Essay by James Hyman
This publication is available from the gallery, priced at £10.00
A Language of Painting: The Paintings and Drawings of Derrick Greaves 1952-2002
`I don't think one paints for any other reason than to produce something new.
My painting now has little resemblance to that of the 1950s - as though one has
any choice about one's own development. All one can do is forge one's own path,
respond to the last painting and hope that the present painting leaves a clue for the next one.'
Derrick Greaves, 1999
A gold fish swims languidly to the surface of the water. Just beneath it another fish suddenly turns and darts towards the bottom of the bowl. The movement is jolting, the effect both startling and beautiful and the means by which it is achieved deceptively simple.
In many ways GOLDFISH (1979) is a manifesto painting, encapsulating many of Derrick Greaves's aspirations as a painter. For Greaves, citing Matisse's example, the search is for a bold economy. A use of paint that is matter of fact, not confected. A composition that is seemingly inevitable, not laboured. A subject that is `plainly there at one glance', yet also `has resonances that play back at you the longer you look at the picture'. His search, then, is not for mere `simplicity' but for the altogether grander ambitions of `economy' and of `clarity'. GOLDFISH is a painting that makes explicit the artist's admiration for Matisse's famous fish bowls, yet in it Greaves finds a language that is all his own. A vocabulary that is at once precise and evocative eloquently conveys the movement of the fish and gives a hint at the distorting effects of water in a bowl. For Greaves, then, what matters is `putting trust in the language of painting' ; trust in the ability of painting to encapsulate the artist's response and to convey it clearly to an audience.
These intentions, if not the visual languages used, reveal a consistency of purpose that unites half a century of achievement. From Greaves's five and a half years as an apprentice sign writer (1943-48) to his celebrated social realist paintings of the 1950s through to his most recent works there has been a desire not only to forge a personal language but also to communicate with an audience in as direct a means as possible. Surveying half a century of achievement one might even argue that Greaves established his reputation with the least typical paintings of his career. His `kitchen-sink' period works of the mid 1950s have little in common with either the sign writing that preceded them or the radical reformulation of his visual language that followed. Without these works of the 1950s Greaves might not have received acclaim so early, yet with them the later work has become obscured, as have the essential continuities of his work.
The bold emblematic form and graphic style of paintings such as SECATEUR AND BRIARS (1967-69) with its affinities to contemporaneous paintings by Patrick Caulfield suggest that had Greaves not established his reputation at such a young age he might have emerged just a few years later as a powerful contributor to Pop art. Certainly such a fate was enjoyed by Joe Tilson, a contemporary realist of the 1950s, who without such deep branding did succeed in freeing himself from that decade to remerge as a major figure in British Pop art of the 1960s. In contrast, the fame that Greaves gained in the mid 1950s through his promotion as a `kitchen-sink' painter would be hard to shake off.
Greaves most celebrated paintings of the 1950s and their idiom owed much to his years of studying painting at the Royal College of Art in London from 1948-52). Following an interview in Manchester with the Principal of the college, Robin Darwin, Greaves was awarded a scholarship and traveled down to London, which he had previously visited on his annual holiday. There he felt `naively provincial compared to more urbane students' but soon adopted a way of painting, promoted by the College `that showed you were serious': `one could pick up a range of mannerisms from one's tutors, whether it was Minton's way of Modernism, Rodrigo Moynihan's suave portraiture or Ruskin Spear post-Sickertian dabbing'. Common to each of these were the use of short hog-hair brushes and a method of working predicated on drawing. Then and now, Greaves draws continuously. In spare, precise working drawings of the mid 1950s the form would be carried by line alone as in BABY WITH FINGER IN MOUTH (1956) and BABY - HEAD AND SHOULDERS (1956) anticipating the use of line in Greaves's later work. Simultaneously in flowing charcoal Greaves would produce expressive large-scale drawings for exhibition such as BABY, BATH AND DOG (1956) . The paintings that resulted such as FIRST STEPS (1956) , SIMON GREAVES (1958) and JULIA GREAVES (1958) , used paint in a post-Cézanne way, with colours mixed on a palette or plate dabbed on a bit at a time. FIRST STEPS is characteristic of the period, although its delicacy contrasts with contemporaneous thickly impastoed paintings in which forms were painted to suggest the weight of the subject and light used to model their volumes.
