‘Only he who conceives art through sensuous feelings can grasp it whole; whoever would master it conceptually will possess it only in its parts.’
Karl Scheffler, The Gothic Spirit, 1917
The title of this exhibition derives partly from the size of the gallery and the choice of smaller works to include in it, but more importantly from the layers of meaning in the word intimate. Intimacy is usually thought of as the feeling of being in a close personal association, a belonging together; a familiar and very close felt connection with another. Genuine intimacy requires dialogue, transparency, vulnerability and reciprocity.
The adjective, “intimate” also indicates detailed knowledge and experience of the other, be it a person or a thing. And so the working processes of the painter with the depth of knowledge and experience of the material they use, have experimented with, investigated and tested through a long relationship (possibly thirty or forty years). This can result in a connection in which there is an emotional range involving both robust conflict, and intense loyalty to the medium being used, a dynamic partnership in which there is give and take. It is this sense of connection with the process that initially drew me to these four painters and the richness of the particular way paint is extended through the inclusion of other materials.
What interests me in painting, and indeed collage, is the directness and energy in the facture of the work, be it considered or improvised, or a combination of the both; the intrinsic energy is important. The work in this exhibition has a very direct relationship not only between the painter and his material, but also with the viewer; a directness that short circuits concept and fashion and encourages an engagement with the materiality of the work and felt experience of it.
‘We paint as a bird sings. Paintings are not made with doctrines.’ – Claude Monet
Intimate – deep, profound, personal, direct, close; (intrinsic, essential) all words one could use to describe these small paintings; small in size but expansive in scale. Rothko said ‘I paint large pictures because I want to create a state of intimacy. A large picture is an immediate transaction; it takes you into it ’, meaning that you could walk into the paintings and be in them, surrounded by them, immersed in them; he also said – ‘the reason I paint large pictures is because I want to be very intimate and human’ and as a painter of large works I agree with this. For this exhibition the pieces were chosen not only because of their life and vibrancy, but because of their small size; I feel that there is an immediate transaction that takes you into them and because they are small, the relationship of the paintings to the body is different – one has to get up close to see them, find the complexity, detail and subtlety that lies in wait for the patient observer. Perhaps the same way that one might study the features of a companion over time, slowly getting to know the nature of that individual’s appearance, and some of what lies beneath.
The word “intimate” used as a verb means “to state or make known”. So this is also relevant to our thinking about the work of these painters; they make known and demonstrate the qualities of abstract painting in the different ways that they approach it, and in this way we can get to know something of them too. Mostly working with the legacy of improvisation or notions of automatism that was key to some of the exponents of Tachism and Abstract Expressionism, they work without any hint of irony; this kind of intuitive painting flies in the face of much current work that is bland and empty, decorative, derived from graphics and some of it unrepentantly conceptual and/or ironic and ‘knowing’ – the painters in this show paint for nobody but themselves. They have an intimate relationship with the painting process and we the viewer have a possibility of sharing that intimacy as the work does not shut us out or bounce us back off a hard surface; it lets us in.
The artists are each represented by a particular body of work made in series, demonstrating different approaches to the painting process and using different formats and supports. Working in series lends itself to an unfolding over time much as a piece of music does, with variations on a theme or movements related to each other – the relationship between the pieces can be obvious or more subtle. Worked in series, paintings have time to develop through continuity and change; they have their own pace and it is through this that the experience of the painting is given form. The work is built up of layers of material and each series is a particular body of work, a way of questioning, leading to revelation and discovery – a way of following a thread or seam to see where it leads. Each work in a series relates with another in a continuous non-narrative flow linked by inquiry, intuition and improvisation rather than following a logical, linear development. For each artist, the making of a painting is a journey into the unknown, the outcome is never sure. As Frank Bowling put it:
‘the material landing on the surface (of the canvas) gives me back the information that I need to continue the search – I see if I can find the right balance and make it have meaning for me.’
So, what is this exhibition about? It is about everything and nothing – abstraction, bullfighting, colour, death, energy, fruit, ghosts… in fact it is not about anything at all. It is an experience of the way four individuals approach the work of painting through the particular focus of ‘abstraction’, offering a continuity in painting through four decades with the artists born between 1929 and 1968. It is an invitation to a particular way of looking, looking not at pictures but at paintings; to let go into a complexity of relationships without searching for the obvious or the familiar; to engage in a particular process that is without parallel in reason and which goes against our seemingly hard-wired desire for making sense of things in a logical way. It is an invitation to enter into a dynamic interaction with the works, to experience them, appreciate their sensuousness, to give them time, to get intimate with them; ‘Paintings …are also to be meditated upon and to be engaged by the senses; to be felt through the eye’ as the late John Hoyland suggested; or in resonance with this, as the blinded Earl of Gloucester, in a scene towards the end of King Lear puts it, to see feelingly.
Intimate Abstraction, curated by Nick Moore, is on at The Searchers Contemporary, Bristol until the 5th of April.