Gillian Ayres at the National Museum, Cardiff, 8th April – 3rd September, 2017.
‘I suppose I am always trying to find something. I’m always looking for it. This has gone on since I was fourteen – and now I’m eighty five.’
A life lived backwards – for this review I will try an experiment and follow the more complex journey of the exhibition as it proceeds from the eighties back to the fifties, rather than the apparently more logical way of chronology from early to late…
The overarching sense of this exhibition is of a celebration of a painter whose work is vibrant, energetic and ambitious, but perhaps, above all, someone who has lived in painting. Ayres’s rich colour and attack, especially in the vibrant later works, bring a sense of play and uplift to these spaces – a feast for the senses in all respects, with the faded smell of oil, the sticky, tactile surfaces, and enough colour to last a lifetime. It was a bonus to have seating in the galleries (though I found the bean bags challenging – not so good for getting up again!) as it encouraged us to stop and sit, and open up to the work. When given some time to engage emotionally with the paintings (and physically because of the material and the scale), the experience can lift us into ourselves in a visceral way. In the first two rooms I would suggest that you can almost hear the swish, slick and smear of the paint as it is literally handled onto the canvas like an extreme version of finger painting – for this is what it is, a primary engagement with material, the canvas sometimes so heavily loaded that it sags under the weight.
The exhibition embodies forty years of a life in painting, with more than half the works being lent from private collections, and so rarely seen in public. It starts with the two rooms of paintings from the 80s, then meanders through a room with a selection from the 60s and 70s, and ends with what many think is the high-point of Ayres’s output, that of the 50s. The basis of the exhibition is a celebration of her connection with Wales, hence the emphasis on the first two galleries, work made while living in an old rectory in the Llyn Peninsular and as an external examiner at Cardiff Art School, before moving down to the Devon/Cornwall border in 1987. Proceeding through the galleries made an interesting journey backwards through time, enabling different connections to be made and it was breathtaking to be presented with a whole room (and it has to be said in the most beautiful space) of the 50s paintings as the climax to the show.
‘I got unhappy with teaching in art schools and just resigned one day, lost my London mortgage and cut to Wales. I thought I’d paint like hell. I just didn’t worry’.
Our journey begins with the most recent paintings shown, and it is in these from the early 80s that Ayres hits her stride again, having left teaching, abandoned acrylics, moved to North Wales, and thrown herself back into to an engagement with oil, colour and substantial texture on an ambitious scale. The chromatic intensity that soaked the interior of Ayres’s studio was echoed outside it by not only a profligate garden, but the presence of guinea fowl and peacocks. In these rooms we are surrounded by a selection of the idiosyncratic, recognisable flow of high key painting that hasn’t stopped since.
In the first room are a variety of canvas formats; Ayres’s first tondo, ‘Ah Mine Heart’, 1981 was painted impulsively on an antique tabletop! – it is a format (said to be variously inspired by Florentine Renaissance paintings, Picasso plates, and Medieval Rose windows) which Ayres pursued over the next two decades. There is an upright lozenge, ‘Ace’, 1984, by the door. ‘A Belt of Straw and Ivy Leaves’, 1983, is three meters high and less than half that in width, containing a stack of overlapping arching gestures interrupted by fingered straight lines on the diagonal. ‘Dance of the Ludi Magni’, 1984, is a long, thin format nearly of three and a half meters with an unusually symmetrical construction centred on a large yellow area. Opposite this is the largest painting in the room, Anthony and Cleopatra, 1982, at nearly three meters square, was the first painting made in Wales, giving vent to the new release of energy. In this the paint much less amorphous, more vibrant and contains larger, longer marks than the those that preceded it, such as Sabrina (see below). A small painting on hessian, ‘Galetea’, 1981-2, just over a metre square, completes the line-up of this room. Even as we enter this first gallery our gaze is drawn through to the far wall of the second, on which is ‘The Fairest of Stars’, 1984, with its red edges and golden, luminous centre glowing in the distance.
The second room is dominated by four large paintings paired up on either side, each with a highly individual character; three are over three meters square. On the right are ‘Aeolus’, 1987, a large square with a green ‘border’ which seems to have an internal glow to it and a particular clarity when compared to earlier paintings of similar size such as ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’ and ‘Sea Sea the Sheppard Queen’.
‘Aeolus’ is underpinned by white inflected yellow in the upper centre which balances a large area of finger-applied white curves to the right side; over and around these are a range of different coloured marks, from zigzags, lines, dots and circles to fan shapes; some are applied wet-in-wet to slur the colours, others are cleanly laid on top of dryer paint, built up in layers. The lower centre is dominated by a fan of red and black, struck through with a later addition of a vivid blue vertical which is then echoed as a curve at top right. Next to this are amorphous red shapes dotted with black, echoed in the centre of the painting by radial red lines on a black circle – and so we start to be drawn around the painting, encountering the internal logic in what at first appears to be a frenzied chaos.
Next to Aeolus is ‘The Bee Loud Glade’ also 1987, which is unlike anything else from this period of the show. It seems to prefigure the paintings that emerged around 2006 onwards, having a dark background with clearly defined, separate coloured shapes, rather than the overlapped, interweaved, layered approach more common in the other paintings from the 80s. The two vertical bands on the left hand side of the painting, one predominantly orange and black, the other also with yellow and white, are a unique characteristic of this painting too, taking up at least a third of the canvas.
