No living painter is more central to the St. Ives aesthetic than Terry Frost, who first worked in the Cornish artists’ colony more than 50 years ago. Tate St. Ives’s exhibition Painting Not Painting shows his work in the context of a group of younger artists. By Rod Mengham
Of all the Tates, St. Ives is the only one with a strong local identity, predicated on a direct relationship between the works on display and the physical environment within which the gallery itself is located. This principle is reaffirmed in its current exhibition. Entitled Painting not painting, it centres on the work of Terry Frost (born 1915), surrounding a large selection of his paintings, collages and sculptures with the work of successive generations of younger artists – Richard Slee (born 1946), Julie Roberts (born 1963), Jim Lambie (born 1964) and Victoria Morton (born 1971).
Although these four have never exhibited in St. Ives before, their various artistic practices reflect and develop aspects of the St. Ives aesthetic epitomised by Frost: an infatuation with increasingly large, flat areas of colour taken from a strikingly limited palette of vividly contrasting primaries; a habit of allowing figurative observations of the coastal scenery of Cornwall to bleed into abstract designs, and vice versa; an enthusiam for the constant displacement of point of view and focus.
Of all the exhibits, the greatest weight is given to paintings Frost completed during his tenure of a Gregory Fellowship at the University of Leeds in 1954– 6. There is something of a paradox in this choice: of all Frost’s compositions, the Leeds paintings are among the least assimilable to a St. Ives aesthetic, even though the artist has been associated closely with the place and its artistic traditions for more than 50 years. Works such as Red, Black and White 1955– 6, Orange, Yellow and Black 1956 and Leeds Painting 1954– 6 do not reflect in any way the light, colour and forms that Frost had derived earlier from his preoccupation with the landscapes of Cornwall. In the late 1940s and early 1950s he had painted in a way that made the relationship between abstract and figurative elements seem part of a process of familiarisation; of making oneself at home in a space that was traversed with confidence in a series of recognitions.
The Leeds paintings are all about confrontation: the shock of the unknown and the unscaleable. Canvas after canvas is scored heavily with dark verticals which give a dramatic intensity to the antagonism between abstract and figurative. Frost himself has gone on record linking his serried verticals to the pattern of field walls running down the steep slopes of the Yorkshire Dales, but the primary impact they have on viewers is their reminder of the force of gravity, of running paint – they are lines on a canvas saying ‘this way down’. They do not open up the space of landscape so much as force their viewers into the space of the room in which they hang.
In terms of Frost’s artistic development, the tension between a loss of autonomy and the impulse to create, between discipline and desire, was absolutely crucial, and is pivotal also for the other artists showing in this exhibition.
The earlier paintings had distributed the attention of the viewer around the canvas in a way that encouraged browsing, a wandering of the attention in an alert and receptive manner. The Leeds paintings, by contrast, have urgency, suddenness, concentration. They accelerate the process of reception, forcing the viewer to try to take them in all at once. Engagement with this work induces the feeling of being exposed to an irresistible force. This is not to suggest that Frost in Leeds was turning into a heroic Abstract Expressionist, wrestling his material into submission. Far from it: the spectacle of power was not so much evidence of the artist’s authority as of his yielding up a sense of control. Frost has accounted for the change in terms of feeling disorientated. Whereas in Cornwall he had learned how to acquire a point of view that effectively dominated the landscape, in Yorkshire the reverse was true: ‘When I got to Leeds and I went up the Yorkshire Dales, I was minute and the dales were huge.’
In this connection, it is not surprising that the feeling of powerlessness should be correlated with the ubiquitousness of vertical grid patterns, as if the imagined landscape were being superimposed with forms reminiscent of prison bars. Frost learned to paint as a prisoner of war in Stalag 383 in Bavaria (he was taken prisoner in Crete in 1941 and spent the rest of the war in captivity). His growing mastery over his environment through the practice of painting was always offset by his experience of internment. The most revealing anecdote from this period of his life concerns his unwillingness to leave prison even when short periods of parole were granted. He found the contrast between life inside and outside the camp too overwhelming. In terms of his artistic development, this tension between a loss of autonomy and the impulse to create, between discipline and desire, was absolutely crucial, and it is pivotal also for several of the other artists showing in this exhibition.
On the face of it, the most surprising inclusions in this show are the graphite drawings of Julie Roberts based on police photographs of the victims of Jack the Ripper. These disturbingly scrupulous representations take to the limit one of the organizing principles of the Frost legacy: the constantly renewed struggle, within each canvas, between the rival claims of abstract and figurative. The images Roberts has based her work on have an irrefutable reference to historical incident, but these original pictures also contribute to a process that encloses the women portrayed in the conditions of spectacle. They are primarily an inducement to spectatorship, rather than an incitement to moral judgement about the crimes.
In Roberts’s hands, it is the formal organization of the spectacle that is enhanced, turning details of clothing and anatomy into expressions of design rather than items of information that would form the basis for an ethical response. The suppression of reference is further catered for by the absence of colour, especially red. Intriguingly, the addition of red would complete the most basic palette of black, white and red favoured by Frost, especially during his residency in Leeds. In prising apart the formal and sensational aspects of her images, Roberts is trying to suspend the power politics of the gaze that would reproduce the usual spectacle of abasement. The scenes of abjection are suffused, ambivalently, with elements of the elegiac.
Colour, and nothing but colour, flat and unmodulated, floods the attention with regard to Jim Lambie’s work; and its application transforms the meanings of Richard Slee’s ceramics. In his later work especially, Frost desires to unpick the naturalistic and symbolic associations of particular colours, but in Lambie’s work all such habitual links are ignored. He takes the parallel lines of Frost’s paintings and transfers them from the vertical to the horizontal plane, turning the gallery floor into a demented spectrum. The geometrical exactitude of the layout is belied in the chaos of chromatic disassociations (a ‘riot’ of colour). The parallel lines are underfoot, but they still have the upper hand. Richard Slee’s ceramics are similarly poised between the geometrical and the naturalistic, their thin washes just failing to achieve the colour match that would secure for them a naturalistic function.
Curiously, it is in the use of oil on canvas by the youngest artist, Victoria Morton, that the more painterly values of the St. Ives school are reflected. Her work recalls the almost picaresque narratives that Frost developed in his early attempts to evoke the Cornish landscape. Both artists substitute for a fixed point of view the painting of a rambling itinerary into a non-representational, two-dimensional space. This principle of mobility is the likeliest guarantee for extending the life of a St. Ives aesthetic.
This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 4.