Listed in alphabetical order
by John Halkes
Ambition and Interruption
When he was a young man Michael Finn confessed to three ambitions. He wanted to fly, get married and have a family, and he wanted to be an artist. He achieved all three. But it took time. At Westminster School he made frequent visits to the Tate Gallery and was so impressed by Henry Lamb’s portrait of Lytton Strachey that he felt moved to study at an art school. His father was an architect so readily gave his support. After leaving school at seventeen, Michael enrolled at Kingston School of Art fairly near his Surrey home. He was eighteen when the Second World War broke out. Although part of a larger technical school, Kingston had a small but cohesive art student population under the direction of the principal Reginald Brill. In 1940, the School with its sixty students moved to its own dedicated premises at Knight’s Park. The syllabus covered the usual academic range of still life and objective drawing, life drawing and print-making. Gordon Miller, who went on to be an architect, remembers the hard work and also the camaraderie of the students with their amateur dramatics and parties. He recalled that Michael who was in the year ahead of him was very friendly with a beautiful student called Cecelia (Cely) Bailey. In 1942 Michael was called up for pilot training in the RAF and sailed off to Canada where he qualified on multi-engine aircraft. In December 1943 he returned to the UK and aged 22 married Cely. Early in 1944 he converted onto the Dakota (DC3) and then flew for the remainder of the war in Europe on close support of the land battle and transport operations, including the famous Arnhem operation.
After VE day, Michael was still flying troops to and from Europe and the Middle East and on one of these flights his old friend from Kingston days, Gordon Miller, by then serving with the Royal Engineers was a passenger on a hair-raising flight to the Sudan in a Dakota captained by Michael.
In 1945 Michael and Cely had their first child, Christine. Fortunately the war in Japan, for which Michael was on stand-by, ended.
In 1946, Michael was released from the RAF and went as a mature student to the Royal College of Art in London. Judging by the portfolios of student drawings left in the studio collection the RCA in those immediate post-war years had a traditional academic base. However it was already changing and beginning to attract high flying and adventurous artists. On the staff Michael remembered particularly the influence of Carel Weight RA who joined as a lecturer in 1947 and went on to be a distinguished Professor of Painting at the College. In 1949 Michael graduated and he and Cely, with Christine, left London for Taunton where Michael had been appointed as a lecturer at the Somerset College of Art.
The Teaching Years
At Taunton, Michael led the painting department. There were some half dozen students in each year working towards their National Diplomas in Fine Art and the emphasis again was on the formal curriculum with lots of drawing and painting from life models. Rosemary Wickremsinghe (nee Hocken) joined Michael’s class as a young student fresh from school. Today she remembers him with affection. “He had such sincerity and gentleness in the way he taught, and he imparted to us self respect and a modesty about our own work. Of course he was of an older generation and had been through the war and the Royal College and so there was a certain distance and formality in our relationships. And he could be robust in his views: ‘Don’t exhibit at the RA – it’s in the hands of the Munning’s faction, but the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) is alright.’ Nonetheless, there was laughter in the art department and I remember that he was always up for taking part in our student rags.” Rosemary recalls that her tutor’s own work at the time was figurative. One particular painting of an unplanted garden seemed to symbolise his own life, which, she thought, he was working out through his painting. Interestingly, very few works of this time survive. But by now Michael and Cely had another daughter, Michaela, and with the teaching requirements there were constraints on his personal time.
It became apparent that at Taunton Michael was developing his own progressive ideas about the future of art education. He had a keen collaborator in Aneurin Thomas, a fellow lecturer in painting, and later vice-principal, who was the same age, wartime experience and outlook. Thomas himself went on to have a distinguished career as principal of Hornsey College of Art and then, in 1966, the first director of the newly formed Welsh Arts Council. The key to their ethos was the personal integrity of the students. As they grew as artists, individuality was paramount over the formal constraints of the curriculum. This meant that tutors had to know and take an interest in each individual student. The relationship between tutor and student had to be part of the creative process of the art school.
The seeds were sown for the next phase of Finn’s career. After nine years at Somerset College of Art he was appointed in 1958 as Principal of Falmouth School of Art in Cornwall.
