Its loveliness increases it will never
Pass into nothingness... -Keats
Maybe we all need a little joy in our lives every now and then? That question is largely rhetorical. Maybe I am getting older and am more conscious about what is happening politically in the world but in my lifetime, I do not remember a time as wrought as the one we are living in now; for that reason and the colder, darker winter days, I think that we need things that are inherently uplifting to compensate. And it is ‘joy’ that is the resonating theme present in the work and literally in the accompanying text, mentioned not once but several times, which describes the work of Albert Irvin [1922-2015] whose epic sized paintings are on display alongside his prints, early paintings and works by abstract expressionist painters (who influenced him) in an exhibition on at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) in Bristol.
|Albert Irvin -Northcote (1989) and Rosetta (2012) Acrylic on canvas at the RWA|
Text in the catalogue aside, the effect of walking into the gallery containing large-scale works radiating with colour, huge, clean sweeping brush-marks in dynamic strokes and patchwork quilt-like shapes, has as an immediate impact on the senses. Oranges, pinks, reds next to greens; complementary colours zinging and dancing from left to right in an assortment of shapes, daubs, dots and strokes that, I defy, almost regardless of one’s personal taste in art, not to widen their eyes in reaction to confronting a room full of Irvin’s paintings. Colour is incredibly emotive and perhaps more-so in the winter when we are faced with less of it on a daily existence. Personally, I found the first room of the RWA exhibition to be joyous for that reason. Although I am interested at analysing whether it was a joy because of the colours in the paintings or whether that sense of joy comes from what Irvin has done with colour? It is probably a combination of both, but part of me wondered if there was an element of the Duchampian ready-made to how some of the Abstract Expressionist painters used colour. Barnett Newman and Rothko weren’t so much creating ‘red’ as though we had never seen it, as they were presenting ‘red’, a colour, for what it is. Attempting to give space or volume to something which exists but maybe we never fully notice or experience (similar to that of Duchamp putting a urinal and calling it art). Yet, I also appreciate that a Rothko and a Newman are completely different in their treatment of how they applied colour to canvas, that creates different mood and feeling; I think I am just curious as to where my response to these works lies, in the colour (doing what colour does naturally) or in what artists, in this instance, Irvin do with it.
The highlights for me are Irvin’s paintings from the 70s onwards, around about the time he started working with acrylic paint and is said he,
‘took to their [acrylics] properties immediately. Working horizontally stopped the inevitable run-off of water-thinned paint from top to bottom, and by placing the canvas stretcher on large cans, he was able to reduce the drying time of the saturated surface…’
These paintings are deceptively simple in their cleanness of how colour is applied in shapes and layered without becoming muddied almost textile-like or reminiscent of Matisse’s paper-cuts, and it is an interesting parallel to see Irvin’s thought processes displayed in the exhibition as using coloured paper scraps to build his compositions before he scaled them up into paintings. Incidentally, the vitrine displaying some of the paper cuttings alongside a pair of Irvin’s paint splattered shoes, brushes and paint cans was an unexpected highlight. The old irony ringing true for all artists it seems that the palette used to the mix the paint is often more interesting than the resulting painting... that unintentional freshness so difficult to recreate. Though Irvin does retain some of that sensitivity to knowing when to not overdo a painting and allow certain colours and shapes space. Arrived as if by magic by anyone who has ever tried to create an abstract painting and been left with a muddy, chaotic over-worked mess. It is harder than it looks.
|Kestrel (1981) Acrylic on canvas. 213 x 305|
|Untitled 3 (mid 1970s) Acrylic on canvas. 213 x 305|
|Untitled 6 (1975) Acrylic on canvas. 178 x|
Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism is on at the RWA until March 3rd 2019