A short text commissioned for the exhibition ‘John Blackburn + Margaret Lovell: An Unbroken Duality’, at Artis Gallery, Parnell, Auckland, 8-24 February 2022.

Art is often a barometer of its time, and the fraught conditions of recent years have informed the content and mood of the work of many artists, including that of the two veteran British abstractionists shown in this exhibition. In her adopted country of New Zealand, sculptor Margaret Lovell reacted to global uncertainties with what she came to realise was a subconscious need to simplify, to pare down her forms in a meditative process in which clarity and strength were constant watchwords. In contrast, during sustained periods of lockdown in both Auckland and at his English home, John Blackburn, always a highly physical painter, felt impelled to work with even greater rawness and immediacy. On the face of it then, divergent energies appear to be operating here, though in fact a closer examination reveals that these artists have much in common. Above all else is a mutual preoccupation with form, of which, over the course of their long careers, they have each continued to evolve an individual vocabulary that is in both instances rooted largely in 20th century post-war modernism. Lovell’s finely calibrated forms often evoke the natural world, or those of classical antiquity. Their colours are those intrinsic to the types of metal and stone the sculptor uses, or come from textured patination in phthalo blue, viridian, or mottled jade. Like Lovell, Blackburn is cognisant of the power of understatement, and ever alert to subtle nuances in relationships of shape, tone, and line. His mark-making combines the instinctual and the deliberative. White remains central to the palette of his recent work, as do greys and blacks, along with recurring reds, browns, and pinks. Notably, several of his latest paintings include dense greens redolent of vegetation (one wonders if they crept in from his garden in Kent, the boundaries of which have been those of his domain during lockdown).

In both Lovell and Blackburn there are shared allusions, sometimes metaphorical, to landscape, nature, and the human or animal body. Such inferences stem not solely from form and colour, but from the haptic: the sensory pleasures of materiality and touch. And it is this commitment to the physicality of the object that also unites these artists, as they each continue to strive forth in their ambition. Their many decades of production attest to the power of art and its enduring importance, a factor that will remain whatever our circumstances might be.

© Ian Massey, February 2022.

Photograph courtesy Artis Gallery.

Posted in: Diary