Colin Self: Art in the Nuclear Age
Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until 12 October
David Tress: Chasing Sublime Light
Petworth House, West Sussex, until 29 July
Colin Self (born 1941) is one of the unsung talents of the English art world, a maverick who made intensely original Pop art in the 1960s and then rusticated himself in Norfolk, where he continues to make all manner of art from the satiric to the pastoral. He is not the easiest of characters, and the last time a major museum exhibition of his work was planned, he cancelled it at the last moment. So Pallant House must be congratulated on achieving such a full account of an immensely distinguished and largely unknown artist. The catalogue accompanying the show (£19.95 in paperback) is also the first substantial publication on the artist. Exhibition and catalogue make a convincing argument for wholesale reassessment.
The exhibition begins with some of Self’s inventive and witty multiple-plate etchings in the corridor outside the trio of galleries usually reserved for temporary shows. Spilling out in this way the exhibition demonstrates how it will not be easily contained or categorised. The three galleries are densely hung with work which demands and deserves a lot of attention. In the first room are three cabinets which house striking works: a Leopardskin Nuclear Bomber like a terrifyingly vicious de luxe dildo, a vast black hotdog in painted wood and fibreglass, and the upholstered model of a cinema foyer, decked out in Fablon and marbled paper. Here is Self the idiosyncratic Pop artist exploring the violence and luxury of our consumerist society, while falling in love with the Odeon Cinema in Muswell Hill.
If he’s widely known for anything, it’s for the beauty of his draughtsmanship and Self is regularly praised for his technique. This infuriates him. He calls it ‘overloving’ and is more interested in using his technical dexterity as an instrument of satire. He speaks of ‘fostering’ his art, allowing its meanings to develop, often through the strategy of isolating a thing from its context. Look at the cinema drawings, the woman on a bar stool eating a double cheeseburger, or her sister on a slimming machine, or ‘Margaret on a Sofa’. No one draws like Colin Self, with such dense shiny blacks cunningly lightened with coloured pencil. The Pop art sexiness is deliberately tempered by a depth-charge of 18th-century earthiness recalling the satire of Gillray. What could be easy on the eye becomes increasingly challenging.
In the second room, a charred nuclear victim lies in the middle of the floor, mutilated while sunbathing, and there are drawings of Hiroshima victims on the walls, along with vicious guard dogs on missile bases. The overlap between man and machine recalls Vorticism with a Sixties make-over, and Self’s technical range, whether printmaking, drawing or sculpture, is impressive. The final room edges into a world of private humour and fantasy but pursues the machine/man aesthetic with a return to pastoral themes. A group of six watercolours of Scotland are surprising in their delicacy and atmospheric rigour. There’s also a commercial gallery show of his Sixties work in London at Delaye/Saltoun, 11 Savile Row, London W1 (until 2 August), featuring a range of typical imagery. Worth seeing, but not as an alternative to Chichester. Although the variousness of Self’s work can be bewildering, the Pallant House show is a must.
As a landscape painter and draughtsman, David Tress (born 1955) gets better and better. Unafraid of long-term projects that require patience and research, Tress embarked in 2001 on an investigation of the landscapes of northern Britain that had been so fruitful an inspiration to 18th-century painters such as Turner, Girtin and Sandby. Retracing their journeys, he placed himself wherever possible in the same spot from which they had drawn or painted a scene, and recorded it as it appears now. In some cases the landscape was virtually unchanged after two centuries, in others car parks, commercialism and traffic had encroached ineluctably on a previously unspoilt vista. The project is of historical and sociological as well as artistic interest, and many venues around Britain will be hosting it over the next two years. Half of the exhibition — the section dealing with Cumbria and North Wales — is currently on show at Petworth House, a highly appropriate setting as Turner used to paint there. A day in the Sussex countryside is much enhanced by Tress’s depictions of wild romantic scenery elsewhere.
The single quiet cream-painted exhibition room is dominated by a large and masterly drawing of Grasmere. This magnificent rendition (a museum-quality drawing if ever I saw one) is a powerful evocation of the famous lake in Cumbria so beloved of Wordsworth. The deep blacks of the graphite sink below the ripples of light as Tress orchestrates a complex interplay between the white of the paper, the top layers of which are occasionally ripped and scarified, and the mark-making which brings definition to the subject. There is violence in the making of the work, yet Tress has won through to serenity, like the calm after storm. Although there are superficial parallels with the Auerbach and Kossoff approach, Tress has evolved a method of drawing very much his own which results in some of the most exciting landscapes being done today. Emotion is balanced by thought and his elemental attack on the paper (a sort of speeded-up erosion) is checked by delicacies of touch and shading.
Tress works out in the landscape, often in rough weather, as can be seen in ‘Sketchbook Study: Langdale Pikes from Blea Tarn (Rain)’. This lively atmospheric watercolour was made in driving rain, and as Tress says it was ‘a battle to put pigment on to the paper faster than it was washed off’. Quite a contrast to the painting of Harlech Castle, a favourite of Turner, Varley and Cox, but now surrounded by a road rather than tidal inlets. Tress paints the pub sign ‘Food Served Daily’ in the foreground of his picture, a red-lettered intrusion on the picturesque. A notion of the sublime is what powered those 18th-century artists, who went to wild landscape in search of the awe-inspiring. Tress can still find it, though our senses are somewhat blunted today by constant global images of the terrifying retailed through the media. A particularly fine prospect (and little changed since Cotman visited it in 1809) is captured in ‘Light Passing (Llyn Llydaw towards Snowdon)’. It’s a dark and stormy painting with light feeding through the clouds, carefully structured despite (or because of) the complex drama of the elements.
The exhibition is on a lengthy tour: Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold (23 August to 12 October), Gallery Oldham (17 January to 18 April 2009), Keswick Museum (April to May 2009), Worcester City Art Gallery (September to October 2009), National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth (October to December 2009), Oriel Ynys Mon, Anglesey (January to February 2010), West Wales Art Centre, Fishguard (March to April 2010), The Maclaurin Galleries, Ayr (May to June 2010), Stowe School, Buckingham (September to October 2010). In the meantime, there’s an exhibition of Tress’s recent paintings and drawings at the West Wales Arts Centre in Fishguard (until 23 August). Unlike so many contemporary artists, Tress deepens his own work with a thorough knowledge and appreciation of the art of the past. He engages passionately with landscape in a way which enriches our own experience.