Will we remember 2019 as the year when Newcastle painters really found abstraction? A remarkable series of exhibitions has explored many layers of completely non-figurative painting or augmented abstraction, when landscape and the figure are subsumed into pure paint with its own logic.
We think back to major exhibitions by James Drinkwater at NAG and Liam Power at ASW and of course to the survey of the 40-year career of Virginia Cuppaidge laying out the phases of historical abstract painting from a specifically female perspective.
And now we have four women artists at the University Gallery until August 24, exploring different aspects of the augmented figurative in some spectacularly successful paintings. All four of these artists have been based in Newcastle, with strong connections to the university as graduates, postgraduates and teachers.
Annemarie Murland has long been interested in the nature of her materials. Here she successfully expands her compositions into three dimensions. Sometimes using bulging forms of stiff white paper to break the surface, sometimes creating built-up swirls of immobilised muslin painted stark white. The paper sculpture has links to architecture and the explorations of form by early modernists and constructivists. The frozen tableau fabric pieces, by contrast, bear strong suggestions of marble drapery, not so much the pleated linen tunics of the Parthenon, but rather the solidified chaos of the Baroque. But there are also overtones of mortality and its memorials. It's a real breakthrough.
Katrina Holden is a recent graduate of the University Art School whose work was previously unknown to me. She uses landscape in spontaneous swirls of paint. There are the horizon line, bands of vegetation, an animated sky as the basis for rafts and tangles of paint and graphite, spontaneous and atmospheric. It will be interesting to see how she expands her range and evolves as a painter. Will she discover the magical possibilities of colour?
Dan Nelson has made a great leap forward in moving from the dry intensity of pastel to the high-octane drama of oil paint. The landscape is never far away, swathed in bushfire smoke in a notable series of works, incandescent with heat and flames, where the sun may appear fleetingly as a small ball. In contrast, other works invoke the cool mysterious depths of water in luminous blues and greens. These are paintings for the long haul, to study carefully, to discover a world in flux where the eye can explore new vistas in a shifting luminosity of vibrant colour.
The late Mazie Turner spent many years conjuring light from veils of colour, building up transparent layers of paint to create immersive atmospheric depths in a landscape of the mind. It is extraordinary to have the opportunity to study at close range her best-known painting, which normally hangs high in the foyer of the Conservatorium of Music. I hadn't realised until seeing it at the University Gallery that a drift of golden feathers separates us from the purple mists. Too few works from this inspirational teacher and painter were available to fully represent the scale of her achievements.
The curious title of the exhibition is Erasure. Perhaps I don't really understand its current usage, but all four of these artists are building atmosphere rather than eroding it. The emotional climate is firmly positive rather than hesitant. The catalogue essay talks of a dialogue between present and past, which would apply to the process that an artist like Lezlie Tilley employs in manipulating the text in old, pre-loved books. It can also apply to deleting areas of paint in order to re-paint, or wiping a smearing sponge across the paint to blur outline, rethink a composition or better resolve it. Can an artist be so bound up with a work, they can't bear to finish it?
Visitors to the exhibition will have to decide in what sense the term applies to these four painters. We will, however, all agree that there are obvious new departures resulting in some notable art works.
Can we compare them to the emotionally charged ebb and flow of music? I note the exhibition is presented as a foil to performances of the Newcastle Music Festival, which concludes on Sunday.