Falmouth – the Visionary Years
Falmouth was at one of several critical phases in its long history when Finn arrived. Under Jack Chalker, the small college had moved from Arwenack Avenue to Kerris Vean and courses for the National Diploma in Design were offered for the first time. Purpose-built studios were built in the sub-tropical gardens and Finn’s task was to make the school viable in the light of the expectations of the new National Advisory Council for Art Education.
In the sixties, Finn appointed Terry Frost and Peter Lanyon as visiting lecturers and he developed the textile, printmaking and sculpture workshops. Controversially, photography was added to the syllabus. The question for Falmouth was whether an art school with only 120 students, situated in a remote part of the country could compete against the larger burgeoning art institutions which were growing in the big cities. Cornwall Education Committee supported Finn’s vision for Falmouth as did leading Cornwall-based artists such as Dame Barbara Hepworth, Bryan Wynter and Patrick Heron.
Robin Thomas was on the staff at Falmouth during the late fifties until he went to the West of England College of Art at Bristol. He remembers Michael Finn’s early years very well. “I remember his gentle kindness and understanding – this was alike to staff and students. There seemed to be a special quietness about Michael, although, of course he was a very efficient organiser in the daily timetable and also in looking forward to the ongoing development of the School of Art.” Robin wondered whether he should take up a post at Bristol because Falmouth was growing in status and premises. “We were still in Kerris Vean but about to spread into Rosehill. Michael, in his usual generous way advised me to go where there was going to be improvement to my own situation and a chance to develop a department with previous problems.” Recently Robin recalled, “The great thing for all of us who knew Michael is that we will not forget him. I followed news of his career in art education and his profound creativity with pride and affection.”
Throughout the sixties, Falmouth continued to grow. Finn had gathered around him a creative and dedicated staff and now they had to decide whether to seek authorisation to offer students the new Diploma in Art and Design – which was equivalent to a degree. But that meant expansion. Rosehill House in Wood Lane was in the offing and it was thought that recognition would be granted. Initially it was turned down because the National Council thought that Falmouth’s resources and infrastructure were too slender. Undaunted, Finn lobbied furiously to sustain his vision of a small creative art school in beautiful surroundings dedicated to the personal development of its students. Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Leach, Bryan Wynter and Patrick Heron encouraged him to re-apply, and in 1965 the National Council for Art Education overturned its original verdict. The school was now recognised as a centre for the Diploma in Art and Design, with painting as a main course. Recognition for sculpture followed shortly after.
The artist Francis Hewlett was head of painting at Falmouth during those formative years. He remembers Michael Finn’s remarkable ability to build a cohesive staff from a remarkably wide spectrum of artistic activity; painters, printmakers and sculptors worked alongside ceramicists, poets and musicians. The effect was vibrant. Finn also attracted leading artists from Cornwall as guest lecturers. Karl Weschke and Denis Mitchell joined the band of supportive artists and made a significant input. Hewlett enjoyed working with Finn. “He was a wonderful person, passionate about art and serious about the role of artists. He was an incredibly good principal. We had amazing rows – which were always civil.” He also commented that Michael, whilst remaining constantly polite, was no pushover. Only someone with a steely commitment to his vision could have taken the school through the tumult in art education during the sixties.
Bath Academy of Art
In 1972, Michael Finn took up post as Principal at Bath Academy of Art based at Corsham in Wiltshire. Barbara Hepworth advised him to fulfil his ambition to paint, but another child, Richard, had been born to him and Cely whilst at Falmouth, and there were many other domestic matters pressing upon him. At Corsham, he continued to develop his beliefs that the practitioner was at the centre of the creative process. Many key figures in British art were teachers including Terry Frost, Kenneth Armitage, William Scott, Terry Pope, Howard Hodgkin and Adrian Heath. After many years of self-denial Michael held his first solo exhibition in 1978 at the Festival Gallery in Bath, and in the next few years there is evidence of more exploratory paintings and collages coming out of his studio. By 1980, art school administration was becoming more and more bureaucratic and the constant and pressing need to find funding was a heavy burden on the principals. Michael and Cely resolved to retire to the very west of Cornwall. Here, in 1982 at Tregeseal House near St Just on the Land’s End Peninsula, they made a comfortable home. Michael converted a small barn next to the house as a studio. The final part of his life-long ambition was about to be realised and with utter courage he faced the blank canvasses of the future.
