Visual art exhibitions and events with a platform for critical writing
The Burton Art Gallery and Museum, Bideford
3 March - 17 April 2012
Reviewed by: Sam Bell »
It was the intriguing title that did it - I liked the sound of art as a 'discipline'. These days, it's a word that might be looked down upon as rather old fashioned, or even indicative of someone with a university degree rather than an art college qualification. In fact, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was that creature I love more than either discipline or my nostalgia for university life: the St Ives artist. Without knowing it I had stumbled upon that ever joyous experience: the rich combination of Nature and abstraction that moved two generations of artists at St Ives in the 1940s and 1950s, with the major graphical star of that initial era being Ben Nicholson, a figure who 'figures' richly as an influence on the works of this exhibition.
It had only been about a week since I first heard of Barns-Graham on a trip to the gallery I exhibit in at St Ives. Of all the St Ives stars she has a low profile, and you can understand that, competing as she was then with Hepworth, Gabo, Lanyon, et at. A visit to this show changed everything for me. It's a joy. And from the very start, the issue of 'discipline' is everywhere.
But first, what she does, and what the show does. Organised into sections, like all major public venues these days, we are introduced to the work in groups such as 'Rocks, Ice, Trees'; 'Landscapes and Places' and 'Seawaves and Currents', with special areas given over to the drawings completed in Lanzarote and Tuscany. Actually, I came into the exhibition at the 'wrong' end, from the Café (I always visit the café first, and then proceed to the exhibition by that route, hence never beginning at the beginning). And there, in the adjascent gallery, were the pieces that will take your breath away. A small wall of small drawing, perhaps 15 - 20 in number, executed in the main in pen and ink with colour washes, the works exploring seawave currents through abstract patternings of highly disciplined, sequenced lines on paper. Some of the titles spoke directly of the subject matter, whilst others like 'Linear Meditations 3. 1991' speak also of the impact of the pieces on the mind, whilst others pointed to the artist's working through of an aesthetic - 'Line Development No. 1 (12 lines) 1982' and 'Formation 2. 1978'. The exhibition section notes refer to these works as 'meditative abstractions', and the sequencing and orchestration of lines in weaving parallel formations is certainly both hypnotic and profoundly meditative. These works are all, in fact, mere lines on paper, but they give full artistic form to those parallel lines the imagination might envisage in nature, the masterpiece being 'Clay Country, Tuscany. 1979' (Attached). You cannot be a St Ives artists without transforming you subject into a fully realised set of forms on the picture plane. No other movement in British art history has so committed to exploring the relationship between the artistic medium and the picture plane*. This was British art taking on board the lessons of half a century of continental innovation, beginning with late Impressionism and Cezanne. Barns-Graham is no exception to this rule. But, as the exhibition is at pains to point out, in its vision and detail, this work is not merely picture-making. It explores its subjects in terms of a clinical, detached line. Those sea surges are not just representations, they are explored for their structural integrity and display a graph-like quality of detachment. This is, to return to the title of the exhibition, a disciplined attempt to both represent the sea as image and to take an imaginative 'still' of its structure. In a way, this is drawing that is wholly committed to its subject, to the reality of sea, and a meditation on the sea as art form.
Proceeding (still going backwards towards the beginning), we come to the Lanzarote drawings and, what I would call, paintings. Acrylic on paper, according to the notes, and frankly, in some, a little too much spray painting (Never liked it). However, the brooding dead volcanoes of Lanzarote are profoundly represented, as dark brooding forms in some works, and lightly sketched allusions in others (the latter foregrounded by the jagged, lacerating shards of igneous rock). It is in the delineation of the rocks we see the importance of drawing, the lines sketched over the painting in boldly cubist formations. All this work was completed in a three year period between 1989 and 1992, and the sequence is variable in ambition - some works fail at the level of structure, seeming incomplete or sketch-like - but the section also produces gems such as the 'Lava Forms, Lanzarote 2. 1992' (Attached). Chalk on black paper never looked so convincing as art as it does here. And the delineations of lava flows in graphite remind the viewer of the sea drawings in pen and ink, in the way they seek out the forms, the artist using a creative rubber which reminded me on one occasion of Giacometti.
The 'Landscapes and Places' section is varied, with clinical, carefully drawn line drawings of Scottish towns ('Stromness, Orkney 1. 1985/6') that approach realism without ever abandoning the St Ives linear and sculptural aesthetic, to places in Tuscany, culminating, for me, in the fine 'Clay Workings, Chiusure.1954' (Attached), an image of 'going in', of laceration perhaps, and of a profound sympathy with the earth. And this is an image that hearks back to the influence of Picasso and Cubism on the St Ives School of the 1940s, the clay mine structured, painted and developed in that analytical manner that Nicholson and Lanyon in particular always admired. Perhaps this was about the time that I began to see how focussed Barns-Graham was on natural structures, and not Romantic ones at that. The natural world is geological here - there is no attempt to anthropomorphise it, even when at times one can see human forms emerge from images and linearities. This is not a romance with nature, but a study - and part of the meaning of 'discipline' must, in the end, be seen here as an objectivity in the viewpoint. A tendency to sculptural form is everywhere too, no less finely seen as in 'Palinura Campagna. 1955', with its bold sweeping lines and shadings set in a sculptural, conflicted landscape that exhibits an exciting conflict between geologically contrasting sets of forms.
With 'Rocks, Ice, Trees' I arrive at the beginning of the exhibition, to be told on the wall board that this is an exhibition about 'natural morphologies' and 'investigative research'. (so, it was 'discipline' in a university sense all the time). But there is a real sense of truth in this: you can imagine Barns-Graham as a geological researcher or as the resident artist on an expedition to some remote place or bleak geological excavation. And she is at her best when she is being the 'researcher' - two drawings of trees stand in conflict with on another here in the main gallery. One is a fine delicate piece of realism, subtle and intricate. But it is no match for 'Old Oak Tree (St Andrews Cathedral Series) 1979', where the tree bark structures refer us back to the landscapes and their geology, like a diagram almost. This work is truer to the spirit of the whole body of work here, where there is to be no sentimentality or elegance for the sake of it.
What is her place in the history of the St Ives School? Well, it's probably not what it should be. Perhaps, in the end, the lack of a human context in the work, the clinical attack on the subjects, the 'cool' representations, the focus on the earth and sea as structures will keep her in the shadow of figures like Nicholson and Hepworth. They are as famous these days for a certain sentimentality (the cloyingly linear still lifes on the window sill by Nicholson) or a certain indiscipline (a number of blobs of stone in relationships) by Hepworth. But perhaps I'm becoming over-familiar with them, and I've only just met Wilhelmina ('Willie' to her friends).
What a show! See it! (Nice café too - start there and see the best of the show first).
*The Bloomsbury group, of course, were interested in the manipulation of the picture plane as well, as were most of the major individual artists of the era, from Ravilious to Sutherland.
Born 1912 in Scotland; Died 2004.
Moved to St Ives to escape the war, as was the case with Hepworth, Nicholson and Gabo among others.
Working in a modernist idiom, I mainly make abstract stone sculptures that explore the possibilities of what Clive Bell described as 'significant form' and seek to define the value that lies in that significance.
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