Graham Boyd

Picturing the Sublime in the work of Graham Boyd

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.

T S Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’

The land is parched, waiting for the rains to come. There is a special tension in the air, electric, heavy with foreboding of a storm about to break. The landscape is manifest as latent energy, liquid weight; leviathan oceans of rain press hard against the leaden sky, buckling the atmosphere, pressing on our heart.

An early experience of the vast and ancient landscape of Central Africa impelled Graham Boyd to endeavour to translate that experience through paint; not by conventional pictorial means, burdened by all the weight of narrative and representation, but through a direct engagement with the materiality of the medium.

The paintings evoke a personal experience of nature through a nuanced distribution of ‘weight’, the weight of opposing colours and tonalities pitched against the beat of the mark-making across the plane of the canvas. Boyd paints the experience of nature via the experience of paint, to make not a picture of nature but a painting of the perception and transformative effect of nature on the self.

Although Boyd’s approach to picture-making bears a certain relationship to the language of painting which has its roots in American Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field painting of the 1950s and 1960s as exampled by such artists as Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman and Larry Poons, its real resonance lies with the European tradition of landscape and its relation to the notion of the sublime. Cézanne’s paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire and Piet Mondrian, whose Pier and Ocean series, where the artist reduced the ocean to a field of horizontal ciphers and the posts of the pier to similarly attenuated vertical glyphs, have close affinities with Boyd’s practice of using abstraction as a means to approach more closely the hidden and ineffable aspects of nature.

Areas of the painting that at first appear to be the original thinly stained canvas turn out to be painted elements collaged onto the surface at the very end of the working process. In this way the canvas once again becomes an active agent in the work, rather than a passive receiver. Even discrete gestural marks, notionally spontaneous and immovable, are sometimes cut out from other paintings, allowing the artist to orientate them into just the right position to ensure the equilibrium of the painting.

The collage elements return the surface to its original virginity, a chance to begin again, suddenly in the clotted depths of the creamy facture, a lake of aquamarine green opens up, a calm chroma in the midst of a riot of succulence. A flock of golden spatulettes arc through an ochre field, opticalised to a purple haze beneath a gelatinous glaze. Colour and space become feeling, the quiddity of the painted surface is that feeling.

Because the paintings are rectangular the corners become sectors of intense visual energy. What occurs there is key to the dynamic of the surface. It is as if the corners have escaped their geometric moorings and float free; chevronned or combed monochrome rectangles now ‘herd’ the characteristic ‘interval marks’ into fractal architectures of fluid dynamics, like flocks of starlings, swirling atoms or swarms of polychrome insects. Boyd’s paintings are as irrevocable and coherent as the curve of a wave crashing onto the shore, as arresting as a shoal of silver fish turning as one in the depth of a blue ocean.

Richard Dyer © 2009


Richard Dyer is News Editor and London Correspondent for Contemporary magazine, Art Editor of Wasafiri and Assistant Editor of Third Text.