For young artists, "painterly" language is back in fashion.by David Killen / September 24, 2013 / Leave a comment
Painting seems to be back in fashion. Not the cool, flat canvases left behind as a backdrop for posh dining while the artistic mainstream went elsewhere. This is painting with a capital “P,” splattered and caked into existence by artists who paint as if their life depended on it. Painters in their twenties and thirties, making visceral, mature, compelling work – and getting recognised for it. Established galleries are interested. There’s a real buzz in the air.
Back in 2009 there was a revelatory show of young British painters at the Parasol Unit in Hackney. This was the first hint I’d had that something exciting was going on. These artists had picked up the frayed end of a thread that broke sometime in the middle of the last century when modernism lost its way. They were being unapologetically serious about the act of creation – “re-sacralising… a culture of desecration” to quote Roger Scruton on the task of all serious artists. This was work that demanded attention. One of those young painters, Shaun McDowell, had one man shows in both Bond Street and New York last year. Barnaby Wright of the Courtauld Institute has spoken of him in connection with Frank Auerbach as a keeper of the Auerbach flame. His work, like Auerbach’s, occupies a space between figurative and pure abstraction. Vividly coloured, often wildly executed – it looks as if he’s clawed at the paint with his bare hands in places, these paintings feel unguarded, nakedly emotional. I can’t say I exactly “liked” them at first viewing. But I felt compelled to go back to them more than once. And that’s how one begins a relationship with works of art. There’s a tension that cannot be resolved. And I know that next time he has a show in London, I’ll be there.
Paul Wright is older, just turned forty. After training as an illustrator, he has spent fifteen years developing his own “painterly” language. His show at Cork Street’s Gallery 27 in June this year was an eloquent demonstration of that language in action. His large canvases are about movement and time as much as the ostensible subject matter. Faces and objects are glimpsed rather than exposed, appearing from, and disappearing into a morass of swirling and jagged brush strokes. The palpable physicality of these works makes the act of painting seem very present in them. It’s as though each painting were part of a project to document the real subject – the ongoing process of artistic creation. Again it’s impossible not to think of Auerbach.
Perhaps postmodernism really is dead, as Ed Docx declared in Prospect last year. Painting is coming from unexpected sources. Damian Hirst, despite his money and fame, felt obliged to prove himself in what even he apparently sees as the only true test. He failed of course, and in doing so he reminded us of something we’d forgotten and are just starting to rediscover. That art isn’t easy; it’s hard. And great art can’t be subcontracted to a bunch of technicians and cabinetmakers. It has a mystery and power which can only emerge from a personal struggle between artist, medium and subject, always with the possibility of failure.
David Tress comes from an earlier generation. Born in London in 1955, he developed an early interest in painting, drawing and natural history. As a teenager he became particularly attracted to abstract expressionism. But by the time he got to art school no self-respecting art student would be seen dead with a paintbrush. Everything had changed. Performance art and conceptualism were the prevailing artistic currents and were to remain so for the next forty years.
Traditional means of artistic expression, it seemed, were dead. Pop art had fizzled out. Hockney had exiled himself to Southern California. Auerbach and Freud were still there, painting in the wilderness. But they seemed exceptions that proved the rule, sui generis. Becoming a painter felt about a relevant as becoming a basket weaver – the act of deliberately taking up a heritage pastime.
At art school Tress dabbled with conceptualism – it was almost impossible not to. But he later rejected its underlying assumptions and decided to pursue his own, lonely path of self-discovery. He moved to rural Wales in 1976 and has lived and worked there ever since, painting from nature. Initially he turned to figurative realism but, over time, his daily engagement with the landscape led him to realise that this wasn’t adequate to the task he’d set himself.
His current exhibition at Messum’s Gallery shows where that path has taken him. “It’s wonderful, isn’t it? We’re really excited.” Was the reaction of the gallery attendant to whom I’d expressed my appreciation of the works on show. And it’s hard not to feel exhilarated by these sensual, spiritual expressions of landscape in all its raw and transient beauty. Somewhere between representation and physical experience, these paintings burst out of the conventional rectangle. In striving to convey the drama, the texture, the sudden changes in the weather, he adds irregularly overlapping layers until the paintings resemble coloured relief sculptures. He also likes to hack or scrape at the paintings to mimic the effect of wind or rain: and to fix crumpled or shredded material to the surface to hint at rocks or vegetation. Looking at his painting of a rainbow, I was vividly reminded of a winter walk along hills overlooking the Severn. The sensation of blinking into impossible brightness bursting from blue-black darkness. The fleeting arch of pure colour seared into a choppy tumble of sky. Fine rain in the face, wind, uneven ground underfoot, shrubbery tearing at sleeves. It’s all there.
It’s easy to spot his influences: John Piper, the impressionists, Turner, even Auerbach yet again. But ultimately it’s his own idiosyncratic, life-embracing vision that illuminates these paintings.
“A crisis of brilliance,” which has just finished at the Dulwich Picture Gallery takes us back to another time when something seemed to be happening in British painting. Curated by David Boyd Haycock, and following on from his wonderful book of the same name, the exhibition focuses on six young artists who were all at the Slade together just before the First World War. The two big stars, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer are already familiar – Nash a truly great artist, Spencer, in my opinion, less so. His neo-primitivism involves a wilful naiveté that makes me feel rather queasy. Richard Nevinson, Mark Gertler and Dora Carrington are revealed as exciting, accomplished artists who somehow became a lost generation. Almost forgotten until the last decade or so. But it’s David Bomberg who provides the surprise. I’d always thought of him as primarily a teacher and mentor of younger artists – most significantly Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. I’d seen his paintings in reproduction, but “in the flesh” they are both much bigger and much more vibrant than the printed page can convey. There is real mastery of formal structure, and his use of colour clearly stems from deep understanding and much tonal exploration. But first and foremost his paintings have that presence that dominates a room and makes you look at them.