Paul Bonaventura. Ruskin School Oxford
Reflections beyond the ordinary: Adrian Hemming’s Pond Paintings
Adrian Hemming has a deep and abiding appreciation of landscape, and landscape and travel inform his practice at every turn. ‘I don’t travel to find the perfect landscape,’ he declares. ‘Notions of the sublime are no longer the Holy Grail of the artist. However, the restless nature of travelling - the constant expectation of the next sensation - informs and helps me make the work… I am a landscape painter. Not a painter of scenic beauty or topographical views, but a painter of nature.’
Hemming’s knowledge of landscape embraces cultural and historical values, which undoubtedly influence our collective comprehension of the environment, as well as ideas of nature explored and understood through quantum theory and plate tectonics. Although they find their source in the optical world, his paintings allude powerfully to felt forces that remain hidden to the human eye, and his canvases and works on paper are marked just as much by their intellectual content as they are by their more evident aesthetic properties.
Unlike other painters who exhibit widely, Hemming deliberately makes work for the domestic interior. Not for him the imagined museum or gallery. He wants to engage with his audience privately, on a one-to-one basis. This is partly a product of the fact that Hemming has rarely attracted the attention of mainstream curators or particularly wealthy collectors, despite being twice short-listed for the artist residency at the National Gallery in London, but one senses that it is also a function of his temperament, and his awareness of the power and limitations of the medium. Hemming’s work confirms that you do not need to paint big to create a big impact.
The artist’s most recent solo exhibition took place at the London Centre for Psychotherapy in Kentish Town in early 2009. The Centre is not an acknowledged showing space, but it does represent the kind of place that many of us encounter and inhabit on a daily basis, and the artist’s work looked at home there. Hemming’s paintings are everyday paintings, and they perform a valuable role in reminding us of the importance of being regularly surrounded by and exposed to good art in everyday surroundings.
The work on exhibition in Kentish Town could trace its roots to the artist’s one-person show La Maison des Champs, which took place at the Falle Gallery in St. Helier on Jersey at the beginning of 2008. ‘I kept going to Jersey to stay with this friend of mine in the run-up to that show,’ Hemming explains, ‘and she’d had a pond built in her garden - she’d dammed up a little valley - and I just became obsessed with it.’ The pond is small, no more than eight metres by twelve metres, but in his paintings Hemming has transformed it into a water feature that would not look out of place in Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny. Indeed, in some of his smaller watercolours, like Olive Green Pond and Blue on Blue Pond, it takes on the dimensions of a vast lake or inland sea. ‘ Unconsciously,’ says Hemming, ‘I think I’ve taken all the pools and all the lakes I’ve ever seen on my travels and sunk them into this insignificant little pond on Jersey.’
To become obsessed with any object is to invest it with a multitude of mythical possibilities. The Falle Gallery exhibition included two brightly coloured pond paintings, which were all of a piece with his previous work, but by the time the artist returned to his studio in London his palette had undergone a startling makeover. Hemming had hardly ever used green before, but now his paintings were saturated with it: emerald greens, cobalt greens, viridian greens - every green in the spectrum.
These changes were first manifested in six small oils on paper that were made outdoors in front of the motif. It was John Constable who pioneered the practice of plein air painting in the early nineteenth century. Fifty years later, it became fundamental to Impressionism and played a crucial role in the growth of Naturalism. Subsequently, plein air painting became widespread and was sometimes taken to extremes. Stanhope Forbes, for example, had his canvas and easel secured by ropes while he painted on the Cornish coast in stormy conditions.
Hemming has not painted en plein air since his late twenties. ‘But as soon as you start doing plein air paintings with oils,’ he exclaims, ‘you realise why the Impressionists painted as they did. Some people think that Impressionism was a cerebral movement… No! When you’re outside with oil paint, how you make your brush marks is almost dictated to you, what colours you use, how you arrange the composition. Try to imagine: it’s not like working with a watercolour box, you’re sitting or standing, you’ve got these unwieldy tubes of paint all around you, you’ve got the turpentine, you’ve got the brushes, you’ve got your knife, you’ve got your canvas or paper on a board.’
