“Happy paintings for me are pretty curious”.
I have grown up watching Bob’s dedication to the labour of art, the essential interest in his life. Until recently his art has been part of the characteristically English search for the mark hard won, the artist’s progress as he carries his burden through the Slough of Despond to the Celestial City. Now, as these increasingly lyrical, suffused drenchings of magentas and yellows demonstrate, a new light has come into his work. I remember a recent conversation on Bacon’s refusal to accept the easy mark, as if the lack of pain in making art somehow negated its validity. In contrast Bob is now allowing ease to be a significant part of his art; he is letting the painting happen rather than carrying out an allotted task in a Puritan manner. Allowing the form and feeling of the figure to come through, rather than the eternal search for something more difficult, “Happy paintings for me are pretty curious” he said.
Certain subjects have recurred through the years, dogs for example, interestingly there are no dogs in these current works (the first title for this piece was, what no dogs?) this absence might tell us something about the lightness of being that informs these new paintings. Bob’s most constant themes have been the representation of the figure, cloth and the craftsman like care for the use of materials, In these works the figures are largely in pairs, the figure and its doppelganger, rather than two separate beings. There are echoes of past figures here, either personal or part of an enormous visual vocabulary built up over the years. Araidne from Titian’s ‘Bachus and Ariadne’ for example appears several times, although it’s the turning form of the figure rather than the narrative that interests the artist. There is a certain feel of heavy dancing about them, “dancing as foot on the earth ritual” as Bob calls it, a human moment, not a refined high cultural ritual.
Cloth has been an important subject for some time, in this case the mythic power of cloth; we are born and die in cloth and represent ourselves through it during life. In the past, images had been worked on board, but these paintings are made on cloth. The paint is worked into thin calico and washed off so that the colour does not lie on, but in the surface: it becomes the very substance it describes. Yellow is put over magenta, layered like skin or like light on drapery, yellow illuminating the fugitive figure. Bob’s process of finding and releasing the form in the cloth leaves clear traces of the making of the work, there is a strong sense of the image deliberately coming through from behind. The quickly drawn line, again recently reintroduced, has a sense of pace; drawing on a wet ground not unlike a Renaissance fresco painter drawing his designs into fresh intonaco. These figures from Bob’s and from art’s history, lngres, Goya, classical statuary to the High Renaissance, float in veils of pink and yellow often with their-backs to us, yet never aloof or disdainful. Figures at ease painted with a surprising joy, with a sense of scale, stability and heavy footed calm. Figures involved in a weighty human dance, gazed at rather than caught in a passing glance, time slowed to a thoughtful passage as these cloths appear as ancient reminders of our own physical relationship to each other and ourselves. That notion is also brought to mind as one watches him move these sheets of calico around his studio, a delicate patriarch, arms outstretched, tenderly dancing his creations to a new place in the line. Cloths made in a light filled studio surrounded by hop gardens and vineyards, the attributes of Bachus, the wooer of Ariadne, the personification of enjoyment.