It is somewhat taken for granted that the art of painting allows us to engage intimately with the work of another’s hand and eye. Some might even suggest through the marks and traces locked in the gestures and dispersal of paint on canvas, we are witness to some special marriage of spirit and matter. As makers and viewers of paintings, artists have always exploited these contrary sensations of the public and private at work in the mind during the act of looking. Are you a voyeur or co-conspirator? Lover or fellow member of the dispossessed? Intrigue, desire for narrative and the visual unravelling of secrets all elicit deep fascination, bound up as they are in the articulation of the medium itself. Figurative painting’s power, to a lesser or greater degree, hinges on the frisson of implied intimacy or its denial. But what about abstract painting? It was these sorts of questions that kept coming to mind as I walked round Power Stations, the show of mostly large scale abstract paintings by John Hoyland spanning the period 1964 to the very early 80s.
The tension between the public and private roles of art intensified in the debates around abstract painting in the post-war period. In fact there is something faintly absurd about the size of Hoyland’s paintings in at least the first 4 rooms of the Newport St. gallery. They portend to the dimensions of great history paintings, yet give us such little detail or sniff of a narrative of any kind. ‘Handling’ is reduced to a minimum, either locked into a deep staining of the canvas or in the masking-off of flat, high-keyed ‘blocks’ of colour. Their size is institutional, municipal, dare I say it, communal. Overtly public in their forthrightness and seeming simplicity, they ask to be shared as visual experiences by the many rather than owned by the one or the very few (unless you are a millionaire artist-come-collector-come-property-developer with mansions of large dimensions – but more on that later).