‘The slightest breath of wind is blowing everything all over the place,’ he continues, ‘and you’re involved in a real struggle. It’s not like holding a little watercolour block in your hand. Watercolour is eminently manageable, but oil paints aren’t, and you’ve got to find a way of working ultra-fast. You’ve got to take shortcuts to get the result because you haven’t got the luxury of time. It made me realise just how much of a product Impressionist painting was of the artists actually going out into and working in the landscape, as well as the more cerebral idea of the colour combinations… I think a lot of that came afterwards; when they looked at their paintings in the studio and realised what was happening, they refined them academically.’
If there is one piece among the six small oils that encapsulates Hemming’s total mastery of his new interest in working outdoors it is surely Reflections. Reflections is a scintillating painting. Dominated by a supremely ornamental palette of greens, yellows and blues, the picture depicts a verdant, seemingly tropical landscape, and the play of light on the surface of water. It mirrors Hemming’s curiosity for the art of the Impressionists and reveals an awareness of the possibilities offered up by photography yet it traps time in a way that photography can never hope to match. A shape-shifting mosaic of radiant colour, shimmering like a mirage, Reflections is one of the artist’s finest works.
A Million Leaves 2009 Oil on canvas 50 X 60cm
‘When you compare Reflections and the other little oils to the way my work had been going,’ Hemming admits, ‘they are much more in that kind of Impressionist tradition, but not deliberately so. I just couldn’t help it. Just by the fact of sitting there and having the pond in front of me. I did them on my lap - I tried working with an easel, but it didn’t feel right… When you’re working, you can’t see the wood for the trees, but when you get an opportunity to show work and you get it up on the wall, you can actually get a grasp of what you’ve been doing, and it starts to make sense.’
It may sound obvious, but the development of an artist’s work usually makes little sense until you see it all together. When we encounter single pieces in isolation our view is necessarily partial, and it appears that the artist has taken bold leaps of the imagination, but most artists are quite methodical in their approach, pedestrian almost. They need something to prod them in new directions, and in Hemming’s case that prod took the form of a trivial little garden pond. For whatever reason, sitting out in the open air in front of this pond had a liberating influence on the artist’s approach to painting.
‘I need a place, time, a journey,’ says Hemming. ‘I need all of those things to arrive at the work. I couldn’t just sit down and invent a piece of work. It’s just not my way of art. It’s just not me. My best work comes out of this plodding forward, bit-by-bit. Things change a bit and then they change a bit more and then suddenly you get a eureka moment… I stared at that pond until the water danced before my eyes. My brain burst with colours green. Green is one of the most difficult colours to work with. Quite a few artists feel like that. The big colours of our world are green and blue. Unless you go to the desert, they describe virtually everything you see. Everybody’s concept of the world is green and blue, and that was made even more apparent to me by that shot of the earth from space – the ‘blue marble’ image from Apollo 17 – in which the two dominant colours are green and blue. You’ll see that very idea reflected in some of these pond paintings.’
The artist makes clear choices in his painting, about what to leave in and what to leave out, and he has no interest in illustration. ‘I’m not interested in the green leaf and the brown branch and the blue water,’ he confirms. ‘I prefer my own colours, but I have to make them agree. If you’re using the colour in front of you, you don’t have a problem because local colours are harmonious. They fit because the world fits so the green of the pond is in perfect harmony with the green of the grass, the brown of the trees, the blue of the water. As soon as you start pushing your own colour you have this huge struggle to balance your palette, to make the colours work for each other. This is especially true in the studio works, which might carry twenty layers of paint to achieve the necessary fine-tuning… I don’t think that the way that I paint is groundbreaking in any way. I’m not trying to achieve a shattering new concept. My work is very much grounded in the 19th and 20th centuries. But what I trying to do is maintain painting’s significance so that when people see it they say, ‘That’s bloody good painting’. I want to make it go beyond the ordinary.’
Hemming understands paint. He enjoys and revels in its potential and communicates that potential to the viewer with a tangible authority. ‘We all know artists who have no aptitude for painting,’ he sighs. ‘The paint just gets sloshed on with no feel for the material quality of the medium. So long as it conveys a message that’s all that matters. I’m completely of the opposite persuasion. The look and feel of the paint is a big part of the message. It has to be sensuous. It has to be alive!’ At times, Hemming’s enthusiasm for nature’s physical appearance seems almost amorous. He gazes intently, and even in his mid-sixties he is still caught up in the wonder of the world.
Paul Bonaventura is the Senior Research Fellow in Fine Art Studies at the University of Oxford