Art Essays

John Hoyland, Charles Nodrum Gallery

Published August 9, 2011
John Hoyland, Moons Milk

One often reads about an artist’s ‘late style’, an autumnal period where a painter feels his mortality, slows down and mellows his palette. John Hoyland, who will be 77 this year, has obviously never heard of this concept. The paintings Hoyland is producing today are more raw, more free, more experimental than the works he made in the 1960s. The young Hoyland could not escape the rectangle: it appeared in one work after another, like an alien presence imposing itself upon a field of drips and spatters. The artist of today has thrown off all constraints, and is painting like a man who has nothing left to prove.
Looking at these explosive arrangements of colour, where the most vivid reds contrast with fields of blue; where balls of yellow and orange glow like comets, one finds a portrait of the artist as a man of action. In contrast to the muddy tones and fussy drawing of the School of London artists who are his peers, Hoyland is prepared to use colour for expressive ends. Where Leon Kossoff gives us a silvery grey sky over Spittalfields, Hoyland produces a multi-coloured supernova somewhere over planet earth.
These are the paintings of an extrovert amid a generation of dogged introverts.
It would be foolish to believe that these pictures are entirely without a subject. A 2007 painting called Lebanon, was based on a newspaper photograph of a blood stain on the floor of a hospital in the war torn Middle East. Other works have been elegies dedicated to old friends, such Patrick Caulfield and Piero Dorazio, who both died in 2005. Although Hoyland does not feel the same indignation at the “abstract” label that Mark Rothko did, he obviously sees abstraction as a vehicle for conveying emotion. His colours have a such a visceral charge that we feel their impact on the retina before we have time to contemplate a composition.
Is it a sign of melancholy that a painting called Life & Love is mostly blue? If so, that feeling is contradicted by the ball of red and green that asserts itself in the bottom right hand corner. Hoyland is above all, a celebratory painter. He treats his work as an act of thanksgiving for life, not as a document of grim survival. In this he stands in the tradition of artists such as Matisse and Bonnard, who retained a sacramental feeling in their work in the face of age and ill health.

John Hoyland, Life & Love

Hoyland has little time for the brush. He likes to throw and splash paint onto a canvas, retaining a sense of movement and spontaneity – a snapshot of spontaneity, if that’s not too much of a paradox. His paintings seem to be in flux, like those stars whose light we see in the night sky only years later. The primal creative event occurred in the studio at a certain time on a certain day, but it continues to resonate on the walls of the gallery.
John Constable famously defined his own work in relation to the ideal landscapes of the Neo-classical school, by declaring: “there is room enough for a natural painter.” John Hoyland is that natural painter today, at a time when art has become immersed in politics, irony, commerciality, kitsch, and new media. Constable went on to say: “the great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth.” Hoyland has the bravura, but the old battle lines have changed. As art enters that phase that Jean Clair calls “the winter of culture”, bravura and truth become one.
John Hoyland, Charles Nodrum Gallery, August 4 – 3 September, 2011