‘Sea Sea the Shepherd’s Queen’, predominantly blue, appears to be three paintings stacked on one another, on the skew, outlined in red; one of these ‘edges’ breaks down into a zigzag before it reaches the top of the canvas. There is a characteristic frieze of alternate rectangles along the bottom of the canvas grounding the painting.
Next to it, ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ is dominated by black and white and is framed by straight lines on three sides with snaking verticals on the left enclosing turquoise horizontals and semicircles. Along the lower border, yellow and black zig-zags and to the right a yellow quadrant with black spots, give the eye some anchor amongst the constantly moving rhythm of the painting.
These are not one-hit paintings and the benches provided were a welcome chance to sit, soak them up, and let the internal logic of these complex works slowly reveal themselves over time, though I found this last one was particularly hard work. I visited the exhibition twice, both times spending three hours in the galleries and will probably go back again before it finishes, the experience was so rich.
‘I do actually think that the hands and fingers are very sensitive instruments for painting. I don’t mean that I just apply great handfuls of paint, though I may do that. And then I may use a brush; in some parts of the painting the touch may be very fine.’
From these two rooms of intense colour with smeared, combed and thickly layered paint (‘Cinnibar’, 1989, sags at the bottom under the weight of the paint), going upstairs we enter what seems to be a period of uncertainty and desire for something different from the more spacious paintings of the early sixties. Ayres had held her own in the Situations exhibition in 1960 with Cumuli, Trace and Muster, amongst contemporaries predominantly working in colourfield and hard edged geometry; oil and Ripolin now give way to experiments in the new-found acrylic and a number of different approaches are tried in the onslaught of encroaching Pop art influences.
In gallery 3, on one of the returns by the door, can be seen an example of patterned hard edges and muted colours as in Shiraz 1964, the only one shown here of a series seemingly based on leaf and flower shapes that could have been stencilled, which lasted till 1969. There followed experiments with clusters of blots, perhaps a nod back to her earlier, denser Tachiste work, as in the extensive Untitled (purples) 1971, on the right hand wall. It is a monumental work over seven metres long and nearly three metres high which had to be stretched in the gallery, again the only example here of the series. These ran alongside a number of vertically poured works represented here by ‘Weddell’ from 1973/4, and including Untitled (Cerise), 1972, nearly two metres high and five and a half metres long, which was shown at the Alan Cristea Gallery earlier this year.
At this time, between 1966-78 Ayres was teaching at St Martins; then was Head of Painting 1978-81 at Winchester, during which time she was back grappling with oil paint and producing the dense, impastoed paintings such as ‘Sabrina’ 1978, which prefigure the exuberance of the eighties, (an outpouring possibly stimulated by seeing a retrospective of Hofmann’s work in Washington in 1976 on a visit to the States with Frank Stella).
On the opposite (left hand) wall and the returns either side of the doorway to room 4 are three of the dense paintings from the late fifties; ‘Distillation’, oil and Ripolin on canvas, and ‘Untitled’, oil and Ripolin on board, both from 1957 and ‘Sun Up’ from 1960 which heads a line of sparse and lyrical landscape format works, with thinned applications of paint filling circles and oblongs. Those such as ‘Break-off’, 1961, ‘Brood’, 1962 (still with oil and Ripolin), are among a run of paintings that features a new openness where the space between the elements is important, in contrast to the previous dense Tachiste approach seen in the work from the Hampstead Mural and the above paintings from 1957. It is interesting too, to note that there is a change of support to the more flexible canvas in these paintings, perhaps leading to a softer approach after the previous attacks on the more resistant board. ‘Lure’ 1963 demonstrates a more controlled approach with staining as well as brushwork and a filling of the canvas, with the space now made of colour rather than large areas of ‘blank’ canvas.
In the last room we are amongst the early phase of development in the artist’s process, the fluid beginnings of the Hampstead Mural and the poured paintings of the late fifties, in both horizontal and vertical formats. Entering this room from the uncertainty of the previous one is an emotional and physical shock… here is an entirely coherent, strong and visceral presentation of painting from somebody right at the beginning of their journey. The progression from the dense, sensual attack of the Hampstead Mural, (which has more resonance with European painting, Davie and Denny, than with Pollock), to the long liquid paintings that followed, was realised between 1957 and 1959; by any standards it is an immense achievement. With these, Ayres could hold her own among contemporary works by Frankenthaler and Mitchell.
As mentioned earlier, ‘Cumuli’ and ‘Muster’, both shown in this room, were included in the Situations exhibition in 1960; the addition of the latter painting amongst the group in this room is interesting in that it has more affinity with those of the previous one, but then as we start back through the exhibition in a chronological way, it serves as a reminder of what was to come.
‘I just like painting. I wouldn’t know what to do without it. I don’t find it odd to spend ones whole life painting…..there’s that whole ridiculous other side of the jubilation you get from art; the nutty aspect of an entire life devoted to painting. But I don’t think I could live without art, literally.’
Installation images courtesy of National Museum Cardiff.
Images of paintings © & courtesy of Gillian Ayres and Alan Cristea Gallery.
(for more discussion of the 50s paintings at the Jerwood, Hastings, see Robin Greenwood’s article on abstractcritical from 2012: https://abstractcritical.com/article/gillian-ayres-paintings-from-the-50s/index.html)