It was at this point that Greaves's public career really took off but characteristically the artist was diffident about this success. His first significant exposure was in group exhibitions, at the Lisle Street gallery of the Left-leaning exhibiting society, the Artist's International Association (AIA) , and at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in John's Berger's seminal group exhibition of social realism, Looking Forward (1952). Then in 1953 Greaves had the first of two one-person exhibitions, that established his reputation, at London's leading venue for realist painting, Helen Lessore's Beaux Arts Gallery. A small gallery over two floors, its reputation was huge both due to Lessore's daunting presence and to the caliber of the young artists she discovered and presented. Grounded on an admiration for Sickert, Lessore held first exhibitions for, among others, Craigie Aitchison, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, John Bratby, Derrick Greaves, Leon Kossoff, Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith. She was also an early exhibitor of Franics Bacon and the first (??) exhibition of Derrick Greaves took place in the upper gallery while below there was an exhibition of paintings by Bacon. Greaves's exhibition attracted enthusiastic support but such acclaim was rather distant to the artist. He barely knew Lessore, who had made just two studio visits before proposing a show for just three weeks later, and as the show opened Greaves was traveling to Italy for his Rome scholarship. He did not attend the private view or the exhibition and received reviews and news of sales by post.
In his absence Greaves became appropriated as a `kitchen-sink' painter to be championed alongside Bratby, Middleditch and Smith as the `Beaux Arts Quartet', where they all exhibited, and praised by John Berger for what he characterised as a shared `suspicion of elegance' and an `ability to be moved by the commonplace.' Greaves's pictures of this time included depictions of Sheffield such as SHEFFIELD - THE FIRE ESCAPE (1952) and SHEFFIELD CATHEDRAL (1952) , which culminated in his most celebrated early painting SHEFFIELD (collection); pictures of Italy such as DOMES OF SAN MARCO, VENICE (1953) (plate x ) and TORCELLO (1954) ; and drawings and paintings of the pregnancy of his wife and the first years of their son Simon (plates x and y).
From the outset, the Beaux Arts Quartet was grouped by expediency, not ideology: they happened to show at the same gallery but there was no shared aesthetic or common manifesto. However, with the exception of John Bratby, whom Greaves barely knew and seldom met, there were the bonds of personal friendships, study at the Royal College of Art and shared accommodation: Jack Smith and Derrick Greaves were both from the same part of Sheffield and in London lived in a communal house from 1949 until 1952 at which point Greaves went to live in Rome (1952-55). When Greaves returned in 1954 he, Middleditch and their wives left London to live in other shared houses, this time in Buckinghamshire (1957-59) and then Woburn.
Furthermore, the Quartet were never even presented as a group at the Beaux Arts Gallery which only showed them separately or as part of larger mixed exhibitions, and on the only occasion in Britain when these artists were shown together at the Heffer Gallery in Cambridge in 1955, Helen Lessore used her catalogue text to emphasise the individuality of each artist:
`It should be stressed that they themselves never had any intention of forming a group, nor of inscribing themselves under any particular faction [...] The more one studies these four young painters, the more different they appear. One has to take the trouble to appreciate individuals individually. Short cuts by classification are superficial.'
During the years that these artists were promoted most vigorously as a group Greaves was not even living in Britain. Having won a scholarship to study for a year at the British School in Rome (1952-53), Greaves succeeded in extending this for a further year (1953-54). These two years were seminal for the development of his work. In Rome Greaves received new stimuli and made new friendship including the leading Italian socialist realist, Renato Guttuso , which overlaid what he had learnt at the Royal College of Art. As Berger recognized, the result was that Greaves's work revealed a fruitful coexistence of British and Italian qualities: `their subject matter, their light and colour, are all Italian, their understatement and bound-in passions are very English [...] Greaves is no longer promising: he is, whether recognized or not, a European artist.'