The final element of Michael Finn’s ambition – was to be an artist. He could well have retired at the age of 62 and rested on his laurels as a visionary art educator but he chose to confront his demons. Elizabeth Knowles who, in the late nineties became one of John Halkes’s successors as curator of Newlyn Art Gallery, knew Finn well and admired his art of his last twenty years. She wrote the following piece for his major solo show at Newlyn in 2000 and has kindly allowed it to be edited and reprinted for this retrospective exhibition at Lemon Street Gallery.
Michaels Finn’s painting belongs to that great twentieth century tradition of colour field painting developed by artists who sought to create on flat canvas, using flat areas of colour as a spiritual vehicle. A saturated colour space was to stand for inner space, a tranquil reflection of deep emotion, a chance for contemplation. All-over, expansive fields of colour with simple linear division arose in American painting from about 1947 to the early 1950s.
‘Still, Rothko and Newman evolved styles … focused on expression through colour. To maximise the visual – and emotional – impact of colour, they eliminated figuration and symbolism, simplified drawing and gesture, suppressed the contrast of light and dark values, painted chromatic expanses that saturate the eye and enlarged the canvas. Aiming for the visionary, they strove literally to engulf the viewer by creating a total chromatic environment.’1
From a British perspective, this kind of painting lay behind the development of Abstract Expressionism and became fused and confused with the instantly acclaimed works of artists like Frank Stella. In the 1960s, fashionable British art was overwhelmed by Pop Art. And as part of post-Pop Art abstraction, field painting took on new significance, as much for its spiritual aspirations as for its former grandeur. Still, Newman and Rothko could conveniently be succeeded by Frankenthaler, Louis, Nolan and even later artists like Bruce Marden and Robert Ryman, if one turned a blind eye to some key differences in approach and intention. From the earliest years of the twentieth century there were a number of European artists who worked with flat and saturated colour, from Malevich to Yves Klein, and European developments of Minimal Art produced many more between the 1970s and the end of the century.
Among all these there are no direct sources for Finn’s painting however. His way of working is closer to the ethos of Newman and Rothko if anything, while his work remains entirely and avowedly intuitive. His context, apart from these Olympian figures, is the tough, talented circle of artists who in West Cornwall, where he lived and worked for his last twenty years. In Finn’s age group one finds W Barns Graham, Paul Feiler, Terry Frost and Alex Mackenzie. If any common ground could usefully be deduced between these artists it might be found in their respect for abstraction grounded upon Constructivist principles. Beside the work of these and later generations of artists in Cornwall, Finn’s quiet paintings express the importance of simplicity. They look back to the founding principles of twentieth century abstract art. As Hans Hoffmann wrote: ‘The medium which is used in creating becomes the work of art if the principles and meaning, the essential nature of the medium are mastered and if the artist is intuitive in spirit’, and, ‘Art is always spiritual, a result of introspection, finding expression through the natural entity of the medium.’2
For Finn, spirituality was quite specifically from Roman Catholic Christianity. Although he speaks of a ‘light up there’ for humanity to aspire to as being the transcendental truth to which his work was dedicated, his own faith provided a form, expressed indirectly in his paintings and much more overtly in the constructed crosses and crucifixes. While talking of the absence of imagery and the primary importance of the painting itself, both as being contemplative and conveying the idea of what contemplation is for, for Finn would write, ‘I hope to say something about the density of existence and the wonder of light.’3
In his sculpture, Finn was concerned with the powerful universal imagery of the cross and the crucified Christ. He has used a variety of woods, mostly painted or stained or whitened; constructing crucifixes of telling simplicity. Against the extended stem and arms of the cross small blocks and spars were grouped into a faceted form, an abstracted figure, often with a blank rectangular face. He also made altar crosses, simplifying the components into monumental formal statements that echo their constructed predecessors but stand for a more abstract idea. Some of the constructions and crosses have been rendered in bronze by Michael Werbecki, a highly skilled bronze craftsman with a workshop in Bristol. Werbecki enabled Finn to realise his sculpture in its final and most hermetic form.
Finn was a painter of sensibility – to use a word employed by Roger Fry – to denote a certain quality of choice, proportion, hand-drawn line and brushed-in colour. This sensibility is employed so that the paintings are a means to present an idea with the utmost clarity. The idea may be simple and the means discreet, but it is indissoluble from the material of the painting – pigment on canvas – even though it also contains an expressed thought or proposition. Finn asserted that he intended to create space and alter the flat surface of the painting and that he did this unconsciously, intuitively.
