25th January - 18th February 2012
Opening: 24th January 2012
Alan Gouk: New Paintings
Notes on the work by the artist.
‘The role of painting, I think, the role of all decorative painting, is to enlarge surfaces, to work so that one no longer feels the dimensions of the wall’.
‘Maybe you have noticed two characteristics exist in my paintings; either their surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward in all directions. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say.’
They say that aircraft pilots, shot down in battle, as their craft hurtles towards the ground (assuming they manage to escape) see their whole past life flashing before their eyes, with all its regrets, unfulfilled impulses, the things they could have, should have said to their loved ones etc. etc.
Having a book, a ‘career survey’, published is a bit like that. You begin to see threads of connection between different phases of your work, ‘unfulfilled impulses’ which might have been pursued if contingencies or disruptions had not intervened, different directions which might have been taken. So that after my book came out in 2009 and I started working again, without any conscious intention or direction on my part, connections began to surface with earlier phases, at times almost variations on past paintings, though whilst in the midst of painting I was quite unaware of the link. Thus the picture which I later titled Kiwi Deep II I did so because it seemed to be a variant of a picture I had done in 1984 – the first Kiwi Deep. And the new Mare Imbrium seems to relate both to Cretan Premonition 1985-6, and to the earlier picture originally titled Grey Surround 1976, but re-titled Grey Surround (Circe II) because I had to retouch it in 2004 after a vigorous cleaning of it resulted in some surface colour being removed.
What I am after in all the larger recent paintings, as well as ‘surge and undertow’, is a kind of eloquent flowing exposure and response to the grain of the canvas, letting the surface speak; there is also the desire for an open floating cloudy space in which shapes appear like fish in an aquarium.
In painting at its best there is a constant dialogue between the involuntary or semi-involuntary promptings evoked by one’s feeling for the surface one is working on, rhythms of the body, and deliberation, overarching purpose, and when this balance is sustained the results are felt as easeful, bounteous, large in feeling, and eloquent. When things fail, there is in contrast a feeling of overdetermined wilfulness; the painting looks laboured, forced, ‘clunky’. The initial freedom contracts, and one is led to make smaller and smaller decisions, though sometimes you just have to press on regardless.
Something else is at work with the small pictures. There are five or six different surfaces, types of canvas, in play in all my work in recent years, from very fine-grained linen, primed commercially or by myself, to heavy-duty bleached flax (I got a large batch when Websters of Arbroath closed 20 years ago), or coarse-grained Belgian linen - never cotton duck (it’s a dead duck for me) which I haven’t used since 1979; and no acrylic paint either, except on some gouaches.
On small paintings, therefore, the grain of the canvas (tooth or nap) looms much larger in one’s vision than on big pictures, and one’s response to it is accordingly magnified. You have to adjust and re-adjust your touch with different surfaces. This keeps you on your toes, as it were, and makes for range and versatility of attack. The coarse-grained canvasses seem to need a more robust, coarser attack, while the very fine-grained linens require a thinning down of the paint and softer, more flexible brushes (I favour synthetic ‘bristles’ for all my paintings, rather than hog’s hair.
Another determining factor, of course, is the shape of the canvas support, the proportions of which are chosen at the outset, and lead to different configurations., tending to run with the shape rather than against it (though not always). Curiously, some of my latest small pictures seem to have regressed right back to the very first paintings I ever did (in 1961), before I’d even heard of, never mind seen, Hans Hofmann – towers of palette-knifing.
I suppose what I’m after is a kind of knife-edged balance between control and getting so far inside the flow of the paint that you are doing things you would never think of doing by design (and hopefully that no-one else will think of doing), that the eloquence of the moment takes over, and is caught for all time, the very opposite of a studied and calculated imposition, towards a look that has already been seen – and I can’t do that on the small paintings. I need room to move the paint around in large movements, using sponges and rags to spread the paint and remove areas, in the early stages at least.
I’m obsessed with two things – direct comparison (with chosen masters), and continuity of concern. If you are in a culture where there is no continuity, as we are in England now (and ever), where there is a constant and arbitrary disjunction of shifts in fashion imported from wherever, pop art, minimal, arte povera, conceptual, et al, you have to dig deep, plough through a lot of influences and persist.
I hesitate to use the word dialectic – let’s call it a mood swing; my work tends to veer between two extremes – the Cézanne/Hofmann derived overlapping painterliness, and the flatter planarity of Matisse/Heron. I test myself against the latter, since it is the high road of modernism, find it uncongenial – I can’t say everything I have to say that way – and so I veer back again to a more modelled painterliness. I tend to oscillate, some would say vacillate, between the two, though a fusion of the two modes seems to be reaping rewards.
There is a tension there, a meeting of opposites which can be fruitful, and the natural world is always there somewhere in the background. After all, an immersion in nature is the reason why most of us became painters in the first place, although naturalism, or what is patronisingly called ‘lyrical pantheism’, is not enough to sustain innovation in painting. There has to be an ‘architecture’.
The more we know of art, the more we learn that it is the depth of the artist’s emotional response to the vicissitudes of the lived life that determine both the matter of his or her art, and its ultimate value, given that one has sufficient command of the resources of one’s chosen medium. The two go hand in hand, like the meeting of two people, very different from one another, sparking off something that would never have happened otherwise.
Why, for instance, Brahms emerges as one of the greatest composers is that he was able to convert the tempestuous course of his feelings, their failings and the consequences for his life, into tangible form, musical form, musical substance (without going so far as to make of this an expressionist philosophy). Detractors of Brahms merely exhibit a fondness for confessional theatricality or their shallowness. In the end it is all about feeling, whatever one has of it, and what one makes of it, but it must be so deeply in tune with the resources of one’s chosen medium, embedded, that one is scarcely even aware of the processes involved.
I have come to feel that Matisse’s The Moroccans is the greatest painting of the 20th Century (and the recent confrontation with Alan Davie’s Patrick’s Delight was also instructive), but you cannot approach an influence like that directly. You have to devour it and spit it out in fragments, and ponder on what it is that makes such paintings so great. But not every painting needs to be developed in the same way, or have the same degree of complexity imposed on it. Because ‘the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through’ (Jackson Pollock). Mare Fecunditatis could be seen in this context – a quasi-sculptural suggestion of depth through a hierarchy of shading (shadows), from various whites to greys to black (though not actual black, more blue/black, green/black, brown/black). Of course, all this was without consciously aiming for it at the time of the painting. It only became apparent later.
It has been the self-engendered, if at times poorly understood destiny of my generation of painters to bridge the gulf between the ardent spirituality of the Abstract Expressionists, with all their rhetorical excesses, and the over-cool design-conscious aesthetics of the post-painterly generation – a destiny which has been grasped with varying degrees of clarity and steadfastness. Why Patrick Heron has been so crucial is that he was one of the first to put his finger on the flaws, both of the Abstract Expressionists’ brusque advertised spontaneity (when present), and the distanced decision-making at a remove from the flow of the painting process of the first phase of post-painterly abstraction (the later Olitski and Poons are partially exempt). That is, until the reappraisal of Matisse/Picasso which began in the 1980’s and was given new impetus in 2002 by the Golding/Cowling version at Tate Modern, which rendered the whole American intervention almost irrelevant.
There is a quote of Picasso’s which runs ‘Some artists turn the sun into a tangle of brushstrokes; others start with a tangle of brushstrokes until lo! – it becomes a sun.’ – the latter referring to himself, although it’s really the relativity of abstraction and representation he is talking about. My desire has been to render the sun, moon and planets as tangible as an orange on a plate – or to thrust an orange on a plate into the vault of the night sky.
Alan Gouk 29th August 2011