The bright spark in a brown world - The Times 1996
Sacha Craddock celebrates the long career of one of Britain's best abstract painters
To anyone standing in front of a work by Gillian Ayres it soon becomes clear that this artist's chosen subject is painting itself. Unlike a lot of lyrical abstraction, Ayres's work is almost belligerent in its direct, "hands-on", expressionistic approach.
There is no sense of doubt or indecision, only of an attempt to create a reality through massive volumes of paint. The struggle seems more physical than mental. "Why should painting be bloody misery?" Ayres asks.
Her current exhibition at Gimpel Fils is a vivid illustration of this attitude. It includes a generous selection of works: many large paintings, among them a diptych which is very large indeed, and a group of smaller works downstairs. The colour in the recent works is forceful, the drawing blunt. Throughout her career, which spans almost half a century, Ayres has been concerned with paint's potential for transformation. Perhaps no other British painter except Frank Auerbach has explored this potential with such passion. The other enduring quality in Ayres's work is the expressive use of colour. From the thinner, more fluid abstract pictures of the 1950s to the later "arranged'' works of the 1980s, all are uniformly bright and hedonistic and determinedly not rooted in the English tradition of muted tonal variations. Her affiliations lie in a straight line from Impressionism, through Matisse to American Abstract Expressionism.
She first came into contact with what she still characterises as "brown" English art as a student at Camberwell Art School, where she kept herself to herself. "I thought when I went to art school: 'how wonderful, I will be able to talk to people'. But that was 1946, and they had all come out of the Army and they were talking about the desert and the jungle instead." Her work has remained consistently, almost blindly, unconcerned with specific subject matter or the trappings of autobiography, more decorative than descriptive. "Our particular culture has always been difficult about decoration," she says. "It is happier with serious subjects and brown paintings. I'm not against the brown of Braque — the colour brown — but there was always thought to be an extra seriousness in dark paintings. In this country they also talk of pure decoration if it were something like an embroidered cushion. It is a form of Puritanism."
Although Ayres has been making paintings for nearly five decades, it was at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s that her large encrusted, spectacular work achieved acclaim, and came be essential viewing for a great number of art students. Up to that point she had been teaching in art schools herself, after an illness moved to Wales and painted full-time.
She talks about art using a language that presumes a singular shared view. "Reality is constant, but its manifestations are not. I would like to think that my paintings hit a collective consciousness. She sees the world through her medium and its history: "Wherever I go in the world. I know the skies from painting. On the East Coast I see Constable clouds. People said to Picasso 'that's not in Nature,' and he said, 'well it is now'." •
© Sacha Craddock 1996