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Peripheral visions

Ben Nicholson, Bernard Leach and Luke Frost at Tate St Ives



Place provides a context, and therefore a way of more fully understanding art. As described in the accompanying catalogues, this is particularly true of the shows at Tate St Ives this Spring, which see the return to the gallery of two modernist heavy-weights: Ben Nicholson and Bernard Leach (picture below) together with a smaller exhibition of work made over the last year by Luke Frost whilst artist in residence.



For most art-historians, Nicholson is probably the most important figure in British Modernism, due both to his exploration of the pictorial implications of Cubism and constructivist abstraction, and to the catalytic effect he had on other artists around him. This ability to promote and support artist-friends was apparent throughout his career, and as a result, between 1920 and 1960, he appears to have always been at the centre of the most significant developments in British modernism.

What is interesting is that he managed to be influential despite living for extended periods in remote 'peripheral' places: most notably, Cumbria and Cornwall. And it is this relationship with the periphery - with the Celtic Fringe - that is emphasised in this substantial exhibition which started in Abbot Hall, Kendal, Cumbria and has subsequently toured south to St Ives via the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill.

In the first gallery of the Tate, the faux-naif paintings made in the 20s whilst living in Bankside, Cumbria with his first wife are most prominent (picture below). Naive art was a very significant influence on Nicholson during this period. Famously, Nicholson 'discovered' Alfred Wallis in St Ives in 1928. Most of these works were made the same year or shortly afterwards, and the similarities with Wallis are striking. They are, like Leach's pots too, quirky and idiosyncratic, and the perfect expression of the modernist dictum of 'truth to materials': we see the paint as paint, applied so it alternates between being luscious and thick or scratchy and dry, with brushmarks very evident.



In the lower curved gallery overlooking the sea are the more abstract reliefs and rectilinear paintings of the 30s, which are elegant, confident, and austere: qualities that allow them to effortlessly occupy the difficult space of this gallery (picture below). Representations of the landscape which are gentler and more lyrical reappear in the apse and two remaining galleries, so following the continuing chronological development of Nicholson's career, and his return to Cornwall at the outbreak of WW2.

In the catalogue Chris Stephens describes how Nicholson's interest in the landscape has previously been downplayed:  Nicholson has tended to be depicted as a cosmopolitan artist whose work typified the idea of 'heroic progress towards Modernist purity'. Instead, as Stephens explains, this current selection 'highlights the rusticity of much of his production: he was...an urban artist who spent most of his career in rural settings'.

But rusticity is not necessarily a bad thing: 'his embracing of the English landscape and his recurring reversion to English rusticity is not despite or in defiance of Modernism. It is a form of Modernism...What emerges is homeliness as opposed to worldliness...The positing of a new way of living, of new forms of domesticity seems to have been central to his idea of Modernism, as it had been to the Bloomsbury Group before him'.

This idea that art can be radical and modern whilst also being a response to domestic family life in a rural (rustic) periphery is a good theory, which hinges on the issue of how modernism is defined. There is a strong sense, in the case of this hugely impressive exhibition and the catalogue that accompanies it, that Nicholson is being reclaimed; pulled back into the fold, his work located by being given boundaries and specificity: its derivation from place, or location not only acknowledged but given special prominence.



Installed as a vibrant and joyful coda to the Nicholson show, are the brightly coloured minimal canvasses of Luke Frost. Luke's work (referred to as Luke to distinguish him from his father and grandfather, the painters Anthony and Terry) can be seen to operate at the culmination or teleological end-point of Nicholson's modernist project: picking over the bones of international modernist painting at or around the stage in the 60s when the image had been reduced to little more than a monochrome field of colour.

His work, strong, honest and bold as it is, is not easy to write about. There is no whiff of mysticism about it, like you can get with Yves Klein, Ad Reinhardt or Agnes Martin. This no-nonsense quality must be something passed on in the Frost genes as it applies equally to all three generations of painters. So plain-speaking and down to earth is it, in fact, that the experience of looking is, ultimately, more a physical than intellectual process. Like Terry's late work, it's something to be experienced rather than discussed.

The difficulty of capturing the essence of Luke's paintings in words is apparent in the catalogue, in which the normally highly perceptive and eloquent Matthew Collings rather struggles for something to say: 'The result: a look that is both extremely familiar - art from the past, some decades ago - and odd - why do this work now? At the same time no questions at all, just acceptance of what you're looking at: a colour effect: a spatial illusion; a great expanse of space and no space at all, just physical flatness'.

Why make this work now? Collings asks the question but doesn't answer it. It's as if he can't get a handle on the work, or find a way in. Like Tony Godfrey who also contributes an essay to the catalogue, Collings acknowledges the influences: Dan Flavin, Neo Geo and other types of geometric abstraction, but otherwise he's floundering: 'The hot painting style of the moment isn't the style Luke works in: there is geometric art now but it tends to be weirder, funnier, more abject, relating to death, irony, futility, personal crankiness, the end of meaning, the loss of big value systems, the end of left-wing and right wing, the depression of being free when freedom doesnt have content'.



Perhaps this is where the problem lies. Collings appears, in his typically urbane and amusing way, to be most interested in placing Luke in relation to his perception of national or international art-trends or fashions. Which is OK. But attempting, in vain, to do this on the one hand, yet on the other failing to acknowledge the unique context of Luke's work in relation to Cornwall, seems obtuse.

As mentioned, Luke is one of the Frosts - Cornish abstract painters now over three generations - and this is the unique and hugely important local context for the work, not mentioned in the catalogue. It is this fact which provides the best handle or 'way in' to understanding it, especially given that there are undoubtedly local traditions of abstract art-making to which Luke's work is dialectically opposed. (There is, for example, very little minimalist colour-field painting).

Neither Collings or Godfrey are interested in this particular angle. Probably for fear of seeming provincial or even nepotistic, they wrench the work out of the context in which it was made, deracinating it by wearily paying homage to a notion of generic international art instead (and in Colling's case to a list what's hot and what's not). But if its OK to reclaim Ben Nicholson's regional credentials and highlight his relationship to the specificities of place, home and even family, why so studiously avoid doing so in the case of Luke?

Its an unresolved paradox; and a subtle distraction from two otherwise convincing and enjoyable shows.


Rupert White 25/1/09