To what degree is Finn’s painting unconscious? He constantly referred to a process of trail and error, and said that his painting ‘comes from inside: it’s magical.’ His methods evolved from roots in the aesthetics of modernism, a working life in art schools inculcated a respect for design on the one hand and for the chances offered by collage on the other. This paradoxical combination lies behind the visual language Finn developed and which served him so well. Flat areas of colour were barred across or framed with bands of other colours. In some cases, flat areas of colour were butted together either literally on two (or more) canvases or dividing one canvas surface. He often worked in series, deploying the particular and powerful set of formal qualities seriality imposes. Thinking back to American painting again, there is an echo of Brice Marden and Robert Mangold about his sets of close-hued square or narrow vertical canvasses.
The first wash, usually of acrylic paint, across the canvas provided the colour Finn had in mind. The next step, a line or a band of another colour, began to take the painting into another dimension. Space may be made, the visible illusion providing for mystical or spiritual space. The canvas may be made to look more vertical than it is, relating to the uplifting aspiration of the soul. The simple alteration Finn makes as he developed a painting reassured him that a transformation has taken place. The transformation is a code for humanly understandable spirituality, or what is often named as the sublime.
Finn’s earliest paintings are relatively conventional nudes, landscapes and still lives. Only a few isolated examples survive from the late 1940s and early ’50s. Painting was always Finn’s ‘hoped for profession’. A few works from the 1970s reveal a preoccupation with substance, tight design and muted, silvery colours. The bars of colour that are so like bars of wood lie on the surface in paintings and in works on paper, and there are flat interlocking shapes that look like constructed reliefs. In 1982, Finn moved to Tregeseal, near St Just in the far west of Cornwall, and set about his long postponed devotion to serious painting on a full time basis. He found ‘the ambition to become a full time painter a difficult one to fulfil.;
In some trepidation, one could speculate, Finn began with small scale still lives, reminiscent of his earliest paintings but informed by the controlled design of his 1970s work. He felt his way, through the curls and shadows of dead leaves on a cloth or the subtle variety in a handful of stones on a shelf, to the surface and space of painting. At the same time, he began to work with wood – partly found pieces and partly odds and ends of new timber, making constructed sculpture and painted reliefs. Almost straight away he found the confidence to make simple flat colour paintings, some with bars of contrasting colour in lively diagonals across their surface. Fitting louvred shutters to some of the windows of his house lead him to the device, most famously used by Matisse, of placing narrow verticals at either side of the canvas, sometimes with short horizontal strokes upon them. From the early 1980s, therefore, Finn developed a repertoire of the simplest compositional means of which to carry rich colour fields. From around 1987 to ‘89 he began to use short dabs and strokes to animate flat expanses of colour and the range of his colours grew to include a rich cinnabar red with the blacks, greys and muted blues, greens and browns that were characteristic of his work. In the late 1980s he used swathes of flat colour over-painted on another colour, the under-painting appearing in glimpses or along the lines of the compositional structure. For the first time, Finn was able to make large paintings, intended for an exhibition organised by John Halkes at Newlyn Art Gallery in 1989. This show was an important punctuation mark for Finn, and his work began to be more widely known.
Experiencing that dip in morale that the aftermath of a one-person show is liable to bring, in 1990 Finn returned to mainly flat colour fields with narrow verticals at either side. His colours were deep blue, deep red, purple, grey and black. The following year, however, his palette brightened and open rectangular forms that he named ‘Gateways’ began to appear floating in the centre of the canvas. Also in the early 1990s the first series of white paintings were made and by the middle of the decade he had begun occasionally to use bright colours alongside his characteristically muted earthy hues. A new series of paintings with a starker, more pre-determined looking structure of hard-edged colour bands against dark colour fields began to appear. Another change of direction followed in 1996, when Finn began to make tall vertical paintings with horizontal bands of colour dividing them, sometimes with larger expanses above and below, sometimes in a progression of colours stacked one above the other in more equal bands. From 1997, there was a new series again, in which deep treacly browns and greens were set against black or grey in two vertical halves.
