Michael Porter at the Maas Gallery

17–28 APRIL

The Maas Gallery will be holding an exhibition of 25 recent works by contemporary artist Michael Porter.

Michael Porter’s work concentrates on descriptions of the natural world, revealing elements of our environment – the broken twig, the odd-coloured stone, the withered leaf – which are so often overlooked, but deserving of a second glance. For over thirty years, Porter has worked exclusively from the landscape, always using locations that have long been familiar to him, as the paintings incorporate both time past and time present. 


The Maas Gallery

Close to the Ground

Typically Porter activates the ground of his painting, whether on canvas or paper, by pouring paint on to the awaiting rectangular surface, sometimes placing objects under the base layer, causing the expanse of paint to flow over and through the surface as if it were a relief map.

While the paint is still fluid he has the unorthodox tendency to incorporate oil paint alongside the initial acrylic paint layer, and, later, to even use gouache paint on top. The interaction of these different fluids causes conjunctions that emulate those effects found in nature when different mobile substances have come together, whether anciently or recently. Porter’s knowledge and understanding of the intrinsic qualities of paint therefore serves him well in cajoling his media into equivalents for natural processes and elements. As he says: “I don’t paint paintings, I make paintings.” Furthermore, he has even “been making bits of painting that are on plastic sheeting, and then peeling them off this plastic sheeting and putting them down on the surface”, almost like a collage made of paint itself.

Having composed this painterly space through the pouring and cajoling of his media, Porter now has a ready backdrop equivalent to the locale of his initial experience – a context for his climactic moves. He then proceeds to bring the painting to a conclusion by placing a realistically painted image of a small natural object out of the landscape, such as a leaf, a stone, a shell, a feather, even a butterfly, as a focal point in the painting. If one such object is portrayed it is generally close to the centre of the work, but he will, on occasion, paint several small objects in a realistic manner, and distribute them across the painting. Sometimes these painted objects, though sharply delineated, effectively melt into the ground, since their relationship, as in nature, is sometimes close to the condition of camouflage. Smaller paintings, however, often provoke the notion that they stand for portraits of some of those disparate objects that commonly exist on the surface of the land.

Porter’s memory of the site of his original experience is reinforced back in the studio by photographs that were taken at the time. These are often stuck on the emerging paintings themselves during the working process and are used as a way of analysing the subject. “They can be scrutinised over and over again. They are a record of a split second in time, just as the paintings are frozen images in time.”

The images have more than one function, for as well as being documentary records or source material, they can also very often be self-sufficient works. Indeed, photography is not only very important to the artist in recording locations and the forms of objects in the landscape; it is also an autonomous allied art form. Then again, while his photographs have been exhibited in their own right, Porter also uses photographs – and photograms – as the basis for new works that incorporate painted additions to make a new composite image.

Porter’s painterly skills are exceptional, and varied. If one compares two recent paintings: Coastal Path 08–01-08, and Coastal Path 05–02-11, the former has an extraordinarily beautiful ‘under- painting’, with sensuous colours and a tactile surface that uses paint to mimic the original environment rather than to depict it literally. This space is then teased into a more complex total image by means of the more realistically painted plant tendrils, flowers, and dying leaves that spread out across the ground. However, in the case of Coastal Path 05–02-11, there is more drama in the ‘under-painting’. Black shapes overlay rivulets of blue paint on a white ground, while themselves being overlaid with layers of paint created separately on plastic sheeting before being collaged to the ground. In this case the leaves and plant tendrils are a much more discreet presence among the forces evident in the under-painting.

These paintings are beautiful by anyone’s standards, but very often in an encounter with a new work by Porter its beauty is not immediately disclosed; indeed, many of his paintings are difficult. But as Wittgenstein said, it is only if a text demands close reading, only if it is difficult, that it can be interpreted. Where we understand something straight off, there is no room for interpretation. Difficulty demands a careful reading. Porter has firm views on beauty: “Beauty now seems to be a derogatory term.

But for me, if a thing is beautiful, it’s fine; if a thing is ugly, it’s fine. I’d like to make beautiful paintings but I don’t want to start with beauty. A work can be purposefully badly made and still be beautiful. It’s like you look at a Francis Bacon painting – lots of people see them as ugly paintings, but they’re very beautiful; they’re rightly constructed.” Porter is also acquainted with Picasso’s observation that beautiful passages in an unfinished painting may have to be destroyed for the good of the final conception.

