Tuesday, 5 November 2013

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT - British Abstract Art - The Hurdle Galley- Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery November 5th 2013

The last painting in the modest Hurdle Gallery is Marie Yates' Vertigo, a 2 dimensional stack of monochromatic hexagons out of which the preceding exhibition seems to have escaped. From the moment I struggled to find September, the 2011 sound piece from Plymouth born artist Keith Rowe, to the left of its label and mistakenly believed the black outline of a cupboard door, painted with the same white as the gallery wall, was some cryptic, hidden installation or “wall piece” operating as optical illusion, I too felt that I had been let into some subterranean basement dimension in which the cities alter ego finally stepped out into the blinding light of day.

Marie Yates

Oil on Canvas, 1965

While it is not true that all the art here was created by Plymothians or others living on the south western peninsula, it is true of by far the majority and all have strong links to a city not so long ago dismissed as chav town by the sea.  The emergence of a less self conscious Plymouth could be attributed to its playing host to the British Art show 7 “In the days of the Comet” in 2011, but the change has been coming for a long time and while the exact type of insect to emerge from order Lepidoptera‘s chrysalis is yet to be fully revealed, both this exhibition, and the Artists make faces triumph through which you have to travel to arrive at this one, are much more beautiful butterfly than dowdy moth.

While the Monika Kinley curated exhibition next door may have been presented in partnership with Plymouth Universities' Peninsula Arts, here it is Plymouth College of Art that looms large. Long before the Polytechnic morphed into the gargantuan behemoth that dusted the city with its shed scales, PCA, (which for a while flirted with the acronym, PCAD, before dropping the D for Design), led the way in igniting and keeping burning the artistic ambitions of Janners who had not flown off to London and the North. Along with those that studied and taught there are those from the Plymouth Society of Artists, the St Ives School and those directly influenced by them, alongside familiar giants of British art Patrick Heron and Barbara Hepworth whose work is synonymous with Cornwall, A county that Plymouth seems to have much more in common with than Devon, its geographical home.

Patrick Heron
Rectilinear Reds and Blues
Oil on Canvas, 1963

One obvious candidate for representing the incidental camouflage or mistaken identity shared by the city is the artist Beryl Clark. Unlike the other more familiar and well loved Beryl, Clark is all about, black metal and geometric lines. You can look as hard as you like but there are no cuddly matloes or rotund strippers looking out at you from the reflective shards in her work. Her work was shown in the same 1968 Plymouth Society of Artists Exhibition that featured White –Brown Advancing White by Plymouth born Lar Cann, who studied at PCA under Alexander Mackenzie another artist represented with his equally hard but far more brittle painting Manganese White. Mackenzie’s painting has to been seen on the board to appreciate the skilled controlled use of cracking of the mentioned white as a feature in its delicate and precise application and the contrast with the permanency of the solid black ink. Black as an element is represented throughout with the excellent Block and Brackets by Peter Thursby, standing like a monolithic engine block with its decoked shiny face staring proudly at the ceiling alongside Michael Snow’s Tower III, a blackened bronze stretched skinny structure that reveals the kinship the Manchester born painter felt with the art from St Ives.

Lar Cann
White -Brown Advancing White
Oil on Board, 1967

Alexander Mackenzie
Manganese White
Oil and Ink on Board, 1967

Brian Wynter is given the first space in the exhibition and it is fitting that his painting Pas is very symptomatic of a Westcountry approach. Previously engaged in kinetic works Wynter here, from his remote location in an isolated cottage on Zennor Carn, sheds the formality of his previous works, leaving in the pencil guides that marked the edges of the tiger stripes of his flowing abstraction. Like an ariel view of the tors on Dartmoor and Bodmin moor the fern like concentric contour lines are cut through by a mint green river or coastline and we are reminded for all its urban rigidity Plymouth has always been a product of its geography, a place where like Cornwall the river and the sea are at its heart and the hard lines of British abstraction are easily overgrown, assimilated and pre-empted by the banality of empty wilderness and deep cold black of the ocean.

Bryan Winter
Oil on Canvas, 1970

The exhibition is fantastic and should be seen by anyone with a desire to delve deeper than the predictable postcard portraits of Plymouth. The curator is not credited but should be congratulated on an excellent idea for a show brilliantly executed. I would also like to thank them for the accompanying notes and the most helpful museum staff who photocopied them for me.

Below from top to bottom - John Wells Variations 1961-1963, Julian Lethbridge Untitled 1991-1992, Ian Davenport Untitled 1989, Justin Knowles Three Reds with White 1967.

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