Ilse D'Hollander's landscapes (see previous post) are probably at the limit of abstraction that I currently find interesting. I see the same sort of qualities in Ivon Hitchens' paintings, many of which I enjoy very much. Maybe Hitchens' later stuff goes a step further, by virtue of its heightened, unrealistic colours: I think I struggle when the connection with the observed world becomes stretched too far. For example, Peter Lanyon's paintings intrigue and exercise me, but I'm not sure I like them.
(That's not to say I dismiss abstract (as opposed to abstracted) work... I do like much of what I know of Mark Rothko, Gillian Ayres, Howard Hodgkin... and I loved Albert Irvin's RWA show (see 28/12/18). But that's a different thing, and one that I'm not minded to attempt in my own work.)
I'm currently enjoying some painting tuition by Michael Weller at The Colour Factory in Winchester. I've been to two of the six weekly sessions so far, both devoted to still life. A refreshing feature of Michael's teaching is his willingness to offer something concrete by way of technique. Though I'm not seeking to mimic him I'm perfectly content to go along as closely as I can with his instruction, in order to understand his approach from the inside and take from it as much as possible.
The content is not new to me, but no less crucial to learn (again) for all that:
I've written elsewhere: 'I’ve been trying to figure out what part landscape painting might have in contemporary practice. Or whether by doing what I’m doing I am, in fact, barking up the wrong (because thoroughly dead) tree.' Andrews ('Landscape and Western Art') has a view on this: 'As a phase in the cultural life of the West, landscape may already be over.' If, however, there are contemporary artists actually making landscapes then it may, as a matter of fact, not be all over. What small knowledge I have of art history leads me to believe that the announcement of the death of several genres (portraiture, figuration, painting itself) has sometimes been premature, so I'm not without hope.
I concluded an earlier post ('Politics', 09/12/18) by asking 'Who is making landscapes these days?' I'm definitely on the lookout for these people. The acclaimed Tacita Dean says she does it, as does Turner Prize winning Charlotte Prodger, but I've yet to look at their work seriously. My initial uninformed reaction is to say that I don't immediately 'get it'. I guess I'm still hoping that there might be painters and printmakers out there.
George Shaw calls for my attention (I inadvertently picked up a small catalogue of his in a charity shop some time ago, so warmed to his work before I knew it mattered). Also, there's a host of amateur artists (e.g. my Instagram chums) whose motivation, at least, I'm inclined not to dismiss, if only because I suspect it's the same as mine.
I'm being helped in my search by my son, Samuel, who knows a thing or two about paintings. He's given me the catalogue of a current show by Ilse D'Hollander. Some of her works, made in the early to mid-90's, are abstract with more than a hint of landscape and some are manifestly landscapes, albeit abstracted. Do these paintings that depict places receive a thumbs-up from the contemporary art world? Well, yes they do. The fact that the Victoria Miro gallery is representing D'Hollander makes that point clearly enough, as does the reception of (for example) the Observer's art critic, Laura Cummings, who clearly rates the show saying nice things like: 'Small, calm and balanced, these landscapes are exceptionally beautiful,' and 'It is the romantic tradition – emotion recollected in tranquillity – reprised for modern times,' and again 'The world, and the way she sees it, are fused in these dense sonnets'. So here, at least, is an example of landscape painting hanging on in there.
D'Hollander's paintings have much to commend them. The gallery's take on what she did is clear enough: 'In her short life, Ilse D’Hollander (1968–1997) created an intelligent, sensual and highly resonant body of work that continues to find receptive new audiences in the decades since her death. This exhibition, the gallery’s first solo presentation of D’Hollander’s work since announcing its representation of the artist’s estate, focuses on the rich dialogue between abstraction and representation in her work, giving special attention to the ways in which she coaxed evocations of place, light and weather into her modestly-scaled canvases and works on cardboard.' Images of real places they may be, but rather more than that, too, it seems.
The tension between abstraction and representation is always interesting to me. The business of employing ambiguity, but incorporating enough that's recognisable, is what I want to explore, I think. My work is barely abstracted at all - and then quite clumsily I fear - but it's undeniably this territory that D'Hollander occupies and this that captures my attention. Laura Cummings recognises the same when she says the works 'invoke the countryside... in all the rich greens of spring and summer', when she says they are 'as if remembered through both weather and time,' and (without ambiguity) when she declares: 'Each image leans towards abstraction, but is deeply rooted in reality.' That's a key feature: rooted in reality. Nothing free-floating here.
Some miscellaneous thoughts prompted by the text of the catalogue for the RWA's Albert Irvin exhibition, or pertinent quotations extracted from it:
An earlier post ('Synthesis', 01/12/18), discussing Rubens' Het Steen landscape, noted the desirability of somehow incarnating values in a painted image. The American artist Robert Motherwell, quoted in the preface to the catalogue, picks up the same point and enumerates some options: 'Venturesomeness is only one of the ethical values respected by modern painters. There are many others, integrity, sensuality, knowingness, passion, sensitivity, dedication, sincerity, and so on which taken altogether represent the ethical background of judgement in relation to any given work of modern art.' This is an imaginative and thought-provoking list. I'm sure I'll return to it.
On abstraction: 'A lot of abstract paintings are made through looking at things, and the artist can be torn in terms of loyalty to the original - the issue of a painting originating from, for example, a landscape, but not looking like it in a direct way.' (This puts me in mind of Terry Frost's early series of paintings, 'Walk Along the Quay'.) And then, more in tune with Irvin's mature work where all reference to any motif is absent, and speaking of the influence of the American painters: 'All was changed, changed utterly... and above all, that the 'content' or 'subject' of a painting could be its own formal structure, its shapes and colours and their disposition over the canvas surface; it was that 'space' in a painting could be lateral as well as - or instead of - recessive; that a painting was part of the world, not merely a picture of some aspect of it.' This is a concise description of 'pure' abstraction. It applies as much to the later work of Terry Frost, and that of Patrick Heron and Ben Nicholson (for example), as to Albert Irvin.
About the primacy of making: '...Irvin was told... that he must not teach more than three days per week... (and have) more time each week in the studio... and importantly, paint under my fingernails.' It seems to me that when you stop making you become an ex-artist. And further, of personal involvement: 'The brushed mark was a core communicative element for Irvin. It acted as a signifier of the presence of the artist and the decision-making taking place... (He said,) 'It's important that the mark on the canvas is the mark I've made.'
Finally, in an interview between artist-colleague (B) and the exhibition curator (S) an exchange about the joy in Irvin's paintings:
'B: ...I don't think there are any black clouds in his paintings. By that I mean, I don't think there is any angst in his paintings.
S: Yeah, they are very celebratory paintings.
B: Yeah, and I think once he'd identified that, in his head it became much clearer.
S: Oh, that's interesting - you think it took Bert a while to find that, and be confident about it?
B:...I think the spirit of the painting he wanted to make eventually became clearer, and somehow he identified the idea of making an image that was joyous and optimistic.'
And, elsewhere, on the same theme: 'After years of exploration, a visual opulence emerged to stand as testament to his belief in the essential and enriching power of the visual arts... he found ally in Matisse's principle of an art of '...the joyousness of springtime, which never kets anyone suspect the labours it has cost.''