Recently Porter began a new series of paintings exemplified by The Death of Nature 27–12-10. It is immediately evident that the wide range of colour common to his other paintings has been bundled aside. This is a near-monochrome painting, and what is more, black predominates. This particular painting, as has become customary, also contains a depiction of a natural object at its focal point, in this case a small white feather only slowly distinguishable from its under-painting. Porter states that the series, already taking form in large paintings as well as this smaller one, is “…a comment on society. I think we’ve lost our way. Nobody seems to work together. We see all these countries fighting one another at the same time that religions are fighting one another for supremacy”. In the face of all this negativity, there stands just a small, fragile, delicate white feather that might be said to represent almost a struggle for life against dark forces. The echoes of an oil-spill in the painting, and in its surface, are surely not coincidental.

Thus, these paintings of the land – from the land – carry the weight of contemporary issues without embodying slogans. They relate to specific places and experiences, but also stand as metaphors for the individual’s experience in society. While artists can be ‘reflective intuitive organisms’, that does not therefore deny them their place in the natural world, and they can still reach out beyond it to show the real significance of their lived experience. Porter sees his work as part of a cultural awareness that also embraces the work of Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Delius, as well as in Thoreau, Whitman and Heaney.

If we were also to connect painters in the English tradition to Porter’s work we would inevitably include Constable, Turner and Palmer, and such twentieth-century artists as Paul Nash and Sutherland, but Porter himself would include an artist such as Richard Dadd. This choice may seem surprising at first, but, on reflection, the incredible organic detail in Dadd’s famous painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, certainly connects with the depictions of the objects that punctuate Porter’s recent paintings. Porter is not, however, attuned only to an English tradition, for he appreciates and learns from such significant contemporary painters as Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer. But even with this wider perspective, and acknowledging his intimate involvement with the landscape of France and the United States, it is clear that his work and achievement has become a milestone in English landscape painting.

Review: Michael Porter

At the Stoneman Gallery, Chapel Street, Penzance, June 11 to July 2. Also at Newlyn Gallery from July 16 to September 10

Michael Porter’s paintings are about he landscape. As a man who is constantly outside, walking, climbing or fly fishing, it seemed natural for him to paint what he loved. In the 1980s, then, Porter produced a lovely series of abstracted wood scenes which, like his current work, were very much about finding painting techniques that would produce an equivalent of the sensation he experiences when looking at trees. Working with the canvas on the floor, oil paint was poured, then mixed with water colour and ova, the resulting soup manipulated into an image inspired by the subject matter.

With his current work Newlyn-based Porter has turned his gaze downwards and created a large body of work inspired by what we see at our feet, whether walking along the seashore, through woods or across the cliffs.

Porter has evolved an elaborate technique which simultaneously expresses the textures of rocks, wood and grasses and produces paintings that feel very object-like and contemporary. In Seashore series 13–06-10 (illustrated), paint and pigment are mixed in with pva. Layers are built up in this way resulting in surfaces that have a glossy-relief feel. This, combined with the fact that the painting carries on around the edges, reinforces the painting’s objectness and a sense that the painting has been made rather than painted. It is an incredibly time-consuming process that requires a lot of patience and skill but for Porter the effort is worth it because it is the best way he can recreate the complex textures on finds in nature.

In this picture, as in many of this series, there are very realistically painted seashells. This realism creates a tension with the splattered marbled forms of the rocks and I really like the way the different styles offset each other.

Porter’s paintings belong in the Romantic tradition of painting. Think of Turner tying himself to a mast to capture the raging storm and contemporary artists like Len Tabner. However, although Porter makes you acutely aware of the beauty that is all around us, he does so in a completely unsentimental, non-illustrative way and produces paintings that are startlingly original and of the moment. For me they work in a realistic and abstract way in that as a whole the picture seems quite unreal in its sense of embossed glossiness but at the same time the rocks and the painted limpets are uber-realistic. This dichotomy between the real and the artificial makes for fascinating paintings which very much reflect that feeling we’ve all had as a child when staring into a rock pool; that of looking into another world.

An English Artist Finds Inspiration on the Rocks

Beverly – Separated though they are by thousands of miles of ocean, Boston’s North Shore and Cornwall, at the southwestern tip of England, have in common a sense of isolation, of being spiritually closer to the sea than to the populous island.

