Paul Cézanne, “The Garden at Les Lauves”, 1906
The qualities of abstract art – painting or sculpture – are often pitted unfavourably against figurative art. Most art that I look at is indeed figurative. If I want to see great art, it will invariably mean going to see historical figurative painting. Of course I enjoy looking at abstract art and could not imagine making anything but abstract painting. Apart from the very occasional, idle foray into figuration – ‘sans le même désespoir’ – I have been at the abstract paint face, so to speak, for the best part of thirty years. I ponder the relationship between these two worlds frequently. What is it about Cézanne and Matisse, or Titian or Goya and so on that makes me continually return to their work – like going to a well for water?
There is clearly a chasm in time frames between abstract art and great historical figuration, which is able to call upon a massively larger canon of achievement, casting abstract art in the role of a veritable parvenu by comparison. I once wrote – as a throwaway really – that abstract art must meet the challenges of figurative art on its own terms and not on those of figuration. I wasn’t exactly sure at the time what I meant by that!
“Mandalaysian Orchid”, 2016, 66″x100″, acrylic on canvas
Alan Gouk: New Abstract Colour Paintings 28 March – 12 May 2017, Hampstead School of Art, Penrose Gardens, London NW3 7BP www.hampstead-school-of-art.org
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay…
Rudyard Kipling: A Road to Mandalay (from his Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses, 1892)
Alan Gouk last exhibited at Hampstead School of Art in 2014: a series of gouache and acrylic on paper paintings marked by an overt fluidity of handling. Soups of primary and secondary colours were brushed, pushed and dragged into some of Gouk’s signature configurations: vertical gestures often animated with curves and leaning diagonals, set against supportive or disruptive horizontals. Working with this sort of liquidity and with this palette forces a painter to deal with brown; primaries end up there when all mixed – sometimes fatally, other times splendidly. This is the risk run and painting in this way is akin to driving on a cliff road – add speed into the equation and it can be quite a ride.
Hampstead School of Art has since moved into a stylish new bespoke building designed by architects Allies and Morrison and celebrates its 70th year. The modest café space providing the gallery walls. As a patron of this establishment, Gouk has reciprocated by moving his painting on too. After the recce of those gouaches, we can see the evidence of a more flowing “in the moment” attack. There were a couple of smaller works on show, but the main protagonists were five large, quite sumptuous paintings in newly adopted acrylics instead of the usual oil paint. Gouk coyly suggested the economy of acrylic was a deciding factor. (Having just purchased a post-Brexit order of acrylics at pre-Brexit prices before they go up 15% this month and finding myself eyeing up more and more lonely post offices in secluded locations, I am not entirely persuaded by that reasoning.) Acrylic flows over larger areas and there are a lot more surface variations that can be employed when compared to oil, especially with the addition of an ever-bewildering variety of facture-determining mediums.
John Hoyland, ‘9.11.68’, © The John Hoyland Estate, Courtesy Murderme Collection
John Hoyland, Power Stations, Paintings 1964-1982 is at Newport Street Gallery, London SE11, 8th October 2015 – 3rd April 2016
Damien Hirst’s new gallery is open for business and, surprisingly perhaps, he has chosen to showcase a particular period of the work of John Hoyland. Power Stations 1964-1982 launches the Newport Street Art Gallery in Vauxhall, London. Although Hirst has mentioned his deliberate challenge to those who say you can’t make and curate at the same time, I would have thought his way of making was very much in tune with the approaches of a curator. Get something interesting into a box, just on this occasion make it a bloody big box. Good for him to do this, though. I’m sure there is a sense of intrigue as to what will come next, but for now we can enjoy the wonderful spaces that this former scene-painting studio houses and get a meaty glimpse of the work of a significant British abstract painter to boot.
Helen Frankenthaler, ‘For E.M.’, 1981, 71″x115″, acrylic on canvas.
Many years ago I was in a dinner party in California given by my cousin. She is an actor and producer and the company she invited was charming and witty and the conversation easy and friendly. I enjoyed it, and it exuded a slightly glamorous atmosphere too, being in a villa overlooking the Pacific Ocean. One comment though has stuck with me to this day: It was when I was asked “Where are you from?” I answered without thinking, “Wales.” One highly impressed person leaned over to me and in almost hushed tones said: “Wow, that is the spiritual centre of the universe.” Now, I am a proud Welshman and I am always pleased if another nationality knows that Wales exists, let alone passes any kind of familiar comment about it, yet this comment was something I did not see coming at all. I smiled and nodded and thought about this statement… we clearly had very different experiences and ideas of Wales. I assumed he pictured a group of Druids, solemnly striding around a circle of stones, in touch with the forces of nature and the general turning of the universe; whereas I suddenly thought of my home town on a Friday night, when a fellow I was in school with burst into one of the pubs and offloaded two blasts of his shotgun into the ceiling. I won’t name names for legal reasons, though I doubt if he is reading this (and that is a sentence with one word too many). You could say his action was the result of a completely different kind of spirituality.
Artists tend to love Art. We go to galleries, exhibitions and openings. When we are not making Art, we are looking at it or talking about it. We look for it online, we participate in forums, symposia and generally surround and busy ourselves with as much of it as we can. It is our visual food. Yet can our love of Art sometimes be our undoing? Clement Greenberg once said: “The superior artist knows how to be influenced.” The question raised is: influenced by whom and – more importantly – in what way?