Wednesday, August 22, 2018

End of the Glacier

We enjoyed a family day trip to Hastings at the weekend, where I am pleased to say I was victorious at crazy golf.  As a child I always imagined designing my own courses and on the way round I was daydreaming about one based on the great works of land art, where golf balls have to be putted through models of Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels and Michael Heizer's Double Negative, round the Spiral Jetty, through the Lightning Field and into Roden Crater... 

I was thinking about art because we had just been to the Jerwood Gallery, which is currently showing exhibitions by Mark Wallinger and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. The Wallinger includes Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (2007), which refers back to the great painting by Bruegel but is just a video installation with You've Been Framed clips. He also had some photographs of the local Birdman competition and a room with a wall of mirrors and an Eadward Muybridge grid, with encouragement to take photographs (my sons were happy to oblige). Here, I will focus on Barns-Graham, who I've only ever mentioned once before on this blog.

The Jerwood's display, Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice, is described on The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust website.
'The Jerwood Gallery takes their own Barns-Graham painting Winter Landscape, 1952 as the rationale for the display. The starting point is a strong group of glaciers that includes Glacier Painting, Green and Brown, 1951 from Sheffield Museums (the show travels to the Graves Gallery, opening 8 December) before showing how the series developed away from having direct glacier references to one of rock forms...'
The sketchbooks and texts displayed alongside the paintings show the artist trying to uncover the shapes of the mountains' steep rock faces and curving ice fields.  I noted down part of a quote, next to End of the Glacier, Upper Grindelwald (1949), which conveys a strong sense of the Sublime.
"Once while working against the evening light rapidly fading, I experienced a terrifying desire to roll myself down the mountain side.  Calmly as I could I came down the wood steps cut in the ice, Grindelwald far below. ... I heard the awful roar of an avalanche and seeing what looked like a trickle of salt in the distant heights.  All this and the many moods beautiful and frightening fascinated me."

I have always loved Barns-Graham's glacier paintings, in particular Glacier Crystal, Grindelwald (1950) - not in this show, but reproduced (above) on the front of the Tate's 2005 exhibition catalogue.  Maybe this is partly because they resemble frozen air.  The Grindelwald glacier, she wrote, seemed to breath. "This likeness to glass and transparency, combined with solid, rough ridges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through, and all round, as a bird flies, a total experience..."

Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice took in other work from Barns-Graham's long career, and was a reminder of the abiding interest she showed in other naturally abstract landforms, from the quarries she sketched in the late fifties to the lava she drew in the early nineties.  The waves of the Lanzarote lava field were conveyed in white chalk and pastel on black paper, reminding me of the Tacita Dean drawings I saw recently in London. The fact that for a decade or so these artists were contemporaries is rather amazing.  When Barns-Graham died in 2004 at the age of 91, her 'radiant' late work was evidently as highly regarded by critics as anything else she had painted.

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