Brendan Neiland has a long-held fascination with cities, finding himself constantly enthralled by their sense of possibility, their unending evolution and change. His recent paintings evoke the multi-sensory experience of contemporary urban life, in a sequence of kaleidoscopic images formed from disparate elements. Spatially complex, each canvas combines multiple vantage points, in pictorial constructions that summon both the exhilaration and disorientation of the myriad sights and sounds of the metropolis.

The artist’s first experience of a large city came at the age of fourteen, when he left his family home in coastal Suffolk to attend school in Birmingham. After a childhood spent during the war and its aftermath, he became captivated by Birmingham, by its scale and the new opportunities it offered. Over the ensuing decades a love of cities has never left him, and the urban landscape provided the greater part of his subject matter throughout a long and distinguished career as painter, draftsman and printmaker.

In a recent conversation Neiland described how some years ago, sitting in Times Square in New York –‘the world’s biggest meeting point’ – he became intoxicated, drunk on the scene’s visual and auditory overload, as he watched people of all races and creeds assemble and disperse, their voices woven into the general cacophony. And it is clearly the theatricality of the city, its role as a backdrop for human life and activity, that excites and inspires his interest.

Neiland’s source material is largely photographic, his camera a form of sketchbook. Both from his home in London, and during travels elsewhere, he walks, often for hours at a time, remaining open to whatever might be revealed as the city unfolds itself around him. From many years of global travel – to destinations such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, Beijing, Costa Rica and North America – he has amassed a vast photographic archive from which to select the constituents of each painting, initial points of reference from which the work then evolves in a series of drawings. A composition is rarely based on images from a single location, but instead on fragments taken from various sources, so that the neon signage of a Las Vegas casino might, for instance, be conjoined with the structural geometries of a Beijing shopping mall elevator. Memory plays a part too, both in devising formal arrangements and in decisions about the kinds of sensation and atmosphere the work is to generate. A central concern is the exploration of light and reflection, and the ways in which their effects can be translated and rendered in paint. Hence the abstracted patterns of water and sky in mirrored glass skyscrapers, seen in many paintings here; the diffused fuzz of neon; and the subtle tonal gradations that represent the lustrous sheen of automobiles and machinery. Neiland works in series, in variations on a theme, individual components sometimes reappearing like minor characters in a novel or film, each time taking on new resonances and relationships. Look, for instance, at the delicately veined flower in ‘Begonia’, set against a collage of mechanical shards and sweeping metallic shapes like something by Frank Gehry; and how that same flower appears again in ‘Serendipity’. Ancient and modern, old and new are juxtaposed in many of these canvases: the detail from a piece of Chinese statuary in Torsofor example, surrounded by what is otherwise a near-abstract mosaic of shape and colour. And in ‘Arcadia’, the Art Deco Chrysler Building, drawn both as a diagram and as several of its constituent parts, is shown as though viewed through a refracting lens.

These paintings are greatly informed by the impact of technological advances in image making and presentation: digital projections and animations, virtual and hyper realities, and high-resolution advertisements the size of multiplex screens. A palette of often-heightened colour underscores the works’ inherent drama. It is achieved by painting on top of a black basecoat, over which, using his long-established techniques of spray gun and hand-cut stencils, the artist then layers pigment a dozen or more times to achieve intense saturation. He deploys a wide range of stylistic devices, dramatic changes of scale and angle, and woozy distortions, like those of a hall of mirrors. In ‘Scherzo’ for example, a fluid edifice, set at a vertiginous gradient, appears alongside what reads as a piece of stained glass, interspersed with Ben-Day dots and seen in close-up. And, like the ambiguous spaces in these paintings, the distinction between what is natural and what is synthetic is more often than not unclear. A cluster of flowers – a recurrent motif, depicted in a range of stylistic guises – might derive from an illuminated hoarding, or from a hotel lobby bouquet. There is play too with the language of advertising, its chimerical world of perpetual seduction and promise. In several of Neiland’s canvases – those such as ‘Troubadour’ and ‘City Spur’ – corporate logotypes appear as cropped calligraphic fragments within flickering screens and curtains. All is artifice, in an art of suggestion whose secular iconography remains a moveable feast of endless permutations. And whilst under present circumstances the future of our urban centres may seem haunted by doubt and ambivalence, these intensely visual paintings act as celebrations of the exhilarating poetry of the city, first encountered by Brendan Neiland more than sixty years ago, and the fuel of his art ever since. 

Essay commissioned by The Redfern Gallery, London, for the catalogue accompanying the exhibition ‘Brendan Neiland: Reflections at 80’, September/October 2021.

Image: Brendan Neiland: ‘Conflation’, acrylic on canvas, 2021 © The Artist/The Redfern Gallery, London.

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