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Phil Whiting: Cornwall in Winter

The Rainyday Gallery     5/1/08 - 1/2/08



In the catalogue to the Tate show Art Now Cornwall the curators remarked, provocatively, on the lack of landscape painting in Cornwall.  There are, however, a number of accomplished exponents working in the county, who seem to bring something new and distinctive to the genre.

His show of work on paper at Rainyday at the beginning of 2008, was proof that Phil Whiting, in giving a interesting twist on a familiar theme, is one of them.

Art in Cornwall, as elsewhere, has undergone a fracturing in recent decades. Modernism has, essentially, come and gone, leaving a degree of uncertainty in its wake.

Returning to modernism's origins in the Romantic landscapes of Turner must, for many, represent a welcome return to a bedrock of certainty: and Whiting's images in this show shared Turner's distinctive paint handling, whilst dispensing with his colourful palette and his references to classical mythology.

Whiting's oil paintings, inspired by the monumental works of Anselm Keifer, have tended to be executed with the same narrow palette, but the paint is more heavily encrusted and textured, to the point where the image collapses, or at least is subsumed by the sheer weight and physicality of the painting.

The balance between image and surface in these works in acrylic and ink on paper was more finely tuned, such that the white  underpainting imparted a less overpowering texture on the work as a whole.

The washes of white paint and the dribbles, splashes and streaks of pigment were at their most seductive in the two largest works depicting the tower of the church of St Stythian (above left): the flatness of the composition in this case not disturbed by strong diagonal lines or a sense of perspective.

In other smaller paintings, other churches were visible through the gloomy fog of veiled paint, and motifs like brambles, twisted branches and crows also recurred.

In fact there were 23 works in total, with 2 or 3 of them smaller than postcards. They were nearly all entitled after the place they depicted - Wendron, Stithians, Crowan and Wheal Jane -  all in windswept mid-west Cornwall.

On one level the works seemed nostalgic and escapist: their depictions of nature exempt from the intrusions of contemporary life: from the workaday tedium of roads, cars and out of town shopping which typifies many people's experience. This nostalgia was mitigated by the monochrome palette, however, which inevitably seemed to reference that most 20th century of inventions: photography and its bigger sister: cinema.

Together with the flatness, the narrow palette conferred on this set of paintings, therefore, something of the black and white chic associated with early expressionist horror flicks: with Bela Lugosi, Nosferatu and the Cabinet of Dr Caligari. These unlikely visual associations were further encouraged by the paintings' dramatic iconography of twisted bushes, church-towers and crows, which stopped only a few yards short of a heavy metal album cover.

Arguably the paintings were strongest when this cinematic otherworldliness overwhelmed the literal depiction of place. Being transformed into a gothic landscape of this kind is a new and interesting fate for Cornwall, and one far removed from the cloying and ceaselessly sunny optimism of Cornish tourist art.


Whiting's show was accompanied by a collection of other small paintings by Janine Wing, Bob Bourne, Anthony Frost, Rod Walker, Sue Halliday, Clive Williams, Roy Ray, Matthew Lanyon, Shirley Foote, Henrietta Dubrey, Dot Searle, Louise McClary, Anthony Bryant, Emma Jeffryes, Sonya Walters, Andrew Lanyon, Robert Jones, Lewis Mitchell, David Shanahan, Tom Winters, Eric Scott, Nicola Bealing, Tracy Rees, Douglas Hill, Virginia Bounds, Alice Mumford, Jeremy King, Daphne McClure, Martin Lanyon, Simon Pooley, Brian Jay, Nick Williams, Linda Weir, Zoe Cameron, Lucy Bray, Anthony Bacon & Carrie Taylor.


Rupert White 7/1/08