27th February – 02 June 2019
Newport Street Gallery
Despite the clinical, cavernous setting inside Newport Street Gallery, the works of both John Bellany and Alan Davie are certainly not engulfed or sanitised by this – they stand alone, at the forefront, a myriad of textures and murky tones. The whitewashed walls of such a vast space act as a canvas for the combined efforts of these two twentieth-century British artists. Each painting is dripping with symbolism and expression, and placed alongside one another, the entire gallery space becomes one giant piece of art in itself. Suddenly, the individual pieces seem merely synecdochal - this exhibition is both a hark to the history of great British art, and an innovative curation of something new, something just as bold as the originals.
Bellany’s early career fascination with the Old Masters is elucidated quite dysphemistically in the first room of the exhibition: The Crucifixion (1963). A gory re-imagination of the three religious subjects as gutted fish, the canvas hangs alone on the far wall, reminiscent of a stunning but subversive altarpiece. Davie’s work acts in contrast to Bellany’s specific depictions of scenes and subjects, occupying a more abstract space: black circles and scores recur throughout many of his pieces. One cannot help but feel that Davie’s splashes of vibrancy and layering of expressionist motifs act as some incompetent veil over the indelible black marks – they shall always remain. Vertical Plant Essence (1948) epitomises the transcendental and biomorphic undertones within Davie’s ouvre, setting the exhibition up for a journey deeper into such an abyss of creation and expression.
Journeying throughout the exhibition, the reason to display these two artists together becomes simultaneously clearer, and yet more indiscernible, butallow me to explain: within each room, the dichotomy between the two styles of Davie and Bellany remains just as cavernous. These two giants of twentieth century British art display their own style, be it the former’s experimentation with construction - footprints can sometimes be identified on the canvases - or the latter’s exploration of humanity and its foibles, the difference remains potent. However, in the penultimate room, the final display of both artists side by side, I couldn’t help but remark upon the apparent symbiosis of Bellany’s DEW-GENEN-NY (1978), placed next to Davie’s For A Solemn Clown (1960). Similar angular figures placed beside one another, pointing upwards; their forms and identities ambivalent, of varying abstract qualities, but each painting helping the other express itself. A triumph in curation.
An exhibition of two artists may be at risk of failing to display both in the clearest of lights, yet this is no forthcoming of Newport Street Gallery. In the room dedicated solely to Bellany’s work, four seemingly crucifixion-like paintings are contrasted with far more abstract reimaginations of similar scenes. The more abstract, intangible recastings are shown on the opposite wall of the gallery, a physical cavern between the two forms that Bellany uses to express his view of humanity. Such a detailed insight into the artist’s fluctuation, development, and dialogue within their own work, as well as with their counterpart to this exhibition, adds a refreshing take on the impossibility to tie either Davie or Bellany down to a specific definition, or pinpoint their styles. Davie is also afforded a room entirely dedicated to his work, and the architecture of this room compliments his style greatly. Large structural beams in the gallery space, and angled lights, provide each abstract painting with abstract frames, casting shadows at opposing angles around the canvases, an imperfect fit for an intentionally imperfect style.
The sacred and religious aspects of human experience are explored in Bellany’s paintings, they exude a sense of voyeurism while simultaneously weaving in and out of it. His recurring representation of crucifixion scenes, along with his upbringing of Calvinist teachings, signifies a continued obsession with humanity’s interaction with religion. He never fully answers his own question which seems to surround the idea of discovering the role of a divine power - positive and parental, or an elusive voyeur? Wandering through the gallery and observing, are we the voyeur, detached and out of key with the manifestations of Davie and Bellany’s creativity, or are we benignly watching, learning? See for yourself.
Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor