Hartlepool is on the northeast coast of England by the cold, grey North Sea. This may account for the sombre colour in the work of prominent British painter and teacher Basil Beattie, who grew up there and has an exhibition at Two Rooms in Newton. In our bright light the work seems unappealingly inclined to clay colours and black with only occasional digressions into such colours as turgid purple. That said, the conceptual ideas behind the paintings are exceptionally strong.
Most of these paintings are made up of three or four images stacked one above another, with the images dependent on each other. The paintings belong to what the artist calls The Janus Series. Janus was the two-headed Roman god who looked both ways, at the past and the future. He was also the guardian deity of gates and doors.
This process of looking both ways is the key to understanding the work. The images that make up the painting are all framed within a shape that suggests the windscreen of a car or its back window. Within these compartmentalising shapes Beattie uses deep perspective of road or railways thrusting toward a distant horizon. Often on the horizon an arch or gate appears as a destination, suggesting both an entrance and a monument. The deep perspective gives the feeling of rapid movement but all the paintings include one framed scene that is static, giving a sense of a voyage out, a return and then a stillness modified by the journey.
A typical work is Sight of Night where converging lines drive in perspective across a clear landscape towards a swollen sky and open horizon. In the image below, the fields have become dark and the sky is lowering. In the third and lowest image the sky has become dense and brown but the experience of the quest has produced passive parallel horizontal lines in the landscape.
Night plays a part in many of these works and the earthy colour complements the black. These heavy colours are matched by thick paint. There is a great emphasis on process, the spreading of thick pigment that is allowed to drip, clot and fold out from the canvas in relief. This technique emphasises the physicality of the medium and the manner. The paintings have strong abstract qualities but they also have a moodiness of atmosphere that suggests the journeys are not so much through real landscapes but of the mind and spirit.
These works are done with great authority and provide ample evidence why Beattie has had the accolade of being purchased by the Tate Gallery.
Upstairs at Two Rooms, veteran stone carver Denis O'Connor is showing a number of his carvings on slate in a show called The Tangler. This is an Irish word for a go-between and a sorter-out of trading disputes.
The situations in dispute are often obscure. In Fortuna and The Bittern, the rectangular slate is divided diagonally. On one side is the artist and Fortuna, his muse or inspiration, and on the other side is the bittern, an endangered species. In other works, playing cards act the part of Fortuna and elements like this are often given a special wax patina. Elsewhere the imagery is more obscure but the technique remains impeccable. In a departure from the rectangular shape a pair of sculptures are shaped like water skis. A long-handled broom is on one; on the other, neat chiselled lettering. The meaning is obscure but on the heel end of one of the skis, a little scene done in low relief is wonderfully well carved. The only key to what the broom may mean is found in another more votive work where the handle supports a candle and the work is called Dust Became Light.
Whitespace is hosting a show by Nicky Foreman whose whole practice has been to make works from an accumulation of separate images. A typical painting is made up of 20 separate blocks. These can be added to so if you combined the eight works, each called Everyday Alchemy, they would make a completely valid piece composed of 160 little paintings.
It is something of an artistic triumph to give so many images an individual character, and the artist does it in many ways. Sometimes the little squares are painted abstractions or they may be copper leaf that has been cut into; plates carefully riveted; a realistic still life; a stylised pattern of leaves; or a metal plate treated with acid to give a spontaneous effect of process. Some even use the nostalgia of old photographs. Some of the most intense are landscapes with fences along the ridgelines. Each is a little meditation.
For all the variety and charm of the little rectangular paintings, a series of round paintings achieve much greater coherence and intensity and are the high points of this show.
Tresor II is a still-life of bowls and vases which manages to confer on them a deep sense of the past. Tresor III which shows mysterious trees against a night sky is equalled by Tresor IV which is a richly coloured, largely abstract work that makes great compositional use of the round format. They are truly treasures.
Neil Palmer, whose work at the SOCA gallery is called Say it With Flowers, could easily be as clichéd as its title. What saves the exhibition is its vividness, hyper-reality and sheer painterly skill. The artist thrusts his plants uncompromisingly at us. Nowhere is this more apparent than in one long painting which is a grove of flax, dense enough to hide in with the growth patterns of its leaves making a syncopated rhythm right across. As well as the rhythm there is the harsh reality of the ravages of insects on the leaves.
There are many departures from such absolute naturalism. An unnatural silver leaf background intensifies the colour of a branch of flax flowers in Flash. This use of plain-coloured backgrounds is extended to where the works are a tracery of line in silver or gold leaf which gives the panels considerable decorative charm but without the intensity that Palmer's enlarged reality confers on his more conventional works. The artist's variety of process deepens the water beyond the shallows of cliche.
This week at the galleries
What: The Janus Series, by Basil Beattie; The Tangler, by Denis O'Connor
Where and when: Two Rooms, 16 Putiki St, Newton, to Nov 22
TJ says: Assured handling and strong composition give power to paintings of states of mind; paradoxes and wit give life to carvings on slate.
What: Paintings, by Nicky Foreman
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, to Nov 15
TJ says: Accumulations of deftly crafted small images at their best when concentrated in circular forms.
What: Say it With Flowers, by Neal Palmer
Where and when: SOCA, 74 France St, Newton, to Nov 11
TJ says: Paintings of flowers mostly saved from cliché by enlargement and brilliant technique.