Brancaster Chronicle No. 40: John Pollard Paintings


Brave World, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 150x120cm

24th July 2016, London.

Those present: Alexandra Harley, John Pollard, John Bunker, Anne Smart, Anthony Smart, Nick Moore, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, Charley Greenwood, Hilde Skilton, Mark Skilton, Noela James, Mark James, Andrew Revell.





Brutal World, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 150x120cm



Fly, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 120x80cm



Joust, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 120x80cm



Beyond Laguna, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 80x80cm



Red and Green Construct, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 40x40cm

  1. I thought the two big paintings, “Brave World” and “Brutal World”, stood up really well to this discussion, and were unbowed and still coming on strong by the end of it. In fact, they continued to occupy my head for long after the talk. I regard that as a very positive thing.

    What’s especially interesting to me about these paintings, in particular “Brutal World”, is the insistence upon a medley of sharply delineated and discrete “things”. It’s a risky strategy when the ambition is to make truly abstract work, but John largely brings it off. Very interesting to note that when “Brutal World” was turned sideways it appeared much more like depictions of figurative spaces. This shows how difficult it is to stay on the right side of things, particularly when you are absolutely packing the painting with specific “stuff”, from edge to edge.

    All in all, this work comprises a good contrast and comparison with the new work of Anne Smart, which will be posted here in a few weeks time; or the more fluid colour-spaces of Hilde Skilton’s recent work posted a few weeks ago. That’s not to say one way is better than another, only to enjoy registering the difference, and applaud the broadening out of the range of seriously good abstract painting in Brancaster, which is beginning to flourish in the same manner as the sculpture. This breadth only serves to better focus the debate.


  2. It was really interesting when John used the word “world” in regard to his work. It’s interesting how I really feel an understanding of what that word means in relation to this work, or also the Davie connection as John B. mentioned. I suppose there are those figurative connotations, but not necessarily. Is it more to do with the idea of inventing stuff. If so, that could be a very abstract thing.

    Any painting arguably creates its own world, but I wouldn’t use the word in front of an Ellsworth Kelly. There is something about gazing into a space wrought out of things that have been willed into existence, where “world” seems to apply. Robin, does this have anything to do with your comment that the work seemed to be hellbent on breaking down the surface of the picture?


    • I think so. There was a fashion about thirty years ago, which is still very much a continuing modernist trope of the lowest order, for thinking about “painting as object”. I am personally drawn to paintings, both figurative and abstract, that do not put me in mind of surface or picture plane, but immediately engage me spatially in their content, “inside” of themselves. The analogy of creating another “world” seems apt. The problem for abstract painting is how to invent a new world that does not merely re-present figuration in mashed-up form (like Cubism, or even worse Surrealism, which are “abstractions”), but is a genuine discovery of some new spatial activity of some kind. That’s why I say John’s is a risky strategy (but worth it!). Paradoxically, it still has to make sense in the real world, and become a believable object, albeit of a complex and perhaps sublime nature, rather than as a simplistic and banal manifestation of literal objecthood.

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      • …for example – for great example! – Ruben’s ‘Het Steen’ comes into the world (my world?) as a fantastic object, but not flat, carrying all of that complex of space within its bounteous arms.


      • Richard Ward said:

        Bounteous spatiality, yes, but surely the critical (and sublime) moment is when the eye rediscovers the surface and the illusion disappears.
        Figuration, particularly perspective and sculptural modelling (…”things”), makes this rediscovery more difficult; weakening or destruction of the surface/picture plane can make it impossible.

        Hard to say anything about their surface from photos, but I like the two large paintings too. I think Hilde said something during the discussion about the surface rescuing some dark areas from their depths, so it sounds as if any “thinginess” in some of the forms isn’t preventing awareness of the picture plane here either, in spite of a pronounced and complex spatiality (which can, I think, be reasonably transported in a photograph).


      • Well, yes… I suppose I see it a little differently – the sublime moments exist as imaginative passages through the spatiality, via the actuality of the paint – different from the actuality of real life. If the illusion disappears in favour of surface, the thing is broken. I do not see a picture plane in “Het Steen”. I do not even see surface. But I am aware very much of the paint creating the spatiality. The construction of the paint is the “object” part of the necessary duality, not the canvas’s literal flatness.


      • What I wrote there sounds good, but in the case in point – John’s “Brutal World” – I’m not entirely convinced by my own reasoning. What I find fascinating is pondering why I do find this painting abstract. I don’t think it is to do with ambiguity. If it was more ambiguous, I think I would find it more figurative. It’s abstract-ness seems bound up with it’s relentless activity, which keeps the whole painting both differentiated (i.e. not “all-over”) and bound together. It’s this spatial activity which constitutes the aforementioned duality, existing as it does in both two and three dimensions. In other words, the activity (I hesitate to call it just “movement”, since it seems more purposeful than that) makes it abstract and keeps it pictorial rather than a depiction of “sculptural” spatial modelling. I might well describe, therefore, this activity as the content, though I couldn’t actually pin down in words (yet) what that activity is.

