The premise behind the exhibition Landscape Revisited at Scarborough Art Gallery is an interesting one. Photographer Joe Cornish and artist Kane Cunningham have looked at the gallery’s permanent collection of Yorkshire Landscapes and made new work in response to them. Some of the collection is shown alongside the new work so that we can compare, contrast and see where the inspiration came from. As well as this we can also enjoy seeing, and thinking about, the way that photography and painting resonate with each other and find differing ways of expression.
The two have worked together before and it is easy to see why they are drawn to each others work. Joe Cornish makes beautiful images of the local landscape, picture postcards from heaven, which are very popular and sell in droves. The last time I bought one the man behind the till looked at it and smiled, saying “Everybody loves Joe”. He is a master technician with a fine understanding of light and composition and a particularly wonderful sense of colour. It was a great opportunity to see his work on a grand scale properly printed up. Kane Cunningham’s large landscapes, made in mixed media or watercolour have an equally fine sense of colour and beauty. They are painted fast with great flair and have an immediacy which makes you feel that you are alongside the artist as he works. They are very much open air images full of movement and bravura. You feel that he was out there enjoying himself, just revelling in responding to what he could see. Alongside them the photographs have a still, almost melancholy quality. They are images of the past, a perfect frozen moment in time which will never come again.
I am a great admirer of the work of Joe Cornish but I think that he is probably happier going his own way and finding his own images out there before working on them with meticulous care, rather than responding to someone else’s work, although I’m sure that he enjoyed the challenge. My favourite images in the exhibition from him were taken when he realised that he was more interested in the cornelian rock formations and fossils in the cliffs than finding a response to the landscape in the collection which showed the wider scene in front of him. There are some stunning abstract single images of rock formations on show, and a group of nine fossil images “sewn” into a collage which I loved very much. It would be interesting to see him do more of that.
It was perhaps more natural for a fellow painter to be asked to respond to the collection and there are some lovely examples of that from Kane Cunningham. There is a beautiful swirling image of Scarborough’s south bay at dusk as the lights come on made in response to Atkinson Grimshaw’s painting Scarborough Lights which both pays homage and also makes something new and bold. My favourite of his works, because I have pretty much stood where he stood at the same time of day myself, is a watercolour of the wind turbines near Bridlington at sunset. He brought that moment alive again for me as I looked at it.
The one painting from the collection which stood alone, quite different to the responses which it had produced, was a small subtle monochrome industrial landscape by Albert Strange in watercolour and gouache. It showed Middlesbrough in Victorian times and it was quite different to anything else in the exhibition, quiet and restrained. I liked it very much.
While I was visiting a group of primary school children were being asked whether they liked the photographs or the paintings best. It made me ponder the same thing. In a digital age, although few people have the eye of a photographer like Joe Cornish and even fewer have his technical ability, many of us can now record landscape and beauty for ourselves in a way that would have been impossible in the past. The eye of an artist however remains unique. That really is someone seeing the world in their own way and reflecting it back to us and it will never be replaced or reproduced. Where the photographer can still make their mark is in showing us beauty that many people would walk past, looking without seeing. I am still thinking about those rock formation images………………