and Tuscania (1969) Dannatt emulates the tactile expressiveness of Paul Feiler, William Scott or Terry Frost, while the playful geometry of John Wells is never far away. Such versatility made Dannatt at his best a virtuoso plastic performer able to stand squarely on his own distinctive and individual terms alongside his established Cornish colleagues.
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