Plymouth artist Steve Clement-Large reviews Kurt Jackson: River exhibition at Plymouth City Museum
I knew I could relate to an artist like Kurt Jackson immediately I saw one of his open sketchbooks on display. A rough pencil sketch of the viaduct over the Tamar at Calstock – annotated ‘after a pint in the Tamar Inn’. Beer and art –good combination.
This is one of several sketchbooks on view at this exhibition. Closely observed drawings coupled with rough abstract sketches, ferry tickets stuck to the pages, lots of scribbled notes – some literal, others apparent random words. These books, fascinating in themselves (and if you’re an artist – educational), provide a direct link to the major works on show.
After spending the best part of 90 minutes looking at the paintings I had an over-riding impression…
Kurt Jackson’s canvases and large works on paper are like large (massive in some cases ) pages from a sketch-book. They have the same quality as those books – apparent spontaneity and roughnesss – but clearly well observed and thought through. The sketch-book quality of the paintings is even more apparent when you realise that each painting, like the books, has its title hand-written or painted – in full. He doesn’t always go in for short snappy titles in many cases. My personal favourite, Looking out of Window at Midnight from Savoy Towards Waterloo Bridge while Listening to an African Radio Station.
It really would be difficult to run through every painting in detail – but there were some real standouts for me. The most eye-catching piece, in my view, glowed at me from one end of the gallery. I love vibrant colour, so it’s no surprise. The piece in question, called Henley Festival at Night is a little like an Irish tricolour on acid – spattered and daubed citrus green and orange teamed with white throbbing out of sienna and dark violets – it could be a pure abstract – but it isn’t. It’s figurative art pared down to basics, and frankly I could have looked at it for hours.
Another example of beautiful abstracted representational painting is Crossing The Severn into Wales. A predominantly very pale blue canvas supports a wedge of russet hues while an intense white highlight glows on the ‘horizon’. It’s almost the bookend to the Henley painting – it’s all subdued and subtle tones…
In the sketchbooks there is a clear joy and skill in the use of collage and mixed media. This is reflected in pretty much all the paintings on show here.
The Savoy painting is clearly a painting of the Thames at night seen from above – painted and inked and drawn on heavy paper, which is layered with Savoy notepaper, tickets and torn pages from the Guardian. There is a lot of detail to pieces like this – which repay close inspection. I can’t help feeling that leaving the words ‘Big Lottery Fund’ clearly in view is not a chance, that there is a story or message…
The ‘accidental’ use of objects is most evident in Shirehampton Sandpipers Stillness – one of the very large canvases. A depiction of a tidal river on a large canvas – the foreshore is depicted in paint and a large encrusted assemblage of rubbish from (one assumes) the same stretch of river. It’s thick and gaudy, making clever use of the primary colours of plastic litter – and objects like a golf ball, lids, a child’s plastic balloon holder and packaging. Again the packaging appears to have been chosen quite deliberately. Words like ‘house’, ‘plastic’, ‘warning’, ‘fishes’ and ‘newt’ are placed to be visible if you look – they are intended as environmental messages – an important part of Kurt Jackson’s work with rivers – ‘metaphors for life itself’ as he describes them.
It’s fascinating to get as close as this to paintings on this scale. They look great from a distance – and are brilliant and bizarre in detail. I made the note “demented plasterer” (in a good way) after close inspection of a few of these big canvases. Watching a few of the films on offer of Kurt Jackson at work I wasn’t wrong. For some of these large canvases (laid out on the riverbank) – he can be seen applying paint and mud with sticks, cardboard and his wellies. The videos in some ways reminded me of the films of Jackson Pollock at work – but without the self-regard.
I don’t like labeling artists with comparisons, necessarily. But I’ll make an exception – the over-riding impression I had was of Pollock meeting Turner head on – with the English landscapes of Turner coming out on top.
This exhibition is well worth a visit or three.
Kurt Jackson: River is at Plymouth City Museum to July 10.
(image: Image credit: Detail. Oak leaves fall, distant traffic, gulls visit, the tide ebbs on the Tamar by Kurt Jackson, 2007)
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