Culture: Glimpses of Life in the Abstract; John Cornall Reviews a Major Touring Exhibition Devoted to One of Britain's Leading Post-War Painters, Plus Other Exhibitions Showing at MAC

The Birmingham Post (England), September 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

Culture: Glimpses of Life in the Abstract; John Cornall Reviews a Major Touring Exhibition Devoted to One of Britain's Leading Post-War Painters, Plus Other Exhibitions Showing at MAC


Byline: John Cornall

The Scottish painter Alan Davie, now 81, is famous as one of the first British artists to be influenced by abstract expressionism.

But Davie never identified with the American drive to empty out painting of reference. His closest affinities in the modernist pantheon are with the Cobra group but especially with early Pollock - Pollock at the time when he was experimenting with Jungian imagery.

Since the early 1950s, at least, once he had been established his characteristic style, Davie has likewise been deeply concerned with the description of archetypal symbols: Celtic crosses, for example, or spirals, or tutelary animal spirits, all the visionary clutter of the artist-shaman.

This is not to say that Davie is not engaged in the craft of painting. Almost from the beginning, his goal seems to have been to achieve in contemporary painting the intensity and improvisatory liveliness of certain kinds of primitive religious art, art that has arisen out of ritual activity, in particular.

Typically Scottish strong colour and an emphatic graphic style make the small works in this show shout off the wall, jewel-like. Davie's works certainly have impact and they never fail entirely. If one has reservations at all it is that the effect can often seem too intricate. Or perhaps it is that the intricacy and richness of colour and abstract form rarely resolves itself into a really satisfying and unified effect, as if in the end the artist had indeed been more concerned with describing symbols than following pictorial logic.

The best works in this show seem to be those in which the even-ness of the illustrational style is disrupted by contrasting factors. Some of the 'Village..' series, for example, in which areas of fluid paint handling, such as one sees in the impressive early works on paper, are played off against the more typical graphic description or take the interesting Sigil Suite (1998), in which the edges of some of the symbols have become fuzzy so that they float back into the ground colour and dangle.

In this painting, we see that Davie can create a pleasing and unified spatial and colour effect but possibly only at the expense of losing some of the detail. On the whole, Davie does not seem interested in making this sacrifice and this must be why over the years his influence has most keenly been felt amongst figurative artists like John Bellany

According to the press release, A Still Point, a group show of craft-style ceramics and paintings by five artists, showing in the Foyle Gallery, promises much. …

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