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Exhibition at the Tarpey Gallery

Sgurr Alasdair. oil on canvas 50x41cm.
‘Close Action’ Sgurr Alasdair. oil on canvas 50x41cm.


My first solo show since 1996 opens on September 24th.

‘Synthesising the sublime’
New frontier paintings.

These paintings form a continuation from the ideas I explored in the two prize-winning pictures shown at the 2015 Nottingham Castle Open. All are inspired by the mountain ranges of the Isle of Skye in Scotland, specifically the Black Cuillins. This is a choice based purely on the drama and visual spectacle of these rugged coastal mountains where I did once climb but my early paintings from that trip fell short of fully expressing the thrilling, disorienting sense of vertigo and exposure. I concluded that I would have to live there and have the pick of better conditions to do full justice to the splendour of such surroundings but sadly I do not.
This presents a problem for the landscape painter; does one have to make the immediate vicinity where one lives the subject? I have painted the urban Midlands many times and enjoyed the honesty of depicting what is there in modern England, often deliberately featuring the carbuncle and the blot. I have also spent many years seeking out picturesque new aspects of popular mountains, national parks, grouse moors and coastal paths trying to find drama and the sublime as defined by the painters I admire, Freidrich, Bierstadt, John Martin and others.
However an increasing awareness that I was one of many such painters engaged in that same attempt brought a realization that I was following a well-trodden route with familiar views and routine rural content. I was not creating anything new.
It is a big challenge to find the sublime anywhere within my urban radius, maybe it always was the preserve of the well-traveled with privileged access. Common perspectives in the landscape are restricted to viewpoints on rights of way or other publicly accessible land. Many of the finest perspectives are out of bounds to those unwilling to climb over a fence. Fortunately this has never been a problem for me. My father taught me the transferable skill of stepping over barbed wire and crossing between fields and I have since felt a sense of entitlement that resonates on an ancient and instinctive level. There are still many wild and spectacular places in Britain where I would happily become resident artist. As I get older I must recognize that it may never happen but also as the years pass new solutions present themselves. I have now found a new route to the summit and a vast plain lays at my feet.
Technology now allows the realistic recreation of landscape in the virtual world. I began experimenting with computers and programming as a youth in the 1980s so it was not too daunting to learn how to use CGI, 3D modelling and rendering software. In a method best described in a musical analogy as ‘sampling’ I have imported real geographical data into my machine and made a usefully accurate model of Skye. Applying what I have learned from 30 years of traditional landscape painting I am able to bring this basic digital topography to life in a way that I hope convinces the viewer, the Cumbrian tourist board has even shared my synthesized images of Windermere and Ullswater thinking them to be photographs. The process was fascinating and quickly drew me in, there was a compelling sense of control over this new world and it soon took its own direction as unforeseen results and mutations invited exploration. Taking it further I could see it was possible to dramatize forms beyond the current reality and maybe capture more of the spectacle outside what is attainable by the usual means. Rather than occasional painting expeditions, doing my best under grey skies I can now create the landscape myself, orchestrating the lighting from multiple sources, placing the cloud, aligning the sun, editing, fine tuning the elements and translating them into a visual language that I can paint. From this process of landscape construction I was drawn like an artist of the Hudson River School to not only explore the new frontier but also to create it as I go! In awe of the possibilities and at the same time demystifying creation itself. Exploring and creating mountain ranges, forests and fjords is now possible for any mortal and for me a liberating ‘projection’ of the consciousness into an ideal world of impossible peaks and theatrical skies has become a daily habit.

I then found that exaggerations of the landscape and ‘stretchings’ of the viewpoint geometry produced a new and compelling topography. Strange forms and dramatic radial compositions emerged from the experiments, twisted mountains began to suggest a human form or animal presence, the landscapes now extending almost into the shapes of portraiture, expressive of some new emotion even. My ‘sampling’ of a real landscape I was following up with studio techniques of distortion and ‘reverb’, a working process that produced images that, containing no objects within the landscape were almost abstract or ‘musical’ and with the volume set high. Excited, I sought to enhance this further with the use of multiple light sources, suggestive of an interior and seeming to locate the subject into an ambiguous time. The red glow in many of the paintings is symbolic of the volcanic origins of these mountains but it is also loaded with apocalyptic associations which resonate with my previous ‘environmental’ works and those of past masters. A dark future maybe but it makes for more powerful paintings I hope you will agree.

Selecting from among many hundreds of these synthetic images of real locations I have made these new oil paintings during the last nine months. It has been an intensely focused and slightly obsessive time for me and all else has suffered so I want to thank my family for their extended patience. I would also like to thank Luke Tarpey for awarding me this prize exhibition and giving me the confidence to further explore these wild new places.

John Cheall
August 2016

Here are a couple of pages giving full details.