An­drew Lam­birth

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Maggi Ham­bling: Edge, Marl­bor­ough Fine Art, London, 1 March - 13 April 2017

One of this spring’s most re­ward­ing ex­hi­bi­tions was Edge by Maggi Ham­bling at Marl­bor­ough Fine Art in London’s Albe­marle Street (1 March - 13 April). Ham­bling (born 1945) is paint­ing at the top of her form, and this is prob­a­bly her finest solo show yet. Con­sist­ing of new oil paint­ings and painted bronze sculp­tures, the ex­hi­bi­tion dealt head-on with dif­fi­cult sub­jects: war, mi­gra­tion, the oblit­er­a­tion of an­cient mon­u­ments, the melt­ing of the ice-caps. Ham­bling is noth­ing if not con­fronta­tional.

From time to time, peo­ple have sug­gested that Ham­bling should re­turn to paint­ing peo­ple, af­ter quite a long in­ter­lude paint­ing waves and walls of wa­ter. She is a pow­er­ful por­traitist and some of her best early pic­tures are what might be called genre scenes: fig­ures in very spe­cific en­vi­ron­ments, such as pub or night club, be­hav­ing su­perbly in char­ac­ter. But no real painter can be ex­pected to sub­mit to what other peo­ple think he or she should do. The poet Gor­don Bot­tom­ley used to say much the same thing to his young friend Paul Nash - when are you go­ing to get back to fig­ures?

Well, Ham­bling en­gages with fig­ures in her own way, and on her own terms. In re­cent paint­ings we have seen an eye or a mouth emerg­ing from North Sea waves, or a body part gleam­ing through the murk of de­struc­tion in Aleppo. She re­sists the straight­for­ward de­pic­tion, whether in her witty new self-por­traits (one at the Marl­bor­ough was sim­ply a rather lus­cious paint­ing of her own smoke-en­chanted lungs, the other a de­cep­tive paint­pud­ding with a cig­a­rette stuck in the matière), or in her con­jur­ing forth of Ham­let or Leonard Co­hen. Nei­ther of the lat­ter are recog­nis­able like­nesses, not por­traits as we un­der­stand the term, yet they both man­age to evoke the po­tent and com­plex pres­ence which such a ti­tle sug­gests: Ham­let a mass of

seething con­tra­dic­tions, Co­hen a golden god in painful dis­so­lu­tion.

Ham­bling shapes the outer world to her imag­i­na­tion, fill­ing it with rich colour and tonal con­trasts, with the var­ied tex­tures, fig­ures and forms of her in­ner world. Ex­ter­nal­iz­ing her in­most re­sponses is what she does ev­ery time she picks up a brush or moulds in wax or plas­ter. Her in­tu­itive un­der­stand­ing is bod­ied forth in po­tent im­agery which she aligns with her per­cep­tions of the vis­i­ble world. For Ham­bling, paint­ing is an ob­ses­sion into which she can dis­charge the ten­sions and prob­lems of daily life. There is a great deal talked about art as ther­apy, and this can op­er­ate at all sorts of lev­els and to dif­fer­ent de­grees among peo­ple who do not claim to be painters. But for the real artist, paint­ing is a means of mak­ing sense of life, a way - lit­er­ally - of liv­ing, and if de­prived of its con­so­la­tions, the artist’s san­ity can be threat­ened. There are, of course, dif­fer­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions of this con­di­tion, and not all artists will agree with Munch when he said: ‘Paint­ing is for me like be­ing ill or in­tox­i­cated. An ill­ness of which I do not want to be cured; an in­tox­i­cant which I can­not forego.’

Art is a means of cor­re­lat­ing and balancing the sub­jec­tive and ob­jec­tive and bring­ing them into a new and fruit­ful har­mony of ut­ter­ance. The work of art func­tions as an ex­pres­sion of the in­tu­itive imag­i­na­tion. It plays a se­ri­ous and vi­tal part in our lives, not some leisure ac­tiv­ity or op­tional ex­tra. De­prived of sleep and the chance to dream, we quickly lose our grip on re­al­ity and de­scend into mad­ness. Like­wise art is the other side of the ra­tio­nal process of daily life, so ex­pertly pro­mul­gated through tech­nol­ogy. As good de­fines evil, so does art de­fine and make sense of tech­nol­ogy. Al­low­ing our­selves only one as­pect of this art/tech­nol­ogy du­al­ity (as to­day’s so­ci­ety con­stantly threat­ens to do), will mean lead­ing a hope­lessly skewed ex­is­tence. We need both.

