It’s All in the Paint
Wayne Thiebaud, White Cube, Mason’s Yard, London, 24 May - 2 July 2017 Prunella Clough, Annely Juda, London, 24 May - 8 July, 2017 George Rowlett: Paintings from Paestum and Walmer, Art Space, London, 14 July - 11 August 2017
Some years ago, when Wayne Thiebaud (born 1920) made a rare visit to the UK to coincide with an exhibition of his work in London, the gallery then showing his work (Faggionato Fine Arts) contacted the Tate in happy anticipation of being able to arrange a public event with the veteran American artist. When told that Thiebaud was in England for the first time since the 1960s, the Tate spokesperson said ‘Who?’ Not surprisingly, nothing came of that conversation. This time, White Cube left nothing to chance or the ignorance of others and organised their own Q&A session with the visiting artist. Thiebaud, now in his 97th year, went down a storm. That he is still firing on all cylinders can be seen from the quality of the work in this new exhibition: paintings and works on paper ranging from 1962 until now. Remarkably, the most recent work shows no diminution of his powers, as can be seen from Fall Fields (2017), a smallish painting but intently present in both colour and form. David Anfam, leading historian of Abstract Expressionism, writes in his catalogue essay that it ‘resembles André Derain circa 1906 on steroids’. Flaming and sumptuous, it makes the late colourism of David Hockney look tepid. Thiebaud’s colour is fullcream, full-throttle, full-on, and definitely not for the faint-hearted.
There is indeed more than a whiff of Fauvism about Thiebaud, with his non-naturalistic, hallucinatory colour. But the last thing he can properly be termed is a latter-day Fauvist: there are too many other aspects to his make-up for any such simplistic label. For instance, consider the facts that
he worked in Disney animation at the beginning of his career, rates Franz Kline, and can paint what amounts to a witty minimalist cover version in Smoking Cigar (1974). Thiebaud is nothing if not various within his seeming traditionalism. He paints portraits and still-life paintings along with the landscapes, but it is the wonderfully vertiginous views of San Francisco and the Sacramento Valley (like brighter-hued stills from the cult car chase in the 1968 cop movie Bullitt) that really take him into the league of greats. And it is the landscapes that still surprise the most in this beautifully installed show of blue-chip pictures.
White Cube, of course, is better-known for showing Gilbert & George, Tracey Emin or Antony Gormley. Thiebaud is an unexpected addition to the list, but a hugely welcome one. Apart from a couple of small shows of his work mounted by Faggionato, we have had very few opportunities to see his work here. If he’s known at all in this country, Thiebaud is most usually thought of as a Pop artist, because of his still-lifes of food - serried ranks of sweets or hotdogs, or delicatessen counters - which he started to paint as early as 1953. These tightly constructed pictures have a trademark succulence of surface, as if the actual paint was also edible. (Thiebaud often fattens the pigment with Liquin, an additive which increases the flexibility of the oil medium.) Although his paintings are compositionally spare, the brushstrokes are contrastingly bold and generous, highly visible in the finished painting and very much a part of its construction.
In the larger landscapes, such as Y River (1998), incidentally one of the best things in the show, he creates paintings within paintings: each field would on its own be enough of a painting to satisfy most artists. Thiebaud’s ability to pile up the eloquent passages and yet still hold them together in a highwire but coherent harmony, is legendary. It’s no surprise to discover that Thiebaud admires de Kooning, apostle of oil paint, but then his enthusiasm extends to good art of all periods, from Mondrian to Jan van Eyck. And he is quite prepared to go in for Picasso-like appropriation, though it may not be quite so obvious. As he says: ‘I actually just steal things from people that I can use - just blatant plagiarism.’
I love the crow’s-nest views he offers of the river delta, and the extraordinary way he tips up the land into the vertical, making the canyons, roads and towers into a flat aerial view or map. The artist comments: ‘These imposing structures seem to just fall in on you and make such a nice visual shape that I can’t resist doing them.’ The plunging perspectives wrench the horizontal into the perpendicular (and vice versa) and de-stabilize the viewer. Another of Thiebaud’s strategies for surprising the eye and confounding expectations is the way he illuminates his edges and contours with a contrasting brilliant colour - say blue, or gold. (His throbbingly languorous blue shadows have all the lived authority of heat or hangover.) He thus creates haloes or auras around people and objects, and makes you look afresh - just as he does by the humour of his nippled desserts or hen-beaked cherry pie. The apparent banality of his subjects is thus successfully subverted.
