Magazine article The Spectator

Joy and Verve

Magazine article The Spectator

Joy and Verve

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 1

Joy and verve

Gillian Ayres

The Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, until 17 April

The RWA must be congratulated for staging this scintillating exhibition of recent work by Gillian Ayres. Ayres is one of our finest abstract painters, a colourist of rare lyricism and wit. Her superbly composed paintings have a spontaneous joy and uninhibited verve to them which make the heart dance. The RWA's beautiful, naturally lit galleries are the perfect setting for Ayres's dramatic canvases: their scale is just right. As the light changes on a day of wind and rain and sun, such as it was when I visited, the paintings progress through a sequence of moods, and show themselves in all their colours. Seldom is such a rich and satisfying visual experience to be found in galleries showing contemporary art.

Gillian Ayres was born in Barnes in 1930, in those pre-war days when, only a few minutes from metropolitan Hammersmith, Barnes was still properly rural. That countrified upbringing was important, for she derives much of her inspiration as an artist from the seasonal cycles of nature, re-interpreting the rhythms and narratives of the natural world, without ever attempting to describe them. She has lived in Barnes for much of her life, although in 1981 a decisive move was made to wilder parts - first to Wales and then to the West Country. She now lives on the borders of Devon and Cornwall, within easy reach of the sea. (Her West Country connections, together with a salient spell of teaching, 1959-65, at Corsham Court, the then home of Bath Academy of Art, combined to make her election as an Honorary Academician of the RWA something of an inevitability.) Her paintings from the 1980s and 1990s, and now from the new century, constitute a wonderful outpouring, a distinctive late style of such unforced vigour and joyous celebration as to render the word Optimistic' completely redundant.

Where did this life-enhancing vision spring from? Ayres has always been a fiercely independent spirit, schooled at St Paul's in Hammersmith, where her best friend was Shirley Williams, before leaving for Camberwell School of Art at the early age of 16. This was not unheard of: a fellow junior student was Euan Uglow, whose career followed a more predictable Camberwell trajectory, on to the Slade, and a lifelong inquiry into appearances which resulted in a 'realism' of the most radical order. Ayres could not have been more different. She felt hemmed in by the teaching at Camberwell, and walked out of the school in 1950, a month before the final examination. It had no relevance for her, so she left, and embarked upon the course of self-discovery which has led to the creation of some of the most successful and admired abstract paintings to be made in Britain since the war.

The story of Ayres's subsequent development towards abstraction is cogently told by Mel Gooding in his 2001 monograph on the artist, published by Lund Humphries. Gooding has been the driving force behind the RWA's exhibition, making the selection of some 40 works, and writing a catalogue note. As you enter the main exhibition space, Ayres's substantial paintings glow from the walls like beacons, with a gorgeous dark jewel-like tondo touched with gold, 'Riverine' from 1994, dominating the end wall. Among the most beguiling of the paintings in this airy double gallery are 'The Colour that was Here', 'Picos' and 'A Hazy Shade of Winter'. …

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