The apparently dark mood of these paintings was countered by a further group of tall verticals with soft, light colours and a small series of bright yellow paintings. Such brightness is the more telling in Finn’s work because of his assertion that he was more at home with sombre shades. He loved black and admired Manet for his use of it. Although he often used black and white, he also transmuted them into shades of grey or muddy whites expressive of the opposite of idealism. The paintings with these colours seem to be in a state of practical engagement with life’s trials and sorrows.
When he used stronger, cleaner colour, however, Finn often took it down to softish hues and modulated it with brushed surfaces or incised or painted line. His visual language, therefore, was and is still, generally expressive of a reasoned argument for optimism, seeming to recognise our plight and propose contemplation to draw upon inner strength. His relatively few high toned pure colour works stand out like more overt beacons of hope; notably a late blue series, the yellow paintings already mentioned and the large vertical canvasses of the late 1990s.
Michael Finn’s essential purpose in his art is to address our inner aspirations. It is his greatest gift that he did so in open recognition of how hard life can be on the human spirit.
Richard creates his sculptures with balance and form in mind. They can be rotated by hand which enables a physical and emotional interaction with each piece. The sculptures offer new experiences when viewed from different perspectives. It is whilst Richard contemplates these varying viewpoints, curves, twists and lines that inspiration for new work often emerges – in this sense one piece will often feed into another which continues the feeling of flow and movement within Richards work. Richard lives and works in Oxford where he began to hone his form of sculpture in 2005 after being inspired by a visit to the Barbara Hepworth museum, St Ives. He works in bronze, stone and British native hardwoods, Sycamore being a favourite. Richard’s work has been exhibited and selling both nationally and internationally since 2008.
Andy Fullalove’s work is inspired from landscape. A contemporary artist, his work involves semi abstract interpretations of the world around him which he expresses beautifully in oil on canvas.
In the time since Tricia Gillman began painting, exhibiting, selling her large canvases, from the twentieth century to the twenty-first, painting has been variously ‘in’ and ‘out’, ‘over’ and ‘back’.
Gillman’s work has been described as Colourist, Expressionist, bold, vivid, Symbolist and yet she firmly defines her work within the language of Abstraction. She says ‘Abstraction for me provides a terrain where I can reference the multi-layered nature of experience.’
Or in Gerhard Richter’s description: ‘When we describe a process, or make out an invoice, or photograph a tree, we create models; without them we would know nothing of reality and would be animals. Abstract pictures are fictive models, because they make visible a reality that we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can postulate.’
The artist declines overt narrative, or story telling in her work, and yet in a retrospective there is a natural chronological structure, and Gillman does indeed see her whole body of work as a journey travelled. The earliest works here, ‘Como’, ‘Carambola’, ‘Red Boudoir’ and ‘Ugu’ were painted in the 1980s, when Gillman first moved to London after studying in Leeds and teaching in Newcastle for a period. She was living in Shadwell, and would walk every day to work in a studio inWapping. This was pre-regeneration, before yuppies began buying up warehouses – the cityscape was post-industrial and unloved.While you don’t see the greyness here, the circular movement and energy was inspired in part from the rubbish whirling through the windy urban wasteland. The colours are hot, both literally and metaphorically, magenta, red – Gillman looks on these works as a young woman’s paintings, ‘stirring the pot’, full of energy and sex.
The Matisse influence is clear in ‘Red Boudoir’, echoing the 1908 Red Room in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, with its deep and warm enfolding colour, the Japanese sense of flatness and deliberate playing with depth and planes leaving the eye to dart forwards and back, difficult to focus but deeply pleasurable, to allow the visual sensation to overwhelm you. Abstraction is moving in, but the bowl of oranges in the bottom of the canvas nod to the importance of still life for Gillman, not just as a technique but also in the sense of placing objects in a space. (The part of art class I always enjoyed best was arranging these wholly unlikely setups, feather next to overripe pomegranate,) and there is a sense that this is how Gillman paints, but the same discipline of choosing and placing, taking things out of the world and giving them a different life. She says: ‘The conventions of still life are never far away; with its crucial placing and relationships between things, on a table, imbued with a sense of the inherent metaphorical “stage” for life … I like the sense of laying out your cards … to try to persuade these disparate linguistic parts and passages to speak to each other, to cross territories of behaviour, and co-habit in a new place, where transference, physical sensation and feeling, take precedence over fixity of meaning or reference.’