Occasionally, the categories blur. Store Lamp and Candy (1998/2014) is more like a mysterious landscape than a still-life, and Clown Cones (2000) is an absurdist double-portrait. The works on paper are also impressive: Untitled (Cupcakes) (1999), a pastel, made me think of Monet’s haystacks, while Lake Edge (1997), another pastel, was all bold pattern and smudge. The assured invention of his surfaces continues in the oils, from the reflections of Two Paint Cans (1987), through Office Still-Life (1975) to the classic counter painting Bakery Case (1996), via the loose handling of Burger to Go (1999), done in oil on paper, and the highly memorable portraits - Green Dress (1966/2017), of the artist’s daughter, and Sterling Holloway (1965). The overall standard is so high, it’s difficult not to mention every work in the show. River Cloud (2002), curiously serene despite being bathed in a strong unyielding light, and Cheese Deli (2016-17) deserve special notice. This is one of the best exhibitions White Cube have put on: all praise for bringing us such unalloyed delight and inspiration. High time the Tate gave this unbelievably overlooked artist a retrospective.
This article is intended as an examination of three different approaches to handling paint in a period when conceptual art often seems to have the upper hand. The death of painting has been predicted too many times to be taken seriously anymore, and whatever fashion rules the curatorial
roosts at present, paint is still being used inventively, with passion and originality, in countless studios around the world. Prunella Clough (191999) may no longer be working, but her influence lives on, and the sheer variety and invention of her output continues to inspire and beguile. Some of her earliest, essentially neo-romantic, works were on display at Osborne Samuel (newly moved to the handsome space below Annely Juda) this summer, but Juda’s (who handle her Estate) showed a wider range of work, from 1947 to 1998. In that half-century Clough depicted the odd and overlooked on beach or city street, basing her imagery on things seen in both the natural and urban worlds. Although she rarely used thick paint, preferring veils and stains and glimmers, her surfaces are not uninflected. She frequently employed collage elements and constantly experimented with new ways of applying paint.
She was, for instance, among the first to use bubble-wrap to print a regular pattern of painted circles onto a canvas. (For which she was much blamed when it became a fetish with students.) An example of her bubble wrap printing was in the Juda show - in Accessories (1996), an oil on canvas which included areas of bubble dotting over the central passage of yellowish blocks. (Perhaps a stack of timber baulks seen end-on.) Also in this painting is a linear rose stencilled in black, a nicely smudgy join-thedots hatchback car, and an abstract green-blue sun, all piquantly placed on a beautifully modulated pale grey-yellow ground. Quite an assembly of disparate elements, yet effortlessly unified by Clough’s compositional cunning. Although many of her pictures are less complex than this, it is typical of her off-beat humour and unfailing ability to look at the world from unexpected angles. Also of her skill in creating a formal plastic entity (a picture) out of the most unpromising components. And there I will stop writing about Clough, in order to give more space to the living artists under discussion.
Writing in 1964 about Nicolas de Stael (1914-55), the brilliant FrancoRussian painter of thickly impasted semi-abstract landscapes, the critic and curator Bryan Robertson had this to say: ‘When we get used to this particular manipulation of the paint; broad, summary, and directly sensual, it is only a
matter of time before subject and treatment become synonymous and fused together into one identity. But at first we think about the paint itself rather than anything else. The actual compositions are greatly simplified, dramatic, subtle and unconventional. There is a predominating use of close-up; even when we are presented with a panoramic distant view of landscape there is a sensation, again, of close-up because of the drastic simplifications of form and the paring away of inessentials.’ This masterly account could be describing George Rowlett’s work, though, interestingly enough, Rowlett does seem able to inflect his thick paint with telling details, whereas de Stael tended to sacrifice minutiae. Thus it is that Rowlett may be said to continue to derive inspiration from both his main tutors at Camberwell art school - the meticulous realism of Euan Uglow and the more expressionistic Frank Auerbach, artists of very differing persuasions in paint.
Last year, Rowlett (born 1941) spent some weeks at Paestum, the breathtakingly well-preserved archaeological site in southern Italy, painting the temples and the surrounding landscape. This subject was a gift to him. His first paintings of any new landscape tend to be the most topographical, as he comes to terms with what is in front of him, and before he begins the imaginative reinterpretation of the motif which results in his finest work. The experience of simply being there, at Paestum, was for Rowlett at once terrifying and exhilarating. So much history and achievement to live up to put him on his mettle. He is very suspicious of tourist painters, and much prefers to paint the places he knows and loves, but an opportunity like this only occurs once in a lifetime. The evidence of the paintings shows that the risk triumphantly paid off.
