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Remembering Gwyther Irwin

Nick Wadley

I spent a lot of time talking to Gwyther in his studio, and being talked to, about how his paintings came to be what they are. He was always open and easily accessible with no pretension except in the form of games and plenty of wit.

Between the mid-1970s when I first knew him well, and the mid-to-late-90s when the demon Alzheimer’s began to take him away, his studio became a familiar world to me, as normal as watching cricket with him. So familiar and normal that it’s only now, going back to Tooting Bec after a decade and without him, that I can see all over again just how eccentric and invented the abnormal world of his ‘formalist’ art was and is.

I remember asking him, early on, about what other art impinged on his own work. He told me there was little of significance, consciously. If he was enthusing about the dynamic formal energies that absorbed him, he might mention anyone from Stuart Davis, to Audubon, to Uccello, but in the formative years he was a relative innocent. He remembered an inspirational visit in the 1950s to Alan Davie’s studio, but when people like Lawrence Alloway or Ralph Rumney visited Gwyther’s studio in those days, they often assumed references or received values that didn’t exist in his art at all. These experiences inevitably nudged him towards a greater self-awareness.

As part of the inventive generation of ’sixties artists in Britain, his work became compre-hensible within avant-garde currents of the time, and for a while he was swept along by them. He had three one-man-shows of his lyrical collages in London, late 1950s, was associated with the Situation group, and was then invited into a succession of major group exhibitions world-wide. In the later 1960s, he was asked to carve a very large abstract relief for the new London offices of British Petroleum. It was a bizarre commission and he looked back on it as three years lost to painting. And then -- out of the frying pan – in the following year, 1969, he took on the post of Head of Fine Art at Brighton Polytechnic. He was to be there fifteen years.

During the 1970s he took stock of where he was as an artist, and from this point began finding his own eccentric path. By his own perspective, that’s when he started to be a painter, and for the rest of us, this is when his art ceases to relate to almost any other art.

A series of 100 watercolours painted between 1978 to 1982 (pictures below X3), witnessed his blossoming as a painter, and we are allowed deep inside the process by a very frank ‘journal’ that he kept during the painting of them. He described it to me as ‘all about failures, about my bemusement’. The blow-by-blow accounts of each picture – sometimes a paragraph, sometimes two pages – were usually written at the end of a day. His despair about progress on the current picture is laced with self-mockery as a strategy, and regularly gives way to high elation. It’s a manic, often comic switchback. He mentions frustration over time spent at Brighton, but mostly treats the constant problems of making art at all. We gather, for instance, that the scribbling and then typing of the notes is one way of escaping the knife-edge pains and joys of painting, but then – in the next breath – that he paints all the time, like a junkie after his fix, to escape the monotony of daily life. This long, Woody Allen-like soliloquy mirrors the introverted, obsessive world of the paintings themselves.

If the ‘100 Series’ was about learning to be a painter, it was an apprenticeship of dazzling virtuosity, embodying both his meticulous craftsmanship (as technician and colourist) and his instinctively cavalier attitudes. However unlikely these bedfellows, it is precisely their coexistence – needling each other all the time – that generates the knife-edge on which Gwyther liked his art to be poised. It didn’t need any other subject than this, absorbing his energies so completely that he stopped playing poker. ‘The artist has a compulsive need to put himself at risk,’ he said.

Towards the middle of the series, he relaxed the vertical regularity of the marks, and at the same time progressively eliminated the whites until all the colours touch, making the surface a tumultuous display of jewel-like shapes. He even broke a lifetime’s habit in number 47 and started from somewhere other than the top left corner. His palette also changed, more sophisticated and varied. He learned to over-paint colours if necessary, and took enormous pleasure in holding his eccentric, changing colour harmonies in balance. His blacks were never just black, always a mix of Payne’s Grey with a choice of other pigments, depending on context.

From number 48 onwards (eg no. 56 picture left), there appear more dramatic changes, when the mosaic of similar elements gives way to an animation of larger organic forms moving among smaller, implicitly background forms. The dramatic re-introduction of off-blacks and the white paper as dominant colours heightens the animation of the drawing, and reinforces a new sense of depth. Twenty pictures later, the surfaces are full of overlapping forms in space and he’s beginning to add associative titles, some of them place names (eg Bondi Beach (picture below right).

Since the early collages of the 1950s and 1960s, Gwyther’s work had often been linked to the landscape of the north Cornwall coast where he grew up, and which remained his second and natural home. While insisting upon the abstraction of his art, he acknowledged submerged influences on his aesthetic of the movements of wind, sea and sand; the flight of birds; stratifications of rock faces. He knew that coast intimately all his life, was a prodigious swimmer and a hungry observer of all visual phenomena.

