'The Individualist'

Jonathan Benington, May 2007

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"Hannah Woodman, through her intimate association with the wild Cornish coastline between Gwithian and St Agnes, is...developing a body of work that is so personal and resonant that it will surely be indelibly linked in the public psyche (by both present and future generations) with that terrain".

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The Victoria Art Gallery is delighted to host Hannah Woodman’s fourth solo exhibition. We feel particularly privileged because it is her first show in a public venue, and the timing is perfect for it follows hot on the heels of landscape-themed exhibitions by such masters of the genre as Keith Vaughan and Kurt Jackson (February and April 2007 respectively). 

Other writers have previously noted how Woodman’s work occupies that borderline territory between realism and abstraction, comparing her seascapes with those of the Glasgow-based painter, Joan Eardley, for example. I would like to briefly widen the historical timeframe by considering Woodman’s Cornish seascapes and landscapes against the background of a late 19th/20th century phenomenon: the development of artists’ colonies across Britain. In Scotland, the Glasgow Boys gathered at Cockburnspath and Kirkcudbright. Banks Head in Cumbria gave refuge to Christopher Wood and the Nicholsons. Wilson Steer presided at Walberswick in East Anglia, Palmer and the Society of Ancients at Shoreham in Sussex, the Bloomsbury painters at Charleston, and Sargent at Broadway in Worcestershire. Last but not least, Cornwall’s twin ports of Newlyn and St Ives acted as magnets for painters of substance from the 1880s through the 1960s.

The springing up of so many geographically remote artists’ colonies expressed itself visually in a revival of landscape painting, occasioned largely by a post-industrial ‘back to the land’ impulse. These events have, of course, been well charted in recent years in the ever-expanding literature devoted to the St Ives, Scottish and East Anglian Schools of painting. Indeed, the growing fashion for regional surveys of art has arguably diverted our attention away from another, equally important phenomenon: that of the individualist who similarly forms a close connection with a particular place, but who manages to do so without the social repartee and professional stimulus that are integral to the colony system. I am thinking here of painters and places such as Constable (Dedham Vale), Turner (Petworth), Spencer (Cookham), Lowry (Salford and Berwick) and Eardley (Catterline). In each case the self-imposed isolation engendered a singularly intense and original response.

Hannah Woodman, through her intimate association with the wild Cornish coastline between Gwithian and St Agnes, is similarly developing a body of work that is so personal and resonant that it will surely be indelibly linked in the public psyche (by both present and future generations) with that terrain. Those who have been following the artist’s career from afar feel that they know Gwithian through her pictures — its winding lanes and hedgerows, its beach, breakers and dunes, its fields, cottage roofs and telegraph wires. For the past five years she has made this landscape uniquely her own, occupying a studio located in its midst, at the end of a secluded and bumpy private track. Getting to the studio necessitates a journey of ten miles down the coast from her home in St Agnes. But once there, she has complete privacy and can get on with her work undisturbed.

Perhaps it is the physical separation between studio and home that has allowed Woodman to develop her technical skills so successfully. A consummate craftswoman, she creates richly textured surfaces that repay close scrutiny:

“I enjoy the process of working in layers, building up a density of marks both deliberate and spontaneous, constantly agitating the surface of the picture — scraping, scratching, splattering, palette knife work etc. I start off with a very basic drawn outline of the scene then fill it in with a dark wash, then begin to add layers of thicker paint including areas of pure bold colour. I leave these layers to dry off for a few days before I come back and attack the painting for real. This is the exciting stage and much more physical. I literally paint over all the previous work (sometimes whacking the surface quite hard) then ‘rediscover’ it when I wipe and scratch away at what I’ve done. Patches of happy accidents occur where a splodge or dribble of paint applied in haste takes on a form that gels the scene together — or not, and then I begin to get frustrated. Some of my best pictures were created out of a furious exasperation with not being able to get the results I was after. There is obviously an energy in anger that reproduces well on the surface. I’ll stand way back at one end of the studio to assess the picture (they do need distance) then come up close to bash the surface with the paint. This is one of the reasons I work on board instead of canvas at the moment — it’s harder and more resilient! Eventually the struggle dies out and the work is hopefully finished.”

The sheer variety of Woodman’s gestural vocabulary does not, however, seem either self-referencing or abstract. Rather I would argue that it reacts, like a kind of artistic seismograph, to the elemental scenes she chooses to depict. Her textures act as painterly metaphors for natural forces, for example the concealing membrane of hoar frost or snow, the relentless thunder and spume of a stormy sea, or the dry heat of summer absorbed by stalks of ripe corn. By mediating felt experiences rather than topographical details, she creates what are in effect landscape archetypes, confronting us afresh with the primal forces that shape our planet and our relationship with it:

“I’m particularly drawn to the more bleak areas, where the human presence is more restrained. Who lives in those cottages miles from anywhere? Where does that lane lead — will it get me to the sea? I still get a feeling of nervous excitement when I stumble across a quiet patch of landscape that seems relatively unvisited. I suppose more than anything I want to capture that quality in my work. I would like people to feel that quiet solitude when they look at my paintings and put themselves there just for a moment.”

It seems to me that Hannah Woodman has reinvigorated the landscape idiom by bringing her art out of the centrally heated interior and exposing it to the vicissitudes of the open air. She makes us participants in this journey, so that we unwittingly provide the human presence that is otherwise absent from these glimpses of nature at its most primordial.

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Jonathan Benington, Victoria Art Gallery, May 2007