Here’s the text of a review I wrote for Mary Anne’s latest exhibition at Portland Gallery, London, which included a good number of paintings made as part of the Springlines project:
Tim Craven, Curator of Art at Southampton City Art Gallery, in his excellent essay at the front of the catalogue, places Aytoun-Ellis’ work firmly on the continuum of ‘the great British Romantic tradition of Turner and Constable’ and acknowledges her strong affinity with Paul Nash, whose ‘notion of Genius Loci, the pervading hidden spirit of a place, chimes with Aytoun-Ellis’ own love and knowledge of her many chosen corners of the Sussex downs’.
The artist’s deep affection for place and rural history is the antithesis of sentimental pastoral, as she seeks to understand all that is complex and valuable in our landscape heritage. Giving as much or more attention to the detail of a sycamore leaf as she does to a classic sweep of downs or a tempestuous sky, Aytoun-Ellis shows us how to look at landscape and nature with compassion, fairness and honesty. These are vital ways of thinking about our countryside as it continues to be threatened by creeping urbanisation. Her work avoids the predominant leanings of contemporary figurative painting; with her ‘fierce looking’ (Roger Deakin’s expression) and the total engagement with place that results, she succeeds in marrying the natural world and imagination in ways that are truthful to both.
For over two years Mary Anne and I have been researching and visiting water sites such as furnace ponds, dew ponds, old clay pits and ancient wells. Sometimes we work simultaneously on a subject, sometimes we start in the same place and spin off in different directions. Sometimes what Mary Anne has painted proves to be the inspiration for what I write, sometimes vice versa. We often feel that the web of our collaboration provides a holding space for each, in which we are free to experiment. Many of the paintings in this exhibition have sprung from our collaboration, and seeing them hung as part of this show, we both experienced them with fresh eyes – the exhibition itself giving us yet another perspective on working together.
At the Private View I kept hearing people say that Aytoun-Ellis’ work has never looked as good. I think this is true, and I think it is because she has taken enormous risks in order to let the work be fully what it wants and needs to be. The heaving waters of ‘Dewpond – Light Breeze over Water’ threaten to flood the room, but with a benign, almost beatific mood; the intense churn and change at the centre of ‘Two Trees’ draw the viewer into the precipitous gravity and power of falling water; ‘Flooded Coronal’ and ‘Furnace Pond’ evoke apocalyptic manifestations of water whilst maintaining a sense of this element’s mercurial moods in small patches of exquisite stillness or, in the case of ‘Flooded Coronal’, in mysterious absence; ‘Caballus’ – the larger-than-life-size horse, steps purposefully out of the shallows of a dark mere of creation towards the person standing in the gallery looking at him, head to head.
There is nothing safe or predictable about these works. Instead there is great maturity in the fine balance of emotion with craft, of precise observation with the serendipities of experimental technique. Each painting has the depth and confidence of a fully realised individual reality and yet there is a striking wholeness to the vision represented in the exhibition. Mary Anne feels that this has come through our shared work on Springlines. In her own words, ‘working collaboratively has allowed me to pursue ideas – and ways of developing them – that I might not otherwise have tried, which in turn has led to a sense of integration and fluidity in this group of paintings.’ As her collaborator, I find the same tendencies in my own writing for Springlines, and I am deeply grateful. As a writer and poet who is passionate about the value of collaboration between artists, I am obviously delighted that this project gives each of us so much. We must be doing something right.