John Hoyland

Story From Nature 12.9.96


Not on display

John Hoyland 1934–2011
Acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 2542 × 2365 mm
Presented by the artist’s estate 2018


Throughout his career, Hoyland never maintained a distinct signature style, moving from thinly painted pictures, where the colour almost stains the canvas, to veils of colour that become thicker and more encrusted by the 1970s. By the late 1980s blocks of colour (sometimes given body with Polyfilla) were discarded in favour of calligraphic abstract signs, thickly painted on thin grounds of colour. Writing in 2006, the critic Mel Gooding described Hoyland’s approach to painting:

Hoyland has persisted in his progress towards an extreme abstract art of declarative pyrotechnics and sensuous generosities. In an age of anxiety for painters, in which his contemporaries have been haunted by the questions of what to paint, how to paint, or whether to paint at all, Hoyland has suffered no doubts about his vocation: he paints because that is his chosen means to the poetic expression of a life.
(Gooding 2006, p.157.)

However, despite his allegiance to a form of abstraction that can be typified by the work of painters that he admired, such as the American abstract expressionists Mark Rothko (1903–1970) or Hans Hofmann (1880–1966), Hoyland’s attachment to the idea of abstraction was not as clear cut as Gooding here suggests. This can be seen in a group of paintings from the mid-1990s, such as Story From Nature 12.9.96, a period in which his painting underwent profound change and witnessed the introduction of motifs that – however submerged – made reference to nature. The result of his visits to Bali in 1994 and 1995, these paintings are not about nature and process in the abstract but, as the title here suggests, are much more connected to a visible world – a world of trees and leaves, bright sunlight and deep dark shadows, or patterns made by parasites on the bark of trees. Compositionally, the forms no longer float within the canvas as previously but are held firm by the vertical bands of colour that, as Gooding recognised, are suggestive of:

a rooted tree or a grounded idol. In others the pillars of what may be fire or lava flow downwards towards earth, and are accompanied by columns unmistakeably opaque and solid … These vertical features, seen against complex iridescent atmospherics, introduce a spatiality new to Hoyland’s painting, proposing topographies of near and far, interior and exterior: an immediate architecture, trees and objects in middle ground, and beyond them the deep skies of the tropics.
(Mel Gooding, in Theo Waddington Fine Art 1995, unpaginated.)

The images that these paintings conjure provide an equivalence of different kinds of experience including the personal and the natural as well as the spiritual. In a notebook that he kept on one of his journeys to Bali, Hoyland identified himself and these paintings with the post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and his work done in Tahiti, describing the ‘two distinct halves of his divided personality: on the one hand the lover of pleasure, the creator of images with a frank physical sensuousness, and on the other hand the searcher after a disappearing spirituality’ (quoted in Gooding 2006, p.175).

The painting’s title, in line with Hoyland’s practice throughout his work, includes the date on which it was completed, in this case 12 September 1996. This use of the date has diaristic resonances, suggesting an element of personal expression that underscores the narrative suggested by the rest of the title.

Further reading
John Hoyland, Bali Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Theo Waddington Fine Art, London 1995.
Mel Gooding, John Hoyland, London 2006, illustrated p.172.
Andrew Lambirth, John Hoyland, Scatter the Devils, Norwich 2009.

Andrew Wilson
April 2018

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Display caption

By the 1990s, Hoyland’s painting had been undergoing major changes with new points of reference – however hidden – to nature. The result of visits to Bali in 1994 and 1995, this work, as the title suggests, is connected to a visible world of trees and leaves, sunlight and shadow. However, according to Hoyland, ‘Paintings are not to be understood, they are to be recognised. They are an equivalent to nature, not an illustration of it.’

Gallery label, October 2019

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