Alexander Creswell

Painting of the Year 2014 – New Horizons: A Ceiling Painting

After what has been a progressively uncomfortable year, I have both pleasure and relief in revealing a painting which has been the product of much thought, deliberation and soul-searching in the quest for a meaningful direction for my future: I take pleasure because the painting is almost finished, and relief because it seems to have been successful, at least as far as I had intended it to be.

A year ago I had an interesting discussion with a collector in New York who lamented his lack of wall space as hinderance to enlarging his erudite collection. Perhaps cheekily I had suggested that he had unadorned ceilings which could be employed to display works of art in the eighteenth century manner, in keeping with his collection of European paintings of the period. The resulting conversation concluded with a commission for me to undertake such a painting, in watercolour and on a significant scale.  This would be a first, both for watercolour and for contemporary art. It would be new ground for me: I relished the idea and rushed off to Italy to consult the masters of the settecento.

In the first instance this picture – now almost completed – represents a new horizon for me, perversely for the simple reason that it has no horizon. Being a view upwards though an imaginary roof to an infinite sky, it has a perspective which relies on the third dimension of the vertical, a perspective cut free from the merely terrestrial.  Secondly this view has no subject as such, no representation of reality other than the sky and sunlight above an invented architecture which departs from the observance of reality. Thirdly, and importantly for me, this view is not factually representational but borrowed in part from history, then adapted and invented. Fictitious in this architectural tableau is the population of what appear to be ghosts whose only function is to represent those tenets and disciplines of life which we, the viewers, might have taken for granted: faith, toil, sagacity and fecundity – in common parlance: confidence, hard work, knowledge and productivity.

But what is the purpose of this painting, I hear the muttered question tinged with cynicism?  Well, I’ve been loyal to the representational for most of my painting life, faithful to place and light, to truth and to the actuality of the subject. Occasionally however the truth is awkward or uncomfortable. During my career I have painted beauty, elegance and grace in architecture. I have also painted fate as manifest in the destruction and neglect of ruins.  Sometimes the inspiration comes from unlikely quarters: over the past year my path ahead has been at times tangled and obstructed, calling for diversion and courage, flavoured with sadness and reflection – a landscape of Dante as I am reminded. With encouragement I found the leap from the familiar to the unknown in this work to be daunting and yet inspirational. It required courage in the confrontation of possible – or probable – failure. Rather like leaping from a runaway train, escape was the principal motivation behind this painting.

Although not quite finished, today we installed this painting in the ceiling of my studio, in a proper place to test its efficacity before the final details are elaborated in preparation for its dispatch.

Some remarkable things revealed themselves: floating overhead the picture morphed into a completely fresh image, unencumbered by accuracy and correctness. Let me explain: we are accustomed to the terrestrial world with a horizon, we gape up at skyscrapers in Manhattan or peer down into the Grand Canyon, but from the safety of our horizon-based world – terra-firma. Everything is related to the horizon, our level, our balance.  We might look out of the window of an aircraft at 35,000 feet but always with the horizon to give us a fixed point: remove that horizon and we suffer from vertigo, dizziness and disorientation. Looking up at a ceiling painting we can feel the ability to fly into it and soar like a bird, freely but with our feet still firmly on the ground.

Given freedom from our earthbound horizons we loosen our reliance on accuracy and on truth. We can twist and turn to look at this view from varying angles without questioning, simply enjoying the gift of flight, at least momentarily. We are looking at a picture which is not a view in the conventional sense, more of a virtual reality which we can enjoy without cynicism, not requiring the affirmation of being ‘correct’.  As a representational painter I find this departure very exciting.

So what of this image on the ceiling? At worst it’ll be a talking point, a curiosity: maybe it’ll challenge the condemnation of representational art as somehow shallow and passé. Maybe it’ll start a trend. I would hope it might encourage other enlightened patrons to ask me to do more, far larger ceilings to be installed in places where they can be seen by the world.

Under the archway furthest from the sun in the painting, a cartouche bears the following inscription:

“Beviamo profondamente dal pozzo della tradizione e nutriremo l’arte del futuro”
(tr. “We drink from the well of tradition to nourish the art of tomorrow”)

The sentiment is entirely mine and the observant viewer may recognise a veiled reference to Andrea Pozzo whose huge fresco ‘The Apotheosis of S Ignazio’ adorns the nave vault of a church close by the Pantheon in Rome, which provided me with the inspiration and model for this painting, together with the courage even to imagine that I could actually achieve it.

