Try to find some information on the work he produced while associate artist in residence at the National Gallery. You’ll also find works he has made on site on the moors and at sea.
I was tempted to avoid this research point altogether. I looked at Virtue’s works on line, I bookmarked the page, I came back to them, I did a new search. There was nothing pulling me in , nothing led me to peer closer at the screen, to maximise the image.
I’m ready to accept that I might feel very differently should I see them in the flesh. I’ve had the same change of heart (in both directions) before, once I’ve seen something up close.
Out of all the works I’ve seen online, Virtue’s series of the sea at Blakeney Point in Norfolk are the ones I think I might respond best to in person. For this series he walked and sketched the same stretch of coast each week. But I’m not convinced.
I’m wondering if I’m being unfair. Looking again at his works (online), I think I object to those with St Paul’s Cathedral in them. And those done with acrylics where the brushwork is more apparent (as with the sea pictures).
They just don’t feel very authentic to me. Though is it possible to draw these landmarks and remain convincing?
This work (right) I find slightly more intriguing but there is still something about all these works that pushes me away rather than pulls me in.
I’m trying to understand why. The place isn’t a problem. I spent most of my life in London, I love the city. Black and white isn’t an issue. I’m wondering if it’s the lack of tone that stops me ‘seeing’ and pushes back?
It’s not easy tracking down Virtue’s work online, much of it is on Pinterest without title or date.
This last image is via Marlboroughlondon.com, but I can’t find more information on it.
However I do find it more intriguing than the others and I want to spend longer looking at it. It’s London again, probably St Paul’s at the right, possibly Nelson’s column to the left, maybe the gherkin centre? The bend in the river, wooden pier supports exposed at low tide? It looks like it may be a print? It has more range of tone than in his other works and a greater range of spontaneous marks.
I’ve been thinking about the black and white that Virtue uses, without much tonal range between the two. I wonder if it is this that stops me entering the scene? Faced with black and white, we make colour in our minds. But with Virtue I can’t do that. His impenetrable black shapes against flat empty whites leave me uninvolved and unengaged.
NB. This post has been bothering me, because I haven’t really tried to understand the painter or his work. And maybe if I give a bit more I will get more out. I’ve done some more reading to try and get into these works:
Virtue spends several years with each subject. Shortly before coming to London he was painting the Exe estuary. When he joined the National Gallery as associate artist, Virtue says he became mesmerised by the Thames – which led to the body of work he created during his time in London. He describes himself as having only a ‘tourist acquaintance’ with London before taking this position. I wonder if this is what I’m sensing. I’m interested in the connection we have to place, and how this affects our artistic response to a place. There is surely a huge difference in the response of the tourist or visitor to that of someone with the deep physical connection that comes from being born or growing up in a place?
This from Peter Kingston’s 2005 profile on John Virtue in The Guardian:
“The dynamism here is unique,” (Virtue) says of London. “There’s an energy and vitality – it almost has an organic feel to it. It grows and changes its form all the time.” Given this, Virtue’s rejection of the idea that the paintings record particular moments in a changing scene seems paradoxical.
“I want to move away from the notion of impression – a cold winter’s day in London, for instance. I work right across seasons, time and weather. I’m not interested in capturing a fleeting moment (Kingston, 2005)
This has really put my head in a twist. Virtue does not want to capture an impression of the city. Does this mean he is trying to capture its essence? the way it mesmerised him? its character through time? There is something timeless about these images, except the first shown above. Which truthfully reminds me of the paintings shown on the street along Piccadilly. Do I mean timeless, or do I mean traditional? River in the foreground, townscape behind? Am I looking at a ‘traditional’ landscape with some black smudges over it?
Oh dear, the more I think about these works, the less I like them. There is something mechanical about them. I go back to the black and whiteness of them. They feel like a ‘noir’ filter has been applied.
I think I have to conclude that I need to see these paintings in person for them to speak to me.
As a note to myself I’ve added this photograph of a Franz Kline’s Untitled, 1952, that I took last year. I was absolutely blown away by it. I could have looked at it all day. Kline has been mentioned as one of Virtue’s heroes – another who uses black and white alone.
Kingston, P. (2005) John Virtue: Being a professor is the new black. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2005/mar/08/academicexperts.highereducationprofile (Accessed: 23 February 2017)