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Around the galleries

In search of reality

— January 2015

Associated media

David Hockney, My Parents

Hugh McGlyn looks at a Norwich exhibition of painting from the last 60 years – but what is ‘reality’ in art?

'REALITY' is an exhibition of 55 paintings by British artists chosen by artist Chris Stevens. A selection of paintings which he admires and which have inspired him. He also contributes an essay to catalogue (available as a hardback only priced at £25).

The earliest, W.R. Sickert’s Ennui (1918), was painted nearly 100 years ago. The remainder are from the last 60 years – a period that is, more or less, Stevens’ own lifetime. He was born in 1956 and includes two paintings from that year: Fury by Carel Weight (1908–97)and Owls by Francis Bacon  (1905–90).

Among the 55 works by some 30 artists some major names of post-war figurative painting are represented: David Hockney (My Parents);   Lucian Freud (Standing by the Rags), L.S. Lowry   (Welsh Landscape: Bargoed, 1969: an atypical Lowry, both in style and subject), and John Bratby (1928–92), now less well known but in the 1950s and ’60s a major name. He is represented by Dustbins in the Studio (1954), the earliest work here after the Sickert.

David Hepher (b.1935) contributes one of the most impressive paintings:Tree (2011–12); and Anthony Green (b.1938) shows two of his ‘magical realist’ family portraits. Paula Rego (b.1935), who made her name in the 1980s, contributes Snare from 1987.

There is some very diverse work by Chris Stevens’ post-war  generation, who could loosely be called the New Spirit of Painting generation after the influential international exhibition of that title at the Royal Academy in 1981. There are The Street and Tate’s Moss by Jock McFadyen (b.1950), Everything is Everything by Ray Richardson (b.1964),The Dirty King (illustrated), and A Hunting Lodge by Ken Currie (b.1960), and Grosvenor Square by Dexter Dallwood (b.1960). John Keane (b.1954) has one foot in the ‘New Spirit’ camp but his initial claim to fame as a Gulf War Official War Artist also places him in a documentary reportage tradition.

Stevens himself contributes Esprit de Corps, and The Age of Reason or Salem’s Lot. Both employ a broadly naturalistic style but The Age of Reason…, comprising two canvas sections, isolates the images against a white ground. On one section is a horse and the other shows a Fred Perry shirt-wearing young man with another man’s tattooed arm reaching into the painting, and a khaki bag . Title and subject make complex allusions to the Great War as well as contemporary life: the lad is one of the neighbours and friends whom Stevens portrays extensively.

Then there is the ‘Brit art and after’ generation: Jenny Saville (b.1970); Luke Jackson (b.1970) who has four works and Sam Jackson with three portrait heads (Young Gorbachev; Querelle and Vas Defrens [sic] and Caroline Walker (b.1982) with Illuminations.

All powerful but I was particularly struck by Looking Glass by Clive Head (b.1965). He also shows Les Souvenirs du Café Anglais; both were painted in 2014.

Head’s work, especially earlier paintings (there is a recently published monograph available), seem to owe a lot to US Photo Realist painter Richard Estes (b.1932). The play of reflections on plate glass and signage is the stuff of Estes work. Head’s Looking Glass does this too but these two recent works are much more crowded with humanity. We see people frozen in the moment, although the distortions in glass suggest the blur of movement.  Among the clutter of trays; cups and crumpled packaging is a magazine page showing Goya’s painting (Execution) 3rd May 1808. Looking Glass depicts the familiar, even ubiquitous, high street food and coffee outlet but references lived experience and a wider cultural history. He shows the built environment ‘identikit’ but the people are very much individuals seeking meaning.

Chris Stevens is a practitioner so cannot be expected to impart a balanced art historical overview. His choices are all worth looking at and include strong and sometimes provocative paintings. But in the accompanying book Paul Greenhalgh (Sainsbury Centre director, who writes widely on Chris Stevens for exhibition catalogues) backs up the simplistic claim that the artists shown ‘deal with reality’; and ‘Reality is the raw material from which everything springs’.

His essay claims that the artists chosen in their various ways ‘deal with the real as opposed to, say presenting us with mythological; religious; non-objective; abstract or wholly imagined scenes’. Between the lines I think he is arguing for a naturalistic treatment of the subject (not necessarily an actual subject in the external world); in an engaged, painterly, non-mechanical way. The introduction in captions continues: “But perhaps the biggest theme here is painting itself”

It definitely is. ‘Photography’, although not on Greenhalgh’s list against which ‘Reality’ defines its artists' work, is excluded, and its absence is the elephant in the gallery. But much of the work could not exist without relying on captured images to some degree (Clive Head’s to a considerable one) and Stevens’ own paintings employ some of photography’s trademarks (cropping and pure white backdrop).

David Hepher’s Tree reminded me in both format and subject of the work of Andreas Gursky (b. West Germany 1955), which is created purely photographically. I think that the ‘Reality’ (social deprivation and alienation) reading perhaps misses some other possibly equally rich ones.

Treeis a resonant for those interested in abstract art. ‘Tree’ is also the title of a series of paintings through which Piet Mondrian   (Dutch/American 1872 1944) moved from an objective reality onto what he considered an abstract reality. He wrote a book called Natural Reality and Abstract Reality.  The grid, so vital to Mondrian’s work, is important in Hepher’s Tree and Gursky’s many building interiors and exteriors subjects, and is the central motif in abstract art and modernist architecture.

‘REALITY' is a valuable opportunity to see a sweep of British  painting and the Sainsbury’s Institutes subterranean Galleries are an appropriate setting. But the title, and catalogue essays’ claims for the work as unified by the reality principle are overstated. There were battles fought in the 1950s over ‘realism’ versus less accessible art (particularly Abstract Expressionism), which loosely divided as right versus left, with critics David Sylvester and John Berger at the respective forefronts.

The presentation of the paintings here as ‘reality’ is a development of those debates. In the 1950s and ’60s some people saw Realism as less elitist and more socially progressive that abstraction. In the world after postmodernism, where most people deal with sophisticated imagery on a day-to-day basis, it is difficult to make quite the same arguments. The organizers here (Chris Stevens, Paul Greenhalgh and senior curator Amanda Geitner), have put together a fine exhibition but argue for a higher ‘reality’ common to its contributors without really defining what that is or why it is important.


Hugh McGlyn
Art historian and dealer in prints & ceramics

Editor's notes

'REALITY' is at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts (SCVA), University of East Anglia , Norwich until 1 March 2015.

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