Terry Frost. Leeds Art Gallery. 26-08-15

Terry Frost is one of the most important British painters of the twentieth century. He was a modernist who worked in Cornwall and then Yorkshire, producing abstract work which has a fine sense of colour and line. I hadn’t seen his work properly before but the exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery gave me a chance to have a good look at some of his best work and I liked it very much.

I spent a long time looking at two of his Yorkshire paintings, High Yellow, Yorkshire c1955 and Orange and Black, Leeds c1957.

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      High Yellow, Yorkshire. c1955 Terry Frost.

High Yellow suggested to me a patchwork of fields seen from above. It is a beautifully balanced work- calming and satisfying to look at. Abstraction with its roots in the natural landscape where I grew up. I would have liked to take it home.

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Orange and black, Leeds. c1957 Terry Frost.

Orange and Black is a very dynamic painting with plenty of energy and presence. It would dominate any room that you put it in and the sheer depth of vibrant colour seems to glow with a light of its own. It is almost like a stained glass window and your eye is led into its depths through the central shape and the vertical lines.

In the 1960s he taught in California and some of the bright, playful sculpture and painting that he produced at that time is also on display. I liked the earlier work that was more rooted in landscape better but the hanging discs casting shadows on the white walls of the gallery looked very much at home.

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I wish that the group of small children who were adrift among the paintings in high visibility jackets with their nursery staff had found someone to engage with them. One of two of them were showing an interest in the colours and shapes on the walls but they needed someone to ask them what they thought. It was the kind of work that might have given them something to talk about if the right questions had been asked. A lovely, uplifting selection of work which is a nice legacy of someone who knew how to look.

One Day Something Happens, Paintings of People. Leeds Art Gallery. 18-04-15

One Day Something Happens, Paintings of People, at Leeds Art Gallery is a small, but diverse exhibition. It is unlikely that anyone wandering around it would find that everything appeals to them but the payback for that is the certainty that something will. Here are a few quick thoughts about the three paintings which made me stop and think longest. Lucian Freud’s Girl in a Green Dress, a small, early work painted in 1954 is an intense, searching portrait. He has really looked hard at the girl’s face and that gives it a presence, a dignity that belies its size. Every brush stroke counts and we are shown the texture of skin, hair and the corduroy of her jacket. It is both intimate and unforgiving. This is an artist who paints exactly what he sees. She is calm and composed but we want to know what she is thinking. There is something going on behind those eyes. IMG_0035 Walter Sickert’s painting, Juliet and the Nurse, painted in 1935 is just the opposite. It is a blur of emotion. Great distress is being received with tenderness and compassion- a portrait of a relationship rather than two people. It is sketchy, almost slapdash as though Sickert was standing there in front of a real moment trying to capture it as quickly as he could before it was lost. Wisdom and refuge is being given by someone who is old enough to have been there and known suffering. IMG_0033 I did not know of George Sauter at all before I saw this painting and I have only managed to find one other image by him on the web. He painted The Dispute in 1912 and I liked it very much. It is a very satisfying painting to look at, the colours, the fall of the light and the gleaming surfaces are beautifully rendered. What really interested me though was the contrast between this calm, composed composition and the action that it shows. It picks out a precise moment in an argument. The woman on the right has just spoken and her face is now set in defiance as she waits for a reaction. The woman on the left is about to speak, holding up her hand as she rejects what has been said. It is a moment of silence in the midst of anger and confusion and it reminded me of Vermeer’s gift for pinpointing a moment of drama in exactly the same way. IMG_0041 Each of these paintings fulfills the title of the exhibition in their own way. Something happens when an artist stands in front of a subject and it is still happening now when we open our mind and look at what took place- no matter how many years later.

Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray. Art and Life 1920-1931. Leeds Art Gallery. 7-11-13

Leeds exhibition
This is a lovely little exhibition, just two rooms, which does very clearly and succinctly what it sets out to do. It explores the artistic collaboration between Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson and their friends Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and the potter William Staite Murray in the 1920’s and thirties. It was a close artistic relationship which even survived the end of their marriage and looking around at the work on show it is easy to see why. They shared some of the same subjects and taught and learned from each other. A quick glance is enough to let you know which of them painted each picture but at the same time there is a kind of fellow feeling between them. Winifred’s work is more colourful and has a romantic sensibility while Ben’s is cool, clear and still. Right from the start his more limited palette and concentration on form is heading towards the abstraction which he explored later on. When standing in front of their two paintings of the same subject, like those in the exhibition of a farm on Northrigg Hill, these differences are very clearly laid out in front of you. It is good to imagine the two of them side by side as they worked, sharing ideas and thoughts. My favourite picture in the exhibition, as a regular beach wanderer, was Ben Nicholson’s beach landscape of Dymchurch in Kent, which evokes the light and space and the flat planes at the edge of the sea.

