Thursday, November 27, 2008

John Virtue

I'm at home in Nebraska for Thanksgiving (whoop!) and have been going through stacks of my old work in my old bedroom. As I flipped through stacks of prints I created during my senior year of college, I started missing black ink and printing presses and damp paper and acid wash and Bob Dylan and dirty fingernails. I work with other people's art all day but its been a while since I've been at a press physically rolling my own prints. I miss it.

The prints also reminded me of one of my favorite painters, John Virtue, who has influenced my own work greatly.... some might even say that I copy him. I'm okay with it. I first saw his work at the National Gallery in London where he was serving as Associate Artist (lucky duck.)

The Associate Artist is appointed by invitation for two years. He was given a studio in which to make new work that somehow connects to the National Gallery Collection, demonstrating the potential of the Old Master tradition as an inspiration for today's artists. Love that idea. At the end of his stay at the gallery he had an exhibition of the work completed within that year.

I was fortunate enough to attend Virtue's exhibition London Paintings and immediately fell in love with his work. I remember stepping into the back gallery space and looking up and up and up in amazement and that feeling of exhilaration and excitement that we only get from really good art. It gives us those ideas and inspiration and hope and thrill that we hadn't felt a moment earlier. I still haven't gotten it out of my head.

Virtue is a painter of Landscape (well, cityscape to be specific), inspired by Old Masters such as Turner (my fav), Constable, Church, van Ruisdael, Gainsborough and Rubens. He understands the brilliance of these paintings and their lasting impression on artists today.

Landscape is commonly yawned upon, especially at the National Gallery with their impressive collection of impressionistic and post-impressionistic paintings. It takes a bit more love and care to appreciate a lovely Gainsborough farmhouse than it does a Van Gogh self portrait. And maybe that's why Virtue is so great. He looks with a lens that so many fail to compute. He then paints his own reflections of this era of painting on canvases the size of gymnasiums with black and while oil paint... and like Cecily Brown's, his paintings look like so much fun.

Turner paints London with grace and extreme power. He smears huge washes of black paint over intricately made buildings, bridges, and steeples. The masses can be considered in many different directions... some said it was London's fog, others said storms, shadows, one even said sin. I think they are the reflections of Constable's giant oaks, of Turners crashing waves. He took shapes from those paintings, flattened them, rethought them, and then painted them. He channels his teachers into his paints so physically and so homogeneously. Its a frozen energy and its beautiful. His translations of London somehow creep past cheesy (its so difficult to make a non-cheesy cityscape!) right into epic. Tragically and wonderfully epic.

Like the city itself, Virtue's paintings are built layer upon layer. He isn't afraid of thickness and doesn't shy from error. This jumps Virtue into the 20th century with gusto, while maintaining the structural significance of paintings past. The city is created around an academic structure, not the other way around. They aren't literal depictions. There are triangles and laterals, pyramids and squares. Tracing back to Leonardo himself.

Colin Wiggins, the chief curator of the exhibition, compares Virtue to Charles Dickens. Like Dickens before him, Virtue understands the city as a huge living, breathing and evolving organism. Quoted from Dickens' London in Our Mutual Friend,

It was a foggy day in London and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither."

It voices Virtue's paintings, doesn't it? Yet, as Virtue commented,

"I have no interest in recording a rhetorical history of London; really I'm interested in making exciting abstractions from what I perceive. So in a sense I'm not a Londoner painting London out of any roots or any kind of affection - I'm an accidental tourist here, but I intend to go on working particularly on sites around the river Thames."

He isn't taking credit for any of it... he isn't mastering London, nor is he trumping his Old Master superstars. He is simply feeling the city and feeling the grand history of art creep into his huge paintbrushes and grand brushstrokes. Virtue's work is both humble and dominant which makes us all love him and his works with intention.

My own works were on a much more personal scale... pieces of paper smeared with ink over city and sky (Ink, Line, and Sky is the title of my final series.) They can be held and touched and tucked away quietly without a trace of 'epic' or 'grand' or 'dominant'. It is Virtue's interest and love in history that I channel. That I also love.

Although...maybe its not only his Old Master romanticism that I admire. I have to admit how phenomenal it would feel to have gymnasium-sized canvases, buckets of gesso, and the National Gallery vaults at my fingertips... at my beck-and-call. How lovely it would be to step out of my studio onto the rooftop overlooking Trafalgar's Square in the morning with a cup of coffee in an ink-stained apron. Hey. A girl can dream. :)


Jen Pasko said...

I will have to say I had never heard of the the great john virtue but will agree that the darkness that he portrays is very dickens dreary....I also love the end because honestly I can see it now sarah in her ink stained apron..ahhh yess...very do-able.

mary henry said...

i miss printing SO MUCH! i'd give anything for a day with some copper plates, acid, ink and a press. oh, intaglio...