In the early nineties, the flatness becomes a more distinct framing device, and part of the painting physically separates, although the two canvases are bolted together, recalling altarpiece structures. The main canvas was painted first. The appendage was always added as part of each painting’s development. She describes how the painting’s latent content required it, as opposed to a purely physical need for more space. The additional canvas adds another dimension, something structural or sculptural, giving the impression one could, despite its size, pack it up and take it away.
The colours change too, reds and magentas are replaced with a lilac that remains through the work right up to the present day, as in ‘Middle Ground’ along with luminous colours under black, in ‘Underworld’, ‘Swing Low’, ‘Blackboard’. She acknowledges a mother and child theme here, now that she has a baby in the house and is painting in her front bedroom. If it is a kind of wish, the painting produces another painting, the artist to beget herself, were one to make a psychoanalytic reading of these works, it is certainly relevant to note that Gillman’s son has just graduated from art school.
The continuing creative tension in the work of the 1980s and 1990s, between visual fact and the drive for abstraction or sensation, recalls de Kooning’s comment ‘content is a glimpse’. The phrase ‘visual fact’ is one Gillman uses herself, but not necessarily to mean a figuration or a recognisable object, but rather a more physical property, the blob of paint, the line, the colour. The large canvases here, ‘Middle Ground’, and ‘Underworld’, started with the artist painting the whole space one colour and then scraping, adding, etching. At this time Gillman was a senior lecturer in painting at Central St Martin’s, immersed in the theoretical and critical thinking around art practices, mark making, deconstruction, aesthetics and semiotics that continue to abound in art education but were not so much a part of Gillman’s time at Newcastle in the 1970s. She describes talking about the layering as an overt semiotic tactic questioning and testing visual objectivity for the first time, having been concerned with deconstruction and reassembly since beginning to practice.
In 2001, a series called ‘Bedrock’ emerges. These works are much lighter, without heavy thick brushstrokes, the framing devices dropping away. Gillman is clearing away, stripping things out. Before she starts work now she walks through the park, the graveyard. She also has a beautiful garden herself, and plant life becomes important now with leaves and roots and seedpods all coming through. She describes literally planting things on the canvas, going back to the ground, another kind of visual fact.
These works are fundamentally related to the concurrently painted ‘Dark Light’ canvases, which act as the inverse, starting with a black ground, and concerned with depth and space. Gillman says:
‘Starting with apparent opposites; surface as space, dark as light, the absolute of “darkness” reveals itself as relative. The autonomous elements, distinctly made, become mirroring polarities. So, in the “black paintings” and the “white paintings”, the format as container is filled and emptied, posing possibilities for space, light and embodiment, playing out a rhythm of cycles, balances, repetition, weight, fallow and fruit.’iv
These are followed by a series of smaller works, with light markings almost like those made by children’s crayons. Several are shown here including ‘Chinese Whispers’, ‘Chanson D’Hiver’. These form part of the clearing out process, but have their own energy, making traces and tracks over the emptiness, a continuing polarity between all the objects and colours. These works are as near as Gillman gets to Minimalism. She approaches, picks out the particular energy of reducing the pictorial to its necessary parts and in 2006 produces ‘LimeWalk’, a vibrant play of colour. The contrast brings to mind an exchange between Hans Hofmann and Jackson Pollock recorded by Lee Krasner:
‘When I brought Hofmann up to meet Pollock and see his work which was before we moved here, Hofmann’s reaction was — one of the questions he asked Jackson was, “Do you work from nature?” There were no still lifes around or models around and Jackson’s answer was, “I am nature.”And Hofmann’s reply was, “Ah, but if you work by heart, you will repeat yourself.” To which Jackson did not reply at all.’
‘LimeWalk’ is a zinging blast of a painting. Clear luminous green creates a surprisingly flat and yet light background which acts as base for expressionist play, dark splodges and splatters dance around the canvas, insects in a late spring or early summer garden, coming up upon clumps of violets, or a swarm of butterflies. Careful patterns return as slighter framing devices at the edges, like the peeling away of wallpapers, or a reminder maybe, that everything changes, nothing here is a permanent fixture. As a whole this is a forcefully structured and concerted exposition of nature and painting.
