Basil Beattie: Paintings from the Janus series.
‘Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.’ (1)
Basil Beattie has always been hesitant in attributing literal references to the imagery in his paintings yet there is a poetic bluntness in the titling of the Janus series: No Known Way, Been and Gone, Drawing in the Night, Beginnings and Endings, Touching Distance, The Approaching Night, Night Embrace … For a painter who has been as seriously involved as Beattie in testing the eloquence of the abstract image, the titles imply an endgame of a kind.
Beattie occupies an interesting place in the history of British painting since the early 1960’s. Trained alongside artists such as John Hoyland, Paul Huxley, John Thompson and Peter Cresswell and profoundly influenced by the first UK exhibitions of American Abstract Expressionism; for many years he adhered to a way of making work that dwelt solely within formal parameters to do with colour, gesture and scale.
In the late 1980’s however the paintings began to change, incorporating almost calligraphic motifs that were held in loosely suggested grids that ran across the surfaces of very large canvases. By the 1990’s these elemental gestures had developed into a system of pictographic forms that read as thresholds, tunnels and steps. Taking up the challenge of conceptual theory that questioned the validity of the expressive gesture in painting and sought meaning through the decoding of semiotic notation, Beattie developed a repertoire of simple forms that provided him with the means by which to address the metaphorical force of words. Nick de Ville describes in his work of the time ‘a profound sense of an artist plunging – perhaps unwillingly – into language’. (2)
The relinquishing of certainties is a painful thing and it is a measure of the stature of Beattie’s paintings that their developments and conclusions have been tested against much of what this artist might have held as central to the tenets of abstraction from which he came. He acknowledged in a recent interview: “I expect one used to fight against so-called narrative and autobiographical elements or make sure they did not occur at all.
Once I had embarked upon the possibility of content that was beyond the aesthetic delight in using the materials (I never wanted to leave that pleasure and sensuousness) but I never wanted to indulge. I wanted to graft the two together – the essential assertion of the process and the materiality with thoughts about how we read things and how we relate them to our experiences.” (3)
Beattie’s pictorial shorthand, which notionally denotes architectonic or recessional space, gives the paintings a quality of signing without ever falling completely into recognisable modes of figuration. These basic forms and perspectival devices allow him to mine a remarkable range of subconscious associations and the paintings’ suggestive evocation of language puts him in a territory that is now quite apart from his direct contemporaries. Described as ‘one of the most significant of bridges in the generations of contemporary British painters’, there are notable younger artists who have acknowledged that without Beattie’s example their own work might have taken very different routes.
The images in the Janus series are curiously constructed, stacked three, or four, within a framing device that suggests one is looking at them reflected, as in a car mirror, or projected into vast space. The viewer’s gaze is led through a series of ‘portals’ that reinforce the illusory quality of the images. From a distance they read as horizons, train tracks, fields; close to and the surfaces dissolve into a progression of formal, essentially graphic decisions expressed in layers of and incisions into paint. Each vista is defined by a simple division of space – a horizontal line, rendered shadow-like, black on black, by line, or in the threshold of one colour against another. Beattie sets up an illusion of space, a rhythmic repetition of horizons that are brought short by the intrusion of painted marks, stains or absences of paint. The paintings hover in a territory that is tantalisingly elusive in any strict theoretical sense - provocatively contemporary in their manipulation of semiotic suggestion and weighted by an imagery that alludes to communal experience, to understand them in any meaningful way the viewer must encounter them as physical objects.
Beattie is clear about the transaction in his work between ideas and how they are realised: “I have to work to a point where the initial ideas are lost or re-discovered. I may have several things that I know that I want to have in the painting but it may not cohere, or the actual experience of the image is not realised in a way that I am prepared to accept and to simply allow these ideas to rest in the mind of the person that I am trying to describe them to … The meaning can only come really from a direct confrontation with the surface, with the object itself and when I am making a painting often I may have what you might call some of the main ingredients, but it remains there, it doesn’t speak … It is only through trial and error often, that the process of finding out how those images should be presented, brings the painting to the point of vividness, a certain degree of intensity …” (4)
Though he is reticent about autobiographical statement Beattie has mentioned in interviews early memories of visiting his father’s signalman’s hut - watching a couple of miles down the line a signal change as he pulled on its lever. He speaks also of train journeys made as a young National Service soldier in the mid 1950’s, passing through the German countryside en-route to training exercises. The journeys Beattie hints at are ambiguous and he acknowledges that there are inescapable associations connected to the perspectival references he makes, but like the boy watching the signal the complex effects of these paintings are born of a push and pull of different forces.
Beattie has said that when he first saw Mark Rothko’s paintings he felt he was in the presence a new kind of realism - one located in the experience of the work rather than in images that referred to reality. “It wasn’t about reflecting what the world looked like, but it was more perhaps to do with what the world, an inner world sometimes, felt like.” (5)
Looking at the Janus paintings one feels a sense they indicate the final journeys we all must make, yet it is their verisimilitude and in their sheer quality of present-ness that they are able to evoke meditations about the past and projections of un-chartered futures.
They are images of internal scapes made visual through the manipulation of material. They remind that great painting has a particular charge that is only really tangible in the present.
Emma Hill 2009
(1) Krapp’s Last Tape, Samuel Beckett
(2) Marking a Year, Nick de Ville 2005 ISBN 978-0-9554046-5-8
(3) Tangibly Out of Stuff, Alexander Adams 2009 (interview)
(4) The Corridor of Uncertainty 2007 Eagle Gallery / Tate Britain DVD
(5) British Library Sound Archive, interview with Mel Gooding (on-going)