Graham Boyd
Bear Garden, 2006

Disruptive Tendencies, Graham Boyd, Recent Paintings.
University of Hertfordshire galleries
11th January - 10th February 2001

´There is no substitute for the physical presence of paint.´ (Graham Boyd in a recent conversation with the author. )

Since the first impression of a work by this artist is directly of the paint itself;its colour, texture and the way it has been handled, it is worthwhile examining the paintings in the light of their material character, to resist pronouncement on other aesthetic matters, content or whatever, until purely physical attributes have registered. The impact of these images is very much tied up with the way they are produced.

The paintings are made, at least in most cases, in three stages, all involving the cotton duck, the habitat to be occupied, stapled to a horizontal platform. The first involves an acrylic coloured ground , almost a stain, flooded across the whole territory. When this is dry, vertical, often , curvaceous or more rarely horizontal, tentative spatial divisions are concealed with masking tape, of variable widths.

The second and third stages are a ' double whammy ', requiring a committed and exposed courage, a bravura of rare nerve. The artist is now prepared to cover as much as 40 square feet of cotton duck, twice with thick acrylic paint, in one go. Alla prima par excellence. The economic implications are part of the high-risk strategy; acrylic paint is not cheap. Using a variety of knives and spatulae, assertive, thick, potentially revolting lava-like layers are impasted across the surface, scraped over the masked areas, streaked, slurped, jiggled, fiddled and then abandoned like a potent but unchartered moonscape. The artist then cleans up, but before this eruption has dried, he's back into it. Using different instruments and colours he inscribes deep foliose gouges into the wet paint, scooping through the impasto to expose the original ground. Myriad decisions will have had to have been made during all this; knowing when to stop is one of them. Overloading is avoided;alert visual intelligence prevents catastrophe. The multi-layered result ( just look at any one of those scooped, lifelike, gouges and workout how the space in it actually works in physical terms ) confounds the normal visual expectation of spatial experience in painting.

Consummatory acts are sometimes brief but are often protracted. After removing the masking tape the colouring of the newly-revealed stripes is fine-tuned to enhance the spatial push and pull. Only then can the artist share with us the final look of the work.

The effect of these paintings is due to tIts Myriad decisionsheir being in and of acrylic paint, it would be impossible to achieve the result Boyd reaches with any other medium. Of course further modification is possible, but only to a limited degree . Sometimes further grid-like components are obtained by cutting the cotton duck and rejoining the pieces, leaving a coloured gap, as in ' Golden Bough'. The examination of the surface of any one of these paintings is in itself to engage in a complex visual dialogue. How, for example, were the magenta and red stripes in 'Dew Time' actually achieved ?

There is no feeling of the didactic in Boyd's colour sense which may be achromatic (' Down in The Valley' ) or veer towards complementary contrasts ( 'Singing in the Rain ')There is a preponderance of full-blooded terracottas, blue-greens, blue-violets, and an exuberant use of iridescent paint in the first stages of the alla prima painting, the thick impasto. In purely organisational terms, however, the paintings exhibit a kind of controlled counter-point. The grids tend to stop the image becoming visually over-heated but serve to anchor the leaf-like forms to the surface ; without them they would be in free-fall. Spatially the work is a highly developed form of figure-ground painting. It is, after all, easy enough to make one area of paint to look as if it is in front of another, but Boyd tricks himself out of such easy resolution by exploiting the visual ambiguity of the grids ( are they in front, or behind, or both ? ) or the scoops which appear to be in front but cut back to the thin paint below the impasto. In the late 1980s, in conversation with the American critic, Karen Wilkin, Kenneth Nolan commented:` Being an artist is about discovering things after you've done them. Like Cezanne - after twenty years of that mountain he found out what he was doing. If it isn't a process of discovery, it shows. I'm in it for the long haul.´

The long haul. The roots of Boyd, s present work can be traced to his figurative work of the early 1950s when he lived in Rhodesia. The portraits of this time glow with dazzling African light - a precursor of the light in the recent paintings. Dry oil paint is used quite thinly in this otherwise very English early work - direct and restrained handling, but even here there is an obsessiveness ( like the present scooped - out gauges ) in the paintings of repeated motifs :creases in pullovers, chequered patterns in shirts.

A return to Britain in the mid 1950s accompanied a shift to abstract divisionism, a preoccupation with early Mondrian ( dunes, towers and plus/minus energy fields), quickly leading to a type of colour-field painting, in which all-over tension vies with apparent perforation of the surface:, The Clay Hill Traverse' in 1960. The physicality of the recent paintings is already emergent in the thickly buttered oil paint of this period, paint squeezed directly from the tube. One is reminded , in this particular painting, of pack-ice breaking up, of rock surfaces ( which themselves offer ready-made images ). Pictorial tension is achieved by a kind of visual competition between the dark-toned areas which invite the eye inwards and the two paler areas ( top right and bottom left ) which pull the eye back to the surface, an ambiguity which is trademark of almost all of Boyd's work.

