The excitement for me as an artist lies not in exploring the unknown but in how I can effectively organise a visual arrangement that reflects the atmosphere and intensity of an environment, evoking a precise moment of the day under specific light and conditions. I hope you enjoy the work
Feature of the week 15/09/2019
A Review by Paul Flux
This week's feature is a review of my recent exhibition at Bow Arts written by Paul Flux for Albion, a biannual non-profit making arts magazine focusing on English culture.
Paul has kindly given permission to reproduce the review for those who have not read it and may be interested. For my next feature I shall publish the interview with Paul Flux, that was published with this article
Doreen Fletcher: Paintings, edited by The Gentle Author
Review and Artist Interview (to follow next week)
Spitalfields Life Books, 2018
This is the story of an initially neglected and disillusioned artist who, through a series of chance encounters, has become better-known and is now enjoying the career that she thoroughly deserves. Throughout the eighties and nineties Doreen Fletcher painted urban scenes around London, especially the East End, but in 2004, disappointed by her lack of recognition, she stopped painting altogether. Some ten years later a chance encounter with The Gentle Author, the anonymous blogger who records and celebrates life around Spitalfields in the East End, led to renewed interest, belated recognition, gallery exposure and publication of this book of her works. And, thankfully, a resumption of painting.
Put simply, these pictures are a delight. They have a double attraction, the most obvious being the subject matter. Many of Fletcher’s paintings, especially those from the 1980s, are of buildings or decaying urban landscapes which were under threat of demolition at the time, and have long since disappeared. They are a visual record of what is now lost, and therefore have a wistful quality which is immediately engaging. The street scenes have an atmosphere of gradual, subtle senescence, in that the scenes depicted are not completely derelict —they are human constructions which have outlived their usefulness and are awaiting destruction, and replacement with something supposedly better. They evoke a past which can no longer be recovered.
However, there is more in these paintings than mere nostalgia, no matter how attractive that might be. The great Romantic painters of the past, Caspar David Friedrich for example, were amongst the first artists to realise that landscape can be depicted in such a way as to reflect upon the human condition, even when the human figure is absent. While many of Fletcher’s paintings may record a fading human environment, they also have a timeless quality that transcends their subject matter. They are accurate representations of an urban world quietly disappearing from view, but are also reflective observations of typical places encountered in everyday life and passed by without much thought.
Artists as diverse as Cézanne, Monet, Hopper, Magritte, and Bomberg, to name just a few, have all taken inspiration from seemingly ordinary man-made objects within a natural landscape or setting, and turned them into something much more powerful. Bomberg notably coined the phrase “spirit in the mass” in an attempt to describe his efforts to give inanimate objects emotional power. Depicting solid structures in a painting in such a way as to evoke an emotional response might be a fiendishly difficult skill, but for the artist it may be the most rewarding. A fine example of this can be found in one of Magritte’s most enigmatic works, The Empire of Light, 1954, which captures a single building at night, in front of a river which reflects the light. Nothing seems unusual about the picture until the viewer realises that there is a noontide sky behind the building. Magritte has combined images of night and day so as to initially confuse us, and then make us wonder. One commentary suggests that this deliberate ambiguity was an attempt to overturn the usual interpretation of light and dark as synonymous with good and evil, and replace this dichotomy with something much more disquieting.
A 1998 painting by Fletcher, Twilight, St. Anne’s Churchyard, has a similar disturbing effect. The yellow-green light in the background gives the scene an otherworldly sense of unease, while in the foreground the black trees seem to be reaching out to entangle everything around them. In her weekly blog Fletcher writes of this painting “I held off for a time before introducing the green into the sky, wanting to convey the effect of loneliness, anticipation, expectation, and maybe hope.” It is clear both from this painting and from Fletcher’s comments about it that, from the outset, this artist was intent on using the landscapes of the world around her to convey more than simply the passage of time, or urban decay.
In 1994 Fletcher came across a corner shop in Canning Town which reminded her of similar shops in the Potteries of her childhood. Returning later, she found it closed and already boarded up and ready for demolition, but she was still interested in the scene and recorded it in a coloured pencil sketch. It is a beautifully executed work which catches the nuances of the faded world that it represents, with old advertising signs still visible in the window. This really could be an image from any inner city or town street, as these kinds of neighbourhood shops were in steep decline at that time, and are now almost non-existent. They are symbolic of a kind of communal life which can be over-sentimentalised, in which neighbours did perhaps interact for the common good, but were often also thrown together by grinding poverty and the lack of meaningful opportunities for improvement. An image like this is a powerful evocation of the passage of time, in the form of this closed-up shop.
This painting can most obviously be compared with those of Edward Hopper. He is famous for his haunting images of an America in which the urban environment becomes representative of the human existence of which it is a significant part. A painting like House by the Railroad (1925) is not dissimilar to Fletcher’s picture of the corner shop —the difference is one of scale. Hopper’s building is more monumental, but its windows are also shuttered. There are no visible signs of life, and the picture’s horizontal plane is cut through by the rusting iron of a railway track. This is a scene of faded melancholy, as the sun casts shadows over an old, condemned building. Like the shop in Canning Town, this old house is not remarkable in itself, but both have been transformed by the artists’ expertise into visual expressions of isolation and abandonment. Both images have a quiet authority underscored by the absence of the long-gone human figures for whom, and by whom, they were built.
Fletcher makes reference to Hopper in her blog commentary about her 2018 painting The Dental Surgery. She writes, “I reflected on Edward Hopper and his voyeuristic interest in half seen lit rooms, an interest of which I share.” Later she adds, “For me, the work of painters like.... Edward Hopper, all contain that sense of being caught in that pause, a moment which places itself between thought and potential action and where consequences still lie waiting to be born in the future.” The work in question is the last in the book, and a fitting finale. Again, this is a corner scene, on a dark winter evening. There is a glow from the first-floor window, but that is the only reference to human activity. Most of the windows are either dark or bricked up, and the street itself is deserted. Unlike in the previous works mentioned, there is no suggestion here of the passage of time; instead this is a record of a place when day is fading and interactions may be taking place within the lighted space, but we are too far away to be sure.
One of the most interesting paintings reproduced in the book is Palaseum Cinema, Limehouse, painted in 1985. Unusually, this work does have a clearly visible human figure, albeit quite a small one: a lonely ticket sales lady in her booth just inside the brightly lit foyer. In her blog about this painting Fletcher writes that she “was immediately struck by the building’s appearance of tawdry glamour,” and that is what is so appealing about this work. In many ways the cinema itself represents a phenomenon with which we have somewhat lost touch. Those of a certain age will remember when most towns had at least two (or more) cinemas, and a visit to one was always a source of excitement, not always connected with the film itself! In this picture we see the decline of a social and cultural icon that has virtually disappeared. We now have large multi-screen venues that show only the latest films, while the small local cinema which catered mostly for those within walking distance, or a short bus ride away, has been largely consigned to distant memory.
This painting shows striking similarities to the work of some of the Photorealist artists in the USA. Davis Cone, for example, has concentrated almost exclusively on Art Deco cinemas for his subject matter, which, like their counterparts in this country, are fast disappearing and therefore represent the passage of time. His paintings, built up from dozens of photographs and transposed in acrylic onto canvas, are unlike those of Fletcher in that they are composite realisations of the chosen locations, rather than accurate portrayals of what can actually be seen at a particular time. However, the overall effect of both painters’ works is remarkably similar. Palaseum Cinema is an urban landscape which combines the nostalgia of the past with the reality of the present. Like much of Fletcher’s work, it is a snapshot, but a carefully chosen one. The evening light emphasises the glowing entrance, which should be welcoming customers and which in the distant past would have seen queues snaking along the pavement, as people waited patiently to gain admittance. At that time the girl in the booth would have been like a master of ceremonies, taking money and guiding people in; she would have had a significantly important social role within the cinema’s organisation. Now she sits alone, waiting for customers who may never even arrive. Fletcher catches that moment perfectly, both the actual —the early evening light coming from the once-thriving cinema— and the imagined, the handling of the painted surface to evoke a world with which we think we are familiar, but which is actually already lost.
In a 2018 interview for the Roman Road London website, Fletcher made this telling statement: “The art establishment continues to ignore me as they do the East London Group. I am a little disappointed but not surprised.”* It is sadly true that canvas painting has become an undervalued art form, and oil painting which takes as its subject everyday visual reality has become the most undervalued of all. The art market is, by its very nature, a volatile one, subject to the vagaries of fashion and public opinion, and personal interpretations of the real world are increasingly sidelined.
To return to the Edward Hopper connection, in 1953 in the journal Reality the artist published a definitive statement about his art, in which he stated: “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.”
This declaration could apply equally to the art of Doreen Fletcher. It is entirely appropriate that she is now receiving the attention that she deserves, and I would recommend this collection of her paintings to everyone who believes that an artist who imbues her work with the spirit of place is deserving of both our attention and our admiration. The paintings reproduced in this book are not simply a record of buildings on the eve of their demolition —they also capture moments of reflection on both our past and our future. Man-made structures embody the hopes of previous generations, and when they are destroyed we lose part of what connects us to our heritage. These images are a sympathetic record of that connectivity, and it is laudable that they can now be seen and appreciated by us all.--Paul Flux
An interview with Paul Flux will be published in next week's feature.