Perhaps. I’m reminded of TS Eliot in the Four Quartets: ‘What might have been is an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility / Only in a world of speculation.’
Joe Packer, Fiona G Roberts and Hannah Luxton
How should we enter the worlds of these three painters? Or should that be ‘the world’, for between them they seem to cohere into one. Joe Packer deals with the earth – abstracting from the natural landscape while retaining a strong sense of its subterranean substance; Fiona Roberts gives us the people who inhabit Earth and collectively determine, if not its fate, then their species’ fate; and Hannah Luxton finds her subjects in remote observations – mountain tops are as close as she gets - in work which reminds us that there is more to our world, materially and spiritually, than the Earth.
All three have a fundamentally similar approach as painters. Neither fully abstract nor fantastical, they show us recognisable realities; and they value how a painting is made as much as the subjects with which they deal. This is not the recently fashionable type of painting in which fairly straightforward figurative styles serve to emphasise the subject – identity, race, sexuality, say – rather than the technique. All three are, if you like, ‘painterly painters’.
Joe Packer doesn’t quite make abstractions, but abstracts from his landscape inspiration sufficiently for him to describe that as ‘an armature to hang the paintings on’ rather than their subject. His works are dense with form and colour, and rarely feature the horizon which would provide a trigger to more literal readings. Consequently, they feel closed-in: it makes sense that he grew up next to a wooded space. That generates a psychological charge aided by his preference for framing the paintings internally as well as externally. As Packer explains: ‘I don’t like the abruptness of edge whereby a painting ‘just stops’, so I often break up the edge with a frame which is part of the painting yet also ends it.’
Packer’s main interest is in the visible drama of how a painting is made. He starts with an initial idea, maybe a couple of forms, but the process creates most of what we see. It’s a matter of experimentation: exploiting accidents, choosing which juxtapositions to keep as he applies new layers, playing around with spatial arrangements, arriving at a dominant colour… And reaching a resolution which he can’t predict. As Packer puts it: ‘All painters have the things that they know they can do, tricks of the trade, to make things seductive – but you don’t want to fall into a formula – it isn’t interesting.’
Yet, even as we take that drama in, we are returned to the source. Can we decode some of the forms? To do so requires us to comprehend the scale, but Packer’s all-over compositions give no clues. And he’s not about to include people or animals, which would limit such ambiguity – even though, pareidolia being what it is, we might well read figures into some of the forms. So we wonder… Are we deep in the microscopic or looking down at the patterns of a forest? Is that a tree or a leaf? Is that a monumental form, or a still life element placed somewhat surreally in the landscape? There’s a lot going on, down below. But perhaps it’s time to move on up.
Where Packer doesn’t paint people, Fiona Roberts paints nothing else. In fact, just female heads. That makes it sound narrow, but it’s also very broad. For heads are not just forms in the world, they’re also where people make their own, internal, worlds. And it’s precisely the interface between internal and external that interests Roberts. As she says: ‘I’m fascinated by the human condition. By how the world is interpreted and navigated through feelings and emotions… and in my paintings I’m capturing those emotions, conveying them, working through them perhaps.’ That doesn’t make them portraits, as they don’t aim to represent particular people, but non-portraits which turn her experience of real people into evocations of individual and collective experience.
Just as in Packer’s work, we feel the dynamic of Roberts’ process. She makes sophisticated use of what you might call ‘planned accidents’. When working with ink or watercolour, as in most of the work here, she explains: ‘I spray the ground with water before I start, then spray more as I go – it’s a game of assessing how wet or dry to make it. The exact effects achieved are unrepeatable, which is both exciting and frustrating, but I’ve learned to trust the process.’ The more you practice, somewhat paradoxically, the better the accidents that occur. And Roberts’ particular skill lies in setting up the conditions for accidents which will generate both formal interest and emotional engagement.
Overall, one can read Roberts as a feminist. Her choice of subject foregrounds female agency, and she has sometimes dealt with explicit back stories, depicting - in her non-literal manner - women murdered by their partners; women who can paint as a counter to contrary patriarchal claims; her mother as a representative of generations of women denied opportunities. Yet the nature of the emotional engagement remains ambiguous from picture to picture. Where some sense vulnerability, other might see thoughtfulness: what matters to Roberts is that emotional readings are available.
The mind is not earthbound, and the spiritual dimension implied by Roberts’ exploration of mental states is more directly present in Hannah Luxton’s work. She goes beyond the human scale to concentrate on the remote natural world, condensing sun, moon, stars, mountain tops and pools into symbolic versions of themselves. Luxton evokes the classic Romantic sense of wonder and awe we have when thinking about the vastness of the universe. Horizons are as rare as in Packer, but here the implication is of endless space rather than its restriction. Luxton’s work, too, has its ambiguities. All looks peaceful, perfect, precise. But are those wounds and tears and voids? This might be the quiet before the storm…
Luxton’s style is minimalist, up against Packer and Roberts, but she doesn’t seek the flatly impersonal application of paint associated with many minimalist artists. Rather, she imbues her oil paint with an intensity designed to activate her archetypes by invoking animistic energy. To do that she prepares her surface with three or four layers of rabbit skin glue, then applies a single pure pigment at a time, mixing colours only by layering or glazing them over each other. That allows her to draw the viewer into the different levels of thickness, revealing more of the underlying colour in some areas than others, making it clear that there is something underneath.
That sense of the unknown behind appearances matches the atmosphere of the work. ‘In Scotland recently’, she says, ‘I was struck by there being things behind the mountains, leading me to ask myself the question: how do you make something that you can’t see?’ The answer may lie in that differential glazing – and in Luxton’s characteristic use of brownish Belgian linen, much of it left visible, as a ground. That has a material presence which puts me in mind of a universal hum, of how we know that the world is full of hidden waves, rays and interactions out of reach of our senses.
There’s plenty to enjoy, then, in the painterly processes of all three artists, and the possibilities they set up. Packer, Roberts and Luxton create a world between them, but it’s a complicated one. It’s over to us to arrive at our personal take on it. Are they dealing with how we relate to nature? The political in the personal? The future of the planet? Perhaps. I’m reminded of TS Eliot in the Four Quartets: ‘What might have been is an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility / Only in a world of speculation.’