Rowlett’s depictions of these ancient temples are a dialogue between transparence and materiality, light and substance. The Basilica (or Temple of Hera as it is also known) is the earliest building on site, and his paintings of it offer a very specific kind of architectural message. They tend to be more obviously built - not just constructed but even slightly congested, with an intriguing density of paint. However, Rowlett can also sometimes make the other temples look like solid buildings, as if the ruined walls were fully restored and complete - as in Temple of Ceres, Morning, Light Rain,
20th Oct - when for a moment we are privileged to glimpse these great edifices as they must have been in their heyday. In contrast to the broad sunlight of other paintings, this one is gentler, with softer colours, under the rifted light of partial cloud cover.
His imagery is embedded in the paint, and sometimes it has to be dug out from the matière while at others it is discovered through the pile-up of pigment in a layering of action and reaction that is the accumulation of decisions and re-statements. So much in Rowlett’s work depends on the physical presence and build-up of paint on the board support. Time is in these paintings like sap, the time taken to construct them echoing the continuous process of time visible in the subjects - the ageing and layering. Rowlett engages the viewer in lively discourse: the eye swinging across the tempered surfaces, glorying in the infinite variety of colour and form. Here is a ready pictorial intelligence and an instinctive feel for orchestrating the elements of a painting, gathered into a sense of hereness - the specificity of a place, in this case the Gulf of Salerno.
Rowlett is known for his thick paint, but is himself slightly equivocal about it. ‘People have always made more of a fuss about the impasto than I have. Ideally I’d like it to be a purer sort of painting. But you get trapped in your own solutions.’ In a similar way, the grasses and twigs and little stones that get accidentally caught up in his paint before it dries, eventually come to be seen as inevitable and a valued part of the painting’s fabric. Interestingly, the flicks and tails of paint which litter the surface of a Rowlett painting, and indicate where the scraper or trowel has been lifted off after applying paint, also echo the shapes of the grasses that sometimes stick to the wet matter. Similarly, the nail holes which appear in the surface when the wet paintings are transported (Rowlett uses nails to keep the boards apart) are sometimes left, as an integral part of the painting, or sometimes filled in. They can be extremely useful on occasion for breaking up the less articulated areas of paint.
Investigating the underlying structure of things, Rowlett makes a convincing and hugely satisfying order out of the contradiction and randomness of the
visible world. His principal subject here would seem to be light on old stone, but it is actually so much more. It is buildings, grass, history, human beings - the whole continuum of life evoked in a generous and ebullient manner through the skilful manipulation of deep paint. Unlike so much contemporary art, Rowlett’s work encourages the habit of delectation. It is resonant and audacious: his colour and design a joy to the eye, the facture of his surfaces a delight to the senses. This is paint to be relished on many levels, from the instinctual and emotional, to the sensual and evocative. The paint-marks he makes are held in a kind of unobtrusive structural tension that is finely-judged and vigorous, rather than awkward or stressful, and which appears wonderfully confident. That easeful inevitability is the mark of much good art, and particularly that section of it which is unafraid to treat with beauty.
I write this review before the exhibition has opened, basing it on long knowledge of Rowlett’s art, but also (and more crucially) on a recent visit to the studio to see his new work. Although the focus of the exhibition is the Paestum paintings, there are also a number of Kentish landscapes and garden pictures, together with some of Rowlett’s eloquent still-lifes. Perhaps the most impressive of this group is Walmer Beach to Deal Pier, Spring Morning, Milky Light, a generous spread of pale blues and pinks over sumptuous ochres. Rowlett is a dab hand at blossom of all kinds, and his flower paintings have a contained verve which concentrates the eye of the viewer almost as much as it must have focused the eye of the artist. Nasturtium & Ceratostigma, Pink Pot, Blue Table is a controlled explosion of rich colour, a magnificent testament to the natural world that Rowlett loves so much. George Rowlett begins and ends with paint: his pictorial thought is centred on the activity of applying it, and he feels as well as thinks through it; in effect he sees through it. And his appreciative, celebratory way of looking at the world raises our enjoyment of it a thousandfold.