Nothing quite says “Happy New Year!” like the scenes of city streets or towns painted in ‘rainy’ greys and dusky pinks! If igniting some post-Xmas cheer was the intention in the timing of Michael Calver’s exhibition of paintings in the Exeter Phoenix Bar Gallery then they may be a just a little bit ‘off’ in doing so. Then again, it may also be possibly quite clever in that the dark and slushy greys in Calver’s paintings quite accurately depict some of the mood and climate many of our towns and cities are currently experiencing in the slump of Xmas and New Year festivities.
As it would have it one particular dry and sunny Wednesday afternoon, I decided to visit the Phoenix to see Calver’s paintings in person... They are far from being vibrant, bustling or exuberant impressions of urban environments, they're darker and so it is quite difficult to have a sense of optimism about these paintings; their bleak and muted palette seems to dominate the feeling of the work, combined with the blocky nature in which the buildings/scenes are built-up and skewed perspective(s) leads to a sense of unease or claustrophobia. The characters present within some of the works (and the audience to some extent) become almost trapped or swamped within these environments rather than being situ within them or free to leave as they please. This quality is also what makes them so compelling and despite their less than rose-tinted viewpoint I find myself drawn to their painterly qualities, i.e. shape, form and colour. Whilst being mostly grey you could even argue there is something optimistic about them in the way in which slivers of colour occasionally sneak through the layers of paint in the form of a chink of orange, yellow or pink as a highlight or edge around a building or chink of light from a window. Sometimes they even become completely abstract, in the painting, ‘Pit’ the grey blocks take over the whole composition and become an impassable lump, mound or maze baring a slight resemblance, for me at least, to some of Philip Guston’s work in which the stuff of his father’s occupation as a rag and bone man become the subject and then abstraction for many of his paintings.Pleasing in their banality like the working class streets of a Lowry or some of the uneasy realism of Robert Tressell’s novel, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’; this is not to give these paintings delusions of grandeur but give them a context into how they may be read. Hovering between an impression of a place and the abstract they are highly imaginative but in doing so they also perhaps unintentionally paint a picture of some of the reality of streets and cities today. The way in which cities are built-up around themselves, the inner-city always threatened to be engulfed by encroaching urban renewal; cranes and vehicles; the climate and weather patterns; colours and absences of colour in urban landscapes and the characters and personalities (desirable and undesirable) which inhabit and animate these places.
There is also an element of story-telling happening in this series of paintings, dog walkers possibly what looks like men fighting, meetings in alleyways/backstreets, prostitution or other illicit night-time activities! Calver’s other art series’ have included immensely detailed, busy drawings know as ‘RAG Drawings’ and feature some of the characters, bustle and underlying sense of disturbance that is present and animates many of the paintings exhibited in Exeter Phoenix. It is rewarding to see how these earlier works may have fed into some aspects of the new paintings (I recommend you check them out on his website if you haven’t seen them http://www.michaelcalver.co.uk/) and whilst I may be slightly bias in preferring the drawings to the paintings the quality that I admire about them both is their darkness. The edge that the paintings have which the drawings don’t however is their ability to create atmosphere through light/dark tones, they are perhaps in that way more theatrical.
It feels an almost rare thing to see a painter working today who isn’t abstract and isn’t representational (generally speaking, I know there are others) when what feels to me like a large chunk of the market is entrenched with painting that fits into either of the extremes. There is something pleasing in its difference about work which combines the two. Whilst this exhibition won't do much to banish the New Year blues it may remind many that not all painting, like art need be comfortable in order to be worth our consideration.
Michael Calver’s Paintings can be seen at Exeter Phoenix Cafe Bar Gallery until February 6th 2016. More details found at: https://www.exeterphoenix.org.uk/events/michael-calver/