        Perhaps also worth saying that I think “Brutal World” is the most abstract of any of John’s paintings, including the more “layered” and perhaps more graphic “Brave World”. But I need to think more about why.

        Another interesting point about “Brave World”: whilst it contains lots of stuff that looks very spontaneous, it also contains lots of stuff that looks very conscious and deliberate. Just saying…


      • Maybe we can agree that areas of paint that are not modelled, automatically take up the flatness of the canvas and make it easier to perceive the two dimensional side of the 2D/3D duality?

        Here’s Patrick Heron on good painting: “Even where the illusion of a richly modeled sculptural form – a figure in a Rembrandt, an elm tree in a Constable – is conveyed, the means are discovered still to be planes, or facets, broken down into a minute mosaic, yet still all flatly related to the picture’s actual surface plane.”
        … And by contrast:
        “The painting which seeks illusionistic three-dimensional form literally, and by means of modeling, is usually second-rate.”

        And in this context one could maybe add to that “…and not truly abstract”.

        There’s a very thin line between areas of paint that are modulated and areas that are (intentionally or unintentionally) modelled. It’s something that I struggle with all the time, but I think that this is a significant part of the boundary between abstract painting and painting that is merely surreal.
        I also think that modulation is very much a risk worth taking in pursuit of fullness and complexity. John is taking that risk and as you have already remarked, he is largely getting away with it. My own take on the extra abstractness of “Brutal World” would be that there is less unintentional modelling and (dare I say it?) more flatness in it, but a flatness of individual colour areas, which does not preclude a complex spatial illusion.
        Apart from that, I think that both of the large pictures are very well resolved in colour and design.

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      • I think we can agree pretty much. And maybe the literalness to avoid is at both ends of the spectrum – the crude sculptured modelling of representational three-dimensionality, and the banal flatness of the 2D ground or picture plane.


  3. Well, keep trying. It’s my belief that what happens inside a painting IS a differnt world from the real one. Abstract art can make that feel “real”, but a parallel reality. Some figurative paintings have this alternative reality too, and some don’t. I think that’s what Richard means.


  4. Many thanks to you all for watching and/or commenting. The two big paintings are by far the most interesting and remain the main influence on what I continue to try and achieve.
    Some thoughts:
    I think the idea of creating a new ‘world’ in a painting which is not obviously an interpretation or related to the world outside of it is worthwhile, if a little questionable in some ways.
    Shaun questioned the ‘painting’ versus ‘real world’ perception. I used to take abstract photographs – of course the photos were of ‘reality’ but sometimes it was hard to tell what they were. Sometimes they even looked like paintings or etchings. Find an interesting abstract combination of marks etc on say, an old poster hoarding. If it is really impressive it will work like an abstract painting. This implies that indeed the way we see an abstract painting works like the way we can see the ‘real world’ (illusionistic 3d space on a 2d or at least fairly flat surface).
    There is something really important here about the relationship, or relative meaning, of the subject/perceiver and the object/perceived. And this is where we get into philosophy: subject/object dualism, idealism versus materialism, etc, and my preferred path which tries to give some value and meaning to both the reality of the object in itself and the viewer (a kind of existential/phenomenological approach). Tricky.
    On real world abstractions how many times do we see a complex interesting abstract vista? Rarely. More rarely than a meaningful natural world vista (although I am aware we can get into debate here about the abstract qualities of a landscape!).
    An abstract painting can be quite a different experience altogether than any outside world experience (and that is without thinking on the fact that a human being has purposefully achieved/created it).
    I think what I am trying to achieve spatially is in a way an ‘ambiguous space’ ‘all-over’ the painting. I use those two terms that Robin doesn’t like in different ways . The ambiguity is something akin to a complex push-pull across all the painting. This is important to avoid figurative spaces, of obvious figure/ground, or some kind of perspective. Perhaps ‘ambiguous’ space is akin to ‘abstract’ space? If you don’t achieve that ‘all over’ you tend to risk making figurative spaces which wreck the whole structure.
    Robin’s term ‘believable object’ is a good one. Brutal World at times definitely didn’t work (wasn’t believable), and while it didn’t work the day before the Brancaster 80% of it remained the same in its finished form. But is ‘believable’ a qualitative notion? Or perhaps it is a necessary but not sufficient part of a successful work? Can something believable be dull?
    I have very few concrete answers and don’t want to give the impression that I do. I can’t visualize what I am exactly trying to achieve (just some influential principles): one of the main tasks is to recognise it when you achieve it. That’s not easy – ‘Brutal World, in particular, remains a bit of a mystery to me, and that feels strangely reassuring.

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