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Cwym © Gillian Ayres

Gillian Ayres at the Jerwood Gallery

…energy, laid down in colour and transmitted in shockwaves to the viewer.”
Broadcaster Andrew Marr on the work of Gillian Ayres.

Gillian Ayres, courtesy www.theresasimon.comThe Jerwood Gallery is currently celebrating the life and work of one of the UK’s first and most eminent pioneering abstract artists, Gillian Ayres. HOT reporter Joe Fearn went to interview Ayres amidst the most comprehensive survey of her paintings from the 1950s ever assembled. Joe was aware he was about to meet someone whose work can be found in the permanent collections of the British Museum, the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Ayres was made an OBE in 1986, shortlisted for the Turner prize in 1989, became a Royal Academician in 1981, and was made a CBE in 2011, so Joe was on his best behaviour!

Gillian Ayres in her studio in the 1950sThe paintings on show at the Jerwood Gallery were the works that first brought Ayres into the public eye and established her as a leading painter of her generation. During that period she was painting without brushes and, unlike the conventional easel painters of the time, worked on the floor using broad physical movements.

Gillian Ayres, now 83 years old, gave interviews from her wheelchair between signing booklets on sale at the foyer. She gave a wry smile when I asked her how much of an influence Jackson Pollock was for her. I had read, after using the all-seeing eye of Google, that Pollock had been a major influence. Gillian said that Pollock was not really an influence for her, but she had seen photographs of him at work in his East Hampton studio. “He used buckets of paint with holes in them for his ‘action paintings’ but I never did that, I did my own thing.” She assured me.

“So who or what influenced you?”
“Well there was lots of things going on back then, such as the Beat movement, the writing of Kerouac, Salinger, Ginsberg, et al. We all develop attitudes and are influenced by attitudes; we love or hate what we take in or kick out, even rejection has something to say. In the ‘50s it seemed there was something new every week in music, clothes, literature, etc. London was so alive. In fact London culture seemed to us to be world dominating. I know some artists have several studios, but I always preferred to work at home in Chiswick Mall.”

Another gentle unassuming smile came when I asked what it was like to be regarded as a pioneering major artist, while bringing up a family.

“Well, my young son was asked by a journalist what it was like having such a famous artist as a mother. I’m sure she was fishing for some hint of neglect or scandal, but my son replied ‘I don’t know – she’s the only mother I have – I have no idea what other mothers are like’. I suppose its best for one not to combine these things, but my sons are here tonight in the Jerwood, so you can ask them how successful I was.”

One of Ayres’s early works was an 80-foot-long mural created for the dining room at the Hampstead School for Girls in 1957. It is exhibited at the Jerwood as four panels and forms what I found to be the most discussed piece of the whole exhibition. Each of the panels measure seven and a half feet high and are respectively three, four, nine and eleven feet wide, each panel creating a separate visual experience.

The eagle eye of this HOT reporter noticed some scratch marks on one of the panels, so I asked Gillian how they came about. She was somewhat reluctant to tell me. Sensing a story, I asked politely that she reconsider. She laughed and said she didn’t ought to tell. I put forward the theory that naughty schoolchildren had scratched it with a compass. Gillian said “Oh no, it wasn’t the school children”. She explained that when she became more recognised as an artist, art students went to the school to inspect the artwork, only to find that someone had papered over it; the scratch marks were made by scrapers used to remove the wallpaper!

Gillian Ayres bestrides sixty years of British painting. She decided to become a painter at the age of fourteen and studied at Camberwell school of Art from 1946–50, before running the AIA Gallery with painter Henry Mundy whom she later married. She taught at Bath Academy of Art, Corsham from 1959 to 1965, and later at St Martins School of Art and the Royal College of Art. In his speech, Alan Grieve, Chairman of Jerwood Foundation, recalled that colleagues of Ayres used to tell students “Don’t listen to Ayres, she will persuade you to become a painter!”

Liz Gilmore, Director of the Jerwood, says: ‘the directness and simplicity of the exhibition title, Paintings from the ‘50s, references the forthright character of Ayres, yet also belies the complexity of her visual language. Ayres’ paintings are a phenomenon in themselves. We are thrilled to be hosting the most comprehensive survey of Ayres’ works from the ‘50s, which established her as one of the leading abstract painters of her generation’.

Regular HOT readers will know that I have no specialised background in art, so I always try to give a review from the perspective of ‘the person on the Hastings Omnibus’ (to paraphrase Lord Denning). I thought that Ayres’ work was very powerful and occasionally mesmerising. The paintings speak directly to the viewer, and have a disposition to provoke experience; the rich deep colours are overlaid in a way that reminded me of certain paintings by Chaim Soutine, and made me think of the late ’60s film Barbarella, where deep space is pictured as if seen from inside a lava lamp. These paintings communicate, while some of Ayres’ paintings appear lovingly stroked and cajoled into being, others seem attacked to seismically assault the viewer.

I found Gillian Ayres to be an unassuming yet effervescent person, enjoying the champagne on offer at the private view, and quietly chatting to lots of people in the main gallery, as they waited their turn for an opportunity to talk to an artist whose surrounding work exudes the confidence of a painter at the height of her powers.

Gillian Ayres, paintings from the ’50s.
6 October until 25 November 2012
Jerwood Gallery, Rock-a Nore Road, Hastings  TN34 3DW

Posted 14:36 Monday, Oct 8, 2012 In: Visual Arts

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