Both also have a granite coastline that is a magnet for artists. American Luminist master Fitz Hugh Lane painted the rocks of Cape Ann in the 19th century. This summer, 200 years after Lane’s birth, British artist Michael Porter made an extended visit to Cape Ann to paint a similar subject in a very different way.

Lane’s rocks exist in a context. They’re dark markers; beyond them stretches a seemingly endless sea. Porter’s rock paintings are all rock, with no horizon line, no ocean. They’re akin to Monet’s late paintings, with every inch of canvas consumed by a single subject. And, like those Monets, Porter’s pictures can almost be seen as abstract. Monet would have objected to that label, and so does Porter. “I am a landscape artist,” he says with conviction.

It was the Montserrat College of Art’s residency program that brought porter from Cornwall for three months this summer. The results of that sojourn are on view in four North Shore venues: Montserrat’s two galleries, the Cape Ann Historical Museum, and the Jane Deering Gallery in Gloucester.

Deering, a dealer who divides her time between London and Cape Ann – and is making a real impact on the Cape’s sleepy art scene – first proposed Porter’s visit. She and Montserrat Gallery director Katherine French believe that importing artists from elsewhere will help restore the North Shore art community’s vitality. In the first half of the 20th century, painter Stuart Davies, sculptor Paul Manship, photographer Aaron Siskind, and others of their ilk worked there.

Gradually, though, the art community became hermetically sealed and self-referential. On Cape Ann, the term “outsider artist” has an entirely different meaning that in the rest of art world. There, it’s a geographic term, not a stylistic one.

No matter which side of the Atlantic he’s on, Porter begins his work by taking walks, taking pictures and collecting shells and rocks on beaches. His actual art is all made in the studio. Unlike artists who believe that landscapes must be derived from sketches made in nature, Porter achieves his freshness through the camera, which to him is a way of gathering neutral information, an impartial accuracy no sketch can match. Back in his studio the photographs become a vocabulary he translates into astonishingly complex images. Translucent veils hover in the foreground, allowing your eye to penetrate into the depths, where there are collage elements: rocks upstaging or interrupting one another, as they might in a cubist painting. And, like abstract expressionist master Jackson Pollock, Porter liberates his work from the easel, putting his paper or canvas flat on the floor to maximize his physical freedom in relation to the rectangle. He also uses a buildup of acrylic medium to create a subtle relief on the surface. He doesn’t like the character of canvas and aims to obliterate its weave so you’re aware only of what’s on top of it. If he could paint the air, he probably would.

That there is more than one way to “see” a stretch of shoreline is underscored by the diptych format he favors. At Montserrat, Porter’s commanding “Coastal Rocks, Diptych” is among the most arresting pieces in a group show called “Ocean View.” The left side is gritty, grainy, hyperactive, the lush palette of mauve and quiet blues accented by black and white. The painting surges, like water running over the rocks. The right side is chillier, more static, gloomier in palette, concentrating on the shape and grain of the stone. The juxtaposition of the two begs another comparison to Monet, this time with the series paintings that depict the same place changing with the season, weather, and light. Porter’s solo turn at Montserrat includes four more diptychs, drenched in blues, offering a wealth of textures, from ethereal and cobwebby to blunt and bold. Imagine a real rock that incorporates glittering metallic specks, a seemingly infinite range of colors and graining, and shapes that leave geometry’s principals far behind. To describe it completely would take as long as it would to describe one of Porter’s paintings.

The Montserrat show also incorporates his paintings on photograms, a cameraless process with objects placed between light-sensitive paper and a source of light. In Porter’s case the objects are rocks: Their glowing, hovering white silhouettes appear on the paper, and then Porter paints an exquisitely detailed miniature of a shell in the centre. With these works, Porter enters the territory of Surrealism, especially in one image of a blue-black mussel shell floating in front of those mysterious white silhouettes. The shell is open, as if it wants to speak; it has an iconic force. The painting looks like a photograph; the actual photograph behind it looks like an abstract painting.

The series of gouaches at the Cape Ann Historical Museum are all titled “Shell, Sitting Still,” after the first line of a poem by Marsden Hartley, who is far less well known as a writer than as a painter, another one associated with Gloucester in its heyday. I haven’t seen the Porter gouaches yet. A tip to save what for many would be a long drive in vain: One of the quirks of this museum is that it is closed on Sunday, the day when most museums have their highest attendance.

Michael Porter says that when people walk through a landscape, they can do so “with a glance or a gaze.” They can pass through quickly, casually noting the beauty of the place, or they can linger to take in the details. You can do both with Porter’s work. But you’d be cheating yourself if you didn’t spend some serious time with them, mentally peeling away those layers, delighting in revelation after another.

