Painting at the rim of the world

”I think this world is magical. Colour, form, space, relationships ‒ these elevate life. They energise. They elevate my whole consciousness…I think art heightens the potential of the actual.’ – Patrick Heron

I was pleasantly surprised to arrive in the newly opened wing of Tate St. Ives, having read some criticism of the curator’s hang of the Patrick Heron show. I expected a mish-mash of styles and periods, shapes and sizes. Instead, the exhibition appeared flawless and beautiful, allowing the work to unfold in a way which invites viewers to find their own ways through ever-expanding views, as new connections offer the possibility of fresh readings and discoveries.

Arrival at the gallery is introduced by our vibrant taxi driver, and her personal story of nursing Patrick Heron in his final days: “A lovely man,” she says. St. Ives is alive with people telling stories of their legendary artists – some, one suspects, more legend than truth. Not so our taxi driver’s empathetic account, and it is good to arrive at the show with some local sense of the man. Our winding drive to the gallery takes us through hedge-rowed lanes skirting the picturesque town itself before opening out at last to the sweep of beach and sea that is the backdrop, or rather the foreground, to the museum itself.  For all the hoopla around ‘Best UK museum’, on approach, this Tate isn’t far from the banality of a typical parking garage or bathing facility of an English seaside town, and you would be forgiven for thinking it such. Once inside, however, its cathedral-like volume and light-filled spaces deserve fair praise. One can’t help feeling that Patrick Heron, so much a lover of modern architecture, would have been delighted to see his paintings unfold anew in a curtain of aerial light, through the fluid and generous spaces of the new extension. The exhibition propels one around the gallery, as a new work comes into view across the space just as one is inspecting the surface of another, continually enlarging the picture of Heron’s work, as many works become one.

It is a day of a slow, yet quickening, journeying between paintings and across rooms, walking backwards and forwards – as if we were spiders scurrying, or butterflies alighting here and there for a moment longer – our eyes dancing across a surface of exciting incident.  And then hastening back to rediscover a favourite work as it gathers new connections from other works viewed around the gallery. So many filaments in an elaborate web of connections, alive with the energy of Patrick Heron’s seeing and experiencing of his world.

The curator has been canny in his grouping of the work to draw out Patrick Heron’s pictorial concerns: colour, edge and what Heron called the re-complication of composition. Even more helpful is the fact that Heron was an eloquent and articulate writer about art, and not only his own. You can hear his voice in his words printed alongside, as one comes close to peruse the work.

There is always something thrilling about experiencing roomfuls of one artist’s work, but then to be able to experience that work so close to where it was made is another level of happy treat altogether. And so to spend our days walking the clifftops close to Eagle’s Nest and Zennor where Heron lived. Also to walk in the footsteps of the other painters, sculptors and craftsman of St Ives –  Peter Lanyon, Winifred Nicholson, Wilhemina Barns Graham,  Bernard Leach to name a few – many of whose work is to be found in the adjacent rooms.

Later, happening upon Virginia Woolf’s childhood home, the little known Talland House, prompts a new connection. In Patrick Heron’s freedom and modernist experiments with form there is a kinship with the vision of the writer.  The writer and painter show the same ability to work with free-flowing form, to lasso together near and far, “lumping all the letters together in a flash”. There is a sense in which both move away from a filled-out naturalism, to encourage us as readers and viewers to pay more attention, and to hone in on the wonder of the actual and natural world.

Living so close to the sea, it is not only Patrick Heron’s chromatic explorations that echo the nearby Atlantic ocean but also the sense of shift and change that is embedded in the way he worked, the surface of the painting belying the previous workings and re-workings of the painter. Finally, soft-edged shapes appear to emerge from the depths of the paintings or rise like newly discovered or rediscovered islands, luminous and suggestive, curious and strange. Virginia Woolf’s ‘lemon coloured wave’ suggests rather than describes these resonant forms reaching back and forth in time and space.

Heron’s abstraction was informed by the colours of his garden, the nearby fields of wildflowers on the clifftops of Zennor, and the views of slate grey boulders and impossibly emerald sea below. ‘Tall Purple’, painted in June, the month we visit the exhibition, and walk the cliffs during foxglove season, purple spires reaching and bending against the sea, seeing what he no doubt saw. And yet Heron’s paintings, abstract or referential, cannot be pinned down in the visible world and that is part of the point. On one of our walks, we peer out across a layered emerald and turquoise sea, experiencing changing pools of light and colour and in that shifting blurring edge we walk close to Yeats’s “rim of the world where language falters”. Back in the gallery hatched marks wriggle and scud across the surface; is that a seal slipping over the rocks and never quite gaining purchase?

Unlike the assured landscape painting of the gentleman painters who set up their easels along the cliffs of St Ives in the 1930s, Heron’s paintings inhabit an uncertain world. In the painting, frayed shapes demarcate a tenuous sense of belonging, the unreliability of nature and our perceptions.

