GALLERIES: Decorations that won't bite back...

Saturday March 10 2018

Black Dog on White Sand, by Olivia Pendergast. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

Black Dog on White Sand, by Olivia Pendergast. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG 

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One thing that binds together a current exhibition by three different artists is the dreaded word “decorative”.

There is an assumption that a decorative painting offers only superficial pleasures in spite of the artists’ formal skills and lacks the soul that enables it to excite and disturb.

Yet many famous painters were decorative… the Impressionists for instance, particularly Renoir with his sugary figures and syrupy scenes. And Monet, whose shimmering canvases ended up being reproduced on many a chocolate box or biscuit tin.

Then there are the Symbolists, whose mystical dreams entertain rather than provoke, and among them Gustav Klimt, whose liberal use of gold leaf encouraged many lesser painters to follow the same path with disastrous results, making anything they touched seem slight.

The sting remains — that decorative equals trivial — and while we admire the skill we deplore the refusal to develop and put something back into the pot.

But there are advantages to decorative art.

It is easy to understand, it is usually well done and enjoyable to look at and it certainly never offends. From a sales point of view it is ideal to show in, well, an hotel.

Nothing controversial, nothing to distress the paying guests, just pretty pictures on the wall.

And so in Nairobi, while the Norfolk holds the first of a series of pop up shows by Kenyan artists, the Sankara is continuing its own programme in the light-filled atrium, reached with some effort on the second floor.

There until early May are paintings by Olivia Pendergast, David Roberts and Linda Furniss, the latter with three small pastel and watercolour drawings that bravely attempt to punch well above their weight.

Pendergast is the best known artist there.

Her seven oils on canvas are immaculately painted, showing her typical — and very popular — mannerisms of strong and visible under-drawing, thin washes of luminous paint, and figures with pin-sized heads, exaggerated limbs and large, slab-like bodies; a stylistic tic gone mad. Can you imagine one of her subjects actually walking, without lurching along like something from a horror film and scaring the kids?

There was an attractive landscape of trees against the reflected lake light of Naivasha and two sensitive paintings of dogs; I took them to be greyhounds or whippets (appropriately for her oeuvre each with a pin-sized head, long limbs and deep, slab-like bodies) but I am told they are typical so-called Kenyan Shepherds; mongrels.

Pendergast is a very skilful painter and her Black Dog on White Sand is a beautifully composed study… worth going there just to see it, in fact.

With 12 paintings on show, David Roberts is an artist with a growing presence.

Formally trained in the UK, Italy and the US, he revels in technique and the process of making, with an obsessive attention to detail.

His paintings, nine flower pieces and three landscapes, are all superbly presented; mounted and framed — thoroughly professional and an example to others.

His labels show equal concern, giving a litany of curatorial information. One flower called Little Dragon was made with, “Acrylic ink and encaustic wax on rice paper”, while Deep Purple, another flower, was completed in, “Acrylic, acrylic ink, tissue paper and encaustic wax on paper”.

The only things missing are the Latin and common names of the plants. Perhaps for another painter “mixed media” would have sufficed.

One blue flower, in a painting called The Gentle Drop, is truly exquisite, both in form and execution.

These paintings glow. They delight. They radiate charm and speak of hours spent in careful study of the plants and of the best ways to render their gentle presence.

They remind me of Japanese paintings with their astute use of negative space and meticulous finish. I can imagine them bound in an album, each sheet protected by tissue, giving years of pleasure to their fortunate owner.

But even in his stormy landscapes Roberts’ paintings lack anything of the inherent violence of nature and of life. They exist separately from us; divorced from our reality. They fly in the face of Dylan Thomas’s lines that see us indivisible:

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.”

As for Linda Furniss, it is true that her view of aloes in bloom, called Tangle, demonstrates an articulate use of oil pastel and watercolour pencils, but the figures in her parking yard appear stiff while her drawing of Kakamega Maize Millers is closely observed, competently drawn and probably accurate.

I just wish that like Pendergast’s fine dogs, all the paintings in this exhibition had a bit more bite.