GALLERIES: Landscapes of light defined by spaces...

Sunday September 10 2017

Red Trees, by Olivia Pendergast. PHOTO | FRANK

Red Trees, by Olivia Pendergast. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

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If you like the Symbolists, you will love Olivia Pendergast’s landscapes of light.

Where Egon Schiele and Gustave Klimt presented a patchwork of figures and fields in decorative patterns, underpinned by a strong line, Pendergast tackles the landscape with a similar intensity but without, mercifully, those decadent flashes of gold leaf that marked, for instance, Klimt.

What Pendergast does well is to paint the gaps between branches and the trees — it is known as the negative space — and in doing so imbues them with a shimmering light.

Thus we are given flurries of single broad brushstrokes, the spaces between them being the actual structure of the landscape; the bones that support the body.

As befits a classically trained artist, Pendergast’s paintings are beautifully executed, each stroke laid on a gesso ground and obeying Sickert’s dictum that oils should be, “like a lick of butter on a hot brick.”

They are a pleasure to view not only for their subject, but also for the expertise of their execution.

Favourites included Red Trees with its striking yellows cutting a band that supports a swathe of fiery leaves, and Landscape with Pink Sky in which the light pierces the branches in a series of shuttering strokes.

Beneath the paint lies the preliminary under-drawing, which delineates the architecture of the composition. So important is this to Pendergast that when the lines — usually in pencil — become obscured, she scratches them back into the still-wet surface with the reverse end of the brush.

In this, her technique bears some similarity to that of the realists of the British Euston Road School, formed in the 1930s by Sir William Coldstream, who used to indicate key co-ordinates of his paintings with small vertical and horizontal marks that he often allowed to remain on the canvas as an integral part of the finished picture.

The habit lingered on in the nudes and still lifes of Euon Uglow, who died only in 2000, where the artist’s measurements remained a quiet presence in many of his paintings.

Like Pendergast’s graffito, they state clearly that this is a made-up scene, an artifice. Sure it might resemble a facet of reality, but let us be clear, the artist is telling us, these are recreations of reality and not the objects themselves.

It is a more subtle version of Magritte’s statement on his painting The Treachery of Images, on which “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe) is written beneath his image of a smoker’s pipe.

The comparison with the Euston Road artists and then Uglow is not idle. For like Coldstream, who believed a thorough understanding of anatomy and drawing from life was the basis of observation and essential to hone any artist’s skills, and like Uglow’s lifetime obsession with figure painting, Pendergast’s main subject is the human form.

There have been several exhibitions of her figure painting at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, Nairobi — the most recent being last month as part of the Nudes show — where some 16 of her landscapes (plus a sensitive study of a tabby cat) now hang until September 19, together entitled Kenyan Atmospheres.

There is a sense that she makes these paintings as a relaxation from the rigours of figure painting; although I much prefer them to her people.

In the latter, while her technique is unquestionably fine, her deliberate distortions of the figures — tiny heads, stick thin arms and legs, but huge lab-like bodies and enlarged hands and feet — strike me as a mannerism taken too far.

Her landscapes too are organised (there comes a point when any artist is making a picture work, in terms of composition, depth and scale and not slavishly trying to copy whatever is before them) but not as aggressively as her portraits and figures.

They are strongly designed, but even so appear to be a little more natural and they convey the smack of the open air. Some may find them over-decorative (that link to the Symbolists again) but for sure the best of them look as though they have been dashed off on the spot, in a hurry to catch the light.

So it was a surprise to discover that, in spite of their apparent freshness, all these landscapes were created in the studio from photographs taken in the field.

A surprise and a tribute both to her talent and her training.