Marl­bor­ough Fine Art has shown Ham­bling since 1996, when the late, great Bryan Robert­son ef­fected an in­tro­duc­tion be­tween gallery and artist and wrote the cat­a­logue for her first show of bronze sculp­tures. Marl­bor­ough’s rep­u­ta­tion as the power-house of imag­i­na­tive re­al­ism, show­ing the work of Fran­cis Ba­con, R.B. Ki­taj and Frank Auerbach, to name but three, is

a his­tor­i­cal fact, though the tem­per­a­ture has rather dropped now that the Ba­con Es­tate has moved else­where and Ki­taj is dead and strangely in eclipse. Ham­bling’s pres­ence in the Marl­bor­ough sta­ble helps sig­nif­i­cantly to keep up stan­dards. She is cur­rently ex­plor­ing new forms of re­al­ism which are rad­i­cal enough to need more than a sin­gle glance to com­pre­hend. In fact, it is prin­ci­pally im­por­tant to ex­pe­ri­ence this im­agery, rather than try to in­ter­pret or un­der­stand it. That may come later, or in­deed not at all.

Ham­bling’s work over the decades has tra­versed var­i­ous ex­tremes, but has re­cently be­come less ob­vi­ously rep­re­sen­ta­tional, in or­der to con­jure forth the hu­man psy­cho­log­i­cal con­tent of the work with the great­est in­ten­sity and di­rect­ness. This rep­re­sents not a go­ing away from life, but a greater pen­e­tra­tion into re­al­ity and its sig­nif­i­cance. We must for­get, for a while, the de­vel­oped, ra­tio­nal and think­ing side of the mind, and al­low the in­tu­itive and in­stinc­tual more say. For in­stance, con­sider Ham­bling’s con­tro­ver­sial bronzes. Th­ese stump-like pres­ences are the trolls, the chthonic spir­its be­yond our con­trol, not just satiric car­i­ca­tures of the ra­tio­nal mind, but por­traits of some­thing older and more dan­ger­ous - the ir­ra­tional pow­ers within. Part of the process of liv­ing a full life is ac­cept­ing th­ese de­mons and learn­ing how to live pro­duc­tively with them. One of the strate­gies for deal­ing with them is laugh­ter.

Laugh­ter and its im­por­tance as a force in hu­man re­la­tions (as much for cru­elty as for benev­o­lence) has long been a theme in Ham­bling’s work. Count­less sit­ters over the cen­turies have been de­picted smil­ing, but how many laugh­ing? The Laugh­ing Cav­a­lier? He looks as if he’s smirk­ing, at best. In the early years of her genre paint­ings, Ham­bling fre­quently lamented the in­abil­ity of the av­er­age sit­ter to laugh for any length of time. Two men close to her, her teacher and men­tor Lett Haines and her long-time model Max Wall, were able to laugh longer and more un­self­con­sciously than most. Lett, un­til the up­per den­ture of his home-made false teeth dropped down, Max end­lessly and seem­ingly ef­fort­lessly. But what Ham­bling made from the un­usual skills of th­ese sit­ters is far more dis­turb­ing than might be ex­pected.The paint­ing of Lett Laugh­ing (1975-6) was ac­tu­ally based on a photograph and is in­tim­i­dat­ing rather than hu­mor­ous or af­fec­tion­ate,

es­pe­cially set against its harsh orange back­ground, while Max is usu­ally de­picted as be­ing drenched in melan­choly. The most spon­ta­neous and nat­u­ral paint­ing of a per­son laugh­ing that Ham­bling has so far achieved is the 1984 por­trait of her lover and life-part­ner Tory Lawrence.

The se­ries of Laugh paint­ings that came later, at the be­gin­ning of the 1990s and largely in­spired by Ham­bling’s friend­ship with the ac­tress Amanda Bar­rie, were ab­stract-look­ing pic­tures of the essence of laugh­ter, and of­ten very sexy. (‘Laugh­ter seems to me like the sex­ual act which is per­haps the laugh­ter of two bod­ies.’ V.S. Pritch­ett.) Al­though hu­mour is never far from the sur­face with Ham­bling - which is not to say she isn’t prop­erly and pro­foundly se­ri­ous about her work - laugh­ter would later come back into her im­agery in other forms and guises. For in­stance, in the sea: ‘the myr­iad laugh­ter of the ocean waves’ (Aeschy­lus), or the men­ac­ing laugh­ter of the ice­bergs in Ice­landic sagas. In spite of th­ese an­cient au­thor­i­ties, once again Ham­bling reaches a new and un­ex­pected vari­ant, for the ice­bergs in her paint­ings are vic­tims. She says that in some off her lat­est paint­ings the ice­bergs are more like cru­ci­fix­ions. And the laugh­ter can get even grim­mer.

The four paint­ings of Aleppo in ru­ins shown at the Marl­bor­ough are pun­ish­ingly claus­tro­pho­bic, as if space has col­lapsed and been abol­ished and the build­ings (or what is left of them) are only fronts, or backs, with no vol­ume or sub­stance. Aleppo III is per­haps the most beau­ti­ful, aus­tere in gold and black, with what looks like a veiled woman hold­ing a gun emerg­ing from the boil­ing black­ness of de­struc­tion at the bot­tom of the pic­ture. I like the idea of the gun-woman com­ing out of the dust and de­bris in a pose which quotes but sub­verts Ham­bling’s own ear­lier paint­ing, Gulf Women Pre­pare for War (1986-7), but the in­clu­sion of a pair of re­cal­ci­trant eyes star­ing out of the swirling pig­ment is per­ilously close to the gim­micky. Ham­bling of­ten runs the gaunt­let of the kitsch, with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess. In Aleppo IV what ap­pears to be a child’s head emerges from the pro­tean soup of dis­as­ter. Some­how this sin­gle head is not quite enough in the great sea of chop­pily im­pas­toed paint. The tex­ture and sheer phys­i­cal­ity of the paint is so im­por­tant, the hu­man is quite lost and over­whelmed; but then per­haps that is the point. My feel­ing, how­ever, was that this im­bal­ance