The play continues between figurative things: a Celtic roundel, Fra Angelico’s angels and Egyptian hieroglyphs as well as distinctive, or recognisable patterns, William Morris print – in ‘Roundelay’ (2009) and other works of this period. This mass of ‘things’ seems relentless, the increase of images surrounding us in the twenty-first century. Various studies quote the average person as seeing between 245 and 3,000 advertising images per day. During the average twenty-minute period in 2010, 2.14 million images were uploaded to Facebook. Gillman talks about ‘the collision of contemporary, scrambled semiotics with the lost possibility of authentic reference.’viWhat chance does abstraction have with this kind of onslaught?
These later works are in many ways most obviously post-modern in the sense Umberto Eco describes when discussing how to say I love you to someone who knows such clichés have been made redundant by trashy romantic culture:
‘Still there is a solution. He can say, “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.” At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.’
In the most recent paintings Gillman returns to her own hybrid vocabulary rejecting the plethora of distinct and recognisable image references of the preceding series. The play with depth reappears with the shades of lilac, greens and blues and then the paler grounds with a more finespun line, plant life again. The detailed drawing contrasts with the seemingly accidental mark making, drips and splodges of paint, each questioning the other. Perhaps, as a counter to the earlier works of the 1980s, works like ‘Melisma’, ‘Sweet Mexican Dream’ and ‘Myriad’ are cooler, calmer, no less or more certain, but a different woman’s paintings with a different understanding in perception. The facts have not changed but how the artist deploys them has.
Gillman speaks often of Braque’s late studio paintings, the chance to throw everything up the air, all the motifs, techniques, ideas and colours, and see what comes back. These works are not innocent, they acknowledge their influences: Matisse’s colour and atmosphere, de Kooning’s slippery paint, Braque, Caulfield, Fra Angelico. But they are beacons, altarpieces for our age of lost visual innocence. Painting here is not ‘in’ or ‘out’, it just is.
Sam Hall is originally from West Yorkshire, UK and now lives in St Ives, Cornwall, UK. He has been making pots since 1995.
“On the wall in St Ives based potter, Sam Hall’s studio is a single word, scored into the dust-covered plaster. ‘Fight’ it says. It strikes me as a call to arms, an imperative note to self that though life might be a struggle, success can be achieved through a willingness to engage and do battle..a glance at one of Hall’s pots, a work in progress on the floor, reveals another lone word. ‘Tune’ has been etched onto one side of the form which resembles a truncated crushed cylinder, but again, its appearance is inexplicable. ‘I don’t know why I wrote it’ says Hall. The Yorkshire born potter is not being difficult or evasive. His work, which is celebrated internationally, often makes use of random words whose origin is hall’s subconscious but whose meaning is never static or fixed.”Words by Alex Wade. Extracted from, “The Paradoxical Perfectionist’.
My work is inspired by my past, present. I love the purity of form but am also an addict of detail and fine line. I mainly separate these two aspects to keep the purity of both. Occasionally, and mainly on the larger pieces these two aspects are introduced to each other like the opponents in a battle. The interactions and clashes describe some very intriguing dynamics but positive resolutions are formed. Optimism reigns in my work.
The workshop environment is crucial to my sense of well-being and ability to perform. It is important to me that all who may work or visit feel comfortable there. My subject matter is broad. From nature, science, personal and social dynamics, and my past experience in architecture and life.
‘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.
Amelia’s oil paintings strive to relay the atmosphere and emotion of the landscape through a personal and momentary experience. They contain the ideas of capturing those immediate feelings of drama in a continuously changing landscape.
Her interest in the landscape was stimulated by her childhood in the countryside of Sussex where adventures on the South Downs with its ever changing skies and their dramatic effects on the land beneath became her inspiration when she discovered her passion for painting. Choosing Falmouth College of Arts in Cornwall to pursue her degree allowed Amelia to surround herself with an endless supply of exciting subject matter. As a result Amelia had a sell-out graduation show from Falmouth in 2007. Since graduating she has exhibited across the UK including Cornwall, London, Surrey and Scotland, and continues to undertake commissions.
Amelia Humber returned to London in 2007 where she originally studied her foundation course at Wimbledon School of Art, choosing to move back to the hubbub of the capital to be among and involved in the diversity of creative talents. More recently her subject matter extended to the Highlands which she had been visiting annually.
She enjoys travelling to a diversity of landscapes, often painting on location and returning to her studio to finalise the work.
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
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