“I will use something like lining paper, and then I will have an idea. It might even be… a vague idea which works out as it goes along, or something from the Polaroids which appeals to me, which I feel I could work from. But then, having decided what certain placings are going to be or might be, I cut outlining paper that follow those ideas and those shapes, and I staple them to the bare canvas. And … the effect of the colour of the lining paper and the canvas and the shadows is ravishing – if one could leave it like that, you know, every picture’s a masterpiece!” – Sandra Blow, interview with Andrew Lambirth for the National Sound Archive, 1996 (quoted in Michael Bird, 2005).
The current Sandra Blow (1925 – 2006) exhibition is split between the historic Newlyn Art Gallery and the recently converted Exchange in Penzance. Later works are drawn from her estate and earlier examples from private collections. Not visiting with this review in mind, I ventured to Newlyn first, battling through the holiday traffic and torrential rain (we’re used to both down here), with my partner in-tow, and our six month old strapped to my chest. Walking into the small Lower Gallery, you are met by Collage, 1978, a canvas of cane, ripped paper, charcoal and acrylic, a masterful study in limited colour, movement and composition. The loose right-angle / open-V form is one that returns, or is reprised, in later works by Blow, including (not in this show) the masterpiece that is Vivace (1988, Tate). Collage is a useful work to experience first. Alongside this are other four untitled collages – two in torn paper on card from 1976 and two in acrylic and paper on canvas from 1978, sharing a similar limited palette of whites, browns and blacks. Red, White and Blue, 1982, a similar size to Collage, is shown opposite it, and introduces another of Blow’s often-used structures – the ‘loose’ grid, albeit a macro-view of one. The blue and red brushed and collaged marks work in tension against the rigidity of the simple structure beneath.
I was intrigued to see items from the studio displayed alongside the works on the wall. A couple of crates full of rolls of painted and torn lining paper, hessian, paint-covered rags, and a few half-rolled provisional collages, are displayed on a low plinth, along with a paint-splattered bench. Hung on the wall are clothes adapted and worn by the artist – an amalgam of colour, texture and material, and even a loosely defined grid in black painted across a brown skirt. The gallery also offers a film of the artist, made during the last year of her life (The Eye – Sandra Blow, Illuminations Films).
Most exciting of all is a small, wall mounted case of quick preparatory sketches in felt-tip and pencil, a photo of the artist from the 50s or 60s, and a series of Polaroids of works in various states of development. A set of these show Glad Ocean (1989, Private Collection) being worked on in the studio, beginning with the first application of paint, and documenting various adjustments to its collaged elements – I’ve no idea if they’re displayed in the order in which they were taken – however you do get a sense of the amount of consideration and revision required to balance such a large canvas.
Over in the Exchange, eight large paintings and four large screen prints are shown, ranging in date from 1987 to 2006. As I walked up the steps into the gallery, the first thing that hit me here was the scale. I’ve seen some shows at the Exchange where the gallery has overwhelmed the work, or where the work has somehow failed to ‘fill’ the space, but here the two fit perfectly.
I’m usually a ‘walk in, turn left’ visitor, but I couldn’t help heading straight across the room to Sea Change, 1998, a dark painting with short white-ish vertical lines, some of them pushing over into diagonals. I can’t find a size online, but it must be around 260 x 300cm, if not bigger. The white lines seem to have been made with paper stencils.
Passing by the four large screen prints nearby (Red/ Blue/ Yellow/ Green, 1992/3), I moved on to Brilliant Corner II, 1993. It’s a terrific painting, again large at 220 x 310cm, with the majority of the surface covered in a dark, inky blue-black. The open-V returns and is striking – a monumental white form whose inner angle is collaged with strips of brightly coloured paper and fabric. It feels as if the forms have evolved naturally on its surface, given how ‘right’ they are in their placement. I hadn’t quite appreciated the amount of working and re-working Blow was carrying out on these large paintings until now, as looking closely at the surface you start to notice the tiny holes of staples that were later dug out, pencil lines loosely drawn to define areas of the composition, and charcoal or chalk marks that once described a collaged element.
Helix, 1990, is bigger again. A spiralling series of red marks, its billowing movement from bottom-right to top-left reaffirmed by its splashes and dribbles running towards the top edge. Its surface is heavily collaged using the same cotton duck of its support, with noticeable variations in the red again suggesting a sustained period of work, despite its apparent spontaneity. It brings to mind Twombly’s Bacchus series from 15 years or so later. Selva Oscura, 1993, an intense, dark painting with brightly collaged V’s, upright ‘tree’ forms, and loosely painted white marks is amongst the most heavily worked here. Two later works, Quasi Una Fantasia, 2004, and Linear Perspective, 2006, flank Porthmeor, 1996. A delicate and restrained painting, the subtlety of Porthmeor’s transparent pale greens and whites is masterful. What is also noteworthy here is the emphasis on the canvas edge – a darker green around all four, a tactic that then becomes more apparent on the other works nearby. Most share this framing device – perhaps a vestigial element from a quick pencil or felt pen sketch of a square or rectangular composition in a sketchbook.
On heading out of the gallery, you encounter the huge painting Swimmer, 1987. It’s predominantly blue and grey, with white dry-brushed marks and coloured collage emphasising a bulging blue area on the left. Again, many revisions are apparent across its surface, adding to a sense of meniscus-like tautness or containment.
Blow is an artist whose work often invites comparison with a number of others. Burri and Matisse are often evoked, usually followed by a statement on the use of non-art materials or brightly coloured collaged surfaces. While there is validity in both observations, there is an excitement about Blow’s paintings – asymmetry, dynamism, or tension perhaps – that works without an overarching reliance on pattern or elegance. I’m not knocking Burri or Matisse here either. Blow remains for me one of the most inventive of British post-war artists, and her later work is perhaps her most interesting. It’s also real joy to see a public gallery show this later output, as only a couple of her works from this period have made it into a public collection. One is the aforementioned Vivace, rounding out the already strong examples of her earlier work in the Tate holdings. Another is Green and Red Variations at the Royal Academy, an interesting painting but not as strong as four or five of the works in this show. Whether this gap is symptomatic of a desire to collect an artist’s earlier output (its safe to say that the best of her early work is already in private hands), the chronic lack of acquisition funds available to regional public collections, or a lack of donors offering major works to public collections – perhaps a combination of all three – the fact remains that Blow’s later career remains under-represented in the public realm. Let’s hope that changes soon.
Sandra Blow – Newlyn Art Gallery, Newlyn and The Exchange, Penzance, Cornwall, 26th July – 4th October 2014