John Blackburn MBE: Paintings from the Studio
Selected by art historian and critic, Dr Ian Massey, this exhibition gathers work from John Blackburn’s studio made over the course of the artist’s long, prolific career. This, Blackburn’s second solo exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery, shows the artist’s philosophical approach to be central to the conception and success of his work.
Mixed materials, sometimes featuring resin, grit, house-paint and varnish, are layered onto the distinctive surfaces of Blackburn’s paintings before they are completed with acrylic, oil and encaustic. Incorporating found objects, Blackburn roots his work firmly in the present world but seeks metaphorical connections to the physical and spiritual body. Using, as he puts it, ‘everything and anything,’ his work draws parallels with Arte povera artists, Alberto Burri and Antoni Tàpies. The implication of the previous existence of objects within Blackburn’s work lends it a transitional quality that relies on a balance between the basal origins of his materials and the spiritual intonations of his metaphors. With nods to the textural viscerality of post-war European artists, Wols and Jean Fautrier, Blackburn melds the refuge of daily life into his work to produce imagery rife with corporeal meaning.
Despite its initial appearance as impersonal, enigmatic statement, at its core Blackburn’s work relates to the human condition. Massey describes this as an ‘emphatic humanism’ expressed through an ‘abstract vocabulary’. Blackburn’s abstraction is replete with autobiographical and philosophical meaning. Born in Luton in 1932, he escaped the austerities of post-war Britain to live in New Zealand, Malaysia and the Pacific Islands. The lumps, drips and folds built onto his canvases evoke the scarred landscape in which the world had to rebuild after the Second World War. Alongside this, moments of rich colour within a largely tonal palette look to the intense light of New Zealand. Blackburn has said, ‘life itself is terribly dangerous, terribly cruel, terribly rewarding. All these things at once. This multi-faceted, wonderful jewel – which we all live with and die with – is there. We’re saddled with it, like it or not.’ Both the terror and joy of life lived through the accelerating impact of modernity in the twentieth century emerge in Blackburn’s paintings. Molten blacks of mechanisation collide with soulful, sunny yellows and scratched wax becomes scorched earth when placed next to soft brushstrokes of fragile flesh.
Blackburn attended Margate School of Art from the ages of 14 to 17 where he studied textile design before serving in the Royal Airforce. On his demobilisation he began his travels in the southern hemisphere where he met his wife, Maude, with whom he had three children. Returning to Britain in 1962, Blackburn found himself within the sphere of influential collector and gallerist Jim Ede who placed his work in his Kettle’s Yard gallery in Cambridge, alongside Peter Lanyon, William Scott and Roger Hilton. In 2006 Blackburn had an exhibition at the Metropole Galleries in Folkestone. His paintings had not been exhibited in a commercial gallery since 1968. This led to a critical and commercial revival of his work. Blackburn still regularly travels to New Zealand to work in his studio in Muriwai, Auckland. His was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1995 and his work is held in the collections of the British Embassy in Paris, Cambridge University, the Bank of Ireland, and other important public and private collections.