Firstsite, Colchester – running until Sunday 20 September 2015
John Virtue paints on the North Norfolk coast at Blakeney which is a shingle spit of land in the North Sea. This is an area I know very well so in September I was pleased to get to see his exhibition The Sea, a whole body of new work from this renowned landscape artist.
This was my first visit to Firstsite, Colchester’s art centre housed in an impressive architect designed building that was opened in 2009 as part of the town’s regeneration plan. It’s a lovely space with learning facilities, exhibitions, café and attractive grounds and I will definitely be keeping an eye on what’s on there in future.
At a first glance the many works, varying in size from A2ish to vast canvases, might seem a bit ‘samey’. They are all black and white acrylics and are all images of what could be viewed as rather bleak North Sea waves. But as I looked and became absorbed I realise they are no more the same than the sea is the same from moment to moment and this is where their fascination lies.
These paintings are very much alive and when viewing so many together there is a real sense of movement. It is like looking at some kind of massive foaming, crashing seascape. It is very much the thrilling experience of standing in all weathers on a shingle beach on the North Norfolk coast.
The tones vary from pitch black to pure white and everything inbetween, and the acrylic paint is thick and textured in places. Looking at technique I would say the paint is put on in multiple layers, some thick some thin and transparent. It’s applied with brush, splodged, splattered, scraped on maybe with a card or palette knife – perhaps there’s also some sponging or even cling film going on. It is the variety of texture that gives the sense of unpredictable, foaming crashing movement. I was interested to see that many of the paintings are on paper with unfinished, ragged edges – this suits the images.
Virtue’s ‘drawing books’ were on display and they are fascinating. Quite small (perhaps I need to ditch A4 and work with something pocket size) and packed with what are clearly very quick impressions taken down in ink. Sometimes he splodges the ink and closes the pages to create an ink blot image… with some very foamy and wave like results. There are clearly many routes to an end result and technique is an individual, personal thing developed through extensive practice. Virtue says that he works in a very “ritualised way”, that he “abstracts from situations that he feels comfortable in” and works in an “instinctive, almost non verbal way”.
Virtue was born in 1947 in Accrington, Lancaster and has been inspired by the different places he has lived during his career including the north of England, Devon, Italy and now North Norfolk. He lived and worked in Italy for a spell and was also an Associate Artist at the National Gallery (2003-5).
Previously I had seen one or two of John Virtues landscapes at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich and they’ve grabbed me for the bold confidence, abstract quality and stark impact, so it was rewarding to see a whole exhibition devoted to his paintings and get the chance to look close and really feel the work.
Visiting this exhibition prompted me to look at more of his work online. His cityscapes, also in black and white can sometimes feel like an apocalyptic battleground, and at other times his work has a stillness.