The strength of Greaves's early paintings, especially those of Italy, was recognized by their inclusion in the British Pavillion at the Venice Biennale of 1956. This was the only occasion when the four `kitchen-sink' painters exhibited together outside Britain and was the crowning moment for the Quartet, although it was one that Greaves once again missed, since the British Council did not have funds to send the artists to Venice.
As with the recent precedent of the Heffer Gallery show, the idea of a coherent group was undermined by the selection and installation of the pictures as well as by the catalogue. The artists were simply referred to as `Four Young Painters' and the selection of pictures by Herbert Read, who visited Greaves's studio with the British Council's Lillian Summerville, highlighted each artist's differences through the choice of subject matter by which each artist was represented. It demonstrated that the Quartet were moving away from the prosaic English subjects and settings that had first gained them acclaim, towards the sun, light and colour of the Mediterranean. Greaves was represented by four sunny outdoor scenes made in Italy.
The installation of these paintings allowed each artist his own wall space whilst collectively their work provided a visual counterpart to Ivon Hitchens, the more senior painter with whom they shared the British Pavilion. Particularly dramatic was the contrast between the hot reds and yellows of Greaves's Italian paintings and the fresh blues and greens of Hitchens's English landscapes in the gallery beyond. The accompanying catalogue text by J.P. Hodin followed Lessore's precedent by declaring that `although they exhibit in one and the same London gallery, they have neither produced a manifesto nor formed a group'. It then proceeded to discuss the work of each artist separately, reject simple classification and question the presumed realism: `the frontiers between the objective and the subjective are fluid and it is convenient rather than strictly accurate to call these artists realists.'
Coinciding with this event was another, no less important exhibition, but one that has become virtually forgotten. This is all the more surprising when one considers that this exhibition, entitled Looking at People, traveled throughout Britain during 1955-56 and was visited by 250,000 people. Initially including work by just three artists - its instigator, the illustrator Paul Hogarth, the painter Carel Weight and sculptor Betty Rae - by the time it reached its final British venue, the South London Art Gallery, Looking at People had been expanded with the inclusion of Greaves as well as Edward Ardizzone, Alistair Grant, George Fullard and Ruskin Spear. This version of the show then traveled to Russia and was at that time one of the largest exhibitions ever held of contemporary British art outside Britain: the catalogue lists 156 works.
Looking at People was the first show of British art in Russia since 1917. Visitors queued to put their comments in the visitor's books, which gave an insight into the extremely polarised responses to the works on show. The controversy generated by the nine large canvases by Greaves, including paintings that chronicled the pregnancy of his wife and the birth of their son Simon, even led to a request that they be replaced by less `offensive' pictures. This was refused. This time Greaves did attend the opening, traveling to Russia with Paul Hogarth and Ruskin Spear where he cut the tape at the opening ceremony.
This moment, following the presentation of the Beaux Arts Quartet at the Venice Biennale, was the highpoint for social realism. When the prizes were announced at the prestigious John Moore's exhibition in Liverpool in 1957, it was little surprise that the winners were almost entirely figurative painters and that they were predominantly exhibitors of the Beaux Arts Gallery. Derrick Greaves was a winner as Jack Smith, John Bratby, Sheila Fell, Joseph Tilson and Philip Sutton.
Following his return from Italy the families of Greaves and Middleditch lived together in the `decaying splendour' of a `dilapidated mansion' at Great Linford in Buckinghamshire. There the two artists collaborated on a joint mural for Nuffield College, Oxford entitled THE FOUR SEASONS. Their approach was `free-form' but despite the improvised approach, the resulting paintings built heavily from the two men's recent paintings and from their existing preoccupations: a large wagon wheel is familiar from Greaves's paintings of Sicilian carts, whilst the birds in flight and the sprinkling of blossom are clearly those of Middleditch.
These were years of marginalisation and transition. Critical concerns shifted elsewhere, the artist was no longer living in London and had moved from the Beaux Arts Gallery to Zwemmer Gallery. Meanwhile in his studio Greaves was radically re-evaluating his whole approach to image making. Italy had provided the first seeds for this reassessment. There Greaves had been especially struck by seeing paintings and sculptures in situ, in their intended locations, rather than decontextualised in museums. These mosaics, frescos and sculptures in the street corroborated the way his work was changing. Paintings were often still thickly painted and the realism still descended from Courbet but now Greaves began to re-embrace aspects of sign writing that he had rejected whilst at the Royal College of Art.
