Friday, April 16, 2004

While passing the Municipal Gallery in Worcester yesterday my eye caught sight of a poster advertising an exhibition of paintings called ‘Porth’ by Kurt Jackson. Shows in the Worcester gallery are usually a disappointment they are usually touring shows of installations or the ill considered daubing that seem to be in fashion with museum curators. . I first became familiar with Jackson’s work on seeing an exhibition of his innovative watercolours in a gallery in St. Just. So this time I went in eagerly anticipating a welcome change from the usual stuff.

Well for this touring exhibition Kurt has put together large collaged paintings in mixed media. The collaged bits were mostly items retrieved from the beach at Priest’s Cove where Kurt mostly works. ‘All that was left’ had two crumpled oilskin jackets and cork floats with bits of rope evocative but somehow inappropriate.

The majority of the paintings were made up of two or three door-sized stretched canvasses fixed together – gallery art again. Very few locations could display these paintings, a college refectory if you shifted the portraits of pensioned academics perhaps. There were perhaps three of four mixed media watercolours framed but unmounted as though they were a hurried addition. These were typical Kurt showing evidence of his playful exploratory way with water based media – capturing effects of light on the sea and evoking in the viewer a sense of noise of waves breaking on shingle. I wish there had been more.

The gallery was showing a video of Kurt at work outdoors on a cliff top at Priests Cove. He gave a bravura performance working on a huge canvas spread on the turf and held down by stones. I guess he was working on an acrylic underpainting laid in earlier. The video showed him working barefoot, trowelling on paint with a knife, splattering it on with a loaded brush Jackson Pollock style and blending it with fingers and toes. Great fun and with an eye for the chance effect or happy accident but never completely controlled.

For quiet reflection I wandered into a neighbouring gallery and saw ‘Herald of the Night’ by Arnesby Brown - an oil painting of about 1870 he was also a Newlyn painter. The painting shows a full moon rising over a simple landscape with two rather badly painted cows, a painting easily dismissed because of its romantic Victorian subject matter. But then I looked at how he had painted the evening sky, there were blues mauves greens juxtaposed and harmonious. It was controlled and considered the product not of impulsive brush gestures but of carefully placed marks. Characteristics all too rarely found in contemporary painting.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Robert Hughes is still one of the few critics that are worth reading. For an art critic he has the rare quality of expressing his opinion in plain words. His international status as a critic is long established and he has no time for dumb hyped-up nonsense posing as fine art.

He wrote in The Guardian recently a review of Lucien Freud’s exhibition of recent paintings and etchings at the Wallace Collection, Hertford House, London – it runs until 18th April. He used his review to contrast Freud’s achievement with the show at the Saatchi Gallery called ‘Fresh Blood.’ A show of ‘awful dumb-arsed posturing’ to paraphrase Hughes’ assessment promoted by Ad-men without any kind of connoisseurship. Nobody can really take the whe work of Hirst, Emin, Lucas and their chums seriously can they?

By contrast there is Freud at 82 producing strong engaging work – the product of a lifetime engaged in subjecting people and objects to obsessive scrutiny. This scrutiny leaves the viewer if not the sitter feeling uncomfortable. There is a residual element of the expressionist distortion which characterised German art of his Grandfather’s time – those reclining figures with exposed genitals distorted by exaggerated perspective.

For Hughes, Freud is England’s greatest living artist - other critics share his enthusiasm - ‘our Titan among minnows’ is Laura Cumming’s assessment of him in The Observer. It is good to find critics who are defending work done by a figurative oil painter. Freud has a sensitivity to the way the oil medium can reconstruct a perceived form and give an interpretation of reality which is far superior to the photographic image. In part this superiority is due to the fact that much effort and obsessive observation have gone into the creation of the paint surface – a result of long and exploratory reworking of the surface. Freud’s paintings show the ‘naked evidence of labour’ to quote Cummings. It is this display of effort which for me gives the work a value which demands respect. After all the uncompromising nakedness though it is refreshing to escape into the fresh air where the breeze ruffles the leaves on the trees and and sunlight creates vibrant colour. I need to gaze at a little David Cox watercolour I think.

Read the reviews at:
Sarah Cumming: 'A brush with Genius'
Robert Hughes: 'The Master at Work.'