Bob Gelsthorpe was at the Oriel Myrddin Gallery, Carmarthen, for an exhibition that put Roger Cecil alongside Helen Booth, Laura Edmunds, Catrin Llwyd Evans, and Sarah Poland.
Successful painting is dependent on a good toolbox, if the tools that you need do not exist in the world, then find or build the tools yourself – this is creativity at its most fundamental. In Roger Cecil + 4 Contemporary Painters, at its most captivating it revels in that fundamental creativity: working as an artist, making art. This seems quite straightforward, but underneath the weight of a commercial market, shifting trends, and arts being shoehorned into fixing the deficit of social care – the fundamentals, the reason why anyone would decide to pick something up and mark a surface can be, and is often, lost. Oriel Myrddin, TEN and the estate of Roger Cecil have partnered up to get right back to basics.
The versatility of an artist’s toolbox gets to the heart of creativity, and with those tools an artist can share and explore the idiosyncrasies of the world and lived experience within it. Cardiff-based artist Laura Edmunds has recently been experimenting with sound installation in relation to drawing. This is done by attaching a microphone to her body while working with the ‘field recordings’, to offer an aural intensity that comes from the physicality of drawing. In Edmunds’ works, those frequencies are drawn out in real time.
In an exercise in making all the wrong marks #2 (2017) it is unclear what that right mark might look, feel or sound like, and with that ambiguity, the work questions internal value structures, and slingshots more solipsistic questions into the room – essential for such a hermetic show.
Sarah Poland cites Joan Eardley as a key influence throughout her life, and finds much similarity with Roger Cecil’s approach. “They both painted the natural landscape but also the grit of a working-class life within its environment,” says Poland. If what Eardley is to Catterline, and Cecil is to Abertillery, then Poland is to her Nomadic Studio (a converted Mercedes 609 luton box truck). Magpie-ing from the Scottish highlands, Cornwall and currently west Wales, uncompromising with a dedication to landscape and the slippage between abstraction and representation. Neon and Rust (2015) is a testament to that edge-land of static and transitory, urban and rural, a battle. A thin area of electric pink, 90% veiled by thin-wash white marks, gives a strong contrast to iron filing lesions, like grazed knees, scabbing over.
For Catrin Llwyd Evans, content is almost arbitrary, it is a vehicle for the paintings to exist, but is not the critical destination. Llwyd Evans’ work is a daily vignette, effortlessly reducing those small moments into core visual information. A building full of windows might only need 30 marks to recognise it as a building with windows, yet Windows (2017) trembles between signs and suggestions.
What is constantly pushed throughout Llwyd Evans’ practice is very much in the same vein as Cecil, that fundamental investment in painting: a creative exercise, toned through practice. She mentions in gallery literature although having recently come to Cecil’s work, she cites, “His approach to painting inspires me to be bold and brave, not to follow rules and traditional practices and to enjoy the wonderful process of painting.”
Roger Cecil’s Next Catalogues (c.1990s) on display show an insight into much of his work of the 1990s, with hundreds of double page spreads giving rare insight into the hermetic development of the paintings. Edmunds and Poland have a tangible interest in the surface and its ability to be allusive and ambiguous. These common traits of Cecil’s work, give the Next Catalogues a fresh intersection, to find their correct place in the canon of Welsh Contemporary Art, but fervently rubbing against it also.
Provocatively titled Mustard and Custard are both Fucking Yellow (2017) by Helen Booth comes from a story involving the artist’s father, a bowl of trifle and a spoonful of mustard, with the painting primarily about Booth’s relationship with her father. Paintings begin with clear ideas, and then are guided by the process, paint is pushed around until it settles into its final shape – flattened space netted with grids, lines, pebbles and twigs. The work traces Booths departure from direct landscape painting to her current work. From depicting the landscape, to becoming a part of it.
Helen Booth has been very much aware of Roger Cecil’s work since first moving to Wales in 1996, exhibiting alongside him at Llantarnam Grange, and artist-in-residence during his first solo exhibition at Oriel Myrddin in 2006. His work was shown once more in 2011 before his death in 2015, and so the decision to programme an exhibition of his work, in tandem with contemporary painters maintains a sensitive context.
The exhibition creates depth of conversation about five artists and enhances the dialogue around structures of influence in Wales. There are clear parallels with the four contemporary painters and Roger Cecil, they all strive for a simplicity in painting, to celebrate its ambiguity, all the while permitting generosity of time throughout the creative process, to spend time while making, looking and interrogating a surface. Roger Cecil’s work contains in it the struggle that is required to dedicate an entire life to painting; he had the prowess to recognise those moments of beauty, constantly adding new emotional, physical and aesthetic tools to the toolbox, and always making art.
‘And I struggle. Towards What? Impossible to say, but I can recognise it when I see it…If I could say what it was, it wouldn’t be worth painting’
– Albert Irvin, a statement pinned to the wall of Roger Cecil’s Studio
The header image is part of Laura Edmunds’ Where I End and You Begin.
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Bob Gelsthorpe is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.