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The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford
18 April - 6 May 2010
Reviewed by: Clare Carswell »
An exhibition of paintings by Karen Purple at the North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford invite the viewer to share with the artist the pleasure of walking in nature. Several large canvases as well as series of smaller works on paper and board bear marks that signal the artist's recall of her daily walk through the fields and woodland surrounding her Oxfordshire home. Purple has made this same walk daily for the last six years engaging directly with the formation of the landscape as well as the organic materials within it.
As artists tend to do Purple sets the perameters of her own activity. Driven by the necessity of specificity, her quest for relevance leads the artist to limit her explorations and scrutiny to a specific locale which she can grid reference. The resultant paintings and drawings might be regarded as journals as well as schema for her growing archive of natural remnants. The works are made with pigments and dyes that are boiled, ground, pulped or distilled by the artist from organic materials she collects on her walks. Soil water, crushed cochineal beetles, stinging nettle or ink from oak gall contribute to a gentle palette with which the artist traces pictorially her profound sense of connection with the ancient landscape.
Several large works on canvas such as This Connecting Thread, Training, Of Oak and Iron, are understated yet command the large gallery space with their quiet but uncompromising persistence borne of artistic, and essentially human, wonder and enquiry. They are delicately coloured meanderings, elusively abstract yet hinting at the illustrative and invoking the experiential both for the artist and for we the viewer, or at least for those among us who have also drawn chill breath at the beauty and mystery of nature when trudging through it.
The ethos of this artist is encapsulated in the title she has chosen for one of the paintings Solvitur Ambulando is a Latin phrase meaning that 'you can sort it out by walking'. Referencing conceptual art and artists such as Richard Long in proposing this act as work of art, Purple's work is nonetheless most firmly painterly and post abstraction and it is particularly to British Abstraction that one inclines for reference and recalls the muted palettes of Prunella Clough, the constructed and tactile surfaces of Gillian Ayres and also remembers the assertion made by Mel Gooding in his essay of 1992 regarding aspects of British Abstraction since 1945 that
"It is with specificities of place that British Abstraction typically begins: with the changeability of its weather and its variegations of light, with its objects and their forms and textures. It starts in facts and ends in a transendence of the phenomenal, with painting as the poetic trace of the actual
Made in series with titles such as Field Verses 1-V or Leaf Verses 1-V, the most recent works on linen or board backed canvas offer up solitary figurative elements of leaf or tree, totems on a tiny scale of the impressive enormity and age of the land from which they are drawn. Accompanying the wall-mounted works are several old entomology wooden cases displaying drawings. One The Destructive Distillation of Wood holds piled lumps of charcoal wrapped in tiny drawings of the trees used for its production. Apparently slight in presence, these work reveal an archival impulse in Purple's work that informs us not only of her dedication to research methods more readily associated with naturalist or landscape historian but of a timeless human impulse to record nature as well as to take from it and to use the seemingly intrinsic power of it. The charcoal was made in the charcoal burner at the University of Oxford where Purple has worked as artist in residence for the last year. A small exhibition of her research material is on display at The Lodge there throughout the exhibition.
It is inevitable that even today, a British artist who paints from landscape be viewed in relation to works of the 1930s and 1940s of artists such as Sutherland, Piper, Nash and Minton, English neo-romantics inspired by Ruskin's attempts to unify the geological and spiritual but who sought modern equivalents for the visions of Turner, Palmer and Ruskin. Purple's beautiful and gesturally abstract paintings reflect intrinsic associations with landscape and organic form and resonate with her highly individual associations of place and mood. In so doing she offers us her own visionary and timeless works that reveal her deep respect for the very Earth itself and reach beyond their specific corporeality to something ancient, primal and available to us all if we only know how to access it. Through her work Purple perhaps acts as signifier for us. How timely, how wise and how generous of her.
Fieldwork runs until 6th May 11-4pm
The University Of Oxford Arboretum at Nuneham Courtney Opening Hours 10-5pm
Clare Carswell is an interdisciplinary artist writer and curator based in Oxford UK and Berlin Germany.
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