The other thing which is shown very beautifully in the exhibition is exactly why Ben Nicholson was so thrilled by the work of Alfred Wallis, a native Cornish fisherman who taught himself to paint late in life after his wife’s death. Alfred’s paintings have the same coolness, stillness and honesty as Nicholson’s own. He had naturally what Ben was searching for in his own work. Alfred’s schooner and icebergs c1928 could almost be a Nicholson with it’s simple sweeping lines and gracefulness of form which fits the triangular shape of the card perfectly, and there is a Nicholson, also painted on card, which returns the compliment.

I don’t like the work of Christopher Wood so much, although there is a semi nude female portrait from 1928, The Blue Necklace, which achieves the same stillness and presence as the work of Nicholson and Wallis while the woman gazes out enigmatically. I like William Staite Murray’s pots very much, they have the same egotism and confidence as the man who made them and it was good to see The Bather, my favourite from York Art Gallery’s collection again.

This small exhibition is a great way to see some of the work of the St Ives school, particularly in its early days and get an overview of what they were doing.

Richard Long. Delabole Slate. 1980. Part of the exhibition Contested Ground. Leeds Art Gallery.

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Richard Long is my favourite land artist. His work is terse, gritty and often very beautiful, describing physical experience and interaction with the landscape, a walk or an action, which can take days of sustained effort. This is distilled into a photograph, framed text, or carefully chosen objects which he brings back and places in a gallery. He takes the essence of a place or an experience and lays it out for us to wonder over. What he brings back or remembers is transformed into something new and surprising, carrying its own history into the gallery space with it as well as retaining the memory and experience of the artist. It is no nonsense art, tough and self confident, and as you look at it you can see the man who made it striding out, looking and searching.

IMG_0020IMG_0026His large stone circle Delabole Slate, made in 1980, is a record of such a journey. Delabole village is in Cornwall and it is also the site of a large slate quarry. Seeing the rough hewn hunks of rock in the pristine gallery environment, arranged into a circle full of texture, muted earth colours and strength, is a strange experience. The rocks shouldn’t really be in a gallery, they belong out on an open hillside, and yet they are also completely at home. You are brought up close to something quite ordinary, none of the rocks forming the circle would catch your eye on their own, and shown it in a context which makes you look carefully and see properly what might go unnoticed. These rocks are the heart of the beauty of the Cornish landscape, the hard skeleton from which it is made, and they have an uncompromising presence and strength. In contrast they have been chosen with care and positioned with great delicacy. The stone circle has ancient religious resonances too, which feed into the work and remind us of their age and powerful associations. They have a powerful history as metamorphic rocks formed by fire 450- 650 million years ago and nothing else around them has that kind of ancient pedigree. In a way these particular rocks represent their whole kind and thinking of them in that way gives them great dignity. They have been chosen, brought here, and placed as an offering to us all after their long wait in the ground.

While I was looking at the circle a weathered man in dirty walking boots was showing it to his son. That made a very satisfying conjunction that I think Richard Long might have enjoyed.

Liberty and Anarchy. Nike Savvas. Leeds Art Gallery. 22-01-13

IMG_0057The exhibition verbiage tells us that Nike Savvas, born in 1964, is one of the most significant Australian artists of her generation, but she is not well known in England so it is good to have the chance to see her work here in Leeds art gallery for the first time. It is her first show here in Britain for ten years. There is both a collection of recent work and a large site specific installation which has been made especially for the gallery, which gives the exhibition its title, Liberty and Anarchy.

 It’s a wonderfully accessible exhibition, especially for someone who grew up in the late sixties and early seventies, owned a spirograph, and remembers the time when there was a fashion for string art kits and pulsating “psychedelic” images were everywhere. Nike Savage has been called an “installation mathematician” and the open and closed sculptural forms which she has made are a collection of large three dimensional shapes, wooden frames strung with coloured thread, making a wonderful juxtaposition of severe straight edges, elegant curves and repeating patterns. They are light and airy and beautiful to look at. Colour is important too, both vibrant and subtle, forming shaded patterns within patterns. It is easy to see resonances from the work of Naum Gabo and Barbara Hepworth in them, but this work has a kind of vibrant joy of its own. It may not spring from an especially original starting point but it is taking the ideas of the previous generation and running with them, taking them to a new place, which is an interesting and worthwhile thing to do. These are very precise, ordered, pieces of work, calm and self possessed, which seem to have nothing to declare except their beauty. I liked them very much.

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I like the idea that things so precisely created and so perfectly designed and ordered can produce a sense of freedom and throw up unexpected and unusual effects as you look at them, almost in spite of an attempt to pin them down. What you get is much more than the sum of its parts. I have no idea whether that is what was meant by the title but it’s what I have decided it means!

The major single work, Art and Anarchy which fills one of the gallery spaces, seems to me to be a real tribute to “op art” you can’t look at it without thinking of the vibrant colour and patterns in the work of Bridget Riley. It is made up of eighteen vibrant industrial coloured polypropylene screens. As you look at them and stare through the coloured bands of plastic your eyes move and the patterns of colour that you see change and dissolve in front of your eyes. It is quite mesmerising.

