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‘Orchestrated Explosions’ by Andrew Lambirth

This small but telling retrospective at Tate St Ives is one of a number of Hoyland exhibitions timed to coincide or overlap this summer. There have already been a couple of commercial shows of recent and older work in London, and another has just opened at the Lemon Street Gallery in Truro (until 24 June). At the age of 72, John Hoyland is experiencing a resurgence of interest in his work which is entirely justified. Since the 1960s he has been an international figure in the world of art, an inventive and uncompromising abstract painter who has continued to take the most extreme risks in his work, and to develop new ways of expressing his sense of wonder and delight in the world around us, and in the further reaches of the human imagination.

Hoyland’s career has been usefully contextualised and introduced in Mel Gooding’s new monograph on the artist (published by Thames & Hudson at £39.95). This lavishly illustrated volume reproduces 170 paintings in colour and presents a cogent argument for a full-scale Hoyland retrospective in London, which could perhaps tour to the provinces (his home town of Sheffield included). The current St Ives show features a baker’s dozen of paintings, and really only serves to whet the appetite for more. Surely the Tate has a duty to represent distinguished British painters? American artists such as Bruce Naumann or Dan Flavin seem to get regular shows in London; why not our own best painters? Are they considered insufficiently sexy? I hardly think Hoyland’s sensual and luscious canvases are lacking in that department. It’s sincerely to be hoped that a token showing in St Ives does not preclude a more substantial retrospective in the capital in the very near future.

That said, the St Ives show is highly enjoyable. On the ground floor near the Members’ Desk the observant visitor will notice ‘Master Weaver: Homage to Bryan Robertson 2.11.02’, a painting of large impact, predominantly sombre (though beautifully modulated in greys and browns) yet with incidents of colour bright with possibility. Upstairs, three galleries have been given over to Hoyland. In the first, three large horizontal red-and-green paintings from 1966 hold the eye with their bold asymmetries and extended blocks of colour, despite their apparent simplicity. Happily, they take a lot of looking, and set the tone for the display: a master colourist going through his paces, from sotto voce to full throttle. By 1966, Hoyland had already visited New York and responded to the scale on which contemporary American painters were working. But his image-making owes little to their example, having more in common with the sculpture that Anthony Caro was then pioneering. Nor was Hoyland prepared to limit himself to a narrow territory in which to experiment. His work of the 1970s, explored in the next room, gives voice to an entirely different attitude, of insistent materiality, as opposed to the dematerialised floating wedges and bars of the 1960s.

One painting in this second gallery is transitional. It dates from 1969 and is a vast horizontal composed of two scarlet screens set against a distinctively splashed and inflected ground. The paint has become more solid and assertive, even confrontational, and foreshadows the Seventies. The chief characteristics of work from that decade, with its echoes of Hans Hofmann, are densely layered surfaces and the arbitrary petals of paint so evocatively described by Mel Gooding in his book: ‘They flicker and flash with the chromatic brilliancy of birds, fish or insects against the broken light of impasto and coagulation, or like volcanic debris falling through burned air, or like bright figures of water, air and fire against elemental grounds of pigmented earth.’ Particularly rich and satisfying is ‘Wotan 21.7.77’, in which space conflicts with colour and determines some of the more unexpected and effective juxtapositions. Benches are handily situated in all three galleries on which to rest and contemplate these gloriously orchestrated explosions.

The final room is, if anything, even more impressive. There has been no diminution of energy or inventiveness in recent years: colours are no less seductive, though often more intensely dramatic. Indeed, Hoyland’s impetus towards the anarchic has been further emphasised by a new reliance on automatic techniques of paint application, for instance pouring and splashing. Yet such is the artist’s mastery of his medium that the results are always to a large extent intended, as he draws in paint with all the inspired linearity of Miró or Pollock. In this gallery are the moving ‘Elegy (for Terry Frost) 24.9.03’, with its crater and shadow of death set against a tremendous burst of Frost’s favourite colours, together with the fire-flower ‘Quas 23.1.86’, a sail shape with a great pendant tongue of light. ‘Black Something 8.2.90’ and ‘Yellow Boat 7.8.98’ complete this demonstration of an artist at the top of his form.

Besides being an outstanding colourist, Hoyland is one of our most intelligent artists, able to rely on fantasy and intuition as much as experience. His paintings, frequently produced in loose series, deal in allusion and implication as well as in direct reference. As the arch-abstractionist Victor Pasmore allowed figurative elements to return to the imagery of his late period, so too does Hoyland now admit the referential. The human figure even made a return in 1999, a move which further augments the range of possibilities with which Hoyland may engage. Prolific, original and lastingly resourceful, Hoyland is unreservedly a painter for today.

The show begins and ends with an elegy – first to Bryan Robertson, last to Terry Frost. Yet the overall mood is the reverse of pessimistic. Hoyland’s art is resolutely life-affirming. As Paul Moorhouse points out in the catalogue (£12.95 in slim paperback), Hoyland’s latest ‘hybrid’ paintings ‘bring about a fusion in which the material world and subjective experience are united, pointing perhaps to a deeper, underlying nature in which such distinctions are resolved’. Victor Willing was right to call Hoyland a metaphysical painter. If the exhibition’s title suggests that Hoyland has a touch of Lucifer about him, it will be remembered that only a fallen angel can truly evaluate both the world of the spirit and the world of physical reality. Besides which, Lucifer means ‘light-bearing’. Hoyland’s work transcends the everyday and offers us a glimpse of a higher reality, where the turbulence is somehow harnessed, but the vividness not lost.

Accompanying the Hoyland show is a small selection from the recent retrospective of Tony O’Malley’s paintings at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. O’Malley (1913–2003) lived for some years in St Ives before returning to Ireland in 1990, and was much loved locally. His work does not sit well with Hoyland’s, and loses miserably if comparisons are made. The decision to hang three of O’Malley’s ‘Good Friday’ images in the space called ‘The Apse’, a kind of antechamber to the suite of galleries featuring Hoyland’s potent canvases, was a rash one. The oddly designed galleries at Tate St Ives are admittedly difficult to hang effectively, but Hoyland and O’Malley would have been better kept separate. It should also be noted, in closing, that Hoyland has never been a St Ives artist, nor affiliated with the landscape-based abstraction practised to such great effect in the town. Nevertheless it looks very good there, and is well worth a visit.

© Andrew Lambirth / The Spectator