As Greaves thinned out his paint and took apart the language of his painting, the support of one of his greatest champions, John Berger, became more equivocal. In turn Greaves was becoming disillusioned by the failure of social realist painting, including his own, to attract a popular audience. Greaves had always been `of the Left': as a young man in Sheffield he attended political meetings and sold the Daily Worker in Fitzallen Square. As an established artist he participated in BBC broadcasts that addressed the artist's place in society. He was also an early supporter of the recently formed Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, going on Ban the Bomb marches and attending a vigil outside Downing Street in 1959. But despite these forms of direct action Greaves was becoming disillusioned with the potential of painting, as is evident from a depressing text he wrote in 1959:
`feeling a desire to lessen the gap that exists between audience and painting, I made attempts to form a pictorial language from nature which would be easily accessible to all who cared to look. To do this in England at the present time [...] is, I have realised, aesthetic suicide.'
Rebirth was painful. Re-evaluating his vocabulary, Greaves began to feel that in his search for authenticity his painting had become too descriptive of external realities and imitative of surfaces: he would paint a dusty road with dry paint and depict a wicker chair by threading paint as though remaking the chair. What followed were paintings such as the appropriately promethian GREECE - THE MYTHIC SPRING (1981) in which Greaves's rejected the naturalism of his earlier paintings and instead of trying to convey the wetness of water gave it the substance of rope.
In rejuvenating his own work Greaves sought to re-form its vocabulary and syntax and then put the language back together again. Brushes were changed, as was the paint, which was now made up in tins, thinned down and painted flatly:
`I saw that if I was to re-evaluate the chromatic structure, the tone, the line, so that all the elements could be democratic, then I had to put on the paint in the simplest, most direct way. I painted more flatly so that I could see what I was doing, so I could judge the relationship of an area of paint to a line next to it: to assess proportion and juxtapositions in a valued and measured way.'
`I wanted measurability of line, tone, colour. Everything to be clear: you saw the nuts and bolts but then it came together with coherence. It ran near to being academic, but I trusted my instincts and hoped to avoid that.'
The relationship between form and content shifted fundamentally. As Greaves analysed each aspect separately, he sought to allow them `all to have an equal opportunity to assert their own autonomy and reality within the picture: a democracy of the forms used to make the image.' The journey was `uphill, yet joyful'.
In doing so Greaves also gave greater consideration to proportion, measurement and even geometry. Whilst in Rome, he had been visited by Thomas Monnington, President of the Royal Academy, who had praised Greaves's use of the golden mean. Greaves had used these rules of proportion instinctively but following this comment Monnington explained them to the artist with the use of diagrams. This would be a useful lesson back in England as Greaves fundamentally restructured his compositions as he wrestled with how to include the subject without being illustrational and how to pare it down without becoming abstract. How might a painting be attention grabbing like the boldest sign, yet keep one engaged like the most sophisticated painting: enough but not too much.
The result is carried by colour and line. Despite a strand of work that is more tonally based, from the richness of TREE (ROME) (1964) to autumnal collages such as IVY (1981) , it is the artist's boldness as a colourist that is one of the most dramatic impressions and one that is carried through from his earliest works. Colour is frequently un-modulated and flat, a feature accentuated by the common use of acrylic paint, and shadows are a rarity. Instead one colour is often given even greater resonance by its proximity to another. Sometimes complimentary, sometimes clashing, the effect of placing one colour against another at times echoes this central aspect of Bridget Riley's exploration of colour. The result in Greaves's painting is especially vibrant in paintings in which he introduces closely painted dots of colour which dance though THE MEETING , PANDORA and CONIFERS . More subtly it also accounts for the shimmering effect that Greaves achieves in paintings such as RAIN , where the lines of falling water are depicted using one colour set against another.
`I have to fight for the colour, it has to be right. My colour is very personal, I follow my instincts, but it is also very measured. I want clarity in all the parts of the painting. This is why you can count the colours. You can see three different yellows, two reds, a blue. The lines, the ground each is countable, like in a Léger. But the final painting is a total feeling that comes from all these countables.'