flawed the im­age, much as the out­line of the boat in the pic­ture sim­ply en­ti­tled 2016, up to its gun­wales in wa­ter, is slightly too il­lus­tra­tional. I felt the mo­tif ought to be more dis­solved, as if the over­loaded ship of death was not just sink­ing but com­ing apart in the depth­less blue ocean.

The han­dling of paint in th­ese pic­tures is ex­cep­tional. Ham­bling has al­ways en­joyed the stuff of paint and used it with aplomb, but her de­ploy­ment of its re­sources has reached new heights and new depths. As a con­se­quence, th­ese paint­ings do not re­pro­duce well and they need to be seen in the flesh. Marl­bor­ough (aided and abet­ted by the artist) has hung the show with clar­ity and dis­tinc­tion, show­ing the works to best advantage, and giv­ing them plenty of room to breathe. They need it. Among the best of the paint­ings were the first three in the Edge se­ries, to­gether with Edge VIII. Th­ese are hugely im­pres­sive paintscapes of great pres­ence and beauty. With­out ven­tur­ing into far-fetched com­par­isons, it is suf­fi­cient to say that one read­ily thinks of Goya and the apoc­a­lyp­tic vi­sions of John Martin when look­ing at th­ese awe-filled images.

For years Ham­bling has been paint­ing the sea, and dis­cov­er­ing hu­man fea­tures therein. Now she is paint­ing the melt­ing ice­caps and find­ing an­i­mals and fig­ures emerg­ing from the surf and liq­ue­fac­tion of her sub­jects. To em­pha­sise the Edge theme she em­ploys a fram­ing de­vice of ver­ti­cal black or gold edg­ing, like the sur­round of a film frame, which can serve to dis­tance the main im­agery, al­though it can also be an un­wanted dis­trac­tion. Ham­bling or­ches­trates vast foun­tains of pig­ment, di­rect­ing them en­er­get­i­cally but pre­cisely over her can­vas, knot­ting the paint into bob­bled and im­pacted sur­faces here, drain­ing it liq­uidly there. The range of mark is as­ton­ish­ing, the beauty of the paint bal­anced by its evoca­tive qual­i­ties: it seems alive and full of in­ci­dent. This is not ab­stract and dec­o­ra­tive paint­work, it is pro­foundly imag­i­na­tive im­agery searched out and con­sol­i­dated through a life­time.

The in­ter­me­di­ary Edge paint­ings don’t for me have the same ap­peal, mostly be­cause of the dom­i­nance of a rusty ter­ra­cotta ground which tends to over­power the ethe­re­al­ity of the sub­ject. In the best of th­ese

paint­ings, Ham­bling’s brush dances along a tightrope be­tween ma­te­ri­al­ity and in­sub­stan­tial­ity, her balancing act played out over the most su­perbly mod­u­lated seas of paint. Edge VI is an ut­terly exquisite metaphor of dis­ap­pear­ance, vast yet con­tained, both frag­ile and ephemeral; it was amaz­ing to me that it hadn’t sold in­stantly. As we fondly say, there’s no ac­count­ing for lack of taste. Ham­bling’s prices have risen in re­cent years but they are still re­mark­ably rea­son­able for a painter of her stature. She is an artist in mid-ca­reer with a high pub­lic pro­file who para­dox­i­cally has yet to be given her due. Her work has hardly been ex­hib­ited in­ter­na­tion­ally, though when it did, for in­stance, ap­pear in Rus­sia in 2013, it was en­thu­si­as­ti­cally re­ceived. Why isn’t she be­ing shown more in Europe and Amer­ica? Marl­bor­ough, her gallery, has out­posts in New York, Barcelona and Madrid, but ap­par­ently each is self-de­ter­min­ing, and if you show in one branch this does not guar­an­tee an ex­hi­bi­tion in the oth­ers. Yet Ham­bling’s art de­serves in­ter­na­tional ex­po­sure: it’s far more vi­tal and ex­cit­ing than most of the fash­ion­able ‘air­port art’ (anal­o­gous to air­port nov­els) that’s be­ing flogged around the world. What she does is all about en­large­ment of life, an un­of­fi­cial view of be­ing (not the ac­cepted Es­tab­lish­ment ver­sion), a way of ap­proach­ing truth through the imag­i­na­tion. Pas­cal called imag­i­na­tion the mis­tress of the world; she’s cer­tainly Ham­bling’s mis­tress. Long may they con­tinue to please each other.

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