An­drew Lam­birth

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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.

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