‘I don’t tend to see myself as an abstract painter’, says Neil Canning on his style as an artist. ‘There is always a very specific idea behind each of my paintings.’ As an artist whose work has been placed in the prominent canon of the St Ives school, including Frost, Blow and Heron (indeed, his work is scheduled to be exhibited among them in Belfast), Canning is very much an artist of his time, unifying the concepts and modes of expression of his predecessors with his own individual vision of what his work must convey. Since his last show, Canning has gone from strength to strength, recently receiving an Honorary Doctorate from Exeter University for an ‘Outstanding contribution to British Art’, and the ING Purchase Prize at the Discerning Eye Exhibition in November 2011 – an award that places his work among the ING Bank’s collection of Modern British Artists. His bright, energetic canvases, coupled with more experimental works on paper, track the progression of Canning’s ideas – from the initial ‘small spark’, to its evolution into vivid shapes, colours and composition. This body of recent work will showcase this progression via a variety of themes, settings and mediums.
Since moving to Cornwall fromWales fifteen years ago, Neil Canning’s style has developed from a more traditional approach to the region’s landscapes, to a distilled representation of memory, of places and emotions, via intense colour and – on the surface – almost complete abstraction. However, a closer, more absorbing look at each piece reveals both figurative and literal depth, as the eye adjusts to the many layers of paint. A palette can change dramatically over the course of a canvas’s development, a process that Canning views as almost cathartic, giving his works a genuine vigour and vitality.While works on paper seem to move almost joyously in their rapid execution (the music series – among them ‘Aria’, ‘Crescendo’ and ‘Rhapsody’ – being particularly invigorating examples), canvases such as ‘Porthleven’ appear more ponderous, as the original idea behind the work pushes itself to new limits. The application of paint in these newer works is noticeably grainier and textured in the main focus of each piece; we are taken back to bare elements – rock, sand and wind – a technique simultaneously enabling us to see the full extent of the creative process in each intricate layer.
‘During this show, I am partly revisiting my original portrayals of landscapes – reclaiming them from my early days’, says Canning. ‘However, it is amazing what can be suggested with simple line and colour.’ Indeed, horizons seem to playfully appear and disappear within a single glance at a painting, while softer, monotonic expanses of paint give an airy atmosphere reminiscent of the contrast between sky and sea, or stone and water.We are invited to stand and examine this contrast, drawn in initially by the magnetic hues, and held in suspense by the delicate, effortless detail in what could so easily be a haphazard application of paint. Perhaps the pièce de résistance of the show, however, is ‘Genesis’, an exploration of creativity and life itself that stokes the imagination and awakens the senses through an explosion of colour. It invites us to stand back and admire its sweeping, feathered texture, yet pulls us in to examine further the very natural intricacy of its centre.
‘Without us realising, art affects the way we see the world – it helps us to make sense of the complex and constantly changing world around us,’ says Neil Canning. His second solo show at Lemon Street Gallery does just this, as another step in the artist’s already glowing repertoire, demonstrating a growing confidence of technique and experimentation, and allowing us as the viewers to further explore our own limits of comprehension.
RosieWillmot, Lemon Street Gallery, March 2012.
NEIL CANNING AT LEMON STREET GALLERY
Engaging head on with an artistic tradition as strong and enduring as that surrounding the St Ives’ School is a distinctly dangerous enterprise – there’s always plenty of distinctly derivative work to be found in and around the Penwith Peninsula – but to come out of the encounter with a painting ‘voice’ that is quite so immediately personal and emotionally evocative as that which Neil Canning has evolved over the last ten to fifteen years really is the sign of a talent to be reckoned with. Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, JohnWells and Barbara Hepworth might have been Canning’s starting point when he first came to live and work in Cornwall in 1997 but, just as they provided him with a way to abandon the tyranny of the horizon line that had dominated hisWelsh landscapes of the previous decade, so they also set him free to develop that splendidly lyrical and vigorous style in which the forces of nature – sea, air and light – find their resolution in the forms of the landscape and the formal structure required by the act of painting itself.
Now, in this new group of paintings, you sense another major shift of emphasis gathering strength in his work. A move just a few years back, away from the coast to a house and studio at Relubbus – just halfway between Penzance and St Ives – seems to have brought about a quiet reappraisal of the way he wishes to work, above all in what he terms ‘a more focussed view of the sea’ and in the rather quieter colours of this inland landscape with its lichen-covered trees and the sharp grey angles of its granite boulders. Also, as in a painting like ‘Distant Calling’, the horizon line is beginning to make a clear comeback, something he doesn’t mind happening at all – he sees it as a useful reminder to his audience that, for all the apparent abstractness of his work, his paintings are always firmly based on his intensely emotional memories of a specific landscape. And, with recollections of an intensely exciting visit to New York a couple of years ago now also beginning to surface in his work, soon it may no longer simply be landscape that inspires Neil Canning’s exhilarating meditations on the seen world.
Nicholas Usherwood, 2012