'Stretching the Qualities of Paint'

Henry Garfit, Cornwall 2004

The mile of uneven stone track leading to Hannah Woodman’s house and studio divides the fields and meadows of this beautiful, hidden tract of Cornwall’s northern coastline. Here, at Gwithian, where the dunes of St Ives Bay are broken by the broad estuary of the Hayle River, nestled among farmland that stops abruptly as it meets the nearby seashore, Woodman has made a home. At the narrowest finger of land on the Penwith Peninsula, the striking contrast between this wild, gale-swept Atlantic coastline and the softer geography and sheltered coves of the southern coast, just five miles away, is inescapable.

Woodman has spent the past two years exploring her surroundings and the work in the current exhibition bares witness to the extent to which she has absorbed herself with the brutal charm of this extraordinary corner of southern England. Her recent painting has taken her from Gwithian and nearby Godrevy, a few miles west beyond St Ives to the ancient farmsteads and moorland at Zennor, to the exposed coastline at Cape Cornwall, onto St Just the westernmost town in England and down to Sennen, just a mile or two from Lands End.

Artists have been drawn to Penwith since the early Nineteenth Century with notable early visitors including Turner, Rowlandson and Holman Hunt. However, it was a visit by James McNeill Whistler and his two young assistants, Walter Sickert and Mortimer Mempes in 1883–4 that first encouraged artists to journey in great numbers to live and work in St Ives and on the south coast at Newlyn. Today artists are still enticed to Cornwall by the famous light conditions and the opportunity to work among a community of practising artists. In contrast to this, however, Hannah Woodman is an example of another type of artistic immigrant. Like a select number of artists before her she appears to thrive on the remoteness and solitude of living and working in the depths of the South West. Her work gives her away. In each of her paintings there is the feeling of an intimate, hidden, corner of the countryside or coastline peered at over a hedge, through a gateway or from the vantage point of a particular sand dune. Woodman’s subjects and the spots from which they are viewed, often with the inclusion of specific foreground emphasis, are as personal to her as are the many hours she spends alone working in situ and in her studio. The result is a very individual artistic vision.

The hundreds of differently shaped and sized brushes stacked in tins and jars on her studio floor are the instruments of her science. It is with such a wide variety of tools that Woodman is able to manipulate the surface of her paintings so that they appear as a mass of literally thousands of individual marks. Her work is a long way from the Impressionism of Monet, Van Gogh or Seurat but she shares with them the ability to make even the tiniest section of each work ripple with a multitude of colours and textures whilst contributing to the strength of the overall design of her compositions.

The considerable collection of art books and catalogues lining the walls of her studio reveal her interest in the painters of the past. Pulling just a few from the shelves it is interesting to see how many of these artists share her interest in stretching the qualities of paint, whether Turner in his glazes and smudges of oil and watercolour paint, Constable with his layered brush strokes and speckles of white highlight, John Piper in his scratching back to reveal previously applied areas of texture and colour or even Jackson Pollock with his virtuosity in drawing with flashes of dribbled enamel paint. Each of these artists found their own way of balancing a fascination with the qualities of their materials and their application of paint with the particular figurative or philosophical subject matter of their work. Similarly, Woodman successfully balances these diverse concerns in her work without compromising the natural impact of the landscape from which she takes her inspiration.

Working somewhat outside any real tradition of coastal land and seascape painting, Woodman manages to imbue her works with a palpable energy of surface which derives from the relative abandon with which she approaches the early stages of each work. Yet in them she also achieves a sensitivity of touch perhaps most clearly seen in the thin trails of paint marking the distant lines of telephone wires or in the gentle curl of a breaking wave. By being both expressive and tender in her application of paint she manages to combine the qualities of drawing and painting to great effect in her work. It is with this attribute that her work might most readily be compared to two artists working in the 1950s and 60s who made coastal subjects their own: Peter Lanyon and Joan Eardley. It is the integrity with which Woodman approaches her work that allows such a comparison to stand up.

There is a remarkable seriousness about the way Woodman practises and discusses her work which is tempered only by a natural modesty and grounding which keeps her from wholly allowing her work to swallow her up. She evidently manages to spend many, many hours each day in her studio and confesses to the fact that she often finds it extremely difficult to walk away from her paintings. Each work can only be considered resolved when she has pinned down the essence of her subject: the most explicit aim being to encourage the viewer to feel able to participate in the scene. In describing the desired impact that her work should have on the viewer Woodman uses words such as “involvement”, “inclusiveness”, “invitation” and “participation”, all of which point towards the most interesting of paradoxes in her work. Although each scene is truly personal to the artist, almost owned by her, hand picked and viewed from a very particular vantage point, Woodman manages to give the viewer the sense that they are there as the corner is rounded, at the very second that the view comes into focus.

Hannah Woodman achieves in her work the most astounding evocations of the ever-changing landscape of the north Cornwall coastline. No one afternoon in Penwith is ever quite the same as another and similarly her works cannot avoid being individual because they are assembled over time with each mark affecting the subsequent decisions made in applying paint. Woodman gains so much of the nourishment she needs to work and grow artistically from her considerable knowledge of painting’s rich past, the foundations of which were no doubt learnt during her time studying at that renowned centre of Art History, the Courtauld Institute in London. However, it is the many faceted personality of the Cornish coastline that undeniably extends the greatest influence over her artistic development, pushing her as it does to stretch her practical facility in an effort to keep up with its contrasting moods and characteristics.

Henry Garfit, Cornwall 2004

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