John Virtue and Chris Kenny
John Virtue: London Paintings at The National Gallery
(9 March 5 June)
Chris Kenny at England & Co (14 May 11 June)
Reviewed by Steve Joyce.
John Virtue's paintings are compositions made up of white patches amongst
blackness, the patches revealing slight definitions of buildings through
the haze of darkness. The works are dark and brooding. Close-up the picture
surface asserts only itself, as an abrasive mass of marks after layers
of paint and ink have been applied, shifted and reworked. Step back and
the image emerges detail by detail. But the further back you move, the
more the effect of an image emerging from the darkness is lost: Now it's
a turbulent image of the world, where the atmosphere batters every surface
in its wake; and glimmers of light emerge as islands lost and isolated
from other neighboring glimmers.
The scale of the works allows the mark-making and details to switch as
the focus, because of the large intervals between incidents. This also
allows you to consider your own position in relation to the work, and
appreciate the vast distances between each place within the scene. Virtue's
works show the process of their making: the passage of time and the passage
of effort, where guidance and gravity alternately lend a hand in the formation
of the image. The drips and runs of paint and ink betray an intention
to portray nothing but the inherent qualities of their chemical consistency.
Yet stand out prominently because of the clarity of the edges formed by
the abrupt contrast of tone: Black against white. Yet then again, the
slight of hand that drags the brush full of white acrylic across the painting
is equally in dilemma as it registers the certainty of direction, shape
and contour through its coordinates, but non-the-less struggles to emerge
unaffected by the previous layer of substance which is having non of this
pictorial nonsense: stating as it does, 'I am substance, I am texture,
I am surface, and I am still wet and will engulf you'.
If it seems I am mercifully meandering into indulgence as I write, then
perhaps I am being enticed by the work itself. These paintings are indulgent
in terms of drawing and use of media. The fluidity and command of media
is astonishing. Virtue responds well to both subject and his materials,
but yet the way the painting is formed seems to speak of a hard won image.
These paintings are rich in contradictions but at the same time, strangely,
they are strong, assertive and self-assured of their depiction of the
landscape and atmosphere of the city (London of course).
The catalogue and gallery Website make reference to many artists that
have influenced Virtue, but I think the overriding feel is that they follow
the tradition handed down from Turner, of an intense and turbulent atmosphere.
All with an absence of colour of course, but in this case it is still
less certain weather the atmosphere is out there or weather a subjective
apparition that arrived in the course of painting. But then again of course
the references to Abstract Expressionism would say this is obvious, but
then again these are compelling images that reveal the world outside at
the same time as a personal vision or response.
Enough said I expect, except, did I say these are magnificent paintings?
And I like them . . . .Oh, and they are very big. If you didn't get to
see them then tough, I guess. But look on the website www.nationalgallery.org.uk,
it's very good, especially the flash versions of the extra pages at the
bottom of the John Virtue special website, accessed through home and then
exhibitions pages. My favorite pages 'Prepatory work' and 'In the studio'.
By contrast the other exhibition I saw was at the other end of the scale:
Small, quiet, subtle, delicate and intimate. Chris Kenny at England &
Co. This is one of my favorite galleries. It has a fairly constant house
style that includes art in boxes, collages, intricate made items, maps
and map-like pieces. All the artists I have seen who exhibit there have
innovative ideas and create intriguing work. Chris Kenny is a favorite,
as his work has a simplicity and directness that speaks of clarity, but
he gives us room to imagine and fill in the gaps. (Actually John Virtue's
compositions do this in a different way.)
Kenny reconfigures twigs and map fragments and cutout map roads, into
other images and configurations. He also weaves implied histories from
minute photographs and sentence fragments. For all their quietness, delicacy
and subtle shadows cast from the suspended pins and fragments, not to
mention the pristine white boxes wherein they are displayed, these works
do have a significant presence. They don't shout at you, but they do draw
you in. By way of comparison Ben Nicholson's small carved plaster reliefs
have the same quality. Maybe it's a shame England & Co do not have a website,
but perhaps its better that one has to visit, as the whole interior of
the boxes are animated when moving around in front of them. I like these
too. Haven't I been spoilt today?
--Steve Joyce, June 2005.
You can see examples of work by John Virtue on the Gillian
Chris Kenny's work can be seen on the England
& Co website.