Peter Davies

Introduction to MY GENERATION, Ten Contemporary Abstract Artists, October-November 1989

My Generation, Southport 1989

In the late 1950s the term ‘middle generation' was coined to describe a group of contemporary painters, mainly from St. Ives, who worked in a broadly abstract expressionist style though with probably as much reverence and reference to European as to trail-blaising recent American painting. The title for the current exhibition with its allusion to a well-known sixties Pop song, indicates a still later wave of British abstract art, one which delves far further than did the still largely landscape-inspired St. Ives painters, into the more decorative and formalist realm of ‘pure', non representational painting.

The contemporary group, much larger than the ten ambassadors chosen here, share a respect, indeed an allegiance, to modern American art before any other single `school', though I hope that their 'Englishness' or better still 'Europeaness' may also emerge. Every bit as American-influenced as the image-conscious Pop generation, these ten chosen artists nevertheless belong to a much bigger tradition and wider category of painting that transcends both national schools and the narrowly defined and crudely overworked concept of the ‘abstract and figurative'.

Red Dress by Pete Hoida
Red Dress, Pete Hoida, May 1988, 160 x 66 cm

All strong pictorial art is in a real sense based on abstraction, in the sense that even the most figurative and narrative of genre painting depends for its success less on subject and meaning than on formalist virtues like form, colour, tone, and so on. Roger Fry recognised this early on in the brittle story of English modernism, and espoused pure form as a prime indicator and constituent of plastic quality. Clement Greenberg, the American critic, went even further, developing in the epochal terms of a Marx-like theoretician, the concept of dialectical modernism, seeing the continuing evolution of modernist painting in terms of an advance towards greater degrees of flatness, plasticity, abstract illusionism and so on.

Greenberg has been a great figure for most of these ten British artists who have had direct contact with him on American workshops. He had directly talked to them in studio situ about their evolving work amidst the pots of water-based acrylics, the large paint brushes, sponges and wooden stretchers. Yet being British these artists all retain a certain English quality in their work which may best be summed up as follows - a tonal coherence, mutedness, subtlety of colour, an elegance of composition that is often structured literally by the four 'walls' of the canvas arena's edge, and a tantalising tendency to use naturalistic colour, albeit outside the context of actual reference to the outside world.

Blewitt Picker by Pete Hoida
Blewitt Picker, Pete Hoida, July 1988, 58 x 152 cm

The oldest of the painters, Graham Boyd, has retained a consistently empirical sensuality, beginning with his late 1950s abstract pointillist works through the 1960s hard edge ‘fields', reliefs, or mathematical ‘systems' compositions, towards the gesturally assertive colour canvases of the 1980s. With his love of Mondrian he developed inside a European taste. Geoff Hollow and Kay Saunders have worked in a late ‘colour field' style that seeks to reintroduce subtle textural variations in the ‘grounds' as well as use of a more strident Hofmanesque 'push-pull' colour dynamic on the `surface'. Bristol's Louise Barber, often working in a similar gestural vein to Bournemouth-based Abi Kremer - whose work perhaps has the closest suggestion in this context to nature, if not to actual landscape - has also explored the optical and psychological effects of colour juxtaposed in hard edged zones of pictorial space. Frank Bowling's painting, vividly textured built-up impastos are 'finished' off with speckled colour splashes, dots or stains that speak for a delicacy of application, taking the urgent ‘action painting' of Pollock into a realm of artifice and deliberation. Pete Hoida can fill a large canvas with one or two broad wedges of colour as if to suggest more than the action and movement of an artists brush-laden hand. The making of the picture acquires its own narrational logic, and the painting acquires an internal organic character all its own, taking from and speaking out towards, natural light. Like Rothko, Hoida's work takes on different character according to differing light conditions and times of day. Normally hard-to-detect subtleties of matt or gloss surfaces speak loudly and decisively at such moments. Geoff Rigden's work reflects the twin currents of Abstract Expressionism. Sometimes exploiting paint and colour with the rawness and simplicity of a primitive sand marker he can at other times order his pictures into serene and balanced environments with use of a spare but elegant repertoire of disc, triangle and square shapes.

The sculptors John Foster and Barbara Lander each work in welded steel, drawing inspiration from David Smith and more recently Anthony Caro. Steel, the most intractable material, becomes suddenly the most versatile, allowing for collage, editing, carving, or even modelling through the high heat of arc welding processes. It bends, twists and plays games with an inherently cubist vocabulary of form.

© Peter Davies, 1989

Reproduced from the original document published by the Atkinson Gallery, Southport, 1989