The Overall Picture

Ian McKeever. Paintings

Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton, Michael Tucker, Catherine Lampert
(208pp, £35, Lund Humphries)
Principle, Appearance, Style. Alan Gouk, A Career Survey
with a text constructed by Mel Gooding (195pp, £30, Poussin Gallery)

Ian McKeever and Alan Gouk are both painters that any serious artist in Britain will have come across but they are not household names in the way, say, Damien Hirst or Andy Warhol are. This, of course, is mainly fashion and taste at work: art critics and journals need bandwagons and movements as much as anyone else, so many serious artists simply don't get media coverage or critical attention. Abstract painting has been uncool for many years, despite attention from the likes of Matthew Collings or the occasional focus on it with regard to process [as opposed to content or image].

So here we are with two new monographs for two very different artists, both with substantial bodies of work, both highly regarded outside Britain and by those in the know over here. Both Gouk and McKeever seemed to have started in similar ways, making painted construction: there are pictures of Gouk's, whilst McKeever's are merely alluded to. Both in many ways seem rooted in an English version of abstract expressionism meets conceptual art; both have moved on.

McKeever would devise and undertake some projects involving placing paintings and/or drawings within the landscape itself and letting them weather and change, before responding to that work. He would also, for many years, work over/into or respond to photographs. He was clearly involved in ideas of place and landscape whilst exploring conceptual notions of painting too. I first came across his work from a catalogue of 'Waterfalls' and 'Field Series' works, sequences I still regard highly, but this book chooses to start with his Lapland works, with a nod backwards to 'Night Flak' a series of paintings he painted in the dark.

The Lapland works are semi-illustrative landscape images, with gestural paint conjuring up trees, mountains, waterfalls and other landscape elements from within swirls and sprays of colour. They enhance and blot out, are in dialogue with, the photographic images below. I must confess I still find them too literal and romantic, much preferring the work before or after, where the paint rather than the image starts to be the focus of the painting.

'A History of Rocks' and the huge diptychs which follow are glorious adventures in dialogue, echo, response and chemistry: between oil and acrylic, between canvasses, between painting and viewer. They seem the real foundation for the work of the last 20 years, as McKeever has gone on to develop his own vocabulary of veils, soft grids and layers of paint, as well as refine and soften his palette.

In fact, this is the real strength of the book, to highlight the body of work as a whole, rather than as various discrete groups. Clearly, there are sequences and projects, usually involving a number of finished paintings with accompanying gouaches and prints, but even these seem to occasionally blur into each other, or have been defined in retrospect. I'm still, for instance, unclear whether there are four groups of four paintings in 'The Four Quartets', or whether other works in the same series make the total higher. Maybe it doesn't matter, maybe it's the work that counts. Certainly, it's the reproductions that make this book, not the text, although if you own previous catalogues there is very little new art to be seen.

The opening of Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton's essay is rather biographical and perfunctory but later on it engages more fully with the work. There are interesting ideas here about ikons and the nature of light, something picked up on later in a revised version of the artist's 'Light' essay, perhaps the best of the three essays previously collected in
In Praise of Painting, a volume I'd recommend but with reservations, as it makes McKeever seem curmudgeonly and conservative in the extreme, particularly with regard to much contemporary art practice; something I suspect he is not. Having said that he is a careful and concise writer, and I'd like to have seen more of his own writing, and perhaps an interview with him, in this book.

Michael Tucker's essay 'Like Breathing' is for me the best of the essays here, with interesting consideration of self-identity and the body, rather than the expected subject of landscape. Catherine Lampert's 'Entering the Temple Paintings' is interesting too, but is a very personal response; she is rather prone to describing the paintings in terms of something else, so the reader ends up having to deal with her images rather than the work itself. I don't for instance, see 'a double row of bleached bones' where she does, and it's not - to be honest - a useful image, as it takes the focus away from the colour and texture, the execution and physical presence of the work, which is what I like to start my own interrogation of paintings with.

That said,
Ian McKeever. Paintings, is a long overdue title, with a wide-ranging consideration of an important body of work, and the colour reproductions are excellent throughout. Thank you, Lund Humphries.

Alan Gouk's work is perhaps less consistent than McKeever when considered as a whole. In part this seems to me because he is often part of the splash-and-pour brigade, whose painterly concerns involve gesture, chance and pure size; most of Gouk's work is BIG and POWERFUL, out to entrance, perhaps overpower and impress, the viewer.

In the Seventies, Gouk was one of many painters busy responding to American Abstract Expressionism, dealing with the liberation of image, with paint and colour itself. There are some beautiful examples of this kind of work in here, but it would be hard not to compare many of them to work by the likes of Jack Bush and Albert Irvin, and no doubt many others doing similar things. By the end of the decade, and into the 80s, Gouk is trowelling paint onto long thin horizontal canvasses, at the risk of the colour and paint itself being tired and dead on the canvas. There are too many paintings around this time that teeter on becoming lumpen grey; but when they stay bright and clean, they don't half sing!

By the mid 80s the palette has brightened, the paint is thinner again, and the energy is revealed through brushmark rather than thickness of paint. Gouk is a master of reds and blues as well as the purples and pinks inbetween, and he uses this mastery to gradually simplify even further. For me, there's something of Patrick Heron about this work, a comparison which crops up again in late 1990s work, where the larger areas of work are textured and patterned with calligraphic daubs; I can't help but recall Heron's late garden paintings. The gouaches - painted on wet paper - also seem similar, if not derivative.

Elsewhere there are occasional detours into pattern and decoration, with some paintings given titles of butterflies. For me, there isn't always enough going on in the work to keep me interested: I want more layers, more complexity, something unusual and challenging to upset the beautiful colours. And this, I think, is the heart of the problem, and perhaps why Gouk isn't regarded more: the work is hit and miss. The man clearly has a way with paint, clearly thinks about what he's doing [Mel Gooding's exemplary and intriguing 'constructed text' bears full witness to Gouk's intelligence and critical knowledge], but the painting practice he undertakes still relies on chance, gesture and finally self-editing… something very few artists are good at. Like other painters in this tradition, perhaps too much escapes the studio?

Or perhaps I'm missing the point that these paintings are about the act of painting as much as the final image? Perhaps I sound too negative? If so, I don't mean to be. I requested a copy of this book, as Gouk's work has intrigued me for over 20 years. There are many accomplished and beautiful, some challenging and difficult, works reproduced here but I'm still left floundering a little, trying to grasp an overall sense of this artist's work as I can with Ian McKeever's. Perhaps I'm just trying to tidy up too much, and should relax and enjoy this volume of engaging paintings?

     © Rupert Loydell 2009