Eileen Hogan, Browse & Darby, London, 9 September – 2 October 2015
Julian Perry, Mascalls Gallery, Paddock Wood, Kent, until 12 December 2015
In the cacophonous plurality of styles that characterizes our image-bombarded society, painterly figuration is holding its own remarkably well. In fact, recognizable imagery seems far more genuinely popular than abstraction. But if the abstract painter is now an embattled rarity, it’s not that easy being a figurative painter either: the market is flooded with quick-fix attitudinizers and concept-heavy decorators, and the subtler statement has much to compete against. Nevertheless, there are still private and public galleries that show serious art, as a number of recent exhibitions demonstrate. Particularly impressive was the John Armstrong show at Piano Nobile in October and November, devoted to paintings made by Armstrong between 1938 and 1958. Such a closely-focused historical exhibition can be extremely revealing about an artist, especially one of Armstrong’s calibre and variousness who has somewhat slipped off the radar, but here I am more concerned with the work of living painters, and with two in particular: Eileen Hogan and Julian Perry.
Eileen Hogan (born 1946) is a refreshingly reticent painter of people and places, with a special interest in the garden squares of London. Her work is the opposite of ashy yet it is charged with contained emotion, and constructed with great élan from direct observation leavened with memory and imagination. Her latest exhibition, entitled ‘Edges and Enclosures’, at Browse & Darby in Cork Street throughout September, was accompanied by a handsome hardback catalogue containing an essay by Sickert expert Wendy Baron. Browse & Darby is one of the last firms of gentlemen dealers, located in a ne townhouse at the southern end of Cork Street, with galleries on three floors and offices above. The history of the gallery can be traced back through William Darby’s alliance with Lillian Browse (1906- 2005) which succeeded the previous dealer incarnation of Roland Browse & Delbanco. B&D specialize in figurative artists, have access to blue-chip works by Degas, Rodin, Sickert, Gwen John and Euan Uglow, and show a stable of living painters of considerable range and skill. Hogan is a fitting addition to the roster.
Among recent subjects featured in her exhibition were paintings of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Scottish garden at Little Sparta in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, evocations of Bryanston Square and Kensington Gardens under snow, and an intriguing series of self-portraits achieved through the clothes hung in Hogan’s wardrobe at the end of her bed. Particularly be- guiling were the studies of beehives at Little Sparta, done in oil on paper, Hogan’s favoured medium. These sculptural presences, glimmering palely among the trees, are haunting, with their echoes of ancient knowledge (‘ask the wild bees what the druids knew’) and the sea. Finlay named each hive after a fishing boat, lettered and numbered with its home port. The London squares are differently mysterious, giving up their quiet secrets through Hogan’s discreet paint, while the clothing self-portraits are contrastingly striped and colourful, almost flauntingly so, though how much they actually reveal about their creator remains a moot point. Hogan has just been selected as artist-in-residence at the Garden Museum while it is closed for refurbishment and rebuilding. This is an inspired choice, as Hogan will thus be free to pursue her interest in London squares and gardens rather than be directly tied to the museum itself.
At a comprehensive school in Kent, Julian Perry (born 1960), has been showing a series of new paintings dedicated to the dendrological crisis taking place in Britain’s woodlands. Mascalls Gallery in Paddock Wood is the only purpose-built public art gallery attached to a comprehensive school in the country, and with its state-of-the-art design specifications (which reassure the most pernickety of museum conservators) it has built up an impressive record of exhibitions during the nine years it has been open. Solo shows have included Henry Moore, Lee Miller, Roland Collins, Graham Sutherland, Barbara Hepworth and John Piper. In recent months, the gallery had a great success with the work of printmaker Peter Green (born 1933), and followed this with an autumn/winter exhibition of Perry’s majestic paintings.
Perry is deeply knowledgeable about the technical aspects of his art, its history and application, and can talk as enlighteningly about Constable (which he proved during a 2014 BBC Four documentary on the artist) as he can about his own practice. He employs the traditional method of painting in glazes starting from a coloured ground which accounts for the unusual degree of warmth and luminosity in his pictures. He draws with great empathy and precision directly with a brush onto the wooden panels he prefers to canvas. His subjects in the past have included the caravan parks of suburban England, the ancient art of coppicing, in Epping Forest and elsewhere, and the allotments and sheds of East London bulldozed during the building of the 2012 Olympic Park. Recently he has focused on the erosion of the Suffolk coast – the tumbling cliff-tops and plummeting trees, with houses see-sawing on the edge of oblivion. Many of his images verge on the surreal: the intense naturalism of their depiction balanced against the strangeness of their subjects.
Painting trees has suddenly become respectable again, and a group of con- temporary artists has even established itself to praise the tree. Called ‘The Arborealists’, they are a motley crew with no stylistic homogeneity, but all the stronger for that. Perry has exhibited with them, and looking at his new exhibition it is clear why his work was chosen to help publicize the group. There is a crispness of statement to his paintings, an almost hallucinatory intensity, coupled with a deliciously painterly handling that makes a potent combination. His Mascalls’ display opened with an introductory section of earlier work: the large and magnificent ‘Three Pollards’ from 2004, together with a couple of shed paintings (one an adapted Anderson shelter). Here too were three small studies for ‘Benacre Birch’, the subject of Perry’s vast paintings at the 2015 Venice Biennale, where he showed in a survey of contemporary art addressing issues of environmental crisis and climate change, mounted in the Azerbaijani Pavilion.
In the main space of Mascalls, Perry had hung a selection of small and large paintings of diseased and dying leaves, many of them set against stormy skies. Although such a background stepped up the compositional drama by rather too literally illustrating the ‘perfect storm’ of pathogens and changing weather patterns threatening this country’s trees, it also established a more damaging dichotomy, for the leaves tended to fight against the clouds for attention. But when Perry forsakes his wild skies (so enjoyable to paint), and places his leaf portraits against a calmer background (as in ‘Two Years’ Chestnut Leaves’, 2015), the effect is electric. Likewise, one of the most memorable images is ‘Sycamore Study’, in which an upright red-stemmed sprig of tree holds its yellowy-green leaves to the light, against a plain though gently modulated blue ground. Minimum atmospherics, maximum impact.
By Andrew Lambirth