Line is no less important and Greaves often speaks of his practice as `drawing a line around my thoughts', like in a cartoon:
`I'm a linear artist. I've used line as a delineator of forms and as a carrier of colour across an area. Its relationship to ground also very important. I strive to get proportions right. Whether I am unconsciously relating this to a nostalgia for the original subject matter I don't know. By that time I'm so into the painting, getting the feel right, that I do a lot of things instinctively. As I paint the lines may change their position. There's not a single stage in progression of painting where I'm not drawing.'
Greaves unifies his surfaces by painting them as impassive as possible but builds them up in thin layers to retain their vibrancy:
`I realise there is an audience that likes the bravura, the attack, the spirit of the painter: from John Singer Sargeant to Vincent Van Gogh - they love the brushstroke. People feel after my fifties work, the brushstrokes are missing. I feel however that this showiness gets in the way. I don't want traces of the hand or finicketty touches. I don't want to make a great show of me on the canvas. I'm the opposite of an expressionist painter trying to grab the spectator. I want to paint myself out of a picture so that the feeling of a painting is everything. I want people to bring themselves to the picture.'
The result in paintings such as COFFEE occupies a distinct space between the late paintings of William Scott and of Peter Kinley to which they have superficial affinities. Line is to Greaves what shape is to Scott: whilst Scott sought to convey the substance and volume of his pared down forms and to set his table- top still life motifs against a field of colour, Greaves's objects have a `lightness of being' and there is no such separation of form and ground. Moreover, colour is to Greaves what touch is to Kinley: whilst Kinley used his delicate touches of thinned paint to unify the picture through a uniformity of treatement and softened his contours to allow a form to melt into the surrounding space, Greaves hides his touch to allow the colour to dominate and uses lines that are firm but do not necessarily related to the subject's outline. The result is an equality of treatment across the canvas that possesses a cubist derived continuity of space. The spare, unadorned beauty of the resulting work is nowhere more evident than the refined CASCADE (2000) which parallels the qualities that Greaves admires in such diverse achievements as Matisse's papier collés, the paintings of Mondrian and Elsworth Kelly, Jean Muir's clothes and Lucie Rie's ceramics.
CASCADE also exemplifies the way that the elements, especially water, have a central place in Greaves's work: one could curate entire exhibition on Greaves's paintings of water. Greaves's work possesses a very distinct engagement with nature and landscape, a feature illustrated by his one person exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1973. In works of this period such as SHADOW OF A BIRD ON A ROAD (1971) Greaves was inspired by the wateriness of thinned down acrylic, which allowed him to paint `watercolours' of huge magnitude. The subject was observed on a journey by car from Italy and Switzerland. The sun was high and Greaves noted in a sketchbook: `everything crystal, what strange luminosities the mountains'. The resulting painting, inspired by the fleeting shadow of a bird, nonetheless combines the permanence, presence and refinement of a Braque with the touch of Helen Frankenthaler.
This sense of a subject sensed but not seen, of something encapsulated without being described, is a leitmotif of Greaves's approach to landscape. But if Greaves is, above all, a rural artist then he is a particularly unusual example. It is the antithesis of English landscape painting with its romanticism and love of metamorphic transformation and distanced, too, from the anthropomorphism of a range of artists from Sutherland to Lanyon. As in the poems of Sheamas Heaney, which he admires, Greaves does not romanticize the farmer on the land. These are modern images rooted in today and the nature of Greaves's response is far removed from the extremes represented, on the one hand, by the gestural imprecision of Ivon Hitchens and, on the other, by the topographic precision of Michael Andrews. Nor does he concern himself with a genius loci like Paul Nash or a `spirit in the mass' like David Bomberg.
As Greaves, himself, recognises: in contrast to his close friend Ed Middleditch, for whom the landscape was a more purely visual phenomenon, or David Bomberg and his followers, who dramatised the skin of the land, the bulk of the landscape and the drama of a slope or a hillock, for Greaves a rural motif may be specific in form but not place: GREEN (19xx) suggests a mass of tree and trunk or the shelter of a bivouac whilst AT THE FARM (19xx) there appears to be a pile of chopped wood and a hatchet or pan.
