Summary

This large painting consists of four abutting square panels making up a single image with black ink and emulsion worked in dense layers across the canvas. The painting oscillates between gestural abstraction and the representation of a landscape. It immediately recalls Abstract Expressionist works such as Franz Kline’s Meryon, 1960-1 (Tate T00926), a large scale painting with black brushstrokes on a white ground. Landscape No 624 is one of a series of paintings inspired by John Virtue’s walks along Exeter canal near the River Exe. Virtue’s work has always been informed by his local landscape. After moving to Exeter in 1997, he began taking walks every Thursday from the southern outskirts of the town towards the estuary and the sea. On these walks he made numerous sketches which formed the basis of this and other paintings, made back in his studio. The image reflects his memory of walks along the overgrown canal towpath, with dense foliage blocking the light. To the right of the picture overhanging branches are reflected in the canal’s surface. The image is difficult to read, but as with all the works in the series, a clearly discernable view of the spire of All Saints Church in Exmouth prevents the image from becoming purely abstract. The church tower, on the far right, anchors the painting in observed reality.

Virtue’s art is in the tradition of landscape painting and he cites John Constable (1776-1837), Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9?-82) and Philips Koninck (1619-88) as major influences. Since 1978 Virtue has chosen to work exclusively in monochrome in an attempt to make representations of landscape that would be relevant to a contemporary audience. This is, in part, to prevent his work from replicating or pastiching the painting of the past. The artist’s decision to work only in black and white is part of an attempt to pare away what he sees as inessential in his practice. In addition to refusing to work with colour, he never makes direct transcriptions of his subjects, but rather uses the hundreds of drawings in his sketchbooks as a starting point for imagined or remembered landscapes.

Paradoxically, considering his long-term engagement with landscape painting, Virtue considers himself an abstract artist. His works trace a journey from pure mark-making back to the figurative, rather than the traditional path from representation to abstraction. This infuses his depictions, or more properly accumulated impressions, of landscape with a subjectivity more closely associated with Abstract Expressionism, the American movement of the 1940s and 1950s. He describes the paintings in this series as ‘an armature for the whole psychological area in me’ (quoted in Moorhouse, 2000, p.11), revealing his emotional commitment to his practice. Andrew Graham-Dixon has commented, ‘[Virtue’s] subject is nature, but it is also his own nature’ (Graham-Dixon, p.9).

Further reading:
Andrew Graham-Dixon, John Virtue: New Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Michael Hue-Williams Fine Art, London 2000, reproduced p.29.
Paul Moorhouse, John Virtue: New Work 1998-2000, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives, 2000, reproduced p.25.
Alex Farquharson, Paul Moorhouse and John Butler, John Virtue: Exe Estuary Paintings 1997-98, exhibition catalogue, Spacex Gallery, Exeter, 1999.

Rachel Taylor
October 2003