Saturday, 16 April 2016

Review: A Room of One's Own (The Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, Birkenhead)

This small, unexpectedly powerful exhibition of works, mostly paintings, from the Williamson’s collection draws its title from an essay by Virginia Woolf. All works have been purchased or donated between 1913 and 2015. Initially, a large painting by Richard Young startled me. Large Interior – a composite oil painting comprising four panels that together make an approximate square – glowed in a Sickertesque manner. Subdued pinks and a dirty yellow-green came first, then the recognition of a chair set back in the top left and an old fireplace surrounded by a host of chaotically placed books and other objects piled towards the corner of a cluttered room.

After a while I noticed a painting within a painting: sitting atop of the fireplace and barely distinguishable from the surrounding walls. The mood is dusty, poignant in an underplayed way, but nevertheless loaded with a sense of what has been. It reminded me of lines from a poem, The New House, by Edward Thomas.

All was foretold me; naught
Could I foresee;
But I learned how the wind would sound
After these things should be

Young’s ability to destabilise a composition in a controlled manner through subtle angular juxtapositions and intersections, combined with an enjoyment of muted colour and a truncated tonal range, draw heavily from the lessons of Sickert. And yet, irrespective of origin or influence, the painting broods. Look hard and there is an image of a face, presumably a photograph of a loved one. Nearby, scrawled on a piece of sheet music is the word 'Requium.

Oddly, but perhaps through necessity (presumably the work is too large to move), Thomas Sydney Cooper’s monumental Waterloo, in the region of 13 x 10 feet (though this is probably an underestimate) retains centre stage in an exhibition of 20 intimate interiors. Included are two paintings by Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister): Interior with Duncan Grant and Interior with a House Maid. Both carry with them a pronounced feel for the air that circulates, or else stagnates, within a room. More than frozen moments, these paintings seem more about observance—the act of seeing and subsequently reconstructing the moment. With this comes an air of privilege, certainly in terms of the relative comfort of the settings, but more so in respect of the position of the absent watcher/painter permitted to take all of this in.

Other highlights from the exhibition include the deceptively simple Interior by Ethel Martin Frimston, which in spite of its subject matter (window, table, flowers, mirror) retains a considerable freshness, perhaps to do with the fluidity of her technique and the skill with which paint has been applied in the service of a well-composed picture. Next to this, Thomas Burke’s From My Study Window depicts a well-dressed woman looking through a large, heavily framed window towards the buildings opposite. It is rather eerie and to somewhat reminiscent of Freud’s early work, Interior at Paddington, painted a decade later. Though the work seems technically a little awkward – strange cropping and a rather dry use of paint – it nevertheless commands attention. The more I looked the more I liked. There is a familiarity with many of these works, which is no doubt central to the concept of the exhibition, and to its success.

William Turner’s The Night Before the Cup Tie shows a middle aged to elderly woman ironing a football kit in a rather humble kitchen sink-like setting. A sense of care, and of an absorption in a meaningful task, permeates the work. Philip Wilson Steer’s School Girl Standing by a Door is incredibly present. Sharp, crisp and fluid, in spite of its gloom, there are strong reminders of the artist’s debt to Manet and Whistler. Of the more recent contributions, Anniversary, by David Pugh Evans, An Empty Room and an Old Belief by Peter Bibby and Hallway by Mavis Blackburn are particularly notable, attesting in various ways to a room’s capacity to both reflect and determine the nature of that which takes place within its confines.

In all, this is impressive display of intimate, quotidian spaces. Sickert’s influence looms large, as indeed it did over British painting for two thirds of the twentieth century, until Hockney and company set out to cheer it up. Still, for those willing to lend this grouping of quiet works their time, and to seek out something less immediate, there are surprising rewards to be found.

The exhibition runs until November 20th.

Tom Palin, April 2016

Friday, 29 January 2016

The Tent

The Tent resides within a series of small-scale oil paintings on wood that have occupied me for the past five years. Completed in 2013, it formed part of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2015, where it hung in the landscape room in Burlington House, curated by Jock McFadyen. For this and a companion piece, The Hill, I was the recipient of a British Institution Award. The Tent is currently on loan to Dean Clough, from a private collection.

The paintings in this series are almost all landscapes and share a concern for a singular location or place, at once familiar or commonplace. The image-aspect of a painting resides within the surface, and its accessibility – outward facing, static and open – acts as the way in. Only then, when an acquaintance has been made can the painting begin its work.

This work can be seen as a drawing together and disclosure of painterly possibilities, residual references and processes of making: as duration, intimation and desire. For it is in being a painting that a painting keeps itself busy, and in being The Tent, such busyness is necessarily circumscribed. The painting is small, rough, shiny and framed; its image of tent and cloud ‘fashioned from’ not ‘inscribed upon’ its surface, fusing form and content together. I consider the processes of painting to be a journey where both origin and destination are undetermined in advance of an engagement in the act of making.

I draw from memory, allowing the material, manual aspects of the work to inaugur, extend and fashion the stuff of paint into a formal arrangement...into a representation. This arrangement of brush marks, of colour and tone, takes up where memory falters or fabricates, continuing the journey as the process evolves. At points in time the relationship between leader and follower – between memory and the possibilities set in motion by the image – reverses, leaving me in doubt as to the identity of the author of the final arrangement.

The memory concerned is both voluntary and involuntary, with conscious and unconscious drivers. The result, however, is not arbitrary, though the processes whereby a painting becomes determined and complete remain mysterious, reassuring me of painting’s propensity for seemingly continual regeneration. To misquote Mark Twain...rumours of painting’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, and for a long time. Its disposition to infinite extension combined with a rootedness in the past serve to situate it firmly in a perpetual present.

With The Tent I knew only that there was a clear intent to work within the confines of the landscape genre, in oils, on oak, and to a small scale. I’d set out my stall in a new studio in Barkston House, Leeds, with an optimism that accompanies such beginnings. The studio was a dwelling, carefully furnished and ready to provide the conditions of practice: a clearing within which works could emerge.

I cannot be sure if the idea of a tent preceded its arrival as motif on the surface of the wooden panel by a significant distance, but it likely circled among other possibilities in future arrangements, taking physical form, when its turn came, as a result of a long process of trial and error. Lots had been tried and lots painted out, as the surface built gradually, heaving and rippling, containing and encasing all that the painting had been.

When eventually the tent appeared, silhouetted in the bottom right side of the painting on top of the light horizontal section behind it, I knew that I had the rest of the work within my reach. From then the painting appeared to determine itself, as I layered the dark area, adding to the central lightness to allow what became a loud cloud to poke through, sit on top of, and blend into, the surrounding sky.

When camping, the sky is huge. In a tent you feel close to the ground, so it seemed right to have the tent’s ground sheet level with the bottom of the painting. I love the expansiveness of Vincent Van Gogh’s wonderfully inventive Starry Night, 1889, and the singularity of the moment in Samuel Palmer’s magical The Bright Cloud, 1834. I have borrowed from both, with the latter directly responsible for the cloud, though manifestly less bright in my work.

I’d recently camped in Snowdonia, which almost certainly brought the motif of the tent to the fore, making it part of my thinking and experience. Yet the painting is a composite of elements, a moment in a story: an event. An illuminated windbreak describes the tent’s insides, and two bodies, together clinging. The sky, as physical, material presence, extends to the front of the painting on the right of the tent and to a mound of earthy greyness on the left. An indeterminate dark lengthens vertically above the cloud, which hangs and waits.

Tom Palin