Greaves imagery received a further boost by his move to Norfolk in 19xx. Between 1983 and 1991 Greaves taught full time at the Norfolk School of Art where he set up and ran the print-making department. Greaves's achievements as a print-maker have been acknowledged by x Art Gallery, which now own xx of Greaves prints and a teste of this work is provided by the witty ELEPHANTS (THE HERD MOVES ON) and the new screenprint, TREE (2002), each of which is hand-coloured by the artist, published on the occasion of the present exhibition.
These years in Norfolk have also witnessed a new imaginative freedom. Henceforth Greaves no longer just made drawings from external objects and then translated them into painting, now the unconscious started to play a part. In one recent dream image Greaves paints a modern MARTYR (2002) . Saint Sebastian has become a mere trace, a bodily stain pierced with arrows. In another, EMPTY ROOMS (1999-2000) , Greaves combines the structure of a Japanese print with a dream image. Both sources were about interior space but also about the denial of access. Despite the title these rooms cannot be entered and despite the scale of the painting our feeling of freedom is frustrated. We are shut out. The space is impossible to negotiate.
Such paintings retained their basis in drawing but the stimuli became more studio-bound and investigative. As in Braque's late atelier paintings, an analytical process was becoming synthetic. Nonetheless despite these formal imperatives what concerned Greaves was not abstraction, but the way that he might give equal weight to the representational and abstract components of his work. In TWO MOROCCAN WOMEN (1992-95) the singing colour is comparable to Frank Stella's powerful square paintings of the early 1960s, yet the subject matter is indispensable:
`I would throw a spanner in the works by adding a figurative element to stop it being merely an exercise in colour structure. I wanted my paintings to have a figurative factor as their impurity but to have the firmness of abstract painting. I wanted to be able to feed-in informal elements of my life in a symbolic rather than descriptive way, which I couldn't do if it was purely abstract. These impurities are like life. There are unforeseen circumstances, quirkiness, humour. Paintings have to reflect that.'
In painting from life Greaves does not shy away from `the vulgar and quotidian' and speaks of the challenge of painting `the erotic and the humorous' , an aspiration nowhere more evident than in LAMP (1995) and a series of related paintings.
Liberation also appears to have come with Greaves retirement from teaching at the Norfolk School of Art in 1991 since when his painting has assumed even greater richness. In inventing his own language one of Greaves most powerful recent achievements is his use of a bar that runs horizontally across several large-scale paintings. This shelf-like structure runs through BORDER (1997) , LAOCON (2001) , TWO TREES (SPRING) (1999) and SUNSET (1997) and allows Greaves to situate still-life objects without having to present a table-top or locate subjects without the need for a horizon line:
`I like formal structures that can do more than one job in a painting. I like the viewer to be led beyond the painting only to come back to it. So the single bar passing through the picture is like a continuous shelf in the mind. I also like the way the bar acts chromatically. It throws a spanner in the works. It allows one to pitch the line to a different key from the objects on the line.'
These paintings provide a compendium of multifarious sources: In BORDER Greaves presents a row of African spearheads, which previously he had drawn at the Museum of Mankind. In LAOOCON the snakes of the famous Hellenistic dance with delight. In TWO TREES (SPRING) each tree is distinct yet their equivalent weights give an overall harmony to a composition with two competing centers of attention and in the climactic SUNSET the red ribbons of the sun are set against the deepest blue and are accentuated by the horizontal bar of purple-grey with yellow edges.
Greaves's recent paintings bestow an iconographic boldness on everyday objects that translates them into heraldic forms that are both solid and dignified and playful and witty. A common use of flat, un-modulated colours, often painted in acrylic, has an impact that may be compared to the emblematic forms of Michael Craig Martin, which even when interlocked maintain their separate identities. Greaves does not discourage a semiological approach to his work, although he does distance the `exotic insights' of a writer such as Gombrich with the `rough and tumble of the studio'.
