Andrew Lambirth

Spirit of place | 10 September 2011

In the Weston Rooms of the Royal Academy’s main suite of galleries is the third of a series of exhibitions designed to show the processes by which artists arrive at their work.

Spirit of place | 10 September 2011
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In the Weston Rooms of the Royal Academy’s main suite of galleries is the third of a series of exhibitions designed to show the processes by which artists arrive at their work.

In the Weston Rooms of the Royal Academy’s main suite of galleries is the third of a series of exhibitions designed to show the processes by which artists arrive at their work. Nigel Hall (born 1943) is an internationally celebrated abstract sculptor, known for his restrained purist forms, exquisitely balanced combinations of cone, ellipse, circle and wedge, executed in bronze, steel or polished wood. He also exhibits tautly rhythmic charcoal and gouache drawings of twisting ribands or other flat geometric shapes. His inventiveness within his chosen parameters is impressive and unflagging, but abstraction is not all he can do. For the first time in any depth Hall is showing the observational drawings he makes from nature, while travelling to different parts of the world for work or pleasure, if the two can be separated for an artist.

Here are drawings made in Switzerland, Japan, Italy, Australia and America. Hall’s favourite landscapes are mountains or the desert, and the first room is filled with 50 drawings of Swiss mountains, hung in two tiers and grouped into locations. These are drawn in soluble pencil on long, centrally folded sheets of thick paper, like diptychs. Although he has visited Switzerland in the summer, he much prefers the structures of the winter landscape under snow and ice. He has to work quickly as the drawing water will freeze otherwise, and he makes his studies in a maximum of ten minutes. These drawings are not just about the handsome profiles of mountain peaks, but about the relationship of valley sides to dwelling roofs, for instance in Fex-Curtins, the last community before the glacier in a valley Hall particularly loves. In this first gallery, the mountain drawings are balanced and complemented by a substantial floor sculpture, ‘Large Copper Mirrored’, three working drawings for sculptures, a major wall piece ‘Like Thunder’ in polished wood, and three abstract gouaches. In the second gallery, the desert takes over with drawings of Ayers Rock from 1983, and a particularly fine group of American desert studies (the Mojave, Death Valley, Monument Valley) done in 1968–9. In these latter, Hall employs oil pastel for a wider range of colour and mark, and unleashes a cannonade of striking and spectacular effects that on occasion recall the work of the Australian Fred Williams.

Hall’s abstract work is much preoccupied with space and volume and their changing relationship. This can be likened to the way landscape changes as we walk through it. The artist is never off-duty, and what Hall enjoys drawing in the mountains of Switzerland or the temple gardens of Japan will no doubt have a bearing on his studio work back in England. But it is not the raw material of his sculpture, any more than the experience of strolling in Kensington Gardens might be. These things inform his thinking and stimulate ideas for spatial relationships, but they are not his main subject. That remains a more generalised investigation into the spirit of place, and the way geometry underlies landscape. This show reminds us that abstraction can derive ultimately from nature, but that art is the distillation of raw experience, not its mirror.

An elegant softback publication accompanies the exhibition (price £9.95), containing three useful texts: a foreword by Paul Huxley, a thoughtful essay by Judith Flanders, and an interview between the artist and fellow-sculptor Bryan Kneale. The whole exercise, exhibition and catalogue, is a tribute to the value of drawing: as a discipline to make you look and explore what you see. This is not the freezing of a frontal moment that photography offers, but a process of understanding what you see by experiencing it in the round and engaging with it directly through the process of trying to draw it. The resulting studies are self-contained works in their own right, and often very beautiful. Do not look to them for an explanation of Hall’s sculpture, simply enjoy them for what they are.

The more I see of the work of William Gear (1915–97), the more I admire it. He was an important figure in the stuffy provincial English art world of half-a-century ago, bringing a breath of wider horizons from his personal experience of the European avant-garde, as well as being a highly individual painter with a blazing colour sense. Born in Fife, he trained at Edinburgh College of Art, before setting off for Paris, where he lived for a time both before and after the second world war. He settled in England in 1950 and set about rooting his essentially abstract vision in the landscape in which he lived. He became an expert on the fall of dappled light through foliage and was one of the few artists to produce really abstract work for the Festival of Britain in 1951.

I have spent part of the summer looking at and thinking about the paintings he made in the 1960s, in order to write a catalogue text for the current exhibition of his work at the Redfern Gallery. In this group of exceptionally vibrant pictures, Gear can be seen moving from the soft, smoky, overlapping imagery of his earlier manner to a more hard-edged and vitally fractured language. The palette too becomes more challenging. Many of these ambitious paintings have never before been exhibited; others haven’t been seen in public since the Sixties. It’s about time for Gear to be thoroughly reassessed. Who will take up the challenge?

The only art fair I make an effort not to miss is the 20/21 British Art Fair at the Royal College of Art in Kensington Gore. It’s the only gathering of dealers I find really enjoyable and inspiring, with a wide range of high-quality Mod Brit on show, some of which even manages occasionally to seem affordable. This year there’s a special focus on sculpture, so look out for Underwood, Paolozzi, Armitage, Caro, Jann Haworth and Dhruva Mistry, among others. The 56 exhibitors include such established dealers as Agnew’s and Austin/Desmond, specialists like Jonathan Clark and Julian Hartnoll, and wild cards including Paul Liss and Michael Parkin. Even if you don’t actually purchase any art, you can always buy a book or two from Marcus Campbell. Recommended.

I’m very keen to travel up to the Lake District to see the latest show at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, entitled Kitaj: Portraits & Reflections (until 8 October), but in case I don’t get there in time to review it properly — as I’m sure from a swift perusal of the catalogue it deserves — here is a brief mention to encourage others with the leisure to make the journey. R.B. Kitaj (1932–2007) was not treated well by a cadre of British critics who resented his fluency in writing about his own art. His 1994 Tate retrospective was thoroughly drubbed, often in an offensively personal manner, and this, combined with the subsequent death of his wife, drove him from his London home.

He settled in Los Angeles, where he continued to paint in as richly eclectic and idiosyncratic a style as ever. We are probably too close in time to Kitaj to assess him dispassionately; it may still only be possible to love or hate his art. I find it very rewarding, but each must decide. I believe that he painted the human clay with greater compassion, humour and understanding than most of his contemporaries. But see for yourself.