Nick Moore

#76. Nick Moore writes on Gillian Ayres at the National Museum, Cardiff

Gillian Ayres, Cardiff installation shot from Gallery 2, l to r: “The Bee Loud Glade”, “Aeolus”, “Anthony and Cleopatra”, “Calypso”, “Ace”

Gillian Ayres at the National Museum, Cardiff, 8th April – 3rd September, 2017.

https://museum.wales/cardiff/whatson/9457/Gillian-Ayres/

‘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.

(more…)

#46. Nick Moore writes on Frank Avray Wilson at Whitford Fine Art, London

Frank Avray Wilson installation at Whitford Fine Art

Frank Avray Wilson installation at Whitford Fine Art

“Anyone involved with the search for the Abstract would know that it was not a stunt. It was far too demanding, and powerful, for that.”  Frank Avray Wilson, ‘Thinking About Painting’ 1990

This exhibition covers the work of Frank Avray Wilson from 1948 to 1962 and includes examples of his early experiments with formlessness, such as ‘Tropical Sea’ c1948, followed by tussles with cubism and geometry as in ‘Harbour’ 1952, and ‘Configuration’ 1953-7, before developing his ‘dream-like crystalline’ approach for which he became known, which makes up the main body of the show.

Born in Mauritius, Avray Wilson studied Biology at Cambridge University between 1932-5 and it was while involved in this scientific research in 1935, making a painting of a cell structure from under a microscope, that he had his ‘eureka’ moment;

“I drew some of the cells, colouring them with fast running watercolours, overrunning with Chinese ink. The result astounded me. Instead of dead replicas, the forms were bursting with life, looking more living than the cells when alive. From that day my attitude to painting changed… how could a drawing be experienced as more living than life? FAW, 1990.

In his writing “Reminiscences” from 1913, Kandinsky talks about the insubstantiality of the atom and the melting of reality: “one of the main obstacles [on the path to abstraction] was swept away by a scientific event. This was the further division of the atom. The disintegration of the atom was, to my mind, analogous to the entire world. Suddenly the thickest walls collapsed. Everything became insecure… I wouldn’t have been surprised if a stone had melted in mid-air before my eyes and grown invisible.”

Before this it was thought that the world was made of solid things, and the basic building blocks, atoms, were thought to be solid too. Following on from Einstein’s theories of particles and relativity in 1905, the unsettling discovery in 1911, made by Rutherford, was that the atom consisted of mainly empty space… then in the 1950s atomic scientist Oppenheimer declared: ‘The world that is revealed to our senses is only a world of appearances. The world of realty is hidden under the surface of things and this real world can be reached both by the mystic and the scientist, [and I would add, the abstract artist] each in his own way: the mystic by introspection and the denial of his senses and the scientist by mathematics and inductive reasoning [and the artist through intuition and experience].’

In the late forties, the world was being shaped anew, and populations were having to come to terms with the obscene destruction of two World Wars; artists had to work out where they stood and how they could proceed in this wasteland. Many turned to abstraction as a way of trying to make sense of an indeterminate world that had disintegrated on many levels.

It is no coincidence that a common resonance seen to be running through lyrical/informal/expressionist abstract painting in Europe from the ’30s to the ’50s is an intuitive vision of the microcosmic or atomic structure of the world; not just illustrated, but imbued with energy and a bursting vitality, in opposition to the more mathematical approach of geometric abstraction.

(more…)

#44. Nick Moore writes on Robert Motherwell, “Abstract Expressionism” at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery

Robert Motherwell, installation at Jacobson Gallery

Robert Motherwell, installation at Jacobson Gallery

‘Nothing as drastic an innovation as abstract art could have come into existence save as a consequence of a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need. The need is for felt experience – intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.’ Robert Motherwell, ‘What Abstract Art Means to Me’.

After the cramped hang and the waves of people flooding the RA show, this exhibition is an oasis. It includes a taste of all the facets of Motherwell’s work, from the earliest collage Pierrot’s Hat, 1943 and drawing Untitled 1944, it encompasses large canvasses and small works on paper up to his last collage Blue Guitar, 1991; it is a spacious hang in quiet place, filled with vibrant power.

Motherwell was the youngest of the so-called Abstract Expressionists and in some ways the outsider; and indeed still is – he was not honoured with a room of his own at the current RA survey, his name doesn’t appear on the publicity, and ‘Plato’s Cave’ was squashed into a corner, an error not mitigated by the fact that the massive ‘Elegy For The Spanish Republic No 126’ was given a whole wall.

(more…)

#33. Nick Moore writes on Basil Beattie at MIMA

Basil Beattie installation at MIMA, L to R:"Without End", 2005; "Never Before", 2001; "Hinterland", 1995

Basil Beattie installation at MIMA, L to R: “Without End”, 2005; “Never Before”, 2001; “Hinterland”, 1995

Basil Beattie – When Now Becomes Then: Three Decades, at MIMA until 12th June 2016.

“Only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life. Non-ambiguity and non-contradiction are one sided and thus unsuitable to express the incomprehensible.” CG Jung

This years exhibition highlights for me so far have been two substantial shows of big paintings; John Hoyland at Newport Street and Basil Beattie at MIMA, both a refreshing contrast to the multitude of ‘contemporary’ domestic abstraction often artfully and sometimes even subtly restrained in grids of one sort or another with no personal ‘signature’ in the facture.  Impersonal and emotionally cool, they are what Roger Hilton would have called “tidy”. Not so here. In these two shows it was so refreshing and invigorating to see progressions of series and witness the leap from identity to existence in such a strong way, especially in Beattie’s ‘retrospective’. And refreshing to hear him say that having a show like this is a way of ‘learning about what I am doing’. It is not a grand finished statement but a work in progress, a getting to know your own working process in a more objective way.

Beattie sees painting as a journey, full of doubt and uncertainty, but he also likes to use such words as ‘vividness’ and ‘intensity’ to describe the satisfactory outcomes. He ‘discovers things’ after he finishes a painting, doesn’t ‘know much about it before or during…’ He says in the film Corridors of Uncertainty that he ‘finds things that have meaning in a painting which I cannot necessarily or easily accommodate through speculating about them but they seem to impose themselves on the memory…’ Working in series is one way of making sense of this, allowing the images to shift and change until they are ‘worked out’ enough to move onto a new series. Some elements are stubborn and have a propensity to return later and be explored anew among different permutations and painterly adventures. The show at MIMA demonstrates this admirably, stretching from the eighties through samples of various series such as the Witness paintings, Brooklyn series and Janus series to a room full of what I will call dreampaintings made between 2012-15. The sequence of the exhibition is roughly chronological, arranged in four rooms covering examples from approximately 10yrs in each.

(more…)