I Cheer A Dead Man's Sweetheart: A show about the life of painting at De La Warr Pavilion

By Richard Moss | 15 April 2014

The De La Warr Pavilion is currently showing the work of 21 living British painters in an exhibition full of surprising contrasts and connections

a colourful painting of two men seated next to a camp fire
Adrian Wiszniewski, The First Anachronism of the Day (2011)© Courtesy Adrian Wiszniewski
“Painting is a form that all of us have some experience of,” says curator David Rhodes. “It is very different from performance art or video or installation, which have certain sorts of discourse and knowledge associated with them. But anyone can look at a painting and be visually engaged with it.”

Together with Dan Howard-Birt, Rhodes has just curated a painting show with a title as offbeat as their medium is traditional. And you get a sense that while putting together I Cheer a Dead Man’s Sweetheart, he has had something of an epiphany.  

“It has made me think about what I am,” he confirms. “It’s about the enjoyment of making things. And painting - having a piece of card and a piece of paper and brush right in front of you - it’s a very immediate expression of creativity.”

Rhodes, whose own training leans towards the conceptual but who comes from a family of craftspeople and makers, contrasts the painter to a “purely conceptual artist” who might have an idea and employ someone else to realise it.

“A painter is working it out physically. It’s about thought but it’s also about hand to eye co-ordination.”

These are useful things to remember when visiting this exhibition of 21 living painters in the long gallery of the De La Warr.

From your first encounter with the strange romantic styling of Adrian Wiszniewski to the abstract decorative paintings of Phoebe Unwin, there is a concentration on technique, craft and sheer love of painting, rather than trends or particular groups of artists.

Paintings by Auerbach and Kossoff are arguably the star pieces, and they are wonderful paintings, but that’s not the point here.

To see them next to emerging artists like William Daniels (who scrunches up tin foil, photographs it then uses the photograph to paint over and create intricate spectral like tapestries of paint) is just one of several surprising dialogues that emerge in a flowing hang that allows you to look across rooms and make your own connections.

a semi abstract painting with layers and textures in yellow and green with a leave motif running from top to bottom
Frank Bowling, Andiona's Green (2012)© Courtesy Frank Bowling / Hales Gallery, London
Rhodes and Howard-Birt visited most of the painters in their studios and selected 21 artists with different methods, styles and from different generations. The youngest, Joelle Wheatley, graduated from Bournemouth a couple of years ago; the oldest, Jeffrey Camp, is in his nineties. Innovation, it seems, isn’t the preserve of young people.

A painting by octogenarian Frank Bowling, made at the end of last year, incorporates all of the junk that surrounds him in his later life as he deals with ill health. Look closely and you will see pill packaging and needles impregnated into the surface of the canvass. His partner is Rachel Scott, the textile artist, and the crimped sections stuck together on the canvass are her influence on his work.

Christopher Le Brun, meanwhile, works very well with the coastal view outside. Best known for using mythological symbols, which he describes as just a way of starting to apply the paint on the canvass, his recent return to abstraction has resulted in an abstract zig-zag of a sail boat sitting amidst the misty layers of paint.

The Jeffrey Camp is an astonishing canvas that needs to be seen in situ here next to the De La Warr’s great window view of the waves. With the ocean blues and swirling figures one associates with the painter, it is full of wild energy and strange details and cyphers – if you get up close they look rather like cave paintings.

Perhaps even stranger is a rare Camp sculpture, of a woman and horse emerging from the sea. With its combination of blue and gold, it's like some decoration that fell off a Victorian pier or promenade and then spent a while in the deep.

But then there are odd things all around, such as the painterly sculptures of Henry Krokatsis, who takes 1930s domestic mirrors and reveals their layers of paint to create geometric shape combinations. Krokatsis is interested in the colour used on the reverse – colours tend to correspond to different periods, orange is 1920s and brown is the 1950s.

Sophie von Hellerman’s mural, which she painted in situ in response to the poem that gives the show its name, A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, makes a fitting narrative centrepiece. Hellerman read the poem, came into the room and attacked the wall freehand. As a result it is very much at home here in this beautifully idiosyncratic show.

“It’s a show that is about the life of painting,” adds Rhodes. “They are all painters that we think are doing vital work but they have very different approaches. It’s made to make you think and to look closely at each work and think about the process of painting.”

This is not showy curation, but rather something quite personal designed to make the viewer stop and consider each work on its own merits. We may well have all painted a picture at some point in our lives, but looking at painting in this refreshing way is something we should all make the time to experience. 

  • Open 10am-6pm. Admission free. Follow the Pavilion on Twitter @DLWP.

Click on the picture below to launch a slideshow of images from the exhibition.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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