[Published in the Southend Echo, Friday 14th July 2017, p.35]
The Spirit of Place
Local artist Steve Whittle, whose work is on show at The Beecroft Gallery until July 22nd, trained at the Central School of Art in the heady days of 1960s London. For much of his career he then balanced being a professional artist with secondary-school teaching, but for the last eight years his focus has been exclusively on making art.
The current exhibition is of recent work primarily, yet it also includes a few early paintings, including minimalist abstracts in which colour squares, precisely angled, shimmer and vibrate on the canvas. Colour is very close to the heart of Whittle’s work, and when I talk to him, he mentions Bridget Riley, Francis Bacon and David Hockney – all exceptional modern colourists.
Whittle’s practice is to regard a single subject closely through a series of different media sometimes over a number of years, and one of the new projects that particularly caught my eye focuses The Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall which has stood in Bradwell-on-Sea since the 7th century when St Cedd founded a religious community there.
Asking what had drawn him to this ancient Chapel, Whittle says it’s almost impossible to put into words, he’d felt a primal and immediate connection on his first visit and had to return again and again. That powerful pull has resulted in a number of works, including charcoals, pastels, paintings and collages, all of which portray the extraordinary sense, or spirit, of place – remote, lonely; glorious and powerful – the austere silhouette of the Chapel monumental against the sea and sky.
For Whittle, painting is a process of continually building up and scraping back to reveal colours and layers – in his paintings of St Peter’s the sky is a deep, rich clear jewel-like blue; the chapel has the tactile quality of ancient stone; whilst the grass, despite a perfectly edged lawn, rasps with spear-like texture – as if in recognition that the nature of this remote landscape cannot be truly tamed.
The collages are made of torn pages from high-quality fashion magazines; the detail and texture of these reflect the stonework of the Chapel and on the pieces that form the sky, we can see words, portions of paragraphs and part titles of articles – one, by chance, reads ‘the medieval modernist’. I’m fascinated by these. Fashion, of course, is always now, always modern; magazines are such ephemeral products – read today, thrown away tomorrow. Yet here they serve a history that stretches back almost fourteen centuries. I stand looking, careering back and forth in time.
To the common viewer, these pictures seem a million miles from his early work yet, with gracious subtlety, Steve Whittle suggested I should perhaps look again, for artists build up their vocabulary over the years, a means to visual expression. The serialisation of works built around a single subject, the regular pattern of the torn squares in the collages – both are very much the poetry of that systemic minimalism that had gripped him as a student. Then I saw the red line. I had completely missed it: a precisely drawn red line shimmering and vibrating on the horizon behind the Chapel.
“Recent Works” is a fascinating exhibition that calls for the viewer’s deep engagement; swept up in the vibrancy of colour we are cast into the dramatic perspective of this ancient chapel on the edge of the world made splendid in Steve Whittle’s unique artistic sensibility.
The Beecroft Art History Group meets 10.30am every last Saturday of the month.