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I shall be on the look out for more opportunities to see Nike Savvas’ work. Some of the other installations which she has made elsewhere look breathtaking- rather like the work of Yayoi Kusama. I hope that she doesn’t leave it another ten years before we get the chance!

DRAWING:SCULPTURE Leeds Art Gallery. 17-10-12

A Young Girl Seated By Her Window. Martin Naylor. 1973.
Photograph taken by kind permission of Leeds Art Gallery.

The exhibition DRAWING:SCULPTURE at Leeds art gallery is small but perfectly formed. The idea is to look at the interaction between the two art forms and find resonances and connections. Drawing is not always flat and one dimensional and sculpture is not always macho hunks of hewn rock and metal. The two can feed off each other and interact. The exploration of line and form is the important thing.

There are two rooms full of delicate, elegant and often rather beautiful work which are a pleasure to walk through. There are finely balanced works like Lynn Chadwick’s mobile made in 1959 and surprising work like Anna Barriball’s Untitled II which is made from ink on paper and sits there in the corner looking for all the world like a piece of rock. Alison Wilding’s aquatints from 1994 and Alexander Calder’s Maquette for a mobile from 1938-9 make perfect companions as they share the same interest in shape and form whether flat or floating in space. Alison Channer’s curves fluid from 2011 is full of life and movement as her aluminium poles stretch up into the air leaping in gentle curves above their marble settings. This sense of optimism is shared by Knut Henrik Henriksen’s piece Untitled 2011, simple charcoal dust on a long stretch of wallpaper which reaches up out of it’s roll. There is a suggestion of clouds, of aspiration soaring upwards, and the dust has settled into the bottom of the roll making it a thing of great fragility. One finger touching it would destroy its fragile surface.

My favourite work was Bojan Sarcevic’s Presence at Night from 2010. Three thin tree branches reach out from the wall, almost like dancers moving towards us and holding a pose, questioning, with the tiniest fragments of blonde hair- human?- floating on them. It is a work which makes you ask your own questions in return, ephemeral, delicate and wistful, and it spoke to me of loss. How had that hair got there? A sculpture which is barely there which tells a story. I also loved Martin Naylor’s 1973 piece A Young Girl Seated By Her Window. She is there, abstracted but very much there, and her youth and femininity is clear in the delicate balance, line and accuracy of the work.

I don’t always get modern sculpture, but this was my kind of art- thoughtful, poised and rather beautiful. I could see the connections and I liked being among them. A piece from the little exhibition of Sheila Cluett’s work which I saw earlier this year at the Henry Moore Institute would have fitted in perfectly. I spent a lovely hour. I may well go back.

Monument. Susan Hiller. 1980-81. Leeds Art Gallery. Part of the exhibition Art In Our Time. 24-05-12

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

From Burnt Norton by T S Eliot.

Monument was made by Susan Hiller, a pioneer of installation art, in 1980-81. She photographed a series of Victorian ceramic tiles in Postman Park, London and now they sit on the white wall of an art gallery, a series of matching memorials to single acts of conspicuous bravery. All of them were carefully chosen at the time they were made and the reasons for their inclusion are made clear in the inscriptions. They record moments of great drama and tragedy which would otherwise be forgotten. Sarah Smith, a pantomime artiste who died while attempting to save the life of her companion when her inflammable dress caught fire, David Selves, a twelve year old boy who supported his drowning playfellow and died with him clasped in his arms, John Cranmer Cambridge a twenty three year old clerk who was drowned near Ostend whilst saving the life of a stranger and a foreigner, and thirty six others. They are obviously moving to read and also fascinatingly brief but telling. Often they leave you wanting to know more. Exactly what was it that William Freer Lucas, a doctor at the Middlesex hospital did when he risked poison for himself rather than lessen any chance of saving a child’s life and died in 1893? Distant events are brought vividly into the present when you read these tiny stories, which have the power of a well written haiku, but their real meaning is also lost in the mists of time. We are not to know. They beg many questions which have no real answers, but which strike at the heart of our humanity, questions about memory, mortality, time, heroism, and representation. Right in the middle of them is a piece of modern graffiti scrawled nearby, which Hiller also photographed, “strive to be your own hero”. It links the past and the present and brings us up short as we are made to connect ourselves directly with what we are seeing in the present rather than merely look back sadly at a series of faded tragic incidents from the past.

Close to the tiles is a wooden Victorian park bench, painted green, with wrought iron ends shaped into leaves and a thirty year old portable CD player ( an object which is in itself now something from the past although it was cutting edge technology when the work was made thirty years ago) and you are invited to sit down and listen to a meditation on time, mortality and links between the present and the past given by a single female voice. We are not told whether it is the voice of the artist. We are only told that this is a voice speaking to us in the future from the past, while in their present. The stories from the memorial tiles are repeated and in a moving section the length of the people’s lives is juxtaposed with the length of time they have been in their new state of death. It is not chilling or depressing. It leads you to explore just how very strange the world is and wonder at how little we really know and how very astonishing it is that we are here at all.

The photographs are my own, taken with the kind permission of the gallery.