Nathan Ford

New Paintings

25 February to 25 March

Opening on Saturday week, the 25th, we are pleased that Nathan Ford will be in the gallery between 1 and 4 p.m.
Nathan’s biennial exhibition is always one of the most eagerly anticipated in our calendar.  We are also highlighting new works which are late additions to this collection…..

 

Coast Road II, Oil on Panel, 122 x 170 cm. £12,000

 

I am including the full text of the catalogue essay below, together with the full versions of two poems that are quoted. I think about Norman MacCaig’s poem often, in relation to a gorse bush near where we live. Especially at this time of year with Orion high in the southern sky of an evening, and given the fact that the honeyed scent of gorse flower is one of the loveliest things.

 

NATHAN FORD

You’ve taken your stand
Between Christy McLeod’s house
and the farthest planet.

The ideal shape of a circle
means nothing to you: you’re all
armpits and elbows
and scraggy fingers that hold so delicately
A few lucid roses.  You are
an encyclopedia of angles.

At night you trap stars, and the moon
fills you with distances.
I arrange myself to put
one rose in the belt of Orion.

When the salt gales drag through you
you whip them with flowers
and I think –
Exclamations for you, little rose bush,
and a couple of fanfares.

Praise of a Thorn Bush, Norman MacCaig

 

A Radio 4 discussion programme with Margaret Atwood stays with me. The oft-interviewed author is asked how she coped with the tumult of world events. She laconically responds that it was necessary to imagine the day’s challenges as a garden where one fenced off a manageable area, and then after a pause – that sometimes a morning coffee was as far as her own borders could encompass. This metaphor for dealing with life’s daily demands came to me again recently as Nathan and I talked in his studio, surrounded by a neat stack of his latest work.

Nathan is by nature a well-adjusted person. The tumultuous world is kept at arms length, and like any good artist, he chooses what moves him and seeks to impose form on it. The latest work can be broadly split into three categories – small spare still lifes; portraits, in this instance of family members only.  Then there are larger format landscapes which incorporate aspects of the smaller work, and include frames painted well inside the edges, creating a story-within-a-story effect.

Nathan’s natural sense of order allows him space to conduct what he refers to as personal investigations, an obsessional mix of observational minutiae, quotidian practice, and the use of subject matter within his own temporal and physical environs. What has sufficient significance to draw and paint may to most of us seem non-descript. The smaller of the still life series are a continuation of an idea begun during lockdown; weeds and flowers gathered during the one daily permissible walk that the family took together. The subjects, including the artist himself, share something of the very nature of these flowers that blossom in such unlikely environments, plucked as they are off a stony Welsh hillside.

He sees the little still lifes as a celebration of the natural world. To someone born and raised in South London, you take nature how and where you find it – so a long panoramic painting showing a child striding past an outlined backdrop of tower-blocks, with accompanying fantastical stick-figure bees, stencilled pink aliens and empty bottles, is entitled Walled Garden.  He would, he remembers, marvel at seed pods that would germinate in the oily pools of his Dad Stan’s garage, situated in East Place, another large canvas where the scrawny weeds are illuminated, echoing the style of the still lifes (see Winter 22 for example).

Sitting for Nathan is unnerving, as his long-suffering spouse and sons will corroborate. He is looking to strip away the game face. ‘I want to find the thing that scares me’, he puts it.  Dyslexic as a young man, he is the kind of person who will work things out independently, from first principles. The ability to look for quiddity, to decode visual signals, is his singular talent, and so the hope is that these archetypes, wrought from a flaccid bunch of weeds well past their best, or in the face of a person whose character he has an intimate knowledge of, may draw in and be recognised in turn by a curious audience.

Shutting the world off is necessary for patient observation. It helps, he posits, to ’take myself out of the equation as much as possible, so I can see to paint.’ He also talks about the periphery of the work, or rather, seeing the work in peripheral vision. ‘What you see when you look past the painting, or seeing it in reflection, will help build an impression.’ The question of what one is actually seeing has long fascinated him.  He regularly encounters a flock of sheep on an Iron Age hillfort outside Cardiff, and with weather, and crepuscular muddy light, ‘My brain completes the picture with background information, but what is it am I actually looking at?’ Without architectural detail to steady them, the sheep float in the murk. Nathan’s quiet greyish palette is ideal for the job at hand, lending depth and subtle colour to the inky gloaming. ‘I want the work to hum in the dark and pop in the light’, he explains.

So all the research, study, investigation, the muscle memory in his elegant painter’s hands, is an attempt to find and evoke essence, something done patiently over time. This may mean it is at first not clear where the painting finishes. He describes dialogue with the work, ‘The paintings talk to me, and sometimes (he says gesturing towards the window) they insist that I go out on to the hills again.’  Screen representations too can be distracting. ‘Seeing images of work, I have sometimes thought I got it wrong – then I go back to the work itself and realise, actually no – that was an honest and accurate evocation of that moment in time.’

The still lifes and portraits nourish the larger paintings. Sagging plants and flowers, sitters, are all familiar and endemic. There is no exoticism, flash or noise, beyond the obsession to create, to jettison superfluous detail, and quietly, as he puts it ‘crystallise things, bring things to a point’. He continues, ‘Sometimes you can recognise in a moment what it is to be, to live, and you can’t get air into your lungs quick enough.’ And a moment later, ‘Consciousness is the one thing we share and we haven’t got a clue how to talk about it.’

It is not only subject matter, or style, or talent, or the intolerance of superfluous detail that has allowed Nathan to make his work as distinctive as it is. It is not even the sheer bloody-minded honesty of it, or his ability to create works of quiet mystery out of things easily discarded. It is of course all these things, that spring from his life as a father and an artist.  The little flowers clinging to life, the diminutive children, the hulking lorries, inner city walls with their cartoon insects and monsters – this inspired collection of work, it is obvious to me, is all of a piece. He is (to paraphrase the poet) – in the paintings, and the paintings in him. ‘The things I produce are not life, but they are symbols and marks which describe my interactions with life’.

 

As Yusef Komunyakaa says of his hero in Ode to the Maggot:

 

Brother of the blowfly
& godhead, you work magic
Over battlefields,
In slabs of bad pork

& flophouses. Yes, you
Go to the root of all things.
You are sound & mathematical.
Jesus Christ, you’re merciless

With the truth. Ontological & lustrous,
You cast spells on beggars & kings
Behind the stone door of Caesar’s tomb
Or split trench in a field of ragweed.

No decree or creed can outlaw you
As you take every living thing apart. Little
Master of earth, no one gets to heaven

Without going through you first.
 

Self 2.23, Oil on Panel, 74 x 58 cm. £3,500

 

And finally….

Don’t fill up on bread
I say absent-mindedly
The servings here are huge

My son, whose hair may be
receding a bit, says
Did you really just
say that to me?

What he doesn’t know
is that when we’re walking
together, when we get
to the curb
I sometimes start to reach
for his hand

Robert Hershon ‘Sentimental moment or why did the baguette cross the road’
 

Magic Roundabout, Oil on Panel, 122 x 170 cm. £12,000

 

Thank you for reading,

Aidan.