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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, 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 Jason website.

Chris Kenny's work can be seen on the England & Co website.


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