Now, in the early 1980s, a quite different visual world started to inform and then openly enter his paintings. ‘I’m beginning to suspect that some of my imagery could come from television … I find myself watching what could be my pictures flit across the screen.’ He preferred to watch the screen on its side or upside-down, with the sound switched off. He remembers watching an orchestra for hours: ‘Great shafts, dapples, chunks, stripes, angles, curves and whorls of black white and raw siennas.’ On another occasion, without recognising it, it was the close-up view of a railway truck in a western: ‘Colour was sensational. A great wedge of cadmium yellow … I couldn’t suppress a scream of jealousy’
(December 1981).

He recognised similar qualities in the glossy magazines, Vogue especially, and in advertising images at large. He became attracted to an advertisement for Cadbury’s chocolate in Clapham, made a drawing of it one day and hurried home to the studio. ‘Poster hoardings are my gallery … rectangles as large as the Veroneses in the Louvre, larger – full of dancing colour, amazing sometimes idiotic space … Everything I see now is a picture, every photograph, everything on TV, everything in nature. I have no idea what I’m going to do.’

What he actually did in the rest of the watercolour series was to make paintings which gave ‘the strange feeling that I’m suddenly making “real pictures”.’ The new compositions operate in a pictorial space, not coherent necessarily but with overlapping forms and occasionally a semblance of narrative order – in the last few, even with figures. It proved to be a moment of transition, but brought with it an exhilarating sense of freedom that lasted.

Following his retirement from Brighton, Gwyther embarked on a series of big, energetic horizontal paintings in acrylic, some of which were shown at Gimpel Fils in 1987, marking his return to the London art world. In these, the innovations of the 100 Series were coherently digested into his formalist world. They still include diverse quotations from other worlds. Two recurrent motifs are a panama hat from a magazine and the three crossed swords from David’s great painting The Oath of the Horatii. The artist’s attraction to such ready-made elements was a lust after their formal energies, and they are embedded into the pictorial dynamics of the painting, often inverted or cropped, flattened into the surface. He talked of these ‘real’ images as abstract forms. For me, a lot of the character of the painting always obtained from the double identities as image and form. The hat is still a hat. Maybe his disavowal was partly a game of bluff.

He prepared himself for the complex games of the 1980s paintings by improvising maquettes. These were collages of cut papers, some pieces of flat colour, some decorative, some photographic. They were small collages, about 20 x 25 cm, squared-up for transfer. Another type (all of which have disappeared) were even smaller. Fragments of image were pasted on thin cardboard, cut and re-cut, arranged and rearranged, and finally primitively glued together. Once the configuration was resolved, its simple outlines were transferred to the canvas or paper in a light pencil drawing, and the painting commenced in much the same way as in the watercolours. The precise form and colour of each mark was ad-libbed en route, as were the elaborately
polychrome pointillist textures he started to invent at this point, inspired he told me by the screens of colour-printing. He was also excited by the ‘electric’ double-edges of badly-registered colour separations in the glossy magazines, and pirated those effects as well.

These animated effects gradually took the place of ready-made images and by the end of the 1980s – unless you were very familiar with the repertoire – the quotations became so scrambled or dismembered that they virtually disappeared. This was largely because he now made his preparatory collages out of colour-photos of his own work. In an incestuous cannibalisation his previous images were cut up into vertical strips, then shuffled and recycled into new and increasingly fractured configurations.

The large horizontal compositions of 1993, pictures like Action Stations, Holy Orders, Tiger Tiger (picture right), are crowded with vertical forms, still animated by whites and blacks but clamorous, colourful exchanges, with a sense of scale worthy of the poster. Everything presses towards the surface in a very animated, but flattened space. Even the edges, above and below the verticals are packed with rectangles of striped or spotted colour, like flags or window boxes. There are fleeting glimpses of space between the standing forms, but always thwarted by another coloured form elbowing forwards. Gwyther likened them once to a cocktail party or a conversation of forms. It is almost as if his earlier ambition to ‘use real objects as abstract forms’ had been turned on its head.

From these pictures lies a direct path to the large, majestic vertical watercolours of the last years that we all know. These were composed of horizontal tiers of vertical elements, one above the other on two, three, sometimes even four levels. If that sounds familiar, it is. He resumed the old practice of starting in the
top left corner, finishing each level as he went along...

I have only just seen his two last watercolours for the first time. In their structure of descending ‘striated’ tiers, they are familiar. But they have little to do with sunlight and are different enough in mood and colour from the preceding paintings to come as a shock. The lilacs and lime greens are more redolent of a Viennese interior – a boudoir, perhaps – than of nature. Maybe the colours were inspired by a flawed laser-photocopy? A surviving collage study suggests that this may be the case. But Gwyther’s not around for me to ask what he was doing. I’m reduced to approaching his work as archaeologist more than friend. On the other hand, I also feel pleased to be left with this unexpected, faintly perverse turn of events, which doesn’t put all of its cards on the table.

excepts from an essay Nick Wadley, January 2009.

Gwyther Irwin was at Lemon Street Gallery between 7th and 28th February

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