An extract from the essay Material Nature

Following his art college training and National Service, John Blackburn worked initially in graphic and textile design. It was however only in 1959 whilst living in New Zealand that he first came to the realisation that he was in fact a painter. The catalyst was a burgeoning existential questioning, of a nature not uncommon amongst his generation, to which he felt compelled to give form: abstract ideas demanding their expression in an abstract language. He produced a series of paintings generically entitled Encaustics, made outdoors on unstretched sheets spread out onto hardboard laid on the ground. They were worked in oil and household paint, with then jets of petrol squirted onto them and set alight, the subsequently quelled flames leaving scorch-marks and blisters on parts of their surfaces. An act of catharsis, the Encaustics were the precursor to all that has followed.

Closest in this show to the Encaustics is Nine Black Dots, in which the eponymous group of dots spark and wheel across the upper edge of a darkly encrusted mass. The cruel beauty of its scorched and stained surface is alive with incident, in paint sprayed, slathered and drizzled. Its high-gloss is both funerary and exotic. One is reminded of Blackburn’s admiration for Derek Jarman’s black paintings of the 1980s and ‘90s: paintings as reliquaries and memento mori in which are embedded shards of glass and mirror, medicine bottles and thermometers; the paraphernalia of HIV treatment, the stuff of dark times.

When I visited Blackburn’s studio early this year the painting Sentinel lay unfinished upon two trestles, the still fluid pool of its surface trembling like liquid mercury. Now set to an impregnable gunmetal gloss, the picture’s composition centres on the clearly defined verticals running between the three strips of wood of its substrate. These lines are countered by a series of diagonals: those of an inset triangle and white flare in the right-hand section, and by serried rows at the top edge of the painting, small scarifications made whilst the surface was still workable. The mottled triangular wedge that serves as its focal point is edged in scratches as though sutured, its scraped-in cross a nod not only to Fautrier and Tàpies, but also to Calvary.

Whereas Blackburn’s compositions often centre on a handful of predominant forms, in others there is a greater proliferation, of components both smaller in scale and less hierarchical in their inter-relationships. The horizontal Long White Abstract with Orange and Blue (1960) is one such work, as is the recent White Arrowhead. At first sight the composition of this painting, with its playful touches of intense blue and ointment pink, and its baroque lump of amber-like resin, appears improvisatory, bordering on insouciant. Then one begins to register the V-shaped anchor points at its edges, and the finely balanced dialogues between shapes, as they each direct movement across the field of broadly applied matt impasto. It is a work poised somehow on the cusp of finish, a provisional statement rich in possibility, and one that marks a potential new direction.

In discussing the key influences on his work, Blackburn also cites the American Ray Parker’s canvases of the 1960s, to which the artist applied oil paint with rags rather than brushes, delicately dabbing pigment and allowing it to spread naturally in creating his soft-edged cloud and boulder-like forms; forms that can be seen to suggest the expansive landscapes of his childhood in South Dakota. For Blackburn: ‘Parker is such a beautiful abstract painter. There is a great purity about his work. If there’s anything I got from him it was this purity of form.’ He goes on to stress the importance of form in his own work, his aim towards a: ‘dynamic sense of purity. You’ve got to work for it: there are lots of distractions along the way. It takes a great discipline to pare things down, and to leave things out.’

Within this show, one of the closest works to the condensed purity of form Blackburn describes is Orange Glow (2007), with its sculptural squashed circle held gently in check by the intensely stippled form coming in at the right. Amongst the artist’s larger paintings, Orange Glow is somewhat unusual in its strength of colour. Though he works from a richly varied palette, much of the work is tonal, and its colour often derives not only from paint but also from the found materials the artist incorporates; stuff left untreated, often bearing the signs of its former life in scuffmarks and blemishes. Such materials are often imbued with a quiet eloquence. Look for instance at two related works here: Assembly of Forms – Yellow and Assembly of Forms – Black, in which pieces of stained cloth and canvas of subtly different shades and weights are interlocked in restrained tonal relationships. One also notes here the mastery of touch in the artist’s judicious painted interventions, and his sensitivity to the inherent nature of material: a less is more approach resulting from the artist’s keen awareness of the power of understatement.

Amongst works from the 1960s in this show are a dozen from Blackburn’s Summer Series (1969). In this context these pictures – most especially the two canvases – stand out for their clarity of shape and surface flatness, comparable to that of hard-edged painting of the period in which they were made. Blackburn has said that the forms in this series were initially inspired by Dali, a painter he does not otherwise much admire: the Spanish artist’s melting forms are he declares: ‘where the purely abstract meets what we see as reality.’ Meanwhile, in what amounts to a key statement, Blackburn describes the soft forms of the Summer Series as: ‘beautifully abstract; but they also lead the mind to things we engage with in everyday reality.’ In the works on paper from the Summer Series the mood, though not necessarily serene is gentle, the preponderance of blues suggesting sky and water. But although their stacked abutted shapes might read as allusions to landscape they are as much as anything about the body. This applies particularly to the two canvases, in which pallid balloon-like forms nestle sculpturally. They are neither carnal nor erotic, but speak instead of protection and love, reflecting a particularly intense period in the artist’s life.

© Ian Massey 2016

The full essay is published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition John Blackburn: Material Nature, at Osborne Samuel, London. Exhibition dates: 8th September to 1st October 2016.  

There is a virtual catalogue online here:

Image: ‘Assembly of Forms – Yellow’ (2008), courtesy of the artist and Osborne Samuel. 

Posted in: Essays