Exhibition at The In & Out, 4 St James's Square, St. James's, London SW1
“One’s eye goes down one line, one’s mind may be going down a different one, but the picture keeps on moving us, till we have found that spot inside us that we were looking for.” ~ Alistair Hicks
Ein, Zwei, Drei: it is as easy as abstraktes bild
Bild, neuter, ‘image, portrait, representation,’ from Middle High German bilde, Old High German bilidi, neuter, ‘image, figure, parable, prototype'; similarly Old Saxon bilithi; there is no corresponding word in English or Gothic (*biliþi).
Henry Ward and Mark Wright are builders. They are painters, but they are builders of their own abstracted languages. The English public did not exactly embrace abstrac?on when it arrived in the first part of last century, but it has now become part of everyone’s visual vocabulary. Maybe our initial resistance dates back to the ‘dark’ ages and the fact that the German word for image, Bild, did not instantly convert into English or Gothic.
With the advantage of hindsight there were reasons to resist the twentieth century modernist vision of abstraction, even though we rightly carry on celebrating it. One basic premise of Modernism is to knock down the building bricks of ‘civilisation’ and start again. Every attempt at rebuilding must be doomed to failure and, if not rejected by one’s peers, will certainly be overturned by the coming generations. Yet as long as there is life in us we will carry on building.
The building process in Henry Ward’s drawings and paintings is as easy to read as 1, 2, 3. For much of lockdown he could not get to his studio, but he had a shed in the garden. He would take the three strides from his back door and join the rest of the refugees from his house: a bicycle, tins of drying paints, food cans and a table waiting to know whether it is completely redundant or not.
In this dumping ground there was no room to make paintings, so he made drawings with paint. We start this show with a single Shed Painting (p15). It does not have a title. It is dated. It is like a leaf in diary, or a series of marks on a prison cell.
The second step is Ambush (p16). It is two paintings joined as one, a diptych. The right-hand painting is minding its daily business when a long comes a big welly and boots it. The greenish yellow blob creeps from the left-hand panel into the right. It is an ambush.
Sorry, I have forced the issue. To create the third step, we have three single paintings. The frst of these, Rattle (2018) (p19) goes right back to the beginning of the story, to a drawing of a rattle that Ward made as a child. No, this is not that precocious offering, but rather a reminder of a recollection of the time when he was literally making things out of play bricks and then knocking them down again. At the time of writing this, the third painting in this curator-made triptych was still in the process of being made. It is potentially a missing link. The process is ongoing. The second painting, though, is called Heap (2021) (p21). It is a pile of his vocabulary. It is as if he is celebrating getting back into the studio. He has escaped from the garden den. There it was as if he was practising the visual equivalent of musical scales. Now he is pushing and pulling them around together, as a wordsmith might do with an alphabet, syllables, words and phrases.
We stumble and miss a step in this show. In order to explain Medusa (2021) (p27), we need to go to the series of composite paintings leading up to it. He has taken the shed drawings and pasted them down on a canvas in a grid. Then in fnding his composition he has obliterated some of the drawings, pasted or painted over them. The excitement for the viewers is that they can see the way paintings are made, how the different parts of the artists’ language are moulded together. This new painting of Ward’s is being shown in London two hundred and one years after the painting it is named after, and its composition is derived from. In 1820, Géricault brought The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19) to Piccadilly where he charged some 40,000 people to see the seven-metre-long oil painting in the Egyptian Hall. His share of the takings was 20,000 francs, way more than the sum anyone would have paid for the picture at the time.
I have written about Henry Ward’s work before that of Mark Wright; though Ward was a student at Winchester School of Art when Wright was the Painting Fellow, Ward’s work helps explain Wright’s. Mark Wright is a modernist builder in much the same way as Ward, but the process is not just so easy to see. There are a couple of basic keys to this interpretation of his work.
The most obvious way into Wright’s work might be to consider how Mondrian, in his drawings, slowly dissolved the tree into abstract shapes and colour. Yet Wright’s work seems a long way from this distillation. He seems closer to the earlier work by Cézanne. When one stands in front of Wright’s paintings then moves along to another, the experience seems to echo that of the Provençal master examining Montagne Sainte-Victoire, again and again. Looking at Wright’s picture evokes the sensation of walking repeatedly in the country.
The science of Impressionism was not enough for Cézanne. He wanted to achieve more than merely reproduce nature in different lights, making the country emerge on the back of eyes. He declared that he wanted to turn ‘Impressionism into something more solid like the art of the Museums.’ The eye was just part of the way we make and appreciate art. As he said: ‘There are two things in the painter, the eye and the mind; each of them should aid the other.’
Cézanne was born nearly two hundred years ago. We don’t live in the same world anymore. Mark Wright certainly does not frequent that world. He creates paintings in a block of studios perched on the hill above King’s Cross. Despite this, my second reference to another artist is to one who died sixty- fve years ago: Jackson Pollock. He was at centre of his pictures. He famously painted them as if he was a bull fghter in an arena.
One of the main differences from looking at a Cézanne to looking at a Wright is the movement and energy. If you are in a calm, contemplative mood one can sit in front of Mirror (2021) (p31) and it will reverberate gently with your thoughts and feelings. Yet in a way Wright’s picture is working much like a Sat-Nav. One’s eye goes down one line, one’s mind may be going down a different one, but the picture keeps on moving us, till we have found that spot inside us that we were looking for.
Some of us may see a resting place as peaceful as those of Gainsborough in Clearing (2021) (p33); others may see a threshing machine in the neighbouring deep emerald green work on paper, Frame (2021) (p41), but Wright is not instructing you what you should see, feel, or think. He reads and listens on podcasts to a great deal of philosophy, while he is making his work, but there is no need to have read any philosophy to appreciate his work.
The big break between the work in this exhibition, of Ward and Wright, and say that of the generation of Krasner, Pollock and Rothko, is that the process of making, though very important to the artists, is not critical to their appreciation, as it was in the mid-twentieth century. Ward leads you into his work by letting you join him in the way he made it, Wright tunes the variations in the mood, temperature, climate through his pictures by materials and media, but in the end, they are relying on one thing, and one thing alone. As you walk into this room, how do you react? They are physical works, but they only come alive when a person interacts with them.