A new type of divisionism developed in the early 1960s. This involved discs laid out in grid-like format, constructed from canvas glued to canvas, creating a shallow relief. Colour at this time tends to be reduced to subtle dialogues between warm and cool, colour high and low energy; the work is more to do with spatial concerns, anticipating a move to the construction of the latter 1960s. In some of these rows of wooden rods project from the surface, exploiting the play of light and wind in landscape. These concerns led to the suspended nylon monofilament construction of the late 1960s, and to experiments with water-filled narrow plastic tubes laid out in systematic grid formats on the ground.

Underlying all this exploration with different media lies Boyd's appetite for the real world of travel, rock-climbing, canoeing and hill-walking, but also his need to recreate experience in the making of artefacts.

1972 saw a return of colour, to wall-mounted work, a shift to acrylic paint and to more process-oriented image-making. Spray guns were used to distribute paint; sand was scattered between painted areas to emphasise the tactile properties of the surface, but it was not until 1983, on account of a Triangle Workshop in New York, that Boyd returned to painting 'pure and simple', to let intuitive invention and direct, rapid mark-making drive the work. It seems to have been the spontaneity of improvised charcoal abstract drawings which led to this shift, and to conversations with Caro, Greenberg, Poons and Wilkin. The effects of the Workshop were long-lasting. Boyd continued the slower processes involving sand but came to feel that the rapidly improvised work, carried out at the same time(1983-84) was giving him more vital results. The adoption of large knives, blades and spatulae at this time allowed the spontaneity to be transferred to a large-scale format using paint. The rhythms and procedures of the present work had begun to emerge.

`I am not just a colourist.´( Graham Boyd in conversation with the author . )So what is it that really goes on in a work by this painter ? The emergence his present modus operandi followed a dissatisfaction with much American abstract art which´ seemed to be without an agenda`, which seemed only to be only´an illustration of the process of making a painting.´ ('... desperate, cold-hearted manipulation of materials is not enough': Karen Wilkin, 1987, Barcelona Triangle Catalogue). In the last 15 years Boyd has re-acknowledged the importance of nature as a major catalyst on his sensibilities. Wherever he has been, in Cornwall, the Scottish Highlands, ( repeatedly ), The Azores, Colorado, Arizona, Boyd's visual antennae have been sensitive to wild terrain, to rock and earth surfaces, the interface between light and surface, to the sheer grandeur of nature. He has lived in his present Hertfordshire home/studio since 1963. Two hundred yards away is the biggest field in the county and the setting makes it impossible to be unaware of the shifting seasons and the lie of the land. This landscape, dominated by woods and ploughed fields, has an almost palpable but metaphorical presence in the work. Pictorial drama is analogous to the drama of natural; forces. The gouges, for example, each existing in its own space, as do birds in a flock or insects in a swarm, collectively suggest a kind of organic plenitude, yet function pictorially to generate surface energy.

Cosmologists tell us that space, time and matter are all forms of energy and that the universe started with a 'singularity'-the big bang. A painting takes real time to make. After cutting off his father's head, the Victorian fairy painter Richard Dadd spent over ten years working on 'The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke (whilst in confinement). Vasari claims that Da Vinci sometimes crossed Florence in the middle of the night to add a single brushstroke to 'La Giaconda'. At the other end of the scale, Patrick Heron comments somewhere that his 'Red Layers with Blue and Yellow' of 1957 took just four minutes to paint. Proust's 'A la Recherche. . . . took eight years to write, yet he suggested that it be read´on a single breath of air`.

What Proust is really saying is that he wanted to convey the instantaneity to total recall. The same need to compress into a 'singularity' is the foundation of the work of Graham Boyd. His speed of action allows him to cut through the 'good-taste barrier, to create the freshness of that first early morning step into bedewed grass, the fizz of the first plunge into a still pool, yet at the same time exploit that cumulative temporal experience that is memory. It is this last which paradoxically allows his work to project a serenity despite its apparent surface busy-ness. Look at the quality of the light in 'Standing in the Sun', 'Zonica' and others. This is not just the light of the sun. It is the interiorised glow of that rare soul, a practical optimist. In these works Boyd presents us with the results of a lifetime of looking and feeling, of labouring to make something real. He has found, by cutting deeply enough into the present, that personal history can be essentialised in a single act of picture making: a kind of pictorial replay of the original creative act.

by Cuillin Bantock 2000