Britpack on holidayA Merseysider’s View: Brits and a Few Bits

Alan Leese
Brine Leas Gallery, Brine Leas School, Nantwich
17th - 27th February 2009

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

The palette of Alan Leese still evokes the colours and moods of his native Merseyside though he now looks on the Cheshire Plain. A formative moment had him gazing as a child at his great uncle’s ink and wash drawing of prison ships on the Mersey, retaining from this a sense of the fundamental importance of drawing, alongside the gritty tones and drama of the working river.

Born in Birkenhead in 1949, the artist spent his youthful years immersed in the industrial and nautical paraphernalia of the Merseyside waterfront, riding his bike in the seascape spaciousness of the Wirral coast or visiting a seductively down-at-heel New Brighton. Without being at all nostalgic his work has combined the gritty metallic edginess of port cities with a preoccupation with space and the brash iconography of the English working class at leisure. Although the majority of his paintings are figurative, other genres are also covered. Alan Leese does not belong to the Long Edwardian Summer of painting. He is more interested in the structure below the surface phenomena – bone as opposed to flesh; rock rather than floral meadows. The landscapes, cityscapes and still life paintings coexist as abstracts and as what they are literally: blasted grasses, a pebble on sand, a rivulet of water, a screw thread, paint dripped over scaffolding pipes, grotesque seed heads, bits of specialist nautical machinery, a mysterious bird that might be a shadow - often rendered ambiguous by the viewers’ lack of knowledge of the scale and perspective. They have an exposed, spare beauty not unlike the flat coastal areas of the Wirral from which the colours derive – a palette to which he was to return for the excellent ‘Prague Facade.’

Alan Leese favours oil as a medium, predominantly for the forgiving way it allows the painter to work it during its long drying period and the sensuous quality it has per se.

He maintains that he is first and last a figurative painter and that is certainly the main impression given by his latest exhibition of sixty-three paintings. From the Old Masters he singles out Vermeer and Rembrandt as major influences for the ‘inspirational beauty of their depiction of light and the exquisite way they set the figure in context.’ He has also found the work of modern painters like Bacon, Dix, Spencer and Freud important, admiring them for dealing ‘somewhat unfashionably with the figure, for keeping the flag flying and developing the art of figure work and portraiture.’

There are many portraits of friends and family done in a commemorative spirit or simply ‘to bring out what is recognizable’. The artist has always worked from photographs he has taken, finding ‘there is too much going on’ with a live sitting. Yet there is nothing photographic about these portraits. The best amongst them have a freshness – a sense that the paint is not yet dry – and a treatment of the background space that often surprises by its courage. But if he fails to follow his strengths – by ignoring his great uncle and neglecting the drawing there will be difficulties. ‘Suzie’ ended successfully as a ‘drawing enhanced by paint’, the painterly aspects to be found on the right hand side of the head where the untamed hair is almost translucent with light. Contrasting with this, the left hand side of the head is more restrained, the hair is tamed as if to suggest the conventional face presented to the world. The sense of searching and of the quest unfinished is shown in the lines left in the painting. The viewer gets a glimpse of the biography of the painting as well as the biography of the sitter. The fact that certain areas of the painting are unworked and spacious testifies to the refusal of the painter to make a definitive statement - an acknowledgement of ambivalence.

Carrying the sense of space he found as a boy exploring the Wirral coast, Alan Leese has experimented with the possibilities within the conventional frame. In the spaciously intimate studies inspired by a visit to Barcelona he concentrated on the shuttered interiors of this teeming city. Sometimes the figure is placed to one side, as if the painting is more about space than about formal content. In other works, space is opened up within the canvas by leaving certain areas paint free, yet retaining potential. Some pieces reveal space by contrasting flat areas of colour with areas of light and perspective, opening up a recessed space in another world, often poignant in its revelation of a sleeping figure, sometimes worryingly voyeuristic. Occasionally, the artist leaves a startling gap in the painting, almost as if there is a blind spot, or the effect one gets at the onset of a migraine headache. This is shocking - this flourish of white in ‘Self Portrait.’ Finally, the artist has made use of the triptych: three spaces for linked paintings and narrative progression.

A recent body of work that has preoccupied the artist is based on observations of people travelling or on holiday – chance encounters with a certain social type – that he has chosen to portray. Essentially figurative and narrative, there is also a fair degree of well observed portraiture in these as well as further experimentation with the treatment of space. Bright in palette, they evoke the brash colours of pop art and abstract expressionism whilst combining a sense of popular British seaside art with a nod in the direction of American comic-book neo-Gothicism. These have a darker edge and not much humour. Neither are they caricatures though the artist has drawn a fine line in an area made dangerous by potential clichés. He has usually come down on the side of compassion. Just. ‘Mother Child’ perplexes at first. There is no child; the artist has coined the phrase to describe a certain type of woman who denies maturation. Salon-yellow hair frames a tired-eyed face, fleshy round the nose with botoxed lips above too-round, too high breasts. The background shows a ragged aura of canvas: beige and dull and uneven in shape - her real essence? Beyond is a background of holiday poster blue. Yet this is not a caricature; the artist’s compassion lies in the contrast between the jaunty red stripes of her top and the sad, tired, prematurely old eyes.

In ‘Package Holiday’ we have the Britpack family in womb-like hold-all facing upwards in anticipation, to take in the next tourist experience. The painting has humour and a little affection for these sturdy infantile people looking for their next good time, safe in the knowledge that they are entitled to it and that they have the plastic with which to pay for it. There is wit in the juxtaposition of two ideas: the passivity of the package tourist - processed and transported like a parcel - and the active anticipation of those ready for more and more new stimuli.

The artist has captured the pre-credit crunch moment.

‘Punch and Judy’ is much darker in palette and in sentiment. Luridly theatrical, our dysfunctional couple has reached the end of the pier - the emblems in this painting so redolent of a 1950s seaside childhood. Punch wears a [dispirited] jester’s hat and there is just a suggestion of the cuckold’s horns. Judy is hatless and hairless with the skull cap worn by theatricals to accommodate a wig, or by those wretched martyrs prepared for beheading. She is gaunt and disillusioned and has something of the power of the abused wife. We are in Graham Greene territory and Punch is consumed with shame - but it is a sexual shame, nothing to do with his life of crime. A sad painting and one for which the artist won a prize two years ago. One cannot help but compare the mood of this with a later picture: ‘Caribbean Wedding’, an altogether more optimistic middle-aged coupling – though it is all rather fragile – held together by a smiling sense of occasion and the groom’s startling yellow jacket.

This is an impressive exhibition, intuitively hung and at the same time plainly chronicling the artist’s artistic origins and his progress through various periods of his painting life. His recording of a different kind of ‘working class’ power, not derived from the pride of building ships or mining coal or engineering bridges or cars, but from having easy access to money and the strong sense of entitlement of the 'Me generation' is surely an important piece of social documentation made at the point when this source of power was about to be snatched away.

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