Gillian Ayres: New Paintings and Prints,

The Alan Cristea Gallery

13 April 2015 – 30th May 2015

Giacometti – Smith,


6 February 2015 – 11 April 2015

In 1934, Paul Nash wrote of the need to find new symbols to express our reaction to our surroundings. ‘In some cases this will take the form of an abstract art, in others we may look for some different nature of imaginative research. But in whatever form, it will be a subjective art.’ Artists have to find the subjects which for them encompass human reality and can become the thrust of their art. Some choose to paint landscape, others the figure, still others investigate abstraction. Gillian Ayres, now eighty-five, has been an abstract painter since soon after leaving art school in 1950. She is one of our most distinguished artists, a colourist of rare imaginative invention and a pure painter in whom to take the utmost delight. Her latest work sings like a choir of skylarks.

Although many painters evolve a signature style by which they are instantly recognizable, Ayres has made change and development her watchwords. She occasionally admits to becoming knowing in the handling of paint, and then she needs to subvert and question her own skill and experience. It’s time for change, and the renewed pleasure of surprising herself. After all, painters paint primarily for themselves (‘inward transactions’ in Saul Bel- low’s telling phrase), however much they might want others to share their discoveries. Ayres’s aim and ambition every time she picks up a brush is to do ‘a bloody good painting’, and this – however natural and effortless the end product might appear – is very hard work. Harder for her since having had a heart attack she can’t shin up ladders as she used to, and has to rely on turning the canvas around to get at all its parts. This is no doubt one reason why a couple of her latest large paintings are diptychs: in this format they are easier to handle.

But the breadth of her vision is undiminished, as is the vigour of her imagery. In recent years, the shape-shifting has arisen from a basis of organic forms, centred on buds, leaves, seedpods and flowers. But these things are suggested, alluded to, rather than depicted or described. Curiously, in its bold designs and flattened forms, its near-geometries and exuberant pat- terns, her style is no less abstract now than in earlier years, though here and there you might recognize a star or the shape of a tree. The fact that her work is always changing, always breaking new ground with a remarkable freshness of perception, is perhaps indicative that she never quite finds what she’s looking for. Perhaps she’ll find it in the next painting – and perhaps that is what drives her on.

In the 1950s, Ayres started working on a large scale, wanting to explore colour and what it could do. She painted then with oil and Ripolin, a French household paint that Picasso among others favoured. She would pour it straight from the tin onto a board and shape it with her hands, or dribble or flick it. A particularly beautiful example of this early work, Cumuli (1959), was the centrepiece of the two-part spring exhibition of Ayres’s work at the Alan Cristea Gallery (31 & 34 Cork Street, London W1) – two-part because they have two separate galleries and one was devoted to a delightful small historical survey of her work, while the other contained her latest canvases and works on paper.

Although it was very good to see the older work again, and be reminded of some of the different aspects of Ayres’s art (if ever a contemporary artist needed a major Tate retrospective, it’s her), it is the latest work, with its achieved simplicity and composure, which paradoxically makes the deeper appeal. Why is this? Perhaps because, despite its crisp-edged form and ap- parent reduction, it actually takes on board the whole of art and life. As she said to me recently: ‘One looks at everything, dear. It’s not just the stuff in the last twenty years, it’s all the paintings. Or it might be a case of pottery. Everything.’ She loves sculpture – Brancusi and Richard Serra are favourites – and has been making her first ventures in this medium since trying it out at art school nearly seventy years ago. The results are two hefty ceramic sculptures, rather like large sexy pots, made to her specifications, and then hand-painted by her. One was placed on view in the gallery and surrounded by her recent woodcuts, which complemented it superbly.

Ayres has admitted that painting for her isn’t always a joy, it’s a compul- sion, and when she doesn’t paint she is miserable. But she is determined to continue working: ‘So long as I can keep on doing it, I bloody well will’, she says with typical emphasis. On the strength of her latest work, her remarkable powers show no loss of invention, and her ability to reinvent her painterly identity remains unflagging.

Sculpture of a different sort was showing at Ordovas (25 Savile Row, Lon- don W1), a gallery devoted to putting on museum-quality exhibitions in an intimate space. From February through to April, five sculptures dominated the gallery: two by Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) and three by David Smith (1906-65). Pilar Ordovas, the gallery director, describes these contemporaries as ‘arguably the foremost pioneers of modern sculpture in Europe and America during the immediate post-war era’. Both made totemic ob- jects in metal, Giacometti building his figurative images in clay which were then cast in bronze, Smith setting up a semi-industrial workshop in the Adirondacks to weld abstract elemental forms in forged steel. Here the two giants are in dialogue: the seeming frailty of Giacometti contrasting with the taut verticality of Smith. We have seen a lot of Giacometti in this country and very little Smith, so the show was (among other things) a most welcome opportunity to see fine examples of his work. By looking at and comparing the two, the identity of each artist becomes more entrenched. The day I visited, there was some building work going on downstairs, and Giacometti’s Trois homes qui marchent seemed to quiver, so highly strung are they. Smith’s female figures, with backbones of steel, remained unfailingly upright.



Laughter’s Silvered Wings


Claros_2015 (woodcut)~hi




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