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Three contemporary landscape artists

— November 2013

Associated media

Melanie Coleman, Burning Bush (2008), oil on canvas 61x46.4cm

Landscape has long been considered a central pillar of British art. How do 21st-century painters engage with it? Lindsey Shaw-Miller reports on three artists.

Landscape is often considered a ‘safe’, traditional subject, yet there is an exciting degree of variety and talent in contemporary landscape painting. This feature presents three British artists who provoke paradox and challenge in relation to tradition.

Melanie Coleman’s small, representational oils, painted on canvas, are not all they seem. Her work exposes the dispassion of nature, the emptiness of what we see, even at nature’s most bounteous and beautiful. She is committed to paint and the painterly illusion, whilst knowing that what she paints will outlive her, ignore her imprint, even as she impales its bleak beauty.

Coleman is a perfectionist and her paintings are crafted as much as they are composed. Her attention to detail is meticulous, yet her realism is far from photographic. She scrapes away any area that does not satisfy, repaints, re-scrapes, repaints. She uses a restrained, unified palette that often suggests water: low cloud, diffuse atmosphere, water lying, or actual rain. In scale and tonality her images bring to mind 17th-century Dutch landscapes, but not their technique: Coleman’s images have a dry surface, in spite of their aqueous atmosphere, with no impasto. The repetitive, rhythmic episodes of brushwork enable her paintings to suggest sound: wind among grasses or buzzing and rattling a barbed-wire fence; soft rainfall; the muted hiss and crackle of a smouldering fire. Or not: her latest painting, of a young copse on a rocky Irish hillside, is quite silent.

Jeremy Gardiner makes abstract landscapes, painted on wooden supports, carefully sourced, some of them recycled from boats and ships. His attraction to boatyards also finds its influence in surfaces and palette: the half-painted hues and textures of hulls under repair. Like Coleman, he works and reworks, scrapes back and repaints, yet his images could not be more different. They resemble low reliefs, with areas of the wooden panel cut out with a router, other areas built up, lending a sense of foreground and recession to the support itself. On top of this sculpted surface, the elements of landscape are painted and collaged, an abstract montage of referents to geology, palaeontology and coastal industry, in composition with the vista itself. There is a mechanical scale and patina to his paintings that reflects Gardiner’s early professional placements in industrial contexts. Yet scale within his images is non-representational; a landmark can be minute, a fossil huge.

Gardiner has painted in international locations from South America to Scandinavia, but his most important stimulus, his ‘mother’ landscape, is the Dorset coast, which he has come to know intimately and profoundly over many years. His experience of large engineering projects resonates with the underground caverns and quarries of the Purbeck projections, the geological layering. He also makes long monoprints, both vertical and horizontal, that can map an area with physical and historical complexity in the manner of a Chinese scroll. Without pretension, these are landscapes of the mind as well as the body – he revisits his site repeatedly, walking out with his painting in different weathers and lights, scraping back, re-imprinting, looking again, scraping again.

That essential practice of walking through the landscape has informed Coleman’s work profoundly. She has spent weeks just walking, recording, letting her movement through the landscape ‘imprint’ on her body. Another kind of walking and recording is exemplified by the work of Noel Myles, whose work also manifests revisitation and repetition. Trained as a painter, Myles makes landscapes that comprise hundreds of small photographs abutted together into a new, harmonious composition which depicts the broad experience of a place or event. They may be taken over a period of days, weeks or even years.

On his frequent walks he record different lights and conditions, but usually at the same season; he rarely combines different seasons in one image, though the time may drift from, say, early to late winter. Thus the tonality of an image is unified, though his tonal range across hisoeuvre expands from black and white to vivid colour.  Like Coleman, he is meticulous in his technique. The small photos abut exactly (a process made easier and more accurate by digitization), and the image they form together is a sum of different walks, different lights and textures, a beautifully composed patchwork of images that allow the viewer to experience different permutations and moods, densities, moments and stretches of time all incorporated into the one unified image, which he calls a ‘still film’.

All three of these artists cross media definitions, and in this they are close relatives of their late mediaeval and Renaissance forbears. Although his technique is photographic, Noel Myles identifies with painting, as is evident in his attention to texture and composition. Melanie Coleman is completely immersed in the process of painting, she works slowly, using very high-quality pigments, which she mixes on her skin, usually an arm or wrist. Yet her background is in making, especially textiles. Recently, inspired by David Hockney (another link with Myles) she has been experimenting with iPad paintings and the complex layering processes enabled by their software.

Jeremy Gardiner also defines himself as a painter, even though the attention he gives to the shaping, cutting and layering of his supports creates a tension between two and three dimensions that excites the work and connects it to the sculptural tradition. He too has been experimenting with new technology, making 3D prints based on LiDAR imaging, which uses lasers to register contours of the landscape. 

The work of these three vibrant artists celebrates the vitality of this very English subject, which, in the 21st century, still challenges and preoccupies artists, entangling the viewer in multiple meanings and experiences.


Lindsey Shaw-Miller

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