Ships and Suns

Quentin Blake: The New Dress; Roy Oxlade & David Bomberg; Roy Oxlade: Shine Out Fair Sun; Tal R: Eventually All Museums Will Be Ships (Hastings Contemporary)

About a decade ago, the Jedward Foundation brought culture to Hastings. Hastings was having none of it, it would appear, preferring a coach park in the Old Town. And now what appears to be a dark wood clapperboard gallery has rebranded as Hastings Contemporary and the splendid collection of rather brown British twentieth century paintings has vanished. This is a shame, but the excellent Paula Rego exhibition will be mirrored by one by her late husband, Victor Willing. In the meantime, we have an Israeli Danish artist I’d never heard of, a mid century British artist I’d never heard of and the latter’s tutor. And a bonus room by Quentin Blake, who lives around the corner and remains prolific as ever. His drawings of Her New Dress are as charming as you’d expect.

But it is David Bomberg who steals the show and inevitably comes off better than his pupil Roy Oxlade in the same room. His art seems to be from an elevated perspective — Tower Bridge and the streets of London from a rooftop, the great bridge (aqueduct?) of Ronda from a distance, an odd perspective on a Ronda cathedral. He had dabbled in Vorticism, even before there was such a thing, but it is the perspective and diagonals that he keeps. Meanwhile there’s a hint of Walter Sickert in the colour range. More brown.

I kept recalling (and miss) the paintings of Palestine I saw at Towner — payed for by the Zionist Organisation in the 1920s — of a curiously unpopulated Jerusalem and environs from on high.

In the 1950s, impoverished and suffering from ill health, he worked in a bakery at Borough and taught art, with students including Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Roy Oxlade. I didn’t know Oxlade’s work, and inevitably I compared his paintings to the heavily contoured palimpsests of the other two. His work sometimes also includes a three dimensionality of layered paint, but not as heavy as Kossoff’s. His figures are curiously isolated, stripped of a spatial context, hanging in space. Whilst this isn’t always the case, he has a habit of naming his paintings Colour Object — White Back, Yellow Lamp and so on. He can draw a reclining nude, but not the supporting couch or bed, substituting abstract backgrounds. Presumably his Two Cherries are on a table, but you wouldn’t know it.

He wrote that “Paintings need the personality of a ‘face’, things, points of focus, without them they are like heads of people with eye-sockets.” I confess I struggled to find that personality but I think he needs more attention. At his best, his work reminds me of Cy Twombly, but Abstract Expressionism isn’t quite the right label. He claims to be reaching for a sense of authenticity, interested in “things, trees, houses, cats, people.” I wanted more cats.

Tal R was also new to me, and the title inevitably makes you think of the boats piled on the shingle visible through the first floor windows of the gallery. The ships are tall cruisers, a striking blue, but the main room is dominated by dozens of crayon drawings which are rough landscapes. In his canvases, the colours are scarcely less subtle, and they reward a slow looking. He’s an Israeli born artist, long resident in Copenhagen and I am assuming he’s Jewish, but the exhibition doesn’t state this. This becomes relevant with the boy in striped pyjamas and mask, who I took to be stood by a bed, Masken (2019). I wonder know if I misread the perspective and it’s oartway down a staircase. At first sight it seems naive, but perhaps is an inmate of a concentration camp. And then there’s Red House (2019), where the flat red colour echoes Munch’s red ivy covered house and the painted wood of Sohlberg, although they are Norwegian rather than Danish.

 

Also striking is Lords of Kolbojnik (2002-2003), that last word a kibbutz used term for the rubbish left over from communal meals. It is a colourful collage, leaning towards Pop Art.

E8D3DF4C-6E7E-47C9-93EF-7574285E0033So an interesting start as the gallery enters a new phase — Hastings will still get culture, even starved of some favourite images.

 

 

The Spoils

Victor Pasmore: Towards a New Reality (Pallant House, 11 March-11 June 2017)

I can claim no great knowledge of art aside from what I’ve looked at and then thought about, and maybe then read about. Victor Pasmore was filed in a mental box of British abstract, with if I recall a couple of paintings at Brighton that have caught my eye a couple of times.

It was odd to go into the first room of this Pallant House retrospective and think, French. There was an air of Paris in the domestic interiors and the drinkers in cafés and objects on tables. That almost-out-of-focus feel. It reminded me of a room in one of the Bergen galleries that I nearly skipped when I had this feeling, only to realise it was very early and thus atypical Edvard Munch.

Mother and Florence (1928) can be the typical one, the faces impossible to pick out, the focus on the sewing machine. It turns out he was influenced by French Postimpressionism, the Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet and Pierre Bonnard. Having worked in admin for the London County Council, he studied part time at the Central School of Art and then he went onto be a founder with William Coldstream and Claude Rogers of the Euston Road School, who focused on objective observation and naturalism in art — this was to win him accolades from Kenneth Clark of Civilisation.

It’s all a little dull.

He was a conscientious objector to the Second World War, although he was refused this status at first and served a prison sentence. Living in Hammersmith and Chiswick, he began painting landscapes that tended more to the abstract and resisted being picturesque.

There’s certainly the influence of Whistler — although they are not as impressive as his Thames pictures — and the abstract tendency of Turner.

But apparently he saw his own turn to the abstract as a new beginning rather than a continuation of a tendency, and there was was some Ben Nicholson in the mix. The greyed out landscapes with coloured shapes gave way to coloured shapes on a neutral field and titles which were revised to remove references to seasons, times or locations.

I’m presuming I first saw Triangular Motif in Pink and Yellow (1949) the best part of thirty years ago at the Ferens, and it and the other collages are the works that I prefer. But I have to say I can see the influence of Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson, and I prefer the originals.

Perhaps echoing Nicholson’s reliefs, he moves into three dimensions, mounting slats of materials on black backed glass or squares of wood, sometimes off centred. By then he was teaching at Newcastle and got a job for Richard Hamilton, and I do wonder if he was responsible for Kurt Schwitters’s extraordinary Merzbarn Wall going to Newcastle. I like the spirals and mazes and contour map shapes, but I wasn’t blown away. Sometimes I could see how the spirals turned a painting into a response to Van Gogh, but I think he’d refute such a reading.

The Pallant has a great record of shows of artists I’ve always wanted to see or artists I hadn’t realised I should see, but this time it didn’t press my buttons.

Sussex Mods

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion (Two Temple Place, 28 January-23 April 2017)

As an incomer to Kent, I’ve always had a guilty preference for Sussex. We lay claim to Turner (hence the Anthea Turner Gallery), Hamish Fulton walks down the road and H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad were locals, but after Tommy Cooper, Mary Tourtel and Peter Firmin there’s a sense that you run out of culture. (Tracey, I forgot Tracey.)

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