Sunday, 27 January 2019

A thing of beauty...

A thing of beauty is a joy forever,
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
Gesture and the use of movement and action present in these paintings, such as the sweep of yellow across a pane of blue in ‘Kestrel’ (1981) gives extra dynamism to the use of colour, rendering it less static as we attempt to imagine the tool, the movement and body it was attached to that created those marks, Irvin was known for using ‘improvised squeegees’ and decorating brushes. In the accompanying rooms to this exhibition a collection of paintings from an exhibition at the Tate titled, ‘The New American Painting’ includes a Pollock, De Kooning and Motherwell whose use of action, volume and bold confidence in their approaches to painting inspired Irvin when he went to see the exhibition in 1959. Certainly, the parallels between the Irvin paintings which use a lot of black in them alongside saturated colour, such as ‘Untitled 3’ (mid 1970s) use a similar colour visual language and use of saturation as some of the works by the American painters. These rooms included a collage by Grace Hartigan who I’d previously never heard of and was like a combination of Kurt Schwitters meets Abstract Expressionism.

Untitled 3 (mid 1970s) Acrylic on canvas. 213 x 305
Irvin’s early paintings, also on display (before he used acrylics), done in oils are contrastingly more representational; depicting street scenes, portraits and still-lives. Though they are still very painterly and become increasingly abstract with paint as a medium being applied in different thicknesses, mixed with sand or scrapped and smeared (with influences of Francis Bacon and even a Futurism-style sense of movement in some) being precursors to what lead to the later treatment of paint in this very physical, experimental way. The influence from meeting Cornish artist, Peter Lanyon in Irvin’s early branching out into abstraction are also readily comparable. Lanyon’s birds-eye view mix of abstraction with landscape elements filtering into Irvin’s treatment of painting on the canvas horizontally ‘from-above’.

Untitled 6 (1975) Acrylic on canvas. 178 x 
I remember hearing more than once from different tutors during my art education that, ‘angst is easy’ and that creating art which has the opposite effect and brings a smile or joy to people’s faces is actually quite hard to do. I mostly agree with that and in the same sense I think it can be often easier to criticise art than it can be to see the merit in it or face the difficulty of attempting to understand it when it is easier to dismiss it as being ‘rubbish’. Despite this, Irvin’s paintings aren’t angsty enough for me, personally speaking; they are quite flat and need room to breathe compared to the sumptuousness and intensity of a Howard Hodgkin or scratchy variation of marks in a Peter Lanyon. Yet for the use of colour alone I cannot fail to appreciate the joy they bring.

Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism is on at the RWA until March 3rd 2019

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