Paintings from the Exe River Estuary

"Painting is but another word for feeling." - John Constable

?I feel painting has got to be purely visual and visceral. It needn?t have an obvious subject.? - John Virtue

The above quotes, far apart in time display a close affinity in spirit. The presence of Constable is a powerful if somewhat arbitrary point of reference when viewing the works of John Virtue. A subject matter is important to both artists, a literal one for Constable and a more enigmatic one for Virtue - his assertion that there be no obvious subject matter is a huge gap - but the central premise that the highest forms of painting are primarily a way of expressing feeling is critical and holds true for both. Few contemporary painters are truly aware of the importance of nature to express feeling, along with John Virtue, Maurice Cockrill and Brian Blanchflower come to mind. These artists realize we are all part of nature - this is a constant - and those who ignore this fact do so at their peril if they expect to contribute anything of lasting value. They use the external world as an armature to express themselves, to impart a spiritual element and embrace what I refer to as the ?big questions? in their work including the nature of life and death, our own insignificant size and importance when placed against the awesome power of nature, and the inevitability of change - that nobody and nothing stays the same. The subject matter for Virtue is as much himself - his own inner responses - as the landscapes which provide inspiration and starting points. He has referred to his paintings as ?being about his own mortality?. The fusion of inner experience with the outer world and an intimacy with his immediate surroundings allow his emotions to be manifested beyond the personal and transcending the ego into universal truths to which we can all relate.

Virtue is unconcerned with where or how he is placed in art history, but he is keenly aware of and has a profound knowledge of the continuum. Painters he has admired include; Rembrandt, late Rubens, Ruisdael, Constable, Samuel Palmer Japanese calligraphic masters and American abstract expressionists Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock (an invitation to a Virtue exhibition shows him dripping on an unstretched canvas on the ground reminiscent of similar photos of Pollock). Certainly some of these artists may come to mind when viewing the work, but influences are unimportant to gauge accurately and at this mature stage of his career the most significant influence would appear to be his own past oeuvre - his concerns represent themselves cyclically - and increasingly each new addition takes its place as a part of an extraordinary whole. Virtue is subverting the landscape tradition, which requires an intimate knowledge of the past, while he moves forward with an invigorated, contemporary reinvention of what is possible in paint.

The methodology of the paintings is enlightening. For Virtue, it is important to impose some sense of order on the chaos, an abstracted grid through which to see and perhaps make the work - and the world for that matter - legible. He feels the need to not simply respond but to demonstrate clear evidence of human endeavour. Thus he works via a highly structured and disciplined sketching and studio practice. The process starts with drawing, which is done en plein air during the course of regular walks. These walks follow a prescribed route with regular stopping points where the artist records his sensations and impressions in a sketchbooks which record the movement in time through the landscape and his own reflections. In one two year period the number of sketches exceeded five thousand. Back in the studio, these drawings are the starting point for the paintings. Work in the studio is usually from 8 am until about 3.30 pm with no break for lunch or interruptions of any kind. The drawings are constantly referred to as a kind of counterpoint informing the process of painting. They are static, single, often fleeting interactions with himself and the landscape. The paintings by contrast, are imbued with the paradoxes and accidents of the painting process and the unconscious of the artist himself until such time as the work takes on a life of its own. Using black ink reinforced by shellac with acrylic and emulsion, applying with rollers, syringes, spatulas and Chinese calligraphic brushes, Virtue says; ?I use anything really. Anything I can get an equivalence, an equivalence to experience, that makes equivalent marks?....?To be as plastic, as mobile and as free as you possibly can.? Virtue?s working process is then, like the Western Australian artist Brian Blanchflower, a kind of performance, and the finished paintings are the residue of that performance drawn from the entire process; the walks, the sketches, the work in the studio and his own inner emotions.

Scale of the paintings ranges in this exhibition from 8 X 8 inches to 10 x 24 feet. The sensation varies from being completely enveloped or ?inside? the large works - the feeling of actually being there - to a more focal intimacy with the small work but the quarry is the same - how to make the inner world visible while alluding to the outer world via the landscape and man?s place in nature. These paintings are original in conception and monumental and breathtaking in impact.

Finally, I would like to thank John and Jenny Virtue for their enthusiasm in making the trip to Australia and taking such a keen, uncompromising interest in the exhibition. Also, Peter Goulds, Elizabeth East and Trish Battistin of LA Louver for the logistical and particular moral support without whom this exhibition would not have been possible.

- Bill Gregory, Sydney, August 2003


Paintings from the Exe River Estuary
In association with LA Louver Gallery California
7 Oct - 8 Nov 2003

Exhibition features:

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