I would be delighted if you forward this to anyone who would value the message or who might simply enjoy the painting.

With best wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and many thanks to those who have encouraged me through a difficult year.

Alexander Creswell, Christmas 2014

New York Calling: September 2012 Painting of the Month

Washington Arch, New York, 2012, watercolour on paper 40 x 30 inches

After the dullest British summer in living memory, I begin to understand why landscape painters often used titles to describe the weather or to make excuses for light conditions.  It suggests that these might not have been entirely natural or believable, or that they were contrived for theatrical effect.  Turner and others added epithets such as “sunrise after a blustery night” or “thunderstorm approaching at sunset”.  Weather is always at the forefront in Britain; never to be taken for granted, frequently surprising and often hostile. We keep a close eye on it and we discuss it freely with complete strangers.

‘Fire & Light’ is the title of my forthcoming show in New York which opens on the 13th of September.  This title describes less the conditions in which the subjects find themselves, and more the elements of which they are made up, a true description far from the purely geographic label, and a hint of what the painting is really about.  Washington Arch, here, could well support the title “Late Sunlight reflecting off Glass Towerblocks”  because that is indeed the case.  When looking at a painting we think we need to be told what the subject is, even though in this case George Washington is clearly recognisable there on the plinth, and the Stars & Stripes is a clue.  The fact that it’s an arch, in reverence to the triumphal precedent of ancient Rome, is also fairly obvious.  The title becomes a distraction to the nub of the painting, which is the interplay of light on surfaces.

Also in this exhibition I have a sequence of paintings of Rome, details of ancient stonework, highly refined designs carved by craftsmen, eroded by centuries and animated momentarily by fleeting effects of light today.  These are glimpses which I have chosen deliberately, and at times waited for expectantly at particular times of day, returning again and again to get the moment right.  Some I had journeyed specifically to witness and to paint, as seen in a series inspired by a firework display over Venice, part of the annual Festival of the Redeemer – Il Redentore.  It matters not when the festival takes place, nor indeed that it’s Venice; what these paintings are about is the extraordinary explosions of light generated by artifice and the effects on the architecture and water below.  These works have the titles of “Sound Study 1” or “Nocturne 3”.  No need for anything more.  They are not about geography.

On a recent expedition to the north of England I was anxious to set eyes on those subjects depicted by Cotman, Girtin and Turner – the “rough-hewn matter” of sublime landscape which is now bypassed on the motorways.  We enjoyed places with names like Snake Pass, Gordale Scar, Hardraw Force, Dunstanburgh, all painted by Turner, Girtin and others.  What impressed me was the monumentality of it all: ruined castles, gorges, waterfalls, and dramatic weather and light, not the names.  Of course those painters had exaggerated what they saw, inspired to develop their feelings of awe at the sublimity of the subject as they saw it.  None of their subjects is disappointing in reality today, but what we see through the lens of a camera or a car windscreen, is sterile.  Reality needs a title, because the smell has gone, the spirit is inaudible and the genius has evaporated.

Reality is not art.  Art is what you do with reality.  Turner & others interpreted the monumentality of British landscape because they were unable to travel freely across the European landscapes of Claude and Poussin.  Napoleonic Europe had been enemy territory then.  Instead the rugged discomforts of northern England would be elevated to Arcadia and imbued with the mythology of history.  Turner’s Dunstanburgh Castle is a gaunt tower at dawn standing guard over a rocky shore, or the backdrop to a foundering ship vainly being towed off the rocks by a steamer.  His paintings are about poetry and sublimity, not history.  In my latest works I have depicted the sediment of history animated by fire and light.  Enjoy the exhibition but please don’t bother to read the titles!

“Late Sunlight reflecting off Glass Towerblocks” and other recent works will be unveiled at my New York show:

Alexander Creswell: Fire & Light

Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York   September 13th – October 13th 2012

To view Fire & Light:    www.alexandercreswell.com

http://www.hirschlandadler.com