Rock Chic South of the River

The general move of galleries dealing in contemporary art away from the West End has been one of the most significant developments in London’s art world over the past 30 years or so. Its most obvious effect has been the spectacular increase in the actual number of galleries, and with it the opportunities for artists in general, and younger artists most of all, to get their work seen in public.

But, while the City and the East End in particular have prospered in this respect, Southwark and the South Bank have rather lagged behind. The ancient London prejudice against “south of the river” has had much to do with it. One might have thought, for example, that the conspicuous complex of Hayward Gallery, National Theatre and Festival Hall would have drawn ancillary independent activity across to the South Bank – but it hasn’t. And if the South Bank area is tricky, how much more so Southwark down-river, which really is more awkward to get at – or at least was until now. Will the new Tate Modern at the Bankside Power Station do at a stoke what the Hayward never could? Will the new Jubilee Line extension do the trick? We shall see.

Meanwhile, Southwark needs must progress as shrewd businesses, charities and individuals see the point – so much cheaper, and now but a stop or two by train from Green Park and Bond Street. The Bankside Gallery home of the Royal Watercolour Society has been by the river at Hopton Street for 20 years. The Delfina charitable complex, with its gallery, its studios and bursaries for artists from abroad – and its excellent restaurant into the bargain – has been in Bermondsey Street since the mid 1980s. The Design Museum has been on the river below Tower Bridge since the early 1990s. The Jerwood Gallery and Rehearsal Space, again with café attached opened in Union Street last year. And small, independent galleries have been coming and going with a healthy, hardy few remaining.

One of the very first and best was Purdy/Hicks, at first below Tower Bridge in Mill Street, and now in it’s handsome space in Hopton Street, close beside Blackfriars Bridge. Its policy has always been to show contemporary painting – not of any age group in particular, but rather work falling loosely across the divide between abstraction and figuration of a romantic and associative kind. The result is that the gallery has never been slave to fashion, but only to quality staying with artists as they develop over a true career rather than looking merely to a moment of glory and the latest thing. Michael Porter is a case in point, an artist now in his early 50s who has been showing at intervals since the late 1970s with serious if not the most prominent (Purdy/Hicks these past 10 years), and his work finding its way into many of the better collections, if not yet the Tate. He is, however, set to show at the Tate St Ives next year, and quite right too. Which is rather the point, for his is now a somewhat neglected generation of painters, at once over shadowed in the eyes of critical orthodoxy by his sculptor contemporaries and superseded by the Young Brits.

He calls himself a landscape painter and indeed calls his show after the cliffs, and coastlines of farthest Cornwall, where he’s been living these past few years. But if his subject is landscape, it is a close and intimate surface of the landscape that engages him. Where it once might have been the bark and lichen-crust of tree trunk or the close, dense undergrowth or mouldering, crumbling earthy bank that supplied the image and the background – against which a delicately painted leaf might hover, or a fungus shelf or cap protrude – it is now the sheer wall of rock that holds the work cracks and fissured, covered in muck and moisture. But that is trying to read these painting literally — for now the devise of the floating leaf to activate the space is only occasionally employed: all is surface, leaving the space there only be implication not description.

They are thus as abstract as you care to take them – densely worked in a thick impasto, scraped, dragged, layered, and, in parts, actually collaged, leaving the surface selectively raised and edged. Technically they are extremely complex things, beautifully and immaculately done, worked in a generally dark, cool palette – although none the less rich for that – of black and umbers, greys and silvers, blues and greens, with here and there and old leavening of pink and ochre to warm things up. The eye is caught by rends and slashes, as though of barnacles or lichen striped off, or splits and cracks as a stratification of the rocks. The paint is held in marbled swirls and pools of pigment. A light spray marks up the grey, dragged striations in the paint, as of the grain and weathering of the stone.

Yet the imaginative world of this personal landscape is still there for us to enter, a dense, close forest or dark cave – as though Arthur Rackham of our childhood storybooks had come back, with his wild, wintry woods, crumbling banks and tangled roots, only this time as an abstract painter. And it is in this almost poetic and suggestive quality that Porter stands among his contemporaries as an uniquely atmospheric artist and latter-day romantic, gleefully, morosely Swinburnian in his insistent evocation of secret places, damp and shade, hard and soft, growth and rot.