Greaves aims for the coexistence of different visual languages, whilst . In collage drawings of the 1970s and 1980s? and recent large scale paintings Greaves often couples this use of line with a use of transparency that allows forms to interlock and coexist, whilst retaining their distinctiveness. In collage drawings there is a rupture between form and ground and in recent paintings one often finds that each disparate element is rendered in a different style. At times the effect recalls the way that the late transparencies of Picabia might combine a monster or pinup with a landscape, each painted in a different manner. Admiring these paintings Greaves equates their impact to atonalism in music, distinguishing between the fruitful coexistence of different, precisely considered forms and the repetition of a linear construction or the arbitrary effects of overlapping lines as in a painting by Gary Hume. In contrast, Greaves admires the way that his son, the award winning animator Daniel Greaves, was able to do allow different languages to coexist, yet retain their distinctiveness, in his animated film, Flat World (1998). This half hour animation presents a world of two-dimensional cut outs into which intrudes a three-dimensional world: the main character cuts through a road cable and picks up the two ends. Pulses spark from each end and out leap a variety of characters from cartoons to realist films, set against a different coloured ground.
In ACROPOLIS (1999) Greaves combines a small sketchbook drawing of the Acropolis with a separate, totally unrelated drawing of a geometric form, jamming these two pictorial structures together. The hillside and Acropolis are a single-coloured structure that is left without infilling, while the structure is polychrome. Superficially, the result resembles the early paintings of Patrick Caulfield, yet their use of line and conception of space is fundamentally different. In Greaves's work the line may or may not relate to the form and the visibility of an all-over ground may be used to suggest transparency, whereas in Caulfield's work line often indicates the contour of an object, which is then filled in like a cloisonné, with an enamel infill.
The transparency in Greaves's work is not just a formal device or a means of complicating the picture space. For the artist it also has a psychological dimension and an existential resonance that his admiration for such Modernist classics as T.S Eliot's Wasteland and James Joyce's Ulysses with their inventive syntax, multiple voices and interpenetrating realities. ACROPOLIS is not just a pictorial construct but also an equivalence to the layers of conversation that inspired it.
In seeking such an equivalence in paint to this experience of life, Greaves `began to feel existentialist about the way things look different today than they did for Courbet.' In contrast to Lucian Freud's famous desire for paint to be flesh , for Greaves `paint is not flesh and cannot be; the painter's job is to invent a language of painting and to speak with a contemporary voice. One cannot redo Courbet.' The enemy is the prevalent preoccupation with volumes created through chiaroscuro and the conventional rendering of a heavy positive form in a negative space. Greaves deplores the conventional separation of figure and ground and in discussing his own work talks instead of transparency, interpenetration and all-over equality: `we have become more transparent than this; our corporeal presence is not as solid as it once was'. This transparency may suggest insubstantiality but is nonetheless concrete and allows Greaves remarkable freedom in his latest paintings to combine images from the external world with those from dreams, rendering them starkly, with ambiguity, perhaps, but not with haziness. The challenge, then, has been to render the subject in a new way that reflects new circumstances and a new worldview. In this sense the artist has never stopped being a realist.
* * * * *
Greaves latest paintings possess an immense confidence. The starting point may be personal and even trivial but as with the work of his friend the late Prunella Clough, the result is at once bold and subtle. External and internal worlds combine as the artist has finally, `after all these years been able to get an easy carpet slipper relationship with my unconscious'.
Greaves likens this shift in sensibility and the combination of impressions that feed each new work to shifts in music: `it's like atonalism in music: Tchaikovsky fits rural Russia at a particular time, but Ligeti's strung out style, absorption of world music and polyphonic voices is more relevant to own times. It's part of our environmental and cultural matching set.'
The parallel result in Greaves's recent paintings is a powerful reformulation of realism. Their bold iconography and emblematic images speak for and of our times in a powerful and distinct voice, a voice that is both individual and universal, classical and contemporary. Indeed I believe that Greaves most recent paintings, especially those in which the `bar' or `shelf' is a crucial element, are some of the finest pictures he has ever painted.
A powerful summation of all that he stands for, the mature paintings of Derrick Greaves deserve to become the artist's iconic images, standing proudly alongside the youthful paintings with which the artist first established his reputation half a century ago.
© 2021 James Hyman Gallery, PO Box 72888,
LONDON N2 2FH