The Usher and the Collection, Lincoln
East Midlands

Observational and naturalistic recording skills are curious things in art. For a fair few aspiring artists and many laymen it is seen as a given essential ingredient or even the core of the thing itself. Whilst within the wider art School system, the debate of what constitutes skill, how it is manifested and its worthiness in isolation from other arguably more ‘creative’ or ‘contextual’ concerns still dominates the discursive scrum.

Arguably it is not a simply binary choice between choosing skill or concepts, so much as a need to consider their semantic interaction in order to generate third party experiences over merely showing prowess. With Art unlike sport, the definition of a winner is more ambiguous and delightfully much more negotiable.

That said, if it’s painting skill in an observational sense you’re after, then you can fill your boots with the BP portraits. Indeed whether you paint or not, the sheer levels of ‘craft’ skill on show are impressive. As you pass from artist to artist, the stylistic approaches vary from the photo realistic to much loser gestural mark making. But there is one thing that unites them, they are mostly well executed (within broad definitions). It is very much a show that allows you to leave your bullshit detector back in your garage (to misquote Joe Strummer). And that is what I love about observational work. It is unforgiving. It is either nailed by the artist or left wanting.

If we accept adept craft skill as the baseline line of this show,  I want it to take me to the next level of interest. As unless I get more of a complex connection when viewing figuration, I can quickly get bored. I can respect a well-crafted painting of someone’s son, but I can struggle to invest in it beyond that.

I want more, the special bit. Maybe ‘The Duende’ a notion introduced to me by the artist and writer Robert Clark, or the notion of the ‘Text’ versus the ‘work’ as suggested by Roland Barthes, or perhaps an intrigue about paint as process in a good old Auerbach, or more recent Jason Martin sense.

Fortunately enough of those present step up to the plate to satiate this desire. Here are a just a few highlights. ‘Silence’ by Mo Bang, shows efficacious high precision skill in the finely painted naturalistic depiction of her mother terminally ill on a stark hospital bed. This steps well beyond sentimental into the Universal and tears a piece of your heart out. It is both uncomfortable and compulsive viewing. For all of us who had lost a loved one in a bleak hospital it activates a collective sense of loss.

In the painting small and modest sized painting ‘John’ by Eilís Griffith Otway, the painting style is looser and gestural and much is given over to ambiguity. It is difficult to work out a particular narrative strand. For me the subject looks like he is in pain or discomfort and has recently been battered, his eyes looking black and blue. A woman next to me saw him as in a state of ecstatic revelry. Whist lacking clear context, it is encapsulating. The emotional charge carries the image, unlike some of the more staged sittings, equally devoid of place.

At the other end of the scale ‘Jijinka’ by Brett Amory is a large vertical rectangular painting. Its subject has transitioned from male to female. The paint on the face area is tightly executed as gradually disintegrates in precision from the clothes to the vacant background. We are reminded of the materiality of the paint by the white dips of the background which spill over and remind us the illusory nature of representational imagery. It is an enigmatic image which halts you in your track and commands viewing.

If you want a bit less portrait and a bit more subject then a couple of hundred yards away there are two more shows currently on at the Collection which are well worth a serious look. In the Courtyard Gallery David Ainley and Kate Genever share differing perspectives on depicting the landscape. I have long respected the considered translation of subject into weighty emblematic form which forms the trademark of Ainley’s paintings. His deliberate and measured use of texture and formal structure to capture an essence the landscape are set off well against the more playful, intuitive and uplifting linear scribbles of Kate Genever’s work, which were a pleasant discovery for me. These small un-egotistical works  had a closer evidential link to their departure points, a trip to Venice. The interplay between the slowly meditative and the speedily got down is highly engaging and they act as a perfect foil for one another, in a beautifully hung show.

Third up is a major two person show by Euan Uglow and Sargy Mann. Uglow’s show comprises life study after life study, the paintings are curious due to their lack of emotional investment. The present an obsession with concepts of paint and measurement. The paintings share a physicality of form and mark making that has a potent sculptural feel. These are non sentimental paintings and have to be considered above all as painting for itself, rather than in a narrative sense. Today the life model occupies a curious place in our art education system where gender theory is an essential consideration for any thinking artist and presents a curious paradox. Luckily for him, in his day you could just paint a nude and not worry about it. By contrast the more emotively charged paintings of Sargy Mann, are a rich tapestry of place and memory. Some painted by the artist after losing his sight, they are extraordinary in the expressive and associated emotive qualities. The lurid qualities redolent of fauvism and an attempt to capture the spirit of a place rather than getting wholly bogged down with accuracy. The fact that an artist looses sight but continues is also an emotive back story.

The combination of these three shows makes Lincoln a hot destination for anyone interested in painting and the depictive imperative. An impressive and stimulating set of adjacent shows, well worth the train fare.