Catalogue Essay by James Hyman.
Irises, etc. Recent painting and watercolours by Derrick Greaves
I recently visited Derrick Greaves at his Norfolk studio to see his new paintings. As with each visit I have made over the last twenty or so years, I came with the excitement of knowing that I would be seeing new and surprising pictures. But this time I was especially intrigued. For some years Derrick has suggested, only half-jokingly, that once he turned 90 (which he did last year) he would stop making large paintings and instead devote himself to watercolours. But once again he surprised me. Yes, there were new and beautiful watercolours - some fresh subjects, others a reinterpretation of earlier motifs based on the rediscovery of drawings from decades ago- but there were also several big new paintings all made this year. It was truly inspiring.
Derrick's youngest son, Daniel, calls him Mr Prolific, and it is certainly astonishing to witness not just the continued invention but also the confidence of the new work. But this is only part of the story for Derrick is a terrific (and terrifying) self-editor. There may be new paintings each time I visit, but he is also a harsh critic of his own pictures. Frequently, he destroys work, paints over it or reworks a picture into something altogether different: it's a nightmare for cataloguers! I remember remarking that a beautiful new still life on a burgundy ground echoed an earlier painting on a green ground, only to be told, sheepishly, that it was the same painting, entirely reworked.
It is also wonderful that each exhibition on which we have worked has had a distinct identity. I particularly enjoyed working on our 2013 show, entitled All Blues (after a Miles Davis piece), which explored Derrick's use of the colour blue. This latest exhibition, Irises, etc., remains true to this thematic impulse, focusing on recent paintings that foreground a central motif, in this case irises.
Still lives and flowers studies - roses, tulips, grasses, irises - are a leitmotif of Greaves's entire oeuvre but this sustained focus on irises was sparked by a private commission for a property situated between the sea and an iris-filled nature reserve. This engagement led to powerful paintings that appropriately often use a palette of blues and greens to set off the purple and orange of the flowers. It also resulted in powerfully economic black ink drawings and subtly coloured watercolours.
Greaves's most characteristic images often have an heraldic quality that is a reminder, also, of the artist's teenage origins as a sign painter. In a parallel universe you could imagine his emblematic painting of a cafetière or a single iris painting on a hanging as signs outside a coffee shop or florist just as oversized spectacles once hung outside an optician and a striped pole outside a barber. In such works Greaves distils the subject to its essence and it is tempting to suggest that something similar is taking place in these latest Iris pictures.
The two large Iris paintings at the heart of this exhibition, each show three images of an iris set against a dark ultramarine background that refine the flower to its essentials. But looking more deeply at these two paintings and the related works, especially the beautiful studies on paper, something else suggests itself. The purpose of an emblem is to generalise in order to provide an image that stands for the entire complexity of a subject, yet each of these iris heads, as Derrick calls them, is individual and particular. Indeed one might almost describe these paintings not as still-lifes but as portraits.
To see the works on paper of iris heads hanging in a row on a wall emphasises the distinctiveness of each. Moreover, if one reads the two large paintings as each presenting a single flower - a central front-on view flanked by profiles - then what Greaves has created is the worlds strangest but most beautiful mugshots: society at its ugliest (think also of Francis Bacon's triptych head studies) replaced by the beauty of nature.
These, then, are life-affirming pictures and their positivity reminds me of Derrick's Shangri-La series, made at the time of the first Iraq War, and also of a story that he recently recounted about Henri Matisse. During the First World War, Matisse desperately wanted to contribute. However, because of his age he was unable to fight. He wrote to his friend, Marcel Sembat, a government minister for his advice. Sembat replied that the best thing that Matisse could do was to stay in his studio and 'continue to paint well.' A century later, in today's dark times, what could be more inspiring than for Derrick still to go to his studio, each and every day, to produce uplifting works that add light and colour and beauty to our lives.
© 2021 James Hyman Gallery, PO Box 72888,
LONDON N2 2FH