Patrick Heron spent a lifetime exploring the magical equation of composition, that compelling activity of arranging one’s perceptions of the visual world onto a two-dimensional plane, the thing that gives painting its tension so that it pulls together like a sail in the wind. He championed the work of the French Moderns, showing a particular affinity for the work of Braque, Matisse and particularly Bonnard, painters who he loved and wrote about insightfully. In the poetic evolution of form in the painting ‘St Ives Window with Sand Bar’, we are reminded of Braque. In his ability to conjure a visual equivalent to his experience of being in and seeing the world, puzzled together on the surface, both Matisse and Bonnard come to mind.

Heron’s work collides chronologically with the all-over surfaces of Jackson Pollock and the colour formalism of Still or Newman.  Like the Americans, he championed the gesture, the scribble, the personal handwriting of the painter. Meeting Rothko in Cornwall, he clearly had an impact on what was happening in his studio. In the end, he criticised the abstract expressionists for complacency and, unlike Rothko, perhaps could not reconcile himself to the idea of completely rinsing any sort of subject from the work. Perhaps Heron’s work bears a closer affinity to those painters of the 20th century who worked at the cusp of abstraction. One thinks of the rocky geometry of Nicolas de Stael (another visitor to Zennor) painting in Aix en Provence, the shivery archaic forms of the still lives of  Giorgio Morandi and then later, the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn.

But the catalogue’s emphasis on Heron’s contribution to the language of formalism and abstraction in the history of art is in danger of undermining the importance of nature, and other more subtle determinants in Heron’s way of seeing, as they resonate through his paintings.

In the earlier abstract paintings Heron couples a free brush mark with the Japanese diligence of meditative practice. “True Red with Emerald Fragment” 1977 at first, appears as a more or less uniform field of red. On closer inspection, it reveals itself as lovingly painted with a tiny bristle brush, each inch with the same dedication. The viewer follows this seemingly effortless yet meditative passage of the brush as we dip from an appreciation of large expanses of colour to the small, curious, puzzle-like forms that trip up our vision.

Heron was a master of the musicality of painting, an expert at contrasting noise or rapture with areas of calm and silence. In the late garden paintings, crescendos of marks – daring, insolent, chaotic, luminous, awkward – rain down on the canvas, finding their counterfoil in quieter passages of flat scumbled colour.

For Heron, painting is about a body in motion, and in the gallery, his paintings pull us into that dance. The metaphor of the body as it moves this way and that in the evolution of the painting, and the psychological pull of the brushstroke, resonate further in suggestively organic shapes and forms that emerge in the paintings. In the late Sydney Garden paintings of 1989, cells, DNA strands, plant nuclei and honeycomb emerge in the brush strokes and surfaces. The painting does not call us to the naming of parts, rather allowing us to conjure our own reverie from what we see before us. The interconnectedness of flower, bee, wave and rock is evoked. In his paintings we follow his hand and body: these are generous sweeping gestures, not mean brushstrokes. We follow his hand as it plays across the surface, its speed, its pause, hovering for a moment, perhaps even days, before a wild scribble of zigzagging careens out across the surface.

Not unlike the coastal paths which more than once left us confounded in a field of flowers, as day slowed, all logic vexed as we looked for the gate that would hinge us back onto the well-worn and known coastal path. Heron sets our eyes jiggling with delight in his late garden paintings – textured run on marks, paint taking flight, here a raised bank of line work, here fields of colour scumbled, scored and scuffed. Yellow dots and dashes, splodges and splashes, straight out the tube, a haphazard hillside of dots and dashes. The paintings become fields of delight as we trace the mad joy of it all. As one stands before a painting, the effect is visceral and goosebumps tingle below the skin. The paintings are sensual and alive, reminding us that we are the same: alive, vibrating, much as one feels after a bracing swim in the cold Atlantic waters.

Heron, like Pierre Bonnard at Le Cannet in the south of France, never stopped responding to his immediate environment of west Cornwall, or the intimacy of his own garden. The large family Christmas painting affirms what we start to feel: these paintings are about love – the love of family, love of place, love of nature and, so evidently, love of looking and seeing and being alive.

Zoom into the early paintings and we discover in a detail the hatchings of the later mark-making:  bold, reckless, playful and open forms that are so much a part of the Australian Garden paintings, and Heron’s discovery of this exotic and alien world that resonated with his own world of walking the Zennor cliffs,  hedgerows and fields. In these Heron echoes the songlines of Aboriginal experience as evoked in their paintings. And so simultaneously invokes his own magical journey up and down the clifftops with an eye that enables him to fly out across the sea and look deep into its depths.

Patrick Heron reminds us of the interconnectedness of life. The exhibition leaps out of the gallery, in the scruffy and witty edges of the garden paintings, champions a particular intelligence singular to painting, painting as a sensual activity, that flaws logic and harnesses the richness of the moment.

It reminds us of the bodies in which we live, our connection to one another and to the greater world beyond. He reminds us of our better capabilities, what Wallace Stevens called “the precious portents of our own powers” and he reminds us timeously through the St Ives exhibition of the preciousness of our world.

About dianapage

I am a South African born artist living in Istanbul, Turkey. Predominantly a painter, I have also directed a trilogy of art performances on rooftops in Cape Town, Istanbul and New York. My work in painting, drawing, digital animation and performance is founded in a cosmopolitan experience of place.
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