Visit to Firstsite Open Exhibition and reflections on landscape painting

In October I went to the opening evening of Firstsite’s first Open Exhibition. It was absolutely packed and marked what I feel is a positive  change in the way this fantastic exhibition space and art facility is viewed by the people who live and work in Colchester. It had in the past been felt by some to be an elitist organisation that was not successfully engaging with local people or helping them to achieve their creative aspirations.

This open exhibition felt like a big step, a leap even, towards a new relationship with the community. Seven hundred local artists submitted one piece of art each and so the show gave me a unique opportunity to see what artists in Essex are up to. The standard was reasonably high.  There was a lot to see so after the crowded opening night  I visited for a second time with the express aim of seeking out the landscape art and looking in particular at how artists had handled light (something I struggle with sometimes).

That may sound like a  straightforward aim but it wasn’t  as to my surprise there was very little landscape art on display. There was plenty of figurative work and lots of experimental and abstract art and art drawn from the imagination – I guess you might call it magic realism. But I don’t think it would be unreasonable to conclude from what was on display that very few of the exhibiting artists make a point of going out into our beautiful landscape and paint, draw or print it as they see it.

This led me to reflect on landscape painting today and when I got home I spent several hours flicking through the Vitamin P1 and P2 books that are on our student reading list. I guess I should not forget  that painting itself has been somewhat out of vogue in recent years withinfluential collectors and has only recently made a come back… and it looks to me that the landscape genre is still playing second fiddle to figurative painting as in the 18th and 19th centuries when the  French Academy dictated what was worthy.

From my rather rapid appraisal I’d say that in contemporary art  landscape has become the background to figurative work or, when the landscape itself is the subject, it is is a means of communicating apocalyptic messages. Far from soothing us with calming bucolic scenes, today’s landscape painting, when rated highly by the influential curators and arts institutions, seems more intent on disconcerting us by making us face the ugliness and sterility of mankind’s legacy.

A couple of examples are on my contemporary landscape paintings Pinterest Board and include Jia Aili’s Wastelands and David Hepher’s Tree with  backdrop of  a bleak block of flats and graffiti.

But this is only one side of the coin. When I wander around art galleries in affluent market towns such as Lavenham and Long Melford,vibrant, expressive and beautiful landscape paintings are in abundance. I stumbled upon the Paul Evans gallery on the opening of the artist’s new exhibition. Evans paints big, colourful landscapes of the Suffolk countryside. They are incredibly detailed, representational paintings and he obviously has a loyal following as I’ve never seen so many paintings being sold so quickly…  Every few minutes another canvas was being loaded into the back of a Range Rover and driven away!

I guess this kind of landscape art continues to be popular because people who buy art for their homes, even when they have big budgets, don’t feel comfortable with with the politics of conflict and the environment staring at them from their living room walls.

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